After three nights of les bons temps in New Orleans, the American Booksellers Association’s Children’s Institute kept the book party rolling for one more day on Wednesday. Advocacy and diversity topped the ABA’s agenda, and June 12’s schedule included an equity-focused “Spotlight on Black Publishing,” an inclusive conversation about “Queer Voices for Community,” and a karaoke extravaganza emceed by Drag Story Hour diva Kozmik.

As the galley room emptied of ARCs, booksellers gathered for education sessions, publisher presentations, and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation’s annual fundraising game of heads or tails, which was won this year by Nicole Brinkley of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., who donated the $500 prize to Binc. ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger came to the stage at the end of the official business to announce that next year’s Children’s Institute will be held June 12–14, 2025, in Portland, Ore.—and that the organization is partnering with the League of Women Voters to get out the vote this year.

Inviting All Readers to the Party

CI2024’s Black publisher spotlight, moderated by the ABA’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility lead Britt Camacho, amplified influential editorial voices and the authors they champion. Panelists Cheryl Willis Hudson, Kwame Mbalia, and Bria Ragin span a wide range of subcategories and age groups, from picture books and early readers to middle grade action-adventure and fantasy and YA romance. All have made strides in publishing and bookselling spaces in which diverse identities remain underrepresented.

Hudson and her husband Wade Hudson cofounded Just Us Books in East Orange, N.J., in 1988, “as parents who were looking for books for our children.” The company’s name plays on “justice” and the fact that “just” the two of them published books including the Afro-Bets ABC Book and Jamal’s Busy Day. “We’ve never had a New York Times bestseller,” she said, but “we’re publishing the stories we want to tell.” Hudson’s picture book When I Hear Spirituals, illustrated by London Ladd, will be out from Holiday House in January 2025.

Tristan Strong series author Mbalia, the publisher of Disney Hyperion’s new Freedom Fire imprint, said he grew up in a family that sought out positive books about Black youth; as he got older, damaging stereotypes delivered “a brutal shock.” Now, he said, “I want to be the parent” providing a new generation with galvanizing content.

“Fire is a force, it sweeps, it consumes, and afterward new growth forms,” Mbalia said, reflecting on Freedom Fire’s name. His goal, he added, is to ignite “that feeling when you picked up a book and knew it was written for you.” His novel Jax Freeman and the Phantom Shriek comes out from Freedom Fire in October, and he’ll soon publish Moko Magic: Carnival Chaos by Tracey Baptiste (Aug.) and Black Girl Power, an anthology edited by Leah Johnson (Nov.).

Bria Ragin, senior editor at Delacorte and a past PW Star Watch nominee, said it “fills my cup” to connect readers with familiar faces and happily ever afters. In 2020, Nicola Yoon launched the teen romance imprint Joy Revolution and hired Ragin as editor. Four years later, Ragin can boast that all 19 authors on their list are people of color, and eight are Black women; forthcoming titles include Ravynn K. Stringfield’s Love Requires Chocolate (Aug.) and Jill Tew’s The Dividing Sky (Oct.).

Ragin wants booksellers to display and handsell diverse books in order to combat biases in algorithms and attitudes that undermine Black romance as a category. In the books she acquires, she said, “you see teens of color falling in love and having awkward moments. These are swoony, commercial love stories.” Addressing skeptics, she added: “You are reading this book just like you would a Sarah Dessen book. And we don’t need to pat ourselves on the back for reading Black romances—it’s just a fun story.”

Mbalia echoed Ragin’s point that BIPOC books are normal, marketable entertainment. Even if a reader’s identity or experience isn’t mirrored directly in a story, that reader knows how to use their imagination and empathize with the characters. “When you go to a birthday party that’s not for you, you still have fun,” Mbalia said. “The day is not for or about you, but everyone’s having a good time. What a novel concept!”

Book People Making ‘Good Trouble’

Two panels on Wednesday emphasized the importance of bookseller activism and advocacy, beginning with a panel session following the morning keynote, “Social Responsibility and Children’s Bookselling,” moderated by sweet pea Flaherty of King’s Books in Tacoma, Wash. During the session, three bookstore owners—Latanya Devaughn of Bronx Bound Books in the Bronx; Tanvi Rastogi of Dog-Eared Books and Good Books Young Troublemakers book club in Ames, Iowa; and Pranoo Kumar of Rohi’s Readery in West Palm Beach, Fla.—discussed how best to engage their communities in the creation of mutual support systems.

Later in the morning, another panel of booksellers, moderated by Brein Lopez, general manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, discussed how best to advocate for themselves and for their communities. Panelists included John Cavalier of Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, La.; Rebecca Crosswhite of Rediscovered Books in Boise, Idaho; and Vera Warren-Williams of Community Book Center in New Orleans.

Lopez kicked things off by explaining the mission of his store: that Children’s Book World wants every child to see themselves and others on the shelves of the store. “It’s just as important that they read about others,” Lopez said, “as we learned this morning, with the Black publishers.” Pointing out that children’s booksellers are “10 years ahead of everyone else,” Lopez acknowledged that there’s a lot of hurt in the children’s book world, “because we’ve already done the work, and now they’re coming after [authors and books].” He added that booksellers are “gatekeepers for the books and authors in our communities” and thus, “it’s important for us to be advocates” by “elevating” targeted authors and their books. He urged booksellers to stock up on books that are challenged or banned, “whether they appeal to people in your community or not,” and to shelve such books face out.

Cavalier noted that “showing up is always one of the biggest things you can do,” and that, if one gets involved in one’s community as much as possible, “one can shape the conversation around a lot of things.” Crosswhite said she is involved with opposing book bans in her community by, among other things, encouraging customers to attend public meetings when elected officials discuss issues relating to free speech and access to books. Warren-Williams, on the other hand, said she is focused more on responding to adult illiteracy, as well as providing people in her community with information and resources, particularly as relates to mental health.

Booksellers were not the only ones at CI2024 emphasizing the importance of advocacy and activism. Instead of presenting new and forthcoming releases like the other 14 presenters did at the midday indie publishers luncheon, Wade Hudson, the publisher of Just Us Books, used his allotted time to urge booksellers to vigorously defend free speech and the right to read.

“I encourage all of you booksellers and retailers to be involved,” he said, noting that recent assaults on free speech include challenges to, and bans of, books on African-American history and culture. “In the words of John Lewis, we want to make ‘good trouble.’”

CI2024’s final keynote, moderated by Kai Burner, assistant manager of the Bookworm of Edwards in Edwards, Colo., demonstrated the power of books and the importance of representation, as Rex Ogle and Mark Oshiro spoke of their lives as gay men who were rejected by their families when they came out. Both were homeless for a time as a result of that rejection—and both have also written books inspired by their experiences that have been challenged or banned.

“Talking about negative things is a reminder that we’ll survive them,” Oshiro said. “I love writing about resilience for kids.” Recalling that he had moved to Austin, Tex., as a young man, Ogle said that he had “no friends, no family,” and was “searching for community and connection” in a safe space; he found it in the gay and lesbian book section at BookPeople. “Books are conversations,” Ogle said. “Banned books are conversations.”