Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Thank You, and Save The Dates For The Virtual New York Themed Mid-Winter Conference February 21-22, 2021

On behalf of myself, Jaime Temairik, Jolie Stekly, Don Tate, Leah Henderson, Mike Jung, Susie Ghahremani, Gaby Rodriguez, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and Winsome Bingham,

Thank you for joining us for this #SCBWISummerSpec journey!

Remember that the full recordings of the panels and keynote conversations (as well as the portfolio showcase and the conference bookstore!) will be available to everyone registered for the conference for the entire month of August.

And save the dates:
Virtual New York SCBWI Winter Conference
February 21-22, 2021
SCBWI's annual winter extravaganza will take place online in 2021. Faculty, program, and a full schedule will be available in late October 2020.

This beautiful image, and the creation animation above, are by Susie Ghahremani

The #SCBWISummerSpec Portfolio Showcase Winners!

In the words of Sarah Baker, SCBWI's Associate Executive Director:
"We decided to double the awards this year. We had 477 participants. The four honor winners each receive $200 for art supplies and one zoom meeting with an art director, and the two grand prize winners each receive $1000 for art supplies and three zoom meetings with art directors.

The judges were:
Shadra Strickland, author-illustrator, professor at MICA, and agent with Painted Words, Jasmin Rubero, art director at Kokila, Saho Fuji, art director at Little Brown, Rebecca Syracuse, designer at Simon & Schuster, and Ellice Lee, art director at Philomel."

And the honorees are


The Portfolio Showcase Honorees are Kayla Harren, Leanne Hatch, Rob Sayegh Jr., and Marissa Valdez!

And the winners are (you know what to do!)


The Grand Prize Winners are Jenin Mohammed and Neha Rawat!

Portfolio Showcase Grand Prize Winners Jenin Mohammed (lower left) and Neha Rawat (lower right), seen with SCBWI's Sarah Baker (upper left) with interpreter Jennye Kamin (upper right).

Jenin, Neha, Kayla, Leanne, Rob and Marissa's winning portfolios will be at the top of the showcase page (click here) and the whole showcase will be up for all of August.

Meme Contest Winners!

So at past physical conferences, there was a joke contest... This year, with #SCBWISummerSpec gone digital, there was a MEME contest.

And here (drumroll - yeah, that's virtual, too)... are the winners!



Congratulations to @jmillspaints and @authormamanda - your memes are funny, true, and winners!

#SCBWIsummerspec Agent Panel: Rosemary Stimola

Rosemary Stimola is a former independent children's bookseller, who founded the Stimola Literary Studio in 1997, a boutique agency representing fiction and nonfiction from preschool through young adult, as well as all genres. Stimola Literary Studio is made up of a wonderful team of agents. 

On the wall of Rosemary's office, hangs a framed print of Maya Angelou's poem I Love the Look of Words. In the poem there is a stanza that says:

When I have stopped reading, 
ideas from the words stay stuck
in my mind, like the sweet
smell of butter perfuming my
fingers long after the popcorn
is finished.

I love the book and the look of words
the weight of ideas that pop into
my mind
I love the track
of new thinking in my mind.

This is a mantra for Rosemary. When Rosemary considers a submission, the very first thing that strikes her are the words and the narrative voice that carries them. 

She's attracted to complex characters, even for the youngest readers that exhibit heart as well as well as a penchant for subversive and independent thinking, challenging the status quo, and traversing boundaries. 

Also, who doesn't love a page turner? 

Rosemary shares authors and illustrators she represents that brought words that stuck in her mind, characters that stood up when the world asked them to, and stories that begged to be read until the last page.

All were written by authors that were not so in love with their words that they weren't willing to revise them. And, all sit well in the current marketplace, that seeks diversity, does not condescend to young readers, and challenges them to see beyond themselves.

Rosemary shared some examples.

INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai is a middle grade novel in verse that came to Rosemary as cold submission with a beautifully written query. After reading it, Rosemary was still thinking about it three days later (the words stuck), but she thought she could already write the rejection letters for it. (Historical. Vietnamese protagonist-this was 2009. Told in verse.) This book sold for a very modest advance but went on to win the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, and still lives on NYT Bestseller list. 

ONE OF US IS LYING by Karen M McManus came to Rosemary at the right time, in the right place (with what was happening with young people in the world). It came with a perfectly crafted query. Ro couldn't put it down. This book has spent 100 weeks on the bestseller list and sold in 41 languages. Karen has earned the title of Queen of the YA Mystery Thriller.

Mathew Cordell has been with Rosemary for more books and years than she can remember. 

WOLF IN THE SNOW won the Caldecott Medal. It was his 31st book! There are no words in the books, so you might wonder: Where are the words that stuck in Rosemary's mind? They were there, in the art.

Some books recently published.

James Bird, author of THE BRAVE, had Rosemary at his character's first word, which happened to be a number. 18. This main character has unique condition that leads him to count every word spoken to him. It makes him a target for bullies and a source of frustration for his dad. 

THE FELL OF DARK by Caleb Roehrig (Caleb's fourth YA novel) was just published days ago. Caleb's was a cold submission. He caught Rosemary's attention with a sharp and witty query letter. He also had a compelling mystery and complex LGBTQ  characters, in what became his debut novel LAST SCENE LEAVING. 

And a forthcoming title by Irene Latham and Charles Waters. Poets and authors. They write independently, but when combined they form the dynamic duo referred to as the The I&C Construction Company. Together they have penned CAN I TOUCH YOUR HAIR and DICTIONARY FOR A BETTER WORLD. Their latest brings something very special into our market, looking deeper into stories that have not been told. AFRICAN TOWN, a historical novel, told in verse through multiple voices, tells the story of the last African's brought to America. It comes out spring of 2022. Rosemary says, "It's told in voices that sing and ache. Even the ship has been given a voice that speaks of her human cargo and their fates."


These books "go beyond the moment and bring words and pictures together that stick in minds, just like they did in mine."

#SCBWISummerSpec Agent Panel: Regina Brooks Agent's Panel

    Regina Brooks, CEO of Serendipity Literary Agency and former aerospace engineer, starts off this panel assuring folks that you "don't necessarily need to have an English major" to be successful in the publishing field.  She's says she's "definitively an editorial agent" and enjoys bringing folks from other industries into publishing as she has done. Looking through the authors in her lineup, Brooks believes what makes a book successful is collaboration. Authors and Illustrators collaborating throughout the "entire life cycle of a book" is incredibly important. This collaboration does not only help the story expand itself but also extends "better storytelling about the book after the book is published." 

    She cites examples such as I am Every Good Thing team Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, Lubaya's Quiet Roar team Marilyn Nelson and Philemona Williamson who all would meet in their respective illustrators studios to collaborate. Another important thing for Brooks is the trans-media potential of manuscripts. She is always looking for "what other experiences" can be expanded in work. She's working closely with YouTube, other social media professionals, the Calm app, and even orchestras to further share her clients' stories. She tells about a new book coming out soon about the sculptor Augusta Savage and how it will also become a traveling art exhibit! This comes back to the collaboration that Brooks spoke about before, she also values this relationship between agents.
    Brooks believes it is critical to look at a book across mediums. The industry right now is very tied to cultural moments and how books are acquired are driven by the need in the market. A couple years ago narrative histories or graphic novels weren't heavily acquired but now the market is wanting more. For illustrators, Brooks suggests looking at their work through a historical lens. Here she cites Crown An Ode to the Fresh Cut illustrator Gordon C. James who structured the style used in the book after 3 distinct pieces to break down stroke, tone, and palette. She also recommends making your work "fresh." Whether that be through merging several formal formats or shifting lengths, these changes have made for successful stories.

    Once asked on accessibility initiatives within her agency, Brooks responds that her agents participate in Twitter campaigns as well as leading their own Twitter campaign on NaNoWriMo. She is more focused on the execution of material rather than the similarity of themes in her roster and doesn't mind having the same themes as long as the execution is done well. On illustrators struggle to find agents she agrees with Linda Camacho that websites are critical as well as reminding that "Instagram is always being sourced for artists." To replace the previously in person tours for this years published books she finds that "mini commercials" through streaming services and social media have been great additions to virtual events. Brooks reminds folks to work with their community to "allow them to help the discover-ability of your books." She states that authors who are a good fit for her usually follow "the three C's;" chemistry, similar communication styles, and be willing to build connections to collaborate.  She smiles and reminds folks,"to be successful, you have to be willing to not have fear or work with your fear."

#SCBWISummerSpec Agent Panel: Brooks Sherman: What Elements Make for a Successful Children's Book

The realest thing I saw at the SCBWI Summer Spectacular conference was Brooks Sherman wrangling a new baby. In that moment, I realized Brooks was an ordinary person and not that superman I see online. Superman? Yes, I said what I said. To me, he is a super agent. This is the literary agent who fought and advocated for a book inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in a time when people fail to acknowledge that police brutality was a problem.

In addition to becoming a new father, he will be celebrating ten years in publishing since the day he started as an intern in the industry. He found his way into publishing after feeling burned out in the entertainment industry and wanted to be a writer. He loves working on stories; but realized he loved working with writers and illustrators more. So he traded in his craft books for contracts and decided he would represent writers and illustrators. He is an agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates with agencies in New York and London. He represents picture book, middle grade, young adult fiction, and NO chapter books. Also, on the adults side, he's always looking for fantasy, science-fiction, and nonfiction.

Brooks wants us to know that he is an editorial agent. He likes to work with the author to get their manuscript ready for submission. 

So what gets Brooks attention from the thousands of manuscripts that hit his inbox? Brooks stated that writers should, "Look at the world around you when writing your story line." He went on to say that writers should make their "characters and storyline relatable to readers." Readers relate to what we write - environment, plot, and identity make readers connect in many ways. "Also, it should feel relevant to that moment," said Brooks Sherman.

Brooks advice to writers, "Whatever story you write today will not be published for another two years...What are the conflicts driving the moment, driving your story?" Also, he wanted us to keep this in mind. "Don't look to the effect. Look to the cause when writing your story." Your story can stand out if you write it. Do not worry about writing something that already exists. Put your spin on it and make it stand out. "There are no new or original story, only new ways to write that story," Brooks said. Yes, Mr. Sherman. 

I remember sharing with some writers that when I was a teacher, I would put twenty words on the board and encourage students to create stories using all the words. The stories were so different, but yet, they all have the same words. So thanks for this advice. We cannot talk about great storytelling and writing and not mention Alexis Henderson's novel, THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING. Brooks noted that this book was so compelling and special that he pitched it to both the YA market and the adult market. It is a book that delves into race, intersectional feminism, and a bi-racial character. In a time when we are advocating for more diverse representation, this book was amazing because the author created a book not only for the moment, but to me, for the movement as well. 

So what should we write? Brooks had suggestions...
    ...YA market is saturated. It is still selling, but not a gold rush. Focus on making your book STAND OUT, than FITTING IN. (I love this.)

    ...Middle Grade/MG - lot of emphasis on "Creepy MG" or horror. Write it. Don't worry about the market. just write. According to Brooks, "Publishers realize they were sleeping on this format."

    ...And the best stories have two plots going on. Character plot line and narrative plot line. And the best stories are when these plot lines intersect. 

    ..."Generally speaking, first chapter exist to establish protagonists status quo." In other words, by the close of chapter one, something changes for the character.

    ...Best advice from Brooks. MAKE ALL YOUR CHARACTERS 3-DIMENSIONAL. WHAT ARE THEIR DRIVES AND DESIRES? NEEDS AND WANTS?" Show this to the reader through your writing. 

    ...Graphic Novel market is booming. Publishers realize they were sleeping on this format.

So if you are in the querying trenches, check out @Byobrooks on Twitter. By the way, he is now open for queries. 

#SCBWISummerSpec Agent Panel: Linda Camacho of Gallt & Zacker

Linda Camacho has a background in the adult side of publishing as well as an MFA in children's writing with our conference sponsor, VCFA. She wanted to get closer to the talent side of things, though, and feels she has achieved that goal now as an agent with Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency where she represents picture book, middle grade, YA, and adult authors as well as author-illustrators.

Linda says she is definitely an editorial agent, the market is so saturated and competitive that you need that extra level of polish right now before submitting.

When asked what elements make for a successful book right now, Linda says: Escapism is Key.

This can all change tomorrow, but right now not only are people looking for 'happy' stories, they are also looking for 'creepy horror.' Even in middle grade, which is still a hot in general, and graphic novels are definitely being considered true literature and remain in demand. But these 'asks' are just to give you a sense of what editors have been looking for lately, Linda reiterates that no matter what trendy or non-trendy genre or category you are interested in writing in, "Amazing work will always rise to the top." 

Fresh ideas that only you can tell your way is the starting point, the next most important focus is CHARACTER. Linda talks about Brandi Reissenweber's 'Desire Line' concept. You should be able to define a character's internal and external desire lines, for example:
Alice in Wonderland
External desire line: Alice wants to join her family's tea party.
Internal desire line: Alice wants to grow up.
Knowing a character's internal and external desires makes for great suspense when conflict is introduced.
Questions about diversity in publishing: It's not just about bringing diverse author or illustrators to the table, but to the other parts of the publishing industry, too. Linda is a former steering committee member of POC in PUB and continues to serve as a mentor for that group. She'll also be involved with her client Sofia Chang's new mentorship group, Unlock Her Potential.

Questions about how agencies get their illustrators to be 'seen' while there're no publisher offices to mail promo pieces to: To promote illustrators at Gallt & Zacker during the pandemic they send monthly email newsletters/spotlights out to editors and art directors, they also advise their illustrators on their personal illustrator websites.

The Agents Panel Begins!

The Agents Panel at #SCBWISummerSpec
A screen shot of Lin Oliver (top left, moderating) and the panelists Regina Brooks (top right), Linda Camacho (center left), Brooks Sherman (center right), Rosemary Stimola (lower left), and interpreter Jennye Kamin (lower right.)

Jeff Kinney in Conversation with Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver

Jeff Kinney is the author of the wildly successful Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and lives in Massachusetts, where he owns a bookstore, An Unlikely Story. Twitter: @wimpykid

Lin Oliver is the co-founder and executive director of SCBWI. She is also the author of over forty children’s books. With Henry Winkler, she writes the New York Times bestselling series Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever, which has sold over four million copies. Their chapter book series, Here’s Hank, is also a New York Times best seller. This year marks the launch of their new comedy series, Alien Superstar, from Abrams Books, which debuted at #5 on the New York Times best seller list. Lin’s collection of poetry, illustrated by Tomie dePaola, the highly praised Little Poems for Tiny Ears is a perennial for babies and toddlers. The fifth and final volume of her Fantastic Frame chapter book adventure series from Penguin Workshop is a Christmas, 2019, release. A much-credited film and television writer- producer, Lin is also the recipient of the prestigious Christopher Award and the Eric Carle Mentor Award. Learn more at www.linoliver.com or follow Lin on Twitter @linoliver, or on Instagram @linoliver22.

Henry Winkler is an Emmy Award–winning actor, writer, director, and producer who has created some of the most iconic TV roles, including the Fonz in Happy Days and Gene Cousineau in Barry. In partnership with Lin Oliver, they have written over thirty books for children, including the HANK ZIPZER and HERE’S HANK series, which has sold over four million copies. Their newest collaboration is the ALIEN SUPERSTAR trilogy from Abrams. Twitter: @hwinkler4real

A screen shot of the conversation between Henry Winkler (top left), Lin Oliver (top right), Jeff Kinney (lower left), interpreted by Brian Truitt

Jeff is speaking from a hotel, on his physically distanced book tour. Here's a picture of the long trident he uses to pass books to young readers!

Henry puts it so profoundly, Jeff's selling over 200 million books is amazing: "From your imagination to the page to the kids' imagination."

Jeff shares that kids in China think of the characters in his books “as friends of theirs.” He's focused on stories about teachers, bullies, pets, homework.

Lin follow up with a question about creating characters that are so lovable, and Jeff explains that he originally thought he was writing the books for adults. It was the publisher who decided it was a children's book series. "The humor needed to stand on its own." There didn't need to be a 'lesson'. And so, it wasn't watered-down. The character, "warts-and-all" is what makes it so relatable to kids.

Jeff considers that there's a "bit of an edge" to his Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. "Kids recognize edge." They want to get away from the 'lesson' books and so, when his character Greg does something that gets another kid in trouble, and Greg's mother tells him to do the right thing, and the right thing for Greg is to let the other kid take the fall, that subverts expectations. (and that's funny.) And then Greg's mom takes him out for ice cream. That's causing kids dissonance. (and that's funny, too.) And then, eventually, Greg does the actual right thing.

Jeff says that he's always walking that line, wanting to avoid putting out stories that are bad for the world with the need, as he puts it: "I want to be truthful."

After 20 years of writing, Jeff finished mining his own childhood memories, and tells us that now he has to "create memories." He uses a system called "systematic inventive thinking."
Step 1: take an object, and list its components.
Step 2: use tools on each component: Subtraction, Task Unification, Multiplication, Division, and Attribute Dependency.
He uses it for humor.

An example: They fly by plane. Jeff lists the components of a plane. wings, pilot. Then he uses the tools. Take away wings. take away pilot. How do you get humor? Jeff made his character Greg a pilot in a fantasy sequence, the plane hit turbulence and since Greg didn't know how to solve the problem, he parachutes out of the plane.

Jeff tells us that for each book he writes hundreds of pages, 300-700 jokes. Then he gets it down to best 200 and starts writing.

There's so much more discussed - here's just few more gems from the conversation:

"Humor is my craft. Sometimes I hit, sometimes I miss, but I always try." –Jeff Kinney

"Truth is always funniest." –Henry Winkler

"For Henry and me, if we're laughing, the kids will be laughing." –Lin Oliver

Thanks, Jeff, Henry, and Lin!

A conversation with Laurie Halse Anderson and Meg Medina

We haven't even begun and Laurie and Meg are already tweeting about the energy and passion they're going to bring to the SCBWI Summer Spectacular this morning, our last morning of this amazing event. I have no doubt these two forces in our industry are about to deliver.

Lin Oliver introduces this last day, our dessert day. YUM! My favorite. Let's dig in. (And be sure to shop at the online bookstore and browse the Portfolio Showcase.)

Both Laurie and Meg are prolific and award-winning authors of many books for young readers. 

This session begins as the east coast is being hit by severe weather. Thankfully we've caught Meg at point she's having a break in the weather. "For now, it's all sunshine for our conversation," Meg says.

Meg tell us that they're going to ask each other the things no one ever asks them. Exciting!

Laurie says she came into writing through dumb luck and a lot of mistakes. She hated writing in college. But she was reader, and she was first a journalist. That helped her to communicate effectively in few words. She joined SCBWI and she says she never would have been published if it weren't for that. And Laurie says she even wrote very bad novels. 

Meg points out that it's hard to believe that Laurie wrote bad novels, but we all do. We all write very bad books. 

They both agree to be wary of the term "break out" author. Those breakouts usually have years and years of work before success comes. 

Meg started late, according to her. She started with food reviews and silly articles. Even though she had a lovely life, she felt something was missing. "I wasn't doing the thing I was meant to do." Upon that realization Meg wrote a mission statement for herself. When she did she was ashamed, thinking "who was she" to think that she could want the things she wanted, which was to write books. She still has that mission statement, and looking back, almost all of it has come true. Amazing! (Get to writing those mission statements, friends!)

Meg asks Laurie: How have you changed the most as a writer?

Laurie has learned that she's not as shy as she thought she was. She's grown to know she loves to talking to kindred spirits. Laurie says that she's still learning how to write. She still gets nervous.

Meg agrees, and says she's super cautious as a teacher that students feels like she has all the answers when she doesn't. 

Both Laurie and Meg have written across the many formats: picture book, middle grade, young adult. 

Meg says, "When I began I knew nothing and when I say nothing I mean nada, nada, nada, nada...in the beginning you grab any advice, but you have to be very cautious of that."

Laurie asks Meg: Do you think your craft has changed?

"Yes," she says. "I'm very character driven...I love people...I find people endlessly fascinating. But I have learned to honor plot more."

In discussing writing historical fiction, Meg and Laurie light up, getting excited about the gems they find, like the phases of the moon and what SNL episode was airing at the time of their stories. 

Meg asks Laurie: If you could do something over in your career, what would it be?

When Laurie was an emerging author and SPEAK came out (which she sold un-agented) she had no idea what she was doing. Laurie didn't speak up and ask the hard questions. She didn't share that she didn't think her second novel CATALYST was done. She didn't recognize her power and responsibility. Laurie wishes she would have spoken up. She wishes she could do that one again. 

Meg shares she often wishes she had started earlier. That she had been braver. That she hadn't tried every other career under the sun. But then she thinks she writes to make sense of what she's lived. What would her perspective have been at a different age? So now she thinks of it as coming to it when she was ready. 

Meg asks: Can we talk about legacy? 

This was a deeper conversation here, but to share a bit, Laurie says the concept of legacy is bewildering, but she feels a great responsibility to use it for good. She says to Meg,  "I've spoken to some Latinx authors that see you as a real "auntie."

Meg feels so honored when they say that. Meg tells us, "I want to have made room for the Latinx authors coming behind me. So they are not the only one. Or one of six... " Meg says. "I can't write all the books. I can't write all the perspectives." Meg only has her stories. She wants to encourage more. More!

Authors/books that excite Meg and Laurie now!

First, recs from Meg:

Recs from Laurie:

The LGBTQIA+ And Allies Social


With special guests Laurent Linn, Lesléa Newman, Bruce Coville, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, Emma Dryden, Marietta Zacker, Jane Yolen, April Powers, and Lin Oliver, over 150 of us gathered in community.

We opened the circle. Screen after screen of live video, seeing each other, acknowledging each other, even those whose cameras were off, knowing we were all there supporting each other,

We introduced our special guests.

We zoomed into breakout groups (rooms) for 5-6 people introductions

We came back for questions and answers with our special guests, talking about safe space between a book's covers and in the world for LGBTQAI+ authors and illustrators, about including diversity in respectful ways and career guidance for those of us writing Queer stories, and more.

Then we zoomed into small breakout groups again, this time organized by what folks wanted to talk about:
PB - those who wanted to talk about picture books and works for children
MG - those who wanted to talk about middle grade books and works for middle grade readers
YA - those who wanted to talk about young adult books and works for teen readers

We gathered back as a large community for a final closing moment, and then over 100 of us stayed and shared for another twenty minutes.

It was powerful. Joyful. And in this moment of physical distancing, socially connected.

As community.

Monday, August 3, 2020

#SCBWISummerSpec: A Conversation with Grace Lin and Alvina Ling

Alvina Ling and Grace Lin smiling into the camera while seated on opposite sides of a table with a recording device between them and their names on placards on table's edge
There are quite a few pictures of Alvina Ling and Grace Lin together on the internet, but this is the one I chose
You're probably thinking "oh for crying out loud, guest blogger Mike Jung, how about not coughing up your personal anecdotes about the faculty for a change," to which my answer is BUT I WANNA. In fact, Alvina Ling and Grace Lin are both lovely, gracious, engaging people who were supremely kind and welcoming to me, as I know they'd be to you too, if we were actually gathering in person. And, AND, I met them both at SCBWI conferences, which is, of course, the type of cool thing that can happen when attending SCBWI conferences.

Photo of Alvina Ling.
Hey it's Alvina Ling!
They're also both dedicated advocates for equitable representation of historically marginalized voices in children's publishing, with long histories of doing that work before it entered the mainstream discourse, and long-time BFFs who co-host a podcast called Book Friends Forever. But that's not all, of course. 

Alvina Ling is VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers where she oversees Little, Brown’s picture book, middle grade, and young adult lists, and edits books on all of those lists too. She's worked with creators such as Peter Brown, Bryan Collier, Ed Young, Wendy Mass, Justina Chen, Chris Colfer, Laini Taylor, Libba Bray, Holly Black, Matthew Quick, and of course, the aforementioned Grace Lin. She's kind of a big deal.

Grace Lin, wearing a blue top and standing in front of the bookshelves in her home office.
The one and only Grace Lin!
Grace Lin is, simply put, one of the most accomplished and influential children's book creators of her generation. She's a Newbery Honor medalist, Caldecott Honor medalist, Theodore Geisel Honor medalist, National Book Award finalist, Today Show Kid's Book Club honoree, Champion of Change for Asian American and Pacific Islander Art and Storytelling (as named by the office of President Barack Obama), New York Times bestseller, New England Public Radio commentator, NYT book reviewer, and TEDx speaker. Her art has hung in the White House. The woman is legit

Alvina and Grace really are best friends forever - they met in fifth grade, wrote endless letters to each other when Alvina's family moved to California, shared an apartment in Boston when Grace blanketing the earth with postcards of her artwork and Alvina was interning at Charlesbridge and The Horn Book, and years later, after Grace had established herself as a respected, working author/illustrator and Alvina had climbed the ladder at Little, Brown for Young Readers, finally worked on their first book together, THE YEAR OF THE DOG, which just so happened to be about their childhood friendship. I mean, seriously, how preposterously sweet is that whole story? You can't make this stuff up, am I right?

Cover image for THE YEAR OF THE DOG by Grace LinThey went on to collaborate on a bunch of books, including Geisel Honor recipient LING & TING: NOT EXACTLY THE SAME, and the middle-grade novel that took hard-working, deeply respected storyteller Grace Lin and elevated her into the kidlit pantheon, WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, for which Grace received the Newbery Honor medal. 

They had yet to work on a picture book together, however, and in fact Grace hadn't done any PBs at all for a number of years. The birth of her daughter proved the catalyst for The Rebirth of Picture Book Queen Grace Lin, however, as well as the onset of the Lin & Ling BFF Era of PB Dominance. Their first picture book together was A BIG MOONCAKE FOR LITTLE STAR, which was subsequently named a Caldecott Honor book. I mean, of course it was, right? It was their first-ever picture book together! That is bananas!

There was too much useful, superbly defined advice to comprehensively note here, but one that struck me was the intersection of Grace's perception of herself - a storyteller, that is, instead of an author, illustrator, or author/illustrator - and her approach to deciding whether she's writing a picture book, easy reader, or MG novel. In a nutshell, she doesn't really decide at all, because as a storyteller, she approaches each story with the tools at her disposal, which are words and pictures. and the story itself will reveal which format it fits into eventually. PBs are good for stories that focus on small, intimate moments - a family ordering food in DIM SUM FOR EVERYONE!, for example - while novels are much more enveloping and engrossing. And of course, novels don't rely on illustrations the way PBs do. Grace's family apparently tells her she's always in a bad mood when she's writing a novel, which I suspect is not an experience exclusive to her family. *cough*

One of the most interesting parts of the conversation to me personally was Grace's very open and easy admission that she's always been and will probably always be harried by imposter syndrome. Her honesty is refreshing - stature of the kind she possesses is too often accompanied by arrogance, after all - and she followed up with what I think is a very important point. Her insecurity and doubts are parts of her, and they might stop her from feeling like the world needs her to make art, but they don't stop her from knowing she needs to make her art, for her own sake. And honestly, it's useful to know that someone as skilled and deservedly feted as Grace Lin still grapples with imposter syndrome, because it's so clear that the imposter syndrome is wrong. Super wrong. Sooooooo wrong. 


I just finished practicing my Beyonce dance breaks as I get ready for a visit with Jason Reynolds, Nic Stone, and Caitlyn Dlouhy. I laid out the regulars. Four of his books that I love, a copy of DEAR MARTIN written by Nic Stone, and a sandwich. There is a contest going on at the house. If Jason mentions some of his title, I have to stand and do a Beyonce dance break. I have been practicing all weekend. What would make my day is if Jason doesn't mention his work. But that wouldn't be fun since more than five thousand SCBWI members are tuned in. It is past 2:30 and I'm sitting here,  pen, paper, ZOOM waiting room, and Beyonce on pause.

Nic Stone enters. Her face glowing, smile big and bright as if she was auditioning for a toothpaste commercial, pure #BlackGirlMagic radiating through the computer screen. She briefs us, the five thousand members glued to the screen waiting to take notes as we listen to the winning formulas from Jason Reynolds, The National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature and award-winning writer. 

Nic introduces CAITLYN DLOUHY and JASON REYNOLDS. Nic informs us she will be discussing craft with Jason and immediately grabbed two pens and a bigger notebook. "You were really something," she said to Jason. WHEN I WAS THE GREATEST by Reynolds captivated her. She loved the voice in his work. She asked him about writing “voice” in his novel and how he does it so well. "It is a hard thing to pin down," Jason responded. Jason wants to be in an authentic place when he writes. But how do you write an authentic story? According to Reynolds, “Be an authentic person. Create a protagonist and spend time with them. Get to know them. Put them in an environment with challenges.”

Yes, Nic. It is difficult for writers to find their voice when they write. Jason states that in his career he has been  "shooting from the hip." He continued to say, "I'm just doing the thing that seem right for me." Reynolds strategy is to build his character through the people in their lives. This is deep! Jason is like me a PANTSER! However, he admits, sometimes he might outline a little, but barely.

When asked what her preference is, Nic says, “I’m an outliner.” She starts with a character template filled out for the character in detail. In which, Jason interrupted to let her know he hates doing the double work of writing to write again. I’m dead. "I wish I had the discipline and developed the muscle to be an outliner," Jason said. Me too, Jason! Me too!

Jason's mother was a smart woman who told him, "Nobody remembers a bad review. Everyone remembers a bad response." I love Mamas. This is so true. 

One of the things that stood out to me was when Jason said, “I don’t take myself seriously. I do take my work seriously. I always tap into the child in me.” As a children’s writer, this is so important. To think back to when you were a child. Time have changed, but kids are kids. There are developmental mile stones that are synonymous across the board for many children. I felt that.

Jason stared into the camera. “‘People say writing is who I am.’ No writing is what I do.”  And in that moment, that brief moment, he mentioned the late Whitney Houston who was deemed and labelled, “The Voice.” This was an aha moment for me. Jason noted that when Whitney’s voice started to go, her life started to jump off the rails as well. How profound. This is why writing will not define him. “Writing is what you do, not who you are!” Jason said. “Writing is what I do. I can never attach what I do to my personhood, to my character… If I can’t figure out how to still be Jason, then I never was Jason.” This profound-ation is all I need today. I need to type this up, print it out, and recite it every day while I do a mini Beyonce dance break.

On developing his characters, Jason listen to his characters. He allows them to talk to him, to tell him their stories. “At some stage, our protagonist will stop telling us about them because that’s what real people do. That’s when we create a secondary character that will tell us more about them [the first character], and so the story moves on.” Caitlyn, Jason’s editor co-signed this sentiment and added, “If their inner lives do not match their voice that’s when you have to dig deeper.”

When talking about revisions, I knew my editor and agent wish I was more like Jason. When he receives an editorial letter, he leaves them on the counter, walks around them a bit, shade them, side-eye them, and after weeks, dive in. Me, I get notes from my editor. I immediately open and start revising. Because, she told me what she needs to see. If the character needs more agency on the page, I’ve already been working that out in my brain while she had the manuscript. I already had plans on fixing different things if they ever come back in her editorial letter. Her editorial letter is confirmation of my suspicion. The Army prepares you to always have a solution readily available. So, technically, I’ve been revising in my head the whole time she had the manuscript. 

When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, both Nic and Jason had thoughts. Jason said, “All I’m asking is that you live your life in a way that makes my life more safe.” 

What writers can take away from Jason, Nic, and Caitlyn?

Start a story a chapter late and end it a chapter early.
Write all the way to the perfect ending, then chop that chapter off.
If you are a pantser, it is okay. It doesn’t mean you will not be a great writer.
If you are an outliner, that is okay. Just write.
The writer/editor relationship is special. “We are working in tandem with our editors.” ~ Jason Reynolds
Be deliberate with your word choice, “There may be ten words on the page, but ten thousand underneath.”
Let kids be kids and encourage them to be inquisitive. “One of the worst things we’ve taught kids is that there are some questions that are inappropriate.”
Writing is a microcosm of the living experience. 


A Conversation with Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, a kidlit power couple more enjoyable to listen to surely than any Branjelina or Bennifers 1.0 or 2.0.

They've done SIX amazing books together and Jon jokes that they started out as friends but are no longer. Jon is teasing, of course, it's rare authors and illustrators are in touch at all during the picturebook-making process! But these two working closely together equals Caldecott Honors and Horn Book and E.B. White award stickers slapped deservedly on some of our absolutely most favorite picture books of the 21st century. Mac says their working relationship is an 'anabolized' version of the way words and art should work together in a picture book: Two simple organisms (Mac and Jon) combine to be one much stronger, better entity (like the Decepticons combining into The Devastator).

For example:

Mac reads us their book, SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE.

88% sure Mac and Jon would not eat this
A book idea that sprang from a lighthearted discussion over heavy breakfast foods on the design puzzle of book trim sizes.

Jon had been talking to Mac about how his I WANT MY HAT BACK series was often difficult to shelve at bookstores and libraries because the books are so wide. So for fun Jon and Mac started spitballing ideas that would lend themselves well to a very tallll book. To Mac and Jon the sky is boring, thus digging down was the answer.

And the art you brainstorm when digging down leads itself very well to being a sequential image series which is another good checkmark to check on the well-made picture book checklist.

Exercise: Try taking advantage of the form or treating something like trim size as a constraint/puzzle to solve even before you pick the plot in a picture book. 

Jon and Mac never start with theme or message, they always start with the characters or a visual joke, and how you push that joke beyond the joke into a deeper meaning is one way you can get to your picture book's message. Most funny ideas, says Jon, if you dig deeper on them have a sincere or sad internal, universal truth.

Another benefit of authors and illustrators working together directly, the ability of the art to change or inform the story. Their initial idea of Sam and Dave moving around and missing the diamonds was much, much more complicated visually and had an entire subplot only in the dirt of sparring skeletons and dinosaurs besides the bigger and bigger diamonds. Mac and Jon scrubbed that big, complicated side plot because not only did the diamonds by themselves get great laughs, just having the large diamonds as the art focus on a page meant the images were readable across a crowded room, which Mac says is an important thing to think about when making a picture book.

He mentions the three levels of connection in the world as they apply to reading picture books:

  1. Only to yourself (kid reading alone)
  2. One to one connection (kid being read to by a caregiver)
  3. One to many (kid being read to in a large classroom setting where it's hard to see tiny picture details so some big compositions will shine)

If your book can hit all three of these levels, bonus points to you.

Questions about authors and illustrators working together:

Even if you aren't in touch, authors and illustrators should still consider themselves as equal parts of a team. Mac says authors shouldn't say "So-and-so is illustrating my book," because a picture book is NOT your book yet, it's not even a BOOK without the pictures, so you need to think of the illustrator as having an authorial seat in the picture book making process, too.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

#SCBWISummerSpec A Conversation With Jacqueline Woodson Hosted By Nancy Paulsen

    Jacqueline Woodson a New York Times bestseller and winner of awards"too numerous to mention" talked this Sunday morning with her editor Nancy Paulsen an "editor of unheralded reputation." After introducing them Lin Oliver, co-founder of SCBWI, explained how excited SCBWI was to be a virtual fly on the wall for their collaborative conversations. Being able to watch just how these two women were so enthusiastic about their work and  joyful to share their canon was an honor.
    Paulsen began the conversation by setting the scene. She painted a picture of life in the 90s, "listening to Micheal Jackson and dancing off the wall." Paulsen met Woodson after winning the Coretta Scot King award, Woodson had several books published in several publishing houses and had "never thought" of the "canon" of her work. Her agent suggested her book to be auctioned and it was the first auction of a children's book in history. Many publishing houses wanted to simply pay her the low rate they had been paying and sent her to "kick rocks." This is where Paulsen comes in; she was "blown away by the lyrical quality [of Woodson's books] and [loved that] they were short too!
     The shop talk started here, with Woodson speaking about how she struggled with Point of View while writing If You Come Softly. She decided to have Ellie's POV be first person while Jeremiah's POV be third person because he is no longer alive to share his story. Woodson explained that since social media wasn't necessarily a thing at the time, there wasn't any widespread videos or other documentation of the police brutality that Black communities face. 
It was surprising for Woodson to hear many people didn't believe that a Black boy would be killed by police in the book. Unfortunately, these occurrences were normal in Black and brown communities. Woodson continued, talking abut editors roles in the writing process. Editors are "putting these slits through your page to let your light come through," she explained. Paulsen chimed in regarding the bending of restrictions around Young Adult and Middle Grade labels saying, "we worked around that." She explained the shift from previous publishing houses, and how middle grade wasn't so clearly defined when Woodson's books were first being published so even now they flip between middle-grade and YA labels. Paulsen talked about Woodsons dedication to reading her work aloud to work through any problems and how Paulsen herself is now doing the same with any book shes working on.
     Woodson spoke about the loss of her grandmother 4 months before she was pregnant with her daughter and how this spurred Show Way, her first picture book, and it's focus on matriarchal lineages. They described the process of finding an illustrator for picture books, Woodson expressing that she did get to pick her illustrator though "not a lot of people get to do that." The process for them is simple, consisting of Paulsen sending over illustrators for Woodson to choose from. Woodson explains that when she first wrote The Other Side it was a story about present day segregation but when E.B Lewis finished the illustrations they were all set in the past. She loved the work but recalls she felt like "this wasn't my book." She laughs about it with Paulsen asking, "remember I was so cranky?" She had to tweak the writing of the book adding quick lines such as, "that's my blouse on the line," to further place the book in the time the illustrations showed. Sp many folks were impacted by the book she calls it the illustrations a blessing in disguise. They both believe having it be set in the past helped its' marketability so to speak. Paulsen explaining that setting in the past makes folks more comfortable imagining segregation as an issue of days gone by. Woodson agrees, explaining that she can use the book in classrooms as an entry to speaking about the segregation that still occurs today. Later, Laurie Halse Anderson, another New York Times best seller with her own panel on Tuesday and friend of the pair, asks "is it possible that the time has come to reissue The Other Side with the illustrations Jackie was first thinking about?" "That's interesting!" Paulsen nods. Lin Oliver, moderating the Q and A section, laughs, "I think she wants an answer." Paulsen laughs along and says, "I've learned not to give an answer on the spot."

    Brown Girl Dreaming is the next book they tackle and echo a sentiment from yesterdays conversation with Kwame Alexander and Raul the Third; being an overnight best seller is years of hard work. Woodson set out to write this book to figure out how she became a "not so great student by any means to Jacqueline Woodson." As she wrote she felt as if the book was "so specific to me that I felt it was irrelevant in a way it simply was not." She rewrote the book over 30 times, and with it's success she was surprised with just how many people connected with her work. She laughs as she remembers that some white men had called her and told her of their experience being coached by her grandfather and their love for him and the book. She says she "learned we are part of something bigger." She reads the first poem of her multi-award winner as well, and here one can hear the lyrical quality Paulsen was speaking about. The music of Woodson's words beautifully burst through. Speaking of music, Woodson and Paulson both agree that there is an art in listening. Woodson believes "you can't be a writer if you're not listening- engaging with the world." For Woodson that listening comes with an almost scary accuracy to see precisely where her stories were coming from, she doesn't want to mess with that process too much so she tries not to pinpoint them often.
    The conversation pivots to Woodson's '98 Horn Book essay, "Who Tells My Story" which is as important today as it was when first published. Paulsen believes that "you can write about people you know." Multicultural children's books, as they used to be called, started off with white authors using a "color by numbers" rubric on their books. They would make the best friend of the main character Black and then wonder why kids of color wouldn't read the books. Woodson explains that kids can see right through these types of books. Paulsen agrees and says that her imprint at Penguin is dedicated to books that can be read aloud in classrooms, books that let readers be in "someones else's shoes." She looks for "the kinds of books that win states awards, the ones kids vote on." They both recall the anger of some folks at Each Kindness, specifically its' ending. Woodson laughs, stating "it made them feel some type of way!" She believes it's the loss of a chance to change bad behavior that upset people. She continues, explaining that she was very deliberate writing Maya as a strong character rather than "beaten down." She wanted to pay homage to those kids in the world who felt the same as Maya and center them. 
    To close the conversation, Woodson reads her most recent picture book The Day You Begin, and dear reader I'm not afraid to admit I teared up. Once again the musicality of Woodson's words beautifully bursts through and the story is only more lovely. Inspired by her poem "it'll be scary" in Brown Girl Dreaming, it assures readers that there will be folks out there who share your stories. Once in the Q&A section, Woodson was asked what the most rewarding part of writing was. "All of it," was her response. The ever present question of writing for an audience or for yourself was asked. Woodson explained that she writes for herself first and foremost, "I don't think folks should worry about audience too much." She asks herself how she will mold her writing, whether it'll be middle grade, young adult, or otherwise.
She writes responsibly and kindly, making sure that the kids she writes for will be cared for in the worlds she writes. She answers that her writing is always character driven, asking herself "what does a character wants and how will they get there?" Paulsen offers some generative questions that inspire deeper insight into a manuscript; they include "Who're their people?" and "I want to know more."  When Woodson is asked if she has different processes for different genres, she laughs and answers, "Long time ago I would've said yes but now no." She explains that her writing has gotten more poetic across the board citing intentional behind line breaks as an example. For folks eager to know which book she wrote that had taken 4 days, she laughs again and says she misspoke; the shortest one she had written was about two weeks. She smiles, "don't aspire to a 4 day book y'all, it won't be any good!"