Children’s Institute offers several opportunities for booksellers to hear authors and illustrators speak about their craft and what drew them to children’s literature.

Mallika Chopra

Teaching kids how to reduce stress

After the publication of her memoir, Living with Intent: My Somewhat Messy Journey to Purpose, Peace, and Joy (2015), Mallika Chopra was surprised by a request she got almost everywhere she went. “When I was on tour for that book, always the first question I got from parents was, ‘What about our kids?’ ” says Chopra, whose father, new age guru Deepak Chopra, had taught her to meditate when she was nine. “I taught my daughters [to meditate] when they were six or seven. But I thought, how does one do a kids’ book on this?”

Luckily, at about the same time, Running Press publisher Kristin Kiser, who had worked with Chopra a decade earlier on 100 Promises to My Baby (2005), had the same idea: Would Chopra be interested in writing a book on mindfulness expressly for kids?

The result is Just Breathe: Meditation, Mindfulness, Movement, and More (Running Press, Aug.), a how-to guide for kids filled with techniques for using yoga, slow walking, and meditation to minimize anxiety, manage stress, and increase happiness. Chopra offers a buffet of strategies, encouraging kids to try different things until they find what works best for them.

“For some kids, quiet meditation will be all they need,” Chopra says. “But for some kids, movement is important because it’s hard to sit still.”

A lifelong, but irregular, practitioner of meditation, Chopra does not meditate every day. “It comes in and out of my life, but it is an incredible gift my parents gave me to teach me how to meditate,” she says. “Once you learn, you always have that tool.”

Nor does Chopra live for yoga. “Everyone assumes I am probably a big yogi, but I have joked before that I can’t even do downward dog,” she says. A year ago she and her husband decided to give yoga another try, but even if they don’t stick with it this time around, it proves a point that Chopra hopes to make with her young readers: there is no one right way to achieve mindfulness.

“The goal of the book is to provide a set of tools: here are different things you can do to stop your thoughts from racing or reduce what’s worrying you,” Chopra says.

Chopra has taught meditation to thousands of people and has a lot of experience working with parents and kids. “When I had my kids, I met so many moms who were trying to find balance and some sense of purpose,” she says. “And our kids are living in an anxious time. We need to teach them how to reduce stress and increase positive thinking.”

Chopra says she identifies with stressed-out mothers. She wishes she was the “most chill” mom on the block, but it isn’t so. “People assume I’m a certain way, but honestly, I’m like everybody else, trying to take care of my kids, running them around, managing my work,” she says. “I was giving a speech to a group of women once and realized that, in my head, I was also running a list: I have to get the dry cleaning, I forgot to sign the permission slip my daughter needed, are we out of dog food?” Her commitment to mindfulness stemmed from that phase in her life when she felt she was constantly busy and completely unproductive.

“I think for kids, [they need to] see that it’s okay to be confused and stressed and to fail—that’s just part of life,” Chopra says. “The key is to find ways to anchor ourselves and find peace and balance when we need it.”—Sue Corbett

Mallika Chopra will give the opening keynote on Wednesday, June 20, 7:45–8:45 a.m., in the Grand Ballroom.

Chelsea Clinton

Fostering political activism

On tour this spring for She Persisted Around the World: 13 Women Who Changed History (Philomel, out now), author, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton was asked the same question at every stop: “What can we be doing?”

“Some of that is a reaction to the current climate, but some of it is part of young people’s awakening. They want to be involved at their school. They want to solve problems. They want to do good in the world, and we all have a responsibility to nurture that,” Clinton says.

Her new book, a companion to the bestselling 2017 picture book She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World, follows the same format. Each woman is featured in a single spread, with a brief encapsulation of her achievements and an evocative illustration from Boiger. Many of the women will be unfamiliar to American readers, such as Viola Desmond, who refused to leave the whites-only section of a Canadian movie theater in 1946; Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan who spearheaded efforts to protect her country’s environment; and Kate Sheppard, who fought for the rights of indigenous Maori women.

Many of their stories were new to Clinton as well. That was part of the reason she decided to write a sequel. “There is an ongoing struggle for equality around the world,” Clinton says. “We need to tell even more stories of remarkable women who have positively changed the course of history.”

The title of both books references Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s censure of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat: “She was warned. Nevertheless, she persisted.” When he spoke during the 2017 confirmation hearings for Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions, Warren was trying to read Coretta Scott King’s words on the floor of the Senate.

The phrase not only inspired Clinton’s picture book biographies but it has become a feminist rallying cry. Clinton has only one regret. “I sent both books to Senator Warren, but I wished I had thought to send them to Senator McConnell too,” she says. “He is owed a thank-you for the great title.”

On tour, Clinton has been glad to meet mothers and fathers who bring their daughters and, especially, their sons to hear her speak. “I love it when I meet little boys who tell me who their favorite strong woman is,” she says.

As the mother of two young children herself, Clinton is both a producer and a consumer of the current bounty of books celebrating female achievement and inspiring kids to be the change they want to see in the world. She bought Vashti Harrison’s Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History (2017), an elementary school-age collective biography for three-year-old Charlotte. She may not yet be ready for that many words at bedtime now, “but soon,” Clinton says.

Growing up in Little Rock, Clinton’s parents read books aloud to her, even when her father was governor. Her favorites featured heroines who were problem solvers: Harriet the Spy and Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time. “I loved Meg’s indomitable spirit and her determination to do right by her family,” Clinton says.

Still, to find herself part of a wave of books about strong women changing the world is surprising and gratifying. “I don’t remember there being books that were specifically about activism like the books we’re seeing now,” Clinton says. “And I couldn’t be prouder that the She Persisted books are part of that groundswell.”—Sue Corbett

Chelsea Clinton will give a breakfast keynote on Thursday, June 21, 7:45–8:45 a.m., in the Grand Ballroom.

Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

30 years of publishing multicultural books

Just Us Books is a small press dedicated to publishing multicultural children’s books and run by the husband-and-wife team of Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson. Last year at BookExpo, Wade, the president and CEO, bumped into Phoebe Yeh, v-p and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers. “After catching up on family, Phoebe asked what we were working on,” Hudson says. “I told her about the [We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices] anthology, and she was really excited about its potential—and ultimately, [she] made us an offer.”

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices (Crown, Sept.), edited by Wade and Cheryl, who is publisher and editorial director of Just Us, brings together poems, letters, personal essays, and art by more than 50 children’s book authors and illustrators to empower young people. Contributors range from Kwame Alexander (who will be appearing with the Hudsons and Yeh at a special session on the book) to Sharon Draper, Ellen Oh, Jason Reynolds, and Jacqueline Woodson.

The idea for We Rise, Wade and Cheryl say, came from noticing how their grandniece and other children were frightened about the future given the heightened climate of hatred in this country. “What could we tell them to assure them of our support, comforting embrace, and love? We decided to do an anthology of contributors who had already been writing, illustrating, and connecting with young people,” Wade adds.

Together, under the Just Us umbrella, the couple began publishing children’s literature as a natural outgrowth of their artistic and political interests: both came of age during the 1960s and ’70s “black is beautiful” era. Cheryl was an art editor and design manager for educational publishers, while Wade worked in public relations and created plays for the black theater.

“We wanted our children—who weren’t born yet—to have the kinds of books that we never had for ourselves growing up,” Cheryl says. “When we started our own family, those interests moved us to create children’s books for trade publishing.” Between them they have authored more than 55 books for children.

When their book proposals for black-centered manuscripts were rejected by commercial trade publishers, the couple decided to publish Afro-Bets ABC Book, featuring the Afro-Bets Kids, six black characters they had created. In 1988, they formed Just Us Books to respond to a need in the marketplace for authentic, nonstereotypical children’s books centered on the African-American experience.

Much has changed, Wade notes, citing advances in digital technology, social media, and online bookselling. He adds that over the years, they spent time educating wholesalers, distributors, and bookstore buyers about the market for children’s books produced by black creators and sharing strategies that parents and organizations could use to encourage reading.

Just Us publishes roughly four titles a year. Its all-time bestseller, Book of Black Heroes from A to Z, by Wade and Valerie Wilson Wesley, was first published in 1993 and has sold nearly one million copies in various formats. “We have revised it several times, and it still is one of our top sellers, read by people of all ages,” Cheryl says. In the future, she adds, “we’d love to do another powerful collection like We Rise, as well as other outstanding stand-alone titles.”

“The struggle for diversity and inclusion in children’s book publishing is not new,” Wade points out. “We are proud to have been a part of the movement, and we continue to be a part of it. We are also proud that we have played a role in helping more people of color enter the publishing industry.”—Diane Patrick

Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson will appear in conversation with Phoebe Yeh and Kwame Alexander in a morning keynote titled “We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices!” on Thursday, June 21, 10:15–11 a.m., in Grand D.

Temple Grandin

Igniting young minds through science and art

A renowned inventor, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, and activist for the autism community, Temple Grandin recently added children’s book author to her list of accomplishments. Grandin, who has written a dozen books for adults, including her autobiography, Thinking in Pictures (1995), made her children’s book debut last month with Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor (Philomel).

The book offers 25 projects that kids can do on their own, often using household materials, and it interweaves anecdotes from Grandin’s own childhood in the 1950s. “When I was a child, I loved to make things,” she says. “I spent hours experimenting, making bird kites and parachutes. If it flew, I liked it. I’d spend hours making things out of markers, crayons, and tape—and I had a Singer Sewhandy [a children’s sewing machine].”

During school visits across the country, Grandin says she has been disheartened to find a de-emphasis on tactile learning. “Kids today aren’t making things anymore. I’m a teacher, and I’m seeing kids getting through school now who don’t know how to use protractors or rulers or compasses. Instead, I see them getting addicted to video games. We need to get kids doing hands-on things.”

Through Calling All Minds, Grandin attempts to provide a blueprint to help kids with creative thinking and problem-solving. In addition to DIY projects, Grandin says that the book is filled with biographies of inventors, including women and African-American innovators, along with pictures of their inventions. The book also includes copies of patents.

Growing up on the autism spectrum, Grandin says that she faced social and academic difficulties, including having trouble reading. She didn’t learn to read until she was in the third grade. But she didn’t let her learning obstacles diminish her inquisitive spirit. When she wasn’t developing inventions, Grandin says, “I loved to read books about famous inventors. I was really interested in Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine; Thomas Edison; and Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamship.”

One of the joys and challenges of writing the book, Grandin says, was “duplicating [her] childhood projects,” from building a windup helicopter to constructing an optical illusion known as an Ames room. The author encourages young readers to scavenge for materials to find what works best. “Kids will have to experiment,” she adds.

Several of the projects in Calling All Minds reveal Grandin’s sense of humor and mischief. “Officially, I recommend throwing your water bombs against a tree or the side of your house. Unofficially, siblings are more fun,” she writes.

A childhood spent tinkering prepared Grandin for a career of invention and innovation. Grandin also credits her success to the support of her grandfather John C. Purves (coinventor of the autopilot)—to whom the book is dedicated—and exceptional teachers. She says of her high school science teacher Mr. Carlock, “He is a really great example of how a good teacher can turn a lousy student around. Studying became a goal toward becoming a scientist.”

The book’s emphasis, however, is less on Grandin’s achievements and more on providing fuel for young minds. At Children’s Institute, Grandin will discuss her lifelong love of inventing and the value of diverse intellectual and artistic approaches. “I do a lot of speaking events, and I always talk about different kinds of thinking: visual, mathematical, and word thinking,” she says. She urges gatekeepers “to take the thing a kid is good at and build on it.” Above all, Grandin says, “I’m interested in seeing these kids who are different getting up and being successful.”—Emma Kantor

Temple Grandin will give the afternoon keynote on Thursday, June 21, 2:15–3 p.m., in Grand D.

Tracey Hecht

Never too old to read aloud

When writer and entrepreneur Tracey Hecht, who has written, directed, and produced several films, talked with publishers about her idea for a series of middle grade readaloud novels, she was met with silence. The notion that kids don’t want to read aloud with adults once they graduate from picture books has long been the perceived wisdom. So Hecht decided to publish the 10-book Nocturnals series (about three animal friends who solve nighttime mysteries) herself through Fabled Films Press, part of the Fabled Films entertainment company she founded in New York City in 2007.

“I really care about a book being a special thing. I think readaloud can be part of this screen-based time,” Hecht says. She advocates reading as a shared activity and wants to encourage kids to engage with books the same way they do with YouTube videos. “Entertainment is dialogue-driven,” she adds, “which is why the Nocturnals is readaloud based.”

To give the series, which launched with the publication of The Nocturnals in April 2016, a strong readaloud rhythm, Hecht and her coauthors, most recently Sarah Feiber, write using “a loose 3-2-1 iambic pentameter.” Each of the three characters has its own word count. Tobin, a pangolin, utters two words for every three words that Bismark, a sugar glider, says. Dawn, the fox, underscores the conversation with a single word.

Hecht is also in the midst of cowriting a 15-book series for younger readers, ages five to seven, titled the Nocturnals Grow & Read Early Reader series, which launched in September 2017. Book two, the most recent volume, The Slithery Shakedown, came out in April. The books are grouped into three reading levels based on their Lexile score.

For early readers, Hecht relies on a different rhythm. “I use a beat storytelling style, which you can hear throughout,” she says. “If you were singing it, it would be a ba-ba-baaa, ba-ba, baaaa. I can tell when the writing is off when that staccato is not consistent.” These books also focus on a phonetic sound and use alliteration to showcase it. In book three, The Peculiar Possum (Oct.), Hecht introduces Penny the possum.

In addition, Hecht has professional readers—frequently Bailey Carr, who narrated Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793 and other audiobooks—read the manuscripts aloud to workshop new material. Carr often accompanies Hecht on school visits as well.

Reading aloud isn’t only baked into the writing of each book, it has been a critical part of the promotion for the Nocturnals, which now has four books in print with the publication of The Hidden Kingdom in February. Two years ago, when book one came out, Fabled Films partnered with the New York Public Library to create a readaloud writing program for middle grade students and teachers in neighborhood schools. Since then, Hecht has conducted the program in more than 60 schools, libraries, and bookstores around the country. Fabled Films also created a program kit for virtual school visits that includes a 3-2-1 dialogue writing workshop along with makerspace activities, word games, and crafts.

More recently, Fabled Films has partnered with Wyndham Grand Hotels on a pilot program called Reconnected, a Wyndham Grand Family Experience, which is intended to encourage families to spend time together by building a blanket fort, creating shadow puppets, or reading the Nocturnals.

Coming in 2019 is a new as-yet-unnamed series in diary format by Hecht and Feiber, which features human protagonists and is geared to the upper end of middle grade. “It’s fun to be back in development,” says Hecht, who doesn’t want the new series to interfere with the books already planned. “The thing about the Nocturnals is it takes a long time to establish yourself as a new publisher and a new author. We want to make sure we finish all 10 of the Nocturnals.”—Judith Rosen

Tracey Hecht will participate in a panel titled “How to Run Successful Virtual Author Visits” on Thursday, June 21, 3:15–4:15 p.m., in Grand Chenier.

Angie Thomas

Proud to be a social justice warrior

Much has changed for Angie Thomas in the year and a half since the publication of her debut novel, The Hate U Give, about an African-American teenager who witnesses her best friend being gunned down by a police officer during a traffic stop. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, the book immediately struck a chord with readers. It was an instant bestseller and recently received an Indies Choice Award for Young Adult Book of the Year; according to her publisher, Balzer + Bray, it has sold 850,000 copies in all formats to date.

“My life is completely different now,” says Thomas, a lifelong resident of Jackson, Miss., who seldom left her home state before the novel came out. “I travel just about every week. Now I’m traveling to Germany, Australia, the U.K.” This year alone she has been a featured speaker at a number of festivals, including the Chicago Humanities Festival, Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, North Texas Teen Book Festival, and YallWest.

Thomas conceptualized The Hate U Give while she was a student in the creative writing program at Belhaven University, in Jackson. To write it, she drew on her imagination and on her real-life experiences growing up poor, African-American, and female.

In her next novel, On the Come Up (HC/Balzer + Bray, Feb. 2019), Thomas addresses issues she’s experienced or her friends have. In it, she writes about Bri, an aspiring teenage rapper whose mother loses her job, resulting in the family facing the prospect of homelessness.

When Thomas was a teenager, she says that when her mother lost her job: “[It] changed my life; it turned everything upside down.” That memory, she says, helped shape On the Come Up. So did witnessing a shoot-out between two drug dealers in a local park when she was a child. Thomas has friends who have lost parents to gun violence and to addiction.

Thomas herself is an aspiring rapper. But she denies that Bri is her fictional alter ego. They do have similar temperaments, she admits. “Bri and I both have that mentality that no matter what’s happening, we’re going to make it,” she says.

The writer happily accepts the label of “social justice warrior” and all that it implies. “I am an author who uses my art as my activism,” she says. “Story is one of the greatest ways to build empathy with people. After 320 pages of walking in the shoes of my characters, I’d like to think that you’d have some empathy for [them].”

Given today’s political climate, Thomas sees her role, and that of indie booksellers, as more essential than ever. She doesn’t hesitate to speculate that many in the Trump Administration must not have read much when they were younger. “If our current political leaders had read books about people who are not like them when they were young,” she says, “we wouldn’t have to vote down building walls. We’d want to build bridges instead. We wouldn’t have to have Black Lives Matter. We wouldn’t have to fight for LGBTQ rights. We wouldn’t have a lot of these fights that we have.”

Lauding booksellers for championing The Hate U Give, Thomas insists that authors and booksellers together must provide young readers with “as many opportunities as possible to expand their mind-sets.” After all, she points out, “the young people I am writing for now will be voting soon and will also be running this country someday.”—Claire Kirch

Angie Thomas will give the closing keynote address on Thursday, June 21, 4:30–5:15 p.m., in Grand D.