The ninth annual American Booksellers Association Children’s Institute came to a close on September 1, marking the second year that the indie bookseller gathering was held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Attendance jumped to 985, up from 745 attendees last year. Distance did little to dampen booksellers’ excitement on the third and final day of the event, which featured a music-centered closing keynote of four authors, multiple roundtable educational sessions, and a sweeping look at the broader trends at play in children’s bookselling.

Those trends show continued, significant growth in children’s book sales, according to Kristen McLean, executive director of business development at the NPD Group, who presented the company’s assessment of the health of children’s bookselling based on its ongoing tracking of approximately 85% of consumer print unit sales.

Sales of children’s books are up 9% year-to-date over 2020, which was itself a banner year, McLean said. Some individual categories are even higher, including fiction sales, which are up 15%, and kids' comics and manga, which are up 17%. Nonfiction sales are down compared to last year, with students returning to in-person learning in schools, but in a sign of just how much the category has grown since the beginning of the pandemic, McLean said sales are still up overall compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Backlist sales continued a trend of outperforming frontlist, but in a nod to their influence, indies outperformed competitors on frontlist. “Without indies, and without bricks-and-mortar bookstores, generally, the market would continue to be really difficult for new books to find their audience,” McLean said.

In a second day of educational roundtable sessions, attendees had the opportunity to translate many of McLean’s observations into practical advice for each other, sharing tips on best practices in largely informal conversations. Booksellers had a choice between four roundtables: non-traditional bookstores; learning tools for academic achievement; measuring virtual events’ return on investment; and optimizing sales with gift bundles, boxes, and sidelines.

At one point 145 booksellers participated in a workshop on optimizing sales with gift bundles, boxes, and sidelines, which vibrated with energy as ideas were thrown around by both moderators and participants.

Some booksellers advocated for filling gift boxes with books by award winners or local authors, with Stacey Haerr, a buyer at Warwick’s in La Jolla, Calif. reporting that the store made a special gift box containing books by local resident Matt de la Peña during the holidays last year. Others prefer to fill such boxes with emerging authors or authors who are not receiving the attention they deserve. Most add small sidelines to the boxes along with books.

“Stickers, origami paper, and cute little pencils, and pen sets, maybe a puzzle for the higher-tier gift boxes,” one bookseller said, while another said that they put stuffed animals in gift boxes. Brandi Stewart, a bookseller at Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., related that for Easter, the store put together “bunny packages,” containing a book about Easter along with a stuffed rabbit and a box of candy. Heather Jezoriowski reported that her store, Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, Ga., put together “boo bags” for Halloween.

Publishing professionals said they found the sessions as illuminating as booksellers did. For Charlesbridge marketing associate Jordan Kei Standridge, the roundtable session on “Measuring Virtual Events’ Return on Investment” was the “the highlight of the conference.”

“Children’s event coordinators were able to speak with one another about what is and isn’t working for them, ask for advice from their peers, and learn new approaches,” Standridge said. “Throughout this pandemic, children’s booksellers have been nothing but passionate, creative, and resilient. It was really beneficial to hear what they had to say on virtual events, and what publishers and authors can do to help.”

The day’s deep dive into operations was offset by a buoyant closing keynote panel, with four authors reflecting on the importance of music in their lives and their work. Moderator Tami Charles led the propulsive conversation between poet and music scholar Hanif Abdurraqib, and authors Tiffany D. Jackson and Jason Reynolds. All four shared their musical influences, thoughts on the relationship between writing and music, and some of their current favorite artists.

As the conference came to a close, Cathy Berner, children's/young adult specialist and events coordinator at Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, said she was particularly grateful to the ABA for organizing a second virtual children’s institute that continued to capture her interest and generated excitement.

“I really appreciate how hard the team at the ABA worked to lean in to the parts of virtual events that provide connection and discovery,” she said. “We got to see so many authors from around the world who might not have been able to attend. The keynotes were amazing and the chats were energizing and heartening. Indie bookselling has so many clever, creative, kind people and the expo as well as the roundtables were full of the energy of idea sharing and support.”

ABA CEO Alison K. Hill shared Berner’s excitement at the close of the conference. “Children's Institute felt like a celebration in many ways, and it also felt like we were back to business, as booksellers learned about trends, authors, and best practices to help them move forward,” Hill said. ““Booksellers were strong in numbers and strong in spirit.”

ABA is anticipating an in-person 10th annual Children's Institute next year, to be held June 20–22 in Phoenix.

This article has been updated to correct an earlier misspelling of Jordan Standridge's name.