Originally planned to be held at Barnard College in Harlem, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fifth annual Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference was ushered into the digital sphere for the inaugural #Kweli20VIRTUAL. Kweli is the largest children’s conference exclusively for black, Indigenous, and other creators of color in the United States. Co-sponsored by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and hosted on Zoom, Kweli Journal’s two-day symposium took place on April 3–4.

Learning Craft from Industry Giants

Friday featured master classes with four esteemed creators. Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park (Prairie Lotus, Clarion), award-winning author-illustrator Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Just Like Me, Knopf), National Book Award finalist Ibi Zoboi (My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, Dutton), and International Latino Book Award winner Aida Salazar (The Moon Within, Scholastic) took to Zoom to hold intensives for 15–20 attendees, respectively. Each course covered a different topic: Park spoke on revision, Brantley-Newton educated on collage, Zoboi instructed on writing about home in young adult novels, and Salazar taught on the novel-in-verse.

Agents and editors also reached out to master class participants for one-on-one phone calls and Zoom manuscript critique sessions, some scheduled to take place at later dates.

Indigenous Excellence

Kicking off Saturday morning’s events, the Native community virtually honored Laura Pegram, executive director of Kweli, by giving her a Pendleton blanket. On behalf of Dr. Debbie Reese (Nambé Pueblo), who had planned to present the blanket to Pegram in person, keynote speaker Brian Young (Navajo) presented Reese’s speech: “Within many Native communities, we honor those who have done something that is for the good of the community. Through Kweli, Laura has helped Native writers at every stage of the writing process, and her support means that Native and non-Native kids can find books by Native writers. She’s touched more lives than any of us can count.”

Young, a filmmaker and spring 2021 debut author (Healer of the Water Monster, Heartdrum) continued with the morning address, greeting attendees in the Navajo language before acknowledging the circumstances and providing encouragement to those suffering because of Covid-19. “Now more than ever, stories are our weapon against boredom and isolation,” Young said. “It is through our stories that we will find healing.”

Young then spoke about his childhood in the heart of the Navajo reservation in Arizona, including his personal challenges with depression, and how he was able to prevail with the assistance of therapy, medication, and ceremony. Highlighting the rejuvenating power of traditional stories, Young shared his path to publication, including the importance of the support Kweli provides.

“With the ever-growing community, the family that Kweli cultivates, we push back against the fallacy that such and such stories don’t sell. We dispel the idiocy that there is no market for voices like ours,” Young declared. “Through your voice, your community can be healed. From my grandparents to you: Yíwolíbee ánít’ í shiyázhí. My child, keep at it and work hard.”

This year, Kweli featured a notable number of Indigenous creators, including HarperCollins’s Heartdrum imprint founder, author Cynthia Leitich Smith; author Traci Sorell; and illustrator Michaela Goade, as well as Angeline Boulley, Eric Gansworth, Carole Lindstrom, Darcie Little Badger, Kevin Noble Maillard, and Andrea Rogers.

A Bounty of Diverse Options

On Saturday the Kweli conference offered a full day of scheduling for participants, with a multitude of options that represented assorted facets of the industry. Six courses in the Publishing, Community, and Culture Track; five courses in the Novels/Memoir Track; five courses in the Illustrated Books and Nonfiction Track; and two lengthier sessions in the Intensive Track allowed attendees to delve deep into the concentrations that intrigued them most.

Highlights from the Panels

One particularly salient mid-morning panel was a Publishing Track conversation called “What to Expect: Cultivating The Author-Agent-Editor Relationship.” In conversation were author Traci Sorell and her Kokila editor Namrata Tripathi, agent Faye Bender, and author Angeline Boulley and her Holt editor Tiffany Liao; Wendi Gu, an agent at Janklow and Nesbit, served as moderator. The panelists expounded upon what the process of getting an agent was like, as well as what agents and editors look for in prospective projects.

Tripathi shared, “It’s really about voice, and your You-ness. When you see an author writing toward a trend or something they think sells, there’s a performativity. [I’m looking for] the pursuit of truth and a real confidence in your You-ness.”

In the Novel Track, “The Dark Fantastic” was an enlightening panel, featuring Diana Abu-Jaber, Roshani Chokshi, Kwame Mbalia, and Karen Strong, moderated by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas. The authors discussed at length how to translate mythos into narrative.

“I really try to find the gaps in mythology between what isn’t expressed,” Chokshi shared. Mbalia agreed, stating, “You can write so many beautiful stories in those gaps. You’re given a set of letters… and you get to fill them in.” Chokshi appreciated the metaphor, adding, “For so many second-generation children, our diaspora requires us to build our own lexicon out of the set of letters we’re given.”

The authors also spoke on the differences between writing contemporary and fantasy. Jaber said, “I found it wasn’t that different. You have to research. You have to use the same kind of detail, and characters, the same way you have to do with supposedly realistic or literary fiction. The number one issue I had to deal with was setting. It’s not that different, and maybe that’s kind of a reassuring note for someone who’s trying to make the change.”

Another notable Publishing Track panel was “Disrupting the System,” which gathered industry professionals to discuss making change in the children’s book industry, and was moderated by Tripathi. Panelists Serene Hakim, Wade Hudson, Arthur Levine, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Mekisha Telfer, and Phoebe Yeh discussed their time in the industry, their current actions to make change, and their hopes, expectations, and predictions for the future.

Telfer spoke on how Covid-19 is affecting the publishing industry from a younger person’s perspective, emphasizing how remote work may provide future opportunities in publishing: “It has certainly forced the hands of several publishers to sort of step into the 21st century. No one was using telecommunication. And it showed, and it was frustrating. It’s very expensive to be here; it’s not sustainable unless you have a certain level of privilege or some circumstance that provides it. Economically we might be shrinking, but technologically we might be able to force the doors of access open.”

Centering the Other and Dethroning 'Vicious Mediocrity'

Introduced by Pegram, Linda Sue Park ended the day with a rousing keynote, supplemented by a screen-shared presentation.

She began by revealing her experience of speaking to mostly white audiences, explaining how she often used the example of incorrect knitting portrayal in picture books to catch their attention about bad representation. She continued by reading an excerpt of Prairie Lotus, her #OwnVoices middle grade novel inspired by Little House on the Prairie that centers the experiences of half-Asian Hana, which she hoped particularly resonated considering the anti-East Asian rhetoric of the present moment.

“Sometimes I’m asked how historical fiction can be #OwnVoices,” Park said. “In my way of thinking, we use another era as a vehicle, a lens to think about what our concerns are today. It’s instructive to read historical fiction written during that era you’re trying to write about. Because it doesn’t matter what era they’re writing about—the concerns of that era will be reflected in that story.”

Park then praised novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” explaining how Western hegemonic views whitewash our understanding of history by highlighting American settlers of color in the 1700s and 1800s. “In the latter part of the 19th and 20th century, one in four cowboys was black,” she continued. “If you had the picture of a white cowboy, like most of us have, you have been subject to a single story, a single story that all cowboys are white.”

Next, Park spoke on what her present writing schedule looks like, revealing that her new routine is to write every day for 12-minute intervals, and talked how technology can be used for support and accountability.

What’s important, Park insisted, is to continue writing and centering the children who need your stories. Alluding to the current sociopolitical moment, Park said, “The old standards lead to vicious mediocrity. I want a new path.”

“We can turn what the dominant culture deems our weaknesses into forms of strength for our art. We know different kinds of fear than they do. And that gives us a different understanding of courage. Write that,” Park proclaimed. “We’ve been hated on more than they have, so we have a different understanding of love. Write that. We know despair and sorrow in unique ways, so we have a special relationship with hope, and our own particular spectrum of joy. Write that. Write those stories. Children need those stories and they’re waiting. So let’s get to work.”

Once again exalting the significance of black, Native, and other voices of color, this year’s Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference was another storied success, offering support, community, and unprecedented increased access in its digital format. #Kweli21 is planned for April 10, 2021.