The Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, sponsored by Candlewick Press, was a mixture of laughter and tears for the audience, as well as for the morning’s speakers, who each presented their fall releases and spoke of what in their lives inspired them to write these books: Jamie Lee Curtis (This Is Me, Workman), Dav Pilkey (Dog Man, Scholastic/Graphix), Sabaa Tahir (A Torch Against the Night, Razorbill) and Gene Luen Yang (Secret Coders: Paths & Portals, First Second).
Jamie Lee Curtis set the tone for the morning as she described children’s books as a “refuge” through which children may see themselves reflected, as well as something that allows them to imagine worlds beyond their own. “Children are increasingly aware of their diversity and increasingly finding refuge in books,” she said, urging the publishing industry to “make that refuge as accessible to all” as possible.
Curtis described This Is Me as a story about immigration and the immigrant experience. “It’s a book about all of us,” she said, “Every single person who came to this country came as an immigrant.” The book is also, she said, about the “confluence of family histories” and an “object lesson” in creating a sense of self-identity and overcoming a fear of the future, and of the unknown. The picture book, illustrated by Laura Cornell, whom Curtis described as the “secret sauce,” the secret to the success of her picture books, begins with a teacher bringing her great-grandmother’s suitcase into her first-grade class and instructing her students to fill the suitcase with their most prized possessions, the ones they would take with them if they had to leave their homes.
Curtis finished her presentation on the verge of tears, as she disclosed that the next speaker, Dav Pilkey, the creator of Captain Underpants, had had a profound impact on her 20-year-old son’s life. Reading had been “impenetrable” for her son, she explained—until he read the Captain Underpants books. It changed his life, she said.
“Dav Pilkey,” she said, “has done more to convert our most reluctant readers” into book lovers. “We thank him collectively for having gotten our kids interested in books.”
Pilkey disclosed that he had had ADHD as a child, as well as dyslexia. Explaining that he was the only one in his class who had such challenges, he recalled that it “was not a big deal” for his classmates to read in class, but that he was so afraid, his teeth would chatter and “there was a lot of sweat.” When he did find books that he enjoyed reading, they “weren’t good enough” for his teachers, as the books he preferred were often below his grade level. Fortunately, his mother realized that it was more important that he was reading rather than focusing on what he read. She took him to the library once a week and also encouraged him to purchase books from Scholastic’s book fair brochures.
“She let me pick out what I wanted, with no judgment whatsoever,” he said. “I started to realize that I really liked to read.”
Quoting a statistic that 55% of consumers purchasing young adult books are adult readers, Pilkey asked, “How come no one gets on their case?” If adults can read below their age level, “why shouldn’t our children?” While junk food does exist, he pointed out, “there’s no such thing” as “junk books.” It’s important that adults, like his mother did, allow children’s to choose what they want to read. “It’s all about love, not levels, but love.”
Pilkey’s point that there is no such thing as a “junk book” rang true, as he described his new series of graphic novels for middle-grade readers, Dog Man, a “love letter to dogs.” Displaying a few pages from “Dog Man and Two Kitties,” in the first volume, he explained that it’s a parody of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and that he tries to incorporate profound themes in his work that go “beyond the surface” of humor.
By “putting the right book in the right hands,” he told booksellers, “you are changing the world—a point that was amplified by a long hug from Curtis before Pilkey sat down.
If audience members weren’t moved to tears by Curtis or by Pilkey’s presentations, they surely were by Tahir’s. Disclosing that she had grown up the child of immigrants who had moved “sight unseen” to a small community in California’s Mojave Desert to run a motel, Tahir described the overt racism and relentless bullying she endured as a child, beginning with a kindergarten teacher who disliked her because, as her mother explained, she “came from a different place, [looked] different from her, and she [was] afraid.” Quoting from Yoda in Star Wars, Tahir said, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the dark side.”
Tahir explained that she allowed herself to give in to fear and then to anger as a child, which became self-hatred. “More and more, I hated myself and wanted to disappear entirely.” What saved her, she said, was her brother providing books for her to read—including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She had a “huge, slow-motion epiphany,” she said, and immersed herself in “worlds that were better than real life” by becoming a voracious reader. Books gave her hope, she said, that there was a world outside her town that would be a more welcoming place.
The Ember in the Ashes series is “my story,” Tahir said, noting that its dystopian setting was inspired by the Mojave Desert. And its storyline was inspired by her childhood experiences in her hometown and characters inspired by her young self, family members, and people she knew then, including her best friend in seventh grade, Sarah, who “didn’t take crap from anybody.”
“All those years of fear and loneliness had found their purpose,” she said, pointing out that books give hope to young readers, who like her, are afraid; “hope will always be stronger than fear and hate.”
The last speaker, Gene Luen Yang, who was recently named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, talked about his new middle-grade series, Secret Coders, which he claimed is “a lot like Harry Potter,” but also spoke of his responsibilities as ambassador to help those who “be outside of books understand books.” Books, he said, help readers “figure out pieces of their identity” and “go outside of our walls. If we never go outside of our walls, our walls become a prison,” he said, explaining that he did not enjoy playing basketball as a child, but that after reading a book about the “basketball scene in 1940s–1950s Chinatown,” called Outside the Paint, he was inspired to read other books set in the world of basketball, including Slam Dunk, Ball Don’t Lie, and The Crossover.
“These books collectively acted as an ambassador,” Yang said, “They showed me a world I knew nothing about.” This led to his becoming friends with the coach of a high school basketball team, which led him to attend basketball games, which resulted in his following his new friend’s team for a year. He is now working on his first nonfiction book—about that basketball team.
Yang concluded his presentation by issuing a challenge to his audience, which he called “Reading Without Walls Challenge.” He urged the audience to 1. Read a book about a character that does not look like you or live like you; 2. Read a book about a topic you know nothing about; 3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun (like a graphic novel).
As Yang sat down, Curtis urged booksellers to take the Reading Without Walls Challenge into their bookstores and issue it to their customers. “Take [it] into the marketplace,” she said. “We should make that a national challenge.” In fact, she said, “we should take it to whoever is [the next] president.”