The 39th annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference kicked off on July 30 with a celebratory parade of the organization’s 150 regional advisors, across the stage of the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, to cheers and applause from the audience.
Lin Oliver, SCBWI’s executive director, asked each advisor to share one word with the crowd as they introduced themselves and the region of the country they were from (the chosen words included "nailbiter," "pirate," and "happy"). With over 1,100 attendees present, the atmosphere was one of great excitement and anticipation for what the following four days held: the presence of scores of literary agents, publishers, and bestselling children’s book authors. all participating in the conference to instruct and inspire SCBWI members.
The conference’s first keynote speaker was author Jon Scieszka, former National Ambassador for Children’s Literature. In his talk, titled “Take a Picture Book Writer—Do’s, Don’t’s, and Maybes,” he encouraged attendees to read as many picture books and novels as possible. “That includes the worst ones, too,” he said, laughing, “like celebrity books for kids,” and to visit bookstores and libraries on a regular basis to stay informed of trends and for creative inspiration. “Become an expert,” Scieszka told the audience. “Read the children’s books magazines and journals—and then leave that poison behind you and work on your book.”
In an almost weary tone, Scieszka said, “No alphabet, princess, vampire, or zombie books, please! We have enough.” By way of encouragement, though, he implored those in the room to be storytellers. “Write what thrills you,” he said. “That’s your mission. Don’t chase the market. Get out there and do what you’re meant to do.”
M.T. Anderson followed Scieszka at the podium. Author of the Octavian Nothing and Pals in Peril books, Anderson described himself as someone who questions both history and our society, and writes books for thinking kids interested in the concepts of travel, leaving home, and adventure. His Pals in Peril series take place in Delaware, although Anderson, a Massachusetts native, has never visited the state itself.
Explaining why he doesn’t write about more exotic places, Anderson launched into a tale about how his “drab and fussy food habits,” which include allergies and a hypoglycemic medical condition, prohibit him from venturing out of his culinary comfort zone. He once found himself in a Himalayan village “during the onset of the avian bird flu virus,” where no meat or chicken was being served. A self-proclaimed protein junkie, Anderson fought off a feral cat when both of them went after a plate of chicken tendons, gizzards, and bones that someone finally cooked for him in the village.
“I still experience the thrill of travel,” Anderson says, “but from the safety of my living room.” He basically conducted his research of Delaware via MapQuest, and later received a tongue-in-cheek letter from the governor of the state who complained to Anderson that, contrary to his text, there are no jungles in Delaware.
“Books take us away from home so we can see home,” Anderson noted. “They restore the sense of the unknown to what we already know.” He is committed to online marketing; Anderson’s Web site includes book trailers, a song, maps, and desktop wallpaper, and he hopes that his books and site “interpose fantasy on the American landscape.”
Anderson, whose latest book is The Suburb Beyond the Stars, offered supportive words of wisdom to those in the audience, many of whom are working on their first books and trying to get published. “Simple or complex, picture book or epic, try to take us away from what we expect. De-familiarize the familiar for your readers. Use interesting language that demands attention.” In closing, he performed an original song called “Delaware,” a raucous, no-holds-barred Elvis-like rendition that had the crowd cheering.
Sunday’s first keynote speaker was Gennifer Choldenko, whose books include Al Capone Does My Shirts and Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Choldenko, who has been attending the annual SCBWI conference since 1994, excitedly told the audience, “This is the place to be for information, encouragement, and great critiques.”
Choldenko believes that although kids today are more outwardly sophisticated, on the inside they’re not. “Growing up takes just as long, and the writing is the same as always for authors,” she said. Her reading recommendations included classics such as A Wrinkle in Time and A Little Princess, and the more recent When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. “We need more books on the emotional realties of boys’ lives,” Choldenko added. “Our writing must be fulfilling to the reader. What you experience while you’re writing, we’ll experience while we’re reading. Each character should have a real personality. Take notes at Starbucks on how people walk, dress, and what their facial expressions are like.”
In order to write the two Al Capone books, which take place on Alcatraz in 1935, Choldenko volunteered on the historic island for a year and became a life member of the Alcatraz Association. “Every detail must work in the context of your novel,” she said. “You must be totally engaged while you’re writing in order to get to the emotional core of the story.” Turning to the topic of digital media, she told the audience, “Storytelling and gaming is a collaboration that’s happening big-time. Graphic novels are exploding. We should be thankful for the new delivery systems that are available for our writing.”
Choldenko concluded her speech with tips on how to break into the children’s book market. “Come to this conference every year, and get an agent. Stop listening to what does and doesn’t sell, and keep your distance from toxic people.”
The much-anticipated publisher panel took place on Monday. “A View From the Top: Four Publishers Discuss Our Industry” featured Justin Chanda from Simon & Schuster, Disney-Hyperion’s Stephanie Owens Lurie, Francesco Sedita of Penguin, and Jennifer Hunt of Little, Brown. Moderated by Oliver, the first question addressed the creative climate of children’s publishing. “Follow the rules and know them before you can break them,” Sedita said. “The industry is a little ‘wiggly’ right now, and we need content that’s out of the box.” Chanda mentioned that sales of picture books have fallen 40%, but then focused on the upsurge in the teen fiction market. “It’s become the romance novel of our day,” he said, “the novel of our generation.” Lurie’s comment that the No Child Left Behind policy was responsible for most of the damage to picture book sales, which she claims have been cut in half, moved the audience to applause. She also mentioned that sales have dropped because Barnes & Noble no longer gives picture books the face-out merchandising they once did.
Oliver asked the panelists to discuss their view of acquisitions during these changing times. Lurie looks for authors that her company can build on, those with several ideas who can grow a list. “I take risks on new voices,” Sedita said. “There are fewer places to market them, but these people are the hardest-working folks.”
“E-books are great,” said Chanda in response to a question from Oliver about digital publishing, “and if you don’t think so, you’re wrong.” Simon & Schuster creates electronic editions of every title it publishes now, which is valuable to the growing audience of adults who read teen novels. “They don’t want to be seen on the subway reading a book for teens,” he said. Hunt commented, “We think about digital from the very start of an acquisition, and ask our authors to, also. But there are limits. I want to focus on the book, not whether or not there’s a theme park possibility around its story. You should all focus on becoming better writers.”
The four publishers concluded in the atmosphere of support and camaraderie that the SCBWI is known for. “Go home and write your best book, and write for yourself,” Sedita urged. Chanda suggested that the participants not write to the trends. “If you do,” he cautioned humorously, “then the vampires win!” All four panelists reminded the SCWBI members to consider their own excellence to be the priority in their creative output. “Write what you think is cool,” Lurie said. “Write for your inner child.”
As the conference drew to a close, it was apparent that the attendees were pleased with the experience. Carol Barreyre of McKinney, Tex., attended for the second year in a row. “This is a very nurturing environment. The people here want you to succeed,” she said. “The editorial critiques are particularly valuable, and now I can go home and rewrite my manuscript in a way that will bring me closer to a publishing deal.”
The grand prize portfolio winner this year was illustrator Molly Idle, who lives in Arizona and was a third-time attendee. One of her favorite workshops was with agent Stephen Malk and writer Mac Barnett, who talked about the importance of classic children’s books. “They taught me that in an edgy new world, the tried and true avenues of story and illustrations are still powerful.”