Leila Sales is an author, editor, and book developer; her most recent novel is The Campaign (Abrams).
Austin, Tex., is the fastest growing big city in America, with a population that just passed the one-million mark. As the city has expanded, so too has its community of children’s book creators. Long a home to musicians and filmmakers, Austin appeals to those looking for a place where “you can be an artist, and you can have a life, and you can pay your bills,” said picture book author Bethany Hegedus.
That’s how I wound up here. When my boyfriend advocated leaving New York in 2018, I knew it would be hard for me to leave behind the publishing and author community that had defined my 12 years in the city. I agreed to move, but only if it was to someplace with bookstores and literary festivals and other writers who I might persuade to be my friends. And the place that met those criteria was Austin.
‘The Planets That the Writers Orbit Around’
Austin has a number of institutional structures that make it welcoming to children’s book writers. One of the most significant is BookPeople, Texas’s largest independent bookstore and the winner of this year’s WNBA Pannell Award, an award given to the nation’s best children’s booksellers. 2020 marks BookPeople’s 50th anniversary, and it’s hard to overstate the store’s impact on local writers. “BookPeople has always been a really great supporter of children’s books here,” said Coretta Scott King Honor recipient Varian Johnson.
“Sometimes you’re not a big deal where you’re from, because everybody knows you. But BookPeople does a good job of making local authors feel special and welcome.” Meghan Goel, BookPeople’s children’s book buyer and programming director, explained, “As a community bookstore, including the voices that make our city unique and vibrant makes our store better.”
BookPeople is not the only vital local establishment. The Writers League of Texas offers local authors teaching opportunities, paid school visits, networking events, and an annual award. The Texas Book Festival and Texas Teen Book Festival are annual events that celebrate local creators while also bringing in talent from across the country. The Texas Library Association is arguably the most influential of any state’s library association, with its “kids’ choice” Bluebonnet Award giving winning books a big sales boost, and its annual conference (held in Austin approximately every four years) attracting 500 exhibitors.
“There’s a whole industry here that’s interconnected,” middle-grade and young adult author Jenny Ziegler said of these institutions. “These are like the planets that the writers orbit around.”
One of Austin’s newer literary organizations is the Writing Barn, a wooded 7.5-acre retreat center founded by Hegedus in 2012, which quickly became a community anchor. “I always knew I wanted to teach writing,” Hegedus said. “My passion for creating connections, and for bringing people together, was always part of my life. But I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to break into publishing, so all my time and attention had been focused on that. And then when I became an author, being in a community of people who care about something larger than themselves became just as important as ‘what’s my next project going to be.’ It’s also about having other people get their voices heard, having other people live their dreams.”
How Austin Became a Hub
The Austin children’s book community as we know it today began to take shape about 20 years ago. Before then, author, blogger, and Heartdrum curator Cynthia Leitich Smith recalled, “There absolutely were people who were actively and successfully publishing—the Shefelmans, the Guzmáns, Louis Sachar, Angela Shelf Medearis, Ruth Pennebaker—but there wasn’t an Austin SCBWI, there wasn’t a cohesive ‘scene.’ ”
Today’s writer community can be traced back to a workshop taught by Kathi Appelt, Newbery Medalist and “the fairy godmother of the Austin kidlit scene,” Smith said. (Appelt lives in College Station, about two hours east of Austin.) Energized by Appelt’s instruction, Meredith Davis went on to establish the local SCBWI chapter. “We didn’t have big names,” Smith said. “None of us knew what we were doing, but we loved each other, and we loved books, and we just sort of held hands and found our way through it.”
Smith and fellow author Greg Leitich Smith began hosting four-day workshops called WriteFest out of their Austin home. Some of the many books to come out of those workshops include Appelt’s National Book Award finalist The Underneath and Libba Bray’s Printz Award winner Going Bovine. Award-winning books weren’t the only successes to come out of WriteFest—in 2008, this was also the event where Ziegler met picture book author Chris Barton. Today, they’re married.
A Community of Mentors
The WriteFest authors wanted to stay connected, but soon there were too many of them to easily meet up in someone’s house. Thus the AAW listserv (Awesome Austin Writers) was born. Today, roughly a hundred local children’s writers and illustrators belong to this mailing list. Whenever a deal announcement for one Austin author runs in Publishers Weekly, someone will email the announcement to the group, and dozens will reply with their congratulations. Hegedus noted that, unlike the “compare despair” sometimes found on social media, this enthusiasm for other Austinites’ successes is genuine. “The general ethos here is: when one person rises, everybody rises.”
The AAW listserv is also a place for brainstorming titles, promoting events, and soliciting recommendations for contract attorneys and freelance publicists. “That is one great thing about the community: we have a mix of folks who have been through just about every type of situation, writing and life-wise,” Johnson said.
Barton agrees. “It’s helpful to have so many people around that you can commiserate with, you can share good news with, you can talk over obstacles. It’s sometimes remarkable that any of us get anything done because there are so many opportunities to hang out.”
This sharing and commiseration leads to some career overlap. For example, I’m pretty sure my accountant here handles the taxes for just about every Austin children’s book author. Years ago, literary agent Erin Murphy signed Barton as her first client in Austin, “and I kept running my mouth,” he joked, so now Murphy’s agency also represents Austin authors, Donna Jannell Bowman, K.A. Holt, Lindsay Lane, Cynthia Levinson, Liz Garton Scanlon, Ziegler, and others.
The primary value that defines the Austin children’s writer scene is a strong commitment to mentorship. “In a lot of creative communities, people get started, they achieve some professional success, and then they tend to leave that seed garden. That didn’t happen here. Everybody stayed active,” Smith stated.
Ziegler puts it like this: “The tone has been set that you don’t have to always agree with someone, you don’t have to be their best friend, but we are here for each other, and we support each other, and that’s just ingrained in everyone.”
Barton credits Smith with establishing this tone. “Cynthia set the template for what a member of this community is like. It’s not just about the writing that you do, but it’s about the community that you help build. People helped you along when you were new to the community; the thing to do is to help other people along when you’re in the position to do that.”
“I see a perpetual cycle of people trying to lift each other up,” said Jason June, who in 2013 moved from Los Angeles to Austin, where he found “mentor figures who were willing to reach out and help a complete stranger. There are really amazing people who are very intentional about fostering a feeling of family and making sure that everybody gets as great of a shot as they can. In L.A., it sometimes feels like you’re all trying to climb this hill alone. But here, I didn’t feel a sense of cynicism. More a sense of: YOU CAN DO IT!! In all caps. With multiple exclamation points.”
Looking to the Future
When asked to compare Austin’s author community now to the one 20 years ago, Smith said, “It’s big. It’s huge. It’s beyond what we ever would have dared to dream.” Barton observed, “There’s this constant influx of energy and talent.” Johnson added, “I probably would have said, 10 or 15 years ago, that the kidlit community felt like the stepchild to the literary writers of the adult community. I don’t believe that anymore.”
Still, there is always room for improvement. When asked what the next steps should be for Austin, every author I spoke with pointed to the ongoing need for diversity and inclusiveness. “I think we’re doing great with that, but everybody could do better, us included,” said Johnson, who, along with Austin author-illustrator Don Tate is a founding member of the Brown Bookshelf, an organization that works to increase awareness of the work of contemporary Black children’s authors and illustrators. “How are we using our collective experience and power to help folks along the way?”
Smith points to higher education as another growth area for the local writing industry. She, Johnson, Scanlon, and Ziegler are all on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts, the premier MFA program in writing for children. Many other Austin authors have graduated from national MFA programs, and they bring back the knowledge they gain there to share with the community. Still, it’s not the same as having an MFA program right here in town.
The virtual life brought about by the pandemic has led some writers to fantasize about the publishing industry growing less NYC-centric, allowing major imprints and industry professionals to move to creative hubs like Austin. But of course the downside to the pandemic is the distance it has created within this tight-knit community.
Thanks to Austin’s stay-home order, Barton said, “I’ve really come to appreciate how much I value and miss folks. As much as I appreciate the online connections we’ve had with folks across the country and across the world, we’re so fortunate to have this in-person community. I want to grow super-old with a lot of these people. I would love to see us rent out our own retirement village. I want to hang out with Don Tate when he’s 98 years old.”