“Courage” was the recurring call to action and inspiration at the eighth annual Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference, which took place from Friday, March 31 to Sunday, April 2. The event featured a notable lineup of authors, illustrators, and publishing professionals participating in the nation’s largest children’s book conference exclusively for Black, Indigenous, and other creators of color. For the first time since the pandemic began in 2020, the conference offered day-long, in-person sessions.
Crafting a Story
Friday kicked off with five master classes at the New York Times Conference Center: “The Graphic Novel” with Coretta Scott King Honoree Johnnie Christmas (Swim Team); “Weaving Magic into Your MG Novel with Revision” with Newbery Medalist Donna Barba Higuera (The Last Cuentista); “Revising the Young Adult Novel” with Printz Honoree Malinda Lo (Last Night at the Telegraph Club); “Writing and Illustrating Picture Books” with Caldecott Medalist Michaela Goade (Berry Song); and “Nonfiction” with Newbery Honoree Marilyn Nelson (Augusta Savage: the Shape of a Sculptor’s Life).
Christmas focused on the fundamentals: character design, scriptwriting, and thumbnailing. Higuera and Lo stressed revision, “where the magic happens,” Higuera said. Both provided practical tips and in-class exercises to help attendees refine their stories. “Revision is about letting go of your perceptions about what you thought you wrote, and training yourself to see what you have written,” Lo said. Goade encouraged leaning into one’s own experiences to create emotionally resonant picture books for all ages. Nelson echoed “courage” in her masterclass, in which attendees used role-playing to explore narratives of courageous character development and extracting stories of bravery from the everyday.
In-Person Panel Highlights
On Saturday, the Kweli conference offered a full day of programming at Barnard College’s Diana Center. The day’s panels were organized into three “tracks,” including Publishing, Community, and Culture; Novels/Memoir; and Illustrated Books/Nonfiction.
In “Passing It Down,” in the Illustrated Books/Nonfiction track, Hannah Moushabeck (Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine) and Gwendolyn Wallace (Joy Takes Root) spoke about how they incorporated family traditions and oral histories in their debut picture books. Moushabeck told the audience that Homeland is the first children’s picture book featuring Palestinian representation released by a traditional publisher since Naomi Shihab Nye’s Sitti’s Secrets in 1997, and spoke at length about carrying this burden of representation. Moushabeck wanted to tell a story about “Palestinian joy,” and leaned heavily on family lore in Homeland, though, post-publication, her family members have disagreed on the finer points of Moushabeck’s narrative, she said.
Wallace also illuminated her publishing journey. In 2020, the author was recovering from a nasty bout of Covid-19 in her parents’ home—the “hardest periods in my life,” she said. She turned to gardening and making herbal remedies as a means to heal. Those experiences, along with memories of gardening with her paternal grandmother, who also had a deep connection with the land, informed her text. Joy Takes Root was purchased as part of an open Twitter call for manuscripts after the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, the author explained. “I want others to have this sort of opportunity—especially young Black creators like me,” she said. Wallace exhorted participants to “find the kind of writer you are, and not apologize for it.”
In another Publishing, Community, and Culture panel, “Take Scraps and Make Up the Rest,” Edwidge Danticat (My Mommy Medicine), Ibi Zoboi (Nigeria Jones), and Autumn Allen (All You Have to Do), who served as moderator, reflected on Toni Morrison’s quote: “I like to make up stuff. I take scraps, the landscapes of something that happened, and make up the rest.” Danticat told participants that research is a form of respect when turning real-life “scraps” into story. “When I feel ready to write a story has a lot to do with the appreciation, respect, and reverence I have for the story,” she said. She also celebrated the freedom of the writing process. “Before you publish, in the initial moments of writing, write at your freest, your boldest, bring in play, have courage,” she said. “Enjoy those early moments just for you.”
A third Publishing, Community, and Culture panel, “Partnering with Your Publisher for Your Book Launch,” brought together Antonio Gonzalez Cerna, marketing director at Levine Querido, and Moushabeck, now wearing her hat as marketing manager at Simon & Schuster, as they shared advice on the author-publisher relationship, and what the author can do independently to support their books. The panel was moderated by Sheetal Seth (Always Anjali). “You have to want to come to the table and be a part of the team,” Cerna said. The trio discussed the importance of pre-orders and the explosion of #BookTok. They also conceded that authors are now expected to do the heavy lifting in service of a title and that there is no formula for guaranteed success. But they also stressed community building and reciprocity. “Anyone you want to support you, how are you supporting them in return?” Moushabeck asked.
Highlights from the Keynotes
Saturday’s keynote speakers carried on the “courage” through-line. In her opening keynote, Leah Henderson (The Courage of the Little Hummingbird) remembered moments of courage as a child and those who saw possibilities in her. “Courage is contagious,” she said, tying these moments into her own creative journey and the possibilities of community. “I needed courage to climb [a] tree like my brothers did. When I had a hard time, their hands lifted me up. When I looked down, the people below who told me I couldn’t do it, I saw they wanted to climb, too. If you can, please be a catalyst of momentum for someone else.”
At lunch, Henderson spoke with Newbery Honoree and MacArthur Fellow Jacqueline Woodson (The Year We Learned to Fly) who is currently the Kennedy Center Education Artist in Residence, where she has developed several world premiere commissions inspired by her picture books. Woodson had inspiring words for writers early in their publishing careers: “No one can tell your story,” she told attendees. “That story is a gift to the world. And there are people out there who need that story. It’s always terrifying, whether you’ve written no books or 35 books, but [you have] to keep going. Ask yourself, ‘What do I have to lose?’”
Later in the afternoon, Andrea L. Rogers (Man Made Monsters) reinforced this sentiment in her keynote conversation with Irene Vázquez, assistant editor at Levine Querido. Rogers’s YA debut is a collection of short stories that follows one Cherokee family through many generations, spanning from the 1830s to the future. “We cannot let these words stick in our throats,” she said. “If we don’t sing, we will die. We will choke on what we don’t say.”
On Sunday morning, attendees reconvened on Zoom for additional panels, including “Business of Publishing,” “Paragraphs,” and “The Community That Binds.” In the latter, Brandon Hobson (The Storyteller), Kim Rogers (Just Like Grandma), and moderator Kenzie Allen (Cloud Missives), discussed the windows and mirrors concept in the context of their own books and, especially, Indigenous representation. “Fiction is about problems and mysteries and how we work through them,” Hobson said. Speaking directly to writers and illustrators, Rogers said, “Push past your fears; heal your inner child in order to write.”
National Book Award Honorees and MacArthur Genius Fellows Danticat and Ibram X. Kendi (How to Raise an Antiracist) joined voices in a rousing closing keynote conversation about the moral imperative for writing for children. “Literature that provides young people with language [to understand their histories] is absolutely critical,” Kendi said. “The more they understand the world and what they’re experiencing, the more they understand themselves.” Danticat and Kendi’s encouragements to aspiring and established BIPOC creatives echoed the theme of courage that pervaded the event. “Write the book you’re scared to write,” Kendi said. “Write the book that haunts you, that won’t let you go,” Danticat said.