If you’ve been hanging around social media at all this past week, you’ll no doubt have seen that all the buzz in the book world has been about the 2013 Book Expo America in New York City. This year the annual celebration was changed to include one weekend day that was also open to “power readers,” creating an even larger audience for the three days of opportunities to see upcoming book releases, meet authors and publishing personnel, and generally revel in one’s passion for books.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Children’s Book and Author Breakfast on Friday morning. The event began with the Women’s National Book Association presenting their annual book awards, in conjunction with Penguin’s Young Readers Group. Two bookstores from Michigan, Bookbug in Kalamazoo, and Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, both received a check and a piece of original children’s book illustration in honor of their fantastic work in the field.
Following their presentation, the event’s moderator, actress and debut author Octavia Spencer, opened by explaining how she came to be among such lofty company. An avid childhood reader, Ms. Spencer always dreamed of becoming an author. Working between takes on various movie sets, she wrote a story containing all of the elements that she loved as a reader. Being a mystery buff from a young age, of course her protagonist would be an investigator, and as Ms. Spencer is a huge fan of both Kung Fu and “CSI” style crime scene investigation, Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective, has both types of skills to spare. What became the most important element to her as an author, though, was to create diversity amongst the book’s characters. Ms. Spencer “want[s] children to see the value in each other — not color” and for children to know that “they don’t have to look alike to love each other.”
Ms. Spencer then introduced a rock star amongst second-grade readers, Mary Pope Osborne, author of the famed Magic Tree House series. She began by revealing why the age group that she writes for, seven- and eight-year-olds, are so fabulous: They are “just old enough to have their own identities, but are still young enough to not be ‘proudly heroic;’ they still basically love life.” Ms. Osborne believes that we could change the world if we could get all children in the third grade reading at grade level. In pursuit of this cause, she and Random House publishers have created the Magic Tree House Classroom Adventures Program and its “Gift of Books” grant program that aims to get books directly into the hands of underprivileged children and to facilitate their classroom learning to keep them reading at grade level. This program has awarded 875 grants since the start of 2012, resulting in the donation of almost 250,000 Magic Tree House books to Title I schools across the United States.
Following Ms. Osborne’s speech, Rick Riordan took the podium and adamantly agreed that “reading makes all of us better people.” Since he quit his full-time job as a teacher to write books, he’s worked diligently to give readers the best books possible. He reminds both readers and authors how good it is to have “perceptual flexibility,” the ability to change your perception of what may be needed or desired by someone. Mr. Riordan depends on his readers to give him an occasional reality check and to keep him producing the best stories he can write. As an adult, sometimes his perspective will start to creep in, and he must remind himself that “a children’s book that can only be enjoyed by adults is not really a children’s book.” Breakfast attendees were then treated to the cover reveal for Riordan’s upcoming book, The House of Hades, and he gave up the stage for the final speaker of the morning, Veronica Roth.
Ms. Roth gave an inspirational and emotionally revealing speech. Following Riordan’s advice to have “perceptual flexibility,” Ms. Roth urges everyone to remember their humility, both in reading and in life. She had been an avid reader until she began to lose her sense of passion and hope in reading and instead began to feel that she knew it all. She admires young readers who are eager to be engaged and moved by their reading. “This does not mean, however,” she said, “that young readers are not discerning; they do not want to be preached at or forced to have a ‘meaningful experience’ when they read.” Ms. Roth has learned to remember that she is still “here to learn” as she writes and to take whatever criticisms her readers give her as opportunities to improve. As she puts it, when faced with a harsh criticism, “I have to get over it, see the wisdom in their comments, and get to work. Good writing requires company and develops humility.” She is redeveloping the freedom to love things with unabashed enthusiasm and truly believes that “humility is freedom” — the freedom to produce the best stories she can and to connect with the readers and things she loves without fear.
The event concluded with Octavia Spencer proclaiming, “We are all here celebrating books and that is important!” If you’d like to watch the event in full, you can see it on the Book Expo America website.
— Jessica Miller, currently reading Across a Star-Swept Sea by Diana Peterfreund and Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher
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