My Best Weekend Ever, Part 2

This is basically one big journal entry so that I can remember all the great stuff from my amazing weekend at SCBWI LA. It is going to be long and I really don't expect anyone to read it. However, if you are interested in finding out more about the people who write the books that your kids and I read, these are the authors and illustrators I'll be talking about below and in this order: Gary Schmidt, Patricia MacLachlan, Karen Cushman, Dan Gutman, publisher and editor Elise Howard with Algonquin, Tony DiTerlizzi, Deborah Underwood, Chris Rylander, Ruta Sepetys, Jon Klassen and Eugene Yelchin.

Also, if you ARE a children's book writer and/or illustrator, thinking about becoming one or are interested by the process in ANY WAY I strongly suggest you join SCBWI. This incredible organization is a vital resource for anyone who has anything to do with children's books, from authors and illustrators to agents, editors and booksellers. From workshops to classes to conferences, chapters all over the country are supporting, encouraging and producing authors and illustrators at every point on the path to publication. So many of the faculty at this conference, published, award winning authors, came from this place, this home, this tribe. One moment that served as a prime example of just the kind of loving family that SCBWI is and inspires came at the start of the Golden Kite Awards Luncheon on Sunday. Lin Oliver and Steven Mooser, executive director and president of SCBWI, introduced their staff, including Lin's daughter-in-law and Steven's daughter, who had just given birth and were pregnant, respectively. Then the women held up quilts that had been made for their babies which included squares with artwork by an amazing list of names. For a great look at the weekend, visit    SCBWI LA Blog, run by Lee Wind and his staff.

I am completely overwhelmed, exhausted, starstruck and utterly excited by everything I heard and saw this weekend. It would take a week's worth of posts to talk about SCBWI LA as much as I would really like to. Sadly, I only have time for a nutshell library version. But, before I write anything else, I have to tell you this about the people (at this conference, anyway) who write and illustrate the books you buy and read to your children - they love your children, all children, and care very deeply about giving them the best, most inspiring, fulfilling books possible. Gary Schmidt, author of two Newbery Honor books (click his name to read my reviews) gave the closing keynote speech of the conference and he beautifully, emotionally, summed up this pervasive attitude and had me choking back tears several times. Aside from his personal story of being pegged as an underachiever in first grade and not learning to read until, several years later, a teacher plucked him out of his class of "track 3" kids and took him to her "track 1" class where she passionately, lovingly taught him to read, Schmidt spoke eloquently about why he writes what he writes. I'm going to paraphrase here, but Schmidt encouraged the writers and illustrators at the conference to "write the stories that will give your readers more to be human with," and this definitely comes through in his writing. He also told the audience that the place to start is to "love the world and everything in it," before writing about it. Finally, he expressed the opinion that we are "a culture that has ceased to cherish our children," and framed it by referring to an article he read examining the social and cultural norms of the 1950s and 60s - things we think are horrendous today like smoking, corporal punishment, etc. He wondered, when society looks back 50 years from now at us, today, what norms will they find obscene and brutal? Sending our children out to play football despite the known facts about the effects of concussions? The legality of automatic weapons? The continual slashing of school and public library funds? While every single person in that room and every one of you reading this blog, no doubt, cherishes children, I think Gary Schmidt is right. As a society, a country, we do not cherish our children. A sad acknowledgement, for sure. But naming the problem and owning the problem is a start.

Patricia MacLachlan gave a hilarious keynote titled, "Revising My Life." When saw here in the morning a the conference I thought, "What a charming little grandmotherly person! No wonder her books are so sweet and heartfelt!" And, while I have no doubt she is a sweet grandmother, she is also a bawdy laugh riot. In a minute, I went from wishing she would sit by a fire and read to me and my kids to wanting to share a bottle of wine with her on a patio some afternoon. She told fantastic stories about her grandchildren, frequent subjects of her eavesdropping, and brought her speech around from what seemed like one long, funny ramble to a really poignant moment when she realized the pain that her granddaughter was suffering over the loss of her beloved dog (she pinned a note to her shirt saying, "My dog died," and went to first grade that way) to MacLachlan's memory of putting a note on her front door when as a kid when her dog died. The one thing I learned, which I guess I already knew, is that there is no formula to writing, no magic sequence or combination of things that you can arrange to write a great story. It all seems to happen organically ad the writer brings it out from inside, from hidden unknown places sometime, and puts it on paper. Then writes it over and over, revises and edits. Then their agent edits it. Then their editor edits it. You have NO IDEA how much work these people - all of them, from author to agent to editor to publisher - put into their work! Writing is a CAREER, not a hobby. And, what I take away from this weekend, what I have long felt, is that writing picture books is THE HARDEST! As Tony diTerlizzi said, "Writing picture books is like writing really kick-ass poetry." Hear, hear!!

Dan Gutman gave a comical keynote titled, 'How A Dumbass Like Me Got Over 100 Books Published.'" as well as wrote a stellar faculty bio for himself that was held up as an example of "a strong voice in writing" by another faculty member, the wonderful Elise Howard, during a talk. Elise Howard has working in publishing for two decades and I was very interested to hear her talk because she recently took a job with Algonquin, (read THIS for more details) publishers of adult books such as Like Water for Elephants, and gets to create their YA and Middle Grade list FROM SCRATCH!!! One aspect of publishing that really fascinates me is the way that individual editors with specific tastes are publishing what THEY like and setting the tone for their house or imprint in this way. I guess working in a bookstore for so long I have more of a global view of books and it is so amazing to think of them locally and individually in terms of editors and publishers picking books that THEY love and THEY want to read. While she wouldn't name authors or titles, Howard did tell us that in the fall of 2013 Algonquin will be publishing three middle grade titles that will feature two animal fantasies - a soft spot of Howard's (think Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) and one time-slip fantasy. She will also be publishing three YA titles, one of which is about a teenage girl in Tehran who is also a closeted lesbian who has been in love with her best friend since childhood.

Karen Cushman, author of the Newbery winning - and utterly fantastic - The Midwife's Apprentice, gave a keynote titled, "Courting Surprise" and she quoted the most amazing, diverse people. She started her speech with these words from Nobel winning novelist Toni Morrison, "The function of freedom is to free someone else." In the context of her work as a writer for children, this is an especially exciting idea to me because I believe that reading the right book can be a transformative experience, and to know that an author is writing for me, for any reader, to experience that transformation, that sense of freedom in discovery, connection and experience is so thrilling. Cushman also quoted W Sommerset Maughm ("There are three rules for writing. No one knows what they are") as well as Ray Bradbury, Goethe, EM Forster, Annie Lamott, Ken Kesey, William Faulkner and Jackie Collins (who said, "Write what you know.")

An editor's panel moderated by the amazing, hilarious, SCBWI den leader/ executive director Lin Oliver, currently best known as Henry Winkler's co-auhtor for the Hank Zipzer and the new series, Ghost Buddies was enlightening and really interesting. Panelists included: Tamar Brazis, editorial director of Abrams/Amulet, a favorite house of mine, Jordan Brown, editor at Walden Pond Press AND Balzer + Bray, both imprints of HarperCollins, editor of two books that take my breath away, Breadcrumbs and Cosmic, Laura Godwin who, besides being vice-president and publisher of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers where she has worked for over 20 years, is also an author in her own right and, as I only discovered this very moment, much to my chagrin, also the co-author of my beloved Doll People Trilogy with Ann M Martin. Elise Howard, mentioned earlier, the amazing Neal Porter (another long time publisher/editor with an imprint bearing his name and the man behind the Caldecott winner A Sick Day for Amos McGhee) and Farrin Jacobs, editorial director at HarperCollins focusing on teen fiction with titles including Pretty Little Liars and Jellicoe Road by the stunning Melina Marchetta, a teen book that ripped my heart out. They all talked about how debut authors sell best and how there is less time for an author to build a career through publishing several books and establishing an audience, which is sad. They talked about voice, the character's voice (that's when Elise Howard read Dan Gutman's bio) and creating characters and stories that are enduring and timeless, although there seems to be almost no way of knowing if your character/book is enduring and timeless as you are writing it or outlining it... They also addressed the growing force of eBooks, which are resulting in the smaller print runs of books in paperback. Jordan Brown said the most intelligent thing on this subject I heard all weekend, which is, and this is paraphrased, that today's kids are digital natives and the future of the digital book is going to look like something we have never seen before, not just the e-version of a book (which is what we know now) but something that someone, somewhere might be imagining and creating right now. I wonder what it will be...

I went to see the thoroughly entertaining and enlightening Tony diTerlizzi a second time and my appreciation of his writing and art deepened even more. As I said above, there was much talk about "timeless books" and characters who survive their authors. When I think about Tony's books, WondLa especially, I feel like I am seeing timelessness and character longevity in action, even though it seemed to be generally agreed upon that you could not know timelessness and longevity until after the fact. When I was in high school and enamored of Holden Caufield (who thought it would be great if you could ring up an author and talk to him about his books, as did I) I had a teacher tell the class that the LAST person who could speak knowledgeably and informatively about a book was the author. And I bought it!! Of course he was dead wrong and underestimated the craft of writing in saying that. Every author AND illustrator who spoke at this conference (and yes, I am well aware of the fact that a: These people ARE professional writers and 2: They were obviously invited to speak because they CAN speak well) was so articulate, concise, eloquent and insightful about everything from their own writing to child psychology to inspiration, determination, influences and the writing process.

Here, I digress for a moment. Seven years ago we upended our lives so that our oldest child who was floundering (and worse) in middle school could attend a private school 30 miles from our home (but a 2 hour, round-trip bus ride) and be challenged and enriched academically as well as find a peer group. This school has an incredible faculty as well as head of school and a rich tradition of giving speeches for almost every occasion. At first I found this a bit tiresome but, as I sat back an really listened to what the faculty had to say over the years, I came to have a deep appreciation for oration. As I sat in the various auditoriums and rooms this weekend and listened to people talk for more than eight hours a day I had occasion again to appreciate the gift of oration and the gift of being in the audience and I began to wonder, "For what percentage of people is hearing a speech a regular part of existence? And of those people, who are lucky enough to hear speeches that are interesting, inspiring and enriching?" I think we should all be required to listen to speeches regularly. Listening is an art, we all know that. But listening, thinking and digesting is an art that many of us probably need to strengthen.

Deborah Underwood, author of the modern classics, The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, gave a phenomenal keynote talk titled The Power of Quiet. The theme of Underwood's talk was making space for creativity and the importance of quiet moments in allowing for this. On a funny note, Underwood started her talk by sharing how the pulling of Jonah Lehrer's book Imagine, a scientific look at creativity, due to the fabrication of quotes and information. Lehrer's serious misstep created an extra flurry of research and emails on Underwood's part to support segments of her speech. But really, the most amazing and affecting part of her talk was hearing the story of how The Quiet Book came into existence. Busy, just like everyone else, Underwood went to visit her father one Sunday, taking a pile of work with her. As she sat at his dining room table working, he reminded her of the classical guitar concert they had tickets to. Grumbling over the loss of time, she kept her commitment. As Underwood noted, her father is from the planet Vulcan (Star Trek/Spock reference) which means that his is logical as well as a man of few words. This meant that they arrived at the concert hall, a church, over an hour early then sat in silence.  It was in this quiet space, after her mind stopped running through all of the work she wasn't getting done, that Underwood's book was born. I heard so many fantastic stories of the birth of books at this conference, but Underwood's was by far the most resonant and meaningful for me. 

Chris Rylander, author of The Fourth Stall, which also won the Mike Rylander perform a hilarious reading of the audio book as I drove to the conference. Chris began the talk (to a packed room) by reading his query letter. Not only is the letter laugh-out loud hilarious, but the fact that it was for a book he had not actually written sent to an agent who only represents children's authors made it even funnier. Besides mentioning favorite writers of his from George Saunders, MT Anderson and Flannery O'Connor to John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, Chris talked about the experience of working with his editor, which he likened to having a fence around a playground. Chris referenced a scientific study in which kids were sent onto a playground every day for a week where there was no fence creating a boundary. The kids stayed close to the school buildings and did not explore their territory. The next week the kids were sent back on to the same playground, but this time there was a fence marking the boundaries. With the fence in place, the kids explored and played right up to the wire. For Chris, having a great editor to work with is like having the confidence and security to play right up to the wire. Chris also happens to be a pretty funny artist and, if you check out his website you can see some of his stick-figure drawings. 

The keynote speaker Saturday afternoon was Ruta Sepetys, author of the debut YA novel Between Shades of Gray. A first person narrative, Sepetys's book tells the story of a Lithuanian girl and her family as they are imprisoned, and worse, as part of Stalin's genocidal invasion of the Baltic countries during WWII. Sepetys's book is breathtaking, both for the story and the writing. And, to hear her speak in person is every bit as incredible. While Spetys is a moving speaker (she made me cry both times I heard her) she is also the kind of person you would want as your best friend AND she is a product of an SCBWI writing group and had several of her group members from the South in attendance at the conference cheering her on. In talking about her book, Sepetys shared the questions she asked herself as she wrote, beginning with "What's your story?" A veteran of the music industry, Sepetys worked on a music show she could not name for legal reasons (American Idol) where it was her job to interview finalists and pick songs for them to sing based on their personal experiences. She would start the interview process by asking, "What's your story?" One day, a cocky contestant turned the tables on her and she started thinking about her story and her Lithuanian relatives. Between Shades of Gray was not the first novel Sepetys wrote or queried, but it was clearly her story. In talking about her writing and offering advice to others, she shared a list of questions: What does it take to bear the unbearable? What is the novel that only YOU can write? What are you longing for? What do you hide? What causes you pain? What do you wish would just go away? Then she shared a quote, "Let the wind blow through your hollow places because that wind might cool and ease the pain of someone else." Ruta went in to tell her own story of conducting research for her book, from visiting a Lithuanian community center in a nearby town with a fellow SCBWI member who was fresh off the operating table, to traveling to Lithuania to talk to survivors of Stalin's horror who were, to this day, still afraid to talk, to her own research spending 24 hours in an abandoned gulag with a team of young Lithuanian American filmmakers. The crew arranged to be treated just like prisoners would have been during WWII and, as a result, Sepetys blithely joined in, not realizing that she would be beaten (and rupture a disc, as a result) and see those around her beaten. Hearing her speak of this was as chilling as reading her book.

The final keynote of the night came from Deborah Halverson, award winning author and editor. Deborah's talk was An Up to the Minute Survey of Market Needs and Trends and, as a bookseller, was fascinating to me, especially since so much of the information Deborah collected, assessed and made sense of (gathered from sales data sources, bookstores, agents, editors and publishers) reflected what I see on the shelves at work. A few bits of information that grabbed my attention in this day of digital: Hardcover sales: up 14.7% Paperback sales: down 3.0%. This makes sense. Paperback sales are losing out to eBook sales. Why buy the actual book when you can download it for the same price? For all of kid's publishing, total sales are up 9.3%. After a few tough years that meant cutting bookseller hours at the bookstore because sales were dropping, I am VERY happy to hear this. The other great news? THE PICTURE BOOK IS NOT DEAD!!! However, the market does seem to be favoring shorter, character driven stories (Pete the Cat) and quirky, smaller books I Want My Hat Back). Also, branded character books like Pete the Cat, Llama, Llama and Elephant and Piggie. In terms of digital picture books, predictions indicate that they will serve as supplements to the bound picture books, not replacements. Middle grade fiction seems to be selling better than YA fiction right now. Distinct, engaging voices in the middle grade realm are rare but sought after. More often, narrators are considered "too voicey," meaning their tone is overly quirky. Publishers seem to be looking for more "real life boy"stories, more "normal kids," for middle grade, but the stories can't be too quiet. There needs to be something BAD that happens with a big emotional impact. In the world of YA, there is paranormal and dystopian fatigue. Historical fiction, especially with a fantasy element, is what editors and publishers are looking for. Also, straight conventional fiction is still sought after and everyone's on the lookout for the next Sarah Dessen. Deborah's market report dovetailed nicely with what I heard when I went to talks given by Jordan Brown with Walden Pond and Balzer + Bray and Elise Howard, who is creating a kid's line of books for Algonquin.


My final day of the conference began with an agent's panel and a picture book panel. The picture book panel consisted of Jon Klassen, Antoinette Portis (author of the phenomenal NOT A BOX) Lee Wardlaw and Eugene Yelchin and was moderated by the wonderful Dan Yaccarino. As I've said before, I think that writing a really great picture book has to be the hardest thing to do. Eugene Yelchin, author and illustrator of the Newbery Honor winning Breaking Stalin's Nose said that a good picture book should be "a surprise, and yet what you expected," which I love. Another thought I loved came from Jon Klassen who said that a good picture book is one that "you don't quite get on the first reading." That may seem odd at first, but when you think about Jon's I Want My Hat Back, it makes sense. I loved this book immediately even though I didn't get it on first reading (I thought the bear sat on the rabbit, not ate him...) This is true of classics books like Go Dog Go! and Rain Makes Applesauce.

Jon Klassen's talk, The Basics of Visual Storytelling was a revelation. A revelation after reading picture books out loud to kids twice a week or more professionally for seventeen plus years. A revelation after reading picture books out loud to my own kids for nineteen plus years. After hearing Jon speak so elegantly, intellectually and articulately about how a picture book looks, should look, I will never read one the same way again. With a background in animation, Jon had many insights to share, beginning with "Stories don't exist outside of HOW they are told." The story (words) may be great, but the picture book is going nowhere if the visuals don't work. Next insight: "Storytelling is teaching." You need to set up a visual premise. In I Want My Hat Back Klassen accomplishes this in a few ways. most specifically with the changes in the color of the text to let the reader know who is speaking. This may seem like a small thing, probably because it is such a huge thing. There have been plenty of times when I have been reading a book out loud and I stumble over text or use the wrong character voice because I don't realize who is speaking until I get to the end of the sentence - even if I've read the book more than once. Despite this experience, I had never once considered the value and importance of using an indicator like colored text as a character descriptor. How you tell the story teaches the reader about the story. Which leads to the following insight: "Visual storytelling is teaching with symbols." For this Jon used visuals from the video game Super Mario Brothers. This is a game with no written rules or directions built in. Everything about the game and how to play it is learned through the symbols appearing on the screen.

I am not a video game person, but to hear Jon talk his way through this game made brilliant sense in terms of visual storytelling and picture books. These symbols guide the audience to the next point in the story and in this way, Klassen guides his reader through his story. If you have read I Want My Hat Back, then you know that this is a crucial part of the story telling because the text is all dialogue and lacking in descriptors. As Klassen stated, "The direction things move in is important." Klassen also mentioned an interesting formula for storytelling that involved teaching and resting. Klassen said  he teachers in threes then takes a rest from teaching. In I Want My Hat Back, this is exemplified by the bear telling us he has lost his hat. The third animal he encounters is the rabbit wearing his hat, who lies about it. The bear soldiers on, encountering three more animals. Then, desolate, he collapses on the ground and mourns his loss. This leads me to the next point Klassen made, which was the most significant and revelatory for me. In the first part of the book, the bear is heading from the left to the right of the page in his quest to find his hat. The story is moving forward. When he collapses, his head is on the right hand page, his feet on the left, in tune with the direction he had been going. A deer approaches from the right, asks about his hat and jogs something in the bear's memory. He sits bolt upright then takes off after the thief, this time heading from right to left, retracing his steps! The book ends with the bear, reunited with his hat, sitting contentedly, facing the left hand page. Klassen used PD Eastman's Sam and the Firefly as a great example of the direction the story moves in as well as the symbolic use of colors to tell the story beyond the words. Klassen also mentioned Harold and the Purple Crayon as a good example of style not getting in the way of storytelling, noting that Johnson always kept his illustration style true to Harold's ability with his purple crayon. Finally, Klassen ended his fantastic talk with this advice - don't think in terms of individual picture when creating a picture book, think in terms of a series of pictures. I think, if you go back and look at picture books with this in mind, you will find that the greats, like Where the Wild Things Are, stand up to time and provide a more complete, enriching reading experience than a book that's more sequential in its storytelling.

My last talk of the weekend was given by the incredible
, as well as several picture books. Yelchin's talk was titled, "Outside the Trim: Thinking Beyond the Literal Space of the Picture Book," and was a great compliment to Jon Klassen's talk. Yelchin had a copious collection of images from picture book cover from over the last one hundred years to the present and I felt like I was a college freshman again, back at art school. Yelchin detailed the different types of space in an illustration and how it affects the emotions aroused by the image, the story being told. The wealth of images and information exploded my thinking about picture books and, as with Klassen's observations, I will never look at a picture book in the same way again.

The best weekend ever ended with an autograph party!! I got in line early with my gigantic bag of books and I worked that room! Everyone was so nice and we held each other's places so we could jump into other, shorter lines. We basically invented our own version of Disneyland's FastPass!

The packed room

Jon Klassen

Dan Santat! I didn't know he was going to be there and, sadly, had none of my books to be signed. But, I did have my trusty Moleskine and Dan drew this great picture for me!!

Patricia MacLachlan

Ruta Sepetys

Tony Di Terlizzi

If you have read to the bottom of this post, you must really love kid's books. If there's any way you can, come to the conference next year!! 

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