Children’s Institute 2023, in Milwaukee, brought exhilarating speakers to the stage and offered instructive sessions on book fairs, book clubs, and the freedom to read. Attendees talked about innovative models for bookselling, including hybrid for-profit/nonprofit stores, along with tools and technologies to add efficiencies to daily work. At an ABA Open House, CEO Allison Hill spoke against book-banning legislation and promised a task force to look further into how best to fight it. She also warned that a possible UPS strike could complicate Q3 and Q4. Hill later announced that CI2024 will take place June 10-12, 2024 in New Orleans.

The second and final day of CI2023 lifted off with a powerful morning presentation by author-and-illustrator team Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney, in conversation with ABA board member Kathy Burnette, the owner of the Brain Lair in South Bend, Ind. The afternoon closed with multiple standing ovations for civil rights icon and author Ruby Bridges, who engaged in conversation with illustrator Nikkolas Smith and ABA DEIA and communications senior copy editor Britt Camacho.

Besides reflecting on social justice with Bridges, Grimes, Pinkney, and Smith, attendees learned about the liberating power of drag from Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of Drag Story Hour and co-founder of DSH's NYC chapter. Hamilt pointedly wore a “Drag Is Not a Crime” ringer T-shirt as he talked about promoting literacy, supporting LGBTQ youth, and making way for Gen Alpha—Gen Z’s younger counterparts. He reminded listeners that “the attack on drag is a scapegoat for transmisogyny,” encouraging booksellers to understand their state bills and remain mindful of risks to the LGBTQ community.

Hamilt’s practical presentation had its boisterous complement in a DSH Karaoke happy hour, emceed by the vibrant Mrs. Yuka, co-founder and producer of DSH’s Nebraska chapter. ABA has its share of former theater kids, based on the cheering crowd and the brassy singers who joined Mrs. Yuka on the mic.

In the three days of the conference, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation raised $4,834 in donations from CI2023 attendees, Binc director of development Kathy Bartson announced that Kris Olson of Fair Isle Books on Washington Island, Wis., had won Binc’s game of heads or tails against Ashley Valentine of Rooted MKE in Milwaukee, after all other competitors had been eliminated in a heated showdown.

‘Wondering and Wandering’

Nikki Grimes and Brian Pinkney introduced booksellers to their picture book, A Walk in the Woods (Holiday House/Porter, Sept.), which they completed together after the death of Jerry Pinkney, the manuscript’s original illustrator and Brian Pinkney’s father. The story follows a boy who, while grieving the death of his father, finds comfort in listening for the grouse, deer, and owls of the forest.

Grimes drew upon her extensive repertoire of cathartic storytelling and poetry, including What Is Goodbye. She acknowledged the sorrow in A Walk in the Woods, saying that “children experience psychic and emotional pain more often than we like to admit,” and adults’ “magical thinking” cannot protect young people. Instead, she believes books “offer hurting children solace,” and the new picture book recommends “the healing power of nature. Jerry and I felt there were too few children’s books featuring African American children engaged with nature.”

Brian Pinkney found A Walk in the Woods “mysterious, magical, and moving.” He said he sensed “this would be my book to complete” after Holiday House editor Neal Porter asked him whether he would consider revisiting his father’s preparatory sketches. Although he had only abstract imagery to build on, he remembered how much he and his father loved the flow of improvisational jazz, “the idea of exploring, which we called ‘wondering and wandering.’”

As Pinkney shared these recollections, he acted out his process by drawing an S-shaped curve in light brown on a large sketch pad. He lifted this top sheet and drew a boy in a darker color on the page underneath. Then he dropped the top sheet and traced the figure on the swirl, making a two-layered composition. “It’s like his line and my watercolor,” Pinkney explained, showing slides from the finished book that incorporate his father’s naturalistic wildlife imagery and his own impressionistic closeups.

The completed book represents an organic artistry and shows the protagonist finding peace despite his sadness, Pinkney said. “Grieving is this fog I was in at the time,” he said. “I couldn’t see the woods when I went out in them. But I knew by wondering and wandering I would find my way.”

Bookseller brush with history

The conference ended with a closing keynote of historic proportions, as civil rights movement icon Ruby Bridges sat down with author-illustrator Nikkolas Smith, who collaborated with her on I Am Ruby Bridges (2022), and the ABA’s DEIA communications senior copy editor Britt Camacho. Bridges talked about Norman Rockwell's historic painting, The Problem We All Live With (1964), and how it reverberated throughout her life and started her on the path to becoming an author of children's books. She reinforced the importance of providing children with unfiltered history so that they know the truth of their past.

Bridges disclosed that she did not even see the famous painting of her until she was 17 years old. Rockwell depicted her at age six in 1960, integrating a Louisiana school by walking in escorted by U.S. Marshals. Explaining that she had not realized even then that the struggle for integration extended beyond her community, Bridges pointed out that it took years for her to realize that she had played a major role in the civil rights movement.

Smith noted that he’d grown up with the Rockwell painting hanging in his home, saying, “it was probably the first piece of art that I remember. You've kind of been with me my whole life."

In response to questions posed by Camacho, Bridges and Smith emphasized their commitment to trying to make the world a better place by working with children, whom Smith praised for being “wiser than a lot of the politicians.” Bridges's new picture book, illustrated by John Jay Cabuay, Dear Ruby, Hear Our Hearts (Scholastic, Jan.), includes real letters the activist received from children and supplies her responses to their social justice concerns.

"We need to listen to the kids, you know," Smith said; Bridges concurred, relating an anecdote about visiting a school and a boy asking her, "how did it feel to be heard?" She added, "it's about giving them a voice and us listening to them and hearing them out."

Bridges noted that when she visits schools, the students “are all really concerned about what’s happening in the world today,” and that she encourages them to get involved. Opportunities include letter-writing campaigns and creating protest signs, as well as “Ruby Bridges Walk to School Day,” on November 14. The Walk to School Day idea originated with fifth graders in California and developed into a “day of dialogue”; last year, 348 schools across the country participated.

When the conversation turned to book bans, Bridges said she began building her personal library when she was a child and somebody who’d read about her sent a box of Dr. Seuss books in the mail to her. She noted that when she was first informed that I Am Ruby Bridges was being challenged, she ignored it, but then realized how insidious book bans are, how detrimental to racial equality and even to democracy itself. She has been speaking out ever since.

Children, she pointed out, “can use a computer better than I can. They can find whatever it is they want to find out. So why are we really doing this?” Noting that people used to be hanged for reading a book, Bridges urged booksellers to fight for the freedom to read, that nobody should presume to tell others what they—or their children—can and cannot read.

“We all should have the right to be able to raise our children the way that we want to—good bad, and ugly,” Bridges said, “We are being divided. We have to stop it, because we know it’s wrong. We will win this fight if we always choose the truth, and what’s right.”