SCBWI NYC Conference Recap

I was fortunate to spend last Saturday and Sunday in New York at the SCBWI Winter Conference. I returned refreshed, re-energized, and ready to dive back into revision on my novels. I may even have a few new ideas for picture books!

The conference was a combination of keynote speeches, breakout workshops, and networking opportunities. Here are the highlights:

* First Speaker:  Meg Rosoff. I have not read her books, but I am compelled to check them out, after hearing her sassy, hyperbolic, and funny talk entitled, “So When Are You Going to Write a Real Book, You Know, For Adults?”

* Panel Discussion: A helpful and optimistic discussion about the state of the market, what is selling, and how it is selling (traditional publishing, self-publishing, multiple media, etc.)

* Breakout Sessions: We each participated in two breakout sessions with editors and art directors on what “hooks” them. I chose sessions with editors Yolanda Scott of Charlesbridge, and Francoise Bui of Delacorte Press. Both were insightful, giving examples of books they loved that they had edited that demonstrated the different components that hooked them. I was thrilled to discover Jane Yolen sitting in the row in front of me in the first session.

* Day 2 Keynote: Margaret Peterson Haddix gave a talk entitled “Tell Me a Story.” She wove together personal stories with tips on how to tell a good story. She told us that “books help kids understand and make sense of the world.” Our important role as children’s writers in the tender early development years of life was a common thread among many of the speakers.

* Second Keynote: Julie Andrews and her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton shared their learnings from writing several series (the Dumpy series, the Little Bo series, and The Very Fairy Princess series) together. It was a multilayered talk, and Julie Andrews was everything you would expect: graceful, classy, beautiful, and talented. I was pleased to see what a wonderful relationship mother and daughter have, and how their many years of writing together transcends the typical “celebrity” children’s book writing one might expect.

* Closing Keynote: Mo Willems had me in stitches from the moment he walked on the stage. I expected him to be funny (in a clean, child’s sort of way), but he was humorous in a real, adult way. He spoke directly to us as writers, and shared his take on the profession. He did, however, tell us that if we agreed with everything he said, something was wrong. Some key quotes from Mo:

“Be a filter, not a spigot.”

“Think OF your audience, not FOR your audience.”

“The hook is not the story.”

On writing humor: “Keep writing, then take away whatever isn’t funny. If nothing is left, start over.”

“Childhood sucks, so your job is to be some child’s best friend.”

Joanna and I both love to “collect” rejection stories of successful writers… probably to inspire us to keep going. For Mo, he shared that over a 90 day period in his writing career, he got a rejection letter every day. Yes, 90 rejection letters. And look at him now!

Overall, it was a good conference, full of learnings and ideas. At the end of the conference I participated in the autograph party. I had an amazing opportunity to have 2 books autographed for my children: We Are In a Book! signed by Mom Willems (with a little piggie adorably drawn above his name) and The Very Fairy Princess Follows Her Heart signed by Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton.

Not only was I able to obtain two great keepsakes for years to come, I was able to talk briefly with each of them. I had the opportunity to thank Mo Willems for his Elephant and Piggie Books, since they are the reason my son (an initial reluctant reader) now loves to read. I told Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton that my daughter thinks she is a princess like their character Gerry. Truth be told, I could have talked to Julie Andrews about the weather, and I would have been perfectly happy. She and her daughter were just lovely.

For more information on the conference, check out the SCBWI Blog.

Elephant, Piggie, and a Broken Heart

I just spent 13 hours driving from Jackson to Bend in one day. Car rides with my 3 year-old have suddenly become fun and bearable.

During one of my turns in the back seat (aka, the entertainment seat), we were reading Mo Willems’ Are You Ready To Play Outside? (in the Elephant and Piggie series). Whenever I read one of Willems’ books, especially the ones in this series, I marvel at how Willems is a master at writing age-appropriate inference. Often times, I will read a story to Karsten and feel the need to explain something that is inferred, but not specially mentioned or shown. But when I read Willems’ books, I hold back. Elephant and Piggie are drawn with such amazing body language, that kids can infer so much from their expressions. Then, the characters reinforce that inference with dialog. After many reads, during which I would tell Karsten what Piggie was feeling (based on the illustrations) and then have her tell us the same thing herself, I realized just how brilliant Willems is. He encourages kids to really observe the characters (shown in the minimalism of the illustrations) and then confirms their inference with natural (and funny) dialog. My husband is a kindergarten teacher and he agrees. Willems is a master.

Take two. We’re listening to some mix CD from a former student of my husband. Taio Cruz (I didn’t know who we was before this song) croons a peppy rap song, Break Your Heart. The song tells girls not to fall in love with Cruz, because he will break their hearts. Enter inference gone wrong.

After hearing the song, Karsten had this response:

“Breaking your heart sounds like a bad idea because it would take all your love away.”

Collective aawwww, right?

Karsten was visibly shaken. He didn’t want his heart to be broken. My husband had to convince him that we had so much love for him that his heart could never break. (How’s that for setting him up for teenage heartbreak?) When the song came on again later, Karsten thought that the singer was going to cut us all open and take our hearts out. It was getting worse with each listen.

It really struck me then how Karsten takes things so literally. (And how well he listens when I think he’s not. And how little I actually listen to song lyrics.) He’s a pretty emotionally sensitive child, and I realize I want to be aware of what I’m exposing him to. I’m not sure when it’s developmentally appropriate to understand the abstract meaning behind Cruz’s song, but for now, for a while really, I think it will be fine to stick with Mo Willems.

Make Me Laugh

Mo Willems is hilarious. Didn’t you know?

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale

Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My son and I began our introduction to Mo Willems with Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. Both books were charming and funny. In Knuffle Bunny, Willems employs a creative use of photography along with the drawn characters. In short, we love these books. I enjoyed buying these books to add to our permanent collection.

Now that Aidan is in Kindergarten and has begun reading on his own, we’ve started reading Mo Willems’ easy readers together. Our favorites are the Elephant and Piggie series. With basic drawings of the characters (no watercolors or elaborate Jan Brett-style illustrations), you are able to focus on the story. Is the story simple? Yes. Is it witty and hilarious? Absolutely!

These books make both of us laugh out loud. When we read Can I Play Too? my son giggles when Gerald and Piggie try to play catch with a snake, and repeatedly bonk him on the head. I laugh when Piggie raises an eyebrow to figure out who is “reading them” in We Are in a Book!

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

In short, we are convinced he is a genius. He manages to create expressive, witty characters with just a few well placed lines. His stories are simple, to-the-point, joyful, funny, and make you want to read them again and again.

Additionally, I researched Mo’s background and discovered he formerly wrote for Sesame Street (which earned him multiple Emmys). I’m sold. Anyone who works with the likes of Bert, Ernie, Knuffle Bunny, and the Pigeon is cool in my book. Now if I can just find a way to capture even an ounce of his humor in my stories.

What authors make you laugh? What is it about their books that tickles your funny bone?