Children’s Books and Breakfast (for Dinner)

The annual staple of the BookExpo moved to Facebook Live as a virtual dinner.

Children's book dinner bookexpo

The annual Children’s Book & Author Breakfast has been a staple of the BookExpo experience since 1978. Thursday evening, it moved to Facebook Live as a virtual dinner instead, featuring authors Judy Blume, Natalie Portman, Marie Lu, Raj Haldar, Kwame Mbalia, and Misty Copeland. The panelists talked newest publications, illustrations & cover art, and writing for kids. In case you missed it, here’s the need-to-know! 


Judy blume

Judy Blume

via bookexpo online

Judy Blume, the beloved children’s book author of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and many other classics, kicked things off by reminiscing about the first ever Children’s Book & Author Breakfast, of which she was in attendance with Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak (with the picture to prove it!). Since then, she has released numerous children’s books. This year, she is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, as well as its movie adaptation which has sadly been put on hold in light of the recent pandemic. While writing Margaret, Blume says she just let go and wrote more freely than she ever had before; and in turn, it became her biggest success.

Now, Blume has hung up her author badge and founded the indie bookstore Books&Books. She noted that it’s a tough time for indie booksellers, as well as authors with books coming out at this time, but that we need to work together to get books into the hands of readers.

Blue said that writing changed her life, but that she’s in love with her new life as a bookseller: “Nothing beats putting books into the hands of a young reader.”


Natalie portman

Natalie portman bookexpo

via bookexpo online

Natalie Portman (Senator Amadala *heart eyes*) followed with a discussion of her first children’s book: Natalie Portman’s Fables. She describes books as something that were always there for her, shaping her future and broadening her horizons as she read about kids with different backgrounds than her. But Portman says she had a new realization after having kids.

She recalls reading her daughter feminist kids books geared towards girls. While those books are certainly important, she said that it was also saddening to know that parents have to teach their daughters about sexism at such a young age. Boys, on the other hand, aren’t taught this same narrative. Portman found that a lot of children’s books were centered around male heroes or a mostly male cast, sending a message that society values male stories over female ones.

Portman emphasized how important representation is, especially as a person who longed to see herself as a young, Jewish girl be represented in the books she read as a kid. This is what prompted her to use animal characters in her book. She believes that it allows people to relate to the character of the animals, instead of their backgrounds or how they look. Portman uses classic fables to share her message, including the Tortoise and the Hare, The Three Little Pigs, and The City Mouse and The Country Mouse. Her take on the stories are gender safe to help children sympathize with kids of all backgrounds and genders. 


misty copeland

Misty Copeland

via bookexpo online

The renowned Misty Copeland was also in attendance, discussing her newest book, Bunheads. She is also the author of the children’s book Firebird.

Copeland spoke about being the first African American woman to be promoted to a Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, and how she wanted to portray the ballet world as diverse; something which isn’t always seen. When writing her first children’s book, Copeland says that she had to try and understand how children felt and thought. She felt fortunate to be able to reach out to that audience, since they’re the ones who will one day grow up to shape the world. 

For Bunheads, Copeland based the book on her experience entering the ballet world. Many of its characters reflect people and friends who helped shape her into the woman she is today. The studio is made up of a group of misfits, who find commonality despite their differences. The book’s emphasis on Misty’s friendship with Catalina advocates that ballet is a unifying environment, not cutthroat as it’s often depicted. 

Copeland said it was also important that she create an open understanding of what it means to be a dancer. She emphasized that the art you produce and the way you make people feel is what matters, not the package you come with. 

Overall, Bunheads is about educating young readers about the diversity that DOES exist in the ballet world, but that isn’t always evident. Copeland hopes to use her platform to show kids that it’s possible to be a unique individual, something that’s also reflected in her upcoming book. 


Raj Haldar

Raj Haldar bookexpo

via bookexpo online

Raj Haldar (also known as rapper Lushlife), author of P is for Pterodactyl followed up to promote his upcoming book, No Reading Allowed, a children’s book playing on homophones to show kids the sheer absurdity of the English language. 

Haldar spent a decade as a musician, and says that despite making a career out of world play, people were skeptical when he set out to make a picture book. After 17 rejections, Haldar finally got a deal for his first book with Sourcebooks. He says it felt surreal when the book blew up soon after.

He says P is for Teredyactal contains Easter eggs about our real world, helping kids make sense of their world and broaden their horizons in a fun way. No Reading Allowed will take kids further across the world, giving them a taste of different places and cultures, all while employing sentences that sound the same phonetically, but mean completely different things.


Marie Lu

Marie Lu

via bookexpo online

Marie Lu, the beloved YA author of Legend, discussed her newest dystopia series, Skyhunter. She says her books act as snapshots of what was going on in the world at the time she was writing them. In particular, she remembers seeing a protest in Beijing when she was five years old, and how this moment served as inspiration for a scene in Legend. 

Lu came up with the idea for Skyhunter in 2016 while watching a speech at the Democratic Convention. It struck her that young people, POC, women, nonbinary individuals, and others were fighting for a country that didn’t have their backs. But they fought anyway in hopes that someday, the country could be better. 

Set five thousand years in the future, Skyhunter follows a regressed society where all but one country have been taken over. Talhin is a refugee in this country, but is looked down on by her people, even as she continues to serve and fight for them. When she decides to save the life of a young boy named Red, she discovers that he’s the weapon that might be able to save them all.

Lu described it as a dark and violent story exploring how complicated it can be to love your country. 

These days, Lu said that she often feels helpless with the state of the country. She said that writing dystopia is a way to feel in control, and see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially when so many young people are fighting for change. But she says her books will never be as inspirational as what real people are doing today.


Kwame Mbaila

Kwame Mbalia

via bookexpo online

Kwame Mbaila, the author of Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, broadcast live from the hospital where his wife just gave birth (congrats Kwame!!). The next book in his series is titled Tristan Strong Destroys the World, and explores the trauma Tristan experiences after defeating the bad guys in book one. 

Mbaila said he comes from a storytelling family and upheld the tradition by reading aloud a sneak peek of his upcoming book. He says the world of this book is one where African-American tales, West-African mythology, and a little bit of South-African mythology exist, but in conflict. He says it’s important to highlight these different cultures, dropping nuggets of information about them to give readers a jumping off point to learn more. 


Follow-up Questions

After introducing themselves and their books, the authors talked about the most difficult thing about writing for kids. While many of the authors agreed that they drew from their own experiences as kids to get into the mindset of their characters, Portman said she took inspiration from the books her children gravitated toward. 

When asked how she got into the mindset of writing books with big concepts, Lu said she used to writing sweeping, epic stories as a teenager, because that’s what she read at the time. As a teenager, she always identified with the narratives of characters her age, and wanted to replicate that in her own YA books. 

In answer to the same question, Kwame talked about wanting to have characters that looked like him and his family, moving away from the Western-European inspired fantasy stories that are so prevalent. He says the hardest part is finding one idea and sticking with it.

The authors also discussed their illustrations and cover art (with Judy Blume telling us how weird it is to have a book with so many different covers!)

All of the authors were blown away by the art in their stories, and Kwame said he got emotional after seeing his first cover, which features a black boy and a black man standing back-to-back, a symbol for power and strength for kids like him.


The WNBA Pannell Award

The panel concluded with Susan Knopf from the Women’s National Book Assocation announcing winners to the WNBA Pannell Award. 

Congrats to Book People in Austin, Texas (General Bookstore Category) and Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Georgia (Children’s Specialty Bookstore Category)!

Sad that BookExpo’s come and gone? Watch the panel on BookExpo’s Facebook page to relive the magic!

featured image via bookexpo online