Following its annual winter conference, held in New York City February 9–11, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators invited members to its livestreamed Golden Kite Gala on February 22 and a virtual conference held February 23–24. The Golden Kite Awards went to winners and honorees across seven children’s and young adult categories, and another prize, the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor, went to Martha Brockenbrough’s middle grade whodunit, To Catch a Thief.

According to executive director Sarah Baker, SCBWI registered 700 attendees for the in-person conference and 600 for the virtual event. “People continue to sign up and enjoy the virtual [programming] all month long, so hopefully that number keeps growing,” Baker said. All the conference’s main stage sessions and virtual creative labs, including talks by Newbery Honor author Cece Bell, performance poet Jason Coelho, and author-illustrator James Ransome, remain available to view for 30 days.

At each winter conference, SCBWI assembles a slate of editors and agents to assess the state of the children’s market, and this year’s discussion of “The Outlook for Children’s Publishing in 2024” was moderated by Put Your Shoes On and Get Ready! illustrator TeMika Grooms. “I fielded these questions from my writer friends, my illustrator friends, and [SCBWI] staff members, so these are real questions,” Grooms told the panelists, before asking them about their editorial styles, where they find illustrators (Instagram, SCBWI’s Illustrator Gallery, “our competition’s books, sometimes”), and what makes them “fall in love with a manuscript.”

All four panelists—three editors and an agent—advised authors to reflect on the reason why they’ve felt compelled to write their book. Patrice Caldwell, literary director at New Leaf Literary Media, asks her clients, “Was this the book you meant to write?” because “I want to know why this was the thing that set you on fire, and I think editors do too.” Mallory Loehr, who oversees five imprints and some 20 editors at Random House Books for Young Readers, asks authors to “write up what you really think this book is about” because “editors take that on. Your ‘why’ becomes their ‘why’ as well, and they have to pitch it to the salespeople in marketing and publicity. The stronger your why is, the stronger that connection, and it goes all the way through to the reader.”

What Editors and Agents Are Reading

By sharing titles they’re reading for fun, the panelists suggested their editorial tastes to an audience of writers and artists hungry for tips and trends. Everyone saw potential in stories with diverse representation and inventive illustration.

Loehr, who said she’s seeing “a lot of books and submissions about identity” as well as “mashups” that defy genre and age boundaries, is reading Veera Hiranandani’s middle grade historical fiction How to Find What You’re Not Looking For (“she’s writing a picture book for us”) as well as Kelly Barnhill’s When Women Were Dragons. “I read like a 12-year-old—that’s my inner reader,” Loehr said. “If you don’t get me on page one, you’re not going to get a 12-year-old, or an eight-year-old, or a 15-year-old.” She looks for instant action (“I need something to happen”) and for characters who seem like “people you want to befriend.”

As a reader, Caldwell is a fan of “spicy romantasy,” calling Scarlett St. Clair’s Hades x Persephone series “10 out of 10.” She sees scary fare having a moment too, although the panelists said they shy away from blood and body horror. To Loehr’s concern about grabbing the reader from page one, Caldwell hazarded, “As an agent, I feel like there’s almost too much emphasis on first pages.” While she was “definitely not countering” the polish that a final draft requires, she admitted, “I’m the person who will forgive your first pages if I’m into it.” She’ll request a full manuscript if “the voice is good, but something’s clunky about it,” and she’ll “skip around the manuscript”—she mimed flipping random pages—“to see if the story as a whole has legs.” Perfection can come later.

Alvina Ling, editor-in -chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, wore a “lucky red” cardigan for the year of the dragon, while recommending Gene Luen Yang and LeUyen Pham’s Lunar New Year Love Story. She’s also reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic for her podcast with Grace Lin, Book Friends Forever. She calls for a renewed emphasis on “classic storytelling,” and she shared three qualities that attract her to a manuscript: “I’m looking for books that remind me of the books I loved as a child, the books I’m loving right now, and the books I wished I had as a child. If I’m drawn in by the voice, that’s an A-plus.”

Ling said that as an editor of authors including Holly Black and Libba Bray, “I ask a lot of questions. I love world building.” She described her style as “collaborative,” because “I’m not the writer, you’re the writer, so I do trust that you can solve the questions I have.” She reminded the audience “that an editor’s job is to act as the reader. As I’m editing, I’m looking for the things that take me out of the story,” and over rounds of edits, she helps eliminate distractions.

Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director at Walker Books US, held up a copy of Ever Since by Elena Brujas as her reading selection. “I can be very picky, and this is so beautifully written,” she said. “It really captures the feeling of loss and the expectations you can get, moving from girlhood to teenhood.” Calling herself a reading “omnivore,” Van Metre admitted, “I don’t like reading about rich kids. I just want to put that up about myself.” Instead, she’s been “thinking about Beverly Cleary and her recognition that there are high stakes for kids in the ordinary stuff. I get excited by a writer who recognizes that there doesn’t have to be murder [or] major adult-level drama.”

Van Metre added that she’s still invested in middle grade, even if the category’s numbers slipped in 2023. “Things are cyclical, and it’s middle grade’s turn to struggle,” she said. “I love writing that respects children’s intelligence and capabilities,” and books that “appeal to children immediately but also have some heft to them.” Saluting Candlewick’s design department, she said, “If you want to make a book that’s a bit different and possibly expensive to make, we’re a house that’s willing to figure that out.” She also remarked that YA, like M.T. Anderson’s Feed, has been “a smaller part of our list, and it’s something we’re interested in growing.”

Strategic Thinking in a Cyclical Industry

For all the discussion of hot titles and authorial ambitions, the panelists encouraged creators to bear in mind the flux in publishing and the need for a long-haul strategy. “Whatever is trending now will not be trending in five years,” Loehr cautioned. “Don’t follow. Do what you need to write for yourself.”

The panelists encouraged midlist authors to develop their promotional skillsets through school visits, social media, and genuine friendships with local booksellers and librarians. Because it’s hard for an author to break out at trade shows or American Library Association gatherings—publishers consider featured appearances “an investment,” Loehr reminded listeners—authors have to build a career foundation and sustain their success.

“I’m always telling my clients, nothing is going to sell your backlist like your frontlist,” Caldwell said. “That’s not saying to work so much that you burn yourself out. [But] when you write, it’s a craft, you know? It’s your personal thing. When you get published, it’s now a business.”