Author Judy Blume and author-illustrator Tomie dePaola pulled off a powerhouse tag-team finale for the 43rd annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators summer conference, held August 1–4 in Los Angeles. The conference brought together 1,235 children’s book creators – both published and aspiring – representing 20 countries.

DePaola, who Skyped in from his home in New Hampshire, told a packed ballroom that the secret to his long career in children’s books is courage. “Sometimes I still get up in the morning, I face the blank piece of paper and my brushes are clean and ready to go, and I panic. I know I’m going to make a mistake. So I get that over with, rip it up, and then get on with it.” Blume agreed that courage is a must for writers. Taking the stage in a rare public speaking appearance, she said, “Tomie talked about courage. I was far from a courageous or brave child. I was timid, shy, quiet – except inside my head. Inside my head I was this other person. I was Madeline! I was brave! When it came to my writing, I never thought twice about it: I was brave in my writing in a way that I wasn’t in my life.” She drove her point home: “Do not let anyone discourage you. If they try, get angry, not depressed.”

That stage, along with three floors of conference rooms in the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel, was home for four days to 93 agents, editors, authors, illustrators, and industry professionals presenting workshops and individual sessions about the business and craft of creating books for children and teens. The conference began on an up beat with the traditional parade of faculty, this year streaming down the aisles to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy.” Then National Book Award finalist Meg Rosoff sparked laughter with her visions of Goldilocks wandering into a bear cave – to the bears’ gastronomic delight – in the first keynote speech, “Warning: Peter Rabbit May Be Harmful to Your Health.” Rosoff spun the hilarity into a rebuttal of Richard Dawkins’ recent speech at the Cheltenham Science Festival warning that it’s dangerous to offer children books about unreal things like a frog turning into a prince. Rosoff pointed out people’s acceptance of black holes and of wormholes leading to other galaxies and of space that never ends. “You need imagination to become a great scientist just as you need it to become a great writer,,” she said. “Imagination and the ability to tell a story will make anybody better at anything.” She rallied the writers in the audience by saying, “Our job is to think about the universe, to re-imagine the past and future of the human race…. It’s not just ‘silly fun’ writing stories.”

Cheered by Picture Books

A recurring topic in speeches and workshops at the conference was the ongoing upswing in picture books. In the presentation “How Sales, Marketing, and Publicity Bring Your Book to Market” by Penguin Young Readers Group’s svp of sales Felicia Frazier, executive director of publicity Shanta Newlin, and v-p of marketing Emily Romero, Frazier highlighted a recent Nielsen report that the top 100 children’s books titles are selling three times the physical units they were 10 years ago. “Forty of the top 100 bestselling children’s titles were illustrated books,” said Frazier. “Every year we’ve had growth.”

A panel of editors advised picture book creators as well as writers of middle grade and young adult fiction about the market place and submissions. On the panel were Alessandra Balzer (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Mary Lee Donovan (Candlewick), Allyn Johnston (S&S/Beach Lane), Wendy Loggia (Delacorte), Lucia Monfried (Dial), Julie Strauss-Gabel (Dutton), and Dinah Stevenson (Clarion). Tackling the theme “Three Things Your Book Should Include and Three Things to Avoid,” Strauss-Gabel stressed, “Voice is number one.” Monfried added, “Be original. [Editors] want to say, ‘I’ve never heard it expressed like this.’ ”

Throughout the weekend, keynote speakers offered personal insights into their creative processes to inspire attendees. Newbery Medalist Cynthia Kadohata explained that her fiction is founded in real life. She does a lot of research and then mixes life and writing “until imagination, personal experience, and research become one.” Megan McDonald, creator of the popular Judy Moody books, made her way into writing with help from a beloved character in her childhood: “I started to find my own voice by writing in a little notebook like Harriet.” McDonald still carries a notebook everywhere. “I learned to start with the ordinary, the commonplace, the everyday stuff of life.”

Novelist Maggie Stiefvater, too, finds inspiration in everyday elements. In her keynote “A Thief and an Artist: Stealing Stories from Life,” she explained that she looks for the essence of the things and people she encounters – and then “steals” it. “If I steal the truth and not the details, but then add new details in,” she said, “I end with a novel that is specific to the writer I am. I choose what noise to remove and then choose what noise to add back in.”

Two author-illustrators used their keynotes to encourage writers and illustrators to pay attention to their hearts and be true to their vision. Aaron Becker, whose first picture book, Journey, won a Caldecott Honor, shared his journey as a storyteller in his speech, “Some Adjustments Were Made Along the Way,” and Judy Schachner, creator of the Skippyjon Jones books, took attendees into her storytelling process with her speech, “Thinking in Pictures.”

Diversity in the Air

The conference also explored diversity in children’s books, a topic much discussed this summer in social and mainstream media. Authors Sharon G. Flake, Lamar Giles, Pura Belpré Award winner Meg Medina, and Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park were joined by Adriana Dominguez of Full Circle Literary in a diversity panel moderated by multicultural nonfiction writer Suzanne Morgan Williams. Dominguez, who was previously the executive editor of HarperCollins’s Rayo imprint, hailed Medina’s book Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass as the first time she’d ever seen a Uruguayan in U.S. children’s fiction. Dominguez said she hopes this current diversity awareness continues to foster diverse stories. “There has been a profound change in diverse books in the past 10 years,” she said. “I get a lot of manuscript submissions I wouldn’t have seen 10 years ago [when many of the manuscripts submitted] reduced cultures to food and holidays. Now [authors are] writing different types of books, ...that approach the culture with a different sensibility and with a sense of authenticity that I didn’t see three to five years ago.”

The diversity discussion moved out of the ballroom to an interactive poolside chat on Saturday, led by Giles, Medina, and other members of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks initiative. Giles talked about loving to read when he grew up, but his friends teased him, out of what he believes was animosity about the literature excluding them. “I used to hide my books from my peers. They would say I was acting like a white boy,” he explained. “All kids need positive imagery, and having diverse books will also make them feel safe reading.” Medina shared her own feelings about not seeing her life reflected in the books she loved until her discovery of The House on Mango Street in college. “One of the most important gifts we can give kids,” she said, is the knowledge that “we all have a story, everyone’s story is universal, nobody’s story is more worthy than anybody else’s.”

Middle Grade on Their Minds

SCBWI’s annual Market Report keynote carried good news about chapter books—particularly the highly illustrated hybrid format – and growth in middle grade, a development echoed by Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Margaret K. McElderry Books, and Atheneum. “Middle grade is seeing a resurgence across the market,” he said. “It means we are continuing to grow new readers.” Chanda pointed to the success of books that contain a lot of action, adventure, and heroism. But more serious works are being published as well. “Look at Wonder,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for books that speak to the true meaning of the middle years.”

Chanda also addressed the current boom of realistic contemporary YA fiction in his keynote “The State of the State of the Industry.” He believes that the media interest in this category is good for YA fiction overall, but he takes issue with those who cover the genre as though it’s a new discovery. “Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak 15 years ago,” he said. “Ask Judy Blume how Forever could have been written 40 years before the genre had been invented.” Stephen Chbosky, whose bestselling contemporary realistic novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower was published in 1999, told writers that trends and sales can’t drive their artistic decisions. “It’s not up to any agent or editor to tell you who you are.”

The Sunday morning Market Report keynote noted an overall slowing in YA acquisitions, which Chanda also touched on in his keynote. He cited a crowded marketplace and books of high quality raising the bar for all submissions, making editors more careful about acquisitions even as their enthusiasm about teen fiction remains high. But fewer titles being published can be a good thing, he said. “Publishing fewer books means we can do so much more from a marketing and sales perspective. We can hand-sell them to accounts and they can hand-sell them to their customers. That makes a manuscript harder to sell, yes. But having a whole lot of titles out there that don’t sell is bad for the market.”

While realistic contemporary is getting the biggest spotlight, other areas of YA are strong as well. According to the Market Report researched and presented by this reporter, thrillers are getting a good reception from editors, as is speculative fiction with a thriller twist and some sci-fi thrillers. Readers are still buying paranormal but with so many paranormal books in the market and in production, editors are holding out for projects that offer something fresh or unexpected. Historical fiction is a tough sell, though it’s made easier if it has a contemporary-sounding voice to make it accessible and is packaged with a modern flair. There’s room in the YA category for unexpected formats, and multiple-POV tellings, and creativity executed with mastery.

An agents’ panel hosted by SCBWI president Lin Oliver took up the topic of slower acquisition of YA fiction as well as a general discussion of the children’s book industry. The panel included Sarah Davies (Greenhouse Literary), Steve Malk (Writers House), Erin Murphy (Erin Murphy Literary), Alexandra Penfold (Upstart Crow), Rubin Pfeffer (Rubin Pfeffer Content), Linda Pratt (Wernick & Pratt), and Laura Rennert (Andrea Brown Literary). The agents reported selling more middle grade this past year, and more picture books.

When talk turned to authors establishing their “brand” and what that means, Malk acknowledged that the term can be scary and feel limiting to authors. “Your ‘brand’ is who you are as a writer. Don’t feel boxed in.” It doesn’t mean you only write or illustrate in one style, he explained. “For a lot of [authors and illustrators], their brand is just doing amazing work.” In warnings about what not to do when submitting, Rennert cautioned against being formulaic or derivative. Murphy addressed the children’s book landscape as a whole, saying that as much change as we see in this category of publishing, in the end “people in this business are still just looking for stories that move them.”