Wi12 Education: ABFE Presents — Hot-Button Issues in Kids’ Books

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    ABA Education logoAt the Winter Institute 12 session “ABFE Presents: Hot-Button Issues in Kids’ Books,” booksellers heard tips for building a collection of diverse titles, selling those books, and responding to resistance from readers. The panel was moderated by Chris Finan, the director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression, which serves as the bookseller’s voice in the fight to promote and protect the free exchange of ideas.

    The panel featured Nicole Brinkley of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York; Joan Trygg of Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, Minnesota; Miranda Paul, the mentorship chair for We Need Diverse Books and the author of 10 Little Ninjas (Knopf Books for Young Readers); and I.W. Gregorio, a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, a surgeon, and the author of None of the Above (Balzer + Bray).

    To promote diverse books already in the marketplace, We Need Diverse Books is developing the WNDB OurStory app, which will allow users to search a curated database of more than 1,200 books reflecting diverse characters and themes, explained Gregorio. The app, which will release this summer, is geared toward readers, librarians, and educators, but can also be helpful for booksellers.

    Paul shared a handout on five ways to discover and sell diverse titles, such as downloading shelf-talkers and other graphics from WNDB to use in stores or online; connecting with WNDB on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr) and tagging them to amplify posts; celebrating the annual Walter Dean Myers awards; and utilizing the resource lists on the WNDB website.

    Booksellers can also browse Edelweiss and publisher catalogs for diverse titles, said Brinkley, but “publishers need to do the work, too, so ask your reps what diverse books they are pushing.” If they don’t have an answer, ask them to have one the next time they visit, she encouraged.

    At Red Balloon, Trygg makes advance reading copies available to all staffers and listens to their feedback. “All of us like reading different things, so no one person has to try to cover all the diversity bases,” she said. “We have a number of diverse voices influencing our ordering, and I think that works really well.”

    It’s hard to know what people are interested in on sight, said Paul, so it’s important to carry books to meet all kinds of needs. “If I walked into a bookstore, you might have a perception about what kind of book I want to buy not knowing that I have brown children,” she said. “You really don’t know, and they can’t buy it if it’s not there.”

    Brinkley agreed, especially when it comes to children’s books, because teens have become so worldly due to social media. “Teens are so empathetic and so smart,” she said. “They’re going to want worldly books and books about people who are not necessarily like them.”

    To promote diverse books at Oblong, Brinkley creates children’s book displays in which at least one-third of the featured titles fall into the diverse category. “If you show it, it will sell,” she said. Brinkley also promotes diverse titles in the store’s twice-monthly newsletter, in staff picks, and on social media, which helps to reach people who do not visit the bookstore.

    Brinkley will also leave out the main character’s name or gender when talking about a diverse book with customers in the store. “You’re selling the book, not the issue,” she said.

    Trygg makes sure to include diverse titles when Red Balloon hosts book fairs and to hand-sell those titles to teachers and young readers. Like Brinkley, she tries to talk about the narrative first, before discussing any characteristics that make a book diverse.

    Conversely, booksellers may want to be upfront about a book’s topics and themes when working with educators because teachers may be looking for that particular type of content, suggested Paul.

    When it comes to feedback about the content of the books in the store, Red Balloon has not received many complaints from customers, said Trygg. If the store receives a critical e-mail, she has a fellow employee review her response before sending it. “What we really want to do is communicate and state our case, and generally people respond really well to that,” she said.

    Brinkley said online complaints are easy to respond to, by thanking the person and telling them that Oblong will keep their comment in mind. If a complaint comes up in the store, “one of the easiest things to do is just listen to them and roll with them,” said Brinkley. As a typical response, Brinkley will note that some people were interested in the book in question, but acknowledge it’s not for everybody.

    If a customer is clearly uncomfortable with a title you’re hand-selling, put it down and pick up something else, she added. “I’m really big on building trust with the people who come into your store because it will be the easiest way to change their minds,” said Brinkley. “At the end of the day, it’s about not being afraid to mess up and knowing that sticking by your values will get you more customers than caving will.” For more serious complaints, such as boycotts, ABFE can be a valuable resource, she added.

    “The voices who want to censor may be the loudest and sometimes seem very powerful, but they’re often the minority,” said Paul; people can find any number of reasons for why a book is not appropriate for children.

    When in these situations, Gregorio encouraged booksellers to “take a step back and try to establish that dialogue,” because, more often than not, people will try to object to something they have not read. When Gregorio was disinvited from a school visit because her book features an intersex protagonist, she discovered the people making that decision had not read her book.

    “It’s a teaching opportunity for everyone. Depending on how well people are listening, you can often subversively educate them,” she said.


    Visit the American Booksellers for Free Expression’s resources page for information about how booksellers can prepare for a variety of free speech emergencies. Booksellers can contact ABFE Director Chris Finan at chris@bookweb.org or by calling (914) 406-7576 (office) or (917) 509-0340 (emergency hotline).