SCBWI Winter Conference

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is usually held in New York, but this year, of course, it’s virtual. Ordinarily, there are about 1,000 attendees, but the online format hosted 4,000 attendees – many of whom were illustrators who contributed to the Virtual Portfolio Showcase, which is full of incredible art! (Not sure how long that link will be live.)

This is my first time attending (#SCBWIBIRD, per Jolie Stekly) and in many ways it’s similar to the many library conferences I’ve attended (except: there were ASL interpreters and closed captioning in every session!). The Golden Kite awards were Friday night, and the weekend was packed with sessions from 11:30am through the evening (EST). In a few time slots there were multiple choices for sessions, but all of them were recorded and will be available to conference attendees through March; I plan to catch up on those I missed over the next week, but in the meantime, here are some quotes and takeaways. (Note: I use quotation marks when I’m pretty certain I’ve got the exact quote. If there are no quotation marks, it’s close to the actual words used, but not exact.)

#NY21SCBWI badgeFriday, February 19

Orientation for first-time conference attendees: Jolie Stekly

  • “This is an industry full of turtles.” Slow & steady.
  • “If you’re able to be yourself, you have no competition. All you have to do is get closer and closer to the essence.” (Quote unattributed)

Golden Kite Awards Presentation & Gala

Saturday, February 20

Keynote Conversation: Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson, The Picture Book as a Perfect Marriage Between Author and Illustrator

  • Matt read their new picture book, Milo Imagines the World. “Maybe you can’t really know anyone just by looking at their face.”MiloImaginesTheWorld
  • “I try to enter every picture book through [children’s] point of view…. What is it like if you don’t have all the information and the only thing you can really read is the adults?” (Matt)
  • “I don’t think good writers go into a story with a message…but I do think good writers go into a story with a point of view.” (Matt)
  • “I’m curious, how many wizards do you have at your school?”(Matt, pushing white teachers/librarians to make sure all book collections are diverse)
  • “Drawing and making pictures was my way of making space for myself.” (Christian)
  • “Talent can get you a job but character can help you keep it.” (Christian)
  • “Play well with others…. You have to make compromises and you have to trust that everyone has the same goal in mind – to make the best book possible and get it to the most readers possible.” (Christian)
  • “Authors of picture books have two jobs: you have to get the story right and you have to get the music right.” (Matt)
  • “A true collaboration is putting your collaborator in the best position to succeed.” (Matt)

State of the Industry Keynote: The Hard Questions and the Truthful Answers: Jean Feiwel with Lin Oliver

  • Jean Feiwel on adapting to the culture of each company she worked for: What do they want from me, and what can I accomplish for them?
  • On combining fiction and science in the Magic School Bus series: My answer to people who say “you can’t do that” is “of course it wasn’t the way it was done, but I did it anyway.”
  • Children are humans with information needs. “Rather than keep content away from kids, I think it’s important to expose them to many different types of books.” Adults should be “not gatekeepers, but ambassadors.”
  • “The market is crying out for diversity and expansion… The real growth and opportunity is in doing NOT what you did last year…but to change the landscape.” If publishers have a limited perspective, they’ll have a limited list.
  • Children today don’t have the prejudice against pictures anymore. Artists are incredibly varied and sophisticated. Illustrations add to the story. “Those boundaries don’t truly exist.”
  • Creators (authors, illustrators) should “be in the world,” be on social media, be well-read.

Behind the Scenes at a New York Publishing House: An Insider’s Tour of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers with Laurent Linn, Katrina Groover, Chava Wolin, and Paula Wiseman

Diagram of a book's circle of life

  • Art Director Laurent Linn’s “circle of life of a book” graphic (right)
  • Publisher and Editor Paula Wiseman offered an analogy: “the editors are the beads and the publisher is the chain”
  • “Backlist is frontlist to those who haven’t read it.” Paula Wiseman pointed out that children’s literature gains new readers every few years.
  • Laurent Linn described Katrina Groover, Managing Editorial Director, as both an air traffic controller and orchestra conductor. In her words: “What I am responsible for is meeting deadlines.”

Genre Breakout Sessions: Two Editors Discuss What’s Hot, What’s Not, What They’re Acquiring and the Rules of the Road 

  • I watched the middle grade session with Tricia Lin (Random House) and Krista Vitola (S&S), but plan to watch the picture book session with Elizabeth Bicknell, Joanna Cardenas, and Andrea Welch ASAP!
  • “Editorial opinions vary. If we don’t fall in love with a voice, it doesn’t mean another editor won’t fall in love with that voice.” (Krista)
  • You’re always going to write more than what ends up in the finished publication. “You still [need] to write those pages, because they’re gonna help you later in the story.” (Krista)
  • Series is the bread-and-butter of middle grade. Character driven, concept driven. (Krista)Screen shot of Writing Middle Grade slide
  • “A second pair of eyes is always super important. Someone not as close to your project as you are can really bring fresh eyes, things you would never be able to catch on your own. We get second readers all the time on our end…. Open yourself up to that feedback. Receive it with an open mind.” (Tricia)
  • There’s this idea of success in publishing…it’s important to keep in mind is that everything is subjective – what you choose to write, what I choose to acquire, what the customer is going to buy…every step of the way, it’s so subjective. You’re here, and you’re writing. With every idea you brainstorm and every word you write. … We’re trying to reach people, we’re trying to do good. (Tricia)

Keynote Address: Looking Back to Move Forward, Tami Charles (I was zoomed out and needed a break, I will watch this one ASAP as well. The tweets from her talk were ecstatic!)

Zoom Peer Critique: Picture Book: Despite a few technical difficulties – handled with grace and perseverance by April Powers and Julian Petri – a huge number of us eventually got into breakout groups for a useful critique, employing the “sandwich style” (praise, constructive criticism, praise).

Sunday, February 21

Keynote Conversation: Jerry Craft and Victoria Jamieson, moderated by April Powers

  • “All children need to see all children in their books.” (April)
  • “It’s hard to know which feedback to take and which feedback not to take.” (Victoria)
  • “If I don’t have to put words in a panel, I don’t.” (Jerry)
  • I like to have the pictures say one thing and the words say another…. That’s one of the beauties of graphic novels…that makes it a really sophisticated art form. Kids have to read something visually and in words and put them together. (Victoria)
  • Story arc for picture books: introduce character quickly, then they start having problems; a little denouement at the end.
  • Timeline for making a graphic novel? (1) brainstorming/developing, (2) sketches/writing, (3) final art (Victoria)
  • Every author/illustrator collaborator is different. At one point Victoria wished aloud to “phone a friend” (Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham), so I found a couple of interviews with them: School Library Journal and Publishers WeeklyScreenshot of story arc

Mock Acquisition Meeting with Wendy Loggia and Delacorte Publishing Team (planning to watch recording)

Mock Book Cover/Book Design Production Meeting with Yaffa Jaskoll and Scholastic Publishing Team (Stephanie Yang, Baily Crawford, Maeve Norton)

  • “There are a lot of opinions to consider and it takes time to make everyone happy.” (Yaffa)
  • On designing a series (e.g. Baby Sitters Club): Each book has to look individual and also look like part of the series (Yaffa)
  • Key takeaways (for illustrators): Keep your social media updated. Reply to email quickly (within 24 hours). Do your research, stay current, keep your work fresh. The conceptual solution is as important as execution; try a few different designs. Find where your style fits naturally and build on that. Be flexible: it can take a bunch of tries to get the art just right. Show variety in your artwork. “You never know what we’re going to gravitate to.”

Real Talk with Four Agents: A Deep Dive Into the Children’s Publishing Business: Kirby Kim (Janklow & Nesbit), Kevin Lewis (EMLA), Erica Rand Silverman (Stimola), Saba Sulaiman (Talcott Notch)

  • “I’ve always felt like I could be a good advocate for others.” (Kirby)
  • “It’s never too early to get engaged in the industry…. You don’t have to wait to have a book published.” (Erica)
  • “Children are really, really receptive to difference… Characters who don’t look like them, think like them. They embrace silliness, absurdity, the unexpected.” (Saba)
  • “You should be encouraged if you’re unpublished, that’s not a bad thing.” (Erica)
    • Or “pre-published,” per Lin Oliver.
  • “You have to care about something, and you have to engage in that thing you care about…. Find that thing that you can do, and do it!” (Kevin)
  • “Go by your compass, not your clock.” (Kirby, quoting Alvina Ling)

Keynote Address: Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera: Writing for the Contemporary YA Audience, introduced/moderated by Kim Turrisi

  • Something that surprised me as an author…You end up hearing from readers all around the world and you find out that there are people who have something in common with you that you thought you were totally alone in feeling. It’s the most bizarre, surreal, and wonderful experience to have. (Becky)
  • “It’s really hard to keep in mind that our specific experiences can be night and day from other people… There are a lot of people who need a lot of different kinds of stories.” (Becky)
  • To some people it might feel like only marginalized stories are getting attention right now, and it’s like no, we’re gathering steam for sure, but there’s still so much catching up to do…. Not reading widely is doing a disservice to your worldview and your reading experience. (Adam)Screen Shot 2021-02-21 at 5.19.49 PM
  • Writing tips from Adam: I create a list of 10 random things/details about a character to get to know them. Helps get closer to the heart of the character. “All these choices lead to that authenticity.” There’s world-building in a contemporary space as much as there is in a fantasy space.
  • How to create high stakes if the main character is not facing a huge, life-changing problem? “The stakes are how badly your characters want the outcome that they want.” (Becky)
  • Re: social media: Authenticity is so important to me but also really scary…Privacy gets really complicated. It’s part of the job to figure out those boundaries. (Becky)
  • I was not prepared. I wasn’t prepared for being talked about in a public way. There’s a big difference between being a writer and being an author. (Adam)

My Life in Children’s Books: A Rare Appearance by the Legendary Patricia MacLachlan, in Conversation with Lin Oliver

  • “I like books that allow me to enter them, and if there are too many words, I don’t know where I’m going.”
  • A book should speak to all readers: “Something for the adult to hold, and something for the child to grab onto.”
  • Landscape: “It matters where a book takes place, and what’s going on and where it is.” Recognize your landscape: where did you come from, where have you been, where are you going, what is your great sadness and great joy?
  • Children know everything. They’re also very direct. “They believe everything and they want to know everything.”
  • Quoting her father: “The title taps you on the shoulder and the first line takes you by the hand.”
  • “Children matter.” They see everything, they know everything, they don’t always understand it. It’s nice to be able to reach out and touch them, even if it’s to ask them a question, or show them someone else going through what they’re going through. We owe them…quality of attention.

And that’s a wrap! It was a great first SCBWI conference experience, even if it wasn’t in person. (On the plus side: I didn’t have to travel; I got to do yoga stretches, hang out with my kid, and eat snacks between sessions; and I could be in sweatpants the whole time. On the minus side, I actually like meeting people in person.) Overall: pandemic sucks, technology is a good workaround – and made the conference more accessible – children’s books are here to stay, everyone involved in the creation of children’s books is pretty cool.

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