The 10th annual Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference, held April 19–21, 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 2019, the entire event was held in person, at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. All photos by Ozier Muhammad.

The conference kicked off in earnest on Saturday, April 20, but attendees could opt to participate in one of six master classes on Friday, including “Writing Home” with Ibi Zoboi (American Street), “Touching the Heart: Revising the Verse Novel” with Aida Salazar (Jovita Wore Pants: The Story of a Mexican Freedom Fighter), or “Picture and Word” with Aya Ghanameh (These Olive Trees).

On Saturday and Sunday, the Kweli conference offered full days of programming. “Censorship” and “silence” were a common through line in many of Saturday’s panels. In “Free People Read Freely: Fighting Book Bans” with Seema Yasmin (Unbecoming) and Gwendolyn Maya Wallace (The Light She Feels Inside), moderated by Hannah Moushabeck (Homeland: My Father Dreams of Palestine), the panelists named the unprecedented censoring of books about race, racism, gender, and sexuality, and brainstormed how to strategically challenge such bans. In “Walk Straight: Resisting Silence and Self-Censorship,” Frederick Joseph (We Alive, Beloved), Rhonda Roumani (Insha’Allah, No, Maybe So), Zoboi, and Autumn Allen (All You Have to Do), who served as moderator, exhorted writers to resist silence and self-censorship when creating works about empowerment, identity, or social justice, and to embrace the importance of speaking truth to power.

Sunday’s panels focused on the nuts and bolts of writing, illustrating, and publishing. Editors Traci N. Todd (author), Irene Vázquez (Levine Querido) and Phoebe Yeh (Crown Books for Young Readers) weighed in on excerpts from writers in the Kweli audience during a session titled “Voice and Audience: First Pages.” Ghanameh, Rahma Rodaah (Dear Muslim Child), and Jasmin Rubero, associate art director at Kokila, examined peritext and design elements in Rodaah and Ghanameh’s book, as well as in Being Home by Traci Sorell and Michaela Goade, during “Behind the Scenes: Art and Design.” Authors Jyoti Rajan Gopal (Sister Day), Meghana Narayan (A Little Bit of Everything), and Wallace discussed all the things they wish they’d known before their first books came out, including how to plan a book tour and how to practice self-care even as simultaneous deadlines loom, in “Marketing: What I Wish I Knew Before My Debut.”

Keynote highlights

The weekend was punctuated by inspirational keynotes by Allen, Safia Elhillo (Girls That Never Die), Amina Luqman-Dawson (Freewater), and Jason Reynolds (Ain’t Burned All the Bright) in conversation with Cozbi A. Cabrera (Me & Mama).

Allen gave the opening keynote. “In here, we hold a sacred space for freedom,” she said. “We are free to dream, we are free to bond and unite and focus on love and joy and healing and striving and shaping our gifts so that we can give them to the world. Keep writing and keep making art; keep speaking up and keep telling our truth. We who write for young people are in the business of saving lives.”

In her address, Elhillo encouraged writers to play with language, especially those with access and faculty in more than one tongue. “What gives Shakespeare more of a right to play with language?” she said. “Make a little more room for the stuff you are trying to say with other languages. Often hybridity and hyphen-ness is used to invalidate. If we dispose with the premise of purity when it comes to language, what are the possibilities of populating that canon, and making it so that purity of language or fluency or mastery are not prerequisites to enter into it?”

Luqman-Dawson spoke of showing grace towards oneself. “Some of your perceived weaknesses may in fact be part of your writing superpower,” she said. “I encourage you to do a nice little audit of your weaknesses. [They] may be the ingredient that makes our art great.”

“I don’t have any fear of writing badly because it is guaranteed,” Reynolds said in his conversation with Cabrera. “It is foolish to be fearful of the inevitable. It is guaranteed that whatever I put on the page will be bad first. What you worried about? All your OGs, all your heroes, ain’t none of us ever seen Toni’s first drafts. The greatest writer of our time, but we ain’t never seen her first drafts. We all have to go through the process.”