There was no snoozing Saturday morning, which is what I usually do when I have to beat the roosters crowing. As my alarm went off at 3:30am to catch the early train, my brain was already racing in anticipation of the SCBWI conference. The train pulled into Grand Central Terminal just in time for registration, and I was thankful that the chilly walk to the Grand Hyatt Hotel was short. The Winter storms managed to calm down for one weekend, allowing for an enjoyable time in NYC.
Armed with my second cup of coffee and a delicious bagel, I settled into my chair and took in the surroundings. Over 1130 writers and illustrators from 47 states and multiple countries filled up the ballroom. Our host and co-founder of SCBWI, Lin Oliver, cheerfully welcomed everyone and set the tone for a lively, fun-filled weekend. Being a first timer at the conference I eagerly took in all the information, jotting down as many tips, ideas and words of wisdom as I could. Anthony Horowitz started out the day with an insightful and whimsical speech, sharing his story of many challenging years that paved the way for “Storm Chaser”, a best-seller for teens that gave life to the Alex Rider trilogy. Encouraging everyone to always have a plan for our work and grab readers’ attention from the first line, Anthony closed his presentation to a standing ovation with these words…”Write it. Enjoy it. Believe it. The future is yours.”
The future indeed looks good for children’s books and picture books, which, as indicated by the panel of agents, are on the upswing. While adult book sales are down, children’s book sales are up and as an industry, we are in a healthy position. Of course, this business is cyclical like any other so it’s important to be driven by your passion for it, rather than money. The agents and editors all urged us to look at our relationship with them as a partneship dedicated to helping their clients publish successful books and work towards ongoing book goals. Yet, (as one editor pointed out) not so much the financial goals. So keep your day job.
One of my favorite parts of the conference was attending two breakout sessions geared specifically toward illustrators. I learned about current trends in cover design from creative director Elizabeth Parisi (keep it simple and intriguing), and about ways to develop my illustrator brand and career path from agent Heather Alexander. Having a consistent style and passion for the craft are extremely important, but being flexible and unique is also critical. And an effective way of approaching an agent? A postcard showcasing your best work with a link to a beautifully designed online portfolio. Elizabeth Parisi also described the long process of commissioning an artist and encouraged working with an agent to help with the complicated contract negotiation.
The keynote speakers got more and more inspiring as the weekend went on. A very animated and inspiring Hervé Tullet, one of the world’s most innovative picture book makers who focuses on interacting with the child, had us oohing and laughing to the rhythm of his books. We learned “the truth about writing” from Kami Garcia, who channeled her teen fantasy book club’s disappointment with the contemporary fantasy books into writing the best-selling “Beautiful Creatures” series.
Laura Vagaaro Seeger showed us the making of a picture book and how each of her books fueled the subsequent ones. I found Seeger to be particularly inspiring. Her books are moments caught in time and explore simple concepts in very innovative ways (ex., negative space in “Alphabet Book”, opposites in “Black or White”, and transformation in “First Came Egg”). James Dashner, on the other hand, focuses on high concepts in his young adult novels and shared his tips on writing commercial fiction, such as the Maze Runner, his best-selling book that was also turned into a movie.
The keynote speeches ended on a high note with a presentation by the newest Newbery Medal winner, Kwame Alexander. Alexander received the Newbery Award for his book “Crossover,” a notable contribution to children’s literature. A successful author with many books to his name (published through traditional media as well as self-published), Alexander shared his story on how to live the writerly life. “The answer is always YES,” says Alexander. “Always walk through the door, don’t let it close behind you…don’t let other people’s nos define your yes.”
Lin Oliver and co-author Henry Winkler (remember Fonzie on Happy Days?) wrapped it all up with a few parting words and sent us to meet the authors, get our books signed, and be inspired to keep creating. I have met some wonderful people at this conference and made great contacts, some as close to me as the county over. As Lin Oliver pointed out, “you never know who is sitting next to you.” There are a lot of amazingly talented writers and illustrators out there, so keep an eye out for many great children’s books coming out in the future. We are, after all, on the upswing.
Create with passion!