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). 

Author Interview: Deborah Heiligman on Celebrate Easter: With Colored Eggs, Flowers, And Prayer

See part one: Author Interview: Deborah Heiligman on Celebrate Passover (National Geographic, 2007).

Are you part of a writers’ critique group and/or active in any writer organizations? What role does community play in your writing life?

Community plays a huge part in my writing life because I am a social person and too much time alone drives me crazy. For eighteen years I lived in Bucks County, PA; and I built up a great community of writers there.

The Bucks County Authors of Books for Children has been meeting for more than ten years, and they are still my best writing buddies even though I have moved to New York. I go back for meetings as often as possible because they are just the best. They are all brilliant and talented authors and terrific friends. And I can call up any of them on the phone to discuss just about anything. I could go on, but I don’t want to gush too much.

I also have a best writing buddy who lives in California. We met online and have met in person; we talk on the phone, e-mail all the time. With all of these people we talk about writing a lot, the business, and life (kids, etc.).

Fortunately I am also meeting wonderful people in New York. Children’s book authors are seriously the nicest people in the world. I go to a class where I meet lots of people, I go to SCBWI things, and I’ve got a tiny critique group here. I have to be careful not to socialize too much, though–gotta write, gotta write.

Oh, one more huge part of my community is my husband. He’s a writer (for adults) and also now a professor of journalism, so I’ve got it made!

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning writer self, what would you tell her?

That’s a really good question. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not old enough? I sometimes lament the fact that I don’t have a cohesive list–I have just done books as they’ve come to me, either though my heart and mind, or from an editor’s request. Maybe I should have had more of a plan, created more of a “brand.” But I love writing about all different kinds of things in all different formats, so I would probably still tell my younger self to follow your heart.

Congratulations on the publication of Celebrate Easter with Colored Eggs, Flowers, and Prayer (National Geographic, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thanks. It’s book number six in the series that’s been a joy and a challenge to do. My inspiration for this book was to really learn about a holiday that I’ve heard about and been next to forever but really didn’t know much about. I always wanted to celebrate Easter as a kid, but I also felt uncomfortable around it being Jewish.

One of my favorite things to do is to write about things I (initially) know nothing or little about. For me writing is learning, and I get paid to learn. It’s a dream!

Could you briefly describe the content?

It’s a global look at Easter–how it’s celebrated, as well as the history of the holiday.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

This was an interesting and difficult book to write, as they all are. The biggest challenge was balancing the religious aspects of the holiday with the secular one. I was really worried about how to write about the crucifixion and the Easter Bunny in the same book. I talked a lot with my consultant and with other people about that. My editor was a big help, too. I believe we’ve done a good job with it.

What is it about holidays that appeals to you as a writer? Have you done other books in this area?

I am fascinated by religion and the role it plays in people’s lives. I also think it’s so important to share religions with people not of the same faith and background.

When I was deciding to do the series one of my writing friends said, “Do it. You will be contributing to world peace.”

I hope she’s right. I truly believe that if all kids learn that people so much like them have different traditions, and that those traditions have a lot in common with their own traditions–as well as differences–then they will be less likely to hate those people when they grow up.

What are some of your favorite recent reads?

I read a lot of different kinds of books. I’ll list some of my favorites in different varieties: Desperate Characters by Paula Fox; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Greetings From Planet Earth by Barbara Kerley; Magpie Gabbard and the Quest for the Buried Moon by Sally Keehn; Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson; Suite Francais by Irene Nemirovsky. I have many more on my to-read pile, of course.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I read, go on long walks with my husband, spend time with family and friends, go to movies, cook, go on the treadmill (usually watching episodes of TV shows I like), and now that I live in New York after many years away, explore the city.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am working on a number of books right now. One is a picture book about a fascinating mathematician, Paul Erdos. That book will come out from Roaring Brook in a couple of years. I am also working on a biography of Charles Darwin for publication in fall 2008. It is for the YA market and is focusing on his relationship with his wife, Emma. Henry Holt is the publisher. I am also working on a YA novel, and I have a couple of fiction picture books in the works and a stack of ideas I hope to turn to.

Cynsational Links

Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children’s Books from Cynsations.

Author Interview: Deborah Heiligman on Celebrate Passover: With Matzah, Maror, and Memories

Deborah Heiligman on Deborah Heiligman: “I have two great sons. When my older son was about fourteen or so he started calling me ‘Psychotic Mama,’ or ‘P.M.’ for short. When my younger son was about that age, he wrote a song about me called ‘Momma is Distraught and She’s Coming After You…’ I’m really glad that I have given my children material to write about.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I always loved to write, and teachers told me I was good at it. I remember my first narrative non-fiction piece. I was in elementary school, and we had to do reports on the digestive system. I did mine from the point of view of a bite of a chocolate chip cookie. (When I tell that to kids in schools they always say, “Ew, gross!” but I still don’t think it is at all disgusting.)

But growing up in Allentown, PA, I didn’t know regular people could be writers. I thought writers were either old men with long white beards, or movie-star types who lived in mansions in Beverly Hills.

So, although I kept writing, and was editor of my junior high newspaper and my high school newspaper, it didn’t occur to me that I could be an author. I did think about being a journalist. I also thought about being a social worker, a lawyer (the kind that saved the world, not the kind that made money), & etc.

It wasn’t until I got to college (Brown) that I started to think maybe I could be a writer for real. But then all the people who said they were going to be writers wore all black and smoked cigarettes and drank endless cups of coffee. So I thought, well, that’s not me. I guess I’ll never be a writer. But I bet most of those people are now lawyers (the kind who make money), and here I am a writer. Of course I do drink too much coffee and I do wear black a lot, but cigarettes, never!

What made you decide to write for young readers?

It was sort of an accident, at first. I was moving to New York (from Boston, where I was working on a Jewish magazine) to be with my boyfriend, and so I was looking for a job.

Through school connections, I ended up interviewing at Scholastic. The personnel woman said, “Well I have an opening on the fourth-grade magazine, but you probably aren’t interested in that are you?” Gamely (I really wanted to move to the city with a job), I said, “Sure,” when in fact I wasn’t. But when I interviewed with the editor and learned all about Scholastic News, I liked the sound of it a lot. And then I took home the trial assignment and doing that I fell in love with writing for children. (I still remember everything on that assignment.) Fortunately, I got the job! In fact, I got a job offer and a marriage proposal on the same day…

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

After I left Scholastic because I had a baby and I didn’t want to be away from him all day, I decided I’d be a freelance writer. I wrote for both children’s and grown-ups’ magazines, but I didn’t think about writing books for kids. Yet. The baby grew to be a toddler who adored books, and I spent most of my day reading with him.

One day I took a nap and I woke up with an idea for a children’s book–with the actual words, really. I worked on it and sent it to my husband’s agent. She had no knowledge about children’s books, but she had a kid, and she knew two people in children’s publishing. She sent it to the first one, who rejected it because it rhymed. My instinct was to rewrite it so it didn’t rhyme, but she said, “let’s send it out again.” So she sent it to Harper & Row (as it was called then), and they took it. Into the Night (1990) was my first book. It was beginner’s luck, though, how quickly that happened. I’ve published a lot of books, but I’ve also had a lot of rejections.

For those new to your work, could you highlight a few of the recent titles on your backlist?

I’m in the middle of publishing a series of holiday books from National Geographic. The first four (fall 2006) are Celebrate Hanukkah, Celebrate Ramadan/Eid Al-Fitr, Celebrate Diwali and Celebrate Thanksgiving. Before that I published a picture book called Fun Dog, Sun Dog (Marshall Cavendish, 2005), about my golden retriever Tinka. It was my fifteenth book. It rhymes, too–only my second rhyming book. Let’s see. There’s also High Hopes: A Photobiography of John F. Kennedy (National Geographic, 2003)(forward by Eunice Kennedy Shriver) and not recent but one of my better known books, From Caterpillar to Butterfly (HarperCollinsm, 1996). It’s being made into a Big Book.

Congratulations on the publication of Celebrate Passover with Matzah, Maror, and Memories (National Geographic, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thank you. The inspiration wasn’t exactly mine. An editor at National Geographic asked me to do a series of books about holidays, and the more we talked the more excited I became. It was such a great project for me, having majored in religious studies years ago. I have never lost my fascination with all religions. So, once I decided to do the series, she and I came up with the first holidays, and of course Passover had to be one of them. It’s such an amazing holiday—it’s got it all: a great story, great food, and it’s family-centered. It’s one of my favorite holidays.

Could you briefly describe the content?

Each of the books in the series is about how we celebrate the holiday, both here and in countries around the world. I also talk about why we celebrate it and the history of the holiday. So with Passover, we have the story of the Exodus, of course, and Jews all over the world getting ready for and having a seder. The book is illustrated by amazingly beautiful photographs found by the photo editor at National Geographic, Lori Epstein, who is a genius.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

It was all very fast, mostly because I was doing about four books at a time. But I think from starting each book to publication was about a year. The major events: research, talking to my consultant; writing, looking at photos and layout; revising; looking at new pages; revising; realizing uh-oh we need a recipe, finding a recipe, making the dish; looking at revised pages; revising; getting the consultant to write her note; editing her note; last-minute fixes, changes.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

Oh, so many! People outside the business don’t always realize that writing short is so much harder than writing long. And writing for young kids I think is harder than writing for adults or older kids. First of all, you can’t assume anything. So everything has to be explained. But you don’t want to explain it in such a way that it seems text-booky. You want it to be beautiful where it can be, to sing. And you don’t have much room to do it. At all. The word count for Celebrate Passover, the main text, is probably about 1200 words. Also you want it to flow nicely and to be fun. Oh my. Reliving this is exhausting me!

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Ah, I have so much advice. Marry rich. Become a celebrity first. Go to law school.

Okay, you want serious advice, right? Here goes:

1. Read all kinds of things–good stuff, bad stuff. Different genres. Poetry, sci fi, non-fiction. Books for different ages (even adults). Stuff you thought you’d never read. (Graphic novels; bodice rippers.) Books you loved as a child. Books that are popular now. Books that other people hate/love/can’t figure out.

2. Analyze what you read. Why did you like it? Why didn’t you like it?

3. Take your writing seriously. It is a job. Treat it like one. Not like a hobby. Which means..

4. Work really hard. Which means…

5. Write regularly. I’m not going to say you have to write every day, but you do have to write on a regular basis for a good amount of time. Which means…

6. You will write crap and you will revise. Revision is the key to writing.

7. Get to know other writers, especially if you are a people person. It can be a lonely job. Also I think it’s really important to surround yourself with other people who are taking writing seriously.

8. Persevere. If you love it and work at it and take it and yourself seriously, you are a writer. And you will be published.

How about those specializing in non-fiction?

All of the above applies. Plus, take research seriously. You need many sources and many different kinds of sources. You need to show it to experts in the field. The biggest tip is: hone your natural nosiness. Let it work for you.

How do you balance your time as a writer (researching, writing, etc.) and as an author (marketing manuscripts, promoting books, etc.)?

With difficulty. I mean, really. It’s like twelve jobs, isn’t it? I often try to do all at once, but it’s probably a better idea to set aside discrete times to do each–certain days of the week for times of the day for marketing, for example. With research and writing, I usually research first and then write. But there is always more research to do while I’m writing. And (not to be too confusing) I do sometimes write when I research because when I take notes sometimes whole sentences or paragraphs will come to me and those will end up in the book.

Cynsational News & Links

See part two: Author Interview: Deborah Heiligman on Celebrate Easter with Colored Eggs, Flowers, and Prayer (National Geographic, 2007).

Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children’s Books from Cynsations.