Sunday, March 3, 2013

SCBWI WINTER CONFERENCE CHRONICLES: Vol.5 If You're Going on Mr. Frost's Path Less Traveled By, Bring A Machete

Day 3 of the Conference
(Day 1 for many,  Day 3 for me)...

     As the title references Robert Frost's poem about courageously striking out on your own and blazing your own path or just simply taking the path less traveled by, he neglects to mention one thing. You better bring your machete, because your going to need it.   (I wonder if this is why I feel the need to put on zombie flicks in the background.)  This day at the conference was much Ado About Personal Journeys.

     ...Meanwhile back at the hotel...

     One groggy eye opens as the sounding of the alarm jolts and uncomfortably electrifies every atom in my body.

Mornings, eh?

     I have to confess that even if I am ABSOLUTELY excited about what the particular day has in store, I still hate getting up in the mornings.  I tend to er on the side of the principle of inertia before 10am.  After getting up getting ready, I grabbed the large and bulky portfolio box again and headed out into the very very cold air.  I quickly popped into the cafe/bakery next door to get some breakfast on the go.

    I ordered  an egg and cheese croissant sandwich though they were only half listening. I could tell from the ham they put all over my sandwich.  I discovered this as the portfolio was tucked under one arm whose hand was holding a cup of coffee.  Under my other arm was a large notebook and a folder with many loose postcards business cards and bookmarks in it's pockets.  I had only a free forearm and a hand to hold onto the breakfast sandwich.  This meant that the only way i could open the foil wrapped sandwich was to open it with my teeth. I slowly moved the sandwich towards my teeth and carefully unwrapped it. To my horror that upon my success, I find ham all up and down my sandwich.  I was livid, as I did not have time to go back, complain and have another sandwich made.  I was halfway to Grand Central by this point, on foot and in the cold.  I had not choice but to unload right then and there, throwing away the ham into the closest trash can.   I'm sure there were traces left of ham juice on the egg or something, but I was cranky, hungry and cold.  Did I mention how much i just love the morning time...

     I made it finally to Grand Central Station.  I had successfully eaten my breakfast sandwich and had moved onto my coffee. I may have had a bit of egg smegma and some crumbs on my scarf, but with a belly full of yummy eggs, cheese and croissant... I didn't much care.

     So... Day 3 in NY and Day 2 of the conference for me, Day 1 for many.  Once again I forgot about the free bagels and cheese and coffee they had there for the attendees, but honestly, I liked the little cafe next to the hotel and how often do you really get to have a NYC breakfast... you know, unless you live in NYC.  The huge auditorium was filling up and I found a seat at the end of a row on the far right end of the auditorium.  (By the way the official pic that you see is on the SCBWI Official Conference Blog and it was taken right next to me. The person's head you see at the bottom of the photo was the person sitting right beside me. neat)  There was a stage and podium in the center of the room and two screens flanking either side of it that projected video of what was going on the stage.  I thought that was considerate planning.  The conference began with a very special birthday on a very peculiar national holiday.  It was Executive Director of SCBWI Lin Oliver's birthday.
President Steve Mooser lead the auditorium in singing to her.   After Lin took the stage she took her bow and thanked everyone for the warm birthday wishes.  I'm sure it's not everyday that you have an entire auditorium singing to you on your birthday.  Lin went on to explain how much she, in fact, loathed having her birthday on Ground Hogs Day.  She confessed to getting teased by a certain young boy.  She also let everyone know that that particular young man always makes an appearance in her books as the bad kid.  Moral of the story: Don't pick on writers, folks, they will make you regret it forever.  After a bit more humorous dialogue, Lin introduced our opening keynote speaker, the Amazing and fantastically witty, Meg Rosoff.

     Meg's lecture had THE BEST title for those in my field: "So When Are You Going to Write a REAL Book, You Know, For Adults?"  I admit that many people look at me like I have five heads when I tell them I am an Illustrator for children's literature.  They have the same face that many zombies have after being hit in the face by a cricket bat.  I am watching/listening to Shaun of the Dead while working up this blog posting.  (kind of funny coincidence, Shaun's British and Meg is British... funny, huh?)  Meg talked about how she would love to just punch people in the face for uttering such sentences, but it is often difficult to punch that person in the face if that particular person is your mother.  Meg related some very funny anecdotes about the funny relationship she has with her mother and also that she has with her daughter.
You can imagine the humor in receiving a daily phone call from your mother.  She is reciting the New York Times Best Seller list and faining surprise as to why Meg is not listed on there that day. She then goes into a serial nag asking Meg why she can't write a nice REAL book for adults, maybe with a nice couple having a divorce or an exciting affair with other people.  All this while Meg is calling out the names of the streets of London to her daughter, who is incidentally "plugged in" completely to her electronic device, to prepare her for the inevitable Apocalypse when there will be no GPS and you will have to rely on your own sense of direction.  A typical morning drive to school for many, wouldn't you say?  This leads Meg onto her main point, that most adult literature doesn't even come close to holding a candle to the brilliance of many children's classics.  Can you really compare Fifty Shades of Gray to unchallenged classics like The House at Pooh Corner, The Wind in the Willows and even the clever rhetoric of Dr. Suess

     This lead Meg to talk about the other side of the spectrum...  Those who think that writing a children's book is just SO easy, a child could do it.  She admitted to cringing internally when people would utter, "If all else fails, I'll write a kid's book" or "If I had time, I'd write a kid's book."  These are more people Meg admittedly would punch in the face, even if she only imagined it in her head.  And honestly, EVERYONE thinks they can just write a children's book, just like everyone has one, like Madonna and Jay Leno.  Meg read an excerpt of the latter.  It was quite funny.  In all actuality, writing a short story for children is one of the most difficult things to write, that is, if you are going to write it WELL.  Any writer will tell you that this is true.  Otherwise, every bored house wife or soccer mom on the planet would be a published author and published by one of the prestigious BIG SIX, as they are called.  Meg went on to talk about her own personal failures and experiences with her writing.  She shared very personal and intimate details of her life with this huge room full of strangers.  At the end of her lecture, it was as if we had bonded with her and had been there on her journey every step of the way.  This is how good writers do it, folks.  They suck you "write" in. ;0)

     Meg closed with reading an excerpt from the House at Pooh Corner.  It was the part where Christopher Robin asks Pooh to always remember him fondly should something ever... Christopher Robin couldn't bring himself to utter the words.  This part of the book is very emotional.
Knowing the reality of Christopher Robins mortality and he himself, being aware at such a young age to try to communicate his goodbye to Pooh, who would have to go on forever in Christopher Robins absence.  And Christopher Robin is just on the edge of saying it but kind of chokes back the words and can not tell Pooh that there will be a day where they can no longer have adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Pooh, who really doesn't understand, in his naivete,  promises that he will remember Christopher Robin for as long as he is able to remember. It really just breaks your heart.  I was quite literally on the verge of tears.  Is that REAL enough to be a REAL book?   Some children's literature surpasses much literature that is written for an adult exclusive audience as the writer is trying to communicate really difficult concepts such as death, grieving, love and all the same concepts that are being expressed in adult literature but it has to be written in a way that a child can understand it... So much more challenging.  Meg Rosoff is the author of the acclaimed Young Adult novel, How I Live Now, soon to be a major motion picture.

    Meg was followed by a Panel of book sellers that discussed What is Selling in the Industry right now.  It was very interesting and educational.
I can' really share too much of what was discussed during this session of the conference.

     At this point, we broke into individual sessions with chosen professionals.  I chose former editor and present agent, Alexandra Penfold and Creative Director, Patric Collins.  While much of the content of these sessions are also something I cannot share with the public at large, I can say a few things about each one.

     Alexandra discussed the acquisitions process from all three point of views: the client, the agent and the editor.  She has the unique perspective of having been in all three positions and knows the process better than most.  She discussed what hooks her most in the books she tries to represent and fight for.  Alexandra Penfold is now a representing agent for Upstart Crow Literary.

     Patrick Collins discussed five things that he feels makes a picture book art successful.  Again I can not share this information, but he discussed the different examples from the following books:
The Monster Returns by Peter McCarty, Chester's Colorful Easter Eggs by Theresa Smythe, Saturday with Daddy by Dan Anderson, Sing by Tom Lichtenheld and many more.  The entire talk was very enlightening and informative with very concrete examples of everything Patrick was trying to teach us.  Patrick Collins is the Creative Director for Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.

     In between the two sessions was LUNCH! :0)  I smile because yet again, I ate New York Pizza with a fruit salad at this really nice cafe that was a couple of blocks from Grand Central.  It was called the Red Stone Cafe.  the place was practically empty at the time so it was nice to have the place to myself and my thoughts.
I did have to lug my folders notebook and portfolio box along.  they sat opposite me in the cafe.  It was kind of like a date except no one talked and I was the only one eating.  I did check in with B to see what he was up to.  He was playing at the MOMA all day.  I was a bit jealous, but I have been there before and the conference was VERY EDUCATIONAL and HELPFUL to me as a Children's Book Illustrator, So I quietly and contentedly ate my oh so yummy pizza and fruit.  I had a cannoli for desert. :0)

     An aside, for whatever reason I am enjoying zombie flicks tonight.  There is something so soothing about watching the characters from Zombieland destroy the Native American gift shop.... fun movie.

    After lunch I packed up ALL of my things and headed back to the conference.  I had the distinct pleasure of listening to Shaun Tan speak twice that weekend.  For those of you who have not looked at (because you can't read a book with no words) his book The Arrival. It's ABSOLUTELY Amazing.
He nailed the definitive immigrant story by telling it without language, just pictures (the universal language.)   His lecture was titled "Internal Migrations"  and he spoke on the personal inner journey of Art in general.
He also talked about his personal journey from the Extraordinary to the Ordinary that he takes with his art.  "The point of story telling is to remind us of things that are ordinary through a sideways door," Tan explains.  He showed us a very amusing Day in the Life of that he drew as a reply to that question posed in the magazine.
He also shared a story from his book "Tales from Outer Suburbia" title "Eric."
It was about cultural differences and trying to understand them and how this confusing situation could lead to misunderstandings.  He also said something I absolutely loved.  "The thing that matters most in Art is that thing you don't understand."  His story of Eric could be a very nice analogy to every artists personal journey into themselves to understand what their art and their message is all about.

     After Shaun Tan's lecture, the Society set up tables outside that large auditorium for the Art Browse.  This was a more informal display of the portfolios from the portfolio showcase.  You would stand by your portfolio to answer any questions or just discuss your art or discuss the art of others or just art in general to anyone and everyone that came by.  I had the luck to have set my portfolio up by a very talented artist, Joyce Zarins, or as she likes to called, J.A.Z.  She had the most beautiful portfolio of lino cut artwork.  She had illustrated a series of Viking characters based in historic fact.  AMAZING Work.  We actually didn't end up talking to many of the people that came by (we did speak to some. we weren't rude, obviously.)  We ended up having the most lovely conversation about our backgrounds in art and illustration and discussed each other's work with each other.  I recommend checking out her work on her website.

     After the Art Browse, there was a Cocktail Social.  I left to go back to my hotel to change and to finally drop off my portfolio.  I was glad to have it there that weekend to show, but was also very glad to not have to carry it around after that evening.  At the social, I met the leaders of my region branch of the Society and met several of the wonderfully talented members in my region.  I have included them in my "shout outs" below this post.

     And even after this social there was another set of socials, but you could really only pick one.  There was one for new members and I was going to go to that one, but was told by an Illustrator I had met there, that I should go to the Illustrator's after-social social.  I'm glad I did because there was a surprise guest. Mr. Children's Book Illustrator himself, Tommy DePaola.  Mr. DePaola told us the story of his early days. His beginnings as an illustrator and how he came to work in the children's literature arena.  He also discussed his background in art education.  He explained the story of how the "I" in "SCBWI" was because of him.  All us illustrators in the Society now owe him a great debt of gratitude for integrating the art part of the industry into the Society.
It has made a considerable difference in the success stories of many illustrators.  It is true that , illustrator or writer, if you have ANY interest in working in the children's book industry or ever want to publish a book in that field, you definitely should e a member of SCBWI.  They are an invaluable resource to have at your paint covered hands.  Tommy then told the infamous story of the "Master Class."  How there were several illustrators that refused to leave his 1 hour lecture and instead, chose to stay for 7 hours more. There was even a small aside about how there was one student who was thrown out of the class for not having done the homework.

     This reminded me of this one particular class that I was in with my animation professor at the time, Nancy Beiman. I had forgotten to bring drawing pencils and my set of field guides with me one day.  She had made me leave the class to go and get them, though I was not able to come back till I had retrieved them.  I can't thank her enough, though.  Nancy cares 100% about the learning experience she provides her students and I have to say I learned so much from her and her class.  Much of what I took into my professional career was what I learned from her classes.  She's tough as nails, but you couldn't want for a better teacher than her, nor could you be more privileged than to have studied under her.

     Tommy's words were very inspiring and uplifting and I found myself feeling emotional again.  This is, obviously, another educator that cares a lot for the students he teaches and the lives he touches.  You should definitely check out any of Mr. Depaola's wonderful books.  I wonder what it would have been like to have been a student in one of his art classes.  It would have been cool.  I think I will put it on my Time Machine list of places and times I would go... you know, if time travel were possible.

SHOUT OUTS: Day 2 (of the Conference)

 J.A.Z. (Joyce Zarins)

Steven Ihde

April Dukes

Yohey Horishita

     Well this pretty much wraps up this additional to the SCBWI Chronicles.  Until next time... 
Keep sketching, keep thinking, keep laughing and most important of all, keep making art. 

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