Despite the recent tragic events that took place in Orlando just days before the start of Children’s Institute 4 (June 21–23) at the Wyndham Orlando, the American Booksellers Association premier kids’ conference began on a high note at an opening party and book swap. But the shootings were clearly on many people’s minds. In addition to book swap titles, many booksellers brought books selected from a list distributed by the ABA on grief and LGBTQ concerns, which will be donated to area schools and libraries.

“As we begin this celebration – and, any gathering of indie booksellers is always a celebration – we are all reminded that there people in Orlando tonight who are not celebrating and likely won’t be able to celebrate for a long time to come,” ABA CEO Oren Teicher said in his opening remarks. “On behalf of all of you, we want to remember them these next few days, and dedicate ourselves to reject violence and hate – and join together as Americans to build a society where acceptance and understanding are the norm.”

Teicher noted that booksellers have an important role to play in building that society and encouraged booksellers to think about ways that all of us can contribute and make a difference. The ABA will be making a “significant” contribution to the Pulse Victims Fund, and many attendees have given blood or plan to during the conference.

The first full educational day opened with a keynote address by two-time Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo (Raymie Nightingale) and a featured talk by Kristen McLean, director of new business development at Nielsen Book. Although DiCamillo spoke on “Owning the Power of Stories, Harnessing the Power of Connection,” she said it took her many years to stop feeling like a fraud. She was a bookseller at Half Price Books in Coon Rapids, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb, when she published her first novel, Because of Winn Dixie. Now she’s still that 10-year-old girl, she said, with reading glasses.

DiCamillo had booksellers crying over their morning coffee and orange juice, as she spoke about how she came to understand the importance of connections and her “strange, dreamy moment seeing the world from above,” while riding in a glass-bottom boat in Silver Springs Amusement Park in Florida. “I could never get over the mystery of glass-bottom boats,” she said. “On glass-bottom boats you can see other worlds. I saw the silver fish and the turtle, and I felt connected to everything.” She later felt that same connection when her second grade teacher read the class Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphin and she saw the boy who tripped her every day, whom she had come to think of as a six-foot monster with claws, as a little boy. It was the world hidden inside a world.

“Just as I had floated above the glass-eyed boat, I had floated above the second-grade classroom,” DiCamillo said. “Stories are glass-bottomed boats. We sit together and look together at this world.” For her stories are a way to get off “the terrible rock of aloneness.” When we connect, she added, we change. “Stories matter. Bringing people together around stories matter.”

Although McLean’s belief in children’s books is every bit as emotional as DiCamillo’s, for her its the data that tells the story and can point booksellers to the best way to make those connections with readers. McLean shared data for the sale of books for children ages 5–8, which she said, accounts for “the lion’s share” of children’s units and dollars, almost 40% for each. And she showed that while avid reader parents are important for book sales for this age group, buying 39% of the units and 55% of dollars, social omnivore parents, who are multicultural and have higher incomes and education, are not far behind. She urged booksellers to market to them.

McLean also discussed several trends for booksellers to watch. She encouraged booksellers who aren’t carrying comics and graphic novels that the time is right to add them. In fact they are “popping,” she said with a 62% increase in units from 2014 to 2015, up from 1.964 million to 3.188 million. This category is being driven by Dork Diaries, Drama, El Deafo, and Nimona. Also, keep your eye on girl power, McLean advised, singling out books like Lumberjanes and Cleopatra on the fiction side and Gutsy Girls in nonfiction.

Although some nonfiction kids’ categories have dipped, McLean theorized that it was because Common Core wasn’t driving sales so much as kids’ interests. “What’s popping is active nonfiction.” She pointed to kids’ computer titles which have jumped 295%; as well as growth in genres like humor; technology; toys, dolls, and puppets; study guides; and concepts. And in YA, whereas adults were previously driving sales, McLean said that in 2015 the number has dropped to 25% of juvenile nonfiction as being bought by adults for themselves.

Booksellers have one more day of education to look forward to at this year’s Children’s Institute, including panels on engaging special needs customers, selling early readers, and partnering with local libraries.