Kicking off summer for children’s bookstores and general bookstores with strong kids’ sections, CI2023 takes place Monday–Wednesday, June 5–7 in downtown Milwaukee. Cream City, which has always celebrated the arts, seems the perfect place for indie booksellers to talk shop, meet authors, dress up as their favorite children’s book characters at the opening reception and costume party, and perhaps—because it’s beer that made Milwaukee famous (to paraphrase a Schlitz advertisement)—enjoy some local brews.

“There’s something special about Children’s Institute,” says American Booksellers Association CEO Allison Hill. “It’s a true celebration of children’s bookselling, infused with the spirit of children’s booksellers and authors, and it’s about the future of the industry: how we support, nurture, and get to know the next generation of readers. And children’s bookselling is bookselling! So there’s something for everyone.”

Like all ABA gatherings, CI2023 starts with bookstore tours. Stops include well-established stores (Boswell Book Company and Rainbow Booksellers) as well as small and scrappy newcomers (La Revo, Lion’s Tooth, Rooted MKE). Milwaukee bookstores struggled during the pandemic, surviving by sheer force of will and by tweaking business models. Today, the city is undergoing a bookselling renaissance, as young BIPOC entrepreneurs sell books in neighborhoods previously considered book deserts.

For the past two years, sisters Barbara and Valeria Cerda of the pop-up La Revo have been selling Latinx literature in both Spanish- and English-language editions on the city’s South Side, while Ashley Valentine has for the past year been bringing children’s books by BIPOC authors and illustrators to Washington Heights at Rooted MKE. Over in Bronzeville, Cetonia Weston-Roy sells Black literature through her pop-up, Niche Book Bar, while putting the final touches on a 1,200-square-foot bricks-and-mortar space, which will open its doors in August.

With the spike in book bans across the country, many in the industry are focusing on providing books for all in safe spaces. This year’s CI programming reflects that commitment to access. Besides the usual panels and workshops on book clubs, book fairs, subscription services, and best business practices, there will be topical sessions on reaching book deserts and on supporting children’s freedom to read controversial books. Sessions certain to appeal to both children’s specialty and general booksellers include “Communication in a Changing Workforce,” “Frontlist Discovery of BIPOC and Queer Authors,” and “Averting the Adult Gaze in YA Literature.” Additional panels share advice on wordless picture books and manga, and there’s even a session on book fairs for adults as the ABA tweaks its offerings to draw in a broad range of booksellers.

Mixing and mingling

The main draw for booksellers attending industry gatherings is always the slate of celebrity guests and galleys, and CI2023 does not disappoint. There will be scores of authors and illustrators signing books at receptions, parties, and Indies Introduce presentations.

ABA’s keynotes and other featured speakers demonstrate the organization’s continuing emphasis on diversifying the industry and spotlighting BIPOC authors. Printz Medalist Daniel Nayeri, whose latest book for young readers is The Many Assassinations of Samir, the Seller of Dreams (Levine Querido, out now), will be CI2023’s opening breakfast keynote speaker on Tuesday. Sociologist Adia Harvey Wingfield, author of Gray Areas: How the Way We Work Perpetuates Racism and What We Can Do to Fix It (Amistad, Oct.), will be the afternoon’s featured speaker. Wednesday’s breakfast keynoters, Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney, will talk about their partnership on A Walk in the Woods (Holiday House/Porter, Sept.), a picture book Grimes was working on with Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney before his death; the illustrations were finished by Brian, who is Jerry’s son.

Wednesday afternoon’s closing keynote speaker is civil rights movement icon Ruby Bridges. Booksellers get a sneak peek into Bridges’s next picture book, Dear Ruby: Hear Our Hearts, illustrated by John Jay Cabuay (Scholastic, Jan. 2024), and she’ll have a conversation with Nikkolas Smith, the illustrator of her 2022 picture book, I Am Ruby Bridges—just one of the hundreds of books by BIPOC authors that have been challenged in the debate over critical race theory. Smith, who created the illustrations for Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson’s The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, will also introduce his latest picture book, The Artivist (Kokila, Sept.).

Also on Wednesday, Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of the nonprofit Drag Story Hour, will give a talk titled, “Fighting for Queer Stories and Seeds of Change.” Fittingly, CI2023 will conclude with Hamilt’s queenly alter ego, Ona Louise, leading attendees in a round of Drag Story Hour karaoke; attending booksellers may want to start practicing the songs they plan to perform now.

Read more from our Children's Institute 2023 coverage:

Children's Institute 2023: PW Talks with Gen de Botton
Gen de Botton works behind the scenes with the ABA team to make Children’s Institute happen. She spoke with PW about mission-driven bookselling, sustaining creativity amid capitalism, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo.

Children's Institute 2023: Bookselling in Milwaukee
Bookstores in Wisconsin’s largest city are going to make their dreams come true, doing it their way.

Children's Institute 2023: PW Talks with Raj Haldar
Raj Haldar spoke with PW about breaking the fourth wall, reaching kids and adults, and silly approaches to serious topics.

Children's Institute 2023: PW Talks with Nina LaCour
PW spoke with Nina LaCour about shifting creative gears to write for middle graders and what she hopes readers take away from her new book The Apartment House on Poppy Hill.

Children's Institute 2023: PW Talks with Sayantani DasGupta
With The Chaos Monster (Scholastic, July), author Sayantani DasGupta, who is also a physician, launches the Secrets of the Sky middle grade fantasy trilogy. PW spoke with DasGupta about her inspiration, decoloniality in children’s literature, and the role of booksellers in a politically charged moment.

Children's Institute 2023: Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney Collaborate in 'A Walk in the Woods'
Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney’s A Walk in the Woods collaboration honors Jerry Pinkney.

Children's Institute 2023: Authors and Illustrators to Meet
With more than 30 authors and illustrators introducing and signing new work at CI2023, booksellers will head home with tall to-be-read stacks and an abundance of fresh ideas.

Children's Institute 2023: PW Talks with Jonathan Hamilt
By day, Jonathan Hamilt is executive director of Drag Story Hour and drag queen Ona Louise, presenting picture books to young audiences. Hamilt spoke with PW about drag in the daytime, positive queer role models, and why kids love someone who’s a little extra.