On Saturday February 13th I braved frigid temperatures and biting winds as I ventured to the Grand Hyatt Hotel. There I joined 1,150 aspiring writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ 17th Annual Winter Conference. Once settled inside the ballroom lecture hall, we were introduced to our enthusiastic master of ceremonies. According to her calculations, the massive amount of conference attendees represented 48 states, 19 countries, and a wide variety of professions. Our first keynote speaker, author and animator William Joyce, shared an encouraging and humorous anecdote about his journey from hundreds of rejection letters to winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. He shared that at the heart of his success, as with every success in children’s publishing, is collaboration. He impressed upon us that collaboration is an enjoyable, valuable, and fundamental aspect of working and thriving in the publishing industry. His words helped set the tone of the conference by reminding participants to not just network, but connect with each other.
After the morning keynote addresses, we were dismissed to find our pre-determined morning workshops. The limitless potential of the day ahead manifested into a buzz of excitement as over 1,000 attendees hurriedly exited the ballroom and infiltrated the hotel corridors. My first workshop, Writing for a Diverse Audience, was led by Alvina Ling an Editor at Little Brown Books for Young Readers. She encouraged aspiring writers to write cross-culturally, but to do so while taking necessary measures including: reading diversely, researching stereotypes, and having beta readers read through a story for accuracy. Alvina shared that writing cross culturally should be approached with trepidation, but to then do it anyway. Lastly Alvina emphasized that the goal with creating a character of color, as with any character, is to design a well-rounded and fully developed individual.
After a hasty lunch, I hustled to my afternoon session, Revision, with Cheryl Klein the Executive Editor of Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic. Her power-point seminar walked attendees through twenty-one revision techniques. I took notes on techniques I believed will be most helpful to me when writing editorial letters, and providing critique on manuscripts. Klein also shared online tools that can help writers look at their manuscript from a different angle. One such tool is Wordle, a website that generates word clouds based on a manuscript’s word frequency. This can help writers see which words, themes, or characters are dominating their story, and which are not. Analyzing a manuscript using different layouts can be useful during the painstaking process of revision.
As the afternoon ended, the attendees reconvened in the lecture hall for a highly anticipated event: Q&A session with award-winning author, Rainbow Rowell. During the fireside chat-style interview, Rowell discussed how working as a journalist taught her to be a good listener, overcome writer’s block, and work on a deadline. She encouraged writers to start stories with the moment everything changes, use dialogue to propel plot, and assured us there is no secret, quick way to success; it’s just best to do the groundwork well.
After a lengthy autograph session with Rowell, the conference attendees paraded down to the dinning area for dinner. There I had an opportunity to mingle and meet other children’s book writers and emerging professionals. In this intimate, social setting I was finally able to witness and appreciate the great variety of conference attendees.
The next morning all of the conference speakers and attendees gathered in the ballroom lecture hall one last time time for closing remarks. Despite having gathered with the same people in the same room just the day before, I did not sense the same excited buzz I had previously. Instead of universal energy, there was collective exhaustion. The keynote speakers echoed the passive vibe of the audience, as they discussed quiet topics like teaching empathy, and story endings. In her keynote address, author Jacquelyn Mitchard discussed the difficulties with writing endings, which stories get them right, and how we as children’s book creators can leave readers more than satisfied. She explained that although there are several different kinds of endings they aim to achieve the same goal: fulfill the story’s initial promises and gently let the reader go. In many ways the ending of the conference did just that: it fulfilled its promises of being an insightful and memorable event, and with a thoughtful yet witty final remark, released the attendees back into reality more knowledgeable and inspired than before. Warmed by these words, I left the Grand Hyatt Hotel more resilient to the frigid cold and biting winds that whipped around me.