With more than 30% of Utah’s 2.855 million residents under age 18, Utah has the lowest average age population of the 50 states. Thus it makes sense that it might also have, per capita, more children’s book authors and illustrators with a national stature than any other state. But it’s more than simply the presence of huge numbers of children inspiring these successful resident writers, says Shannon Hale, who is a native of the state and lives there with her family, which includes four children. The author of about a dozen young adult and middle-grade fantasy bestsellers, including Princess Academy, which won a 2006 Newbery Honor, Hale explains that the high numbers of nationally published children’s book authors and illustrators from Utah that has emerged in the past decade is the result of a close-knit community of children’s writers. The emergence of such a community is due “in no small part” to author Rick Walton’s leadership, she explains.
Walton, the author, by his count, of more than 90 children’s books, teaches a course on writing for children at Brigham Young University as a part-time faculty member, and also was one of the key organizers and the first director of the annual Writing & Illustrating for Young Readers conference, which has taken place in the Utah Valley since 2000.
“People who might have written for adults – or gone elsewhere – ended up in children’s publishing because of him,” Hale said, noting that the community of professional writers has further coalesced around the Rock Canyon listserv for children’s book authors and illustrators, founded by Walton in 2001, with a dozen charter members, five of whom are still members. Membership is extended by invitation only: those invited to join it must be published by a traditional publisher with a national presence, or at least have a contract to publish with such a publisher; must live in Utah when invited to join, although some current members no longer live there; and must write or illustrate children’s books.
The group, which has 188 members, interact online regularly, Hale notes. “We talk shop, celebrate each other’s successes, commiserate on the ups and downs of publishing, and just have colleagues,” she says. Members also meet in person once a month in one of two rendezvous spots – one in the Utah Valley, the other in Salt Lake City – for lunches. For the past seven years, it has also organized annual Writing for Charity seminar/workshop for children’s book writers, in which 50 authors lead workshops and provide critiques of manuscripts submitted by attendees. The proceeds are donated to nonprofit organizations to buy books. The conference attracts more than 150 attendees, most of them Utah residents.
Walton says that, “around the turn of the millennium,” he noticed a significant number of nationally published authors from Utah on Genie and Yahoo discussion groups on which he participated at the time. “I decided to create a similar online group for us,” he said, “so we could share ideas and possibilities.” Illustrators having the same qualifications as the writers are also invited into Rock Canyon, Walton says, “because there are a lot of great ones here, partly because of some of the excellent illustration programs at some of the universities.”
Walton notes that “there has always been a lot of support” in Utah for writers, with many resources available to them through universities and also various organizations. “The Utah science fiction and fantasy community here also has been organized and very supportive of each other for a long time,” he adds. “Which is one reason that there are so many MG and YA fantasy writers out here.”
This past weekend, dozens of Rock Canyon members met at author and current Utah Children’s Writers and Illustrators event coordinator Amy Finnegan’s house near Provo for the group’s first all-day members-only workshop. “We talked about defining ‘success,’ how to reinvent your career, mental health, diversity in books, and a host of other topics,” Hale said. “We ended the evening with a roast for Rick, [with] everyone sharing anecdotes and toasting Rick’s support and energy in all our careers.” After the roast, Hale reported, 90 of the Rock Canyon members joined their colleague James Dashner for a viewing of the Maze Runner movie, based on his 2009 novel.
“Writing is such a solitary occupation,” Hale noted. “When you write alone, it’s so easy to give up. Being supported in a group like this encourages people to keep going on.”
Recalling that Margaret Brennan Neville, a bookseller at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, suggested that Hale, then an “awkward new writer,” contact Walton after her first novel, The Goose Girl, was published in 2003, Hale added, “It all comes down to the community – it’s a very supportive community. I’ve never seen anything like it, even in New York City.”