This year’s sold-out summer conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators opened with an homage to the 2012 London Olympics: executive director Lin Oliver lit and held up a tiny match at the podium, to the refrain of “Bugler’s Dream.”
Held at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles from August 3 through 6, SCBWI’s 41st summer conference drew more than 1200 attendees from 46 states and 15 countries, and included 411 published authors. “I call this ‘the tribe,’” Oliver said in her introductory greeting. “We’re all kindred spirits, and this is a place where you are welcomed, beloved, cherished, and safe.” The Grand March of this year’s 82 faculty members then proceeded across the stage, each participant stopping briefly at the podium to announce his or her name and share just one word with the attendees. These included hysteria, mortgage, hardcover, kiss, and – poignantly – Maurice.
Publisher and author Arthur A. Levine gave the first keynote speech, “Timeless,” on Friday. Levine, who has had his own imprint at Scholastic for 15 years, has worked with such authors as J.K. Rowling, Norma Fox Mazer, and Peggy Rathmann. He mentioned T.H. White’s The Once and Future King as the book he has kept returning to since childhood because it is “infused with authentic feeling and creates an intimacy between author and reader that is timeless.” Levine then gave a few examples of some of his favorite books that he has published. He cited The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin (1998) for its profound message that honesty and compassion transcend physical beauty. The Caldecott-winning Mirette on the High Wire by Emily Arnold McCully (1992) “is a perfectly balanced combination of text and art,” said Levine, “with an essential truth in its message: ‘Think only of the wire and crossing to the end.’ ”
Later that morning Neal Porter, who heads Neal Porter Books at Roaring Brook, led a standing room only workshop called “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures: The Art and Craft of Picture Books.” He started by paying tribute to Manhattan children’s bookstore Books of Wonder, calling it “a hotbed of creativity.” In fact his friendships with Books of Wonder staffers led Porter to Philip and Erin Stead, writer and illustrator of the Caldecott-winning A Sick Day For Amos McGee. Porter’s slides showed the evolution of both the text and art for the book, which took 18 months to complete. “Erin first carved the woodblocks for each illustration,” he said, “and then applied the paint. She had to make a different block for every color.” The first printing of Amos McGee was 4,500, and there are now 300,000 copies in print. Porter describes the title as “a quiet book in a clamorous marketplace,” and gave much of the credit for its success to indie bookstores.
Porter typically prefers that the artist and writer of a book work separately, but in the case of Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring he found a naturally collaborative project. Written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, and illustrated by Brian Floca, the book brings together Martha Graham’s iconic choreography, the music of the notations for Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” and set designs by Isamu Noguchi. “It was essential to depict motion in the pictures,” Porter said, “and Brian worked hard to achieve that.” The slideshow presented the evolution of the art. One page of the book shows a drawing of Copeland composing at the piano, but Porter felt the image lacked something. “I suggested we add the score of ‘Appalachian Spring’ as the background, and the result was wonderful.”
Sara Shepard’s afternoon keynote, “Scandals, Lies, and Murder: How to Maintain Momentum in a Series,” focused on the author’s two successful YA series, Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game, both for HarperTeen. Her first contract with Harper was for two books, which then doubled to four and quickly grew to 12. She is now working on the last two in the Pretty Little Liars series, for a total of 14 titles.
Shepard offered practical advice to those who write mysteries. “The most important thing is to always know who the murderer is at the start,” she said. As the Pretty Little Liarsseries progressed, Shepard continued to incorporate new red herrings. “Constantly reinvent yourself to keep things fresh,” she advised. “Leave a bit [of your writing] to chance, especially when the plot shifts and the direction changes. Characters have to change; you have to decide whether or not they come back in the next book and if they live or die.” Shepard also emphasized the importance of outlining, and knowing at the start how plots will unfold. “I keep what I call a dossier for each book,” she said. “These are notes about what happens behind the scenes in the story that don’t necessarily get into a book.”
Shepard also discussed the nature of scandals. “They’re in our lives. Look at your own family, as I’ve done with mine, to get story ideas. There are secrets in every family, where good people do bad things.” She encouraged the audience to have their characters get caught in lies, which “is great for the plot.”
When Oliver introduced author Patricia McLachlan, she referred to her as “one of the glories of our field,” and the audience roared with approval. MacLachlan, who won the 1986 Newbery Medal for Sarah, Plain and Tall, is an unpretentious speaker with a dry and clever wit. “I write because I’m nuts,” she said deadpan, “but also because I love to write.”
MacLachlan talked at length about her grandchildren, whose conversations she liberally borrows from in her writing, and how they inform her own understanding and remembrance of being a child. One day Ella, five, and Sophia, seven, got dressed up in fairy costumes and were playing outside within earshot of their grandmother. “They were talking about gay marriage, and how they approve of it. A gay couple we’re friends with had recently gotten married. Sophia asked her sister, ‘So which one’s the husband?’ ” MacLachlan also told the audience about Ella’s favorite pastime, which she calls “Store,” that she plays with her grandmother at night in bed. While MacLachlan, who goes by the name ‘Patty,’ tries to fall asleep Ella asks her, “What do you want at the store, Pad?”
“All I want to do is sleep,” MacLachlan says, “so I just mumble, ‘steak and salad.’ Ella says, ‘And a cupcake for me.’ Then she crawls under the covers to the bottom of the bed and stays there for a while moving around. I’m almost asleep, and then Ella resurfaces and says, ‘They’re all out of steak. But I have a cupcake, and you can have wine.’” The audience laughed hysterically. In a more touching turn MacLachlan described the day Sophia’s dog died. “She was devastated,” said the author. “She wrote a note that said, ‘My dog Tessie died,’ and pinned it to her coat. She knew that would make it easier for her than having to tell her friends one by one. Well, the teacher led a discussion about it in class, and the kids talked about their own experiences with loss. Sophia was comforted.”
At the end of her talk MacLachlan said, “Childhood is powerful. Kids are next to us, not behind us. We look like adults, but we’re all children.”
An editors’ panel on Saturday, “How to Succeed in Publishing: Finding Your Voice,” moderated by Oliver, featured a large assemblage of attendees: Tamar Brazis of Abrams; Jordan Brown and Farrin Jacobs, both with HarperCollins; Laura Godwin of Henry Holt; Neal Porter of Roaring Brook; and Algonquin’s Elise Howard. When Oliver asked, “What attributes do you look for in creative people?” the responses were enthusiastic. “Be flexible,” Godwin advised. “There’s always more than one way to do something. Set your egos aside.” Porter said to be mindful that there is a distinction between a critic and an editor. “I like helping somebody,” he said. “Authors who understand that are great.” The consensus among the editors was that editing is a collaborative process, and that their job is to work with the artist to make the book better. Brown urged the audience, “Don’t work against your editor.”
In assessing the current climate for children’s books Godwin noted that 80% of kids’ books are still published in the print format. “Let’s not freak ourselves out,” she said. “Digital is just another venue to get kids to read. Let’s continue to focus on the story.” Although digital books haven’t changed the way Porter works, and his priority is still “quality book-making,” he said that he’s “fascinated by what might be coming next” in the electronic world. Howard’s concern is that “digital natives will perceive storytelling in a different way,” and Brazis admitted to being “daunted by it all. I’m not as engaged with digital as I should be. Because of our emphasis on art books, Abrams has been a little slower to engage with the market.”
Oliver asked the editors to comment on what writers should and should not do to have successful careers. “Don’t get too much advice,” Howard cautioned. “Don’t be afraid to finish something and get it out there.” Porter urged the audience, “Do what you love. Please yourself first.” Brown and Jacobs concurred that new writers should be aware of the market, and try to come up with ideas that haven’t been done before. “Do read all you can, and don’t write to trends,” Brazis said.
Also on Saturday Ruta Sepetys, author of Between Shades of Gray, gave a keynote called “You Can’t Break the Broken: Writing Emotional Truth.” Sepetys is Lithuanian, and her family escaped from a refugee camp in 1949, during Stalin’s regime. The author didn’t learn until much later that 12 of her family members had been sent to a prison in Siberia, where they suffered profoundly. “When I discovered this,” Sepetys told the rapt audience, “I decided I had to go to Lithuania to interview survivors of the Gulag. These people told the truth about what happened to them for the first time ever.” Between Shades of Gray was thus conceived.
But she didn’t stop at the interviews. Having heard about an indie film being produced in Latvia about Stalin’s reign, Sepetys volunteered to participate in a simulated Gulag experience for the film. “How much are you willing to give to get to your emotional self, to expose your deepest feelings?” she asked the audience. “What are you hiding? What scares you the most?” These things, she said, should be woven into one’s writing. “You create an emotional partnership with your readers in this way.”
Sepetys then gave an account of her filmmaking experience in Latvia, where she was starved, beaten, and sleep-deprived in an abandoned Soviet prison for 24 hours. This experience resulted in the authenticity in Sepetys’s novel. “Art heals hearts and history,” she said in closing. “Reveal yourself in your writing.”
The last keynote of the conference was Saturday evening, when Deborah Halverson, SCBWI’s marketing consultant and founder of Deareditor.com, presented “An Up to the Minute Survey of Market Needs and Trends.” Halverson first explained that her findings were based on her interviews with almost two dozen publishing professionals.
“The children’s book market is very dynamic,” she said. “According to my survey, e-book sales are up 374%, hardcovers are up 14.7%, and paperbacks are down three percent. Last year kids’ books brought in a total of $3.3 million in sales.” Halverson told the audience that while the market for picture books is still fragile, sales have improved, and there is an upward trend in acquisitions of this genre. “The people I spoke to are looking for shorter, character-based series and branded character titles,” she said, “such as Dragons Love Tacos, and books like Jon Klassen’s that have a heart.”
Halverson reported “little interest” from publishers in acquiring board books these days, but said they are looking for short books with a good read-aloud quality and stories that contain love and humor. “Library budgets have evened out, so there’s still sales potential there,” she said. “Publishers want nonfiction books that dig deep and have clear points of view.” Also, the multicultural category is emerging leaner but better in terms of sales. As for middle-grade books, which have a lot of growth potential, Halverson said that editors in her survey are looking for “lyrical literary narratives that are moving, such as the theme of children in foster care. Graphic novels are holding strong in this category, too.” What publishers aren’t finding enough of, she said, are books about “normal kids where something bad happens.”
Teen fiction continues to do well, but the “over-trends” in this category include vampires and dystopian tales. “One editor told me that the industry is ‘suffering from paranormal fatigue,’ ” Halverson said to laughter from the audience. “There is a budding interest in historical fiction for teens, and gateway fantasies as well.” As far as what might be considered the next wave, “nothing is telegraphing itself right now,” she said, “although sci-fi could be a strong contender.” Single-title novels are gaining traction over series, she said – the lighter and funnier, the better. One thing that hasn’t changed: the lack of enthusiasm for self-published books, as finding that diamond in the rough is “difficult.”
As usual, the mood at the SCBWI conference was joyful and enthusiastic. First-time attendee Luz Ortiz, a freelance writer and illustrator from New York, appreciated the multicultural blend in both faculty and SCBWI members. “Everyone here is willing to help and give advice. It’s wonderful,” she said. Vanessa Sandin and Dawn Ross, aspiring chapter book writers from Los Angeles attending for the third time, have queries to agents in the pipeline thanks to everything they’ve learned through SCBWI. “I leave here very inspired,” Sandin said, “and it lasts until the next conference. I get something new out of this each time I attend.”