The 2022 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s fall conference in Denver, held September 28-October 1, featured three days of programming that was bookended by groups of children’s book authors and illustrators presenting their latest work. The gathering kicked off with a bang on Thursday morning: eight authors and illustrators performed show-and-tells about their latest books in front of 192 booksellers at the Children’s Book & Illustrator Breakfast.

The morning’s host, Margaret Brennan Neville, buyer/manager of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, pointed out the essential role that children’s books play in the sustainability of the entire publishing industry. “If kids aren’t reading now,” she explained, “they certainly won’t be reading when they’re 30 years old.”

Thyra Heder, author and illustrator of Sal Boat (Abrams) who is the granddaughter of a sea captain, was inspired to write the story of a boy “who wanted to build something big”‑a sailboat‑because she grew up with a love of the water and also wanted to write a book that included elements of “action, construction, and creativity” but also emotion, as “there are not many construction books with emotion.”

Heder modeled Sal, the boy who wants to build a sailboat that ends up looking like a house, on her own nephew, Milo, “who doesn’t want help when he creates.” Sal loves the water and loves being out there alone, she said, but after getting help launching the boat he built and sailing out on it, “he realizes that he doesn’t have to be alone to be free.”

Sal Boat is for anyone,” Heder said, “who gets overwhelmed and forgets to ask for help.”

Leo Espinosa, illustrator of Like (Chronicle), written by Annie Barrows, followed Heder. He described Like as a book “about all the things that make us human,” as “we are like hyenas, but we are not like hyenas.”

Like, Espinosa noted, makes the point that “we human beings are so much more like each other than we are different. We really need to hear that message more often.”

What drew Espinosa to illustrate Barrows’s text was, he said, “the challenge, the absolute challenge and I wanted to take it up.” The difficulties he faced in illustrating Like were magnified when a meeting with the book’s editor that was scheduled for April 2020 never took place. After suffering from illustrator’s block, he was able to overcome that challenge when his wife commented to him that the little boy he’d drawn as the focus of the story looked like him when he was young.

“Bingo,” he said. “I now had a personal connection to the book. The whole layout of the book happened the next morning.”

Espinosa ended his remarks by reading the last lines in Like: “I am more like you than I am like most of the things on Earth. I’m glad. I’d rather be like you than like a mushroom.”

Two’s Company in Creating Books

Philip Stead and his spouse and frequent collaborator Erin Stead next took to the podium to discuss their approach to the picture books that Philip writes and Erin illustrates, including their most recent effort, The Sun Is Late, And So Is the Farmer (Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, Nov.).

Philip explained that he and Erin work together in a 120-year-old barn in Michigan, and that the philosophy behind their creative pursuits is writing and illustrating books that are “gentle, and, yes, maybe a little bit old-fashioned. How gentle can we make our books, and will children still respond to them?”

The Sun Is Late was written during a time when the two were often not working at the same time in their barn. “We made this book as if we were pen pals,” Philip said, “It was a strange experience for us.”

After reading three pages from The Sun Is Late, a tale about farm animals looking for the sun and their food, Philip noted that the farm animals had never left the barnyard before, and that fateful morning embarked on a journey “to the end of the world, which took an extraordinary amount of courage.” But, he added, “They get there and Rooster does know what to do, and the sun does rise and the farmer does come, and we’re not afraid of happy endings in our books, so everybody does get breakfast.”

Another pair of illustrators, Molly Idle and Juana Martinez-Neal, who partnered in illustrating I Don’t Care by Julie Fogliano (Holiday House/Neal Porter Books, Nov.) followed the Steads.

“Friendship runs through this book,” Neville noted before turning the podium over to Idle and Martinez-Neal, who took turns talking about how their collaboration came to be, and how it went, even after Martinez-Neal’s move to rural Connecticut during the pandemic from Tempe, Ariz., where Idle still lives.

The two had known each other for about 16 years but became good friends due to both having young children, they explained; their friendship was sealed after talking during an illustrator’s workshop about how to continue working on their art despite being sleep-deprived.

Idle explained that when she received from her agent the first half of the manuscript for I Don’t Care, it read as a monologue, but she thought it would read better as a dialogue, with “two people exchanging views on what they don’t care about.”

Like “a true best friend,” Idle said, she “volunteered” Martinez-Neal to collaborate with her on the project, and the two proceeded to decide upon such things as paper, media, and color.

“We had to figure things out, [such as] what was the book going to look like,” Martinez-Neal recalled. “Molly has a very distinctive style and so do I.”

“I trusted her,” Idle said, “and it was so much fun. It took four slugs to get the artwork done, from one studio on one side of the country to the other and then back. I made a spreadsheet of what got drawn when and what. It just made me feel better.”

“Everything came together organically,” Martinez-Neal noted.

Connecting with Animals

The next speaker, Skylar Hogan, is the illustrator of I’m Not Missing (Little Bee Books,) a picture book written by Kashelle Gourley—the jacket credits Gourley with “words and story” and Hogan with “art and story.”

Disclosing that he’d felt nervous earlier about speaking that day, Hogan said he was reassured, once he realized that “90% of you look like my mom—I mean that as a compliment.” I Am Not Missing, Hogan explained was the tale of a dog that does not want to be a pet, due to all the humiliations that accompany being a human being’s dog. “It is snarky,” Hogan admitted. “There’s some grown-up humor.”

His contribution to the story and art contained in I’m Not Missing was inspired by “being bit in the butt last year,” Hogan said while photos of angry-looking, growling dogs were projected behind him. As he was sitting on the ground “with a hole in my butt cheek,” he recalled, he wondered how two dogs belonging to his neighbors would become so angry that they would jump the fence and attack a human being without provocation.

“How did it go from these cute little things,” he asked, showing a photo of puppies, to “disgusting” attack dogs? “It had to be the owners, right?”

Noting that he collaborated with Gourley on the story, Hogan described the canine protagonist as a “humble little dog, regular mutt, nothing special.” After having to beg for treats “when all he wants is a snack,” experiencing a lack of privacy when pooping, and being dressed in silly costumes, he’s had it and runs away in hopes of a better life on his own. Showing off his illustration of the dog pulling off its collar, Hogan noted that it was one of his favorite images.

“It’s been a blast, seeing the kids’ reactions to this book,” Hogan said as he concluded his remarks, “It’s been fun.”

The last speaker that morning was debut author C.C. Harrington, author of the middle grade novel Wildoak (Scholastic Press), which Neville explained while introducing the speaker as “having the feel” of magical realism. Describing it as “a book that you will remember,” Neville praised it as being a story “about nature, about taking chances, about hope.”

Noting that Wildoak is set in 1963 Cornwall, Harrington explained that there were “three different threads of the story of Maggie, a 12-year-old girl sent to her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. There, Maggie, who stutters and thus has problems talking to humans but “has no trouble talking with animals,” finds a snow leopard cub that was abandoned by its owner—until 1976 people in London could buy wild animals, including lions, tigers, and leopards, at Harrods. “The third thread is the forest itself,” Harrington said, “which is where they meet.”

Wildoak was inspired by a photo Harrington discovered of a woman walking her pet cheetah on the street in London. She then did some research on the trend and discovered the story of Christian the Lion, who was purchased at Harrods by two men and raised in their apartment. “Pretty soon, things got complicated,” Harrington said. “Lions are not supposed to be in an apartment.”

She also related the story of Alan Rabinowitz, a doctor who’d stuttered as a child, but as an adult disclosed that he’d been able to communicate with animals—including an epiphany when faced with a jaguar. He realized that both he and the jaguar had so much to say, Harrington said, “but couldn’t get the words out.”

Harrington’s third inspiration for Wildoak was the 2017 release of The Hidden Life of Trees by P. Wohlleben, about the ways that trees communicate with one another. The book confirmed for her something she had always believed: “trees are sentient beings.”

“Every story begins with a mix of heart, imagination, and a huge amount of questions,” Harrington said, disclosing that neither she nor anyone in her family had a history of stuttering. She emphasized that while she created a protagonist who stutters, she was especially careful that Maggie be fully dimensional. “She stutters, but it does not define her,” Harrington said.

Ultimately, Harrington concluded, Wildoak is about “the nature of understanding and communication, how we speak to ourselves as unique individuals and the way we speak to one another as human beings: how we listen, how we try to empathize and understand and how we fail to, and then ultimately, as humans, think about, relate to our places as part of the whole of the natural world, and the interconnectedness of all sentient beings.”

As Neville returned to the podium to make her final remarks as host, she asked her bookseller colleagues, “It’s like falling in love, isn’t it? Aren’t you glad you get to work with books?”

Booksellers in Love with Books

Booksellers attending the breakfast shared Neville’s sentiments: Julie Shimada, children’s book buyer at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, Colo. said afterwards: “The Children’s Author & Illustrator Breakfast is always my favorite event. Maybe it’s because hearing the authors’ heartfelt words and seeing the illustrators’ gorgeous illustrations takes me back to when I was a child and books were the safest and happiest place for me.” Noting that she sat at Harrington’s table at the breakfast, Shimada added that Wildoak was one of her “favorites this year,” and predicted that it would be a store bestseller during the holiday season, as it “has the hallmarks of a classic.”

Neville’s colleague, Anne Holman, co-owner of The King’s English, declared her love for The Sun Is Late. “The Steads are just a magical team and their books speak to children with calm curiosity and light,” she added. “And I Don’t Care is a perfect friendship story, with the art by two women who are truly best friends in real life.”