The American Booksellers Association’s Children’s Institute in New Orleans is going to be a hard act to follow, if the strong attendance and vibrant opening events are any indication. In her opening remarks on Monday, ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger said that a record number of booksellers showed up for the annual event, with 40% of the nearly 400 in attendance counted as first-time attendees. More than 254 bookstores from every region in the U.S. are represented at this year's gathering, and 135 publisher's reps and 26 vendor reps are also participating in the conference.

Setting a convivial tone for the meeting, Baldwin & Co. bookstore hosted an in-store party filled with surprise guests, music, and shrimp and grits on June 9. Store owner DJ Johnson greeted visitors, Mardi Gras performer "Chief Fiyo" DeJean wore full Carnival regalia as he twirled and sang his way around the courtyard accompanied by two musicians, and author Renée Watson signed copies of her picture book Summer Is Here, illustrated by Bea Jackson (Bloomsbury). Wrapping up the evening's festivities, a brass band led a procession of revelers out to Elysian Fields Avenue to catch a ride back to the Sheraton New Orleans on buses parked in front of the store.

CI2024’s official program began June 10, with full- and half-day bookstore tours, publisher education sessions, the opening keynote, and the annual opening reception and costume party. Booksellers arrived eager to talk with one another about early readers, middle grade, and YA books and authors, and shared ideas around school book fairs, post-pandemic challenges to literacy, and for-profit versus nonprofit business models.

Book People Are Caretakers

After booksellers returned from a day (or half-day) of touring local bookstores around the city, the conference officially kicked off on Monday evening with the opening keynote: Brein Lopez, general manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, engaged in a lively conversation with Meg Medina, the 2023-2024 National Ambassador for Children’s Literature and one of more than 60 authors featured at Ci2024 this week.

“Hello, my fellow booksters everywhere,” Lopez said. “I just want to say, there’s 40% of you who are new here, and how important that is, because I see all these people who’ve been coming here for so long, and we come back over and over again, because it’s our chance to be able to talk about books, which is so important, and also be able to share ideas and inspiration with other people here. And now you have the opportunity to be able to do the same thing. It’s an amazing experience, and we hope you all have that same experience.”

Noting that he had been among a group that assisted Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, in selecting the 2023-2024 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Lopez described Medina as a Cuban-American author who is “an amazing storyteller, and she has excellent taste in food and music.” Medina's latest book is a picture book, No More Señora Mimí (Candlewick Press), illustrated by Brittany Cicchese, about a girl who is excited that her abuela is moving in with her family to take care of her until she realizes that this will change her relationship with her longtime babysitter.

Asked about her role as National Ambassador, Medina described herself as a “caretaker for 74 million U.S. children," trying to connect these young people with “their reading lives.” She noted that “everyone in here is part of the caretaking team of American children, for their reading lives, their literary lives, their imaginations, their sense of their relationships to stories and to other people.” Her platform is, she said, “talk books,” because “how you talk about a book with someone else, it’s from your heart to their heart.”

Medina explained that in talking about books, people are actually connecting with one another on an intimate level, building a personal relationship based on trust. “I feel that book talking in a classroom, in a school community, in a school library community, public library community, in a family, is a way of connection and creating,” Medina said. Lopez added: “And in bookstores. We do it every day. It’s the best part of the job.”

When a customer asks for a particular book, Lopez said, “you really are the channeler, to be able to find the thing that is going to help them, to find themselves.” Lopez recalled that when he was 14 years old, he would ride his bicycle “miles to the B. Dalton Booksellers and scour the shelves to find any gay book I could find.” A bookseller there explained to him how he could find books by gay authors by checking the publisher’s logos on spines. Reading such books “changed my life,” he declared. “It opened up a whole new world to me.” That bookseller, long ago, “was taking care of me, and I will never forget.”

Event Planning for a Changed Children's Market

ABA expanded its publisher education sessions for CI2024, offering a panel on children’s event planning and another on reviving the middle grade market, which has seen a marked decline post-pandemic. Booksellers led both discussions, and publishers and booksellers in the audience discussed how author events and book fairs, literacy benchmarks, and young people’s reading for pleasure have changed in our tumultuous recent years.

On the event planning panel, Lopez, who served as moderator, sparked conversation over whether book publication dates and author schedules can take better advantage of school academic calendars. “Publishers take their greatest books, and they’re all publishing on September 3” or at another time that’s out of sync with school timing, Lopez said, making it difficult for stores to coordinate book launches and author visits with busy teachers and librarians. Panelist Lupe Penn, of the nonprofit Bookmarks in Winston-Salem, N.C., said her store coordinates 20–30 events per year and 60–70 school visits annually, including a festival at the end of September to generate excitement at back-to-school time.

Panelists also talked about ensuring accessibility, the pros and cons of electronic and paper order forms for different communities, and the difficulty some families have in affording books—especially when signed copies are distributed to classrooms and students might be left out. They encouraged publishers and authors to create “I’ll be visiting your store” reels and tag bookstores on social media, which can be linked in newsletters to generate excitement ahead of visits. “We sell more books if there is a personal connection” and if the author makes an effort, said Angie Zhao, events and marketing manager for bbgb in Richmond, Va. “The audience is the parents,” and social media “makes a world of difference."

They also spoke with publishers about the best venues for getting books into readers’ hands. “Instead of filling up a venue for a seated conversation, for middle graders, [consider] a floating meet and greet so families can come in and out,” Penn suggested. A casual event can be easier for families to attend and creates positive word of mouth for future events.

Nahin Cano, manager of Seminary Co-op in Chicago, added that younger kids might not be the only readers looking forward to a bookstore, school, or library event: “I’m 28 years old, and I’m excited to meet a lot of these YA authors. Some of the best events I’ve had have been 100 adults my age who are excited to meet their heroes.” Attendees at CI2024, who can’t wait to peruse the galley room and participate in author receptions, know how she feels.