Ci8 Virtual Keynote: Isaac Fitzgerald on the Importance of Children’s Bookselling

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On Wednesday, July 15, author Isaac Fitzgerald delivered a virtual keynote speech on the importance of children’s bookselling at Children’s Institute 2020 (Ci8). Logged-in booksellers can view a recording of the keynote here.

Fitzgerald began by reading aloud Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He shared that he recently learned that the art at the beginning of the picture book occupies less space than that at the end. The main character, Max, is stuck in a confined space at the beginning, Fitzgerald said, but as he embarks on his journey, he carries a sense of space and freedom that will follow him forever. 

This single aspect of this one children’s book contains so much meaning, and Fitzgerald said he didn’t notice it for over 30 years. “Despite everything I’ve gotten out of it,” he noted, “I know there is still yet more to discover. Because the best children’s books are high art, rich and complex and dazzlingly brilliant.”

Children’s booksellers, he said, of course already know this. And though children might not be able to express themselves in academic language, they feel it. “Kids are so freaking smart,” he said. “Right now, kids absolutely know that people around them — as well as they themselves — are struggling in so, so many ways. The world is struggling. What can kids do with that knowledge?”

Conversations alone aren’t always sufficient in helping children understand what’s happening around them, he added, which is why he’s incredibly grateful for books, and by extension, booksellers. “Imagine giving the gift of making sense of the world. Just remember what it’s like to be a reader in the depths of loneliness, only to suddenly discover a friend on the page,” he said. “You bring literature, and with it, everything from hope to despair to rage to joy to the freedom of adventure, to the readers who need it more than anything.”

He shared that when he was young, he moved from a halfway home in inner-city Boston to very rural Massachusetts. At 12 years old, he was drinking and doing drugs. “I was young and I was angry and I had a lot of feelings and not a lot of places to put them,” he said. “But on days when I...wanted to feel calmer, I would ride my rusted-out bike numerous miles to get to the center of town, so I could just spend some time at this enticingly, ridiculously named bookstore [the Hobbit Doorway].”  

It was an escape, he said, a place where he could leave his life behind for a while, or dream up what he wanted his life to become. 

“There’s no way to sugarcoat it — these times we’re in are full of tragedy and confusion,” he said. “We’re living and suffering through and dying in a pandemic that is laying inequality bare. And while honoring the unspeakably enormous difficulties so many people are experiencing, I also want to make space for the moments of hope and pathways of positive transformation.”

Fitzgerald noted that the Black Lives Matter protests that continue to sweep the nation are vitally important and beyond much-needed, and thanked the booksellers that provided support to protesters. He specifically called out Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which became the base for numerous community-led initiatives, including providing food for protestors and using the store’s parking lot to set up a medic area and a hub for dropping off community supplies. 

Booksellers are also making sure the right books are getting to the right readers who need them. “Black and other POC children are able to see themselves reflected in books like never before, and while there is still so much work to be done, what a wonderful time to be able to connect young readers with the stories they need to hear,” he said. “Again — imagine giving the gift of making sense of the world.” 

Fitzgerald also read his own children’s book, How to Be a Pirate, which he helped develop with author Jon Scieszka, who was his backyard neighbor at the time. Fitzgerald shared a children’s book idea about tattoos with Scieszka, who promptly rejected it. For one summer, Scieszka offered to meet with Fitzgerald every other Friday to help him learn about the art and craft of children’s books, and to develop an idea for a children’s book about tattoos that “kids would actually like.” 

How to Be a Pirate isn’t really about pirates, and it isn’t even really about tattoos,” said Fitzgerald. “It’s about how spending time with people you love, people you care about, and sharing stories can brighten your day.”

It’s also a book about confidence. “That’s the part I don’t say very often, but it’s the part that I hope young readers feel, even if it might not be at the conscious forefront of their thoughts when they read the book,” he said. “It’s about feeling strong enough to continue and strong enough to make a stand and strong enough to keep going, no matter what obstacles one faces.” 

“Times are tough with this pandemic,” he added. “It’s hurting everyone, and bookstores and booksellers are suffering along with everybody else. But I have been so inspired by everything you all have done in these past months.”

The work booksellers do — putting a book in the hands of a young reader who needs it — is important, said Fitzgerald. 

“As a child who benefitted from people just like you in ways I can only begin to try and explain, I thank you and I love you. You give so many young readers confidence,” he said. “Thank you for helping me, and for helping so many of the children out there who are in need, in the past and now and into the future.”