The 2023 American Library Association Annual Conference ended on an uplifting note on Tuesday, June 27, with a closing keynote from bestselling poet Amanda Gorman and award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson, who delivered a message of hope and empowerment to librarians.

In a lively and at times profoundly moving 40-minute conversation between Gorman, Robinson, and moderator Eve Ewing, a Chicago-based author and cultural organizer who has written about race in America, the two discussed the inspiration behind their latest collaboration, Something, Someday (Viking, Sept.) which touches upon themes of grief, sadness, and loneliness, and suggests that people can come together to make a difference in the world, to make it a better place.

Gorman, who shot to fame after reciting the inaugural poem at President Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20, 2021, started by reading an excerpt from Something, Someday that felt especially poignant, knowing the challenges librarians have experienced over the past three years. “Sometimes you feel like you are all alone/ But someday, somewhere, you find a friend/ Someone who will hope with you/ Who believes in your dream./ Someone who will fight with you.” And she ended with words that also resonated, as conference closed and librarians prepared to head home: “Together, working/ Together, beginning/ Over and over and over and over/ Until you’re no longer beginning/ You’re winning.”

Gorman told Ewing she was inspired to write Something, Someday about two years ago, after she’d written Fury and Faith, a poem for adults addressing the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020. She noted that she “wanted to have a book that was accessible for children to read” that would impart the message that “individual actions do matter.”

Noting that both Gorman and Robinson are both native Californians, Ewing asked whether the two share a common "a sense of place" in their work. Gorman said that the "vibrancy of color” in Robinson’s signature style of illustration was something she "took for granted being a Californian,” adding that she has always considered vibrant colors in daily life to be “normal.” Gorman said when she came east to go to college at Harvard, she “must have looked like a rainbow had vomited on me.”

Acknowledging that she is not a visual artist, she said that she tries to evoke "the vibrancy” that was all around her growing up in Los Angeles in her words. "I try to give priority to words that awaken the best parts of humanity. I don’t talk about grief or loneliness. That’s all there. But how can I use that as bridges to another language of hope and love and togetherness? I think that’s part of the particular magic of being a poet: how do you get people to think about something, often in a roundabout way, how do you get them to come there on their own path?”

Asked about their collaborative creative process, Gorman noted that it was as if the two were in an “echo chamber together.” Notably, the two did not communicate with one another during the process of creating the picture book together, and in fact did not meet in person until this talk at ALA. But there were “unspoken energies,” they tapped into, Gorman said, even though they worked separately.

I never felt more emboldened in my life, it was like I felt like I was spewing fire.

“I knew that my text was going to be taken care of,” Gorman explained, by “someone who has such tenderness and care, who’s going through that labor with me.” This feeling, she said, released her from "having to do poems in a typical way," enabling her "to sit and be a little more pre-possessed about what that work is. Christian wasn’t in the room while I was writing, but he was in my heart while I was writing. And the book is better for it.”

“I’d heard of Amanda,” Robinson, who has won a Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King Honors for his work, added, “so there was a spirit with me. There was hope, there was possibility, and I was holding onto that, a seed of hope.”

While Gorman lives in Los Angeles, and Robinson lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, the two had never met in person before Tuesday morning.

Praising Something, Someday, Ewing said the book “makes space for sadness, it makes space for disappointment, and also makes space for making the time to count your wins, which I think is really important in organizing. It’s really important in activism to stop and count your wins even when you feel overwhelmed.” She asked Gorman and Robinson if there were "moments when you have recently found yourself saying, it’s okay to be sad, which is a line in the book? And what are some of the moments where you found yourself saying, I feel hopeful, happy or loved, which is another line in the book?”

Robinson responded by speaking movingly about his sorrow regarding his mother, who struggles with addiction and mental health issues. “Just that feeling of hopelessness, when you see someone harming themselves, and you’re not sure how to engage or help. That makes me sad. What gives me hope is, every time I share that with people, I am always met with love and a healing reminder that we’re all connected.”

Gorman also acknowledged her grief when she heard that that her book, The Hill We Climb, titled for the poem that she had recited at President Biden’s inauguration, had been restricted in a Florida school after one complaint was lodged against it.

“That was like, a punch to the gut,” she said. In a reference to the series Game of Thrones, she recalled that her initial response included the sentiment, “Burn it all, burn it all.” She then realized, she said, “Wow, how much power is this grief giving me? I never felt more emboldened in my life, it was like I felt like I was spewing fire.” She described herself as being “raised up” and it “taught me to change my dream into hope, into being more inspired than ever.”

“It’s a grief-inducing process,” Ewing said, in words that were directed at Gorman but could have applied to every librarian present. “Your grief and your rage are really important.”

Asked for his favorite section of the book, Robinson recited the lines, “You’re scared and confused, you’re angry/ And maybe, just maybe, a little hopeful.” He then related that he illustrated that page with a dandelion popping up through a pile of garbage. “I love dandelions,” Robinson said, explaining their role in the eco-system. “And garbage is real, it’s smelly, and it’s inconvenient. But if we are mindful, if we know to handle it with care and skill, something beautiful can come out of it.”

“I don’t think there’s a better illustrator out there than Christian at representing what hope feels like,” Gorman responded. “He brought my words to life in a way that my words hadn’t even done.”

The keynote closed what has been a resurgent ALA Annual Conference, with nearly 16,000 librarians and library supporters gathering over the last five days. In her remarks to librarians at the closing session, outgoing ALA president Lessa Pelayo-Lozada celebrated the courage librarians have demonstrated in weathering the pandemic, and an unprecedented wave of book bans and attacks on the profession.

“Resistance is its own reward," Pelayo-Lozada said. "Thank you for being resisters this year. Thank you for being brave.”