Four authors came together for the closing keynote at the ninth annual Children’s Institute to talk about a shared passion, influence, and point of common ground with readers: music.
The propulsive hourlong conversation convened some of the nation’s leading writers—Hanif Abdurraqib, Tami Charles, Tiffany D. Jackson, and Jason Reynolds—around the intersecting themes of Black performance, art, lyricism, and life, offering booksellers a glimpse at the ways writers engage the creative work of others.
For Charles, who moderated the discussion, it was a return to her childhood beginnings in an R&B group that once performed on BET. Charles encouraged the panelists to think about connections between books and music, prompting them at one point to offer their ideal pairing of a particular book with an individual song or artist.
Abdurraqib said he would pair Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly with the music of Miriam Makeba, while Reynolds said he would pair debut author Amber McBride’s Me (Moth) with Laura Mvula’s album “Sing to the Moon.” Pointing to Dhionelle Clayton’s The Belles on her bookshelf, Charles said she would pair the book with “The Glamorous Life” by Sheila E. or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
For Jackson, combining elements of music with the written word has been a central element of many of her books, including Monday’s Not Coming and Let Me Hear a Rhyme. In her most recent book, White Smoke, she included lyrics from Crucial Conflict’s “Hay” because the book deals with connections between cannabis and the prison system.
“I love pairing music with books, because then kids can go back and listen to their Spotify playlists,” she said. “It makes the book resonate even more. I think we have the means... to meet kids where they’re at. Our kids are listening to music, and that's how we absorb a lot.”
A poet who has written widely about the history of music, Abdurraqib was the panel’s resident scholar, connecting the conversation to themes in Black musical performance. He shared a recent experience of listening to isolated drum tracks recorded pseudonymously by Stevie Wonder, and how they connect to a lyrical tradition centered on refrain. “There's ways to write songs as a songwriter and ways to write songs like an architect,” Abdurraqib said, praising Wonder’s work.
“I love a song that fades out and knocks me off my feet and has this thing at the end where it moves to the chorus—just the repetition of the chorus—moves to this ecstasy that I think Black singers know well,” he said. “I think that perhaps defines my writing more than anything because it's like a push towards the ecstatic.”
The authors reserved special praise for a handful of musicians whose lyricism has a notable literary quality and power, including India.Arie and Lauryn Hill. But the highest appreciation was given to Tracy Chapman, who Abdurraqib said was second only to Toni Morrison among the greatest writers to emerge from Ohio.
Reynolds agreed, saying that the influence of Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” on his writing could not be overstated. “It’s just a simple refrain,” Reynolds said, quoting the song. “ ‘Talkin ’bout a revolution/that sounds like a whisper. That sounds like a whisper.’ ”
“There's not a lot of stuff happening in my books,” Reynolds said. “There's not a lot of plot. But for me, the revolution is the portrayal of these people. And it sounds like a whisper when really, it's actually, hopefully, changing the way that we exist in the world, or at least that some kid might exist in the world for that matter.”
While the authors spoke, booksellers listening in began eagerly noting all of the songs that were being mentioned, writing comments in the chat. By the end of the day, the ABA’s children’s group manager Gen de Botton had put all the songs onto a Spotify playlist, capturing the breadth of the conversation, from Nina Simone and Otis Redding to Billie Eilish and Wolves in the Throne Room.
Among the featured songs is also Paul Simon’s “St. Judy’s Comet,” which Reynolds cited as a song that could be paired with nearly any children’s book. “I think it's perfectly written,” he said. “The way that he’s referencing what it means to be a father and how he knows that his child has manipulated him, but he can’t win—he can’t win—because he loves his kid so much that it’s just too hard to [say], ‘I want you to go to bed, but I also don’t know how to make this happen because I am a softy.’ There’s something about that song that is super-special.”