Book Fest @ Bank Street, hosted by the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan in non-Covid times, returned to the digital space for the second year in a row on October 16. The annual conference, highlighting authors, illustrators, librarians, and other children’s book professionals, presented a rich schedule of panels on vital children’s literature topics, as well as a closing keynote address by 2020 Newbery Medalist Jerry Craft.

Black Women on Their Own Stories

After introductory remarks from Cynthia Weill, director of the Center for Children’s Literature, the day’s first conversation, “Black Women Biographers: Claiming Our Space and Shining Our Light,” began. The panel featured April Harrison (illustrator of Shirley Chisholm Dared: The Story of the First Black Woman in Congress), Oge Mora (illustrator of The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read), Lesa Cline-Ransome (author of Before She Was Harriet), Connie Schofield-Morrison (author of Stitch by Stitch: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly Sews Her Way to Freedom), and Traci Todd (author of Nina: A Story of Nina Simone). Newbery Honoree Carole Boston Weatherford (author of Respect: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul) served as moderator. Cozbi A. Cabrera (illustrator of Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks) was unable to attend in real time, but offered supplementary answers via a pre-recorded video.

Weatherford kicked off the panel with a powerful question: “Why does it matter that Black women tell Black women stories?”

“Because we are they in which we speak,” Harrison answered immediately. “Who else will tell our stories and give them the respect that they deserve?”

Cline-Ransome agreed. “Throughout history, I think Black stories, particularly Black women stories, have been told and interpreted by other people,” she explained. “I think that people should always have the opportunity to tell their stories in the ways they want told, to represent themselves in the ways they feel they should be represented. Especially as women, who have often lost their voices through the stories and words of men, especially Black women.”

Mora added, “It comes from a special type of love that us Black women have together.”

Schofield-Morrison referenced her own daughters, for whom she finds it important to tell these stories, in hopes to “better the future for my daughters, for other daughters, and to reward my ancestors for the struggles they went through.”

Todd said succinctly, “It’s important for us to tell our stories because we know them. Because we bring authenticity to them.” As both an author and an editor, she looks for the “personal thread” of each project.

The panelists also spoke about how and why their respective projects resonated with them; what message their books impart to Black girls or all children; publishing challenges in getting these biographies into the world; and how Black nonfiction can exude joy and hope.

“With any situation, we need to always have hope. We need to pray. We need to also make sure our children have that hope and joy and understanding,” Harrison declared. “Because in the world we live in today, it’s difficult, a lot of times, for a child to see that hope. As guardians of our children, we need to provide that; even if it’s a nonfiction book, we need to find the silver lining for them.”

Schofield-Morrison concurred, sharing what she tells her own children. “I always say to them, never allow someone else’s ignorance to become yours. You live out the life that God wants you to live. You love yourself the way God loves you. You see yourself the way God sees you, and God is within you.” It’s crucial for her to be able to share books with her children featuring people that look like them that impart “a mental understanding of what struggle is, what triumph is, what tragedies are, and [how] to turn their tragedies into their triumphs.”

Each creator also shared a spread that illuminated either their subject or their style of illustration.

Todd described a spread from Nina: A Story of Nina Simone, wherein the newly famous Nina Simone rests on a piano bench while the “unrest of Black people rising and being unwilling to accept being mistreated for as long as they have is resounding in the streets [portrayed beneath the piano lid], and she hears this call to action, but she’s not ready to join it yet.”

Todd considered all the directions in which the singer was being pulled while writing the scene. “I love that instead of having Nina react to all these things—which is very much the way women, Black women in particular, are, we try to put out all the fires—instead Christian [Robinson] had her rest, which is a powerful act, and an important thing to see Black women especially doing.”

Publishers Consider Space and Responsibility

The second panel, “Publishing As Passion: New Imprints and Voices,” featured six publishers in conversation: Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion, Cynthia Leitich Smith of Heartdrum, Arthur Levine of Levine Querido, Christopher Myers of Make Me a World, Maria Russo of mineditionUS, and Namrata Tripathi of Kokila. Vicky Smith, formerly young readers editor at Kirkus Reviews who is now returning to librarian services, served as moderator.

After introducing themselves, how they came to publishing, and what they hope to be doing with their new imprint or company, an intriguing conversation arose on the heels of discussing how they find the books they want to publish and how they navigate competition, considering overlap in missions and direction, and negotiating that space with one another.

“The most important part for me is that we’re in a place of abundance,” Levine stated. “There is no shortage. There isn’t one Black writer, one Indigenous author, one book from France. If you start from the position that there is a world of talented, gifted people with important stories, I don’t feel that I am in competition. I feel much more that, as we expand this idea that there are great books out there about everyone and for everyone, we are producing a better literature together.”

Tripathi agreed, before pointing out, “I don’t know that I’ve ever heard or witnessed a panel of publishers whose missions are not as explicitly stated as ours have been where they’re asked, ‘All of you publish predominantly cis white het people creators. Are you feeling like, How are you going to do it? Are there enough white men for all of you to publish?’ It’s just not a question that comes up. And I think the fact this question still exists tells us something very much about where we are and what we’re trying to push back against.”

Russo added something she was told by “another one of my idols, Neal Porter”: “ ‘It’s so much work to publish a book that you have to be in love with it.’ So for me, it’s not really about other people who might publish it, it’s, do I love it so much that I want to do all the work and all the advocacy to get the creator what they deserve, to get the book the audience it deserves? For me, it’s a conversation with myself, do I have what it takes for this book? And sometimes it is [no] because of a cultural reason.” Russo explained that sometimes she does not have the bandwidth to immerse herself in another culture, considering the other books and cultures she is currently working on learning more about. “Yes, publishing is a business, but it’s a business based on relationships. [When I see a book I wanted published by one of them,] it’s more a feeling of admiration rather than envy.”

“There is none of us without all of us,” Leitich Smith, an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, emphasized, observing that certain imprints or houses have different focuses and specialties. “And for each artist, deciding what that means for them and where their work is best served is going to be largely their decision. We can’t purchase or publish anything that isn’t sent to us, so as much as the conversation is about us, it’s also about what is brought to us.”

Bedrick posed a distinctive stance. “I think the question about space really has nothing to do with us as publishers,” she said, before elaborating, “I think the question of space needs to be located in the world outside of publishing. There’s such a small space of reception. There’s barely a place where children’s literature is taken seriously in this country. We could all be doing so much more and there would still be room for those stories, but there needs to be more conduits for them and more appreciation for them.”

Myers took the opportunity to assert a differing opinion, highlighting panelists’ propensity to be “sweet and nice” while there is often underlying tension. “All of us are here to address, at the very least, a problem that we see,” he said. “There’s a problem we’re addressing, and I think sometimes those problems get lost in our general mutual respect and love and care for books and book people.”

“I find people mostly amongst my communities,” Myers continued. “We have overlapping Venn diagrams of our selfhood; I live at the intersection of like 37 communities, and that’s where I get my care for the work that I’m publishing from.” As a publisher, Myers is excited to see others interested in his communities, and has moments of pride at “the work of building a universe in which we are all living in the abundance that everyone is talking about and referring to”; other times, he wishes he had “more of a hand” in certain parts of his communities.

“Just having the voice is never going to be enough for me,” he explained, providing examples of bad representation, such as Madame Bovary for women or Gunga Din for South Asian rep. “There’s always a hunger for our faces. There’s always a hunger for the ghost of us, all the various us’s; that hunger is there,” he stressed. “The question is, can we satiate that hunger on the part of the world, while still bringing some semblance of love and self-love in that work? The myth that we are sometimes imbibing is that the world has only been hungry for our voices yesterday. The world has been hungry for our voices for generations, but they were hungry for someone else wearing a mask of us and writing our stories.... I’m interested in that complication. Sometimes I think that I want us on these panels to wrench with those complications, as opposed to kind of the beautiful—and true—mutual support we’re all in.”

“The thing you said about the hunger—that language—I feel is very telling,” Tripathi mused. “I think you’re saying that people are hungry for these stories, but we want to be careful that we are not just giving them to be consumed. And there’s something about that, that I think is part of our roles in publishing thoughtfully.”

Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson Talk Shop

The final panel of the day was “Matt de la Peña & Christian Robinson: The World Without and the World Within,” which showcased Newbery Medalist Matt de la Peña and Caldecott Honoree Christian Robinson, the author-illustrator team behind Last Stop on Market Street, Carmela: Full of Wishes, and most recently, Milo Imagines the World. Jenny Brown, senior editor at Shelf Awareness and member of the Bank Street Children’s Book Committee, moderated.

The duo spoke about how they met through their shared agent and about how collaborative their process is. Upon seeing Robinson’s blogged illustration of his child self on a bus with his grandmother, de la Peña “saw this incredible possibility for some of the ideas I wanted to explore” from a YA novel-in-progress that wasn’t working.

After the success of Last Stop, their process is far more collaborative; the duo “just text” each other whenever questions arise or when thinking about subsequent projects. In fact, the idea for Milo occurred while the duo was on tour for Carmela.

“He’s just sort of taking in my thoughts,” de la Pena said of texting with Robinson. “Then of course he turns to his own storytelling strategies and thinking, and it comes out the way it comes out.... I love that part of our process. I truly get his response to my texts in a sketch form or in the final art.”

De la Peña added, “Part of my process as a picture book writer is knowing where to leave even more space for the talented illustrator I get to work with.”

The pair also discussed the presence of the hero’s journey in their books; how Robinson set up the interiority vs. exteriority of Milo through the art, and how some of that process is intuitive; the similarities in journeys between CJ and Milo; how children resonate with their books; and more.

Jerry Craft: ‘My Life Has Actually Far Surpassed My Dreams’

Closing out the day’s events, 2020 Newbery Medalist Jerry Craft, who was the first author to be awarded the Newbery for a graphic novel and “the fifth African American author to win,” delivered a resonant, often humorous keynote. He began by sharing a slideshow peppered with digital doodles, recounting his childhood as a comics lover but a reluctant reader.

Despite having a well-developed vocabulary gleaned from comics, Craft did not want to read the books he was assigned in school, finding them deeply unrelatable. “Any character that looked like me was not living their best life. So I had no mirrors, sliding doors—only windows, and those windows were kinda foggy most of the time,” Craft recalled, referencing Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal framework.

The oft-tragic Black narratives offered in the media of his childhood also felt inaccessible to Craft, who grew up happy, living with his parents in a brownstone in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, and attending private schools. Deciding to go to art school, much like the protagonist of New Kid dreams of, Craft enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. A racist incident involving the sale of art supplies helped Craft develop the perspective and sense of humor that infuses the pages of New Kid and Class Act.

“So much of what I write about is true; it actually happened to me. Whether or not you want to hear it, doesn’t mean it did not happen,” Craft shared. “So I always used humor as a way to mask a lot of the pain and anguish that is just kind of the day-to-day thing when you grow up like me.”

Craft’s newspaper comic strip Mama’s Boyz was the result of his desire to see “African American kids as just regular kids.” But as he tried to get it syndicated, he realized that the industry upheld tokenistic viewpoints, implicitly asserting that for POC characters, especially Black ones, “there can only be one.” Turning to self-publishing, Craft wrote and published his own work for about 20 years. But another racist incident, this time at a school visit, made Craft realize: “I would never be an author. I would always be a Black author.”

Instilling a love of reading for his own two children, Craft began to read more and more “books with round stickers on them” [referring to award seals], not knowing that in 10 or so more years, he’d have two of those stickers on his own book.

Craft then recalled how, in 2017 when he signed with HarperCollins [editors Andrew Eliopulos and Rosemary Brosnan], he didn’t tell anyone. “From those movies and books, whenever anything good happened to a Black character, something catastrophic would happen immediately. So I wanted to make sure that a meteor wasn’t going to hit HarperCollins, a meteor wasn’t going to hit me—I was not sure until I saw it posted in Publishers Weekly.”

Craft closed by recalling his reaction to winning the Newbery, praising the works of comic artists including Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang, and offering a Photoshop sketch of New Kid protagonist Jordan Banks.