The Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s virtual trade show, FallCon, kicked off Thursday morning with the Children’s Authors & Illustrators Breakfast, a feast of picture books, middle grade reads, and a YA novel served up by their authors and illustrators, several of whom are also publishing professionals.

MPIBA executive director Heather Duncan welcomed attendees to the show, which will go through Saturday afternoon, by noting that 2020 has “broken my heart in many ways. One of them is that we are not all together at the Renaissance [Hotel in Denver] this morning, having had a wonderful night at the opening reception. Jeremy [Ellis, MPIBA marketing and communications manager], Kelsey [Myers, MPIBA operations manager], and I put together the next best thing: we tried to keep some of the things you all love about our trade show and conference. We hope this event and the rest of our week will be everything you hope that it can be.”

After being introduced by emcee Amanda Sutton, the marketing manager at Bookworks in Albuquerque, N.M., Scholastic editorial director David Levithan introduced his latest novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (Knopf, Feb. 2021). The first middle grade novel by Levithan, who has written 25 books for YA readers, it’s the tale of Liam, whose brother Aidan, disappears for a week. When he returns, Aidan has a fantastic tale to tell his brother of where he’s been.

“It is akin to what it’d be like if you were Dorothy’s brother and she came back and was like, I’ve just been to Oz,” he said, “Or the child who stayed behind and all your brothers and sisters came back and said we were just in Narnia. Do you choose to believe him or not believe him? What is the truth?”

Noting his love for both classic and contemporary middle grade novels, and his extensive background editing middle grade books, including the Baby-Sitters Club series, Levithan decided to finally write a middle grade novel.

“When I started writing YA, I was writing the books that I did not have as a teenager,” he said, “With middle grade, I am totally writing because of the presence they’ve had in my life. I will certainly be writing many more. I put everything I love about middle grade into this book.”

Sophie Blackall next introduced her new picture book, If You Come to Earth (Chronicle, Sept.), which she claimed took seven years to complete, inspired by her travels around the world with UNICEF and Save the Children. Blackall described the book as “a kid writing a letter to a visitor from outer space, explaining the world.”

“If you come to earth, here’s what you need to know,” she said, “Our earth is made of land, and water and mountains and plains and cities and towns. The people who live here love one another and we get cold and hungry and that we are always learning and always busy. We are not alone: we share the ocean with sea creatures, we share the land with animals, and the sky with birds. We make music, and art, and mistakes. And most importantly, we tell stories in all languages.”

Displaying the page spreads as she read the book and pointing out some of the minute details in the illustrations, Blackall called If You Come to Earth her collaboration with “hundreds of strangers.” Many people, from children in a schoolhouse high in the Himalayas to second graders in Brooklyn to her Instagram followers, gave her ideas and details to include, including a blind boy named Nate who contributed a “secret Braille message” to the book.

“We need books now more than ever,” she said, “Especially books for children, especially books that connect us. We have to let [children] know that we have more in common than there are things that divide us and that we all belong on this planet that we share.”

Storytelling Is Magic

Like Levithan, Lev Grossman was at FallCon to introduce his first book for middle grade readers, The Silver Arrow (Little, Brown, Sept.). Grossman, author of the Magicians trilogy, said that he was inspired to write for children because his three children love their bedtime stories.

“I wish I could say that The Silver Arrow was the favorite story I told them and they begged for it every night,” he said, “In fact, it’s the second favorite story that I told them. The favorite story was that they turn into animal superheroes. DC Comics was not open to my appropriating their intellectual property in that way.”

“I wanted to write something that had that classic feel, like Narnia or The Phantom Tollbooth,” he said, “I wanted to write something that was an adventure in a rich and dazzling world and just have the big emotions and feelings that those books have.”

The Silver Arrow is the story of 11-year-old Kate and her brother, Tom, who have adventures while traveling on a “magic steam train.” Their adventures include encounters with talking animals, similar to what happens in the Chronicles of Narnia – although there are crucial differences. “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published 70 years ago,” Grossman pointed out, “Everything has changed since then about our relationship with animals and the natural world. The animals live in a post-apocalyptic world. The animals aren’t the heroes – they’re the villains.”

Daniel Nayari, the next speaker, who is the publisher of Odd Dot, a Macmillan imprint, explained that his autobiographical novel, Everything Sad Is Untrue (Levine Querido, Sept.) is a tale about a young Iranian refugee to the U.S. who lands in Oklahoma – just as Nayari himself did when he was seven.

After recalling his positive interactions with the public librarians and indie booksellers in Edmunds, Okla., during his youth there, Nayari related his personal story of how he immigrated to the U.S. with his mother, whom he calls the “real hero of this story.”

Everything Sad Is Untrue opens in a classroom, where a boy named Khosrou tells his American classmates stories about his family’s history in Iran and how he and his mother escaped from there as refugees without his father, who to him has attained a mythic status, being only a voice on the telephone speaking Farsi.

“It all comes to a head,” he says, explaining that the climax of the novel occurs when Khosrou’s father calls to inform him and his mother that he is traveling to Oklahoma from Iran to visit them.

“Is he going to be the king of Persia?” Nayari asked. “Or is he a story that a kid told himself to feel special?”

Black Lives Matter

Renée Watson is the author of Love Is a Revolution (Bloomsbury, Feb. 2021) a YA novel about a Jamaican-American teenager living in Harlem. When Nala meets Tye, a teen activist, she makes up stories about herself to appeal to him. But as the two become closer, the lies become harder to maintain.

“This is a romance story. It’s full of summer love, but it’s also about love for family, love for community, and love for self,” Watson said, “Love is really hard, it’s complicated and it’s messy. You can talk about it and the things that need fixing. Nala begins to grapple with the word.”

Watson wants readers to come away from Love Is a Revolution accepting themselves unconditionally. “In a world that’s constantly telling girls how their bodies should look and a world that makes Black teenagers feel that their lives don’t matter,” she said, “I hope readers are empowered to love who they are, to love their skin tones, to love the texture of their hair, to love their bodies. It’s important for all of us to have books where Blackness is not a burden, especially right now.”

The last two speakers, author Tami Charles and illustrator Bryan Collier, presented their picture book collaboration, All Because You Matter (Orchard, Oct.).

Describing All Because You Matter as a “love letter to my son, a love letter to all children, especially children from Black and brown communities and from marginalized communities,” Charles emphasized how much her world changed when she became a parent as she displayed a baby photo of her son, Christopher. Christopher, who is now a teenager, served as the model for the images in All Because You Matter. “I remember not wanting to have this talk with him about injustices against people of color,” Charles said, “But I knew eventually I had to have that conversation with him. I took all the words I had bottled up for years and I put them into this book. The takeaway from this book is that you mattered even before you got here." Expressing her hope that booksellers would place the book in young readers' hands, Charles implored her audience to "take a real stand for spreading the message. This is not the time to be silent.”

“This book is a love song to the world, to the planet, to all the children,” Collier added. “Every kid should read this book.” After children have this book read to them or else read it themselves, Collier wants them to then read it aloud to their adult caregivers. “Because we all need to be reminded that we matter, and there was a place of us on the planet for us even before we got here. And that’s the best gift ever.”