Love, Craft & Community by Lisa Stringfellow

The 2019 Kweli Conference was an amazing experience. So many moments stand out. The open-hearted smiles of organizers, volunteers, and attendees. A program packed with publishing expertise and excellence of craft. And presenters who spoke truth and power. Kweli is a one-of-a-kind experience in children’s publishing for Indigenous and POC authors and illustrators.

I first heard of Kweli four years ago on Twitter. Keynotes, panels, and workshops on craft and publishing—all centering marginalized voices. I was intrigued.

Working in independent schools, I’m often in majority white spaces. Over thirty years ago, the National Association of Independent Schools founded its People of Color Conference (PoCC) to address the systemic isolation many independent school educators of color felt. The goal was “to provide a safe space for leadership and professional development and networking.” The opportunity to come together in affinity spaces with educators like me has been personally rejuvenating.

Until Kweli, I had never found a similar experience in the children’s literature community. Publishing is overwhelmingly white. As a member of SCBWI for over five years, I have been to numerous regional conferences and events. I’ve met wonderful writers and illustrators and developed my craft, but one thing has always been true. I was often only one of a handful of creators that looked like me; it felt isolating.

In 2017, I attended my first Kweli conference, driving five hours from Boston to New York. When I returned home, I was exhausted, but inspired in a way I had never been before. Kweli was what I had been missing. Walking into the conference and seeing a sea of joyful brown and black faces, I realized I wasn’t alone. I’ve attended every year since and have spread the word about Kweli to other writers of color that I’ve met.

This year, I signed up again for the middle grade masterclass. Renée Watson immediately got us moving and writing. Through writing activities and conversations, we used our memories to inhabit the minds of our 8-12 year old selves and tried to access the heart and emotion of our characters. What are their fears? What do they love? What is important to them? Watson reminded us that “When you know the deeper things, you’ll learn how your character responds.”

In the masterclass, we discussed many craft strategies, such as list making and journaling, but what I found most helpful were the notes about setting and plot. Watson shared that “Setting can be personified and you should acknowledge what’s happened in a place before your character got there. Places have been places for a long time. What is the history and how can that be communicated?” That recognition resonated with me and reminded me that place can be a character and can interact with the people I put in it.

With plot, Watson asked us to layer our scenes so they don’t ring “one note” but highlight many different emotions that deepen the moment. She reminded the class that “young people need to see characters that experience brokenness and beauty at the same time” and encouraged us to put real and relatable experiences on the page. I loved that she shared the power of poetry to tell stories and encouraged us to read narrative poetry from authors like Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Maya Angelou, and Sandra Cisneros.

The middle grade masterclass was full of inspiration and practical information. I connected with other middle grade writers, learned about their work, and dug into my own stories with new focus.

The full conference opened on Saturday with a keynote by author Samira Ahmed. She spoke with humor that was engaging, while using her skill to discuss painful memories, oppression, and hope.

Ahmed commented that “Kweli means truth and home is a place to speak your truth. Home is where you can be yourself without caveat.” This would be a recurrent theme echoed by others throughout the day. In her speech, Ahmed shared moments from her childhood—the first time someone called her a racial slur—and moments from her adult life where she has had to fight to be heard. She said, “We’re still fighting to break down doors for the right to tell our own stories.” Her message was one of hope and encouragement to writers and illustrators of color to do the work, not just for us, but for the children who need our books. Ahmed ended with a moving call to action to write our stories: “Your verse makes America a song that every child can sing.”

Every workshop I attended was enlightening and gave me a glimpse behind the curtain of how experienced writers work. In the workshop “Form in Fiction,” editor Alvina Ling and authors Aida Salazar, Lygia Day Peñaflor, and Leah Henderson shared how form played an important role in communicating their stories and even theme. Discussing her verse novel The Moon Within, author Aida Salazar commented, “The structure can echo the theme of the book.” Her book is divided into four parts which connect to the four phases of the moon, a central theme in her novel.

In “Preserving and Protecting Black Childhood on the Page,” authors Ibi Zoboi, Leah Henderson and Renée Watson shared their writing journeys and the importance of positive representation in children’s literature for black children. Writing under the “white gaze” was discussed, as was the importance of writing authentic experiences that black children would understand while not “over-explaining” to mediate what white people might not. Zoboi commented that as members of marginalized groups, we read and navigate across cultures all the time and others can do the same. That being said, Watson encouraged writers to think about what educational supports we could provide for teachers when our books tackle complex topics. She shared that we can “help with conversations” by including discussion guides and other materials to help teachers develop context and foster fruitful discussion with students.

The day ended with a powerful reading by Jacqueline Woodson from her new book Red at the Bone and a panel discussion between Jacqueline and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. I’m an admirer of Dr. Bishop’s work and nervously introduced myself when I found myself sitting behind her in a workshop earlier in the day. The conversation between Dr. Bishop and Woodson did not disappoint and highlighted the importance of the work all of us in the room were doing. Dr. Bishop said, “Our basic task is to tell our stories. Basic and essential.” Many moments of wisdom were shared in the conversation, but these final words by Jacqueline Woodson have stayed with me. “One thing writing does is it legitimizes us. It allows us to see our power.” 

Before the final event, the award for manuscript critique submissions was announced. When Laura Pegram read my manuscript title DARK TIDE, I have to admit that I didn’t immediately recognize that I was the honoree. When she called my name, it finally clicked and I rose. I have worked on DARK TIDE for over five years, from first draft and through countless revisions with the help of critique partners and mentors. Walking to the stage amid applause and congratulations was a humbling and affirming moment.

I don’t know what to expect at the SCBWI Summer Conference, but I am eager to soak up as much knowledge as I can. I hope to meet professionals in the publishing industry and learn from fellow writers and creators. I’m so grateful to Kweli and SCBWI for the opportunity and can’t wait to see where it takes me.

At the end of Kweli, author Karuna Riazi tweeted, “So as always, #Kweli19 was amazing. It felt like a family reunion in a lot of ways and I kept remarking to people how I felt like whoever I bumped into was such a welcome face, whether I was just meeting them or have known them for ages.”

I agree wholeheartedly. People cheerfully greeted me and recalled our meetings from previous years at the conference and I exchanged cards and contact information with numerous new acquaintances.

Kweli is like a family reunion, but the joy of the conference is the feeling we take with us back to our drafting tables, desks, libraries, and coffee shops. The community is what will sustain us as we go back to the trenches and resume our publishing journeys. 

Kweli is an oasis of love, laughter, and encouragement that I hope will be around to lift up Indigenous and POC creators for many years to come.