On the final day of the U.S. Book Show, May 26, author Jon Scieszka (The Real Dada Mother Goose: A Treasury of Complete Nonsense) sat down with three children’s authors to discuss their upcoming releases: Chloe Gong (Foul Lady Fortune), Justin A. Reynolds (Shot Clock), and Christina Soontornvat (The Tryout).
Donning a top hat and with his National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature medal around his neck, master of ceremonies Scieszka jokingly told the group that because of the show’s digital format, they could talk however long they liked, which was met by chuckles all around. Scieszka then launched into author introductions, dubbing Gong (author of bestsellers These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends) the “superstar of YA fantasy lit.” Gong explained how her forthcoming YA historical speculative novel is better described as a “Republican-era C-drama, meshed with a Marvel movie.” She likens Foul Lady Fortune (McElderry) to a comedic retelling of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, whose main character Rosalind goes undercover to solve a series of murders and is paired with an unlikely romantic companion “There are a lot of fun character moments that come out because they don’t get along,” Gong said.
As Scieszka turned the table over to Reynolds, the Shot Clock (HarperCollins) author revealed how the opportunity to collaborate with former NBA All-Star Caron Butler was a blessing. “He was always someone I admired for his grit and the tenacity that he brought to the game,” Reynolds said. The two co-wrote the tale of Tony, a young AAU hopeful who is mourning the tragic death of his basketball star friend. While he doesn’t make the cut (a non-spoiler, Reynolds quickly pointed out), Tony is given the opportunity to strategize a winning game plan for the team. “Not only does Tony uplift the community, but he finds a passion he didn’t know was there,” Reynolds said. “It’s a story about giving kids the opportunity to be their best selves.”
Shifting gears from basketball to cheerleading, Soontornvat revealed the inspiration for her memoir/ graphic novel The Tryout (Scholastic/Graphix)—a first for the two-time Newbery Honoree. “I grew up in Texas and tried out for the eighth-grade cheerleading squad in front of my entire grade,” she said, recalling the personal experience behind the book. “It’s a story about facing your fears and how brave you are just to exist in middle school.” Soontornvat pointed out how illustrator Joanna Cacao’s art expertly conveys the storyline. “Joanna captures all the awkwardness of middle school, but [her art] is somehow so heartfelt,” she said.
Scieszka also gave a shoutout to his new book’s illustrator, Julia Rothman, who helped shape his re-telling of six classic Mother Goose nursery rhymes in six different ways. “I grew up with the real Mother Goose, but the Dada artists of the 1920s were among my favorites,” he said. “The idea of ‘what makes more sense than nonsense?’ is something I love.”
Scieszka then asked the panelists what role libraries and bookstores have played in their lives. Gong responded immediately, “Being a reader first turned me into a writer.” Growing up in New Zealand, the book-starved teen worked her way through her local library’s catalog and eventually turned to writing her own stories. “Creating my own world gave me that sense of living inside my own head,” she explained. Soontornvat and Reynolds likewise spent their childhoods buried in books, the former at her parents’ restaurant and the latter at the library where his mother worked.
Libraries, as well as bookstores, are the places these writers credit for bringing their books (and names) into households across the country. Scieszka recalled the significance of his 1989 book tour for The True Story of the Three Little Pigs in helping launch his career, and asked the panelists how they reach their readers these days.
“Indie booksellers and librarians are everything to me,” Soontornvat said. “They get my stories into readers’ hands.”
Gong, who joined TikTok during the pandemic, also noted the importance of staying visible in person. “Social media [alone] doesn’t move the needle. We also need industry support,” she added.
“If you write a good story, it will find someone,” Reynolds added. “This is what has kept me going.”
Scieszka invited the authors to share any hidden gems in their new books. Gong said she tucked in what she referred to as “Shakespearian Easter eggs,” while Soontornvat’s title includes a few Lord of the Rings references “just to demonstrate that I was a giant nerd,” she quipped.
“I tried to sprinkle in as much authenticity as possible,” Reynolds said of his love letter to basketball.
Tipping his hat to the authors, Scieszka closed out the forum by citing the “intense vitality and variety of our group. Let’s re-invent publishing,” he suggested.