Yesterday was the first Children’s Institute at BEA and it got off to a rousing start with the Children’s Breakfast. I love the breakfasts, although I found it a little hard to get out of in bed in time for the actual meal because of the fun had the night before at two very entertaining publisher parties. (I will say the Penguin party at the Top of the Standard afforded attendees stunning views of New York City; the Little, Brown Speakeasy for Libba Bray was glorious. Libba, who has a wonderful, bluesy voice, treated us to a five-song set. And there was something very clever about having our drinks in coffee cups a la prohibition).
Chris Colfer, the actor from Glee, hosted the breakfast and he was poised, charming and warm. John Green was the first speaker and he was really funny. He started by saying he looked up Chris to learn more about him and all he found was fan fiction about the two of them, together. John spoke with passion, hands moving quickly all the time, several times knocking the mic. John mentioned that until he was 10 he thought everyone, including his family, were aliens and he was the only human. It was through stories that he learned his family was human (I know this sounds bizarre, but it’s true). He went on to speak about the power of story because it trumps everything. Yes, the Internet is fun, he said, but reading is an immersive event that demands your full attention and through it you learn about empathy.
Lois Lowry was the next speaker, fulfilling the BEA tradition of two male speaker and a woman. (Why can’t there ever be two women and a man? Maybe next year?) Lois started really funny. There’s a new TSA regulation that exempts folks over 75 from having to take their shoes off at the airport. She said she did the math and she figures Chris Colfer will be taking off his shoes for another 53 years. Lois spoke about writing and suggested that you should write, not about what you know, but what you’re wondering about, what keeps you up at night and what you don’t know. She started The Giver because she was wrestling with the question that her Air Force pilot son asked her during the first Iraq war: why do people do such horrible things to each other? Young people believe they can fix the world and her characters feel the same way. The Giver is about memory and she has the memory of an American flag draped over her son’s coffin when he came home. If we weren’t moved enough by her talk, at this point most of us were in tears. And the main character in the new book Son gets to vanquish evil. We all leapt to our feet and gave her a rousing ovation.
Chris Colfer, bless his heart, came up to introduce Kadir Nelson, but before he did he said, “‘It’s good you don’t have to take your shoes off, because they can’t be filled.” Kadir spoke about his struggle to find a way in to illustrating Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream. He embarked on his own trip to D.C. to see everything for himself. He wanted to know what the trees felt like that provided shade on the hot summer day of the march. I loved that Kadir needed to have his own photo references for the book and wouldn’t just rely on source materials. The depth and details of Kadir’s paintings were gorgeous. I have seen an F&G of the book and it’s quite stunning. Kadir has really captured the spirit of King’s speech. You feel like you’re there and can feel the passion of the speech. To hear him speak of the struggles he had illustrating the dream part of the speech was truly fascinating. These are the things that as a lover of picture books, but not an artist, I never think of. I just enjoy the work.
After the breakfast I went to the Bowker session about Children’s Digital Media. Kelly Gallagher, from Bowker led us through 40 minutes of slides about the latest breakdowns about kids’ books and digital content. I found the presentation interesting and heartening. The news about children’s books and ebooks is not as bleak as the rest of the industry. Yes, there is explosive growth in the adult market, but kids’ books are very much lagging behind. The really good news for children’s bookstores is that the large percentage of purchases made by adults for kids from 0-6 are from browsing and seeing things that catch their eye. Interestingly, kids from 7-12 often come in ready to choose their own books. One thing I found fascinating was the number one reason coming into a store for making a purchase was seeking a specific character or series, which is a huge motivating factor for kids purchasing a book. The next thing that motivated a purchase was illustrations. That delighted to me to the core.
One thing I forgot to mention was without a doubt my favorite part of the show is seeing my bookselling friends. We’re all limping and complaining of aching backs, but we’re having fun.