A surprise guest appearance by Judy Blume at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual summer conference in Los Angeles made the 40th anniversary of the organization even more meaningful to the record-breaking number of attendees, which included writers, illustrators, publishers, editors, and agents. Nearly 1,350 people were on hand for the conference, which was held August 4-8 at the Century Plaza Hotel.
When SCBWI’s co-founder and executive director Lin Oliver noted at Friday morning’s opening ceremony that 42% of those registered for the conference are published authors and illustrators, the audience responded with sustained applause. Lissa Price, a debut author whose YA novel Starters is one of Random House’s lead titles for spring 2012, said, “I support SCBWI wholeheartedly, and I love this conference. Where else can you see and listen to such icons of children’s books all in one place but here? This is what inspires us.”
One of the most anticipated panels of the conference, “Children’s Publishing: Five Publishers Give an Industry-Wide Picture,” was held on Friday and featured Allyn Johnston of Simon & Schuster’s Beach Lane Books, Random House’s Beverly Horowitz, Jennifer Hunt of Dial, Julie Strauss-Gabel of Dutton, and Scholastic’s Debra Dorfman, with Oliver serving as moderator. Discussion among panelists covered such topics as the state of the market, genre trends, self-publishing, and enhanced picture books. Horowitz said that the demise of Borders has forced publishers to think in a whole new way about other sales venues for children’s books. “A huge outlet is no longer available, so the indies have stronger potential for us now,” she remarked. “Also, the big box stores are open to stocking YA titles for the first time, although they’re still resistant to picture books.”
Dorfman added that she hopes “non-traditional bookstores” will replace the void left by Borders. “There’s a huge opportunity now for sales through Wal-Mart and Target that didn’t exist before,” she said. Horowitz responded to this by stating her belief that the buyers at the big box chains are only interested in the sell-through potential of children’s books, and not the content per se.
As for the issue of self-published books, Strauss-Gabel said, “Voices do need to find their way if traditional publishing doesn’t work. However, I believe in editing, gatekeeping, and the process of publishing.” She suggested that perhaps manuscripts get rejected because they’re not ready for publication, or simply have no appeal. “You need to have moments of personal honesty about your work.”
Referring to her inter-racial parents and the lack of resources available to them when they adopted Hunt as a baby, Hunt provided a personal touch when she told the audience, “There are definitely underserved communities,” adding, “I doubt there were any books out in the 1970s to help my parents when they brought me into their lives.”
Opinions on enhanced books varied among the panelists. Johnston said, “This might not be a popular view, but I’m sticking with traditional books. The enhanced format distracts from the central point of the book. It’s a game, a toy – not a book.” Horowitz, on the other hand, made note of the sales increase of devices such as the Kindle and Nook since the prices of these devices were lowered last fall. Dorfman voiced the opinion that books will be around for a long time despite the fact that kids love new technologies.
Another popular Friday panel, “No Holds Barred: An Agent and an Author Give Outspoken Advice on Writing, Submitting, Promoting, and Everything in Between,” paired author Jon Scieszka and his agent, Steven Malk of Writers House. The two began by explaining how they met, back in 1989. Malk was working in his parents’ children’s bookstore, White Rabbit Books in La Jolla, Calif., at age 16. Scieszka was a frequent visitor to the store and got to know the family. “I didn’t have an agent for the first five or six years,” Scieszka said, “but when I needed to find one I called Steven’s mother at the store to ask if she had any recommendations. She told me that Steven had just started working as an agent. We connected, and we’ve been together ever since.”
Malk encouraged the audience to learn as much as possible about the industry before making submissions. “Be a sponge. Read as many children’s books as you can. Take classes, and be informed,” he said. “Also, read all the magazines about the book business and pay attention to the bestseller lists.”
Scieszka was a schoolteacher 10 years before becoming a writer. “I had the greatest opportunity to read my stuff to kids,” he said. “You should try and do the same thing. Understanding kids and the way they think will help you as a writer. Also, know what came before you. Read all the classic children’s books, and read outside your genre.”
When the topic of query letters came up, Malk stressed the importance of being professional. “Do your research,” he said, “and don’t just shoot in the dark. If your presentation is thoughtful and professional, it makes me want to like your submission.” Scieszka then touched upon the relationship between the author and the publisher or editor. “Don’t be a dick!” he said frankly. “Collaborate, don’t defend. The agent, editor, and publicist are all working for you, and your role is to make your publisher’s job easier.”
The title of David Small’s keynote on Friday was “The Voice of the Eye,” which aptly described the deep, introspective nature of much of his talk. Small, who won the 2001 Caldecott Medal and has illustrated more than 40 books, began his presentation with a short film based on his 2010 memoir Stitches. In Small’s words and images the film movingly captured the tragic nature of his childhood and cast a solemn mood over the audience. When the film ended, Small discussed the genesis of his memoir. “People have asked me, ‘Why now?’ I wrote Stitches because I was in the midst of midlife fury, in analysis, and still acting like a 14-year old boy,” said Small. “I always expected myself to get over it, but in the end I had to draw this most personal of histories to do so.”
Small said he chose the graphic novel form for Stitches because writing doesn’t come that easily to him. “My story is about voicelessness. I had surgery when I was nine, and after that I lost my voice for years. Art helps enormously to resolve childhood traumas.” Small hopes that Stitches will help people avoid repeating family dysfunction. “I was finally able to step out of the conga line of my family.” The book was a finalist in the 2010 National Book Awards, and while not published specifically for a younger readership, it was nominated in the Young People’s Literature category. “I was surprised by the response to this,” he said. “People were mad. But I wrote it for anyone who can understand it.”
Small substantially lifted the mood of his presentation halfway through when he showed a short film about one of his first book tours that he produced for the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association which had the audience roaring with laughter. “I didn’t know anything about the book business,” Small said. “I was picked up this particular morning by an author escort who arrived late, and I was scheduled for two signings – one at a chain store and the other at the wonderful Hicklebee’s in San Jose.” The film depicts no one showing up at the chain, but a packed house at the indie and a bear hug from Walter the Giant Storyteller upon Small’s arrival and departure. “And that, my friends, is the difference between visiting a chain store and visiting an indie,” Small said to a standing ovation. Small then cued the Marvin Gaye song “How Sweet It Is” and danced on the stage, the attendees joining in.
When Friday afternoon’s keynote speaker, John Green, had to cancel at the last minute because of appendicitis, Judy Blume agreed to fill in for him, to the delight of the assembled audience. She took to the stage with Oliver, who conducted a freewheeling interview with the bestselling author. Oliver began by asking how technology has changed not only her fan mail but her writing process. Blume responded that although she is digitally adept and “addicted now to Twitter,” she misses the handwritten letters she used to receive from fans. Most of them contact her through e-mail these days. “The intimacy is in the pencil, not on the screen,” she said. She also waxed nostalgic about her old IBM Selectric typewriter on which she wrote draft after draft of her early novels, including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, using carbon paper between the sheets of paper. Blume said, too, that it takes longer to write a book on a computer. “Now I rewrite as I go along, because it’s so easy to do. When I wrote on the Selectric the process was different. When I walked into my office in the morning I knew that I’d stopped at a certain page the day before, and would simply continue on the next page.”
Blume, who told the audience she was 73 and happy to be working as hard as ever, said she spent the last two years working on her first film project, as writer and producer of the adaptation of her novel Tiger Eyes. “My son directed it, and I’m very pleased with how it turned out. I really didn’t know what to expect when we started because filmmaking was completely new to me.” The film will be released later this year.
Oliver asked Blume if writing comes easier to her these days, after 40 years. “It never gets any easier,” she replied, “except I know how to do it now. I still keep a notebook for each book filled with notes and scribbled ideas as I go along. You just have to find what works for you. Don’t worry about who the audience is for your book – just keep writing.”
As the discussion came to a close Oliver asked Blume what she thinks her legacy as a writer will be. “I don’t think about my legacy,” the author said. “That’s dangerous. But I want a tombstone that says, ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Judy.’ ”
On Saturday morning Alessandra Balzer, who with co-publisher Donna Bray heads the Balzer + Bray imprint at HarperCollins Children’s Books, led the workshop called “You Can Handle the Truth: Honest Advice on What Editors Are Looking For.” According to Balzer, the writer’s voice is key. She’s most interested in originality and good writing. “I want to fall in love with your book,” she told the packed room. “Differentiate yourselves from others and you’ll be noticed.”
She also stressed the importance of clever narrative devices and balanced, fully dimensional characters. Balzer then told the audience what kind of manuscripts she’d most like to receive. “I like the concept of ‘meets,’ where you combine two things or characters from literature to create a unique narrative pairing.” For example, one attendee suggested having the Wizard of Oz meet a hardcore detective, such as Sam Spade or Columbo. “I’m also looking for trend bridges,” Balzer said, “where you come up with the next logical step after what’s already working. But most important is that your book must have heart.” She also recommended paying attention to the kind of narrative timing that turns a book into a page-turner, as well as digital marketing opportunities for new authors.
Two of this workshop’s attendees have debut novels coming out next spring. Emily Hainsworth of Denver is looking forward to the publication of Through to You; Barry Wolverton of Nashville will see his novel Neversink released in March. Both books will be published by HarperCollins. “The SCBWI conference is so exciting that it’s almost over-stimulating,” Wolverton said. “You get such great advice here, and learn how to navigate your way through the publishing process.”
Jon Scieszka’s keynote on Saturday, “The Myriad Possibilities of Form, Style, and Genre,” had the audience screaming with laughter. Using a PowerPoint presentation, Scieszka, who grew up with five brothers, showed photos of himself as a schoolboy as well of images of his brothers when they were kids. His spontaneous narration was filled with jokes and asides about little children (“three-year-olds are like Alzheimer’s patients on acid”), yet Scieszka did manage to drive home some important points. “You can write about anything,” he said. “Picture books about science and math, silly and unlikely friendships, twisted versions of classic fairy tales.... I’ve done them all, and you can, too. Dig around in your closets for ideas and get your old photos out.”
In closing, Scieszka, who served as the nation’s first Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, showed a video clip of a school visit he made with author/illustrator David Shannon. After Shannon instructed the kids how to properly greet the Ambassador, they all stood up and presented Scieszka with a traditional salaam bow. The SCBWI audience did the same when Scieszka left the stage.
Norton Juster was given a standing ovation when he walked onstage Saturday afternoon to present his keynote address, “An Accidental Author Tells All.” His classic novel The Phantom Tollbooth is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and Juster delighted audience members by describing the journey he took to becoming a writer. He grew up in the 1930s, a time when there were “no computers, no Google, no Skype, but dozens of highly individual newspapers, face-to-face conversations, and radio. When you listened you had to make up your own pictures in your head. What we also had was a lot of boredom. You can learn a lot by fighting your way out of it.”
Juster, who is 82, went to architecture school after graduating from high school, and took a break when he was drafted into the Navy. “I did watercolors in my off-time, which I taped to the bulkheads of the ship,” he said. “Eventually I had to stop when my captain told me my paintings were demoralizing to the battalion.” Juster met his friend and collaborator Jules Feiffer when the two were young men, sharing a duplex in New York City.
Juster encouraged the audience to work and conceive creative ideas out of context. “It’s a gift to the imagination. There’s more than one way to look at things, which is important for writing books for children. Listen to your inner thoughts. Pay attention to the inconceivable ideas. Spend a lot of time out of context.”
On Sunday morning agents Tracey Adams, Barry Goldblatt, Marcia Wernick, and Tina Wexler participated in a panel called “Four Agents View the Current State of Children’s Books,” moderated by Brenda Bowen. The first question posed by Bowen involved digital publishing and self-publishing, and how these developments may have changed their roles as agents. Though all four felt that their work hasn’t been affected by this, Adams was blunt in stating that Adams Literary is not interested in moving into packaging or facilitating the self-publishing of their authors, because “we want what’s best for our authors.”
Bowen next asked the panelists about whether or not there are categories or age groups that are either drying up or thriving. Again, they all had a similar response, as stated by Goldblatt, to the effect that there are ups and downs in the market as a whole but the individual book they believein is all that matters. Wernick added, “There is always a market for a well-crafted, strong, original voice.”
The panel wrapped up with Bowen asking, “If you had a magic wand, what one thing in the industry would you change?” For Adams the answer was publishing by committee. Wernick would like to see escalating royalties across the board, even for sub rights shares. “More bookstores,” Wexler responded, and Goldblatt wished for the end of the semi-annual royalty statement, in favor of more frequent accounting.
During her appearance Judy Blume said, “We start writing books on the day something different happens.” One such case was found at SCBWI’s 40th anniversary poolside gala on Saturday night. The “40 Winks” pajama party required attendees to dress in pajamas or a reasonable facsimile. A contest and door prizes given out for most creative attire clearly provided inspiration for the attendees’ artistry that evening, and with more than 800 in attendance, the muse was evident everywhere.