Breakfast Speakers See Children’s Literature as “Gateway to Life”

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On Tuesday, May 24, hundreds of booksellers, librarians, and publishers filed into the Javits Center’s Special Events Hall for the Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, an annual highlight of BookExpo America. This year’s breakfast featured a range of bestselling authors who share a love for reading and writing, and above all, a belief in the power of a book in a child’s hands.

The Children’s Book & Author Breakfast included the presentation of the 2011 WNBA Pannell Awards by the Women’s National Book Association to stores that have excelled in connecting children to books. The award in the General Bookstore category was presented to Queen Anne Books in Seattle, Washington, which was applauded for “its clear understanding of the needs of young readers of different ages and stages, for the creative ways it reaches them, and for not overlooking the oft-forgotten secret: the parents,” said Valerie Thomaselli, WNBA vice president. The award in the Children’s Specialty Store category was given to Fairytales Bookstore & More in Nashville, Tennessee, which was praised “for the comprehensive approach it takes to involving kids in reading, from creative play and storytime to music and digital arts.”

Both stores received a cash prize, along with framed original artwork contributed by children’s illustrators Matthew Myers and Erin E. Stead.

Distinguished author Katherine Paterson set the tone of the event by praising Children's Literature

Katherine Paterson, the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and a two-time National Book Award winner, opened the breakfast by explaining the impact reading had on her as a writer. “Reading turned me into a writer,” she said. “But more importantly, it enriched and challenged my life.” Her message to the audience was clear: “Read for your life, as a member of a family, as part of a community, as a citizen of both this country and the world.”

Actress Julianne Moore, author of Freckleface Strawberry: Best Friends Forever (Bloomsbury), was the master of ceremonies, and she too acknowledged the significance of her relationship with books, which started at a young age. “Books soothed me, encouraged me, and excited me,” she said, citing some of the books she read as a girl, from Little House on The Prairie and Little Women to borrowing copies of Go Ask Alice and Fear of Flying — whether or not she was old enough for such titles.

Moore directly addressed the audience, affirming how vital booksellers, librarians, and publishers are in shaping a child’s life. “Books are the gateway to life,” she said. “And if books are the gateway, you all are the gatekeepers.”

Brian Selznick, a Caldecott-winning author and illustrator, took the stage to read from and discuss his new book, Wonderstruck (Scholastic), which features two stories, one told in words and the other through pictures, but both intertwined.

Selznick started in the book industry as a bookseller at Eeyore’s Books for Children in New York City, where he said he learned everything he knows about children’s books.

“To this day, I feel like a bookseller first, a writer and illustrator second,” he said. “So it’s nice to be speaking to you, my people.”

Before writing Wonderstruck, Selznick saw the documentary “Through Deaf Eyes” and was intrigued by the highly visual deaf culture, which acted as an inspiration to tell a story through pictures.

Selznick read from his book, often pausing to let his illustrations projected on the screen convey a story.

The amount of research that went into Wonderstruck was extensive. In the book, which focuses on museum history,there is a scene that takes place in the Queen’s Museum of Art that features The Panorama, a 10,000-square-foot model of the entire city built for the 1964 World’s Fair. Selznick visited and studied the exhibit before including it in the book.

Selznick spent three years creating tiny three-dimensional dummies for every drawing. He showed a video of the early stages of the illustrations, which he had taped to a wall. One shot in the video revealed every inch of the wall covered in drawings.

Following Selznick was bestselling author Sarah Dessen, who discussed her 10th book, What Happened to Goodbye (Viking Juvenile) She confessed how, after attending a competitive undergraduate creative writing program and envisioning herself producing “capital ‘L’ Literary Fiction,” she stumbled into becoming a writer for teens.

She shared a story about being introduced as a Young Adult novelist to a novelist she long admired. She was stung by the author’s reply of, “Well, someone’s got to do it.”

On the stage, Dessen responded to that author’s remark by declaring the importance of connecting to teens through literature. “Someone does need to,” she said. “Someone needs to reach out to let them know they’re not alone. I’m so glad one of those people is me.”

Kevin Henkes, author and illustrator of 42 children’s books, articulated the value of picture books. He explained that children are eager to experience life, and that childhood experiences are seminal. “I put picture books on my list of things children should experience often and regularly,” he said, adding, “They shape lives and imprint hearts and minds forever.”

Before reading from his newest picture book, Little White Rabbit (Greenwillow Books), Henkes touched on recent news reports about the abandonment of picture books. “I don’t think, as I’ve read, that picture books are going away,” he said. “I don’t think that there is a new trend to abandon picture books early and push kids toward chapter books. Or, if it is a trend, I think it must be small and misguided, motivated by the foolishness of placing the importance of test scores above all else.

“I do know this: I love the smell of a real book, and I love the feel of paper and two of the great and beautiful aspects of picture books are size and shape. The picture book seems to be a perfect art form as is.”

Henkes concluded the breakfast by assuring the audience that while there are many things to wonder about in life, we don’t have to wonder about books. “We love them, we need them, and we know it,” he said.