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Every year I look forward to the SCBWI (Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators) Summer Conference, knowing it will be the highlight of the writing year. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with friends and hopefully meet new ones. Coffee is typically consumed in vast quantities and sleep is a rare commodity. Since I am now the illustrator coordinator for our region, this conference began early for me. At pre-conference meetings, I learned about the SCBWI website revamp. Let me sum up by saying that there are going to be some wonderful improvements, and if you’re reading this and not a member of SCBWI already, you’re missing out. Nowhere else will you be able to find a better resource for children’s book writers.

The main conference began bright and early Friday morning, August 3, with over 1200 in attendance representing 15 countries. It ran over three days with a fourth day of intensives. Although my brain is still downloading much of what I heard, I wanted to share some of my favorite take-aways. So here they are:

ARTHUR LEVINE, Vice President and Publisher of his own imprint, Arthur A Levine Books, led off with the first keynote, and spoke about some of his most memorable books and what in his mind makes them timeless.. He said that a book becomes timeless when the author and reader can share an authentic experience. He cited examples of books that do just that, including Lisa Yee’s MILLICENT MIN GIRL GENIUS, Shawn Tan’s THE ARRIVAL, and HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCEROR’S STONE by J.K. Rowling. He reminded the audience that great writers use anticipation instead of surprise, citing Peggy Rathman’s GOOD NIGHT GORILLA as a brilliant example.

TONY DiTERLIZZI, New York Times Bestselling author and illustrator, took the stage next. He is hilarious, by the way, freely covering the stage and at one point crawling on his knees to imitate a child. His pithy take away for me was that when an illustrator reads a manuscript, they are not reading the words; they are reading instructions.

As usual, it was difficult to choose between all of the notable workshops. I opted to sit in onLISSA PRICE’S talk on how to use screenwriting techniques to make your YA novel better.  Using her new novel STARTERS  as an example, she explained that High-Concept books are often an easier sell. She also stressed that a good logline creates emotion, gives an idea of what the protagonist wants, hints at the obstacles to be faced, and spawns an emotional response, often with irony. All this happens in one sentence! Sounds easy, right? Not so much, as was demostrated by many of the volunteers who offered up their loglines.

Following lunch, PATRICIA MACLACHLAN, best known as the author of SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL and winner of the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction and the SCBWI’s Golden Kite Award,  entertained us with anecdotes about her grandchildren and how they influence her writing. She said that every concern we have now, we had in preschool. I would only argue that I appreciate naps much more now than I did when I was four. Her advice to writers was to remember that character is plot and all plot emerges out of character.

Earlier this year I read TROUBLE by GARY SCHMIDT and marveled at the way he was able to weave thematic significance throughout the book and to surprise me along the way. I was thrilled to see he was on this year’s faculty and made a b-line to his workshop on Layering a Character. What rung true most for me was when he said that speed is never the friend of the writer; we must embrace the time it takes to create. This prompted a giant “note to self,” since I find it a challenge to let ideas percolate and projects to ripen.  He also emphasized that setting should not be merely a stage; it should be a reflection of the character.

The speeches and workshops of the first day were followed by a social for traditionally published authors, and once again this year I had the pleasure of sitting beside Sue Fliess who had her new book, TONS OF TRUCKS, on display. Her energy, warmth, and generosity are contagious, and I am just grateful that our last names fall one after the other and the organizers saw fit to arrange us all alphabetically.

Me with Sue Fliess, and no, we are not in a brothel. It was just really funky lighting.

Imagine a hundred or more amazing and gifted artists all eager to meet more of the same and you get a glimpse of of the social for illustrators organized by the wonderful Priscilla Burris together with SCBWI board advisors Pat Cummings, David Diaz, and Cecilia Yung.  When it was all over , I collapsed back in my room to catch what I could of the Olympics and consume my daily ration of dark chocolate courtesy of Alexis O’Neil, our regional advisor extraordinaire and my roomie for the conference. By the end of the Day 1, my head was brimming over with ideas for new projects, ways to resurrect abandoned ones, and enough inspiration to last me the year. I realized that like the athletes in London, I would need to pace myself or I was never going to make it to the finish. (Read faculty party here.)

Next Week I will be posting Part Two of my conference takeaways. It will feature more insights from the conference along with some incriminating photos from Saturday Night’s festivities. Stay tuned.

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There are some great people out there doing great things to promote books in our schools. The Glendale Assistance League (GAL) is one such group. Since 1997 they have been tirelessly providing money to the 20 local elementary schools in California’s Glendale Unified School District. Each year they present their Author/Illustrator program to five schools on a rotating basis. Not only do they bring in authors, but they gift each teacher with a book and donate $1500 to the school library. On Friday I spent a wonderful day visiting Franklin Elementary thanks to their generosity. I was joined my Naomi Howland, Amy Goldman Koss, and Tim Egan.

Here we are in our stylin’  Franklin Elementary Baseball caps!

I was so impressed with Franklin. The school is a magnet school for languages. Most of the classes I spoke in were total immersion. One spoke Italian, one spoke German, and one spoke Spanish. By the end of the day I felt as if they had taken me on a world tour! I understand from their wonderful principal that they hope to add French and Japanese in future years, grants allowing. What an incredible program, and the students themselves were enthusiastic and engaging. 

The best thing is that the Glendale Assistance League is bringing more than authors and books to school. They are gifting validation, validation to the teachers that what they are teaching does matter in the real world. In their day-to-day lives kids frequently have the opportunity to see what it means to be a policeman, a teacher, a doctor, and many other professions,  but seldom do they have the chance to see and hear what it means to be an author or an illustrator. Maybe if an author or illustrator had visited my school when I was younger, I wouldn’t have waited twenty-five years to begin my career. Here’s my thanks to the Glendale Assistance League for their gift of literacy.

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Saturday, April 24 I had the opportunity to participate in a wonderful event in Santa Barbara, California called STORYFAIRE, a literacy festival and benefit for Storyteller Children’s Center which offers early childhood education to homeless and at-risk children and their families. It was co-sponsored by CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) Eighteen authors participated by presenting, signing, drawing, and reading. Each child who participated and filled up their passport received a free book donated by Simon and Schuster. YAY! Chaucer’s Bookstore was also on hand to make the author and illustrators’  books available. Nice meeting you Erin and Eric!

Hundreds of people stopped by. It was a great day in celebratio0n of literacy, great kids, and great books. A special thanks goes to Marni McGee and all of the other organizers for putting together this special day.

Valerie Tripp, author of the AMERICAN GIRL series presenting to an enthusiastic crowd.

Jim Buckley jumped in to help me introduce my latest book, PETSHOP LULLABY. He makes a good hamster, don’t you think?

What it’s all about!

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