Hundreds of booksellers are online this week for New Voices New Rooms, the combined fall conference for the Southern and New Atlantic Independent Booksellers associations, and much of the discussion has turned to the ways in which children’s books can help young people—and their parents—navigate challenging and uncertain times.
On Monday, the first day of the trade show, Amy Cherrix, book buyer at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café in Asheville, N.C., hosted a discussion entitled “Kids, Science, and Nature.” Mary Kay Carson, author of Outdoor School: Animal Watching (Odd Dot, Apr.); Kathryn Holmes, author of Tally Tuttle Turns into a Turtle (Abrams, Aug.); and Ella Schwartz, author of Stolen Science: Thirteen Untold Stories of Scientists and Inventors Almost Written Out of History (Bloomsbury, Aug.), joined Cherrix, who, besides being a bookseller, is also the author of Animal Architects (Beach Lane, Sept.), a picture book illustrated by Chris Sasaki.
The session kicked off with each author summarizing the message they hoped to convey in their book. Cherrix pointed out that “the natural world is a full-time construction zone,” while Carson noted that her book is a tool for use in searching out animals and then identifying them. Holmes said that the protagonists in her new series actually do turn into an animal for a day and that when Tally Tuttle becomes a turtle, “yes, she does eat bugs.” Schwartz emphasized that Stolen Science features actual stories about the reality behind the myths relating to a number of important inventions.
Cherrix pointed out that while the four books address nature from very distinct vantages—nonfiction, reference, fiction, and history—they share a common theme: they create a sense of wonder. Cherrix said that she created this through the content and pacing of Animal Architects, while Schwartz noted that the very topic of her book, Stolen Science, aims to intrigue children, as these are stories “that should have been known and weren’t.” Holmes, disclosing that the second chapter book in the Class Critters series is entitled David Dixon’s Day as a Dachshund, pointed out that a child’s imagination is fired when they consider, “What if you wished for something and it came true? What if you were exploring the world in a different body?” Explaining that “most of us write children’s books because we want to tap into their sense of wonder,” Carson maintained that “just getting kids outside, they’ll find the wonder once they are outside.”
Reflecting upon the impact reading a book about science and nature may have on today’s children, Cherrix said that such books may inspire children to think about climate change and other such issues and “not lose sight of the natural world.” She added her wish that such books would make children “better stewards of the world” than previous generations. Schwartz said that she was committed to representation, and that she hoped that children would appreciate the contributions immigrants and women have always made to the world through their inventions. She added that she also hopes children realize that “science is important, science is cool.”
Carson expressed a wish that children realize that “the answer to all the problems in the world is in nature,” because “most of the problems in the world are caused by people.” She pointed out that while “birds and squirrels were going about their business” on January 6, human beings were desecrating the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Holmes, noting that children reading Tally Tuttle are not experiencing a normal school year after more than a year of remote schooling, hopes that her chapter book series teaches children both empathy for other people and curiosity about the natural world.
“I hope as they read Tally Tuttle, they think about what the shy new girl in class might be feeling,” she said, pointing out that each book contains extra information about the featured animal, and that children are encouraged to do further research as “you can always learn more about anything you are interested in.”
As the session wound down, Cherrix, pointing out that “authors are natural born handsellers,” asked each panelist to inform booksellers on how best to handsell their book. Carson responded that her book is for children who love wildlife and enjoy spending time outside, “but need something concrete to do.” She added that with a nature journal included in the package, it’s a “terrific book for camps, nature camps, and teachers as well.” Holmes said that her chapter books can serve as a “gateway” to nonfiction for children, as they are appropriate for readers who are “curious about and like to learn about animals but are not into nonfiction yet.”
Schwartz said that she wishes “everyone would embrace science” but she realizes that not everybody wants to take a deep dive into the subject. She therefore advocates for profiles of interesting scientists and their discoveries that would pull in readers with a general interest in science and history. “It’s important that people know that science is happening all around them and has been happening for a long time,” she said.
On Tuesday, authors and booksellers picked up the conversation on science and history at an emotional level with Justin Colussy-Estes, manager of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., moderating an author panel about books for anxious kids. “One of the things that particularly middle grade books allow kids to do is see a space where they are able to have agency and imagine themselves as being connected, and that those real connections are made alive in their imaginations through the connections that they see in books,” Colussy-Estes remarked.
Mechal Renee Roe, author and illustrator of the forthcoming I’m Growing Great (Doubleday, Jan.), spoke about how her book is geared toward helping young readers be introspective in the “fight for emotional peace.” Roe described her previous book, Happy Hair, as “more about outward appearance and accepting the hair that your grow.” In her new book, she said she hopes to “liken our inner self to a garden, to how we need to prune, how we need water, how we need to grow, just so we can be prepared for the challenges of the day.”
In their forthcoming When the World Turned Upside Down (Scholastic, Jan.), author K. Ibura said they hope to show young people how community is a source of strength in difficult times. Ibura was careful to ensure that the book’s protagonist does not overcome and get rid of anxiety, but learns how to manage it by recognizing where he has sources of support.
“It was important to me to say that we can find strength and community. It doesn’t disappear our challenges. It doesn’t make things go away,” Ibura said. “But through those connections, we can learn how to face it, and maybe find new strategies and work together to make things sustainable.”
Irene Latham brought poetry into the discussion with her book Wild Peace (Roaring Brook, Oct.). Latham wrote the poem for the picture book years ago, but then waited because she specifically wanted illustrator Il Nung Sa to create the images for the book.
The 150-word poem is the story of a child who finds comfort in the solitude of the forest. “It is interesting [to have a book] coming out now at a time when I think that we are much more aware about anxieties we have,” Latham said. “[While growing up], I found comfort in two places reliably, and that was in nature and in poetry. So this was a way to marry both of those things.” By doing so, Latham said she hoped that readers would see another path for using imagination to manage their anxiety.
While Leslie Davenport’s All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal with Climate Change (Magination Press, Sept.) is a longer narrative work than t Latham’s poem, the author said she paid similarly close attention to every word choice as a way to grapple with climate anxiety.
In particular, Davenport said she hoped to help readers use word choice to understand connections between parts of the climate and their everyday lives. “Scientifically, it’s literally true that the water that comes out of our faucet is in fact the same water that’s in our rivers and lakes,” she said. “With this kind of visceral awareness of not being able to divide us from what we think of nature as out there, but [being] part of it, it actually influences the choices we make and the relationship we have to the world.”
Along with deep dives into serious subjects, panels also took up some of the bestselling areas within children’s bookselling, including a Scholastic-sponsored session on graphic novels. Children’s authors also read and spoke during session interludes, including a yoga session led by Susan Verde, author of I Am Courage: A Book of Resilience, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds (Abrams).
It was bookseller Colussy-Estes who captured the spirit of having children’s books and authors present throughout the conference, in a description of watching generations of children, parents, and grandparents come through Little Shop of Stories. “I have this theory as a bookseller that oftentimes kids’ books, particularly picture books, are as much lessons for the adults who are reading them to their children, as they are lessons for kids.”