In her 1992 book The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron touts the creative benefits of regular “artist’s dates” to feed your spirit and spark your imagination. In late July, I took a doozy of an artist’s date and headed to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ annual summer conference, held this year at the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A.
The Society, known by the acronym SCBWI, is one of the most amazing resources out there for people who write books for children (I joined SCBWI not long after beginning a nonfiction book about Charlie Chaplin for teens back in late 2012). Among many other helpful services, SCBWI sponsors two big annual conferences in New York and L.A. which draw children’s book writers, editors, agents, art directors, and illustrators from across the country.
Knowing that we homeschoolers are a book-loving bunch, I thought it might be fun to share some of the insights and inspiration I gleaned at the conference—and to give you a preview of some forthcoming books I heard mentioned there.
Pam Munoz Ryan, author of Esperanza Rising, was one of the conference’s first keynote speakers. She noted that interviewers sometimes ask her what she wishes people would ask her more often.
“I wish they’d ask me about failure as much as they ask me about getting an agent,” she admitted with a wry smile. She spoke of how often she finds herself thinking she’s on the right track with a book, only to discover she’s not.
“If you are not struggling,” she urged attendees, “if nothing is a challenge. . . then you’re setting your goals too low.”
In another keynote, publisher and editor Justin Chanda spoke of how important it was not to get caught up in writing to trends, telling the audience, “Erase ‘trend’ from your thinking. . . By the time you finish your manuscript, a new trend might be starting.” Instead, he encouraged writers to focus on writing the stories close to their hearts and telling those stories in the distinctive ways that only they can tell them.
Illustrator John Parra echoed Chanda’s sentiments in a later panel, telling the audience, “You don’t want to be a second-rate someone else. You want to be a first-rate you.”
Chanda also addressed the subject of diversity in children’s literature.
“Diversity is not a trend. Diversity is not the new vampires. Diversity is real life,” he asserted. He added, “Celebrating diversity. . . needs to be the norm.” Chanda is definitely practicing what he preaches: he recently launched Salaam Reads, a Simon and Schuster imprint devoted to depicting nuanced, realistic Muslim characters and themes.
For me, one of the must-attend panels at the conference was a presentation on Nonfiction/Fiction Mash-Ups by writers Elizabeth Partridge, Linda Sue Park, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti and agent Steven Malk. As the presenters shared their perspectives on when nonfiction veers into the realm of fiction, I found myself challenged to look harder at my own nonfiction project to make sure it really is just the facts, ma’am.
Linda Sue Park shared a particularly thought-provoking point about nonfiction, noting that almost all nonfiction eventually loses authority over time because of new research and new interpretations of the truth. Nonetheless, she said, it’s still important for writers to attempt nonfiction so that new information and perspectives can be discovered—even as nonfiction writers have to understand that they’re doomed to be found inaccurate on some points eventually.
Park also mentioned Fatal Throne, an intriguing new collaborative novel about Henry VIII and his six wives helmed by award-winning writer Candace Fleming. The novel will feature history-based stories from the point-of-view of Henry VIII and his wives, written by such noted authors as M. T. Anderson, Deborah Hopkinson, and Park herself. It’s due in Fall 2017.
At another break-out session, author Bonnie Bader offered tips for writing engaging biographies. Bader knows what she’s talking about—she’s written several biographies in Penguin Random House’s popular Who Was. . .? series (your kids might know them as “The Big Head Books”). Among her pointers: Try focusing on one particularly illuminating part of a person’s story instead of trying to cover a person’s entire life. She cited Martha Brenner’s Abe Lincoln’s Hat as a model of that approach. She also encouraged writers to steer clear of beginning biographies with the person’s birth, but to instead draw readers in with an attention-getting anecdote. As an example, she read the opening of her forthcoming biography Who Was Jacqueline Kennedy?, which showed Jackie taking Paris by storm in 1961.
For me, one of the most encouraging parts of the conference was hearing celebrated writers and illustrators admit just how humbling this business can be. Carole Boston Weatherford, the author of Moses: The Story of Harriet Tubman and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins, noted that when writers are first starting out, people always ask, “Have you published anything?” Once a writer has been published, she laughed, the question becomes, “Have you published anything I would have heard of?”
Author-illustrator Sophie Blackall also emphasized the humbling nature of publishing: “I don’t know anyone in this industry who says, ‘Oh, I’ve totally got this now.’”
Repeatedly, I heard from authors I admire that no matter how far you advance, you are still going to experience setbacks and self-doubt. But if you commit to the work and persist, you can find joy and growth through the struggles. Good advice for writing—and life.
Another conference highlight for me was meeting fellow nonfiction writer (and longtime homeschooling parent) Sarah Jane Marsh, whose debut picture book Thomas Paine and The Dangerous Word is due out in 2017. Sarah was incredibly generous about sharing what she wished she would have known when she was at the career stage that I am now. My takeaway? If I’m lucky enough to land a book deal, I shouldn’t be afraid to ask my agent and my editor questions and bring up concerns, even if I feel a bit awkward about it.
One of the last presentations I saw was by author Margarita Engle, whose memoir-in-poems Enchanted Air has been winning awards and rave reviews this year. In her book, Engle writes of feeling torn between her childhood in Los Angeles and her summers in Cuba with her mother’s family. Her inner conflict was heightened by the Communist revolution in Cuba, the Cuban missile crisis, and the eventual ban on travel to Cuba, a ban that created a painful divide between Engle and the family and the island she loved.
Engle noted that she consciously used present tense for Enchanted Air because she didn’t want her memoir to come across to kids as an old person’s reminiscences, as she self-deprecatingly put it.
“I wanted to take a young reader on a time traveling experience,” she explained.
She pointed out that her memoir came out not long after Jacqueline Woodson’s acclaimed 2014 memoir-in-poems Brown Girl Dreaming, also written in present tense and also showing a girl grappling with the intersection between the personal and the political.
“Maybe it’s a point in history where poetry is needed,” Engle mused.
This point in history often feels frighteningly tumultuous, especially with the current Presidential race stirring up so much discord. The writers, artists, and editors speaking at this year’s SCBWI conference couldn’t help acknowledging some of the difficulties our country is facing. But again and again, the conference’s speakers emphasized the power of stories to spread hope and change kids’ lives for the better.
As author-illustrator Drew Daywalt said in a Tweet sent from the conference, “Dear hurting America, take heart. Even as we struggle, know the people making stories for our children are some of the kindest people alive.”
After hanging out with some of those people all weekend, that was definitely my takeaway, too.
For more information on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, visit the SCBWI website at www.scbwi.org.