Compassion, Determination, and Justice: The 2021 Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference

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Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the sixth annual Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference took place this past weekend on Zoom for its second year of fully virtual programming. The now three-day symposium was held by Kweli Journal on April 9–11, featuring a notable lineup of book creators and industry professionals participating in the nation’s largest children’s conference exclusively for Black, Indigenous, and other creators of color.

Master Classes from Industry Pros

Friday featured intensives with four esteemed members of the kidlit community: Newbery Honoree Jasmine Warga (The Shape of Thunder, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Henry Holt editor Tiffany Liao (who edited Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter and Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone), author Monica Brown (Small Room, Big Dreams: The Journey of Julian and Joaquín Castro, illus. by Mirelle Ortega, HarperCollins/Quill Tree), and Newbery Honoree Veera Hiranandani (How to Find What You’re Not Looking For, Kokila). Each course surveyed a different subject. Warga spoke about creating compelling characters in middle grade and YA novels, Liao presented on worldbuilding, Brown instructed on the craft behind picture book writing, and Hiranandani discussed plotting and outlining.

‘Not a Place or a Building, But a Feeling of Belonging’: The Importance of Community

Bestselling debut author Angeline Boulley (Firekeeper’s Daughter, Holt), an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians who is Bear Clan from Sugar Island, kicked off Saturday’s events with a greeting in Ojibwe and thanks to Laura Pegram, executive director of Kweli Journal.

Boulley next shared a teaching from her youth: “I was always taught that when I braided my hair, each section meant I should pray for my family, my clan, and my community. All are part of my identity as an Anishinaabekwe, or Ojibwe woman.”

She spoke about the different facets of her identity, her writing journey, and how “the glowing ember” of a high school idea and the realization that she “dreams in stories” led her to begin writing Firekeeper’s Daughter a decade ago.

Seeking community, Boulley followed “Native children’s literature rock stars” on Twitter, including Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek), Dawn Quigley (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe), and Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo), which led her to discover LoonSong Turtle Island, a writer’s retreat solely for Native authors, where Boulley first felt like she became “a part of the Native kidlit community.”

Boulley also participated in We Need Diverse Books’ mentorship program and #DVPit, both of which allowed her to eventually connect with her agent, Faye Bender at the Book Group. Six months after Boulley attended the Kweli Conference in 2019, Tiffany Liao, an editor she met there, acquired her debut. Besides introducing her to many individuals, Kweli also “served as an icebreaker,” Boulley said, as she could bring up panels that industry professionals had served on when querying.

“As you participate in Kweli, I encourage you to be an active participant,” Boulley concluded. “Because community, the feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves, to being part of a collective body, is… the kindling that sustains the embers of the stories we dream.”

A Rich Selection

Saturday brought a full day of programming for conference participants, with a multitude of prospects to learn about varying industry components. Six courses in the Publishing Track, five courses in the Novel Track, five courses in the Illustrated Books and Nonfiction Track, and two lengthier sessions in the Intensives Track gave attendees the opportunity to explore the concentrations they found most intriguing.

One especially resonant panel was a Publishing Track discussion called “Writing Social Justice,” moderated by Cheryl Hudson of Just Us Books. In conversation were Boulley (Firekeeper’s Daughter, Holt), Mahogany L. Browne (Chlorine Sky, Crown), Aida Salazar (Land of the Cranes, Scholastic Press), and Warga (The Shape of Thunder, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray).

After introductions, panelists expounded upon how their personal experiences informed their stories, how their work speaks to healing, conscious decisions about language and language inclusion, coming-of-age friendships, “the use of words like agency and resistance and reclamation and rejoining,” and topics including microaggressions, colorism, and racism.

On writing novels for young people and their “capacity and capaciousness and resilience in their hearts,” Warga said, “In order for what seems impossible to happen, we have to be able to imagine the impossible.”

“It is revolutionary to write social justice for children,” Salazar pronounced. “It is one of the most important things we can be doing during this time.”

“Reclamation and joy are tools for resistance,” Boulley concurred with her fellow panelists. For teen readers, “being able to turn the tables on [microaggressions and similar experiences] and maybe defuse that pain by making fun of it” serves as both a defense mechanism and a healing part of these stories.

“Me existing in this world is an act of resistance,” Browne proclaimed, explaining how there is no separation between personal and political for her. “My entire life is built upon ensuring that one, I make it home safe, and two, that the art that I create tells the truth about the moment that we are living in.”

Before Saturday’s stirring closing reading and keynote by Safia Elhillo (Home Is Not a Country, Make Me a World) the final Publishing Track panel, “Reimagine,” brought established publishing professionals Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee Creek), award-winning author and co-curator of Native-focused HarperCollins imprint Heartdrum; Denene Millner, author and director of her eponymous imprint at Simon & Schuster; Christopher Myers, creative director of Random House imprint Make Me a World; and Namrata Tripathi, v-p and publisher of Penguin Young Readers imprint Kokila, in conversation, moderated by Kokila executive editor and Salaam Reads co-founder Zareen Jaffery. Notably, they spoke about the meaning of community and whether #OwnVoices is a consideration from a publisher’s perspective.

Tripathi mused, “There’s a bit of separation between what the concept and conversation began as and what it is now.” She acknowledged that Corinne Duyvis “[gave] language to a really essential aspect of what was missing in our consideration in publishing,” and then invoking semiotics to explain how there is now a gap between the signifier and the signified.

Myers agreed, saying there are very few actually #OwnVoices novels, and that “writers must exercise that muscle called empathy.” He concluded, “I will never want to shut down that sense of what community can be.”

Smith observed, “What we’re really talking about is what an author has to bring when talking about their lived experience. And that’s much more than a hashtag. At the same time, writing from a place of personal experience is important, and we should honor that decision.”

Millner called the hashtag “a dog whistle,” saying that if it is employed, she needs her “publishing company to understand that it has to come with the same muscle they bring to any other book.”

The panel concluded with an audience q&a, with the panelists speaking about adult authors transitioning to YA, tokenism in the industry, and suggestions for reaching out to potential mentors, such as themselves.

Reflecting on the Past and Speaking to the Future: ‘Persevere and Create Community’

Sunday presented a day of roundtables between industry professionals, covering topics including editors and agents, graphic novels, business and contracts 101, and marketing and publicity. Three Ask Me Anything sessions were interspersed throughout the day, offering time for participants to interact with authors and editors.

National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi (The People Remember, illus. by Loveis Wise, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) served as moderator for the engaging closing keynote between Newbery Medalists Meg Medina (Merci Suárez Changes Gears, Candlewick) and Jerry Craft (New Kid, HarperCollins/Quill Tree).

Medina spoke on how she first came to writing children’s books. After a slew of jobs, “what wasn’t quieting was the desire to write and tell stories.” She noted that she came to writing “late,” as she didn’t begin until she was 40, but “took the plunge and didn’t turn back.”

Medina continued by observing how Covid-19 restrictions have allowed publishing to become more accessible by utilizing the digital space—“across economic lines, geographic lines—I think it’s important not to lose that [after the pandemic is over].”

Craft discussed how he’s “been trying to get published traditionally since 1997”; he self-published a collection of his comic strip Mama’s Boyz back then, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Scholastic editor Andrea Davis Pinkney gave him the chance to illustrate in the traditional publishing world.

Zoboi relayed a fond memory: she had actually met Craft 20 years earlier at the Harlem Book Fair, and seeing him there with his books—without the lenses that today’s social media or studies or statistics might provide—he looked to her like a success. She asked the other two authors whether they felt like successes when they first started out, “just by having a book out there, without the juxtaposition of the larger publishing world?”

Medina explained how her first book, Milagros: Girl from Away, which Holt published in 2008, had “really quiet sales” and is now out of print. But “when it was first published, my heart felt so full. Because we ache for our books to be taken on by a publishing company. I was blessedly ignorant about everything that it was going to take on my end to be successful. The early years can be really hard.” Even then, she felt there was interest in her story, but no support or expertise. “How can we support midlist and beginning BIPOC authors now?” Medina asked. “What do we have to collectively provide to them so we can give them the tools to survive and thrive, and advocate for themselves when the publishing companies won’t?”

Craft spoke to the initial challenges he faced as a self-publisher: “I did not feel like a success at all.” He saw the limitations of his industry heroes such as Wade and Cheryl Hudson of Just Us Books, and felt that he must be even more limited since he “was 10 steps below them.” Being a self-publisher “was draining,” and Craft knew something had to change. Even New Kid, which won Craft the 2020 Newbery Medal, “got rejected like five times”; he ended up meeting Andrew Eliopulos, the editor of that graphic novel and its companion, at the Kweli conference a few years before it was acquired.

The authors also speculated on finding time to write amid parenthood; how fast they write; whether they found anything endearing about the early struggle; the #PublishingPaidMe initiative, started by L.L. McKinney, and related financial and generational differences; and dealing with professional envy and centering one’s own journey.

Medina shared her thoughts on imposter syndrome and the interconnectedness of history, family, and community care among BIPOC creators. “You need to take up space so you can leave space for [future writers],” she said. “At this point, legacy sounds like such a lofty word, but that’s what it is: what do you want to leave?”

Once more honoring the significance of Black, Native, and other voices of color in literature, the 2021 Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference was a successful celebration of community, sustenance, and restoration, with an unprecedented number of attendees thanks to its second year of virtual access. Kweli will return next year in early April.

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