Last Wednesday evening, September 30, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association sponsored a virtual “Dinner at the Kids’ Table” with four authors and an illustrator taking turns presenting their books to indie booksellers in attendance. If there is a common theme to the five books introduced at this event, it is that every human being is unique, and that living a good life begins with accepting people despite their flaws, and loving oneself.
The evening began with Jonathan Auxier introducing for the first time at a public event the first volume in his new series for early readers: The Fabled Stables: Willa the Wisp (Abrams/Amulet, Oct.). The tale begins with Auggie, who lives on an island at the top of the world, where he takes care of fantastic animals housed “in a magical place filled with strange and bizarre beasts.” After venturing out into the world and confronting monsters like a “garantula,” Auggie rescues the Wisp from mortal danger and transports it back to the island to live in the Fabled Stables.
“My whole life, I’ve been really fascinated with monsters,” Auxier explained. “Ever since I was a little boy one of my favorite things to read are wolf bestiaries, the older the better. The early description of a rhinoceros in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary [of the English Language] makes it sound like a dinosaur. I love that stuff.”
The father to three young daughters, Auxier explained that parenthood inspired the series, noting Reading to his children is important, he said, but it’s a challenge to find a book that all three would like him to read to them before bed; the youngest wants “bright, shiny” picture books and the two older girls want “longer, more interesting” stories. He could find only two series that appealed to all three of his children: Mercy Watson by Kate DiCamillo and The Princess in Black by Shannon Hale. “They’re basically novel-length picture books. The language is complicated, but the word count is low, and there are so many pictures. Every person in the room is satisfied.”
He wishes that there were more series featuring 100-page books with a low word count and lots of illustrations. “Something you can read in 15–20 minutes and it’s great for all these different ages. That’s what Fabled Stables really is.”
Following Auxier, Tracy Deonn introduced her debut science fiction/fantasy YA novel, Legendborn (S&S/McElderry, Sept.), the first in a trilogy. “We start from a place of grief and loss,” Deonn said of the tale, in which Brie, a gifted high school student, enrolls at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shortly after her mother dies under mysterious circumstances. “Brie appeared in my mind when I lost my own mother. I wanted to center a girl who is frustrated and passionate, and she has a very good reason to be a missile through the book, looking for an answer to the question, ‘What happened to my mother?’ ”
Brie infiltrates a secret society on campus, thinking that their members may hold the answer. “It’s very much a coming of age story, working through grief, what that means. There’s romance, there’s friendship between two girls who were best friends growing up, but now that Brie’s mother is gone, their relationship is changed. It’s very genre-blending; it’s City of Bones meets Southern Black Girl Magic with a twist.” And that twist, Deonn said, is that the secret society is based on the Legend of King Arthur and the Round Table, and its members are the descendants of those knights.
“One of the things I wanted to center is that there are different types of magic in the world,” she said, explaining that she drew from folk tales about “African American survival magic,” when enslaved peoples called upon their ancestors and their community to help them survive. Legendborn is “the meeting of two different magic forces,” she said.
Legendborn is contemporary fantasy in that it questions notions of power, Deonn said, adding, “It’s challenging magical systems, but also racial systems; and it’s challenging issues of gender by bringing all of these contemporary issues into a magical space.”
Jordan Scott, the author of I Talk Like a River (Holiday House/Porter, Sept.), and illustrator Sydney Smith, presented their picture book collaboration. In his first book for children, Scott, a poet who has dysfluency, wrote an autobiographical tale about a boy who is mocked at school for his stuttering, until one day, his father takes him to a river and tells him that he speaks like the water, with its ebbs and flows.
“I wanted to write this book,” Scott said, “to honor the specific moment in my life when my father and I went to a river near my childhood home. That’s where this story begins.” After his father told him that he spoke “like the water moves,” Scott recalled that these words changed his life in terms of his “personal relationship” to nature. “I got to see myself outside of my body and I delighted in that. I still do, in the way that the world around me shifts, and flips, and is fragmented.”
There are two principal characters in his tale, Scott said–himself and his father. “And I tried to stay true to the moment.” He also said that this tale explores what “normalcy” is in speech patterns, and “what fluency means. Those are very important things, especially for children who are perhaps struggling or just coming into their own.”
I Talk Like a River, also is, Scott noted, an introduction to poetry, with its similes and metaphors, demonstrating “the power of language to connect to the natural world.”
For his part, Smith pointed out that though he has not experienced dysfluency, “like almost everybody, I have been at odds with my own mind, with my own body. I think this book speaks to how we can be in a battle at certain times with ourselves. This book provides a truce to that battle.”
Recalling his first meeting with Scott in Toronto, Smith said that “what sealed the deal for me” in agreeing to illustrate I Talk Like a River was Scott explaining that the book’s message was that one isn’t “broken” if one speaks differently from other people. “The way you are is not unnatural,” he said. “In fact, you are as natural as the river.”
In his illustrations, Smith wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the boy. “There are a lot of interpretive illustrations,” he said, displaying a few page spreads. “The credit goes to Jordan for having such a beautiful simile. It’s so perfect for catharsis, this feeling of being cleansed. Water is such a beautiful thing to illustrate.”
The evening’s final speaker, Renée Watson, introduced two books: a new middle-grade read, Ways to Make Sunshine (Bloomsbury , May), illustrated by Nina Mata, and her new YA novel, Love Is a Revolution (Bloomsbury, Feb. 2021). Before launching into her presentation, Watson read a poem she had written that celebrates her first name within the context of her family’s history, as well as that of the history of her African ancestors., “Names are very important to me,” she said after reading the poem, “and when I name my main characters I think a lot about what their names should be and how their names will impact the story.”
The main character in Ways to Make Sunshine, the first volume in Watson’s new series, is a Black girl named Ryan Hart. “Ryan means king,” Watson said, noting that Ryan’s parents continually tell her to live up to her name and be a leader who is kind and compassionate. “That’s a lot for a fourth grader to live up to. Sometimes she rises to that challenge, and sometimes not so much.” Challenges range from her father losing his job to trying to figure out what her passion is while preparing for an upcoming class talent show. “She’s learning that leadership comes in small ways, not only the big, performative kinds of things.”
After she finished writing Ways to Make Sunshine, Watson says that she started working on Love Is a Revolution, a story about a teenager, Nala, who spins some tall tales about herself after falling for a popular boy who is engaged in political activism. As the two become closer over the course of the summer, the lies become harder and harder to maintain.
“After learning what love is, and learning what activism is,” Watson said, “Nala starts to figure out that to start a revolution, she first has to love herself. The most radical thing you can do is to love yourself.”
Watson said that she realized while writing Love Is a Revolution that while Ryan and Nala are two very different characters, they have a lot in common. “On the surface these two books have nothing to do with each other,” Watson noted. “In reflection, after I wrote both of them, I saw some connections. Nala, her name means queen. Nala is figuring out to be a leader also.”
Her mission as a writer, Watson explained, is to encourage her readers to think not so much about changing the world on a large scale, but rather, to change their own world for the better. “Just be kind to your friends, and your neighbors, and to your family,” she said.
“I want to focus on Black joy,” she added. “It’s important, especially right now, that children have stories where Blackness is not a burden, that are not just about our struggle but are also about our joy, and the everyday relationships that we have.”