The Fun of the Virtual Booktalk

Meghan Dietsche Goel - April 30, 2021

If you had told me when I posted my last blog that I wouldn’t be writing another one for 13 months, I wouldn’t have believed you. I won’t lie, it’s been (and continues to be) a scramble as we’ve adapted every process and every approach to every single thing that we do—along with the rest of you. But here we are, and it feels nice to settle back into a routine where we can take a minute to write down what’s on our bookselling minds again.

Our virtual-oriented lives haven’t been all bad, of course. Seeing my colleagues’ home offices, living rooms, kitchens, porches, rambunctious DOGS (including my new one) and crazy KIDS (also mine, who inevitably barge in just when it’s my turn to talk) come and go this past year has offered neat glimpses into each others’ lives—and, I think, has brought us all a little closer. Something about the impact of a shared experience, I’m sure.

But, I’m not going to slide into an indulgent episode of “slithering reflectiveness,” as my colleague Kenny Brechner would say. Because despite everything that’s changed over the last year, so much of what we do has stayed the same. And at the core of that is and has always been connecting with readers wherever they are. This effort has taken different forms and involved much more technology than normal over the last 13 months, but it’s also kind of cool sometimes because virtual events bring out a different side of kids (and even grown up booksellers) in unexpected ways.

Nikhil watches BookPeople’s event for Twins with Varian Johnson and Shannon Wright.

More often than not younger kids at virtual events just want to pop into the chat or Q&A box and let the authors know they have a dog just as they would in person (so it’s good to know that some things don’t change)! And watching my own third grader type his questions (inevitably under my login name) at our virtual events is always a moment of happiness that he’s so engaged followed by a moment of chagrin that my colleagues think I’ve been typing “when does the next book come out” over and over or that I’ve submitted a “question” to Tui Sutherland just saying “do a acidwing book.” Unsurprisingly, our pre-event Q&A solicitation for Rick Riordan and Roshani Chokshi brought in a record number of responses, probably a good 80% of which bore no discernible relationship to questions at all. But letting everyone participate and feel free to chime in without volubly disrupting the conversation is part of the fun of this format. Of course, sometimes you have to just shut it down—like when 200 Baby-sitters Club fans can’t stop fighting over which character they are in real life while the graphic novelists are talking!

A recent middle school booktalk

I don’t think the virtual experience fully replaces the excitement of seeing and conversing with authors in person. But the anonymity can also spur boldness in those who are maybe shy to raise their hands in person and need a little time to edit their question until it’s just the perfect one to submit. I will say that the We Need Diverse Books Essay Contest winners’ reception that we hosted with authors from the Texas Teen Book Festival has never drawn out a better conversation. In the room, the kids can be shy to raise their hands and call attention to themselves, but in our cozy virtual space with Nic Stone and Francisco X. Stork, the kids filled the chat with some of the most insightful, vulnerable, well-thought out questions about writing, representation, and identity that I’ve ever seen asked at a YA event. And, revealingly, most opted for me read them aloud by proxy rather than to voice the questions themselves.

And it’s funny because I see a similar dynamic in myself. We normally booktalk to groups of kids on fields trips or in classrooms, which is just a terrific chance to connect with some of our schools’ most avid readers. I love giving in-person recommendations one-on-one, but as a relatively significant introvert, I’ll admit that when I stand up in front of a large room of kids, I can occasionally feel a tad tongue-tied speaking off the cuff. Unexpectedly, this is a tradition that has actually thrived during the pandemic. First of all, it’s nicer than ever to see young readers faces staring back at us through the screen, enjoying their lunches, chiming in to give us cricket tips after talking about Pay Attention, Carter Jones, or offering fierce OPINIONS about fútbol teams during a booktalk on Furia.

Eugenia booktalks Furia!

Our Kids Marketing & Events Coordinator, Eugenia Vela, and I do these together, and while I think we both were nervous about transitioning these to a virtual setting, the screen has provided a bit of a structure that’s helped me personally get more comfortable with the dynamic in ways I feel just might transition to in-person talks later on.

In fact, next week, we’re dipping our toe into offsite events with an IN-PERSON booktalk in an outdoor classroom. I can’t wait! Maybe it took a pandemic to turn this socially anxious introvert into an extroverted booktalking butterfly? Or maybe this virtual format will find its place in the mix of what we offer schools and community partners too. Only time can tell!

P.S. Of course we love giving our opinions about books we like, but getting book reviews back in return absolutely makes our day!

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