Monday, February 4, 2013


1)  A huge thanks to Yellow House NYC, for granting me the professional stipend to attend this year's conference.

2)  I like going to SCBWI conferences - they keep giving me books!  I won the last book at the illustrator's intensive again this year.  This time around I received Winds ~ A Legend from the Lower Yukon.  Like a lot of legends, it has more text than your typical children's book.  I haven't read it yet, but I'm looking forward to setting aside some quiet time to do so (preferably on a snowy day with a cup of tea).

Lin Oliver said the purpose of the conference is to inform, inspire, and to make new friends.  I'm not going to write as much on the informational side of things, because as immensely helpful and interesting as those technical tidbits were A) I have little commentary to add and B) they are ~conference secrets~.  At some point, I will need to do a write-up for other illustrators with whom I promised to compare notes.  Sorry, everybody else.

I think I'm going to tackle this by theme, so let's start with two quotes on the artist as a solitary creature:

"The truth is, I'm kind of a hermit." - Mark Teague

"I was attracted to writing and illustration as a way to avoid people." - Shaun Tan, who also spoke briefly about the effect growing up in remote Perth, Australia, had on him as an artist.

Hearing things like the above make me so much more comfortable with myself. Networking events like the conference leave me wondering what it's like to be a normal person who can socialize without wanting to crawl off into a dark corner, where I'll never have to make small talk, or eye contact, or be in anyone's way ever again.  Today I'm stuck at home, and despite being sick, it's pretty much my favorite place to be.  I need to piece together an action plan for getting a stay-at-home job (children's book illustrator, yes please?), stat.

That said, I met so many lovely, talented people this weekend.  I compared notes with those who are on the same journey (destination: publication) as I am, was given great advice by published authors and illustrators in attendance, and enjoyed listening to the amazing variety of speakers SCBWI had pulled together.

Other fun quotes that I can't do justice, so will leave them to speak for themselves...

"I love to ensure the manuscript is incomprehensible." - Mo Willems

"Comprehension is overrated." - Shaun Tan

"The truth I'm most interested in is the one that can't be spoken." - Shaun Tan

"Don't do dumb work." - Mark Teague

John Fine, from, also stressed the importance of creating good work over everything else, including your media presence.  I was really interested in everything he had to say, actually.  SCBWI is fairly progressive and makes a point of discussing new-ish topics like ebooks and digital rights, but on the whole, I think the organization tends to move slowly and cautiously.  (Which is understandable - they have a responsibility to give their members sound, lasting advice.)  Unsurprisingly, when John mentioned fan fiction, there was a bit of a groan from the audience.  Meanwhile, I was filled with a sort of wicked, secret glee.  (Is there a German word for this feeling?  I feel there should be.)

Anyone who has been following YA and adult fiction over the past few years has read about million dollar deals for stories discovered on smashwords or createspace, and authors who were picked up in part for their massive online following.  (SCBWI has even invited some of them to speak at past winter conferences, but I digress...)  Meg Rosoff provided some wonderful snark on the quality of Fifty Shades of Grey, but failed to mention that it originally came to life as a Twilight fan fic, which I think says it all, really - good and bad. 

I don't think those on the outside quite grasp just how important "fandom" is becoming in today's creative world.  You were writing from age 12, had a supportive family and inspiring teachers before going off to college and earning your degree?  Great.  But today's young writers are pouring out stories at an amazing rate, to anyone with an internet connection.  They're constantly practicing, receiving feedback, and becoming more savvy at creating work that will "sell".  A lot of the stories are awful, but a few of them contain amazing plotting, characters you come to care for deeply, and beautifully-crafted sentences that state things you know to be true, in ways you would never have expected.  NANOWRIMO is also worth mentioning, as another avenue of "democratization" (as John Fine put it) of the publishing process.  There was even a gratuitous tumblr mention in the 'Quitting Your Day Job' panel on Friday.  As Lin Oliver said, "Welcome to the Wild West."

Another thing I noted about several of the talks this weekend - parents play such an important role in our creativity.  Shaun Tan's father was an architect, Barbara McClintock's was a photographer, and Floyd Cooper used his builder father's plaster board for some of his first canvases.  Margaret Peterson Haddix spoke about her young daughter asking for stories that contained a "...and then...", recognizing the elements of plot long before she could use words like "conflict" and "denouement".  Years later, the same daughter expressed impatience at a friend who had to stay home and study SAT words - why hadn't she just picked up a book as a child?!  But it's not even really about test prep - as Meg Rosoff said, "Most of the best books I've ever read, I read before I was twenty."

At the booksellers panel, Mary Brown, the owner of 'Books, Bytes, and Beyond', told us that bookstores are on the rise again - but 70% of her business is from schools and libraries.  Both she and her husband, Robert Brown (of Scholastic Book Fairs), mentioned a need for books that follow the Common Core Curriculum.  I rolled my eyes internally - not at their very true words, but at Common Core itself.  While art standards have yet to be implemented (and from the direction I've heard it's going, I probably won't mind the standards, as they sound a lot like what I already do) educational programs come and go.  We continue to wonder how we can improve children's test scores and prepare them for college and careers, when most educators can already tell you that the most vital key for a child's academic success is a parent who reads to him or her from an early age.

Of course, not all parents have the means to do this.  And not all children will ~fail in life~ because Mom was too tired to read Hop on Pop after a fourteen-hour work day. Some kids even have the acumen to understand the situation that they're in and help themselves - as Mo Willems said, "If you're in the wrong book, leave."  (Beautifully put advice for anyone, really.)  He also told the audience of authors and illustrators that "your job is to be some child's best friend."  Sometimes, a best friend can help you change your own story. 

"Books were my anchor. My escape. My safe haven... They became the most trustworthy of friends." - Julie Andrews

I have to admit, I cribbed the above quote from twitter.  I failed at note taking during Julie and Emma's talk; seeing Julie Andrews was one thing, but hearing her voice... At the end of their presentation, Lin Oliver had us call out words that described Julie and her daughter.  "Enchanting" would have been mine.  "Are we lucky or what?" indeed.

Speaking of legends, my favorite hour or so of the conference would have to be the illustrator's social after Saturday's cocktail gala.  The gala was great - I mean, a mashed potato bar, really?  But that was nothing next to getting to hear Tomie dePaola speak.  I feel like just about everyone has "their" Tomie dePaola book, the one that really meant something to them as a child.  J. K. Rowling has said her favorite comment on her books came from a kid who showed up to a signing, looked around at the crowd, and demanded to know what all these people were doing there for her book.  I feel a bit of the same way about Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, to the point where I don't think I would have brought it in to be signed even if I had it at home (it lives on my bookshelf at my parents' house, along with most of my childhood books).  I did, however, get The Art Lesson signed on Sunday.  It's a story I read the younger kids in my art classes every year.  It's a great way to both let the students know that art class has limitations, but that I don't want that to limit them.  Anyway, Tomie spoke a little about his time at Pratt (yay), his time as an art instructor (yay), and then talked about his famous master class.  It was funny and inspiring and kind of made my weekend.  Seeing as awkward turtle is indeed my spirit animal, I only talked to him for a second, but still!  Tomie dePaola! 

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