So You Want to Write Children’s Books—A Report from the Front Line


by Ivor Davis

When Vanessa Brantley Newton, the vigorous keynote speaker and acclaimed children’s book illustrator, urged some 500 attendees at this summer’s opening session of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to stand up and do the Hokey Pokey dance, I knew something very different was afoot. She even belted out the words

After all, this was literature—kids’ maybe. And where, precisely, did all this book conference dancing really fit in? Fuddy-duddy I may be, but I have not seen such vigorous participation in that ancient kids’ song since my grandson Elias’s Seattle bar mitzvah.

It set the tone for the upcoming three days at the JW Marriott at LA Live, and I can only describe it as a kumbaya-glee-club-meets-embraceable-you weekend that drew experts and wannabe kids’ book writers to downtown in the heat of the summer.

Full disclosure: I have written books about murder and music, and now I want to break into the children’s book market. I decided that SCBWI was a perfect teething zone.

What stunned and pleased me was the absolute devotion to their specialty displayed by just about every speaker and every lecturer at every workshop. “You too can be part of our magic circle,” published authors, agents, and experts declared again and again to the teeming masses of wannabe writers. “Do not be destroyed by rejection,” was their watchword, because it’s par for the course.

Another pleasing aspect for me: eighty-five percent of those attending were women, so testosterone was happily in short supply.

I was amused when the men’s restroom was eventually commandeered by the ladies—and men had to descend to a restroom a floor below. Woman power in action.

But let me get down to brass tacks. The price of the three-day event was $525 for members ($625 for nonmembers), which got me into virtually everything. Included was a fun-packed Saturday night dinner, one free drink (and believe me, at the price of drinks at the JW Marriott, you will appreciate that), plus a terrific luncheon and awards presentation on the final day…struggle for a seat, but the food was worth it. And dessert was Judy Blume.

The speaker line-up did not disappoint.

Marvin Terban, a published author labeled “Mr. English for Kids,” offered nonstop words of wisdom backed up by his hilarious presentation. Lin Oliver, SSBWI’S den mother, author, and the writer-producer of a kids’ TV series, spoke with authority and humor whenever she had the mic.

Speakers poured out their hearts recounting always-encouraging long and winding success stories. Tales of woe followed by tales of joy fell upon receptive ears. Uplifting stories were met by wild applause.

And the biggest weekend plus: Everyone wants to help get that book you’ve written or illustrated into print. Editor’s panelists spill their guts offering positive recipes for success. “Once you have written your story, try reading it aloud to yourself to see if it makes sense,” said one speaker. Much to my amazement, another declared, “If you’re doing a picture book, remember…it’s all about economy, with a guideline of no more than 500 words,”

The workshops were packed and, in my opinion, the best of the fest. There were pep talks with practical input, and dozens to choose from, depending upon what you needed and wanted to know.

I could be in only one place at one time, so I opted for the effervescent Erzsi Deak, founder of the Hen and Ink Literary Studio, who offered the countless chomping-at-the-bit writers the chance to submit right away. No interminable silences; you’ll get an answer. Allyn Johnston, who runs Beach Lane Books in the shabby confines of La Jolla (I’m kidding about shabby, of course), could have talked all night and was an absolute powerhouse of information. Some of her tips were downright practical: “We don’t need query letters.” Others were surprisingly basic: “It’s a buyer’s market,” and, “I’m hungry for fresh, middle-grade, contemporary voice-y, original fiction that will make me laugh and cry.” Allyn Johnston will respond to queries.

For me the highlight of the weekend was breakfast with Shell Beach’s upbeat Karen Grencik and her partner Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary agency—another active and energetic publishing house.

And on and on. What I learned and still have a hard time swallowing was this:
everyone told me that even though I am the writer, I shouldn’t even bother coming up with brilliant ideas about what the illustrations in my book should actually look like.
It’s a bit like giving birth to a baby and then handing it over to adoptive parents to do what will.

“Surely the author’s input is vital to the illustration,” I vehemently asked workshop leader Lisa Wheeler, an author of over 35 children’s books, whose workshop topic was “Creating Picture Book Characters.”

“No. You will have no control of art,” she said. “Editors may ask your opinion, but they don’t really care.

“Make your characters more emotionally engaging; I want to laugh and cry with them,” said Ms. Wheeler passionately, after eloquently reading a segment from a book about a pig who, missing his mud, runs away from the farm but ends up mistaking freshly poured concrete in the city for warm mud. Don’t worry. There’s a happy ending.

More tips:

  • “The picture book is a form of theater,” said one speaker.
  • “The work has to speak for itself,” declared another. Sort of. Yes, whatever that means.
  • “We want stories that make you fall in love with the characters,” declared Kat Testerman, founder of KT Literary.

Bottom line: the SCBWI is a ball. And well worth the investment. And you might even get your book published. I met a lady from Marin County, California, who has been coming to the annual events for nine years. “I just told my husband I’ll be back next year for the 47th annual summer conference.”

But my oddest book story: Are you ready for this? There’s this great new book about girls who create a new video game—they fire tampons at nasty boys. I forget the title.
Maybe you’d like to track it down.

Summing it all up was Joy Preble, author of young adult novels like the “Dreaming Anastasia” series, who said, “We’re all in competition with each other—but we’re nice to each other.”

Very nice.

Ivor Davis has been an international journalist and author for more than 50 years. He worked as a columnist for The New York Times syndicate, American reporter for the London Daily Express, and writer of over 100 cover stories for Los Angeles Magazine with his late wife Sally Ogle Davis. His book on the Manson murders was used by the prosecution in their trials. Fifty years later, he wrote the award-winning The Beatles and Me on Tour, about his adventures as the only English journalist allowed to travel and live with the Beatles throughout their historic 1964 and 1965 tours.



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