Participants in the American Booksellers Association’s Children’s Institute hustled from dawn until dark on the second full day of the show in New Orleans, pausing only for a beignet or an iced coffee. Booksellers woke early to catch Renée Watson’s breakfast keynote, a paean to the healing power of books, then spent productive hours strategizing about market share and mingling with authors at the Indies Introduce luncheon, the wall-to-wall evening author reception, and Scholastic’s Big Easy After-Party.

In her keynote, Watson previewed her middle grade All the Blues in the Sky (Bloomsbury, Feb. 2025), a book about weathering powerful emotions. Watson has been on a roll, with 21 books in 14 years, two May publications (Summer Is Here, illustrated by Bea Jackson, and skin & bones), and a forthcoming biography, Cicely Tyson, illustrated by Sherry Shine (Amistad, Nov.). All the Blues in the Sky, about a 13-year-old Black girl whose close friend has died, explores grief and the healing process. Watson opened by quoting Maya Angelou—“My greatest hope is that I laugh as much as I cry”—to emphasize that gladness coexists with tragedy. She added that she herself is “the descendent of enslaved people. They left me a legacy of joy.”

Watson talked about young readers facing the horrors of the world and sorrow in their personal worlds. “I do not write for children to escape reality,” she said, and instead believes that storytelling makes readers aware of the inevitability of sadness existing side by side with joy. “I hope that my books are the hug a child needs” when they experience difficulty or feel societal pressure, she said. “Our young people need to know they can rise” out of sorrow, and “they need to have books where they see characters grappling with intense feelings.” She expressed her own joy in giving her talk in New Orleans, the setting for her very first middle grade novel, What Mama Left Me. It seemed “a full circle moment,” she said. “I’m deeply touched that I got to come back to this city” as a featured voice of CI2024.

Downsides and Bright Spots in the Children’s Market

While Watson was talking about sustaining joy through poetry and storytelling, others at CI2024 made reference to a “joy economy” present in independent bookstores, which are a source of human connection and discovery. Booksellers are concerned that tweens and teens are disconnecting from the emotional and intellectual comfort books provide, and that this generation of kids might not grow up to be the sort of adults who sustain indie bookstores. In a featured talk about the children’s book market, Circana book industry analyst Brenna Connor spoke of books as “products that help people navigate tough times” and asked booksellers to “think about how to apply the consumer yearning for joy and comfort into your own stores.”

Connor, who works with publishers and book retailers to understand trends in the market, told the crowd that although adult book sales had a terrific Q4 in 2023, “the kids’ market is the biggest underperforming segment” in the industry right now, with board book sales relatively flat and infant book sales poised to increase. She didn’t ignore kids’ waning engagement with middle grade titles, a worrisome trend. Her research, she said, leads her to expect volume to dip below prior years, and market value to align with 2019 figures in the months to come. Yet Connor said that the numbers suggest a coming “stabilization of the kids’ market,” with book sales coming down off the highest-volume years in history and volume still up in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.

“Even though the kids’ category as a whole declined, there are pockets of growth,” Connor said, with interactive and educational titles attracting consumers. (A surprising bump in the children's biography category resulted from the nearly one million unit sales of the Taylor Swift Little Golden Book, and more than one bookseller later admitted they’d devoted a store display to T-Swift.) “Holiday books are outperforming the rest of the market,” with momentum in frontlist sales of books about Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Halloween. Connor suggested promoting books about such occasions and milestones as losing a tooth, learning to ride a bike, or even enjoying the historic cicada emergence in the Midwest this year.

To combat the evident decline in middle grade readership, Connor suggested using consumer data to educate caregivers on the importance of reading aloud to young children and fostering reading habits at home whenever possible. She noted grandparents and elders as consumers with spending power that might go beyond that of young parents with debt, student loan payments, or high rent, adding that “ages 55-plus represent 36% of general merchandise sales.” She suggested that “an educational campaign coming from publishers, coming from booksellers,” could convince caregivers to make more time for reading in their homes—a sentiment that also drives nonprofit community stores.

Connor closed on a positive note. When she looked at the data, she said, “it was independent bookstores that gained the most market share” among small businesses in the past year. Independent bookstores “outperformed every other independent [retail category] in 2023,” even if children’s books have been a harder sell. Publishers and booksellers will need innovative strategies to get reluctant middle graders to crack a 250-page novel, she suggested. These ideas were discussed in a publisher education session on the middle grade market, as well as at a debriefing on Circana’s data. Yet Connor’s big takeaway is that independent booksellers have the tenacity and creativity to manage this post-pandemic cycle.

Standing Up for Books

Tuesday afternoon education sessions included a panel on the impact of book bans on marginalized communities, moderated by Annastasia Williams of the Bottom in Knoxville, Tenn., with panelists Erin Decker of White Rose Books & More in Kissimmee, Fla., Leah Johnson of Loudmouth Books in Indianapolis, and Jihye Shin of the Nonbinarian Book Bike in Brooklyn. While book banning is affecting the entire publishing industry, Williams said, “it also affects each of us personally,” as books by authors who are BIPOC or LGBTQ+ are the ones that are most targeted.

Johnson made the point that there exists a misperception that when a book is challenged or banned, “there’s going to be an uptick in sales, everyone’s going to rush out and buy it, because it’s so scandalous.” But, she said, “that is not the case.” Loudmouth closely monitors which books are being targeted and keeps them in stock, and its bookstore staff also makes sure that banned books are included in every store display. Johnson noted that she and her staff want to ensure that banned books “are part of every single conversation, so that people understand it’s not just the books they’re hearing about being targeted, it’s not just [BIPOC] or queer, it’s everybody.”

Johnson added that often, the books that are challenged are not the books that publishers are marketing by sending booksellers “fancy mailings with crinkled paper” or the “fancy boxes and the tote bags.” It’s essential, she said, for booksellers “to give extra support” to new releases that will potentially be targeted because “it’s by a Black trans author” or features a BIPOC or LGBTQ character but it otherwise "innocuous."

Decker added that booksellers should ask their publisher reps to highlight debuts by BIPOC and LGBTQ authors in their catalog markups. Her fear, she said, is that with libraries cutting back on buying such books, sales will be low, and publishers will then discontinue publishing such books. “That’s a real threat to the publishing industry as a whole.” she said. “We need to make sure we’re not just buying them and reading them, but that we’re talking about them and selling them and re-ordering them.”

The four panelists urged their audience to become more active in their communities in order to fight the ongoing surge of book bans. “The librarians have been fighting this for four or five years,” Decker said. “They need as much support as we can give them. If you have relationships with libraries, make sure they know you are a supportive person, and that they can reach out to you if they need help with challenges.”

Johnson added: “This isn’t just about a room full of queer books on shelves. This is the most urgent fight we are engaged in.” She emphasized that booksellers are invested in their communities, and that their communities have BIPOC and LGBTQ members in it. “If we’re not making strides to center those narratives, and make those people feel safe, and uplifted, then what are we here for, what are we doing?” she said. “It’s not just us selling books. It’s not just about what we put out on our shelves. It's about us showing up in community spaces and making it clear that we’re invested in this—from a perspective that we want to see our community win, we want to see people whose books are threatened succeed.”