The Latinx KidLit Book Festival

The year 2020 was challenging — and will forever be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. But there were some bright spots. The inaugural Latinx KidLit Book Festival, brought to viewers by Las Musas Books — a collective of women and nonbinary Latinx middle-grade, picture book, and YA authors — is one.

My sophomore YA novel, This Train Is Being Held, came out in February 2020, right before the lockdown. Like many authors, I saw all the wonderful in-person opportunities to connect with readers and other writers disappear. Book events were cancelled — and I was disappointed, maybe even a little depressed about it. But I counted my blessings, the foremost of which being my family’s health. After the shock and novelty of lockdown wore off, I did what most people did. I reached out to friends and colleagues so that I wouldn’t feel so alone. Fellow Las Musas author Mayra Cuevas, whose debut YA novel Salty, Bitter, Sweet was released shortly after mine, was one such friend. We were eager to salvage what we could of the year. Sure, we were stuck in our homes, but we had phones and video and internet! We started to host web­inars with Las Musas authors, and we discovered other virtual opportunities, including nErDcamps and book festivals. It was after one such festival, one quite successful despite the pandemic restrictions, that Mayra had the idea to create a Latinx KidLit book festival.

A book festival that uplifted the works of Latinx children’s authors and illustrators had never been done before on the scale we imagined it, as far as we knew. Of course I wanted to promote Latinx books and help my fellow authors. But it was my role as a mother that convinced me this festival was something we had to do.

In July, I began to worry about what remote school would look like for kids come fall. I knew from experience as a pediatrician in New York City that, for many students, school is not only a place to attend class and get a meal but also to find much-needed validation from adults. It’s a place where they learn to feel good about themselves and see promise in their future. How would that happen over Zoom? I felt apprehensive and powerless. But the idea of a book festival offered an opportunity. Maybe, through the festival, we could bring joy into lots of different classrooms. We could provide programming that would benefit students and help ease the burden of educators. The Latinx KidLit Book Festival would be for everybody, not just Latinx readers, yet we knew Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. It would be all the more powerful to celebrate stories in which those kids could see themselves as the heroes. Through our books, through the words of our authors and the art of our illustrators, we could share hope.

But how? Neither of us had organized a book festival before, and it would be a lot of work. Mayra, in addition to being a talented writer, is a producer at CNN. We enlisted the aid of Alex Villasante, award-winning YA author of The Grief Keeper, who organizes events for her day job. We also connected with organizers from the Everywhere Book Fest, the Loft’s Wordplay, and the Miami Book Fair, to learn from them.

A core group of Las Musas authors and illustrators stepped forward to dedicate their talents to the festival. Our website was designed by Anika Fajardo and Zara González Hoang. Our social media platforms were managed by Jonny Garza Villa. The educational component of the festival, which ultimately ended up featuring education guides as well as a platform for students to submit video questions for authors and illustrators, was headed up by Laekan Zea Kemp. Mia García created our online bookstore. Rebecca Balcárcel, Loriel Ryon, Jennifer de Leon, and Jonny formed our panel selection committee. Donna Barba Higuera volunteered to be our sponsorship lead. With this core team, we were set to begin creating a book festival from scratch.

First up was to find Latinx authors and illustrators who shared our vision of the festival and would be willing to donate their time. Right away, we got lucky. Big names signed on: Ibi Zoboi, Gabby Rivera, Meg Medina, Margarita Engle, Elizabeth Acevedo, Rafael López. From there it snowballed. More and more people said yes. Authors and illustrators reached out to us to join. We put out a general call for panel suggestions on our website. By September, our programming was complete.

We were also fortunate to welcome a large cadre of volunteers, both Latinx and allies, who helped us with newsletter creation, website maintenance, live-chat monitoring, transcribing prerecorded sessions, and more. We reached out to community partners to spread the word. And of course, our sponsors were vital: the publishing houses that stepped forward to donate funds to cover the costs of the festival, the most significant of which was the actual video production and the live captioning. It takes a village!

A screenshot from a session where artists shared self-portraits, at the inaugural (and virtual) Latinx KidLit book festival, held December 4–5, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Ismée Williams.)

There were some hiccups, of course. Some panels had to be rearranged. Technical snafus were expected, and not all could be prevented. But what Mayra, Alex, and I will remember is the overwhelming support of the children’s book community. SCBWI was our first sponsor — and we approached them not for money but for outreach. The New York Public Library signed on to help promote, as did the NCTE. We got a call from NPR asking if they could do a story about the festival.

During a previous SCBWI keynote, Elizabeth Acevedo had shared her own powerful experience of being seen and heard by an award-winning author when she was a sixth-grade student in a New York City public school. (Elizabeth retold this story during our opening ­session for the Latinx KidLit Book ­Festival, so you too can hear it directly from her.) We wanted to create something similar for our festival. We put out an advance call for students’ questions, and then were able to incorporate as many of them as possible into the programming. This effort was for the kids, to provide them with that opportunity to see that their thoughts hold value, to allow them to be seen and heard during this awful pandemic when schooling is disrupted and everyone is separated by a screen or a mask. The kids’ questions were amazing and inspiring, even better than we’d imagined. We weren’t anticipating the response from the authors and illustrators, many of whom melted at the sight of earnest children asking their questions onscreen. We also weren’t anticipating the response from educators. One teacher said that submitting questions for the festival was the one assignment that got the entire class excited — and she emphasized how difficult it is to get middle schoolers excited about anything school-related these days.

Some student questions were directed to a specific author for a specific book. Bella, a fifth grader from California, asked Newbery Award winner Meg Medina, “Is Merci Suárez Changes Gears based on your life or is it just a story?” Some questions focused on craft. Seventh grader Tessa J. asked Ibi Zoboi, “How do you find a writing style that really feels like you?” Some questions touched on adversity. John David, a fifth grader from Bangkok, asked, “What was the greatest disappointment in your career?” Some questions were philosophical. Christopher, a New Jersey twelfth grader, asked, “If you were able to tell your younger writing self anything, what would you tell them?” And many questions showcased the wonders and delight of reading and creating stories. Victoria, a fifth grader in California, asked, “If you could reread any story again for the first time, what would it be?”

To make the experience even sweeter, we asked publishers if they would donate classroom sets of books so we could send them to the schools that submitted questions. Over sixty classroom sets were mailed out. Importantly, the students whose questions were used in the festival were recognized by their school and their teachers. Many of the teachers, we have been told, used these books in the classroom, learning about both the authors and their stories.

Looking back, we are grateful for the opportunity to have created the Latinx KidLit Book Festival 2020, an experience that can continue to bring authors and illustrators into classrooms and uplift many through the power and diversity of our stories. All panels still can be viewed on the Las Musas YouTube page. We even have a podcast so listeners can access content on the go. Looking ahead, we hope the Latinx KidLit Book Festival will continue in the years to come. Hopefully the pandemic will be behind us by then. Hopefully an in-person component will be included, though the silver lining of current circumstances is the reach we were able to attain, both in terms of festival participants and an audience who might not have been able to afford to travel to an in-person event. We know that no matter what, the goal of the festival will remain: to engage with students and teachers, indeed readers of all backgrounds and ages, and make them feel valued while sharing the joy of story.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25.

Ismée Williams

Ismée Williams is the author of YA contemporary #OwnVoices novels Water in May and This Train Is Being Held (both Amulet/Abrams). She is also a pediatric cardiologist who has worked in New York City for over twenty years. The daughter of a Cuban immigrant, she was partially raised by her abuelos.

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