Billed as “New Voices New Rooms”, the massive, combined regional fall conference of the New Atlantic Booksellers Association and Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance kicked off on September 21 with an emphasis on children’s books that promised to carry well into the week of workshops, readings, and panels.
Setting the Tone
Author Tami Charles and four-time Caldecott Honoree Bryan Collier set the tone at an opening event in which they discussed Charles’s forthcoming picture book All Because You Matter (Orchard, Oct.), which was illustrated by Collier. Charles described the book as a “love letter” to her son Christopher, and it follows a character modeled after him throughout history, showing the powerful heritage of Black and brown people throughout history.
Speaking directly to booksellers about the book’s release in the time of Black Lives Matter, Charles said, “I ask that you take the time to really think about the theme of the book, the legacy, and the people from which our children come from. Will you normalize conversations about these important topics and truly for those who need it most?”
“Now more than ever,” she said, “we need to remind our children of all the ways in which they matter.”
Collier offered unreserved praise for Charles, with whom he collaborated closely on the book, breaking with a publishing tradition that frequently keeps authors and illustrators apart in order to respect their independent contributions.
“When I got the book All Because You Matter, I tasted the words,” Collier said, describing the manuscript as “an awakening.” Collier invited Charles and her son, Christopher, to New York and took photos at a local library, which he then used to create the watercolor and collage drawings that reflect the influence of his grandmother’s quiltwork.
“I’m so honored and so proud to be telling this story because that boy is me,” Collier said. He began working on the book with Charles two years ago, before the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “This showed up at the right time,” he said. “This is prophetic. You couldn’t have timed this if you tried.”
“I thought it was outstanding,” said NAIBA board president Bill Reilly, co-owner of A River’s End Bookstore in Oswego, N.Y. “It was so incredibly personal and powerful, and very much in line with our tradition.” That tradition at NAIBA's conferences is one of celebrating children’s and YA authors with social messages, including honors for Elizabeth Acevedo at the outset of her career and Jewell Parker Rhodes for her lifetime achievements.
The children’s editors buzz panel made it plain the importance publishers are placing on showcasing books by Black and BIPOC authors. Five editors were given the opportunity to talk about a handful of titles.
Denene Millner spoke about her new, eponymous imprint at Simon & Schuster, which she said was established “to celebrate the everyday humanity of black children.” To illustrate her point she highlighted the book Me & Mama by Cozbi A. Cabrera (Aug.), a picture book about a child comparing her life to that of her mother. In one vignette the child breaks her mother’s teacup, but instead of disciplining her, the mother reacts mildly. “The stereotype is that Black moms are stern disciplinarians. This book acknowledges that ‘sometimes things break,’ ” said Millner. She also gave time to discussing If Dominican Were a Color by Sili Recio, illustrated by Brianna McCarthy (Sept.), which celebrates the variety of races from the Dominican Republic; and Wings of Ebony by J. Elle (February), about a girl from Houston who discovers her Godly ancestry.
Phoebe Yeh, v-p and co-publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, gave a strong pitch for Chlorine Sky by Mahogany L. Brown (Jan. 2021), a novel-in-verse about a girl coming of age. Yeh enthused about working with the debut novelist and said she was amazed when, after receiving an edit, Brown picked up a pencil and rewrote a passage on the spot. “It is the first time in my 30 years in publishing that I saw that happen,” said Yeh.
Another novel-in-verse, Simon B. Rhymin’ by Dwayne Reed (Mar.) was the pick of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers’ editor Samantha Gentry, who offered a rhyming riff on Reed’s appeal. “His video ‘Welcome to the 4th Grade’ on YouTube has been viewed almost two million times and he has collaborated with celebrities like Chance the Rapper, been on Good Morning America, and is a highly sought after public speaker,” said Gentry. Laekan Zea Kemp’s Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet (Apr.) is about a young woman navigating the expectations of her Chicanx family, and My Last Summer with Cass by Mark Crilley (Mar.), the graphic novelist’s first work for young adults, tackles the relationship between two artists and friends as they spend a fateful summer in New York.
Among the titles promoted by Kristin Rens, executive editor of Balzer + Bray, were a pair of nonfiction books: Maryam’s Magic: The Story of Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani by Megan Reid and illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel (Dec.), an illustrated biography of the Fields Medal-winning Iranian mathematician who died young of cancer, and In the Shadow of the Moon: America, Russia, and the Hidden History of the Space Race (Feb. 2021) by Amy Cherrix, who is the children’s book buyer at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, N.C.. But Rens reserved her greatest enthusiasm for Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (Dec.), a book that she described as having prompted a fierce bidding war and has been sold to 24 territories around the world, plus has already been optioned for film. “It is not only a pitch-perfect middle grade fantasy, but utterly now,” said Rens of the book.
Time for Stories
Philipp Goedicke, a bookseller at Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, hosted a storytime with picture book authors Matt Phelan (Turtle Walk, Harper, Oct.), Micol Ostow (Sullivan, Who Is Always Too Loud, Roaring Brook, Oct.), Yesenia Moises (Stella’s Stellar Hair, Macmillan/Imprint, Jan.), and Susan Verde (I Am One: A Book of Action, Abrams, Sept.), illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds.
In conversation with Goedicke, Verde summed up the theme of her book in terms that were resonant for the conference as a whole: “We are capable of making change of doing beautiful things in the world even with the smallest gesture.”