The formats varied, but children’s and YA authors and editors cut through any anxiety about digital sessions with candid and powerful discussions about identity, race, mental illness, immigration, history, and art at the combined New Voices New Rooms conference for the New Atlantic and Southern Independent booksellers this week.

Writing the Personal and Profound

Amy Cherrix, children’s book buyer at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, N.C., moderated a four-author panel called Tough Subjects Need Special Care on Tuesday, in which authors shared their reasons for taking up difficult themes in books for middle grade and young adult readers. After years of writing about LGBTQ subjects, Bill Konigsberg told booksellers about his reasons for shifting to take on the subject of mental illness in The Bridge (Scholastic Press).

“In some way my books are all about an exploration of self,” Konigsberg said. “I was beginning to think, who else am I? And what else can I say? I realized that I should come out about mental health…. Suffering from depression is a big part of who I am, since I was a child. [It was] not a fun book to write, but an important book to write.”

Amra Sabic El-Rayess and Daniel Nayeri shared their differing approaches to writing about experiencing the ravages of war and the struggles attendant with immigrating to the United States. El-Rayess’s The Cat I Never Named (Bloomsbury) is a memoir about the author’s experience as a Muslim child during the genocide in Bosnia.

“It took a few decades to write this story, largely because I was afraid to write this [and] afraid of the process,” she said. Given the current political situation in America, she said she felt an urgency to do it in spite of her fears, so that readers might develop a deeper sense of connection to the experience of refugees. “Storytelling is necessary in evoking collective empathy,” she said.

Nayeri chose to write Everything Sad Is Untrue (Levine Querido) as a complex literary telling of his experience in a family of refugees from Iran. But after 13 years of working on the book he feared that releasing it into the pandemic would lessen booksellers’ desire to champion the book. Instead, he said he was relieved to find a receptive audience for his layered story that, like El-Rayess’s, aims to deepen readers’ sense of empathy. Nayeri said that the challenge in writing about such personal trauma came through years of “trying to present the entire story in a way that didn’t revel in the nihilism of its own sadness.”

Innosanto Nagara said that meeting young readers is what continues to inspire him to take up tough subjects. Nagara had that inspiration from his earlier Kickstarter-turned-bestselling alphabet board book A Is for Activist when he sat down to write Oh, the Things We’re For! (Seven Stories, Oct.). “The most interesting part of this whole becoming-a-writer process has been discovering the piece of it where I’m going into classes and talking with kids about how much I love it,” Nagara said. “If you’d asked anyone before this if they’d ever picture me in front of a classroom auditorium talking to kids about activism, they would have said no. I always look forward to it. That changed me significantly.”

Characters Who Introduce the World

At the Kids Lunch moderated by Sami Thomason of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., on Tuesday, the digital format of the event was used to full advantage with author Peter Van den Ende joining from Belgium and authors Cozbi Cabrera and Karyn Parsons using videos to share visuals and backstory to their books.

Van den Ende showed pages from his wordless picture The Wanderer (Levine Querido, Oct.), about a paper boat at sea, and its encounters with sea monsters, storms, and the North and South Poles. “Every domain symbolizes something different,” Van den Ende said. “The poles might be loneliness or a storm challenges or the deep sea when you’re not feeling that great, but there are also good things like mangrove trees and coral reefs.”

Van den Ende said he hopes readers will interpret much of the book’s meaning for themselves, but did offer one insight about why he is fond of the little boat at the heart of the story. “What I like about him [is that] in none of the pictures he is saying, ‘look at me, it’s about me, me, me.’ He says, ‘don’t look at me. Look at the world around me,’ and that’s a nice little message.”

Other authors at the luncheon shared that sentiment, telling booksellers about characters who open up a wider view of the world, past, present, and speculative alike. B.B. Alston told readers about how a daily imaginative wondering during the start of his career as a doctor led him to write Amari and the Night Brothers (Balzer + Bray, Jan 2021). “I would start with a question,” Alston said. “What if?”

Thousands of what ifs later, Alston had created the story of a character who is searching for a lost brother, and has to join a secret supernatural society to find him. Alston described a painful and emotionally wrought process of forcing himself to make the main character white, even though he is Black, because he thought a publisher would not acquire the book. “I’m sorry to admit that in my 30+ years I had come to believe there are some adventures a kid like me doesn’t get to have.” Eventually, Alston had a change of heart that he is delighted to have undergone, and made the protagonist Black, as he had originally envisioned her. Without it, he said he doubts the story could have achieved the emotional depth it does, arriving at a big message. “With so much division in the world I don’t think there’s anything more pressing or current than how we treat each other.”

Brian “Smitty” Smith, Karyn Parsons, and Cozbi A. Cabrera embrace that message in their forthcoming books. After a long career at Marvel Comics, Smith told readers he was dismayed by how few kids his work was reaching. Pea, Bee & Jay (HarperAlley) is his reaction to that frustration: a story of three characters who look different, meet on a farm, and embark on a journey together.

Parsons’ Flying Free (Little, Brown, Dec.) delves into the past, telling the story of Bessie Coleman, the first Black and Indigenous female aviator to earn a pilot’s license. Parsons, who starred in the TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, has created nonfiction animated videos about major Black figures through her foundation, Sweet Blackberry, and shared video of the Coleman animation, which is narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne. “Even today [Bessie] would make so much news, she was so inspiring,” Parsons said. “She received her international pilot’s license two years before Amelia Earhart.”

Cabrera shared a short video for her recently released Me & Mama (Simon & Schuster), which delves into the relationship between a child and mother, looking at how they teach one another about the world they see. But she set aside her opening remarks to address booksellers directly. “Independents are able to inspire trust and loyalty and devotion,” she said, arguing that these qualities will never be bested by “big data.”

Editors Bring the World in Books

The Children’s Editors Buzz Panel at NAIBA/SIBA on Wednesday led off with Marleen Marlette, assistant editor at Scholastic, discussing Muted by Tami Charles (Feb. 2021), a novel in verse depicting the experiences of a 17-year-old aspiring singer living in the orbit of an R. Kelly-like R&B superstar. Marlette followed with a second music-themed book: Leah Johnson’s novel Rise to the Sun (July 2021), about a pair of girls who spend the weekend at a music festival where the sudden appearance of a gun changes everything. “It’s about community, music and Black girl love,” said Marlette.

Emma Raddatz, editorial and development associate at Elsewhere Editions, the children’s imprint of Archipelago Books, began her presentation with I Wish by Toon Tellegen, translated from the Dutch by David Colmer, and illustrated by Ingrid Godon (March 2020), a collection of poetry that is paired with portraits of giant heads. This was followed by 2016 Bologna Ragazzi Award winner My Little One (Oct. 2020) by Germano Zullo, illustrated by Albertine, and translated from the French by Katie Kitamura. “It’s a poetic story about love, life’s waxing and waning/ Albertine and Germano make space to ponder time and memory,” Raddatz said. Associate editor Sara Gale presented Juan Hormiga by Gustavo Roldán, translated from the Spanish by Robert Croll (May 2021), a picture book that features a lazy but adventurous ant.

The final presenters were Arthur Levine, publisher and founder of Levine Querido, and Antonio Cerna, marketing director of Levine Querido. The new publishing house’s first list of titles began reaching bookstores less than a month ago and, Levine noted, one of the company’s first published books, Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth (Oct. 2020), had already been longlisted for the National Book Award. Levine devoted special praise to the forthcoming Popcorn Bob. The book, by Maranke Rinck, illustrated by Martijn van der Linden, translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier (Apr. 2021), is the first in a series that will be followed by a sequel in fall 2021. Levine also talked up The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst by Jaclyn Moriarty (Mar. 2021), a middle-grade fantasy novel that “is about how even middle children can be heroes. “It is maybe the best middle-child fantasy I have ever read,” he said. Cerna lastly gave a plug to one of the titles from the company’s debut list: The Big Questions Book of Sex and Consent by Donna Freitas (Oct. 2020). “This is an entire curriculum in a book,” he said. “You could hand this to a parent or teen and they will have an exhaustive look at sex and consent.” But, Levine added, “written in a way that is conversational, like talking to a cool adult.”

A Scholastic Graphixcon session with graphic novelists took up a tough subject close to home: the experience of middle grade kids growing up and learning to navigate their developing feelings in the world. Led by Graphix founder and publisher David Saylor, the session included author-artists Gale Galligan, Chris Grine, Maria Scrivan, and Shannon Wright.

Twins #1 (Oct.) is the first book in a series that Wright has co-authored with author Varian Johnson, who is a twin himself. The book follows twin sisters who are starting middle school. One is shy and hopes to cling to her sister, while her sister sets out to separate her own identity. It is Wright’s first book, and she told booksellers, “I am over the moon. I am experiencing excitement, jitters, fright: every emotion you can think of.”

Reflecting on why the experience is particularly profound for her, Wright captured the overall spirit of the conference, talking about where the personal meets the broader world. She recounted the story of a Baltimore educator thanking her for illustrating a book that will depict BIPOC characters who look like the kids she teaches, an interaction that embodied her purpose in her work.