Emcee Jacqueline Woodson set the tone right away for Friday morning’s children’s book and author breakfast at BookExpo, explaining, “We’re very intentional in the stories we are trying to tell. Through our narratives, we’re trying to change this crazy world.” She’s certainly trying to do just that with her latest novel for middle grade readers, Harbor Me (Penguin/Paulsen, Aug.). It’s a tale, Woodson said, of six students sent weekly by their teacher to a separate room to talk among themselves without any adults present. She wanted to write, Woodson noted, a story about what it means to be a young person in this country, trying to understand why they are made to feel like “the other,” whether because of the current administration’s attitudes towards immigrants or because of racial profiling.
Dave Eggers’ latest effort, a picture book, What Can a Citizen Do? (Chronicle, Sept.), illustrated by Shawn Harris, explores the flip side of Woodson’s concerns: the rights and responsibilities that citizens have living in a democracy.
“It all started with the Statue of Liberty,” said, Eggers, whose 2017 picture book, Her Right Foot, was about the Statue of Liberty. Pointing out that the Statue of Liberty is not standing still, but is poised as if mid-stride, Eggers said, “This country is not standing still. We are strong, we embrace the world’s most vulnerable people.” Reflecting upon the 2016 election, Eggers recalled that he’d initially felt that Americans had “failed” as a society to “take our democracy seriously.” On the morning after the election, however, he met up with two young friends from the Gaza Strip, asylum seekers to the U.S. who they reassured him, despite the election, “of the stability of our democracy.” Disclosing that there will be a gathering of young people in San Francisco this summer who will draft a declaration of human rights, Eggers urged booksellers to “listen to young voices;” young people are the ones, he said, who “will guide us through an uncertain time.”
The next speaker, Yuyi Morales, gave a human face to the themes raised in Woodson’s and Eggers’ presentations: while Morales currently lives in her native Mexico, she immigrated with her infant son to the U.S. in 1994, and has close ties to Mexicans living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she formerly lived. During her powerful presentation, Morales spoke of Donald Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as “murderers and rapists,” who take from the U.S. without providing anything in return. “At some point, I believed it too,” Morales said, recalling how she crossed a bridge from Mexico to Texas with nothing but the clothes on her back and her two-month-old son in her arms. “I did not belong; I had nothing to offer,” she said. But, she added, she has since realized the fallacy of this belief. “When immigrants come to a new place,” she said, we come bearing gifts. We bring our hands, our arms, our legs, our strength, our work, our passion. We bring our hopes, our dreams, and we bring our stories.” Reading the text of the semi-autobiographical picture book she wrote and illustrated, Dreamers (Holiday House/Porter, Sept.), Morales said, “I have a story to tell. We are dreamers. We are love, amor, love. We are not done. We will be here to hear all the other stories.”
Meg Medina also emphasized her own story during her presentation of her latest middle-grade novel, Merci Suárez Changes Gears (Candlewick, Sept.) Explaining that much of her fiction is inspired by her childhood memories, Medina spoke of growing up surrounded women as she was raised by her mother, aunts, and both grandmothers. Recalling the experience of her mother and also mother-in-law living with her family as their health declined, Medina condemned U.S. policies concerning healthcare, particularly for the elderly. “To be old and sick in this country is terrible. To be old and sick and poor in this country is terrifying,” she said, noting that she wanted to write about the impact upon a family, especially its younger members, when the protagonist’s grandfather begins to suffer from dementia. “I’ve written a story of how to say goodbye to the important things in life,” she said, pointing out that people’s lives change due to unexpected circumstances, “whether we’re 11 or 90.”
While the last speaker, Viola Davis, is known to millions as an actress, she is new to the book community, the debut author of a picture book, Corduroy Takes a Bow, illustrated by Judy Wheeler (Viking), Introducing her to the audience, Woodson welcomed Davis to “this glorious world of children’s books.” Like the others, Davis told her personal story, and touched upon larger themes of inclusion and exclusion. Davis said that she wrote Corduroy Takes a Bow for the daughter she adopted six years ago. “I believe the imagination is a very sacred place,” she said, “A place of empathy, a place of no judgment.” Disclosing that she grew up in poverty and chaos, Davis recalled discovering the local public library when she was five or six, and how it provided a respite from the troubles at home. She wanted to introduce her daughter to the “power of reading,” Davis said, and how one’s imagination can transport a reader anywhere. “It’s my legacy to her. I did it for my daughter. I did it for myself.”
Bookseller Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Bookshops in Chicagoland, raved about the morning’s presentations, telling PW, “We all came to this country as immigrants. We are all dreamers. That is what this panel was all about. It gave me hope; it also encouraged me: we’ve got to keep working.”