New York Comic Con boasts several events every year, ranging from panels of superstars to custom sketches by beloved artists, to themed “experiences.” This year, it also included a series of NYCC book club meetings featuring a range of different upcoming books to be published by Penguin Random House. For each one, interested con attendees
New York Comic Con boasts several events every year, ranging from panels of superstars to custom sketches by beloved artists, to themed “experiences.” This year, it also included a series of NYCC book club meetings featuring a range of different upcoming books to be published by Penguin Random House. For each one, interested con attendees could sign up ahead of time and they’d be mailed an advance reader copy of the book they’d chosen. Then, they could read the book before the conference, and during the conference itself, meet privately to have a book club discussion about it.
If anything could enhance the already-heady feeling of attending a convention full of your favorite movie stars, comics creators and fellow fans, it would be joining a small group of chosen ones who get to read a book early and meet in a secret location to chat about it with the people who ushered the book to publication.
For the book We Ride Upon Sticks, for instance, both the book’s editor, Deb Garrison, and Julianne Clancy, part of the marketing team, sat with separate discussion groups to chat about the book on Friday, October 4th, 2019.
We Ride Upon Sticks is a funny, feminist novel by Quan Barry about a high school field hockey team in the 1980s who use witchcraft. There’s a lot of genre there! As Julianne says, “I think books like We Ride Upon Sticks help bridge the gap between genres, readers, and preferences, and prove any book can be inspiring, thought-provoking, and elegant. Sometimes, sure, it’s an epic period piece. But sometimes it’s the story of a 1980s high school field hockey team who pledges their souls to Emilio Estevez in order to make it to finals. A book like We Ride Upon Sticks can surprise you in the most wonderful of ways. I hope that readers will let it, because I think they’ll enjoy what they find.”
I was politely told that press was not to be admitted to the meetups themselves, to avoid the book club members feeling self-conscious. After the fact, though, I got to talk to editor Deb Garrison; Associate Director of Marketing, Knopf, Pantheon, and Schocken, Julianne Clancy; and Lindsey Elias, Associate Director of Consumer Shows and Conferences; about the appeal of We Ride Upon Sticks, and the fascinating process of bringing the book clubs together for conventions. As an editor, a marketer and an event director, they each have a different perspective on this innovative and ongoing program.
Deb, Julianne, and Lindsey, thank you for answering my questions! How did you each get involved in Penguin Random House’s convention book club program?
Garrison: Julianne came to me and told me she would love to feature the book in a Comic Con book group. I had never been to Comic Con (though my husband and son have been many times) and had no idea Penguin Random House did a book club event there until Julianne proposed this. She felt We Ride Upon Sticks would be great because it is a funny novel—though, on the serious side, it’s a delightful and substantive story about girls and identity and looking back on our younger selves—and also because it involves some light witchcraft. It takes place in Danvers, MA, the home of the Salem witch trials, and features the collective and individual voices of a field hockey team as they tap into the powers that will allow them to win. Of course, the true magic is figuring out how to be yourself, and having meaningful friendships. All this is set in 1989, which makes for a great period piece—the big hair in the book is a character unto itself!
Elias: The idea for the Penguin Random House book club was a team effort, spearheaded by the Del Rey marketing team. The first sessions hosted at Emerald City Comic Con in early 2019 were a great success which paved the way for the company to do more at New York Comic Con. We now have Penguin Publishing Group, Random House Publishing Group, and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group participating.
How did the book selection process work?
Elias: Each division has the opportunity to choose an upcoming title that they are excited about to be featured as a book club pick. The books can’t be currently on sale, and should align with the genre of the show where the book club session will be taking place.
Clancy: The selection process for We Ride Upon Sticks was basically me loving the book, and wanting to get early reads and feedback on it. I knew about the opportunity to join the rest of the Penguin Random House family in doing a New York Comic-Con book club, so I went back to the marketing team here in the Knopf Doubleday group and asked if they’d take issue with We Ride Upon Sticks being our pick. No one did, so I moved forward at full force.
Garrison: Quan Barry is a poet and a literary novelist, but Julianne believed We Ride Upon Sticks would appeal to this audience, or in any case that we’d get some great feedback from readers who might embrace these teenage witches.
Clancy: This book just has so much going for it, like Deb said. It’s fun and funny. It’s a little bit witchy and weird (which, as a lifelong fan of things like Buffy and Charmed and Sabrina, I adored). It’s got tons of girl power and fascinating female relationships. It’s got insight about the 80s, feminism, sexuality, race, and social acceptance. It has appeal for younger readers, who just went through this, and older readers, who actually get the pop culture references. I just fell in love the second I read it, and thought other people would, too. It felt like a book people would want to discuss once they finished, so I was excited to get that feedback from our actual audience.
What was the meeting like for We Ride Upon Sticks?
Garrison: The meeting was fascinating. People were in costume (of course!) and I was amazed at how much they shared of their own stories. Each person had a character in the novel who was “them” in high school. The girl whose breasts are so large that certain assumptions are made about her around school…one young woman said that was her, and told us something about her journey to get away from those stereotypes; another identified with an African American player on the team who wants to banish Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum; a male reader in the group, who had been “the jock who also played D and D” in high school, felt a kinship with the kind-hearted football star who tells his teammates to lay off when they are teasing or being unkind to other boys in the locker room; etc. I was most pleased of all that the younger women in the group—several not yet born in 1989—felt the book was absolutely “for them” and that they’d give it to all their girlfriends to read. Even with a distance of 30 years, the high school material and the struggles with sexuality and identity felt fresh and relevant to them now. And they commented they knew the musical/cultural references from their parents! Also, fun fact: there was a practicing pagan in our group, and she loved it.
Clancy: The meeting was great! I was in a different discussion circle than Deb, and I think my experience was similar in that it was a great discussion which revealed that everyone found a little bit of themselves in the story. I think one of my favorite comments from one of the readers was that she’d read a section, fall in love with a character because she related so much, and decide that was her favorite. Then she’d read the next section, and fall in love with THAT character. Every character kept charming her and had little bits to which she related. We had a diverse group, from a young man still in high school to two people who’d been in high school at the same time—or even slightly earlier—than the characters in the book. But every one of them saw something—whether it was how sports teams bond; the drama that comes up in girl groups; the mother-daughter relationships; or the issues with being a different race than your friends—that they felt on an intimate and personal level.
From my perspective as a marketer, it was fascinating and wonderful to hear what readers really thought about the book. I’m always trying to get into the heads of book buyers and get the right book in front of them—like a book matchmaker. To get in-person feedback was just such a treat. And everyone was so honest and articulate—it was really special, helpful, and fascinating for me.
I’ve been a genre reader since I was little, a passion that I never “grew out of,” like a lot of my peers did. I still read comics, graphic novels, sci-fi, fantasy, and YA, alongside literary fiction, non-fiction, award-winners. To me, a good book is a good book.
Garrison: Our discussion reminded me that, even with a comedic novel like Sticks, there are deeper truths about selfhood, communication, and the bedrock of what matters most to us (connection, friendship) being expressed by the characters—whether they’re wearing field hockey kilts and have bleached big hair, or whoever they may be. The discussion in our group revolved mostly around the material in the book that was about coming out, getting loud about who you are, and the differences between the 1980s and now, in terms of what is permissible or comfortable when you’re defining your unique identity. The importance of “be yourself” can never be overstated, and it’s something it seems we all want to read about, in many different contexts.
Clancy: We Ride Upon Sticks is out March 3! Pre-order now, and follow us @pantheonbooks on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for news, giveaways, and more about We Ride Upon Sticks and all of our books.
Will there be more book club meetings at future cons?
Elias: Absolutely. We will be doing it again at C2E2 in Chicago in February 2020, also at Emerald City Comic-Con and New York Comic-Con again. Attendees can keep an eye on the social media accounts for the individual shows for announcements on enrollment.
Clancy: Don’t forget to follow Penguin Random House and all our various imprints on socials as well. We all do lots of fun giveaways, opportunities for early reads, and more, and it’s the best way to get direct communication about your favorite books and authors.
Elias: We started this program because we deeply value the face-to-face time we get with our readers. We hope that people continue to apply for future sessions and enjoy reading the books we send them. And we’re always open to feedback and any ideas to make the clubs better!
People are very engaged and excited to be a part of our book clubs. They love getting a book early and discussing it with fellow book-lovers. The format varies, sometimes we have small group discussions and sometimes it just one large discussion lead by a moderator. But overall, we always get valuable feedback, both positive and negative, from the attendees. We also hear anecdotally from attendees throughout the rest of the show when they swing by the Penguin Random House booth. They are grateful to have been included and look forward to doing it again next year!