The final panel on SCBWI’s Big Five-Oh Conference, held on Sunday, August 1, preceding the Wrap-Up, Awards, and Dance Party, was a keynote entitled “From There to Here—Three Stories,” featuring lauded children’s book creators Laurie Halse Anderson, Vashti Harrison, and Dan Santat.
Laurie Halse Anderson on Creativity and Courage
Halse Anderson, author of the landmark novel Speak as well as several other books for teens, kicked off the keynote presentation by acknowledging how difficult the past year and a half has been for creators. However, she said, the struggle to create has “really [brought] home to me how important the work is.”
The author then shared some lessons she has learned throughout her time in kidlit, which began in the early ’90s, when she had a lot of children in her life and thought the work would be easy and fun.
The first lesson she learned was one of rejection and perseverance. She received so many rejections that she devised a process to track all of them, as there was no software to do so back then. The second lesson was the importance of revision. To those who find revision new or difficult, Halse Anderson encouraged, “My heart is with you—but it makes us stronger.” The third lesson was to dream big: “I’m pretty good at dreaming—I dream pretty big—I never thought my career would turn out like this.”
Sharing a final piece of wisdom, she said, “You know, I could talk to you about revision, how to write a good pitch letter, but I decided, looking at where my career is now, I’m going to tell you what I think is really, really important. I decided to talk to you about creativity. And the fact that ‘creativity takes courage,’ ” she said, quoting Matisse.
“It takes courage to recognize that some things are always going to be hard,” she explained. “To do our work the best we can, it means to connect with who we were as kids, who we were as teenagers… that childlike mind, that open mind, that enthusiasm, that takes courage as an adult to reach for.”
Halse Anderson also spotlighted the importance of connecting with fellow creators. “To do that, to best celebrate our community, to get to know everybody in our community, you’ve got to be reading each other’s books!”
Furthermore, she highlighted how imperative it is to depict inclusivity in one’s work: “Read widely, read in-depth, and understand the community of all our readers. Responsible, respectful representation is a tool of craft.”
In conclusion, she said, “We have to understand that our calling is a little bit different from people who write for adults. We have to write in a way that is ethical, in a way that is responsible, because we are creating literature for children who will lean on our books to help them get through hard times.”
Vashti Harrison on Respecting the Work
Author, illustrator, and filmmaker Vashti Harrison, who illustrated Hair Love by Matthew Cherry and served as a character designer for the animated Oscar-winning short adaptation of the same name, was up next. She began by sharing her journey as an author-illustrator as encouragement for publishing hopefuls.
The audience was likely surprised to learn that Harrison has no formal training in creative writing or illustration, nor did she have any inkling that she wanted to do this as a career.
“I’ve only been doing this professionally for about five years,” she revealed. “The truth is, I really wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without SCBWI and the things that I learned here.”
Relaying how she went from a child who loved drawing to someone who had stopped completely by the time she reached college, Harrison described how her undergraduate filmmaking studies led her to do a Masters of Fine Arts in the same field at CalArts, where she eventually took a drawing class that served as a rude awakening. “Drawing, as it turns out, is not like riding a bike,” Harrison said with a smile. “It was just so clear to me that if you don’t practice at something, you will not be good. And I wanted to be good, so I started practicing.”
When she got laid off from her job in the film industry, Harrison decided to take the leap and move back home to Virginia with her parents, applying for illustration-adjacent jobs before committing to trying to become an illustrator.
“I joined [SCBWI] and started studying,” Harrison said, explaining how she read SCBWI’s The Book and began attending her local chapter meetings. Early exposure from an SCBWI newsletter contest led to Harrison’s illustrations reaching an art director at Simon & Schuster, who commissioned her to illustrate a manuscript. Subsequently attending the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference with copies of her portfolio in hand secured Harrison an agent, Carrie Hannigan of HG Literary, who still represents her today.
One SCBWI panel she attended as a burgeoning talent particularly struck Harrison: a presentation by executive director and co-founder Lin Oliver that instructed attendees to “define yourself as a professional.” Harrison explained how that advice transformed her perspective of her art. “Working hard has never been hard for me, but being treated like a professional and demanding that made a huge difference. More than anything, it requires you to respect your own work, [believing that] ‘this is a thing deserving of my time and my effort’—even if you aren’t doing this work full-time or trying to make money off of it. I think it’s fine to call the thing that you do to pay your bills a job. But this is your work, and if you want to advance in this career, you have to think of yourself as a professional and demand that first of yourself. Because if you don’t respect it, who will?”
Dan Santat on What He Has Gained from SCBWI
Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat then took the virtual podium, aided by an ASL interpreter. Santat began by shedding light on his history with SCBWI. A member since 1998, he has met plenty of fellow creatives who became friends, and he shared slides of memories connected to them, many of whom went on to become notable creators in their own right.
Santat then recalled his first SCBWI local chapter workshop in 2001 in Los Angeles. His first critique came from artist Peter Nelson, who instructed Santat to reconfigure his portfolio around one illustration. Attending his first national SCBWI conference the next year, Santat prepared a dummy book based on that advice. “And this man—who I didn’t really know at the time—approached me with my dummy book, and he wanted to offer me a two-book deal on the spot,” Santat revealed. “That man was our very own Arthur Levine, the editor of Harry Potter.”
Santat emphasized how getting involved in SCBWI in part led to his success and place in the children’s book community. He surveyed some of his work in publishing, particularly the pressure he felt after winning the 2015 Caldecott Medal for The Adventures of Beekle. “One of the best pieces of advice that I got was from a fellow SCBWI member: Mr. Bruce Coville,” Santat said. “He could tell that I was stressed out. I confided in him, and said, 'I’m having a hard time with this award, I don’t know how I can live up to it.' And he said, ‘You know, Dan, William Shakespeare wrote a lot of stuff. He would do great things like Romeo and Juliet, he would do other books like Othello, but he also did a lot of crap.’ ”
Santat smiled. “For some reason that made me feel a lot better. And, you know, I really hold that piece of advice close to my heart. It reminded me that it’s okay to fail, to stumble sometimes. Life is a long journey. And so as you continue making books, what you discover is that making books becomes a lifelong pursuit to understand who you are as a person.”