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#NESCBWI17 recap

nescbwi 2017 conference

The New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (NESCBWI) Annual Conference is a place to get re-inspired, a place to gain new insights and apply familiar ones to new projects, to encourage friends’ work. And this year, as the conference theme put it, it was a place to “Expand & Diversify Your Portfolio.”

First, I attended “Techniques to Create Contemporary Characters” with Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. Although many of her characters are, say, moose or Purrmaids (yes, that would be cat mermaids), she finds inspiration for their behavior and values in the people she knows, and shared tips and tricks for filtering our own real lives into our stories.

Next was an agent/editor panel about “Best Practices” with agents Kaylee Davis, Monica Odom, and Marietta B. Zacker; editors Liz Kossnar and Christina Pulles; and moderator Heidi Stemple. The discussion was wide-ranging, but the importance of seeking out #ownvoices was a big topic. Marietta Zacker recalled speaking at a similar conference in Miami some years ago and being shocked that she was nearly the only Latina in the room, and urged us to think about what each of us could do to help with issues of underrepresentation.

The evening included Opening Ceremonies — region founder Jane Yolen gave some history in honor of the region’s forty-fifth anniversary — and “Pitchapalooza.” Courageous conference-goers delivered pitches for their writing projects, which were critiqued by “Book Doctors” Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, agents Stephen Barr and Jessica Sinsheimer, and editor Eileen Robinson. Even those of us who were less courageous learned from the panelists’ wisdom about how to market a book informatively but concisely.

Pitchapalooza panel

“Pitchapalooza” panelists, L–R: David Henry Sterry, Arielle Eckstut, Stephen Barr, Jessica Sinsheimer, Eileen Robinson

Melissa Sweet delivered Saturday morning’s keynote. She took us through the process behind illustrating many of her books. Her way of finding ideas by experimenting with materials and colors reminded me of a writer’s brainstorming, but more tactile.

(very blurry!) Melissa Sweet

(very blurry!) Melissa Sweet

Nova Ren Suma gave a workshop on “Taking Risks and Being True to Yourself,” and she’s walked the walk. At a point when she felt stuck in her career, she decided to stop caring about what the industry thought and write a book full of things that interested her (in her case, unreliable narrators and murderous ballerinas), and then chose small publisher Algonquin’s offer among several others. The result was more involvement in the publishing process…of the book that would become New York Times bestseller The Walls Around Us.

The after-lunch keynote panel (kudos for the prominent placement!) was the wonderfully intersectional “Writing the Rainbow: Creating LGBTQ+ Characters and Stories” with Lisa Bunker, Mary E. Cronin, Kevin L. Lewis, agent Linda Camacho, and moderator Sera Rivers. The panelists were candid about issues that can be difficult to navigate, but also spoke passionately about getting books into kids’ hands and helping them to feel less isolated.

Melissa Stewart’s “Got Motivation?” was an excellent reminder to focus on our broad reasons for writing, and then break them down into concrete goals. And Jen Malone’s “It’s Not Worse Than Death! Public Speaking 101 for Authors” was full of useful tips. Maybe I’ll try Pitchapalooza next year — but I’ll have to practice my power stance first.

Barry Lyga’s often funny keynote focused on the variety of his books. He pointed out that if he were an adult author, he’d probably never have had a chance to try so many genres.

Barry Lyga

Barry Lyga

The evening’s keynote panel, “Leaders in Illustration” with Art Director Lucy Ruth Cummins, Kelly Light, Hazel Mitchell, Christina Rodriguez, and moderator Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, encompassed the creative process but also issues of sexism in the illustration world. A highlight was Kelly Light’s long list of “BAMF” female illustrators.

An open mic session with a small audience included bouts of “Whose Rhyme Is It Anyway?”, which is how I found myself collaborating with another writer on a quick poem about Grover racing in the Kentucky Derby. I learned that this sort of improv could be a lot of fun…and that my knowledge about the Kentucky Derby does not fill three minutes.

Jane Yolen gave Sunday morning’s keynote, and as always encouraged us to “show up” and let inspiration find us. Then I showed up for two workshops about picture books. (My existing portfolio is mostly middle-grade, but did I mention the conference’s theme?) Celia Lee’s “Picture Book Mythbusting” and Julia Maguire’s “The Life of a Picture Book” gave me lots to think about, from page turns to art notes to thematic layering.

A keynote panel on “Working with Educators and Booksellers: What You Need to Know” with Betsy Bird, Mary Ann Cappiello, Janet Reynolds, John Schumaker, and moderator Melissa Stewart covered topics related to blogging, bookselling, and hot titles in libraries and bookstores. Tip: if you want to see what enthusiasm looks like, get Betsy Bird talking about Laura Ruby’s York: The Shadow Cipher.

Tara Sullivan’s “Books for a Cause” workshop was full of ideas for authors to engage readers with issues related to their books. (First, write a good story. Then, put a donation button to a relevant organization on your website.) Finally, I ran like a writer to “Write like a Runner,” where Annie Cardi shared endurance tips for the marathon that is the writing life.

Speaking of marathons…I slept well Sunday night. Thanks to all for a great conference!

snazzy NWSCBWI 45th anniversary tote bag


Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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