The California Independent Booksellers Alliance held its Fall Fest in Sacramento from September 9–11, and Sunday’s events included two panels featuring children’s and YA authors. A lighthearted breakfast event introduced picture books for the season, and a DEIJ conversation highlighted how far things have come and how far there is to go in regard to social justice in the industry.

The Breakfast Club: Starting the Morning with Children’s Authors

Hicklebee’s co-owner Valerie Lewis presided over a breakfast panel of five authors, who talked up forthcoming books and traded examples of outstanding promotional events. Two panelists—Caldecott Medalist Jason Chin and Just in Case You Want to Fly author Julie Fogliano—recalled how working at Books of Wonder in New York City informed their nascent careers, two decades ago.

Fogliano, whose new picture book I Don’t Care is illustrated by Caldecott Honorees Molly Idle and Juana Martinez-Neal (Holiday House/Neal Porter Books), shared how she found her authorial voice. She had been stymied in her attempts to tell stories, until one day Lane Smith (whose studio was upstairs from Books of Wonder) stopped into the store and recommended Ruth Krauss’s midcentury picture books, including A Hole Is to Dig and I’ll Be You and You Be Me.

“Here’s this person who doesn’t write characters, doesn’t write stories, and it really works,” Fogliano thought. “Her voice was where the magic was. That changed everything for me.” I Don’t Care came to Fogliano as a free-written list of things a child rejects. Editor Neal Porter told her, “I need to know what they do care about,” and the project was launched.

Chin, winner of the Caldecott and Asian/Pacific American Award for his illustrations for Watercress by Andrea Wang, worked at Books of Wonder at that time too. Fictional characters were not his forte, and an industry friend suggested writing nonfiction. Riding home on the subway, Chin was captivated by an article about trees, “and that led to my first book dummy, for Redwoods. Here we are 13 years later, and my new book is The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey [Holiday House/Neal Porter Books],” a book that zeroes in on “the smallest thing known to science.”

“The one thing we’ve learned today is that Neal Porter was scouting at Books of Wonder,” joked Matt de la Peña, whose book Patchwork (illustrated by Corinna Luyken, Putnam) recently arrived on shelves. Patchwork expands on themes de la Peña has explored in his previous picture books including Carmela Full of Wishes, that “all our stories fit into a bigger story, the beautiful patchwork of humanity.”

Similarly meditative was Deborah Underwood, whose Walter Had a Best Friend (illustrated by Sergio Ruzzier, Beach Lane) examines the breakup of two friends. Underwood read the opening pages, in which mouse Walter cannot stop his closest confidant from choosing another BFF. “Losses like this are especially hard,” said Underwood, who offers Walter a fresh start at story’s end.

Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen presented their new picture book, The Three Billy Goats Gruff (Orchard), with Barnett voicing the snarling troll and Klassen playing the matter-of-fact goats who cross the troll’s bridge. Like This Is Not My Hat and other collaborations, Gruff pits little against big. Klassen revealed that Barnett honed his troll voice on their families’ shared road trip: “We passed by Carmel by the Sea at the time Clint Eastwood was the mayor,” and Barnett stayed in character as the Dirty Harry actor. Take or leave that tip for read-alouds.

Next, Lewis asked the panelists to describe “standout promotional events. As independent booksellers, borrowing ideas from other stores makes each one of us stronger,” she said, recalling a 2012 yarn-bombing extravaganza at {pages} in Manhattan Beach, Calif., to tout Barnett and Klassen’s Extra Yarn.

De la Peña and Chin described happenings outside bookstores. De la Peña’s Carmela Full of Wishes takes place in the migrant community of Watsonville, Calif., so Bookshop Santa Cruz and Arts Council Santa Cruz County held a gathering in a local theater. “It resonated so much, and they got funding so that young people in the community got to leave the event with a copy of the book,” de la Peña said. Chin noted a cooperative event for Watercress at Shelburne Farms in Vermont, with Flying Pig Bookstore; the organizers “hired an expert forager to gather local plants [like stinging nettle], which was neat because the book is about connecting with your family through native foraging.”

Klassen and Barnett found value in a store that invited them for a two-part presentation: daytime for children and evening for their guardians. “After the store closed, the tone of the room was so different,” Klassen said. “It felt almost conspiratorial, like a community meeting,” about what children need from books. “The bookstore had turned into a town hall.”

Allyship and Activism in Children’s Books

Town hall topics of diversity and inclusion were foremost on the agenda at “Allyship and Activism in Children’s Books,” a CALIBA panel moderated by Cellar Door Bookstore owner Linda Sherman-Nurick. Participants discussed a dearth of underrepresented voices on bestseller lists (“Octavia Butler makes the list after she’s dead,” an audience member said); a cycle of low advances and lackluster promotional efforts that undermines writers of color; and ways to tell uncomfortable truths about history and the present day.

“Fear is contagious, so if a teacher [or children’s bookseller] is afraid to broach a subject, kids are afraid to talk about it as well,” Angela Joy (Black Is a Rainbow Color) said. “Even if you’re uncomfortable, pretend that you’re not,” and recommend a meaningful book. In Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (illus. by Janelle Washington, Roaring Brook), Joy engages with troubling and essential U.S. history.

Readers know about Till-Mobley’s activism after her son’s murder, yet Joy found the broader story of how Till-Mobley “lived a life of choosing to be brave.” This story goes untold in civil rights histories, Joy said, yet “we are fully actualized people who have a life that goes beyond parenthood.” Till-Mobley’s outspokenness as a Black woman and mother ripples today, Joy said. “We have the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act sitting on the desk of President Joe Biden right now.”

In a YA novel, For Lamb (Holiday House, Jan. 3), Finding Langston series author Lesa Cline-Ransome likewise confronts the horrors of lynching. Together with her four children, Cline-Ransome visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Among the murdered “wives, and mothers, and daughters, and sisters, of Black men,” she found a reference to Lamb Whittle. When research turned up nothing on Lamb or her family, Cline-Ransome began to imagine the life of her 16-year-old Black protagonist, who befriends a white girl in 1940s Jim Crow Mississippi. The teens’ secret friendship becomes a tale of “complicity and the danger of silence.”

Anti-racist educator Doyin Richards (Watch Me) talked about his picture book You Matter to Me (illus. by Robert Paul Jr., Feiwel and Friends). After Richards and his family adopted a puppy, he wrote You Matter through the dog’s perspective, “as he watches me go through my all-white neighborhood of Culver City.” Village Well Books is Richards’s local indie, and he expressed appreciation for booksellers’ support: “They put my [2021] book Watch Me in a teddy bear’s hands” for maximum visibility in the store, he said. “Don’t feel like you have to put a book in a pigeonhole with BIPOC authors—put it everywhere.”

“How about situations where we hand a customer a book [with a prominent Black image on the cover], and they put it down and say, ‘No, not that one’?” asked Sherman-Nurick, miming a fidgety customer. “Why not that one?” audience members curtly responded. Emily Autenrieth (A Seat at the Table, Elk Grove) suggested a leading question: “What about this one do we want to avoid?”

“As indie booksellers, your job is to show the world there are some really good books they may not have seen,” Richards said. “Have the authors do a talk. Feature them front and center.” If a customer wants time-tested “stories of perseverance and family,” Cline-Ransome said, direct them not only to prize-winners of yore but to “classic themes, reframed and reimagined” through a BIPOC lens.

Joy commented not only on the bookstore but the trade show, where booksellers plan their orders and events: “When you go to the book conference, the lines for the white authors are out the door, and the Black authors are talking to their agents,” she said. This “lack of curiosity about the other” translates into indie picks. Cline-Ransome added, “Guess what, if the sales don’t support them, those books will be out of print. As we know, the publishing world is still pretty broken in terms of underrepresented voices. Advances are often driven by sales. It’s a cycle, and things are never going to change if you can’t get books into a large number of stores.”

At this, Sherman-Nurick acknowledged Barnes & Noble’s recent announcement that they would display only the top 2% of hardcover middle-grade releases: “It’s book banning on the supply side,” further marginalizing underrepresented authors.

Instead, the panel asserted, bookstores can feature diverse books through the events they host, the titles they recommend, and the debuts they celebrate. They can partner with churches, community centers, and apartment-building community rooms, or bring a pop-up shop to a book desert. “Don’t be afraid to leave the safety and comfort of a store,” Cline-Ransome said. “Ensure your reach is broad enough to connect with a wider group of readers.”

Be unapologetic, too, about an anti-racist stance, Richards said. He sees no point in tiptoeing around those offended by social justice action, or in begging the unpersuadable to read diverse books. He told a story of “the bee and the fly,” indicating that social-justice booksellers should praise the sweetness of honey, a.k.a. their delicious diverse books. Instead of worrying about attracting “flies,” he said, “why don’t you get more bees, and convince them to join your anti-racist hive?”