The mood was decidedly celebratory during the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s annual fall conference in Denver, held October 7–9, as 185 booksellers and seven librarians—125 of the 192 attendees hailing from Colorado, 16 from Texas, and 10 from Utah—gathered in person for the first time in two years at the Renaissance Hotel Central Park. The show was smaller, with two-thirds of the attendance of the 2019 gathering, but as MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan pointed out, while “some of our most constant attendees were missing, I'll estimate that one-third of those who did attend had never been to a show before.”

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Duncan added. “It’s a lovefest—and everything looks the same,” although, unlike in typical years, about a third to one-half of the show exhibitors and attendees remained masked throughout. While a number of the big houses were absent from this year’s show, such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette, there were about 5–10% more vendors than in 2019, several of them first-time exhibitors, including Read Island, staffed by Nicole Magistro. Last year, Magistro sold her bookstore, Bookworm of Edwards (Edwards, Colo.), to write and publish books like her debut picture book, Read Island, illustrated by her business partner, Alice Feagan.

“I’ve been yearning to connect with independent booksellers,” said Elise Supovitz, director of field sales at Candlewick Press, who usually does not attend MPIBA. “This is one of only two in-person shows, so I persuaded my company to send me here. I’ve been craving in-person conversations with booksellers.”

While some booksellers noted that children’s galleys were not as plentiful on the show floor as in other years, children’s books and their authors remained front and center throughout the conference, as close to 50% of the 60 authors in attendance were children’s and YA authors.

The conference kicked off with a Wednesday evening reception, held in the hallway in front of the new Tattered Cover children’s bookstore in the Stanley Marketplace in nearby Aurora. The festivities spilled over into the store itself, where booksellers browsed the shelves in between hugs and conversations.

The Stanley Marketplace store is Tattered Cover’s sixth outlet, and its first children’s bookstore. Tattered Cover is going to open a seventh location this fall in Westminster, a western suburb of Denver; next year, the company will expand beyond the Denver metro area and open a store in Colorado Springs. Alan Frosh, Tattered Cover’s co-owner and chief community officer, explained that the company is committed to opening stores that are reflective of the community, rather than “cookie cutter” outlets. The Stanley Marketplace store was planned as a children’s bookstore to accommodate the preponderance of young families in Aurora.

Children’s Authors Urge Readers to Dream Big

The following morning, more than 100 booksellers attended the children’s author and illustrator breakfast that is the traditional kickoff for the conference each year. The audience whooped and clapped as Duncan welcomed them to “Mountains and Plains—live and in person,” adding, “Seeing so many vaxxed booksellers in one room makes me so happy.”

The breakfast featured four authors of picture books, three of whom were also the illustrator—Yuyi Morales, Frank Morrison, Megan Bomgaars, and Peter H. Reynolds—as well as YA author Lilliam Rivera. If there was a common theme to their five presentations, it was that everybody should celebrate their unique qualities while pursuing their dreams.

Morales, who wrote and illustrated Bright Star (Holiday House/Porter, Sept.), explained that just as her previous effort, Dreamers, was designed to bring attention to the immigrant experience, Bright Star is meant to raise awareness of the plants and animals in the borderlands region that are affected by the actions of humans, particularly those who want a wall built between the U.S. and Mexico.

“This book is about a lot of animals, a lot of plants,” she explained. “Plants and animals are part of the narrative: they deserve to be seen.” Not only does building walls harm human beings, she pointed out, it also disrupts the natural world’s ecosystems. “If we could listen to our environment, we would realize that we are not alone, that we are very connected,” she said.

Emphasizing that “we will have to bring down our walls, both outside and inside of us,” Morales said that she wanted Bright Star “to be a compelling story for children when they need it most, to know that they are not alone.” Expressing distaste for the silver Mylar blankets that the U.S. authorities hand out to immigrants in their custody, Morales, a native of Mexico who lived in California for many years before moving back to her homeland, said, “I wanted this book to be like a blanket, to embrace children.”

The morning’s second speaker, Bomgaars, is the debut author of Born to Sparkle: A Story About Achieving Your Dreams (FlowerPot Press, Sept.), illustrated by Pete Olczyk. She introduced herself and her book by telling the story of how she has not allowed Down’s Syndrome to prevent her from pursuing her dreams. Bomgaars has starred in a reality television series on A&E, started a business, advocated for people with disabilities, visited the White House, and, this year, started college at Colorado State University, where she is studying communications and business, “so I can continue to grow my business and take care of myself as an independent woman.”

“From a fairly young age,” she explained, “I knew that I wanted to sparkle.” She added that she could not have accomplished all that she has done without the “support of people who believed in me. If you really want to follow your dreams and sparkle,” she said, “you need to work hard like me.”

Following Bomgaars, Morrison, who wrote and illustrated Kick Push (Bloomsbury, Mar. 2022), showed on the screen behind him a photo of his five children as he explained the genesis of his picture book debut, a celebration of “Black boy joy.”

Describing himself and his children as a family of entrepreneurs who love to move their bodies, Morrison introduced Kick Push by explaining to the booksellers how to skateboard: “You just kick and push, kick and push.” Kick Push was inspired by his son T.J.’s desire to become a professional skateboarder. Recalling that years ago in high school, Morrison himself had told his mother he wanted to become a professional break dancer and then landed a gig with the Sugar Hill Gang, Morrison gave T.J.a 365-day deadline to see “if he could make some money out of it.” Just as Morrison had long ago found success doing what he loved to do, before the year was up, T.J. became a background skateboarder in Lil Wayne’s music videos.

“What this book is really about,” Morrison concluded, “is being who you are, being yourself. Believe in yourself and people will follow; success will follow.”

Rivera described her latest novel, We Light Up the Sky (Bloomsbury, Oct.), as a thriller about an alien invasion. Set in Los Angeles, the story features three Latinx teenagers “who are going to save the world.” But, she added, the tagline for this tale is, “Who is the real enemy, the aliens or their fellow human beings?”

Disclosing that Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles was a primary literary influence on her, Rivera noted that she wanted to write her own “first contact alien invasion” thriller, but one that revolves around BIPOC characters. She explained, “I’m obsessed with alien invasion stories and about what Black and brown kids would do in that situation.”

“It’s a little dark, a little eerie,” she said of We Light Up the Sky. “But you get a couple of laughs out in it.”

Rivera noted that We Light Up the Sky is the first novel she has set in Los Angeles, a city that she moved to as an adult from New York City. Describing L.A. as “a dystopia,” but also “make-believe,” Rivera explained that it is “unreal,” due to the contrasts between streets being blocked off by film crews making movies while a few blocks away, there are homeless encampments. The novel also was inspired by the “crazy-looking light show” in her L.A. neighborhood caused by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch three years ago. “Three brown kids got [photos] on their phone and showed me,” she said, “three brown kids racing off to see what is happening in their city.”

The morning’s final speaker, Reynolds, reminisced in a prelude to reading out loud from Our Table (Scholastic/Orchard, Nov.) about his whereabouts as the nation began shutting down in early March 2020. He was on tour, on his way to Seattle, but was diverted by an outbreak of Covid there, and was sent instead by his publisher to Portland, Ore. There, Reynolds visited kindergarten classes at a school for more than three hours, adding, “Had I known that it’d be 18 months before I got back on the road, I’d have stayed five hours.”

Reynolds noted that his philosophy is that one should “create bravely,” as “you get better at the things you don’t give up on.” He wants his books to make children “fluent in confidence, bravery, and empathy.”

While Zoom allows people to communicate face-to-face during the pandemic, Reynolds pointed out, “We were together, but we weren’t together.” Cell phones, he insisted, also disrupt personal connections between people, as once someone in a group takes out their cell phone, “it gives permission for the others to take out their cell phones.”

Our Table, Reynolds said, is the story of Violet, who feels lonelier and lonelier as her family’s dining room table shrinks, and eventually disappears. She sets about re-building personal connections between her parents and brother, culminating in them communicating face-to-face more often, and ultimately building together a bigger, more beautiful table.

Disclosing that like many other books this season, Our Table’s pub date was pushed back (to November) due to supply chain issues, Reynolds said that such a pub month is “very appropriate” due to Thanksgiving, “when we gather at the table—why don’t we do that more often?” He concluded his presentation by talking about his brother’s family tradition of having guests sign their names on the tablecloth used on Thanksgiving every year; his sister-in-law then embroiders those names onto the tablecloth. On the verge of tears, he explained that this 25-year-old tradition helps the family not just reflect upon all the meals they’ve enjoyed together, but also “remember people not here anymore.”

“I hope this book inspires you to gather around the table,” he said.

This year, several children’s books—coincidentally all published by Candlewick Press—vied as the hot book that booksellers anticipate will sell well during the holiday season. While several booksellers cited The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, others buzzed about a graphic memoir about author-illustrator Eugene Yelchin’s childhood, The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain . Liesl Freudenstein, head children’s buyer at Boulder Bookstore in Boulder, Colo., said that The Genius Under the Table is “percolating” among children’s booksellers, and that there is growing speculation that it is a viable contender for the Newbery Medal. Freudenstein said she is going to make sure to stock it, and “it’s going to the top of my reading list.” But her personal favorite pick of the show is Poultrygeist by Erik Geron, illustrated by Pete Oswald. “It’s so cute; it’s weird,” she explained. “Why did the chicken cross the road? He gets hit by a car and becomes a ghost. That’s dark. Such a strange book.”

Everyone queried by PW described this year’s gathering as a joyful interlude between a busy summer and what booksellers are anticipating will be a hectic holiday season. “Mountains and Plains is always my favorite show,” said Kalen Landow, a sales rep for Microcosm Publishing. “It’s family. Last year, I was sitting at home, thinking, what if we never do this again?”