Last week I attended a fantastic, vibrant Children’s Institute in Portland, where I connected with publishers I don’t see very often and shared ideas with booksellers around the country. We were treated to some incredible speeches (Jason Reynolds!), and got a chance to talk with a wide variety of authors about their upcoming and recent releases.
At a dinner hosted by HarperCollins, I was lucky enough to sit next to a fellow Texan whose debut blew me away. Elizabeth Bluemle also highlighted Liara Tamani’s novel Calling My Name in a ShelfTalker post last week, calling it a poignant debut, which it is. It expertly follows a young girl, Taja Brown, through the foundational years of growing up, evolving subtly but powerfully over time to reflect her maturing perspective and desires.
Carefully chosen quotes from literary luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros, and Zadie Smith introduce each new section, each one calibrated to transition the reader into Taja’s next chapter. As Taja matures and comes into her own, she slowly knits complex, conflicting feelings about family, religion, and her place in the cosmos into a cohesive sense of self—one that radiates love, curiosity, and strength. I loved it. I also loved hearing about it from Liara herself, learning little tidbits about her process–like the fact that the quote that opens the book is one that has sat with her for a long time, representing a cherished novel she hopes her readers will find.
She was sure of it, now that she was awake. For she was awake. This was awakeness.
–Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha
This is why these industry gatherings are so special. They connect us with the humans behind the stories we sell and remind us that each book we carry in the store represents one person’s unique voice – telling a story that may have been worked on for 12 years, as Jennifer Bertman Chambliss shared with us about Book Scavenger or bringing to fruition a long percolating dream, as Armand Baltazar told us while showing his dazzling full-color artwork for Timeless: Diego and the Rangers of the Vastlantic in which the main character wears the face of Baltazar’s own son.
We never really forget that piece of what we do (don’t worry, authors). But finding time every year to talk with book creators and storytellers always sends me back to my world smiling a little bit brighter, re-energized about connecting people with words and ideas so personal and essential to an author that he or she decided to share. And one of the coolest parts of the job is that good old X factor. You never know which ones will stick.
For the first time I’m aware that I’m the only one living inside my body, the only one who can feel, know. I’m alone but not scared. It feels nice being inside myself.
–Liara Tamani, Calling My Name