More than 1,100 people gathered at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles this past weekend for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 38th annual summer conference. “This is a record-breaking level of attendance,” said SCBWI president and co-founder Stephen Mooser. “Despite the recession, artists and writers realize the worth in being here. The children’s book field is a very supportive, sharing community.” The active faculty presence of high-level literary agents, editors, illustrators and authors at dozens of workshops and presentations made the weekend a spirited, multifacted educational and social event.

Panelists (l. to r.) Kadir Nelson, Melinda Long,
Arthur A. Levine and Eve Bunting.

The Saturday panel called “Creating an Extraordinary Picture Book,” moderated by Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic, featured authors Melinda Long (Pirates Don’t Change Diapers), Eve Bunting (Smoky Night) and illustrator Kadir Nelson (MOSES: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom). All three agreed that the success of a picture book generally depends on its ability to resonate emotionally with the reader and tell an important story that children can find meaning in. “An extraordinary picture book must speak to a personal universal truth and have excellent art,” Nelson said. In response Bunting added, “It’s one that lasts for a long time, and has heart,” while Long told the gathering that the element of humor is important and helps connect the adult reading a story aloud to the listening child’s own amusement. “Sometimes we forget that there are two people involved in reading a children’s book,” she said.

Levine asked the panelists to address the issue of matching the writer with an illustrator. “Over time I learned to also think in pictures,” Bunting, the author of more than 250 books, said, “I trust my editors. It’s essential to simply let the artist add what he or she might. Rather than being ‘my book,’ I know that each one is ‘our book.’” Nelson’s concern is that the book not be “text-redundant. You should be able to read the story through the pictures.”

Sherman Alexie with his editor, Jennifer Hunt.

In a session later that morning, Jennifer Hunt, editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, interviewed author Sherman Alexie about the editorial challenges he faced in writing his first book for the YA market, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. “The characters in my other books are young adults,” Alexie told the audience, “but the perspective is different. Finding that was difficult for me.” That’s where Hunt came in, helping him find a new voice and a way to be respectful to younger readers. “Trusting your editor is always in the best interest of the writer,” she said. “My job is to help the writer tell the story.”

Absolutely True Diary won the National Book Award for young adult fiction in 2007, and Alexie found a different audience for the book than he was accustomed to. “Kids write more fan letters. They ask outrageous questions, like ‘how often do you masturbate?’ Is there even a right answer to that?” he told a hall that exploded in laughter. Post-publication, Alexie also developed strong opinions about librarians and teachers, who he finds keep to a more traditional gatekeeper role and are “eager to censor. I’m nice, but I’m not polite,” Alexie exclaimed. Booksellers, on the other hand, provide the fun and are more like the “tour guides” of the publication process for the author.

(L. to r.) Vroman's Kris Vreeland, Amazon's Jon Fine and Scholastic Book Fairs' Ed Masessa made up the "How Published Authors & Illustrators Can Work with Booksellers" panel.

Saturday’s PROtrack Lunch panel (“How Published Authors & Illustrators Can Work with Booksellers”) was moderated by Lin Oliver, executive director and co-founder of SCBWI. The three-person panel included Kris Vreeland, children’s department manager and book buyer for Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena; Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon; and Ed Masessa, senior manager of product development at Scholastic Book Fairs. When asked how the panelists help to make the attending authors’ and illustrators’ books sell more copies, Vreeland spoke highly of handselling, the availability of ARCs, assistance from book reps and publicists, and author visits.

“Amazon engages in ‘virtual handselling,’ ” Fine told the group. “Features such as ‘other customers also bought’ and ‘search inside the book’ do that job for us.” To encourage sales, Amazon carries books in several different formats, and in addition has a new program in beta called The Author Store. Using information from's Web site on Amazon's Author Pages, the program has the ability to create personal author pages that feature publicity and marketing updates for each book.

Masessa’s division at Scholastic buys 3,000 titles per year from 170 different publishers, for book fairs. “Fifty million kids a year see these books,” he noted, “and every title is face-out at the fairs. Because they’re held at schools, you have a captive audience.” Both Masessa and Fine mentioned the massive cutbacks in publishing, and urged the audience to actively pursue self-promotion during the economic crunch. “You have to make a big splash for yourself,” Masessa noted, “because the publishers can’t.”

Children’s and YA literary agents Daniel Lazar, Marietta Zacker, Kelly Sonack, Sarah Davies, Brenda Bowen and Stephen Fraser were featured on the dais during Saturday afternoon’s “State of the Business” agents panel. Moderator Lin Oliver queried the panel about the qualities most desired in current and potential clients; the consensus focused on strong voices, creative use of language, humor and literary writing. “More adults are reading YA books now,” Sonnack said, “so I’m looking for exceptional writing.” Placing some of her remarks in the context of the challenging economy, Bowen discussed the importance of presenting manuscripts and portfolios that are polished and complete, or nearly complete.

“There are opportunities during times of adversity,” said Davies, whose Greenhouse agency sells simultaneously to American and U.K. publishers, “and we’re definitely selling books to publishers.” Stephen Fraser agreed, saying that his agency is having its best year ever. Sonnack, of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, has sold 16 books in the last month. “The market is hurting a lot less in children’s books,” she remarked, though she noted that there’s less money currently available for A-list illustrators. This was seconded by Lazar, who explained that while he’s sold several books this year at Writers House, his clients are receiving smaller advances.

“It’s a time for deeper, more meaningful conversations with editors,” Zacker said. “We must all remain hopeful.”