Childish Nonsense

Exploring Children's Literature

New York 2014 Conference Buzz


Big giant head in hotel lobby sporting Suess hat for the children’s writers

Another amazing SCBWI conference is in the bag. Just a quick run through of my notes. Hope this helps some who couldn’t be there, but there’s nothing like being there.

The overall theme was the seven essentials for children’s literature. Some speakers really took this to heart. Others did not.

I did not attend a Friday intensive though I did help with the registration for this event. I hear the intensives were great.

There was a party for industry professionals Friday night, along with the illustrator portfolio showcase. A lot of freaking talent in that room! My Co-Regional Advisor, Sue Peters, and I used the opportunity to start seeking speakers for regional conferences. (Sneaky RAs)

Saturday began with introductions by Steve Mooser and Lin Oliver. With 1085 registrants, 153 were men (up a little), 867 were women, and 65 were apparently neither. 47 states (no Dakotas or Hawaii) and 20 countries were represented. The joke contest was to write a headline for the Winter Olympics starring a children’s book character. Boy, was I surprised to actually win with the first one that popped into my head: Team Rapunzel Best in Curling. Some other good ones: Steve Mooser’s Does a Russian Bear Putin the Woods? And Lee Wind’s Vladimir Putin’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Gay. At least we have fun.

Jack Gantos gave the opening keynote. He spoke about his process. He even shared photos of his writing desk at the Boston Atheneum. For picture books, he makes a 16-square grid. Starts with character introduction, setting, problem, action, action, emotion, crisis, resolution, solve problem, and end. One of his best points was that the best stories have two endings – a physical one and an emotional one. After writing, he moves on to a focused re-write, concentrating on one issue at a time.

I attended the morning breakout session on Creating Nonfiction with Debra Dorfman and Marisa Polansky from Scholastic. Their seven esssentials consisted of:

  1. Explore your interests
  2. Explore your strengths
  3. Explore your audience
  4. Explore your bookstore, school book fair, school book club
  5. Explore the opportunities
  6. Explore sources
  7. Explore publishers

Of course, being from Scholastic, they had some really good examples to back up each point. They mentioned they’re always looking for that unusual idea that speaks to kids. Biographies of little-known people or about quirks of already-famous people are a plus. Combining ideas, like their new Dinosaurs (or sharks or dolphins) in a Box are great. (This is a nonfiction book, a fictional story, poster, and flash cards boxed together.)


Some of HMH’s recently published picture books

My afternoon breakout was with Jeannette Larson of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, speaking about Writing Picture Books. She had a list of essential ingredients for a great picture book (originality, rhythm, economy, conflict, wholeness, purpose, and authenticity) and a list of ingredients of a writer of great picture books (curiosity, love of language, observance, flexibility, patience, courage, and honesty). Originality means yanking out those clichés. Rhythm means making your text readable, especially out loud. Economy means making every word do its job. Conflict is not about arguing. Wholeness = beginning, middle, and end. Purpose is not about a message. Authenticity means it’s truly child centered.

She also came with great examples. She says that picture books matter, especially in emotional terms, because you never know what the ripple effect will be.

The afternoon keynote was given by author Elizabeth Wein, who spoke about accepting responsibility for everything you write or do. She said that maintaining grace in the face of success will win you a lot of friends.

After that was a discussion panel about banned books.

The evening began with a dinner hosted by the individual regions. It was great to meet with some of the people from our region. I was so glad to see that each of our regional states was represented. And the mini cupcakes were scrumptious.

Later, I had volunteered to attend a social especially for brand new SCBWI members. I’d forgotten how energetic and inspired new members are. What a wonderful group of people!

Sunday morning was the time for award presentation. Tomie dePaolo, at 80, and Jane Yolen, at 75, were unbelievable. I adore them both.

Kate Messner gave a great talk on the Power of Failure. She spoke a lot about not looking at so-called failures as failures, but turning them into learning opportunities and one more step forward. She used her speech at a TED event in 2012 as one example and invited us to be brave. Failure teaches us to celebrate the dance and gives us a chance to start over.

The last panel on Sunday was about the Art of the Picture Book. Five established illustrators (Marla Frazee, Peter Brown, Oliver Jeffers, Raul Colon, and Shadra Strickland) and Arthur A. Levine talked about the direction of the industry, about mistakes and moving on, and on art notes from writers and how aggravating those can be. (This came up more than once during the weekend.) Illustrators want to bring a different dimension to a project. One illustrator wanted to make the point that the writer and illustrator don’t collaborate. The words and pictures collaborate.

Nikki Grimes gave the closing keynote. As a poet, her process is very different. She usually starts with individual pieces (poems) and then ties them together. She approaches them like a jigsaw puzzle.

After the door prizes, I said a find farewell. The hotel staff continued to call us the children’s writers group and kept asking when we were coming back. Very soon, I hope.


Stuck in the Middle

It often surprises me that blogging needs to have a structure. Actually, each new genre that I try my hand at has a structure. Who Middleknew? For example, a good picture book has a beginning, a middle, and an end – just like any other kind of story. It’s such a simple concept but so easy to forget.

So, I had some very good teachers along the way, some of whose names I don’t even remember. (Well, one of them just came to me, but let’s pretend I still don’t remember.) I credit my senior English teacher directly with getting me out of freshman writing in college.

I went in to take the pass-out test. I had no clue what to expect, but I wanted to give it a try. One of the possible topics was to pick a book and argue that everyone should read that book. (Okay, those who know me well know I’m still doing this exercise.) I felt like I’d struck gold. But the one thing that got me through it, with the nerves and all that, was my former English teacher in the back of my head saying, “Subject, number, and order.” He drilled it into us.

Quick English lesson for the uninitiated. Especially when writing an essay, you say what you’re going to say, say it, then say what you said. In each section, you need to state your topics, how many points you will make, and in what order you will make them. Easy peasy, no?

Yeah, just about as easy as beginning, middle, and end. I feel I’m still working on my voice, (that may never end) but I do think I have a handle on this principle. The trick is remembering to watch for it with each story. Along with the tension, etc.  I’m not saying it’s never good to flaunt the rules. It’s just wise to have a reason for flaunting. I habitually get stuck in the middle, but I try not to panic.

I doubt I convinced anyone that day to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I did learn how important basic principles can be. And, BTW, I need to plan my posts a little better.

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Gearing up for two big events here.

The NYC SCBWI conference starts in two weeks. Two weeks! Yikes!SCBWI conf

First, I would like this winter weather to come to a screeching halt. I won’t be responsible for my actions otherwise. When I was in my 20s I took the attitude of “no one is going to tell me I can’t go somewhere.” In other words, if the weather was bad, I was more likely to try to go out. This was not total recklessness, just a sort of claustrophobia and definitely self-determination. Now, I see a flake and I go into hibernation. Not sure which me will emerge if the weather is bad when I want to go to NYC. I have a feeling I will revert to my 20s self.

Second, I am SO excited for some of the sessions. I like to get myself revved up for these events by reading something by all the keynoters. I’m happy to report I’m having a ball. What a great group of authors. My favorites so far are the wonderful characters created by Sharon M. Draper, but I also love Elizabeth Wein, Kate Messner, and Jack Gantos. Who wouldn’t?

Third, I’m going to NYC! There are two great children’s literature related exhibits within walking distance of the Grand Hyatt, where the conference is being held. The New York Public Library (yes, the one with the lions out front) is showing The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter: Meanwhile, the Morgan Library has The Little Prince: A New York Story: Just hope I get to see one of them. So much fun, so little time. Then there’s some of the best shopping and eating in the world. Oh, my!

A month later, my region, Maryland/Delaware/West Virginia, is holding our annual spring conference. Sue Peters and I are doing a great job dividing the duties but we can’t divide the worry. Registration has been a little rocky with our new website:, but we think we have it under control now. BTW, the SCBWI team in Los Angeles has worked many long and frustrated hours on making the website work for everyone. It hasn’t been easy. A great big thank you to Sally Crock, Josh Smith, and Chelsea Confalone. Travel arrangements and AV needs are in process, and we’re still tweaking the program for the regional conference.

So, I’ve been a little busy with prep. And I love it.

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