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.

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.

SLIDE 1.nescbwi

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

 

NESCBWI Conference– was that a dream?

It’s taken me a while to come down from the clouds after the NESCBWI Conference in Springfield a little over a week ago. The theme of diversity, “Think Outside the Crayon Box,” was delivered in multi-layered and invigorating ways all weekend long.

Being on the faculty of the conference was an honor and delight!

name tag

It was my first time presenting, and everything went so well. My wife Bonnie (a middle school guidance counselor) and I presented “Developing Gay & Questioning Characters for Middle-Grade Fiction.” The workshop went smoothly, our participants asked great questions, and we received wonderful feedback. We have even been approached about offering the workshop in other locations! To be continued…

M&B NESCBWI

The keynotes were inspiring and affirming. Jo Knowles spoke about the importance of diversity in middle grade in a powerful and personal speech. Dan Santat had me thinking about the sources of  inspiration, and considering ways to stretch myself creatively. Kwame Alexander held an entire banquet room in thrall as he read from his picture book Acoustic Rooster— something I told my teachers in training about. Talk about holding the attention of your audience!

Kwame A. speaking

I used The Crossover in my Children’s Lit course this semester, and in a poetry presentation I gave in February to St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx. For those reasons and more, meeting Kwame Alexander ever so briefly, and basking in his mega-watt  interpersonal energy, was a total delight!

Kwame Alexander + M

Finally, the workshop on giving effective school presentations, offered by Marcia Wells and Kwame Alexander, was phenomenal. It was chock full of great examples, strategies, facts, and humor– practical and inspiring. And Marvin Terban, a towering presence in SCBWI, had us rolling in the aisles at his keynote on humor in children’s books.

I floated home, full of inspiration, the warmth of fellowship with other writers, and lots of notes and resources to keep me going. Congratulations to the organizers for a wonderful conference!

scbwi.folder