Courageous stories by writers and illustrators of color were honored and celebrated at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan on April 6. In its fourth year, the Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference is a program produced by Kweli Journal, which publishes the writing of authors worldwide. The journal has grown into a broad community of individuals who collectively “nurture emerging writers of color and create opportunities for their voices to be recognized and valued.”

The conference began with a keynote address from author Samira Ahmed and, after a full day of concurrent panels associated with publishing, novel writing, and picture books, attendees reconvened for a reading by Jacqueline Woodson, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, followed by a conversation between Woodson and author Rudine Sims Bishop.

First to speak was Ahmed, author of Internment (Little, Brown). She described the Kweli conference and the surrounding community as “the first place as a writer I felt at home.” She added that “home is where you can be your whole self.” For Ahmed, America has rarely felt like that kind of home to her. She shared her history of being targeted by American racists from the time she was a child in the summer of 1980 (following the Iranian hostage crisis). Struggling with both the blatant and underhanded racism she encountered, Ahmed “turned to poetry.” Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, too, sang America: “but if America is a song, it’s deeply out of tune,” Ahmed said. As authors of color are “still fighting to rightly claim the right to tell our stories,” Ahmed urged the writers in the audience to remember that the world needs to hear the truth told through fiction and that “your story is a verse that every child can sing.”

Telling the Truth in Long Form

Novelists gathered for a panel discussion on the topic of “Form in Fiction.” The authors were Aida Salazar, Lygia Day Peñaflor, and Leah Henderson. Alvina Ling, editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, served as moderator. The authors opened with a discussion of where the seeds of their stories first begin to grow. For Salazar, her novel-in-verse, The Moon Within (Scholastic/Levine), originated with the voice of an “irreverent 11-year-old [who is] mad at the world, and mad at her body.” As Peñaflor (who teaches child actors) was writing All of This Is True (HarperTeen), a character’s voice also came to her first—specifically, that of a 12-year-old actor navigating “the strange adult world” of television and film.

From these initial voices, characters take shape—but they don’t always stay the same, and often take on lives of their own. An important lesson that Henderson learns again and again is that “sometimes you have to step out of a character’s way.”

As is often the case, the creative process is amorphous and more than a little mysterious.

The panelists moved onto the topic of structure and the way in which it upholds and builds characters. Henderson found that a book’s structure can be determined by the urgency brought to the storyline and characterizations. She often asks herself what her protagonist “truly, truly wants.” Shortly after conceiving of her character, Celi, Salazar found that her voice came to her in verse. As she began writing, she started shaping the short sections of the book after the phases of the moon, a symbol that plays prominently in the story of self-acceptance and celebration of girls and women’s menstrual cycles. As Salazar learned from author Linda Sue Park, so much of establishing a character’s voice concerns “word choice and punctuation,” Aida said. Writing in verse, these elements—which can serve as “breath breaks” in the text—became particularly significant for the pacing of the book. Peñaflor determined that, as her book deals with truth, differing points-of-view, and representation, she needed to tell the same story through multiple perspectives.

The authors next discussed the roles that research—and their own lived experiences—play in their fiction. Peñaflor channeled her work with child actors when writing All of This Is True: “we all use our lives,” she said. Salazar, who admits to being a talented eavesdropper, has also researched her family history to write her story about her distant aunt, Jovita Wore Pants (to be published in 2020).

While Henderson sees it as inevitable that an author’s own life will be reflected on the page, she said, “When I feel myself there, I pull back.” She admitted that, at times, this can hinder her creativity. It’s a balance between bringing a sense of “intimacy” to the page, while also allowing her characters room to evolve. She based her protagonist in One Shadow on the Wall (Atheneum) on a boy she photographed while visiting Senegal. At that time, she felt as if he were saying to her, “I dare you not to see me.” Peñaflor feels that, while an author surely brings her life to the stories she tells, a reader brings their own perceptions and expectations to the story: sometimes, when a reader has a very strong reaction to what’s on the page, she urges them to reflect, suggesting, “I think you are a little mad at yourself.”

The authors touched on the topic of the editor-author relationship and when they might push back on particular constructive criticism—particularly when that criticism has to do with an idea or perspective that might fall outside the editors’ experience or understanding. For Henderson, she believes in the importance of protecting cultural content “for our kids,” but added that a writer is also conveying a particular, lived perspective that doesn’t necessarily reflect everyone else’s: “check yourself, too!”

As the editor on the panel, Ling offered her point of view. Ling has a rule that she uses when an author disagrees with an assessment she has made on their work: “I ask three times in different ways. Then I let the author decide.”

The panelists concluded with discussing their greatest hopes for their stories as they make their ways in the world. Salazar hopes that her work captures the “lived and felt and inherited” stories of family members who were lost while en route to America or deported. Writing books that reach those who need to read them “is the most revolutionary act,” she said. Henderson has a very specific wish for One Shadow on the Wall—that the boy she photographed in Senegal might read it “and recognize himself.”

New on the Scene

Three debut children’s book writers shared their perspectives on the origins of their books and their paths to becoming authors. The panelists were Alicia D. Williams, Hilda Eunice Burgos, and Susan Muaddi Darraj; Tiffany D. Jackson served as moderator. Darraj has previously written books for adults and described the learning curve she experienced when writing her forthcoming children’s book, Farah Rocks Fifth Grade (Capstone). She was moved to write the book when her daughter asked her, “Why aren’t there any Arab kids in books?” She realized at that moment that “I asked that same question 30 years ago.” Creating the book was a long process of “revising and learning,” she said.

Burgos also struggled to find relatable books when she was a kid, and was so eager to find characters that reflected her experiences, that she sometimes reached for them—for example, she clung to the fact that, like in her family, Little Women features four sisters. Later, she was amused by the fact that the characters in the classic book “bemoan the fact that they only have one servant.”

Williams took a rather circuitous route to writing for children. As a child and young adult, “I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I wanted to be good at something. I wanted someone to be proud of me,” she said. Her professional roles included working as a flight attendant, but when she became a mother, that was no longer an option. A storytelling convention sparked her urge to write. She was accepted into a writing program and “I worked my butt off,” she said.

While Burgos “didn’t set out to write about my life,” she also recognized that the old adage holds truth: “the best way to make a story believable is to write what you know.” In Williams’s case, for Ana Maria Reyes Does Not Live in a Castle (Lee & Low), “I wrote about a girl who does not love herself. I was also struggling with self-love.” Like her character, Genesis, Williams also faced bias and prejudice from her surrounding community: “I didn’t want my family to be attacked,” she said.

The authors discussed navigating expectations both from the publishing world and from within their own communities. As a kid, Darraj was painfully aware of prejudice against Arab-Americans, particularly following the first Gulf War. But, while dealing with cruel and derogatory name calling was a persistent reality for her, when it came to writing, she wanted to tell a more expansive story about Arab-American characters: “I don’t want to read a book about anti-Arab bias.” Instead, she intends to write books that act as metaphorical “hugs for Arab kids.”

As Burgos sees it, because there isn’t enough representation in children’s literature, writers of color and their individual books end up carrying greater individual weight than would novels about white characters. Her character, Ana Maria Reyes, is “only one story of one Dominican girl in Washington Heights,” she said. Darraj also felt pressure from within her community to create a character who was “outstanding and perfect,” rather than realistically human. But “kids know when you are telling the truth,” she said.

Williams said she was once discouraged from writing her story by an African-American woman concerned about the way one complex and flawed African-American character might reflect upon the greater community. Being a writer of color “is a big burden,” she said.

In closing, Jackson asked the panelists to share a message that they might send to their younger selves. Williams had several messages: “you are good enough, little Alicia [and] choose to be brave and define beauty for yourself.” She would also encourage young Alicia to realize that “you don’t own your parents’ mistakes.” Burgos would tell young Hilda that she need not write white characters and that “you have your story; people will be able to relate to it.” Lastly, Darraj would tell her childhood self, embarrassed about the lunches her mother made for her that, “one day there will be white children bringing hummus to school.”

Tales of Resistance

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Wade and Cheryl Hudson—founders of Just Us Books—felt compelled to respond to what they saw as a growing environment of divisiveness and toxicity. Wade wanted to reach out to children distressed by this negativity—or who might be picking up on their parents’ anxieties—by responding with “courage, hope, love, and support.” The result of that desire to shine a light in a difficult time, was We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, a collection of stories, poems, and illustrations.

They planned to present authors and illustrators with the question, “What shall we tell them?” A chance meeting with Phoebe Yeh, v-p and publisher, Crown Books for Young Readers, sparked an idea for an even broader collaboration than the Hudsons had envisioned. Yeh suggested a partnership between Just Us Books and Crown—and the blueprint for what would become We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, was born. Joining the Hudsons and Yeh in their discussion were Pat Cummings and Tony Medina, who each contributed a piece of writing to the book.

Cummings reflected on her trepidation concerning being in the company of such esteemed fellow artists. But she reasoned with herself that, “you don’t have to worry. Your voice is your voice is your voice.” Her visual poem responds, in part, to the disturbingly persistent reality of gun violence in America. She thought about the fact that young people—whether adults are cognizant of it or not—“pick up on hostility and frightening headlines. To kids, it’s all real.”

Medina wrote a poem for the We Rise collection that was inspired by the story of a child whose father, while driving her to school in the morning, was stopped and detained by ICE for deportation. “In an answer to the Trump era, the character’s voice came to me in an instant,” Medina said. The project as a whole also came together quickly: “We did it fast because of the relevance,” Cheryl said.

The Hudsons, too, each have a piece in the collection. Wade had written verse in the past, “but I’d gotten away from writing poetry.” In crafting “What Shall We Tell You?,” he felt that he rediscovered his poetic voice. Cheryl created a piece that honored two of her loves—music and story quilt making. Her work references the song, “Get on Board, Little Children,” which gained popularity when it was performed by Paul Robeson. Collectively, the images and words form a patchwork that “honors African American traditions,” evoking the history of the underground railroad, among other motifs.

Yeh called We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices “one of the most beautiful collaborations,” while Wade emphasized that he hopes the collection will continue to carry the message to readers that “we have been through challenges like this before,” and survived to tell about them.

Mining for Gold

Middle grade and YA authors discussed the nuances of research for a panel called “Mining Deep: Research, Writing & Discovery.” Panelists were Karyn Parsons, Emily X.R. Pan, and Victoria Bond, with Kokila publisher Namrata Tripathi moderating. The authors reflected on the different forms research takes, from physical travel to introspection. As she was writing The Astonishing Color of After (Little, Brown), Pan realized that she was unconsciously channeling her own experience with depression and reaction to a suicide. Parsons also found that much of her research was internal. Journaling helped her to “reach deeper into my experiences to better distill them.”

In collaboratively writing the Zora and Me series with T.R. Simon, Bond found that the “mining” process looks a bit different than it might for a solo author. In her efforts to “give Zora a friend she didn’t have in life,” Bond believes that she and Simon found meaning through their interactions with one another, saying that the book “is really a love letter to each other,” Bond said. In her experience, having less information can sometimes be more. When writing historical fiction, she advises authors to “look for the blank spots.” In the places where details might be missing lies the opportunity to ask questions, to imagine, and to “look around the corner” to find the unexpected. A challenge—and joy—in writing about Hurston was that she was quite a storyteller; “no one knew if she was telling the truth or not,” said Bond.

But while the authors may inhabit worlds of the past while writing, Tripathi questioned whether their “contemporary worldviews” impact the telling of their stories. Bond absolutely believes that many of the “feelings, troubles, passions, and desires” of today mirror those that permeated the past. Also, “I have always felt that I will be me no matter where I am in history.”

When writing about the past, Parsons finds illuminating information from books and other materials created during the era she is researching. She also has observed that there is great power in “serendipity” when researching a topic. Pan finds that, regardless of a character’s circumstances, she pulls from her own life to tell their story. Her protagonist is biracial, while Pan is not, but “I still straddled two cultures.”

Similarly, in writing about artists in The Astonishing Color of After, Pan drew from her own “painful experiences as a musician,” while maintaining a safe distance between the character’s circumstances and her own.

Concluding the discussion, the authors offered candid thoughts on maintaining momentum and discipline in writing. For Bond, she admitted that her writing process is often grueling and unforgiving. “I find writing to be very miserable; it’s not a party.” She added that, after developing a clear sense of direction and purpose, she does find joy in the process. And in Pan’s case, she tries to “not abandon the joy of writing.” Parsons seconded that, saying that “writers must keep going back to having fun and making a mess.”

Picture Book Journeys

Picture book writers and artists took part in a panel called “The Anatomy of a Picture Book.” The panelists—Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Art Coulson, and Minh Lê—talked about their creative processes, who they write for, and the collaboration between authors and illustrators. Moderator Celia Lee, a Scholastic editor, asked the panelists to discuss how they know that a particular story is one they want to tell. Brantley-Newton remarked that it’s when she feels an emotional connection to an idea, character, or story. “When you feel the thing that makes you feel like you.” Lê knows to pursue a story when “it will not let go,” while Coulson becomes haunted by a character: “this made up person: you are thinking about them more than your own family.”

The panelists talked about the process of stepping back from their work when submitting to their editors or deferring to an illustrator’s decision-making. Brantley-Newton likes to have creative control over her work and can become very attached to certain details in her illustrations—there are times to fight for an artistic choice and times “when I have to pull back.”

As a writer, Lê has learned not to “over direct” the artist. He maps out the pages and specifies pacing and page turns, but leaves the artist room to bring their vision to the book. He added that, “sometimes not being involved with every decision can result in welcome surprises.”

Lee asked the creators to reflect on who they are writing or illustrating for as they work on projects, “How do you stay true to a child reader while honoring your own vision?”

Brantley-Newton thinks about her own childhood self as she is creating. “I draw for five-year-old Vanessa.” But she is also cognizant of her adult audience. “I try to offer parents a do-over, too.” In other words, parents might be able to revisit their own childhoods through reading to their children. Similarly, while Lê most definitely writes for a child reader, he hopes that his books will resonate so strongly that “the book will stay with a child for a lifetime.”

Bringing Inclusivity to Publishing

Authors and gatekeepers convened for a panel called “The Art of Inclusion.” The speakers were Alessandra Balzer, Grace Kendall, Namrata Tripathi, and Marietta Zacker, with author and agent Eric Smith moderating. The speakers echoed many of the sentiments expressed throughout the day—that writers of color are often faced with unfair pressures to singularly represent their cultures and communities through their characters. Despite progress, the panelists emphasized, publishers’ lists still default to white stories while books with non-white characters are often seen as token titles.

Smith asked the editors to speak about their efforts to “support voices outside your own experience.” Kendall, senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, talked about her work to be better aware of “the weight of my whiteness” and what she unconsciously brings to the table. Balzer, co-publisher at Balzer + Bray, echoed this sentiment, expressing the importance of “being comfortable with what you don’t know.” She added that, “no matter what, the editor’s job is to be invisible.” In supporting the work of authors, Zacker, co-owner of Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, believes that it’s the responsibility of agents and editors to actively maintain a sense of “curiosity and humility” and to “ask better questions to get to the truth of a manuscript.”

Tripathi emphasized the importance of not shying from difficult discussions, saying “it’s necessary to sustain a level of discomfort” in order to move forward with more inclusivity. Kendall agreed, remarking on the great responsibility entailed in being a gatekeeper for children’s literature, and recognizing that “if it’s not uncomfortable, you are not doing the right investigation.” Editors also have an obligation to their authors and illustrators to resist “feeling threatened by being told you made a mistake,” and to instead listen and learn.

Bringing more inclusivity to publishers’ lists is one thing; the panelists also broached the problem of how to repair a corporate industry that remains predominately white and is often exclusionary. Tripathi wonders sometimes if “burning it all down” is the path forward. But, if that’s the case, “how would we rebuild?” She also believes that mentoring is a key aspect of making significant structural changes.

Zacker takes an optimistic and practical view that “we are publishing more of your books.” After all, the promise of monetary gain can drive publishers to seek out more inclusive voices. Kendall suggested that outdated paradigms might shift by helping young people in the industry to move forward more quickly. “Let’s not hold editorial assistants back,” she said. And, of course, paying entry level employees more can actually make these positions more desirable, Balzer suggested.

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that listening, speaking up, and admitting ignorance can lead to more meaningful communication and books being published for the sake of reflecting the world’s diversity, rather than merely for monetary gain.

There are conversations to be had and lessons to be learned on all sides. For Zacker, she wants gatekeepers to remember that “diversity didn’t start with We Need Diverse Books.”

‘Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors’

Following a reading from her forthcoming book for adults, Red at the Bone, Jacqueline Woodson spoke in conversation with author, educator, and scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, who first conceived the concept of “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors.” The discussion was narrated by author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, who asked Woodson and Bishop to weigh in on “the moment we are in now,” both culturally and within the children’s book world. “I’m encouraged by this moment,” said Bishop. “People are aware and making efforts to be more inclusive. It’s a long way from where we were,” she said. Woodson agrees that significant changes are being made, saying, “Publishers are realizing that people buy our books. And that we read.” However, Woodson still feels that “people think of us as a commodity as opposed to humans,” she said.

A good question for white people to ask, Woodson said, is: “what can I do to be an ally?” The speakers ended the day’s impassioned discussions with suggestions for the writers in the audience as they pursue their own stories. Bishop wants writers and gatekeepers to not underestimate their readers, saying that “white kids understand stories about non-white kids. [Gatekeepers] are wrong when they say kids don’t get it.... They don’t give kids enough credit.”

Woodson advises that writers focus on their creative paths, ignore whatever trends are booming in the industry, and “never go on Goodreads.” In closing, she addressed the importance of writers being mutually supportive of one another’s work and finding ways to cut out “the noise” of social media wars that ultimately leads to the silencing of voices and stories.“With so much animosity coming at us,” Woodson asked, “why are we fighting each other?”