Intern Insights: Highlights of SCBWI LA 2018

Lin Oliver interviews Lois Lowry at SCBWI L.A. Conference

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

In August, I attended my very first SCBWI international summer conference. It was truly an amazing experience, but also a bit overwhelming with nearly 1,200 people in attendance.

Thankfully, we all share a love of children’s books, making it much easier to talk with people than typical social situations.

I came home with both inspirational and practical advice, and have a few highlights to share.

By far the most magical aspect of the conference was SCBWI Co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver’s lunchtime chat with Lois Lowry. She thoughtfully reflected on her 40-year career with humor and humility as she addressed questions many of us who create for children continually ask ourselves.

When The Giver (Houghton Mifflin, 1993) was published, some people thought the subject was too dark for a children’s book. One website even called her “the Antichrist.”

None of it changed Lowry’s philosophy about what topics should be covered in children’s literature: dark subjects exist in life and need to be dealt with and written about with sensitivity.

“I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be written about,” she said. 

Lowry also talked about the book’s genesis. Her father’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease made her think deeply about memories and ask the question, “what if there were a way to manipulate human memory to forget pain?”

Like so many writers, Lowry admitted she wonders if she’ll have another good idea and also mentioned writing “a book that was unpublishable (but we won’t dwell on that.).” Even her casual asides are full of sage wisdom!

Her next book, On the Horizon, is due out in 2020. It addresses the familiar theme of human connections in a global way, exploring our relationships to each other around the world.

She gave an example of global connections, explaining how she discovered at a 1994 awards ceremony that she and author/illustrator Allen Say lived in the same Japanese town following World War II. They had seen one another, but never had a conversation or discovered the connection, until winning the Newbery and Caldecott awards in the same year.

An interesting thread I found in several of keynotes were references to music.

Daniel José Older used The Killers’ 2003 song Mr. Brightside to illustrate a number of writing insights:

  • the importance of a good beginning 
  • “good books are made of bad decisions” 
  • trust the reader 
  • earn your metaphors 
  • end the story when the story is over
  • “words are supposed to sound good when you put them together”
  • He urged everyone to read their work out loud before submitting it.

My volunteer duty at the conference was to assist authors Deborah Heiligman and Deborah Halverson during the autograph party. So much fun chatting with the Deborahs and those getting books signed!

Lynda Mullaly Hunt talked about vulnerability being a double-edged sword and how The Last Song, written by Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John was the catalyst for her to open up to a fellow teacher who ended up becoming a mentor in several aspects of life and writing.

Brian Pinkney played the drums on stage and talked about how drumming and dreaming helped him discover the text for Max Found Two Sticks (Simon & Schuster, 1994). Napping as part of the creative process sounds too good to pass up!

Andrea Davis Pinkney starts each day by walking up and spending 30 minutes with her eyes closed thinking about things that make her happy. Then, because writers write every single day, she writes from 4:30 a.m. to 6 a.m. before exercising and heading off to her other job as editor at Scholastic.

Other creative advice came from Mike Curato: “Make things that make you smile” and eat cake, and ice cream. He went on to say, making a book is about discovering who we are.

During the agent panel, Jenny Bent offered a bit of advice in wake of recent events: request publishing contracts with split payments, so the publisher sends royalties to both creators and agents, rather than all funds going to the literary agency first.

In addition to the keynotes, I also met some fabulous people during the breakouts and social events.

Illustrators Manelle Oliphant and Gladys Jose, both new members of their SCBWI Regional Teams. Manelle is the illustrator coordinator in Utah/Southern Idaho, while Gladys is assistant regional advisor in Florida.

SCBWI co-founder and Executive Director Lin Oliver and SCBWI board member Arthur A. Levine of Scholastic.
I was very excited to meet Cynsations Reporters Angela Cerrito, (Europe) and Christopher Cheng
 (Asia, Australia & New Zeland). 

In Memory: Patricia C. McKissack

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Patricia C. McKissack, honored children’s author from Chesterfield, dies at 72 by Jane Henderson
from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Peek: “…’I think my mother died of a broken heart.’ Fredrick McKissack Jr. said his mother and father were ‘best friends and partners.’”

Before becoming an author, Patricia earned a master’s degree from Webster’s University and taught English at a junior high school in Kirkwood, Missouri.

In a 1998 story by Renee Stovsky from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Patricia said frustration over lack of information on poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to share with her students fueled her drive to write children’s books. Peek: “I realized then that if someone didn’t start preserving these stories, an extremely important part of our heritage could be lost forever.”

Not surprisingly, Paul Laurence Dunbar: A Poet to Remember (Children’s Press, 1984) was one of her first published books. Dozens more quickly followed.

Before long, Fredrick left his civil engineering job to work on books with Patricia. Together, the McKissacks published more than 120 children’s books on a wide range of topics from African history and customs to supernatural stories.

In For the McKissacks, Black is Boundless, Barbara Bader wrote for the Horn Book about the couple’s prolific list. Peek: “The McKissacks do think big. ‘We’re Kennedy products,’ Pat McKissack has said — idealists and optimists.”

In 2014, Frederick and Patricia McKissack received the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Library Association.

Patricia’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Random House, 1992) won the Coretta Scott King Award in 1993 and was also a Newbery Honor Book. The same year, Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman (Scholastic, 1992) co-authored by Frederick and Patricia also received the Coretta Scott King Honor Award.

Sojourner Truth: Ain’t I A Woman also received the Boston Globe-Horn Book award for nonfiction. The McKissacks delivered the acceptance speech together. From Patricia: “Like most children of my generation, I was not introduced to African-American heroes through textbooks. History in the 1950s didn’t contain much information about African-American contributions….but we got our history in other ways.” She explained how her Sunday school teachers combined spirituals and Bible truths. “We decided to use that format and begin each section of our book with a spiritual…”

Her Horn Book essay with Fredrick, You Can Be President, explores the magical things that can happen at family dinner.

In A Literary Love Story’s Final Chapter, Kenya Vaughn from the St. Louis American wrote,”the couple decided that little black boys and girls deserved positive images of themselves and a broad scope of their people’s rich history as they turned the pages of books. The McKissacks knew that these words would be critical in shaping what they think, feel and know about who they are…”

In Rocco Stanio‘s article from School Library Journal, Jacqueline Woodson said of Patrica, “She was lovely and groundbreaking and doing the work that set so many of us in motion.”

Patricia McKissack, Prolific Author Who Championed Black Heroes, Dies at 72 by Sam Roberts from the New York Times. Peek: “Ms. McKissack, who grew up in the segregated South and was the only black student in her sixth-grade class, wove the back-porch fables she remembered from childhood together with her own personal anecdotes (including a false accusation of thievery and a dinner at a whites-only restaurant) in fictional narratives.”

Remembering the Life and Writing of Famed St. Louis Children’s Author Patricia McKissack aired on St. Louis Public Radio. St. Louis librarian Jennifer Ilardi talked about Patricia’s impact on her life. “…I’m biracial and finding other books that represented my father’s side of the family was tricky. Books are windows, mirrors, and doors….I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t have access to these type of books and her books when I was a child.”

In reviewing Patricia’s most recent book, Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Random House, January 2017), Roger Sutton from the Horn Book called her “children’s book royalty and storyteller supreme” and described the book as “a rich compilation.”

The Horn Book called Patricia’s death “a huge loss to the children’s literature community.”

Edith Campbell had a moving tribute to Patricia on Crazy QuiltEdi. Peek: “I’ve learned that we are all libraries, each carrying in us the stories that make us unique. And yet, there are those who are more than that; they’re the people who create the stories that express our shared identities, that inspire us to be more than we’ve planned for ourselves and who question.”