Finding Community at the 2017 Kweli Conference in NYC

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This Cincinnati girl hopped on a plane and became a New Yorker for a few days!

On April 8th, I woke up bright and early and took the train to downtown Manhattan for the Kweli: Color of Children’s Literature Conference. As I walked down the massive hallway of The New York Times building and rounded the corner, I saw conference organizer, Laura Pegram’s smiling face and I knew I was at home. I felt immediately welcome and energized for a day of connecting with authors, illustrators and publishing industry professionals. My friend/debut author Traci Sorell found me right away and gave me a huge hug; it was so great to finally meet her in person! 

An all day, 8am-5pm conference is no joke but everything at Kweli ran smoothly; we transitioned from panel to panel easily and each fifty minute session was well crafted. The Kweli Conference is focused on diverse children’s literature and is designed to inspire, inform and connect published and unpublished writers. This year, the conference had three tracks; Publishing, Novel and Illustrated Books and Nonfiction.

The opening discussion, “Why We Create Now,” with authors Cozbi Cabrera, Zoraida Cordova, Traci Sorell and Karuna Riazi was particularly empowering. They were reflective, honest and heartfelt about the importance of representation, education and diverse children’s literature. Karuna & Traci’s words stayed with me all day; Karuna shared her feelings of self-doubt as a writer, how she’s found encouragement and community among fellow Muslim writers and her experiences growing up as a Black Muslim woman in NYC after 9/11. Traci kept it real about not seeing herself in books as a child, stereotypes, the importance of tribal governments and the No DAPL movement as unity of Indigenous peoples & exposure of Native issues to the world. It was an excellent panel.

Hena Khan and Daniel José Older’s panel, “Beyond the Hero’s Journey,” was hilarious and thoughtful. I enjoyed learning about their processes, their goals in character & story building and their thoughts on breaking down the western tradition of what a “hero’s journey” should be. Hena Khan said [about her book Amina’s Voice] “It’s okay to be that quiet girl in the quiet story.” Amina’s Voice is “more literary and less commercial” and…that’s ok. Talking about his book Shadowshaper and how he brought his character Sierra to life, DJ Older said, “We don’t get to see the entirety of a person if we don’t see their community.” I agree! Community is important when creating diverse and multicultural stories because our communities are important to us/factor heavily into our experiences and how we’re raised. Another powerful quote from him was, “How do we represent the harder aspects of our culture without playing into stereotypes?”

The next panel I attended was, “Multiple Pathways to Publication” and it was unique because we got to hear the self publisher, indie publisher & “big five” publisher perspective, all at once. As I glanced around, I could tell that people were in awe of [and inspired by?] what Irene Smalls (self-publisher) has been able to create in her long career of creating children’s books. It was also inspiring to hear Cheryl Willis Hudson touch on her more than thirty years experience of running the indie press, Just Us Books with her husband Wade Hudson; I distinctly remember the Afro-Bets books from my childhood.

The “Platform and Marketing Panel” was about using social media to get yourself out there and was helpful to me, as a blogger and Twitter-user. Not only was it a relaxed and funny panel, the women leading it had important advice; A WEBSITE IS NECESSARY, but don’t feel pressured to use Twitter, Instagram, etc. if it’s not your style. I left that panel early to hear Javaka Steptoe in the next room. If you follow my blog, you know that I love picture books and Steptoe’s book, Radiant Child is a masterpiece. One of my favorite quotes from his talk was: “Good illustrations go deep. They tell the story that is not being told.” So true! How many layers of story can a great illustrator/writer team pack into a picture book??

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The conference’s keynote speaker was Cynthia Leitich Smith and she gave an amazing speech. Not only is she extremely smart, she’s funny and relatable! While telling us about her body of work, she also shared bits of her childhood, her inspirations, where she comes from as a Native author, and why she writes. She also included quotes from other authors in her speech in order to drive home the importance of #ownvoices and diverse perspectives. She asked us “What realities of your community aren’t being reflected in children’s books?” and said “Every successfully published diverse book opens the door for more.” Yes!

Another stellar panel, was “Writing Process and Revision.” I enjoyed hearing Marcie Rendon speak of her process, as a Native writer who doesn’t have a higher-ed degree but has been writing for a very long time. She told us, when talking to your editors, “Know the places where you’re willing to take a stand. Where you want to take a stand.” Cultural differences can sometimes lead to miscommunication and unintended results between a writer and editor. Ibi Zoboi was honest about her feelings about Haitian American stories by White men winning awards but there’s no doubt they’ve opened doors for her to tell her stories. Like Cynthia Leitich Smith said in her keynote, sometimes it takes stories getting published, (in an industry that’s about money and numbers) before publishers realize how important #ownvoices books are.

Kweli was a day full of knowledge, powerful people and thoughtful dialogue. During breaks we mingled, ate delicious bagels, sandwiches, salad and brownies and talked and laughed and connected. That’s what this conference was for; making genuine connections. Authors had the opportunity to get their manuscripts critiqued at this conference too & I won a bag full of diverse books for answering a trivia question correctly! Woo hoo! 😀 Thank you Kweli Journal!

Kweli is something to protect and support for years to come. Most of the people in attendance were Native women & women of color; being in that room was unforgettable, for me at least. Aspiring authors and illustrators of color, publishing professionals, booksellers and librarians, THIS is the conference for finding community with like-minded people who are doing the work to bring about more #ownvoices, diverse authors and diverse content in children’s literature. For white authors who truly want to write diversely, this is where you should’ve been. In her article “Who Can Tell My Story,” Jacqueline Woodson talks about the importance of sitting at someone’s table and having “dipped the bread of their own experiences into our stew”…this was the table.

See you at Kweli 2018!

P.S. Check out #Kweli17 on Twitter for conference highlights! 😀

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5 thoughts on “Finding Community at the 2017 Kweli Conference in NYC

  1. Jane the Raincity Librarian says:

    What an inspiring experience! Oh how I wish I lived closer to New York, there always seems to be so many exciting and inspiring literary events happening in that great city, while I’m stuck on the other side of the continent in another country, far from the action. Thankfully I feel like you covered some really great highlights of the conference here!

    • readitrealgood says:

      I live just far enough from NYC to make this a special trip but YES, so much goes on in NYC. It’s definitely a kid lit hub. Glad you enjoyed this post!

  2. ChristineTB says:

    We bought Afrobets for the girls and still have the books at the house. Back then, there were so few choices but the Hudson’s were always reliable for providing content for Kids of color.

    • readitrealgood says:

      I don’t think I ever owned them but I remember seeing them, maybe at a black book fair, when I was little. You can’t forget seeing black kids bent into alphabet shapes. I’m SO grateful for the Hudsons!

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