Even though the speakers included a movie star and three bestselling authors whose books have sold a grand total of 146 million copies, it was the readers for whom they write that took center stage at yesterday morning’s Children’s Book and Author Breakfast.
“I am thrilled to become a part of this community,” Octavia Spencer, the event’s emcee, told the packed room full of booksellers, publishers, young bloggers, and media. “You all are the rock stars of books.” Spencer, who won an Oscar for her role as Minny in The Help, disclosed that, as a child she was a “fan of children’s books,” especially of historical fiction classics and junior sleuth series. "There's something about the books you read as a child that gives in to magic," she said.
More recently, she’s become a fan of kung fu movies. “These elements came together,” she explained, in writing The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit (S&S, Oct.), the first novel in her Randi Rhodes: Ninja Detective middle-grade series about three children who use their wits and martial arts skills to solve mysteries. Explaining that diversity in stories “is essential” to her, Spencer noted that the series features a Latino boy who wears hearing aids, an African-American boy, and “Randi herself, [who] is a redhead, a minority in her own way.”
She is committed to demonstrating to children "how alike" humans all are. "Best friends," she noted, "don't have to look alike to love each other." Storytelling, she said, "is an incredibly important part of the human experience. We grow, we learn to empathize through storytelling."
“What joy it is to write for seven- and eight-year-olds,” declared Mary Pope Osborne, who was at BEA to promote her 50th Magic Tree House novel, Hurry Up, Houdini! (Random House, July). “There’s nothing sweeter, more authentic,” she added. To prove it, she read some of her favorite letters from young fans, praising her writing, making suggestions for future novels, even sending her gifts, including food. There are also children who write her asking her for books they can’t afford to buy.
Access to books, which builds up child literacy, is essential, Osborne noted, declaring, “We can change the world if we can get all third-graders to read at grade level.” Osborne and her family have developed a Magic Tree House classroom and mentors program, which provides books for children in Title I schools. It recently donated 120,000 books to Newark, N.J., schoolchildren; “every third-grader [at Title I schools] got a box of 28 books each to take home.” Musing on what happened to the children who have sent her letters over the years, she concluded, “They still exist. They're gangly teenagers or adults. They look like you and me.”
If anyone could follow as beloved and prolific a writer as is Osborne, it would be Rick Riordan, who joked as he stood at the podium, “I taught eighth grade: nothing scares me.” Reflecting upon his first appearance as a BEA breakfast speaker eight years ago, before the release of his first Percy Jackson novel, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Riordan pointed out that much has changed since 2005: “Back then, my two sons were reading Mary Pope Osborne; now they’re reading Veronica Roth.” His background as a teacher has helped him a great deal in writing middle-grade novels inspired by mythology, he said, as he knows how important it is to “see things from the reader’s point of view.” Unlike Osborne, he doesn’t receive food gifts from his fans, but “middle schoolers are brutally honest,” and he has received critiques from them. For instance, he said, one young reader complained that Riordan mentioned the word “god” too much in his novels, and suggested that he might want to use “gosh” instead.
Describing the fourth novel in the Heroes of Olympus series, The House of Hades (Disney-Hyperion, Oct.) as focusing upon Percy and Annabel, Riordan disclosed that they “struggle to survive and support each other as they literally go through hell," before unveiling the book's cover for the first time.
Veronica Roth, who at 24 was the youngest author to speak, moved the audience with her presentation, even though she hardly mentioned the much-anticipated final installment in her Divergent series, Allegiant. Recalling how she had been a voracious reader as a child, but went through a period of not reading as a young adult, because, in her arrogance, she refused to allow herself to read the books that would most excite her, such as Harry Potter, Roth praised young readers for caring so much about what they read. “They care about the story, the story is real for them, because they’re able to immerse themselves completely,” she said.
Referring to some controversy among her readers concerning her depiction of a sexual assault in Divergent, and her response to it, Roth noted that accepting criticism gracefully “is the only way” to becoming a better writer. Even though it’s much more difficult to accept criticism from others rather than taking it personally or ignoring it, Roth said that, like her readers, “I’m here to learn instead of ‘I already know.’ Every writer I know is here to learn." Accepting criticism with humility as a reader and as a writer, she concluded, “really means freedom.”