The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators held its virtual 2022 Winter Conference last weekend, with more than 2,000 registrants tuning in for panels and keynotes. ASL interpreters accompanied every Zoom session, ensuring accessibility for members.
Newly elected executive director Sarah Baker welcomed attendees on Saturday, opening sessions with a land acknowledgment and a “special thank you to Lin Oliver,” the co-founder of SCBWI who retired on January 31. “Lin is watching at home, rooting for you to do great work in children’s literature,” Baker told the assembly.
Baker previewed upcoming changes at SCBWI, promising a live announcement of the organization’s 2022 Golden Kite Awards. Ain’t Burned All the Bright author Jason Reynolds will be the featured speaker at the March 15 gala, which honors books for children published by PAL (Published and Listed) SCBWI publishers. On Monday, SCBWI published a short list of 35 finalists across seven categories including YA/middle grade fiction, YA fiction, nonfiction texts for younger readers, nonfiction texts for older readers, picture book text, picture book illustration, and illustration for older readers. Each winner will receive $2,500, plus $1,000 to donate to a nonprofit organization; honors winners each receive $500 plus an additional $250 for donation.
Baker also followed up on a letter to SCBWI membership, in which she prioritized “empowering staff, improving customer service, streamlining processes, and leveraging strategic partnerships” in her role as executive director. Effective immediately, SCBWI staffers Kim Turrisi, Tammy Brown, Sarah Diamond, Avery Silverberg, and Laurie Miller are promoted to expanded roles, and Chelsea Hall has been hired as administrative assistant to support the team.
At the Winter Conference, speakers included Brian Selznick, who gave a public lecture on Friday. Keynotes, by registration only, included Caraval series author Stephanie Garber, Front Desk series author Kelly Yang, 2021 Boston Globe-Horn Book nonfiction winner Paula Yoo (From a Whisper to a Rallying Cry), and Vanessa Brantley-Newton (Becoming Vanessa), who shared a life story of adversity and closed her talk with a cathartic rendition of “Feeling Good” that ignited appreciation among the audience.
In addition to the speakers, three SCBWI “Recipe for Success” panels featured professional advice from editors, art directors, and agents. Yoo reinforced the recipe theme in her keynote as well: a slide of her cats in homemade chefs’ hats reminded readers to consider the “ingredients” for serious historical research and diverse representation in children’s books.
Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins/Heartdrum) moderated the editors’ panel, posing questions about the qualities that take a manuscript from solid to stunning, the importance of social media, and the acquisitions process. Farrin Jacobs (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) likes “a sad story told by funny people,” and Atlanta-based Denene Millner (Simon & Schuster/Denene Millner Books), who publishes African American authors and illustrators, said, “Boy, do I love the idea of stretching outside New York City and outside of the Northeast. Those stories kind of get lost.” Emma Ledbetter at Abrams wants to see authors researching categories: “Every age group, genre, format you’re interested in, you should approach with the same passion. Dedicate yourself to understanding those readers and what is published in that category.”
Michelle Frey (Knopf Books for Young Readers) said that although social media “can suck you away from your actual writing, it can be an amazing tool.” She points to the success of Erika L. Sánchez (I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter), who had thousands of Twitter followers even before her breakthrough books: “Nobody knew who she was yet, but she was so funny.” Millner “saw huge preorders” for Wings of Ebony after author J. Elle formed a social media Street Team called Rue’s Crew. Millner called the move “genius! She got this whole cadre to drum up support for the book.”
Five agents presented advice on strong queries and paths to publication. Samantha Fabien (Root Literary) echoed classroom exams by reminding everyone to “keep your eyes on your own paper! Glancing at someone else’s six-figure advance will always make you feel less-than, but there is no one way to success.” Jemiscoe Chambers-Black (Andrea Brown Literary Agency) assigned authors to “come up with 20 new ideas a month—I know it seems like a lot, but just log lines. Once you have 80 to 100, there will be five to 10 ideas that are good.” Write blurbs for the short list, she said, and narrow down to the best one. Chad Beckerman (the CAT Agency) told illustrators to hone a consistent visual style and try an exercise from John Hendrix’s Drawing Is Magic: “Make a list of 100 things that you love to draw.”
Above all, the agents and editors counseled, writers benefit from approaching the submissions process with a collaborative spirit. Leitich Smith reflected that when an editor asks for substantial revisions, this is “not a place to go diva. If nothing else, you could end up with a better draft.” Frey concurred: “I will only give real feedback on a project if I am interested in seeing it again.” Jacobs agreed that it is “not fun to butt heads on a project,” and Millner—the lone editor on the panel accepting unsolicited manuscripts—reminded listeners that editors themselves “have been through the wringer” and share honest feedback to improve a manuscript.
James McGowan (BookEnds Literary Agency) recommended “patience and persistence,” adding that agents and editors are “backed up right now,” prioritizing their clients and newly fluid publication schedules over their queues of pending submissions.
Armed with insider tips, SCBWI attendees can go to work on their recipes for success. Maybe the main ingredient is not so secret. “Publishing is pretty much a long con,” admitted Thao Le (Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency). “Honestly, the best way to succeed in publishing is just to keep writing.”