SCBWI Los Angeles Summer Conference: 2010

Originally Published: Sep. 14, 2010

By: The Newsletter Staff

If you are a children’s book writer or illustrator, the place to be the first week of August was the Hyatt Regency in Los Angeles, where the 39th SCBWI summer conference was held.

Over 1,100 people attended the 40 workshops given by editors, publishers, agents, and best-selling authors and illustrators. Speakers included Jon Scieczka, M. T. Anderson, Gail Carson Levine, Marion Dane Bauer, Gennifer Choldenko, Loren Long, Rachel Vail, Ashley Bryan, Carolyn Mackler, and William Low.

Want to know what’s going on with boys and reading? The conference had it covered. Nonfiction? Covered. What’s happening with the LGBTQ market? Covered. Latino markets? Covered. With these topics and more, the conference had something for everyone.

The conference offered a combination of general sessions, craft-oriented workshops, and longer, more intensive “Master classes.” General sessions included an editor panel where editors shared what their houses are looking for, and an agent panel where agents discussed how they submit to editors and how prospective clients should query them. At both panels, there was a lot of talk about marketing, about what is expected from the publisher as well as from the author. Areas covered by workshops included picture books, graphic novels, and nonfiction.

In The Five Lessons Taken from Classic Picture Books, author Mac Barnett and agent Steven Malk offered useful tips about writing picture books. For example, they stressed the importance of letting the illustration do some of the work in a story. Barnett pointed out that when the text does not know about a joke that is in the illustration, the joke becomes even funnier. He gave The Carrot Seed as an example: its text never acknowledges the presiding joke of the book, that the carrot turns out to be huge. In Barnett’s Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, the child constantly makes assertions that are then contradicted by the illustration, creating humor as well as setups and payoffs. Barnett also noted that writers need to understand picture book conventions, such as how to use page turns and end papers.

In Steven Malk’s The Dos and Don’ts of an Illustration Career, Malk stated that illustrators must be aware of what’s out there, what’s popular and what’s winning awards. He pointed out that, even if these books are not to your taste, understanding their appeal leads to valuable lessons.

Several nonfiction writers—Deborah Heiligmann, Elizabeth Partridge, Tanya Lee Stone, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti—spoke on a panel where they shared tips, such as taking the time to find the heart of a nonfiction story. Writers were also warned to avoid details that are interesting but not necessarily related to the book’s main theme. The panel also suggested that writers consider using a classic three-act fiction structure, and remember that one of the tools at their disposal is pacing.

Author Gail Carson Levine generously shared craft tips, listing many of the ways writers can create tension. One of the tips was about creating a distant destination that that protagonist has to reach, which can operate a lot like time pressure. Carson Levine pointed out that in this situation, the destination must be made to loom. Carson Levine also noted that having a protagonist with character flaws adds tension to the book because readers are waiting for these flaws to create a problem.

The master classes were presented by Arthur Levine, Linda Sue Park, Mac McCool, William Low and Kristin Marino. They were three times as long as most sessions, providing intense coverage of themes such as “Finding and revising your protagonist’s voice in a young adult novel.”

At the juried Illustrator’s Portfolio Showcase, row after row of portfolios were laid out for the public to view. Six lucky participants, whose work was deemed to show promise were given mentorships. The mentorships were with art directors, like Cecilia Yung of Putnam, or with well-known illustrators, like David Diaz.

There was also an award for best portfolio, and for two runner ups. Unlike recent years when news from publishers was discouraging, attendees at this conference heard a lot of optimism from editors who are eagerly looking to acquire middle grade and young adult fiction as well as nonfiction. While the acquisition of picture books remains stagnant, the consensus was that there will be a turnaround soon. Picture book writers were encouraged to keep reading everything in sight and, most of all, keep writing so they are prepared to submit when the call for picture books returns.

In addition to the focus on craft, the Los Angeles conference is a very festive, social event. On Saturday night, there was an outdoor party with a buffet, drinks, dancing, and a contest for the best costume. This year the party theme was Heart and Soul, and Jay Asher, Carolyn Mackler, and Rachel Vail won first prizes for their angel costumes.

Next year is the 40th summer conference so it promises to be particularly exciting; we hope to see you there!

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