The ninth annual ABA Children’s Institute kicked off virtually for the second year in a row on Monday with a program that ranged from a session on how to conduct difficult conversations, to the most recent Indies Introduce selections, to a surprise visit by Judy Blume and David Levithan, who paid tribute to the late Beverly Cleary by reading from her work. A reception and a meet-up for BIPOC booksellers rounded out the first day.
On Tuesday morning, energy and excitement ran high among more than 400 booksellers as they convened for the Ci9 opening keynote, featuring David and Nicola Yoon in conversation with Bria Ragin, the editor at Delacorte Press who is working with the couple on their new teen romance imprint, Joy Revolution. The imprint will launch in spring 2023 with books about BIPOC characters written by BIPOC authors.
While the booksellers waited for the keynote to begin, author and last year’s keynoter Isaac Fitzgerald made a surprise appearance, compelled, he said, to acknowledge the particular difficulties children’s booksellers faced this past year and to thank them. “You’ve been asked to hold space and to support parents who are really overloaded, especially going back into this school year. And a space for young adults and children who are afraid and confused, and all the while, you remain passionate about ensuring that young readers have access to the words and the books they need to make sense of the world. They are so lucky to have you.”
Introducing the Yoons and Ragin, Tameka Blackshir, general manager of Reparations Club in Los Angeles, noted, “I’m not a morning person. Only my favorite people get this face this early. I am excited and low-key fan girling to introduce Nicola Yoon, David Yoon, and Bria Ragin, the creative minds behind Joy Revolution.”
Promising to channel her “inner Oprah,” Ragin began the 35-minute conversation by inquiring about the two authors’ latest endeavors in children’s literature. Nicola explained that in Instructions for Dancing (Delacorte, June), the teenage protagonist’s superpower is that every time she sees a couple kiss, she also sees the history of their relationship, from beginning to end. “She knows that love can lead to heartbreak and sorrow,” Nicola noted, disclosing that the novel was inspired by her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the death of David’s father. “I remember sitting in a hospital room, thinking, ‘Why do we do this thing? Why do we love people so much, when, potentially it’s going to really, really hurt?’ ”
Explaining that last year “was such a crappy year that I wanted to make the lightest, funniest fluffiest book I could,” David said that in his new book, he set out to create “a laugh on every page.” The novel, Super Fake Love Song (Putnam, July) is about a nerdy teenager who pretends to be a rock star to capture the heart of a girl “who is totally cool, totally savvy, and really hip. Everyone’s faking it until they’re making it.”
The conversation turned serious, however, when it pivoted to Joy Revolution. David said that the origins of Joy Revolution went back 20 years when the two met in graduate school, at Emerson College’s M.F.A. program. “We’d go to bars and talk about poetry, and literature and culture,” David, who is Korean American, recalled. “We quickly realized we were both rom-com junkies.” Nicola, who is Jamaican American, added, “One of the things we always talked about was how come no one looks like us in these stories? Why aren’t we in these stories?”
Noting that he holds up Harold and Kumar as “our golden standard—all they want to do is party and find hamburgers,” David said, “As silly as that sounds, that is them exploring the full breadth of their humanity. They can fall in love, make mistakes and get stupid, tell jokes. We’re so hungry for that kind of thing. We wanted to do something like that, too.”
Nicola said, “We just want to tell these stories that we love, with people of color. Love is transformative, and everyone falls in love.” David added, “It’s really a simple concept. “He emphasized that such stories “humanize” BIPOC, “showing them as regular people, just like everyone else, falling in love, making mistakes, getting silly. It seems like a humble mission but it’s really crucial too.”
Ragin agreed, pointing out that “social justice stories” are important for BIPOC to tell, but so are rom-coms. “If I wanted to read about Black pain all the time, I could go with social media. I feel like I’m living in it, and books for me, they’re escapism. Books we’re going to publish in Joy Revolution are going to give people that, they’re going to give people joy. You can see another part of Black and Asian and Indigenous culture.”
Nicola emphasized that books “about pain and struggle” are essential as well, insisting that “books like that save lives; they’ll literally save someone’s life. But I do think there is another life to be saved, and that is the metaphysical life. That is the life that says you can be the one who slays the dragon and gets the boy or girl, whoever you want. Meeting David and falling in love with him has changed my entire life. We need to see more of these stories because people of color fall in love all day, every day. I don’t wake up every morning and think of the struggle: I wake up thinking, ‘David, please make me coffee, honey.’ ”
While discussing intersectionality in literature and how important it is, Ragin recalled being called “an Oreo” as a child because others thought that she “acted white.” She asked, “What does that mean? We are people of color, we are not a monolith. Just because Nicola and I are Black does not mean we have the same experience in life. People aren’t defined by just their race. We need to make sure we see and hear everyone, every story, and all the ways that people can be marginalized.”
When Ragin asked the Yoons about the disparagement of the romance genre by so many who dismiss such books as fluff, they defended the genre vehemently: “Love is the thing that everyone wants; love makes the world go around,” Nicola said. “Love is not just romantic love—it’s love of your family, love of your work, love of your art, love of the social justice you’re doing.” David added, “It’s love of yourself.”
As the conversation wound down, the Yoons buzzed about some of their recent book acquisitions for Joy Revolution: Queen Bee by Amalie Howard, “a bodice ripper,” David said and Nicola added, “I dare you not to be sucked in from the first page.” Another is You Bet Your Heart by Danielle Parker, an “enemies to lovers story” by a debut author, Nicola explained. David teased that their imprint also recently acquired a book that they can’t reveal yet that “will blow you guys away, I am so excited about it.”
“We’re thrilled for these books,” Nicola said. “One of the things we’ve learned, the three of us doing Joy Revolution, is how many books there are out there, how many people are writing with such a need to tell these stories.”
David agreed, saying, “They are wanting their voices to be heard, and their voices are so unique and amazing.”