Children’s books and authors were a strong, positive presence at the annual Southern California Independent Booksellers Association’s trade show, held September 27 and 28 at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel. This year’s show broke tradition by adding an additional day and included more booksellers than at any previous event for the organization. SCIBA executive director Andrea Vuleta, who was the book buyer at Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop prior to accepting this position in January, brought her expertise and commitment to children’s books to the show this year, as evidenced by the record-breaking number of kids’ exhibitors and authors in attendance.
The speakers at the children’s breakfast Saturday morning brought their own idiosyncratic perspectives on writing and illustrating for kids to their talks, in a room filled to capacity. Attendees were delighted and perhaps a little queasy when David Shannon, whose new picture book is Bugs in My Hair! (Scholastic/Blue Sky), placed an oversized cardboard cutout of a head louse on his head. “They’re so awful, you have to have a sense of humor about them,” Shannon said with a chuckle. “It was my daughter’s head lice and our battle to get rid of them that inspired Bugs in My Hair. I want to erase the stigma around this.” Shannon’s daughter had a recurring infestation of the vermin, which she picked up from a friend who lives next door. Because it was too embarrassing to discuss this with the friend’s parents, when Shannon and his wife invited this family over for a Halloween party they bought black sheets to cover all their furniture. “As soon as the party ended, we threw the sheets away,” he said. The audience members continued to eat their eggs as Shannon grinned broadly, said, “Enjoy the rest of your breakfast,” and walked off the stage.
Brian Floca showed slides of his new book, Locomotive (Atheneum/Jackson), which he referred to as “one of the most complicated books I’ve ever done.” The story takes readers on a transcontinental railroad journey during the 1860s, a peak time for rail travel. Floca’s research began with literature, including the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and narratives of the people who built the railroad and locomotives, and then focused on vintage photographs and other illustrations. “I actually got to drive a locomotive in Utah,” said Floca, sounding like an excited boy, “and walked through a few railroad tunnels.” Part of his multimedia presentation showed the kind of simple nib pen he uses. “When I’m ready to draw, the nib gets dipped in ink,” Floca said. “The good thing about a nib pen is the variations in line quality it allows, depending on how much pressure is used to put the pen to the paper.” Floca, who lives in Brooklyn and works in a studio with three other illustrators, poured his extensive research on trains into the final product. “I made more dummies for Locomotive than for any other book,” he said. “I fell in love with the subject matter and the people of the era.”
Frankenstein (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) is the latest book by Gris Grimly, who began his talk by saying, “I’m not a good speaker. I’ve always been shy and felt misunderstood, like Frankenstein’s monster.” But his presentation belied this statement, as he warmed to the audience and spoke with gentle honesty. When Grimly first discovered art, he said, all he drew were beavers, including “Santa on a sled drawn by giant beavers,” which elicited laughter from the audience. The mood in the room changed when Grimly told the audience how, as a child, he was horribly burned during a chicken-slaughtering at his family home in the Midwest. Falling into a bucket of boiling water, Grimly suffered third-degree burns and had to endure many skin grafts and operations. “I became a monster,” he said. “That’s when I found kinship with monsters.” Grimly’s life was transformed by a woman he met and eventually married. What he presented to the audience was a man at peace with himself after a difficult life. “Today I can relate to Dr. Frankenstein, but not the monster.”
When Richard Peck’s cell phone went off in the middle of his talk about The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail (Dial), he didn’t know how to stop it. “This is a low moment in a 42-year career,” he said to the delighted audience, who burst into applause. Peck then recounted the story of taking his sister to Buckingham Palace so she could see Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. This provided the inspiration for his new book, which is set in the Palace during Queen Victoria’s reign. “We learn from better writers than we are,” he said. “A copy of [Robert Cormier’s] The Chocolate War still sits on my desk.” Peck lives in Manhattan, where, he says, “to New York publishers, the sky is always falling.” His readers, he said, most frequently ask him where he got his start. “It was in Mrs. Coles’s fourth-grade class,” he told the audience. “She gave me a copy of Huckleberry Finn to read, and Twain taught me so much. Well, I can never be Mark Twain, but I can die trying.”
The Bookseller Perspective
Several employees of Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Calif., were in attendance; one of them, Morgan Turnage, provided an upbeat spin on the business of children’s books. “The generation that gives books for gifts is not necessarily tech-savvy,” said Turnage. “There is a worry about e-books, but we think that threat is a little further off for our niche. Also, 20 years ago there were fewer options in children’s books, but now so much more is being published and in different categories. Dystopian and horror novels are gateway books to more reading.”
Although less than an hour was slotted for children’s rep picks, the five publisher reps made the most of their time, discussing the new books coming out through the end of the year. Members of the large crowd, a nearly even split of booksellers and educators, took plenty of notes and were fully engaged with the presentations. Alan Mendelsohn of Random House pitched Emily Winfield Martin’s Dream Animals as “classic fairy tale meets quirky.” Will in Scarlet by Matthew Cody (Knopf), which explores the origins of one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, is a Random House field rep pick. Ingram Publisher Services’ Beverly Fisher said that War and Peace, one of the Cozy Classics from Simply Read Books, “is for all ages,” and David Merveille’s Hello Mr. Hulot (NorthSouth), a nearly wordless book, is an homage to the filmmaker Jacques Tati.
Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s (Dial), was one of rep Nicole White’s picks. “It’s a joyous book,” she said, “and you’ll fall in love with the character of Willow.” White also pitched the picture book The Day the Crayons Quit (Philomel) by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers. “The way to sell this is to pick your favorite color from the book and share that page with your customers.”
The top YA novel for Scholastic’s Roz Hilden was The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch, a dystopian story set during the Second American Civil War. Hilden also spoke of Brandon Mull’s Wild Born, first in the Spirit Animals series, “a fast-paced action and adventure book that will be featured in the holiday catalogue.” Simon & Schuster’s Kelly Stidham favors Baby Bear Counts One by Ashley Wolff (Beach Lane), the follow-up to Wolff’s Baby Bear Sees Blue. Stidham also chose Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Terry Fan, a middle-grade fantasy set in Paris.
Other titles talked up at the show included God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Marla Frazee (S&S/Beach Lane), Robert Sabuda’s latest pop-up, The Little Mermaid (Little Simon), and Star Wars Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown (Scholastic). On Friday night the SCIBA Book Awards for picture book went to Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen for The Dark (Little, Brown), and to Tom McNeal in the YA category for Far Far Away (Knopf). With so many high-caliber titles to choose from, it’s not surprising that, as Once Upon a Time’s Turnage put it, “Kids have created a sort of cult of reading – they’ve made it cool.”