The closing keynote panel for the combined New Voices New Rooms fall regional conference of the New Atlantic and Southern Independent Booksellers associations delivered tales of hope and alliances as promised, but it also delivered tears of love and admiration among moderator Kirsten Hess and authors Ben Hatke, Yuyi Morales, and Peter H. Reynolds, who shared space for a free-ranging conversation about life in a challenging world.
Hess, owner and founder of Let’s Play Books in Emmaus, Pa., set the tone of the session, which came at the end of five days of digital workshops and author presentations that drew more than 700 booksellers and publishing professionals together online. “I had a whole bunch of questions that we were going to formally go through, but the reality is that the themes of the picture books that the three of you have presented here, they’re beautiful, and they’re deep. And as brilliant picture books do, they can be read and discussed with everyone at different levels,” Hess said before throwing out her questions and opening up a dialogue about the role of books and stories in troubled times.
“We’re storytelling creatures,” Hatke said. “I think our first language is story. I’ve seen that with my kids. And that’s why I think picture books are important. That’s why they’re so vital. And then also as a creator, I’ve always found that the more of yourself you’re putting into them, the more they’re going to sing and come alive.”
His forthcoming book, Julia’s House Goes Home (First Second, Oct.), reflects that vision. The book is the third in an unplanned trilogy of stories about a little girl in the world, but the tale shifted from being a story about a house and its environment to one about how the inhabitants learn to get along.
The reason for the shift was that Hatke’s own life crept in, as he, his wife, and daughters, have taken on a number of animals, including a sheep and a goat. That story became Julia’s, the main character, who puts a sign outside of her house that attracts magical animals who all have to find ways to co-exist once they come inside.
Morales said that for her, picture books are the space where adults and children can come together to wrestle with the great questions in life. “[They are] how we answer these questions, how we connect with children [over] the things that they are actually going through, recognizing that in the lives of many children, difficult things are happening,” Morales said.
In Bright Star (Holiday House/Porter), Morales began with a question of her own. “How am I serving [others] as a person who creates books for children and has stories for them? How will I ever use my voice? Her book follows a whitetail deer and her mother as they journey to find the things that they need to survive, only to discover that their way is slowed and blocked. Morales said the story is a parable about “what happens when things such as immigration policies try to put walls in places and in our hearts that separate people.”
Still, she wondered aloud whether any individual book could provide answers to life’s hardest questions. [Instead, she asked if answers come instead]FIX? from many people creating and reading many stories, all over, all the time. “It’s only [with] this universe of books and this universe of stories,” she said, “that we are going to make something valuable and significant happen.”
Reynolds spoke of a harrowing 18 months in which he faced personal loss from the pandemic and adversity in keeping his own bookstore, the Blue Bunny in Dedham, Mass., going. During that time, he wrote Our Table (Orchard, Nov.), the story of a girl named Violet whose family dinner table keeps shrinking every time her parents and siblings look at their devices instead of one another. Eventually the table shrinks until it can fit in her hands, and she has to find a way to bring it back to size.
Reynolds said that the bookstore, which is in its 19th year, emerged from adversity and is fulfilling another crucial role in the life of children’s books, as a place of discovery and community. “We’re here. We’re still here,” he said, “and we are loving it every day.”
But it was creating—writing and drawing—that Reynolds said he hoped readers would embrace most, and take up themselves, which opened up a discussion with his fellow panelists about creating children’s books. For Reynolds, Our Table reflected his own broader belief that children’s books are a way to share knowledge down through the generations, knowing that loss and death are inevitable.
When sitting down to write the book, he thought, “I’m going to make a little offering. You take that wisdom, and you dip it in some color and some art, and you package it up as a picture book, and you can give it to people and say, ‘I’m not sure if it’s going to help you. I know it helped me to write this.’ ”
Those comments resonated deeply with Hatke, who shared the role that storytelling has played in his life since the death of his youngest daughter in an accident two years ago. “Somebody sent me a sketchbook, and I filled it,” Hatke said. “I filled it with writings and comics and stories and stuff that I’ll never share, but that was proof to me that this is how I’m processing. There were other ways [too], but that was a major thing. I was using this processing tool.”
“Public stories are the same,” he said. “They’re the same thing.”