"On the fourth day of the New England Independent Booksellers Association fall conference, held virtually this week, New England’s children’s booksellers built up a reserve of support from authors, a slate of book recommendations, and newly revitalized plans for sharing them to take them into the coming year.”
At the Children’s Author & Illustrator breakfast, authors delved into the feelings of isolation and invisibility that children experience when they have a unique identity that does not fit easily into the dominant white American culture.
Eric Gansworth explained that the title of his National Book Award longlisted memoir Apple: (Skin to the Core) (Levine Querido, Oct.) is a pejorative in Indigenous communities, and one whose deep meaning frames the story of his journey in the book. “Apple is a slur, but an intragroup slur,” said Gansworth, who is Haudenosaunee and was born on the Tuscarora Indian Nation. The term is used by Indigenous people to describe someone who looks Native American but is white on the inside. In many ways, he said it refers to a fraught relationship with people who seek outside education, and the deep oppression in many of those educational institutions, especially government-founded schools like the Carlisle School. “I felt that I needed to confront what that meant,” Gansworth said.
While introducing author Crystal Maldonado, Briar Patch Bookstore bookseller Abby Roseberry Rice was moved to tears describing the power of Maldonado’s Fat Chance, Charlie Vega (Holiday House, Feb. 2021). Maldonado described the main character of the story, saying, “She is fat. She is Latina. And she has never been kissed.” Rice said, “She deserves to love herself as she is. Latina, loving, caring, fat. I really wish I’d had this book as a teen.”
Maldonado described her own experience growing up in a predominately white community as a fat, Puerto Rican kid with glasses. “At the time I thought that was the end of the world,” she said. “So I wanted to write something to young people who feel similar, and to create a book that kind of takes their hand and tells them they are not alone.”
“This book is why I own a bookshop and why I work with kids,” said Pia Ledina, owner of Turning the Page in Monroe, Conn. in the NEIBA chat during the session.
Author Kelly Yang described the real story—and her own experience—of California’s Proposition 187, that runs through her Front Desk sequel Three Keys (Scholastic Press), which was released this month. Passed by an overwhelming margin in 1994, the proposition implemented highly restrictive anti-immigration policies that required immigrants like Yang to have papers at all times. Yang said she grew up in fear that she might be deported.
Yang thanked booksellers for giving her the opportunity to write stories like Three Keys, noting that her first book was rejected by all but one publisher, and it was only through its success that she was able to write more. “It’s because of you guys picking it up, reading it, and putting it in readers’ hands that I get to keep writing,” she said.
Planning the Year Ahead
The New England Children’s Booksellers Advisory Council held its annual meeting with 75 booksellers and publisher representatives in attendance. PW 2020 Star Watch nominee Read Davidson, customer orders coordinator at the Harvard Book Store, was introduced as an incoming co-chair of the regional children’s bookselling group to replace outgoing co-chair Nicole Brinkley, manager of Oblong Books & Music, in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
The meeting took up the disappointments of a year that began with a highly successful first dedicated children’s All About the Books event, but during which Covid-19 slowed the group’s plans to expand its Windows & Mirrors recommendations list to become a national program. Among the challenges the group faced was the departure of co-chair Clarissa Hadge, who left bookselling during the pandemic to take a position with a publishing house. Hadge was replaced on an interim basis by Tildy Banker-Johnson of Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass.
Still, the group announced plans to reinvigorate the Windows & Mirrors expansion effort, and also discussed ways to make use of the growing technological skills of members to organize more creative education sessions and meetings with publishers.
Maureen Karb from Como Sales encouraged booksellers to work with reps to set up organized ways to specifically share their thoughts with editors and marketers. Davidson also suggested that more conference sessions include a mix of authors of children’s and adult titles.
Windows & Mirrors
At the group’s Windows & Mirrors session, NECBA members had plenty of titles to recommend for just such an occasion. The group pores through submissions twice a year to come up with a list of titles that celebrate BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ authors and subjects, and members were eager to share their fall 2020 picks, with 50 fellow booksellers looking on.
The selections include a work by an Indigenous writer, stories of history and immigration, a book from an LBGTQ perspective, and a book about disability on Martha’s Vineyard. The full list of 10 titles is Lesléa Newman’s Welcoming Elijah (Charlesbridge); Sugar in Milk by Thrity Umrigar and Khoa Le (Running Press Kids, Oct.); Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj, illus. by Ruaida Mannaa (Stone Arch); Everything Sad Is Untrue (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri (Levine Querido); Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (Dial); Show Me a Sign by Ann Clare LeZotte (Scholastic Press); All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat (Candlewick, Oct.); Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger (Levine Querido); and We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (HMH).
Board member Amy Andrews, a bookseller at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, Mass., said that one goal of the group is to select books that are not just representations of diversity, but also books that might be overlooked. Davidson also noted that the group hopes to represent a wide range of genres.
Audrey Huang, a bookseller at Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., noted that she is older than many members of the board, and came of age before YA was a widely known category. “It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I read a book I could really relate to, and that was The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan,” Huang said. “I don’t want kids to have to go through that.”
Davidson encouraged publishers to submit titles to the group for consideration on its forthcoming lists.
A Powerful Awards Dinner
The day’s events took place in the wake of the announcement that only one of three officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor would be charged, and not for having shot her. At the NEIBA Award banquet on Wednesday night, authors spoke directly about the impact of the news.
Children’s author awardees included Oge Mora for Saturday; Jewell Parker Rhodes for Black Brother, Black Brother; Julia Drake for The Last True Poets of the Sea; and Eric Carle for the annual President’s Award.
Mora and Rhodes were at times moved to tears describing the aggressive racism represented in the present moment, and spoke passionately about the powerful role they believe booksellers play in combating it.
“The lives of Black women are ruthlessly dismissed day after day,” Mora said in response to the news about Breonna Taylor. Praising booksellers for their role in the nation’s literary and political culture, she said, “We should never underestimate the power of a little Black girl and her mom going about their day, just as we shouldn’t underestimate the power of putting the right book in the hands of the right person at the right time.”
Rhodes told booksellers who were watching, “I write to bear witness, but in this day and age I don’t think I could do that without knowing you exist, to know that you are spreading the gospel of humanity, humor, entertainment, hope. You are really feeding and seeding the bedrock of our democracy and our civilization.”
Portions of this article also appeared in PW Daily coverage.