Kweli Conference: A Celebration of Community, Honest Assessment of Publishing, and Clarion Call

Kweli's Fourth Annual Color of Children's Literature Conference had a powerful lineup of speakers and panelists including Jacqueline Woodson, Rudine Sims Bishop, Emily X.R. Pan, Samira Ahmed, and Ibi Zoboi.

The crowd was sizable yet familiar, with delighted cries of recognition marking an intimate atmosphere even among the plentiful new and notable faces.

“I’m so grateful to be in this room, and I’m so grateful this room exists for us,” award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson said during her closing remarks at Kweli's Fourth Annual Color of Children's Literature Conference.

Held April 5 and 6 at the City University of New York's Graduate Center in Manhattan, the conference chose its theme, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” to honor Walter Dean Myers’ legacy and the Kweli Journal’s 10th anniversary. The array of programming included author and poet Samira Ahmed's opening keynote and panels divided into four specialized tracks: Publishing, Community, & Culture; Novels; Illustrated Books & Nonfiction; and Intensive.

At "Preserving & Protecting: Black Childhood on the Page," Leah Henderson and Renee Watson joined moderator Ibi Zoboi to discuss their personal and professional experiences as Black women writers crafting stories of Black children, in a time and an industry that often dehumanizes them. The trio spoke on the significance of complexity and challenging publishing's oppressive concept of a singular Black experience.

"There's still subcultures within Black cultures…that affect the larger population," said Zoboi.

Watson recalled the professional pushback she received on her 2015 novel, This Side of Home, for not depicting enough of the stereotypical ‘Black pain’ broadly expected from narratives of Black children's lives. The painful experience led her to gather a new team who supported her vision of crafting "nuanced, layered stories of Black girls."

On the subject of giving book talks about Black characters in predominantly white spaces, Henderson advocated asking "What do you see?" in order to dismantle the concept of white children being unable to connect with stories centering children of color.

In another session, the creative team behind We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices discussed the process of bringing the title from post-2016 election concept to reality. Originally prompted by the question, “What shall we tell them?” the book rose out of an urgent realization that children needed anchors of safety, love, and futurity amid the storm of despair and helplessness that has picked up speed in recent years.

Advice for creators was interspersed with readings from the book’s contributors Pat Cummings, Tony Medina, and editors Wade and Cheryl Hudson, moderated by publisher Phoebe Yeh.

Reality in research and industry inclusion

"Mining Deep: Research, Writing, and Discovery" brought an eager audience to hear from Victoria Bond, Emily X.R. Pan, Karyn Parsons, and moderator Namrata Tripathi on research for and beyond the book.

The panelists touched on research methods—Pan revealed how the process of researching 1940's Hong Kong completely reshaped the premise of The Astonishing Color of After, and Bond mentioned reading Zora Neale Hurston's contemporaries to contextualize details for her "Zora and Me" series with T.R. Simon.

But even more resonant for the audience was the writers’ vulnerability as they shared hardships from the emotional weight of revisiting historically traumatic racial dynamics for one’s work. Parsons cited the comfort of structure and discipline, and how carving out a time for healing and family kept her afloat. Bond said she is sustained by the desire to create a just universe: "Community can keep us alive."

"The Art of Inclusion" brought together publishing professionals Alessandra Balzer, Grace Kendall, Namrata Tripathi, and Marietta Zacker with moderator Eric Smith to address the current state of publishing for marginalized creators and professionals alike, and to offer visions of resistance and disruption.

Kendall emphasized being cognizant of the "weight of [her] whiteness" when working with authors of color, and seeking to uplift the community being represented: “How do I bring that voice out instead of trying to wrap publishing into this book?”

The panel also discussed the crucial need to not only pay entry-level publishing staff more—as marginalized people are overrepresented in this area—but to name and dismantle the unsupportive environments that people of color are forced to endure, including racist workplaces and job stagnation at entry-level positions with limited creative direction and decision-making power.

Zacker added that though this discussion has gained traction and much work has been done, there are still miles to go in terms of renovating the industry to truly answer these calls for change. But it was Tripathi who packaged the roundtable's points into a universally urgent query: "How do we get to a place where we look at the reality of the systems we grew up in and that we replicate so easily?"

Lifting up others and continuing on

Jacqueline Woodson.
Photo by Beowolf Sheehan

The conference concluded with a reading by Woodson from her upcoming adult book, Red at the Bone, followed by "Free Within Ourselves," a conversation between Woodson and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the renowned scholar whose 1990 essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” forever changed children's literacy studies.

Rudine Sims Bishop. Photo by James J. Bishop

With moderator Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, the writers discussed the persistent frustration of hollow white allyship, the urgency of storytelling in the age of distraction, and honoring elders' revolutionary work in the field while keeping in mind the work to be done. Rhuday-Perkovich added an invocation of Edwidge Danticat’s notion of creating dangerously while looking out for the well-being of one another.

Bishop and Woodson both emphasized the importance of supporting students at every level—from helping children feel safe and seen in the classroom to co-writing papers with graduate students of color to increase their visibility.

When asked how one creates amid destruction, Woodson responded, "We use what we have to save ourselves and, by extension, some part of the world.”

Ashleigh Williams is SLJ's assistant editor, middle grade.

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