The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators held its virtual Summer Conference over the weekend of August 5–7. Judging by the more than 970 attendees at the opening day panel of editors and agents, Zoom continues to offer a reliable way to pack the house. Executive director Sarah Baker promised an in-person SCBWI in New York City on February 11–12, 2023, although she acknowledged, “Doing this event virtually has given access to far more people. We have people attending this conference from 37 countries around the globe and every state in the U.S.”

Components of the conference felt tailor-made for the virtual experience. SCBWI provided an online portfolio showcase of some 200 illustrators, an event featuring attendees’ and presenters’ titles, and pitch roundtables with an assembly of editors and agents. A gripping live pitch-off competition served as the Sunday closer, giving writers the mainstage to describe their pet projects.

Pitch-off crowns went to two aspiring authors: picture-book creator Zack Rock and middle-grade novelist Meg Oolders. In the Portfolio Showcase, Nyrryl Yrrah Entia Cadiz took home both the Ezra Jack Keats Showcase Prize and the Unagented Grand Prize, while Rob Sayegh received the Agented Grand Prize recognition. Romy Natalia Goldberg is SCBWI’s Stephen J. Mooser Member of the Year.

In her opening remarks, Baker directed attendees to four keynotes, almost 40 breakout sessions across publishing categories, and illustration-focused panels: “a great opportunity for the writers, you left-brain people, to exercise your other hemisphere, build some new circuits, and learn about visual storytelling with emotion.” All of the sessions were recorded and will be stored on the SCBWI website for a month. “We’re doing a lot of new content centered around pitching and other practical tools, to help you get your foot in the door and then keep it there,” Baker said. “If an agent says their subs are open, and to mention that you saw them at the SCBWI conference when you query, they mean it. Countless creators have sold their debut books and advanced their careers right here.” In the panel q&as, participants were not shy about asking for submission information.

Keynote presenters embodied SCBWI’s increasing emphasis on diverse voices and social justice. The conference featured Dela Wilson, whose DEI consultancy Axle Impact Studio partners with organizations to identify systemic inequities and strategize for social change, along with picture book author Jessixa Bagley, whose debut picture book Boats for Papa won an SCBWI Golden Kite Award and a Washington State Book Award. Debut authors Winsome Bingham, Pamela Harris, Colleen Paeff, and Dustin Thao shared “An Honest Talk About the Path to Publication” with moderator Martha Brockenbrough.

SCBWI Success Stories Give Keynotes

Opening keynote speaker Dhonielle Clayton, author of The Marvellers and the Belles series, launched her fiction career with SCBWI. Now the founder/owner of entertainment company Cake Creative and COO of We Need Diverse Books, Clayton talked about how she came to foster inclusion in her writing and activism.

Back in 2010, Clayton was a librarian, serving “first- and second-generation kids from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Bangladesh, and West Africa,” some with homes in the Bronx and some in shelters. “Many were navigating turbulent times in their households and home life, and in their communities, and many were looking for an escape into fiction,” she said. “I realized I needed to tell stories that would turn on the creative light inside of these young people.” A 2011 SCBWI talk by Libba Bray ignited Clayton’s imagination, but the journey to publication involved her writing “eight full books from start to finish” and fielding “345 rejected queries—I counted this morning because I’m nothing if not a librarian and archivist.”

Since the pandemic, Clayton said, “manuscripts are taking a little longer to write. The words sometimes feel like they’re coming through a coffee drip, squeezing so slowly into my cup.” Looking for community, she reached out to fellow authors Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk, and Nicola Yoon to co-create a novel (Blackout) about teenagers navigating a New York power outage. She called it “a love letter to remind kids that even though the lights might be out right now, they will come back on.”

Newbery Medalist Donna Barba Higuera gave the closing keynote to more than 650 attendees. Like Clayton, Higuera is an SCBWI success story, yet she cautioned that her authorial journey took more than a decade, even after a lifetime of listening to her grandmother’s Mexican folklore and imbibing popular science fiction. On the way to writing The Last Cuentista, about a visionary storyteller, and her picture book El Cucuy Is Scared, Too!, about a monster with childhood fears, Higuera blended “the kinds of stories that haunted me as a child”; ancient and tragic tales of La Llorona, doomed lovers Popo and Itza, and fire serpent Xíuhcoatl, plus a family copy of Reader’s Digest’s Mysteries of the Unexplained and a dash of Dr. Who (“I think it’s a really important show and everybody should watch it... Start at the beginning of the new stuff”).

When meeting the publishing friends who championed her writing, Higuera discovered “there is a secret handshake, and it is built on trust, kindness, and altruism.” She recalled a “first pages” event where she got feedback on a story opening from Arthur Levine, now her publisher at Levine Querido. “I didn’t know him at all at the time,” she said, and his blunt advice was “that we really need to make sure the readers love our characters. It was hard advice to hear my first time out, but I did rewrite the beginning. That was my first lesson in listening during a critique, and he said that because he wanted me to succeed.”

After signing with agent Allison Remcheck at Stimola Literary in 2014, Higuera went to another “first pages” event in Portland, Ore., this time with Nick Thomas—now Levine Querido’s executive editor. She still has an image of Thomas’s jottings on her two-page draft, which she showed on a slide to attendees. Thomas underlined sentences and dotted the double-spaced submission with an “LOL,” an “LMAO!,” and a final “I’m in!!”

“He held branches out of the way for me on this journey,” Higuera said, and those first pages became her debut novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance. This brought Higuera full circle to her belief in a “secret handshake” of kindness. “Help pull the branches away from that trail for someone else, and you can do that for others also,” she said. “I promise if you do that it will come back.” A Trekkie to the last, she ended her talk with an image of Leonard Nimoy flashing his “Live long and prosper” hand signal.

As Baker said at the close of the SCBWI conference, echoing Clayton and Higuera, “Keep your creative light on.”