Professionalization of the bookselling trade was the main focus for indie booksellers at the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association conference held in Cherry Hill, N.J., from October 15–17, but children’s and young adult books were the source of inspiration for the hard work at hand.

The annual gathering featured dozens of children’s and YA authors along with a number of editors who shared new and forthcoming titles. In attendance were 213 booksellers, a 20% increase over last year’s conference. Attendees reflected a growing diversity in the bookselling trade, as well as the increasing inclusion of frontline booksellers in professional education.

NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler attributed the increased turnout to a new offering of half a dozen opening-day retreats, including sessions for frontline booksellers and children’s booksellers. “Each one of them was well-attended, some of them were at capacity, and some were full,” Dengler said.

Kids’ Talk

Children’s and YA authors set the tone of the conference with books that shared a common theme of finding one’s place in the world. At a preview dinner, authors Ibi Zoboi and Tom O’Donnell extolled the virtues of science fiction and fantasy for younger readers.

Zoboi’s My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich (Dutton) features an African-American girl who loves science fiction, while O’Donnell’s Homerooms and Hall Passes (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) flips the story of Dungeons & Dragons on its head, sending a team of warriors who play a game about being in middle school into an American middle school from which they must escape. Both authors urged booksellers to see a welcoming place children of color in science fiction and fantasy, and share it with young readers to capture their interest.

At the organization’s awards banquet, Llama Destroys the World by Jonathan Stutzman, illustrated by Heather Fox (Holt) took home the award for best picture book; New Kid by Jerry Craft (HarperCollins) won in the children’s category; Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High (Harper) delivered the author’s second consecutive NAIBA award for best young adult title; and Hey, Kiddo (Scholastic) author Jarrett J. Krosoczka accepted the Carla Cohen Free Speech Award via speaker phone, held by his editor David Levithan, who stepped in when the author unexpectedly could not attend due to weather.

In discussions and presentations, authors writing for adults spoke equally as often as their counterparts about young readers. While presenting her forthcoming novel All Adults Here (Riverhead, May 2020), novelist Emma Straub shared her thoughts about watching young readers grow up. Straub opened her own independent bookstore, Books Are Magic, in Brooklyn in 2017.

“When I’m at a playground now or at a restaurant in my neighborhood, there’s often a parent who pokes their child and says, ‘that’s the bookstore lady’ or ‘are you the bookstore lady?’ It makes me feel like one of the nice benevolent puppets on Mr. Rogers. A comforting and friendly character in their own story. It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about how this thing fits into their daily life.”

“I want to truly thank all of you for all that you do in your communities,” Straub added, “and for all the kids that you welcome into your spaces and for all the little brains that you are turning on day after day after day.”

Education in the Round

The heart of the conference was a deepening focus on professionalization for independent booksellers, who are increasingly determined to take on persistent challenges around wages, rents, and staff training. The opening day’s retreats were followed by a workshop on human resources on the second day of the conference, which was attended by nearly 100 booksellers.

On the third day of the conference, booksellers converged for a three-hour roundtable forum. Each table hosted half hour workshops on various aspects of bookselling, led by an expert moderator.

More than a dozen booksellers attended a roundtable on teacher nights, while another, on navigating interactions with customers over diverse books, ran for multiple sessions in order to accommodate the number of attendees. In the discussions, frontline booksellers and events managers shared thoughts on the challenges of introducing readers to new material when many confuse diversity with being a genre of its own.

We Need Diverse Books’ Chelsea Villareal moderated the diversity roundtables and encouraged booksellers to recommend books they care about for their content as much as for their diversity. “I want a reader to be able to read a book in Spanish that is a science fiction book because they love science fiction,” Villareal said.

Bringing Books Back Home

Editors and publicists came prepared to share a host of recommendations for booksellers, who eagerly sought ideas for stocking their stores in the seasons to come.

Editors from HarperCollins, Scholastic, and Sourcebooks each presented picks that made an impression on booksellers, including Trees Make Perfect Pets (Sourcebooks, Mar. 2020), Stay Gold (Harper, May 2020), and The Light in Hidden Places (Scholastic Press, Mar. 2020). But it was Sourcebooks’ Valerie Pierce’s presentation of There Was a Black Hole That Swallowed the Universe by Chris Ferrie, illustrated by Susan Batori, that captured the most attention from booksellers.

The picture book take on There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly has a hidden text that can only be revealed by a black light flashlight. The text takes the visible story in reverse, undoing the damage of a black hole eating the universe. Berger’s demonstration in front of booksellers was briefly drowned out by exclamations of “sold,” from across the room as she held the flashlight to the book.

Booksellers were also taken with Kaela Noel’s debut middle grade novel Coo (Greenwillow, Mar. 2020) about a girl raised by pigeons who tries to begin living with humans. In her presentation, Noel talked about being homeschooled and wandering the streets of Newark, looking at animals, people, and buildings. “It was a very beautiful story that she told,” said Jason Hafer, owner of Reads & Company in Phoenixville, Pa. “I feel like this is a book I can really get behind.”

NAIBA board president and River’s End bookstore owner Bill Reilly was enraptured by Elisha Cooper’s River (Orchard), while Alicia Michielli of Talking Leaves Bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y., excited to see Jen Bryant’s presentation of her forthcoming picture book Feed Your Mind (Abrams, Nov.). The book tells the story of playwright August Wilson. “I always look for picture books with lots of text,” said Michielli, who recommends them for readers who are struggling to transition to chapter books.

Membership in NAIBA’s region, which includes a number of major urban literary hubs, continues to grow. Twenty-eight new stores have opened in the region in the last two years. Dengler said she intends to continue to develop programming for professionalizing the trade, and working with the American Booksellers Association to support one another’s initiatives. The two organizations will have the opportunity to do so in January, when ABA’s Winter Institute comes to NAIBA’s territory. The event will be held in Baltimore in mid-January.