Taking Risks: NESCBWI ’17 Conference Recap

Take risks: that was the most powerful message I took away from the New England SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) regional conference, I’ve been home a week, and I’m still reflecting on moments and messages from the conference.

Lunch with writer friends!

It’s a powerful feeling to be in a conference room full of people who all care about kids, from toddlers to teens. Because that’s why we write, isn’t it? I reveled in that. In this current moment in our history, there were over 700 people gathered together who want to make the world a better place for kids. With their words.

Leading on workshop on the power of setting for LGBTQ+ characters

I took my own risks during the weekend. I gave two workshop presentations, filled with enthusiastic writers who want to write stories about LGBTQ+  kids and families.

I took part in a panel (my first!) in which we discussed the state of children’s publishing and LGBTQ+ books for kids. It was well received and many people told me it was a highlight of their conference!

Panel with Lisa Bunker, Linda Camacho, Mary Cronin, and Kevin Lewis

Jane Yolen cheered on our efforts. Nova Ren Suma urged us to be our true selves. Melissa Sweet inspired us with her artistry. Mr. Schu illuminated the room with his enthusiasm for children and their books.

Mr. Schu, ambassador to school libraries!

All of it lit a fire that warmed the room, that connected us, that dared us to keep going, to do better.

Nova Ren Suma inspires us!

No matter what stage of my career I’m in, I find a home in the SCBWI community. The conference inspired me and emboldened me, and I know there were seeds planted during that conference that will indeed make the world a better place for our readers. I’m sure of that.

Next up: I’ll be presenting at the New Jersey SCBWI Conference in early June about writing about characters with LGBTQ parents, and writing about gay and questioning middle graders. More info here.

Write to Change the World: OpEd Project in Boston

Who gets to narrate the world?

That was one of the questions tackled in the day-long Write to Change the World seminar, led by the OpEd Project in Boston in early October.

Macarena Hernandez presents to the group
Macarena Hernandez presents to the group

The mission of the OpEd Project is to “increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world.  A starting goal is to increase the number of women thought leaders in key commentary forums to a tipping point.  We envision a world where the best ideas – regardless of where they come from – will have a chance to be heard, and to shape society and the world.”

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This was not a writing workshop. It was a mind-shifting seminar that challenged us to raise our voices and add to the public discourse.

The seminar was geared not only to women, but to other voices that are under-represented in the public discourse, in places like the op-ed pages of newspapers, on radio and television commentary, and more.

We grappled with the question, what makes an expert? We  were challenged to think about ourselves as “experts” in our respective fields (including higher education,  children’s literature, immigration policy, legal protections for whistleblowers, faith-based initiatives, and medicine).

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We learned so much through small group work, lots of interaction, and dynamic presentations by Becca Foresman, Chloe Angyal, and Macarena Hernandez.  Resources on writing and submitting op-ed pieces were shared, and we came away inspired and empowered.

Presenters Becca Foresman, Macarena Hernandez, Chloe Angyal
Presenters Becca Foresman, Macarena Hernandez, and Chloe Angyal of the Huffington Post

As one of our leaders shared, “If you say things of consequence, there may be consequences. The alternative is to be inconsequential.”

I loved the paired activities we did!
I loved the paired activities we did!

There are more pictures from the day here.

 

Writing abt Characters w/LGBTQ Parents- our presentation!

Lively conversation and great questions added rocket fuel to our presentation yesterday on Writing about Characters with LGBT Parents.

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The New England SCBWI* Conference is broad and deep– 700 attendees, many workshops on all aspects of the writing life, and powerful keynote addresses. I co-presented with my wife Bonnie Jackman, an LICSW and middle school counselor.

Can you tell we've been together 29 years? Active listening! :)
Can you tell we’ve been together 29 years? Active listening! 🙂

Here are a few points from our presentation:

**In a diverse country such as ours, with LGBT rights and protections shifting in real time, SETTING is critical to any story with LGBT characters. Setting can be an antagonist, a support, a mix of the two– think about where your character/family lives and consider the political/social climate for LGBT people there.

**LGBT adults have had to make their peace with living outside the  margins of dominant culture/mainstream paradigms of relationships. Where are their children in this process? Age is critical here– a kindergartener may love having her two moms come in to the classroom for a celebration; an older kid might ask to be dropped off two blocks from school.

**Kids of LGBT parents have to explain their existence all the time. Who’s your real mom? Where’s your dad? What do you mean you don’t have a dad? Wait, what? There are many dissonant moments our kids just deal with as a matter of course. How does this affect their character, their quest, their relationships, their school experience? This is rich material for character development.

Famed New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss, beloved by lesbian families!
Famed New Yorker cartoon by Harry Bliss, beloved by lesbian families!

I’ll post more soon… in the meantime, I’m enjoying the post-conference glow. A few people have asked if we’d consider presenting with workshop elsewhere– the answer is yes!

*SCBWI- The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Writing about characters with GLBT parents

“Who’s your real mom?”

“What do you mean you don’t have a dad/mom?”

“Please bring these permission slips home to your moms and dads.”

Life is just different for kids of GLBT parents. They navigate awkward questions, tricky social situations, and heteronormative language on a daily basis.

That’s just some of the territory we’ll be covering in our presentation at the New England SCBWI conference at the end of the month in Springfield, MA. My wife Bonnie Jackman and I will be discussing sparks for inspiration as well as seeds of conflict in Re-imagining Families: Writing about characters with GLBT parents – a morning workshop on Sunday, May 1.

Bonnie and I presenting at the 2015 NESCBWI conference
Bonnie and I presenting at the 2015 NESCBWI conference

We’ll offer insights and strategies for writing about families with same-sex and single parents, focusing on gay and lesbian-led families as well as those with bisexual and transgender parents. How can writers realistically portray characters with parents who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? How will these various family structures affect our characters (from early childhood to middle grade through adolescence)?

Our flag rainbow

Bonnie is a seasoned therapist and school counselor, with lots of anecdotes, developmental info, and insights to share. I’ll bring the craft perspective to the conversation. It should be a fun and lively session. Hope to see you there!

Read more about the conference here.

Advice from an Agent/Editor Combo!

“Don’t be self-deprecating. Come at me with some confidence.”

That was the bracing advice on queries from agent Heather Alexander yesterday at the Whispering Pines writing retreat in Rhode Island, hosted by the New England SCBWI.

If “Whispering Pines” sounds bucolic and restful… well, it is a beautiful setting. (It’s touted as one of the best children’s lit. writing retreats by Betsy Bird in School Library Journal.) But inside the conference rooms, all brain synapses were firing as children’s publishing professionals shared their wisdom and insights.

Whispering Pines fireplace

I was a one-day participant, dipping into the retreat on Sunday. In addition to Heather Alexander, I got to hear Simon & Schuster Executive Editor Christian Trimmer speak about what he looks for in picture book acquisitions.

First, Heather: An agent at Pippin Properties, she spoke about the querying process, dispensing wisdom such as “Keep it simple… query letters get over-thought all the time.”

Agent Heather Alexander
Heather Alexander

“A query letter should have some of your voice in it. Show off your writing skills. It’s a business letter, but keep it conversational.”

“Avoid the wall of text,” Heather stated (a big block of text). Keep paragraphs and the letter brief. “Hit the main points and get out.”

She stated the query letter should have three main components (paragraphs):

  1. What is the book (genre, title, word count) and why are you sending it to that particular agent?
  2. What the book is about
  3. A bit about you, the writer

Heather was funny, disarming, and direct. Her advice about querying was extremely helpful! You can find her on Twitter at @HeatherAlexand and her blog here.

Executive Editor Christian Trimmer is also a picture book author. He spoke about what he looks for when acquiring a picture book at Simon & Schuster.

Christian Trimmer
Christian Trimmer

Some of the factors he mentioned include:

Promotional opportunities: When we think of big shopping times for children’s books, we generally think of larger holidays like Christmas or Halloween. But Christian also mentioned several other times in the year when book stores are looking to provide topical children’s books. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Earth Day, Black History Month, Chinese New Year, and Back to School were a few options he mentioned that may spark an idea for a picture book.

“Perennials with a twist.” There are certain topics that are perennial favorites in picture books: new baby, bedtime, mommy, daddy, dragons, grandparents, construction site, dinosaurs. Christian encouraged us to think about creating stories that incorporate these perennial favorites in a fresh and exciting way.

Christian talked about how these factors and more were present in recent books he has acquired. So many of his presentation points applied to middle grade and beyond, in addition to picture books. He is attuned to aspects of diversity such as biracial identity and addressing GLBTQ bullying. He was warm, funny, and insightful. You can find Christian on Twitter at .

I bought Christian's picture book SIMON'S NEW BED- so perfect for young children!
I bought Christian’s picture book SIMON’S NEW BED- so perfect for young children!

I drove home from Whispering Pines full of inspiration and the fellowship of the children’s lit. writing community. If you are looking for a small conference with stellar people– this is it!

Whispering Pines in RI
Whispering Pines in RI

 

I Went to Rutgers One-on-One Plus Conference and Good Things Happened

 

A little over a month ago, I attended the Rutgers University One-on-One Plus conference, hosted by the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL). It was a game-changer for me! Here’s why.

I used the October conference as a deadline. I was determined that my manuscript, my middle-grade novel Tomfoolery, would be ready by the conference date. This was highly motivating. I worked towards this goal all summer and early fall, getting critiques, revising, polishing.

I studied the list of mentors, and the difference between editor, assistant editor, and editorial assistant. From researching all of the mentors on Twitter, Publishers Marketplace, and more, I realized how quickly things change—many of them had been promoted since the mentors list had been posted by RUCCL. I got a sense of their tastes and interests, and tuned in to the buzz about new books in a different way.

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From all that studying, I learned about the various publishing houses in a deeper way… which imprints were in which houses; who the editors and assistants were; who published books I loved. It gave me a better grasp of the big picture. I also learned more about the various agents, what they were looking for and who their clients were.

I'm in this crowd shot, chin in hand, listening intently and trying to stay calm and focused!
I’m in this crowd shot, chin in hand, listening intently and trying to stay calm and focused!

After reading several interviews with and blog postings about/by certain editors and agents, I honed the list of people I would most like to meet. I got to meet two people out of my top ten! Unless you want to tackle someone while they’re eating a sandwich, that part is a bit challenging. I wished I had included photos (Google images!) in my research of the people I most wanted to meet, so that I could spot them in the crowd at lunch and during mingling.

I memorized my “pitch,” something that I did not feel confident with. I wanted to be able to smoothly say what Tomfoolery was about, and I worked at it. It genuinely helped in many conversations, and it didn’t feel fake. It kicked in when I met the editor I most wanted to talk to after lunch, and she asked to see my full manuscript!

I prepared for a meeting with my mentor by having a lot of different options for discussion. I knew I would have 45 minutes with my mentor, and I didn’t know if it would be an author, agent, editor, or someone else. You don’t find that out until you arrive at the conference and pick up your folder. I wanted to make the most of this time.

Here’s what I brought:

  • The five pages I had submitted to Rutgers, which my mentor would be commenting on
  • My query letter
  • My synopsis
  • A list of agents I was considering querying, in case I met with an editor/author
  • A list of possible next projects I could potentially work on after Tomfoolery

Here’s the twist: I was paired with a lively and friendly mentor, an agent named Carrie Pestritto from the Prospect Agency. The catch? I’d met the previous year with another agent from Prospect, Linda Camacho, who gave me feedback on the MG time-travel novel I was working on, and encouraged me to move forward with Tomfoolery. I knew I was going to send Tomfoolery to Linda, so I would not be submitting to another agent in the same agency. But I used my time well. I explained all that to Carrie. We talked about my five pages, she gave me feedback on my query, and we had time to talk about my possible next projects in light of the market. It was energizing and helpful.

I went with a friend, and we pumped each other up and solidified our writing friendship. We had dinner afterward, hashed out all the information we gained, shared insights, and strategized about next steps. We followed that up with e-mailing each other in the weeks after, about querying and more. We kept each other accountable and we tried to keep the Rutgers energy going.

The train was a perfect setting for getting pumped up in the morning and decompressing at the end of the day
The train was a perfect setting for getting pumped up in the morning and decompressing at the end of the day

Within two weeks of attending the One-on-One Plus conference, I was ready to begin querying agents. Two weeks later, I accepted an offer of representation from Linda Camacho of the Prospect Agency. Did that directly result from my interactions at Rutgers? No, not exactly. But the conference – the preparation, the experience of it (adrenalin!), the gust of energy I left with—was a catalyst. It was invaluable in helping me to solidify my writing goals, my current work in progress, and my skills in networking and presenting my work. It made me READY.

If you’re ready to pitch and present your work, to begin querying, I can’t think of a better opportunity than the Rutgers Conference. It’s on again next October, and I believe the application deadline is in June. Be on the watch for it—it’s a great experience!

Back to the homeland: NYC

I’m still buzzing from a dynamic weekend in NYC. I saw family, covered a lot of ground (Bronx to the Battery!), and attended the Rutgers One-on-One Conference.

The Rutgers One-on-One conference is a different kind of conference: it feels very focused, very professional. Writers must submit their work and an essay in order to be accepted, and an equal number of industry professionals are invited. I was paired up with an energetic agent named Carrie Pestritto from Prospect Agency, and she had insightful things to say about my novel pages, my query letter, my list of next projects, and more. What a dynamo she is!

I'm here in this crowd, taking it all in at the Rutgers One-on-One.
I’m here in this crowd, taking it all in at the Rutgers One-on-One.

I met several other wonderful writers, editors and agents during the day, and I left feeling very directed, energized, and sure that I am on the right path with my current work, my middle-grade novel Tomfoolery.

With my daughter Rose, I also hit a few spots in NYC that I have been meaning to get to: the Poets House and the Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park. For a college paper, Rose interviewed author and educator Zetta Elliott about the need for more diversity in children’s literature… and I got to pop in at the end and meet Zetta, too!

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With my cousin, I went up to the borough I was born in, the Bronx. We stopped by the church where her and my parents were married, St. Luke’s in the South Bronx (where I teach a poetry workshop once a year)– now home to a new generation of immigrants from Ghana. We marveled at the way that St. Luke’s has always welcomed and educated immigrants– children of Irish immigrants like our parents, children of immigrants from Africa and Latin America now. We also stopped by the new Bronx Brewery and sampled micro-brews… right in the South Bronx! Who knew!

Bronx Brewery in the South Bronx
Bronx Brewery in the South Bronx

Now I am back on quiet Cape Cod, ready to dive into my novel and polish it up. My heart and head were filled to the brim on my trip… now it’s time to settle in and get this novel ready to send!

Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park
Irish Famine Memorial in Battery Park