Children’s literature was well represented at the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s conference in Denver’s Renaissance Hotel on October 10–12, rebranded as FallCon. Of 84 featured authors in attendance, at least 35 were children’s authors and illustrators. While some shared the podium with adult speakers at meals and other special events, others starred in sessions dedicated to children’s authors.
Not only were Raina Telgemeier (Guts, Scholastic/Graphix) and Ransom Riggs (Conference of the Birds, Dutton, Jan. 2020) two of the six speakers at Friday’s evening’s Gala Author Dinner Party that included prominent adult novelists, like Colum McCann and Emily St. John Mandel, but there was a Young Readers Round-Up of 12 children’s authors and illustrators earlier that day, as well as a Saturday YA Lit Lunch that featured another dozen authors.
Although all of the events involving children’s authors were notable, but it was the Children’s Author & Illustrator Breakfast officially kicking off this year’s show that set the tone for the next three days, resulting in one of the most energetic, even raucous, gatherings in recent years.
As snow fell outside the conference hotel on Thursday morning, Isaac Fitzgerald, the author of How to Be a Pirate (Bloomsbury, March 2020), well known as the founding editor of BuzzFeed Books, warmed up the crowd, introducing himself as a fan of indie booksellers, whom he claims to “absolutely adore.” Describing his family as “not liking to talk to each other,” Fitzgerald recalled that they took pleasure in visiting their local bookstores throughout his childhood, because it was a great way to spend time together without having to actually interact.
“The language we used to communicate with each other was books,” he said.
Fitzgerald, who once worked at 826Valencia in San Francisco, the combination pirate store/literacy center founded by Dave Eggers, disclosed that he has “always had a thing for pirates,” as well as tattoos. After moving to Brooklyn from San Francisco, Fitzgerald ended up living next door to Jon Scieszka. When he told Scieszka that he had an idea for a children’s book “that explains what tattoos are,” Scieszka responded that it was “an adult’s idea for what a children’s book should be,” and offered to teach him how to write a children’s book—which included Fitzgerald reading huge numbers of the children’s books in Scieszka’s personal library.
“Under Jon’s guidance, I got to write this book,” Fitzgerald said of his tale of a girl whose grandfather encourages her dreams of becoming a pirate, before introducing the illustrator, Brigette Barrager, who was in the audience. After reading the entire book to the booksellers, Fitzgerald pointed out that the book was more than just a story about pirates and tattoos. In the opening pages, he pointed out, the illustrations are muted. As the story progresses, however, the illustrations become more and more vibrant.
As the girl spends time with her grandpa, someone she loves who loves her in return, Fitzgerald noted, “Her world brightens up. That’s what you guys do: you make the world of readers a brighter place.”
Following Fitzgerald, Sharon Robinson, the author of Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963 (Scholastic Press), added that indie booksellers are “really community activists,” as she described how, before M&P kicked off, two booksellers from Boulder Bookstore took her to various schools in that city, “where they’d never had a black author appear before.”
Robinson said, “We talk about diversity. This was a diversity experience for me as well as for the students at those schools.”
Daughter of legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, Robinson discussed the events both in her family and in the world that occurred in 1963 that inspired her to write Child of the Dream, which opens with her 13th birthday in January, and ends with the young Robinson’s grief in response to the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., nine months later that killed four African-American girls.
“I wanted to tell the story of the Children’s March,” she said, referring to an incident in early May that year, when 1,000 African-American schoolchildren marched through the streets of Birmingham demanding equal rights; 800 of them were arrested on the first day of the march. “I wanted to tell of it through my 13-year-old eyes and voice,” said Robinson, who was not there in person, but watched it on television.
Showing family photographs from that era, Robinson related anecdotes about her family and how her father—who was already working with Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP—suggested to his wife and children that the Robinsons “work for the Civil Rights movement as a family.” Not only did the Robinsons attend the 1963 March on Washington when King made his “I Have a Dream” speech, but they also hosted jazz concerts at their Connecticut home to raise funds for the NAACP.
“It was unifying to us as a family,” said Robinson, who ended her presentation by leading booksellers in a sing-along of “This Little Light of Mine,” one of her favorite songs during her teen years.
Books Can Change the World
The third speaker, Alan Gratz (Allies, Scholastic Press) began his presentation with a shout-out to his local bookstore, Malaprop’s in Asheville, N.C. Describing himself as a reluctant, or “dormant,” reader as a child, Gratz noted that he writes action-packed novels full of cliffhangers because he had always wanted to read such books when he was young.
“It was the rare book that managed to entice me,” he recalled. “The number one goal for any author is to write a book that the reader can’t put down: a book that makes a dormant reader an avid reader, and an avid reader into an evangelical reader.”
But, Gratz added, such novels aren’t only about fun characters immersed in nonstop, high-stakes action. Calling his novels “social thrillers,” he said his books “tackle bigger social issues beyond the thrills.” They address such issues as Islamophobia in post-9/11 America, bullied children who themselves become bullies, and the plight of refugees. And what about, he asked, “all the marginalized people who fought and served and died at D-Day, only to return home to face the same discrimination and prejudice and persecution they had faced before the war?” While Allies takes place during World War II, his point is apropos to today and the situation facing Kurds in Syria.
Middle grade readers, he pointed out, want to read such books “because the social issues have come to them. They’ve been going through active shooter drills since they were in elementary school. They have refugees and immigrants as classmates. They hear racist and intolerant rhetoric from political leaders on the news. They are shaping their views of the larger world right now, in grade school, because the world is forcing them to.”
Gratz believes that books like his resonate with today’s young readers because he is putting a name and a face to historical events. “To bring history to life, to make it personal, that is the job of story. To turn statistics into people who come to life for us on the page. To turn numbers into characters we cry for, and care for, and root for.”
Concluding his talk, Gratz pointed out, “Books build empathy. Empathy leads to compassion, and compassion brings change. Books can change the world.”
The “superpower of an exceptional bookseller” he added, “is to put exactly the right book in the right hands at the right time. That is how you are building empathy in young readers today and preparing them to be thoughtful, compassionate readers for life.”
Real-Life Families Inspire Fiction
Following Gratz, David Yoon endeared himself to the audience by exclaiming that he was just happy to be in a room full of people who loved books as much as he does. “It never happens, right?”
Yoon, who is the son of Korean immigrants, said that growing up with parents who projected all of their hopes and dreams about their new country upon him, while also discouraging his full assimilation into American teen culture by forbidding his dating outside his ethnicity, inspired him to write Frankly in Love (Putnam).
Describing Frankly in Love as a “rom com,” about a Korean-American teen in Southern California who is desperate to keep secret from his parents that he is dating a girl who is not Korean, Yoon said that books have to be funny to him, because he sees the humor in everything—even tragedy. Disclosing that his father was diagnosed with cancer while he was writing this novel, Yoon said that it starts out as a rom com, but then “takes a hard turn into family drama.” But, he added, “It’s still funny,” despite exploring such issues as accepting one’s parents without judgment despite their flaws.
[Yoon said that he was prompted to write about Frank Li and his love interest, Brit Means, against a backdrop of their diverse friends and extremely different families because he enjoys examining relationships within their social contexts. “I was more interested in the context than in the relationship itself,” he said.
The morning’s last speaker, Rebecca Stead, also emphasized the importance of family in her latest novel, The List of Things That Will Not Change (Random House/Lamb, Apr. 2020), a YA novel that originated as a picture book, inspired by a childhood memory. Disclosing that her parents had divorced when she was a child, Stead said that they resolved to always live in walking distance to each other. One night, when Stead was missing her mother, her father wrapped her up in a sleeping bag and carried her through the streets to her mother’s apartment.
“It got a little too complicated,” Stead said of her decision to switch from writing a picture book for young readers to writing a story for older readers about a 12-year-old and her 10-year-old stepsister after their fathers marry each other.
One component of the tale did not change in the transformation from picture book to YA novel: Stead said that all along, her goal was to write a book in which the child stood at the center of her universe. “It’s a book about feelings and a complicated story. But the ground rule is love,” she concluded.
This year’s breakfast received rave reviews from booksellers, including Jeanne Costello of Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo., who singled out Frankly in Love for extra kudos, thanks to Yoon’s “wry, warm, and witty” presentation, and his “promise of rom com fun that will absolutely surprise.”
Costello added, “One of the highlights of [the fall conference] is always this Children’s Author and Illustrator Breakfast; it’s my favorite event. It starts off the show every year and the authors never disappoint.”
Kane Kilpka, a Tattered Cover (Denver) bookseller who was attending her first show, [praised The List of Things That Will Not Change, saying that it was “so unexpectedly charming.” Explaining that she gathered up “a stack of books” that morning, Kilpka said that she immediately started reading Stead’s novel, “and I couldn’t stop reading it. It was book magic.”