As with any good Children’s Institute, the last two and a half days in New Orleans have been a whirlwind. There’s the delightful blur of familiar faces: colleagues we adore for their expertise, enthusiasm, and creativity (who we don’t see often enough) along with a packed slate of programming designed to challenge the status quo and push us forward. A long time ago, an adult book buyer told me that at trade shows he could always identify the children’s booksellers because they’ were so much more prone to smiling. Whether or not that’s true, Children’s Institute’s first annual costume contest certainly opened the conference with flair, creativity and a whole lot of smiles, as Kenny and Cynthia documented earlier this week. I’ll admit I neglected to take as many pictures as I should have the last few days, but of course I have to give a special shout-out to my fellow Texans from Blue Willow whose costumes (that they carefully drove down from Houston) were as outsized as our state.
After a wise and witty opening talk and guided meditation with Mallika Chopra, we moved forward into the conference with a focus on openness and clear intention. Her new book, Just Breathe, fits into the new(ish) trend of wellness and mindfulness books for kids. As a side note, we just decided to create a dedicated section for this growing category in our kids’ section, and based on trends reporting, it sounds like we’re probably not alone.
As always, the education sessions provided much food for thought. Hearing how other booksellers approach their work never fails to spark new thoughts about things we do every day (or things we’ve never done at all). Of course I’ve jotted down notes about books to remember, display ideas to play with, and even a few lofty “what ifs?” But this year more than ever, the magic of the event flowed from the incredible keynotes that set the tone—from Temple Grandin demonstrating the value of listening to those whose brains process the world differently to Angie Thomas paying tribute to a teacher who believed in her without downplaying the challenges she would face. Each speaker’s voice this year fed into into what became a powerful, overarching call to reject complacency, to be bold, and to tell kids the truth even while we show them how to raise their voices in protest.
In her talk Chelsea Clinton discussed the challenge of talking to her daughter about the refugee children who have been taken from their parents even though it feels essential, a sentiment echoed and powerfully expanded upon later in the day by the creators of We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. Soon to be the largest Own Voices book in print, the project brought together 52 collaborators, as well as a diverse team behind the scenes at Random House to bring the book to fruition. It was a huge treat to see the incredible art pieces created for the book blown up on the big screen, and the conversation about the curation process was very moving. Presented by the book’s editors Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, contributor Kwame Alexander, and Crown Books for Young Readers Publisher Phoebe Yeh, the panelists talked a lot about the very personal, thoughtful process of building this collection and working to help parents and educators broach tough conversations that show kids solidarity and hope. As Wade Hudson emphasized, “If we don’t share important issues with our children, we let others tell them.” And, if we let others tell them, what exactly are they going to hear?
At our publisher focus group roundtables on Wednesday afternoon, one publisher rep asked us what we would tell the head of their company if we could pass on any one message. Margaret Brennan Neville, my colleague from The King’s English, simply and immediately said “Be brave,” an exhortation I thought was both perfect and not at all limited to the publishers and CEOs in our business. As she closed out the show Thursday, Angie Thomas ended with an impassioned plea to booksellers not to shy away from the darkness in the world, but instead to use the power of books to build the empathy that can change it for good. I sincerely hope we can live up to that challenge. Luckily, there are some great books we can rely on to help.