Shenandoah Children’s Literature Conference: A Writer’s Perspective

During the last week in June, I attended the Shenandoah University Children’s Literature Conference. The conference invites award-winning and nationally- (and internationally-) recognized authors to present talks and roundtable discussions to attendees. In the afternoon, small group sessions are led by leaders working in education, and two graduate credit options are available. The conference targets elementary school teachers, but it also attracts middle and high school teachers, librarians, and reading specialists.

I attended wearing two hats. I attended as a teacher (and enrolled in the writing section for graduate credit), but I also attended as a Middle-Grade author (ages 8 – 12 or so) and a presenter. Though I absorbed teaching strategies and other useful information from a teacher’s point of view, I wanted to share from a writer’s perspective what I learned that week about writing and publishing.

So here goes.

What’s the Big Idea?

What struck me the most, as I sat and listened to author after author discuss each book he wrote and the history behind it, is that each great book truly does have a big, important idea behind it. As a writer, I’ve been told to avoid the elevator pitch that goes something like:

One fine day, Joe’s life is turned upside down.

This really doesn’t tell us anything. In most great works, the character’s life is “turned upside down,” but it’s non-specific, and it doesn’t help to communicate the book’s big idea. This year, the conference’s theme focused on pairing fiction and nonfiction, so most of the authors put lots of research into their works. Even fictional works that were molded by nonfiction experiences had a “big idea” to them. It was an important reminder for authors: consider each piece you’re writing. What’s the message or the “big idea”? Who is the target reader? What do you hope the reader will take away from this piece of writing? It was interesting to hear authors and illustrators talk us through the process of writing each piece. Some of them started with one (mediocre) concept, and through research and writing, they blossomed into something with much more depth. An example would be Brian Floca, whose book Locomotive was the subject of the first talk of the conference (and also went on to win the Caldecott!). He talked us through the process of writing and illustrating the book, walked us through draft after draft, and explained how the book started out as a simple concept, but the more he looked into it, the more he was drawn into the topic, and the more depth he added.

Publishing is Hard

Another surprising takeaway from the conference is that these authors—yes, even award-winning, multi-published authors—complain about the publishing industry. They kept their talks positive, of course, but there were a few hidden comments about how difficult publishing is. One was about the slow pace of the Big Six (or is it Five now?) publishers. Another was about how the big publishers don’t really like taking big risks. There was even a bit of talk about the difficulty of finding an agent. But again, for the most part those Big Ideas helped the authors to get noticed. After all, a good idea is a good idea. Seeing how refined these authors’ works really were made me re-think how I’m going to package my submissions in the future when scoping out agents or publishers. I’ll let you know how it goes, but I suspect that I needed to have put in much, much more work than I have.

Speaking of hard work…

Hard Work

These “big ideas” don’t just materialize as a gift sent by the Muses. And this was inspirational for me to hear as a writer. Many authors started as teachers, or held some other job, writing or illustrating part-time until things took off. The illustrators and authors all had some type of writing nook or studio space they used, but it wasn’t some fancy studio paid for by a big publishing company or anything like that. One author wrote from a glorified laundry room. Many of the illustrators converted an extra room in the house into a studio. One illustrator had to split studio space with four other illustrators because of the rent in New York City.

The bottom line is: writing is hard work. Sure, some authors are “lucky” in that they are picked up or become popular or have movie rights or whatever. But no authors are lucky in that they woke up one day rich, successful, and famous. It’s a reminder to any aspiring writer. A runner runs. A cook cooks. A writer writes. So stop wishing for it, and start making it happen.

The Most Inspirational

On a side note, the most inspirational part of the conference was hearing Aranka Siegal speak. I blogged about it from a freedom angle over at Freedom Forge Press. You can read my post here.

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