I just returned from the 40th annual international Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference. It was a packed conference with a record number of attendees: over 1,300.
Most conferences have a fair number of big names, but this one had the most of any I’ve ever been to. Here are some of the big name speakers, and what I took away from their talks:
Judy Blume: Judy was an up and coming author 40 years ago when SCBWI first started. Her timeless book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret touched the lives of millions of girls. You might know her for the Superfudge books, or any of her many, many other books. Her comments left an impression on me: writing is important and don’t let anyone else tell you it’s not.
Richard Peck: In my mind, Richard is the god of children’s writing. He speaks with the authority of Zeus himself, and he has a passion that he shares in an understated way. He is the most gracious and generous person you could imagine. Every time I hear Richard speak, he bemoans the state of modern public education—he was a teacher once, so he’s allowed. The quote that stuck with me the most: “If you don’t find yourself in the pages of a book by the time you’re 12, you will spend the rest of your life looking for yourself in all the wrong places.”
Bruce Coville: Bruce opened the conference with a talk about the way everything we do ripples out from us. We may never know how important the tiniest things we do might be to others. Again, he emphasized how important writing is and how it can change people’s lives.
Donna Jo Napoli: A petite woman with tiny voice known for her retelling of old legends and historical fiction, Donna Jo is no shrinking violet when she talks about writing. In her session on creating tension in fiction, she admonished us to “tighten the screws” on our characters, and she giggled conspiratorially when audience members presented scenarios of death, disease, and destruction. “Good, good,” she said. “Now how can we make it worse?”
Gary Paulsen: The incomparable author of Hatchet and Dog Song, among other titles, shared with gleeful irreverence the story of his life. He encouraged us to “read like a wolf eats.”
Laurie Halse Anderson: One of my favorite authors of all time, Laurie suggested that we make writing our priority by—gasp—turning off the TV and the internet.
Libba Bray: I love Libba’s completely surreal and absurd stories. She is as funny in real life as she is in her books. If you want a trip, read Going Bovine. What I remember from Libba’s talk is how much she made me laugh, on the page and in person. I’m sure I took notes somewhere, but really, if you can make ‘em laugh, please do. We need more of that.
There were so many other great authors, illustrators, speakers, and sessions. If I told you everything, I’d have to charge you admission. So take the advice of them all—consider writing as extremely important; do whatever you need to do to get it done; make ‘em laugh while also tightening the screws. Now get to work.