The American Booksellers Association kicked off its eighth annual Children’s Institute, and the first ever held online, with hundreds of children’s booksellers in virtual attendance for author discussions, fall book picks, and a keynote by How to Be a Pirate author Isaac Fitzgerald. If there were any doubts about how the transition from hotel rooms to breakout rooms would go, they were quickly dispelled by an opening discussion on “Representation in Science Fiction and Fantasy Young Adult and Middle Grade Books” that riveted attendees.
In a wide-ranging conversation, authors Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Dhonielle Clayton, and Tracy Deonn shared their perspective as Black authors with booksellers, describing the enormous hurdles that Black artists continue to face in a publishing industry that is largely white.
“Some of us get a golden car when we sell a book... and others of us have flat tires and have to struggle all the way into publishing and across the finish line,” said Clayton, who is the author of The Belles and Tiny Pretty Things. “It’s deeply and fundamentally unfair and that’s what I’m frustrated by, that the Black imagination is not as valued as others.”
The authors described their takes on what Black imagination looks like in science fiction and fantasy, from magic to world-building, and they hailed the success of novels like Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky as a turning point for Black authors. But they cautioned that substantial work remains, singling out persistently racist perceptions that prevent mainstream audiences from discovering books by Black authors.
“How can we make clear that Black American fantasy is its own thing but also say that it’s not niche?,” Deonn asked, before describing an instance where she was questioned by a reader who wanted to know if her forthcoming Legendborn (McElderry, Sept.) is, “a Black book.”
“There’s a black girl on the cover,” she said. “I’m an American. I don’t even know what that means.”
Ultimately the authors called on booksellers for their help in breaking down barriers and mainstreaming their work. In the chat alongside the session, booksellers resoundingly supported the call to action.
“I could have listened to them talk all day,” Melanie Knight, children’s frontlist buyer for the Bay Area based Books Inc. stores, told PW. “I was really happy that they brought up how to market their books. I think so many people get caught up in the fact that it’s a book with Black characters and think it needs to be pitched differently, when in fact it should be handsold just like you would any other title.”
This season’s Indies Introduce debuts for middle grade and YA readers that were spotlighted in a Wednesday morning session revealed important developments regarding those writing books for this segment of the market—and about young readers as well. Most of the nine selections were multicultural voices weaving tales laced with magic and characters who revel in their diversity. Several of them draw upon “Black girl magic,” such as the queer rom-com, You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson (Scholastic Press); and Deonn’s Legendborn, a modern take on the legend of King Arthur and his knights set in North Carolina.
This year’s selections also reflect the fluidity of gender identity among young people, with several picks spotlighting queer characters making magic together, including Cattywampus by Ash van Otterloo (Scholastic Press, Aug.), about two young rival witches in Appalachia who put aside their differences to save their town from zombies; and Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas (Swoon Reads, Sept.), about a Mexican-American transgender boy who falls for the ghost he accidentally conjures up from the dead.
“It was important for me to write a book where LGBTQIA and Latinx kids could see themselves being powerful heroes,” Thomas said. “These kids are living in a world where a lot of hate and suffering is zeroed in on them. I wanted them to see themselves being supported and loved for who they are. I wanted to write a fun book with good representation that they could escape into and have a happy ending.”
Much of the afternoon was dedicated to a session on “White Allyship”, where white booksellers were encouraged to discuss ways to improve their support for BIPOC colleagues, employees, customers, and authors. The two-hour workshop included breakout discussions facilitated by Ilsa Govan of Cultures Connecting.
“It was really impactful, especially after the “Representation” session,” said one attendee. “We were encouraged to honestly examine our past actions. People were supportive. But it is always uncomfortable to have to examine things that we have done that have not supported, or even hurt, others. [I have] lots of things to think about and work on both personally and professionally.”
The bookseller also remarked on a substantial gender imbalance at the session. “I noticed that out of the 100 attendees, only five were men,” they said. “I’d love to explore why more men didn’t sign up. The men who were there acknowledge that it is sometimes uncomfortable to be in these conversations as white men, and were thoughtful in the discussions.”
Store Voice and a Storytime Keynote
The final workshop for booksellers was a session on store voice, where five booksellers took questions and offered suggestions for how fellow booksellers can use social media, streamline operations, and interact with customers, authors, and publishers.
Isaac Fitzgerald, former BuzzFeed books editor and now a picture book author, then closed out the day with a 30-minute address thanking booksellers while also treating them to two storybook readings. Fitzgerald began by reading from Maurice Sendak’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are, and then walked booksellers through the ways the images in the book grow to fill the page as the story expands. Later, he read from his own book, but interspersed throughout, Fitzgerald described his own upbringing, first in subsidized housing in Boston, before the family moved to rural Massachusetts.
Growing up in poverty, Fitzgerald said his local bookstore was a safe haven where he could read, but was never pressured to buy a book. He thanked booksellers profusely for being places of wonder and escape for readers now, singling out Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis for its role as a safe haven during the first anti-racist protests that followed the killing of George Floyd.
“There are a lot of obstacles out there right now. Times are tough with this pandemic. It’s hurting everyone and bookstores and booksellers are suffering along with everybody else, but I have been so inspired by everything y’all have done over these past months,” Fitzgerald said. “The work y’all do is so, so important. And at its core is putting the right book in the hand of a young reader who so desperately needs it. The heart of it all.”