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Finding Belonging at the World’s Largest Library Conference

Raj Tawney at the Baker & Taylor booth in the Library marketplace at the 2024 ALA Annual Conference.

If San Diego Comic-Con is the grand exposition for cosplayers, then the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference & Exhibition is the mecca for, well, bookworms. I proudly consider myself a contributor to the literary world, yet I’m only one tiny worm trying to find my place beneath a mound of rich soil.

ALA’s Annual Conference is the largest library conference in the world. It’s 2024 event, held June 27–July 2 at the San Diego Convention Center in downtown San Diego, was my first, and I was honored to be surrounded by librarians from around the world as I promoted my debut middle-grade novel, "All Mixed Up", coming out on October 28—National Immigrants Day. Librarians have always been special to my family and me. Since the days of accompanying my mom to our local branch, I’ve felt a sense of acceptance and encouragement within library walls. And now, I was able to see up-close how libraries are innovating their spaces and serving their communities in an effort to stay relevant and at the forefront of progress.

Left to right: Raj Tawney, Baker & Taylor CEO Amandeep Kochar, and illustrator Katerina Spaeth
Left to right: Raj Tawney, Baker & Taylor President and CEO Amandeep Kochar, and illustrator Katerina Spaeth

I’ve felt the same way about my publisher, Paw Prints Publishing—a new program by Baker & Taylor (B&T), which has been in the business for nearly 200 years and has always prioritized librarians. B&T President and CEO Amandeep Kochar’s commitment to diverse voices and stories isn’t part of an empty promise or goodwill campaign as I’ve seen with other publishers. As a game-changing children’s book author himself, Kochar actually lives by what he says and brings out the best of those around him. Joining a roster of talented authors and illustrators like Jesse Byrd, Katerina Spaeth, Mikki Hernandez, Daniela Alarcon, Britt Gondolfi, and Amanda Romanick, I know my work has a fighting chance in the marketplace by witnessing their output.

Over the past year, I’ve had the privilege of working with Paw Prints director and editor Bobbie Bensur and the B&T team as they’ve welcomed me into their family, conveying confidence in my story. For once, the question of “Is this marketable?” is secondary to a book's purpose and importance in society. I’m no stranger to overcoming struggles in publishing. For Paw Prints, their mission of inclusion is earnest and rare.

My weekend at Annual was packed with meaningful connections, from doing a signing at the B&T booth, to hustling promotional flyers around the vast grounds, to attending a memorable party at the House of Blues in the nearby Gaslamp Quarter. I met librarians, educators, and authors who offered support and asked how they could help. I also sat in on a variety of programs and felt encouraged by conversations on inclusivity, digital transformation, and community advocacy.

On the evening of Sunday, June 30, I was honored to be a guest at the Newbery-Caldecott-Legacy Awards Banquet, which celebrated the 2024 Newbery and Caldecott medalists and honorees and this year's Legacy awardee. It was thrilling to dress up and see authors Vashti Harrison and Dave Eggers receive their well-deserved medals, as well as cheer on the honorees. At my assigned table, I was surrounded by librarians who shared their hopes and ambitions for a future that includes people of mixed backgrounds—like me—who will have access to reading stories about themselves. A vision that I could have only dreamed of when I was a kid.

I left Annual feeling optimistic about the progress being made by those who truly care. Seeds are being planted and new ideas are starting to bud, and a person like me has a seat at the table. If we all just contribute even the tiniest bit to the growth toward knowledge, acceptance, and accessibility, all of this struggle will be worth the effort.


Raj Tawney is an essayist and journalist who often writes about family, food, and culture from his multiracial American perspective. His debut memoir, "Colorful Palate: A Flavorful Journey Through a Mixed American Experience," was released last fall. His second book, "All Mixed Up," a middle grade novel, will be released on October 28.

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Photo: Raj Tawney at the Baker & Taylor booth in the Library Marketplace at the 2024 ALA Annual Conference, courtesy of Raj Tawney.

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