Thursday afternoon’s Snow Days virtual conference sessions encouraged and inspired booksellers, who stand at the frontlines of the cultural war being waged between those who support freedom of expression and those who would curtail the rights of children to read books that might be considered controversial.
The afternoon began with a conversation between bookseller Donya Craddock of the Dock Bookshop in Ft. Worth, Tex., and Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Alicia Keys about Keys’s graphic novel for teen readers, Girl on Fire, co-written by Andrew Weiner and illustrated by Brittney Williams (HarperAlley, Mar.)
The graphic novel, Keys explained, was inspired by her 2012 female anthem, “Girl on Fire.” Describing the song as “a reminder of our power,” she described the graphic novel as a “powerful statement” about a young woman of color “growing up and experiencing her life” and harnessing her superpower to protect those she loves, which Keys described as a metaphor for social activism.
“The main take-away, I would like you to realize,” she said. “We do contain a world of unknown power within us and there is no limit around us no matter how scary it seems to find your greatness, to accept your greatness. It lives within you for a reason and it’s meant to be used, to help people, to make sure you help yourself and your family. There is something inside, there is a flame that you get to cultivate and bring into your world.”
Craddock told Keys that she intended to display Girl on Fire alongside In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming and Daughters of Thunder by Bettye Collier-Thomas, as all three are books about women “who come from a spiritual perspective, but deal with community and community activism, political activism, but they were involved with the church.” Keys, who earlier had stressed her love for books, responded. “Can I get those at your store? Tell me the website so I can get on the website and order them.”
Book banning was the topic of one of several bookseller roundtable discussions. During the meeting, a dozen booksellers shared their experiences and brainstormed ideas to combat the trend, while another 70 listened in on the discussion and posted comments and questions in the chat room. “This is one of the most important discussions we can be having right now,” noted bookseller Meghan Hayden of River Bend Bookshop in Glastonbury, Conn.
Stories of resistance abounded: Carrie Koepke, manager of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Mo., related that when the local school district decreed that no books on critical race theory be allowed, high school students rebelled by setting up libraries on school grounds “because they are allowed to do that; so we’re offering discounted titles, donated titles.” Schuler’s Books, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., with three outlets in the state, responded to “some small, local things that happened,” marketing coordinator Alana Haley said, by setting up banned book displays “front and center in our stores, so that when you walk in, that’s the first thing you see.” The store also offers a list of resources. “We are taking the approach, gently pointing out that this is a problem, sharing information on social media, and giving information to people in the store, action items, so that they don’t feel helpless.”
“This is a great opportunity for our stores to educate the community on a lot of the banning/challenge terminology and processes,” Koepke noted. “Also helping parents understand that they are able to have parental control of books for their children at school without removing titles for other students as well."
Booksellers urged one another to harness the power of the Internet to oppose book banning. Brein Lopez, general manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, suggested that booksellers spotlight controversial books on their websites so that customers searching for such books can easily find them. Diane Capriola, owner of Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., urged booksellers to use social media in support of booksellers in embattled states and communities. “That’s a really effective way to raise awareness of what’s going on.”
“An important part of this is the fact that the majority of these authors [of banned books], if not all of them, are LGBTQ and BIPOC authors," Lopez noted. “What they are trying to do is completely erase any identity other than a straight white identity within schools. We talk about it in terms of stores and communities, but I think about it in terms of the nine-year-old kid in Florida who is going to think about committing suicide because they’re trying to erase every aspect of who they are as a human being. That’s what this is about: it’s about the most horrifying type of erasure.”
Snow Days’ last live event was a session entitled “Community Connectors: Suggestions from Mission-Driven Bookstores Walking the Talk,” featuring Jamie Thomas, director of operations at Women & Children First in Chicago; E.R. Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit arm of Charis Books & More in Decatur, Ga.; Veronica Liu, founder and coordinator at WordUp Community Bookshop in New York City; and Kathy Burnette, owner of Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Ind.
The four discussed how mission-driven stores differ from typical bookstores in prioritizing values over profit margins; interacting with customers in a manner meant to inform and educate when necessary; and curating store inventory and programming in accordance with the store’s values.
Anderson encapsulated the essence of mission-driven stores at one point when he pointed out that mission-driven booksellers do more than sell books: they are cultural proselytizers. “Our goal is to get as many people hearing these ideas and engaging with new ideas as possible. The right accuses the left of trying to win the culture war and I think, more or less, that is our goal; we should be honest about that. I want to win the culture war as much as they do. It doesn’t hurt to be clear about your values: it actually helps you.”
An earlier version of this story stated that Alicia Keys is making her literary debut. She has published books before Girl on Fire. This story has been updated.