February 26, 2014

The SCBWI Conference Day 2

Saturday morning the conference attendees have quadrupled—at least.  The Investors are gone; the writers and illustrators have taken over the entire floor.  We now have four ten-foot tables spread with bagels and coffee and tea.  No GF bagels.  I hunt down the Food and Beverage Manager for my personal plate of bagels I can eat.

Lin Oliver is our MC and she is very funny.  Sitting in this huge ballroom with hundreds of writers, I feel like I’m “home”.  All my tension ebbs and as Jack Gantos takes the stage to talk to us about his writing and the elements of writing and children and books, I am lost to all else.  Only this remains, this one thing I have wanted to be since I was a little girl of seven—a writer.

Jack is very funny.  We are laughing so hard some of us have to wipe tears off our cheeks.  As he tells us his secrets of how he writes his books, I hear the same core elements that I have heard before but Jack has adapted them to fit his style and personality.  And I receive permission to do the same—make these elements of writing work for me.  Develop good writing habits that work for me.

I am scribbling notes and ideas furiously.  But then Jack says something that causes me to go very still inside and I know this is a sacred moment for me.  He says, “The reason you read books is to change, to grow, to feel things, to learn.  This must happen in the story if it is to happen to you, the reader.  A good book is like an infection—it changes you.”  I am not sure why this is so important, but I write it down.

My morning breakout session is with an editor from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ‘s Books for Young Readers.  Within the first few minutes of her presentation she says, “Picture Books really matter!  This is when children fall in love with books for the first time.  Children are learning about the world, forming impressions.  Picture books stick with us throughout our lives…”  First Jack Gantos, now this editor, addressing the deep down doubt that has held me back from fully giving myself to my children’s writing.  I miss the next few things she says because I am wiping some tears from my cheek.

The editor goes through the essential ingredients of good picture books.  It is heartening to me to see that I have instinctively known many of these and incorporated them into my writing.  But I see lots of room for me to grow, to come alive and to bring that life into my books.

The final gift of the morning is the special privilege those of us are given who attended this Houghton Mifflin session: we may submit a manuscript and it will be given special attention—i.e. it will get read and considered.  No slush pile.  No agent needed.  Should I send my ducks waddling over to H.M.’s Books for Young Readers?

The afternoon is also full up with information.  I am getting tired, but I find a seat at the end of the day to listen to a panel talk about banned books.  One of the speakers is Ellen Hopkins, author of award winning YA novels dealing with tough contemporary and extremely relevant issues.  She takes the podium and lights the place on fire!  Do I know that over 75% of banned and challenged books are children’s books?  No.  Do I know that YA books are the most targeted and that there are increasing challenges to books in high schools in the advanced and accelerated learning classes?  No.  Do I realize that the intellectual freedom of children is under severe assault—look at standardized testing and NCLB policies and zero-tolerance policies, just for starters.  Yes!  That one I knew!  “Banned books,” says Ellen, “is one sliver of this assault!”

Ellen goes on: “Children deserve the right to read.  Books give you insight and knowledge.  Is it the truth?  Put it in!  Write bravely!   We know who we’re writing for—we have a responsibility to our readers!  We have a responsibility to the children!”

I came to New York with an intention: I wanted to resolve for myself whether or not it is my purpose and path to write for children.  I have had this desire in me for as long as I can remember, one that I have alternately ignored, played with, worked hard at and abandoned.  But always I have returned, like the night bugs to the light.  When I do, joy and pleasure wells up inside me.  If I go home from this conference with nothing else, having this nagging question answered for me would be enough.

I write for children because children matter, because books matter, because children need good books.  Good books open up our imaginations, help us process the world around us, stimulate creativity and critical thinking.  I write for children because they deserve good books.

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