SCBWI 2019 Winter Conference

Sonia Sotomayor on a tea towel

On the walk across town to the Grand Hyatt hotel (next to Grand Central Terminal), I was a little emotionally rumpled from work, and feeling kind of unsettled about my life choices (not to be too melodramatic), and unsure about participating in another SCBWI winter conference. I sometimes feel like a kind of imposter there, even though I have had several books published in that realm. Just then, I got a ping of a text: it was from my brother, who asked, “Just checking. Is this your equilibrium solution?” And I wondered, “IS this my equilibrium solution?” as I was walking quickly down 42nd street to a conference that I was excited about and unsure of in equal measure.

Then he texted this:


And then he texted: “Sorry. Wrong person.” (he was texting with my niece, Elena) But I was thrilled! Who knew there was a FORMULA for equilibrium?

After the incomparable Lin Oliver’s introduction on Friday night, the first night of the SCBWI 2019 Winter Conference, Sonia Sotomayor spoke! She talked about her upbringing in the Bronx, how she read a lot of books and dreamed big. And Ms. Sotomayor, a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, told the audience of authors and illustrators that she wished she had our talent and inventiveness. Think of that! What a generous and amazing person. She also signed a copy of her children’s picture book Turning Pages: My Life Story (illustrated by Lulu Delacre) and a copy of it was on EVERY CHAIR in the place–so, over 800 copies. We were all verklempt. The author sitting next to me was weeping, and so was the agent on the other side. But one of the first things she said was, that at this event, she herself felt like an imposter. And I knew then that I was in the right place.

Saturday morning, bright and early, we were welcomed by Lin again, and then heard a keynote address by Jarrett Krosoczka, who wrote the Lunch Lady books but also his new graphic novel, the National Book Award Finalist Hey Kiddo. His keynote was about how he came to write Hey Kiddo: about his life with his grandparents who raised him because his mother was addicted to heroin. It was a powerful speech–and he showed images from the book and talked about how he made them. A man next to me said it was a “master class” in giving keynote addresses. True.

Kait Feldmann’s classroom
My work station in Kait’s class

My morning breakout session was Kait Feldmann’s class Picture Book Writing and Rewriting for Authors and Illustrators. We analyzed picture books and talked about form, bringing a work-in-process to work on and think about. Awesome! At lunch I went to the Adobe Demonstration and Residency Q and A, led enthusiastically and ably by the current Adobe resident, Anna Daviscourt. After lunch I attended the intensive breakout session Writing for Young Readers: Chapter Books and Young Middle Grade Novels with Alyson Heller and Tricia Lin. They were great–generous with their ideas and information, and I left feeling more prepared to dive in and write, with a better feeling for who that audience was.

The keynote after the second session was Elizabeth Acevedo, the poet and author of the National Book Award winning novel (in verse!) The Poet X. I have to say, of all the things I witnessed during the SCBWI conference, her keynote is the thing that I keep coming back to and thinking about. I felt kind of like she reintroduced all of us to our hearts, and why we all started writing in the first place.

Saturday night, I had a good time chatting and getting connected with the folks from the NY Metro area at the Networking Buffet Dinner.

Allyn and Marla

Sunday morning featured an awards presentation, an Agent/Editor panel which was fun, and my last breakout workshop The Picture Book, with Allyn Johnston, Marla Frazee and Rubin Pfeffer. They were inspiring: such deep and passionate artisans, committed to the children’s book, to each other, to the process, and to finding new voices. The most fascinating thing to see were Marla’s thumbnail roughs for her books. She showed us several and they looked like music. They talked a lot about how the picture book is a form, and should be approached with that kind of rigor. I think this is kind of like how a kimono is the traditional form on which shibori (shaped japanese tie dying) art is revealed and celebrated. The kimono is simple, a series of rectangles, with modest variations, but the variety of shibori techniques on kimono across the ages blows the mind. So it gave me a new perspective for the picture book form. I get it.

And Allyn read to us: the best thing ever.

The closing keynote was Christopher Paul Curtis, author of the Newberry book Bud, Not Buddy. Over the course of an hour, Mr. Curtis took us through a story from his childhood: so funny, and I felt like I was there, watching squished TV in the closet with a blanket on my head. It made me wish I could have known his mother. (Mr. Curtis may also have said during the course of his keynote, that, after touring with a theater troupe for some months after college, that he would rather pluck his eyes out than spend another minute with theater people. Being a theater person, I wondered about that, but maybe we are an acquired taste). After he spoke, we sang Happy Birthday to Jane Yolen, who turned 80 this weekend. And there was cake!

So, was the weekend my equilibrium solution? Yeah–yeah, I think it was.

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