The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association’s annual conference put all eyes on new perspectives on diversity in publishing and bookselling, showcasing children’s and young adult authors at the Baltimore gathering, held at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore Inner Harbor from October 6–8. In panels and presentations, authors and editors shared their efforts to deepen and widen readers’ access to diverse stories, with an audience of more than 175 booksellers.
Namrata Tripathi, v-p and publisher of Kokila, Penguin Young Readers’ new imprint, set the tone for the discussion. In an Editors Buzz forum, Tripathi shared Kokila’s mission, emphasizing the absence of the word “diversity” from the statement. Tripathi told attendees that the word has become “anemic.”
“It’s been so overused, and for many of us we’re not really working to think about what the underlying message and meaning of it is. We use is as a shorthand, and it allows you to not really engage deeply what we’re really talking about.” Tripathi called on the publishing industry to focus less on using the word diversity and more on embracing titles that are aimed at capturing the “full range of experience of children.”
“There’s a wonderful emphasis on Own Voices right now but it’s also pigeonholing authors,” Tripathi said. “If you see someone who looks like me, there’s this desire to hear an immigrant story from me about coming to America and finding my way, and maybe there’s an arranged marriage plotline because that’s always really popular, and that’s fine, but what if I want to write a cat opera book?”
Cheryl Klein, editorial director at Lee Low Books, shared Tripathi’s sentiment, pointing to the forthcoming Zombies Don’t Eat Veggies by Jorge and Megan Lacera as an example of the types of books she believes publishers should be introducing. “We don’t think about zombie books or Halloween books as having a culture, but most do in fact use white American culture as a baseline,” Klein said. She told attendees that Lee Low has signed the authors for the first two-book deal in the history of the publishing house.
In an effort to broaden his own writing and storytelling, Adam Gidwitz, author of the Unicorn Rescue Society series, shared his new approach to writing the series with booksellers. Beginning with the third book in the series, each title will be co-written by Gidwitz and an author from the culture or place where the book is set. Gidwitz’s co-authors include a line-up of writers who he described variously as “legendary, beautiful, and brilliant,” including Joseph Bruchac, David Bowles, Emma Otheguy, and Hena Khan.
“I’m really proud of this series because of the role of collaboration,” Gidwitz said. “Co-writing these books has been an amazing process and a humbling one. With each book that I co-write I learn a ton and I get a ton wrong.” He described writing drafts in which he completely misunderstood multicultural aspects of history, from the Carlisle Schools for Native Americans to the colonization of the Caribbean Islands. In each instance, Gidwitz credited his co-authors for making the series better. As a result, he told booksellers, “the books are coming into their maturity.”
Alicia Michielli, assistant manager of Talking Leaves Bookstore in Buffalo, N.Y., expressed appreciation for the discussion about different types of diversity in children’s books being raised by the presenters. Michielli oversees a broad children’s section with multiple categories, and said she is often dividing children’s and teen titles by the distinction between “books about the issue of being a certain race or gender, or books about a character who is [a certain race or gender].”
At the conference’s keynote forum, authors Elizabeth Acevedo, Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Laurie Halse Anderson took center stage. Anderson hailed the role of booksellers in American society. Receiving the organization’s Legacy Award, she praised the business acumen of booksellers, but she also called on them to “find the groups in your community who have not yet felt welcome in your store and find ways to invite them in.”
Receiving both the Carla Cohen Free Speech Award and the Book of the Year Award, Ghost Boys author Rhodes captured the energy of the conference, harnessing it in a rousing 30-minute speech on racial violence in America that garnered a standing ovation. Rhodes shared the story of her own life, interwoven with descriptions of how she came to write the book.
As the mother of two biracial children, Rhodes said she wrestled deeply with whether she could emotionally withstand the charge of writing about such a painful and personal subject. She ultimately decided to write the book, so long as it was for a young audience. “I wanted to write it for children because I believe they will be the ones to make it better,” Rhodes said. “They will be the shining, empowering, resilient light that will once and for all get rid of this thing called racism and racial bias.”
The conference’s panels and author presentations all occurred within a revamped program aimed at encouraging problem-solving among booksellers. Instead of having concurrent panel discussions, booksellers were presented with a single track of sessions that began with an educational panel by the American Booksellers Association, followed by editor pick sessions and then a half-day of exhibitor hours.
The newest addition to the programming came on the final day, with 51 roundtable sessions divided into four half-hour discussions, on issues ranging from social media to chalkboards, receiving and shelving, and more. Among the most well-attended round tables was a discussion about in-school book fairs that included 15 booksellers from rural upstate New York to Washington, D.C. A lively exchange of ideas took place with booksellers sharing tips on how to deliver the personalized experience of an indie bookstore] to schools with more modest budgets while competing with Scholastic.
Michielli of Talking Leaves said that while the purpose of the revamped programming was to help booksellers find solutions, many of the attendees were comfortable heading home without firm answers to all of their questions, because they came away more closely knit as a community. “It’s less about solutions and more about connections,” Michielli said.
“It’s the only place where I can walk up to anyone and start up a conversation. There’s a practical side but also an emotional one,” she said. “To be some place like this you have to be a truly passionate person. It’s such a great place to recharge.”