The separation of children from their parents at the U.S. border was a subtext for many attendees at the sixth annual Children’s Institute, which was held from June 19–21 in New Orleans. Despite much of the focus on education and inspiration for children’s booksellers, the heart-wrenching scenes played out in the media were on the minds of many booksellers as well as author-illustrators like Yuyi Morales (Dreamers), who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1994. Writers Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs (The Darkdeep), who helped launch the Kid Lit Says No Kids in Cages campaign earlier this week, were among the authors who signed at Wednesday evening’s author reception.
But it wasn’t until the last day of the conference and the breakfast session with former first daughter Chelsea Clinton (Start Now!), who addressed the group in conversation with Lissa Muscatine, owner of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., that booksellers and authors began giving voice to their concerns. “I’ve been more affected by the ripping away of children at the border than anything else, period, in a public sense,” said Clinton, the mother of two young children. “I think it’s important that we all feel the moral outrage of this moment.”
Speaking out was the the subject of a late morning keynote as well as the title of the latest book from Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson of Just Us Books, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. Wade encouraged booksellers to get involved through the simple request for everyone to stand and repeat the title of the book with him at both the beginning and end of the session. The Hudsons, who spoke on a panel with contributor Kwame Alexander and Crown publisher Phoebe Yeh, said that they were inspired to create the anthology of 52 pieces of writing and art, by a text their niece posted. Her young daughter, she wrote, was frightened by the climate of hatred surrounding the 2016 election. Cheryl said she wanted all children to know that “you can lift your voice, you can change the world.”
At the small press lunch, a different type of politics was raised. ABA CEO Oren Teicher made a surprise appearance at the podium to announce that bricks-and-mortar retailers throughout the country would now be able to compete on a level playing field. Earlier in the day, he reported, the Supreme Court overturned its 1992 decision in Quill v. North Dakota under which online retailers without nexus in a state were not required to collect sales tax. “Good news from Washington,” said Teicher. “The U.S. Supreme Court has finally vindicated what many of you have been fighting for for two decades. Sometimes we can win.”
Activism and politics were central to the day’s other two keynote addresses. Inventor and autism spokesperson Temple Grandin (Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor) spoke about her concern for kids growing up and not learning to use tools. “I’m concerned that we’re losing trade skills,” she said.
At the closing keynote Angie Thomas (The Hate U Give) called on booksellers to change our world. “As children’s booksellers, you really have the power to do it,” she said. “We don’t just need diverse books. We need gatekeepers like yourself to get books in kids’ hands. The books you sell today could go to a kid who could one day be a politician with a Twitter account.” Thomas also urged booksellers to support marginalized authors.
But beyond the energy generated by the speakers, one of the biggest draws for booksellers, some of whom return year after year, is the chance to share ideas. Emily Somberg of Pegasus Books in Berkeley, Calif., who has attended four institutes, said, “When I come back to the store, I change things around. It reups you for the year.” Melia Wolf, who purchased Cover to Cover in Columbus, Oh., last year, said that she’s taking home a number of concrete ideas, including a plan to reach out to under-served communities, the subject of a panel on Wednesday.
As for the quality of the institute overall, “every year it gets exponentially better,” said Cindy Loh, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA. “I’m always excited to talk to new booksellers and [established] booksellers. For us, we find it helpful to be connected.”