Before Covid, the New England Independent Booksellers Association’s fall conference was known for its strong opening panels and keynote speakers, and this year’s keynote at the first in-person NEIBA fall show since 2019 did not disappoint. It featured children’s author Kwame Alexander in conversation about The Door of No Return (Little, Brown), the first book in his new trilogy of the same name, with Diary of a Wimpy Kid series author Jeff Kinney, co-owner of An Unlikely Story bookstore and café in Plainville, Mass. As NEIBA executive director Beth Ineson noted in her introduction, “Describing this as a blockbuster might be underselling it.”
The two writers, longtime friends, began by trading barbs over awards—Kinney has six Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards winner to Alexander’s Newbery Medal—and other matters. Alexander, who had just returned from filming for The Crossover at Disney+, accusing Kinney of messing with the production. For a book launch in the film, Alexander had asked the crew to buy 200 copies of The Crossover to use and to send them to him afterward. He opened the boxes and found that half were “freaking Wimpy Kids.”
On a more serious note, Kinney thanked Alexander for writing the book, which he later referred to as “a gift” and asked how it came to be. The novel, Alexander explained, grew out of 11 trips that he has made to Ghana in West Africa, since 2012, when a friend asked him to document the ceremony where she became Queen Mother of a village. During one of his visits, Alexander tried to talk to a local man about something he thought they shared, slavery. But the man wasn’t interested. “We learned that all the bad people got taken away,” the man replied. Instead, the man wanted to talk about Kanye West and daily life in Ghana. That conversation helped Alexander understand that to write about his experiences in Ghana, he needed to “showcase the fact that 1619 isn’t our beginning. It’s our middle.”
In response to Kinney’s question about the actual “door of no return,” which he hadn’t realized was a real thing until he read about it in a memoir, Alexander said that he had visited both Cape Coast and Elmina multiple times. The Europeans built these castles and others like them as holding cells and each one had a physical “door of no return.” Africans were kept in dark quarters below ground, while above them people worshipped.
As to whether it was draining to write the book, Alexander reminded Kinney, “You and I are close in our goals in writing. We want to entertain.” So every time the writing got to be too much, Alexander said, “I would remember I write and traffic in joy and uplifting.” Still, he acknowledged, it was “the hardest thing I’ve ever written.”
When he’s writing a book, Alexander said, “I write it so I will enjoy it. I write for myself.” To which Kinney said that when he’s writing, he writes for adults. In fact, he thought that he was writing for adults when he started working on Wimpy Kid. But to his surprise his publisher told him, “You’ve written a children’s book series.”
Kinney also asked about the effect of book bans, which have become so prevalent over the past few years, often for such innocuous books that it “seems like a practical joke.” To which Alexander responded, “I try not to be defined by other people’s limited imaginations.” When a district in Texas banned The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, Alexander bought a ticket to Texas and visited a teacher he knew and read to kids in the library. A clip of the reading appeared that night on local news. “I just do what I’ve got to do,” he said.
In response to a question from the audience about what to tell young readers about his book, Alexander replied, “My dad was a bookseller. Our books were all in our garage. You all are all my people. I want you all to talk about this book not in a way where we talk about slavery. This book is about hope. This is a book about a boy who loves a girl. And he’s got a cousin who’s a bully. He’s going on about his life until his life is interrupted. And it changes all of us.”
Although Alexander wouldn’t give a release date for the second book in the trilogy, he did leave a clue about the storyline. As a result of a letter from a fifth grader who wrote to him and said, “You really need to consider writing a book with a girl as a main character,” Alexander said, “that’s going to play a role.”
More Kids’ Authors at the Show
Children’s authors and illustrators also took the stage for the show’s closing breakfast. Tami Charles and illustrator Bryan Collier spoke about their follow-up to All Because You Matter, which was written in response to questions that Charles got from her son, Christopher, about injustice. Their new book, We Are Here (Orchard), was written for her daughter, Grace, “who didn’t make it to this side.” Collier, who referred to his job as an illustrator “to take you on a visual journey,” used a pink balloon throughout the book to mark Grace’s presence. Collier’s youngest daughter, Ava, is also part of the book; she posed for the story, as did kids in the neighborhood.
Gale Galligan, who illustrated books five through eight of the Babysitters Club graphic novel series (Graphix), spoke about her new coming-of-age graphic novel Freestyle (Graphix), which PW called “a thoughtfully rendered portrayal of friendship, growth, and joyful self-expression” in a starred review. “Making comics is a ton of work,” she acknowledged. On the other hand, “comics are my passion.”
Chloe Gong described her new book, Foul Lady Fortune (S&S/McElderry), which received a starred PW review for its “pulse-pounding caper,” as book three of her duology‚ which began with These Violent Delights. Or, she said, it could be book one of its own drama. While the duology was based on Romeo and Juliet, Gong was inspired by a different Shakespeare play this time, As You Like It. The book, she said, “is about playing pretend. Being someone you’re not, so you can become your true self.”
To publish A Scatter of Light (Dutton), Melinda Lo said that she had to wait for the market for LGBTQ books to expand. In fact, the book is set in 2013, because that’s when she first wrote it. At the time, she said, some of the rejections she got felt homophobic. But although he turned it down, editor Andrew Karre wrote her a letter that said that the novel was a photograph and she needed to turn up the contrast. A few years later, Karre bought Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club and A Scatter of Light, but they agreed to publish Telegraph Club first (it went on to win the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature). When Lo went back to rework A Scatter of Light, she said that she left almost all the book’s intimate scenes, but reworked the rest. She agreed with Karre’s initial assessment of the earlier version.
For Big Tree (Scholastic), which is due out next spring, Caldecott Medalist Brian Selznick said he played with time. But in his case, he moved the story 200 million years in the future, so that it could be set in a world like ours. The idea was originally proposed by Steven Spielberg as a movie script set in a time before dinosaurs, one that was mostly ferns. Selznick said that even with the time shift it still didn’t work for him until he asked Spielberg if he could make it into a book. Then he was able to tell the story.