While I could not possibly reproduce the depth and breath of the information I picked up at this week's LA conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators - and doubt I'll get around to decoding the full notebook of scribbled notes I came home with any time soon - these are the top ten points I thought I'd share with anyone who might be interested in children's books - as a writer, reader, teacher, librarian...
1. While the publishing market is struggling with house merges, downsizing, editor losses, etc, there still is a market for kids' books, and lots of editors, agents and publishers who continue to be passionate about children's books - PBs, middle grade and YA. Especially those that are well written with a strong voice and an original story, or new take on an old idea.
2. YA is thriving, but that means that with a strong market focus on that category, there will still need to be good MGs and PBs for when the focus shifts back in that direction. YA is partly thriving because of the crossover of adults now picking up YA titles.
3. If you've never heard Richard Peck speak, you must not miss the next chance you get. You may not agree with his perspective on everything, but no one could question his passion or commitment, or the compelling presence of this icon of contemporary children's literature. And if you haven't read his work - do so soon.
4. Even the 'quieter' picture books (which right now can be a tough sell) need a narrative arc. Beautiful text won't cut it. You need a beginning, middle, and end, as you do in any story. And they are getting shorter. 750 words is good. 1,000 words is perhaps the max. you'll get away with in most cases.
5. Lots of talk about 'quiet' books, how they are harder to sell. But everyone seemed to have a hard time defining what 'quiet' means. Perhaps it's a book driven more by theme and language than a strong and original story.
6. Voice is often the ingredient that first catches an editor or agent's attention. You develop that by writing a lot, getting so deep into the character that the world and story you convey is expressed in their terms, not yours. Think of music. How you can tell the difference between Bach and Vivaldi, Sting or the Partridge Family. Even if you don't recognize the song or the words they're signing. Tempo and pace contribute to voice. The individual words you use and how you put them together...
7. Children's writers, illustrators, agents and editors are very generous. They share their skill and knowledge, support each other, celebrate each others' successes. I've rarely been in a more collegial environment.
8. Write from the heart not the head - don't over-worry about the market/trends/what your writing peers are writing and selling. When you've written it, that's the time to find out where your story fits and do what it takes to find the best home for it.
9. Conform to what editors and agents want when you submit manuscripts and queries. Check their websites when you start planning to market your work, then again just as you're ready to send it off in case they've changed their criteria. Don't put roadblocks in the way of other writers' work being read (adding to already large submission piles) by sending in work your too early, to the wrong people, in the wrong way.
10. Consume children's books. Not just those of your writing peers. Buy them for yourself, your friends, neighbours, kids' school, to donate to local libraries (God knows, most of them are experiencing some kind of hard times). It one thing to worry about the health of children's publishing, but we need to be supporting it by buying good books.
Speaking of which. I came home with about 85 titles that were mentioned during the conference, which writers I met there had recently published, or had been recognized in one way or another. Here are ten that I plan to track down first - picked at random, purely by titles that most appealed to me... right now. *Indicates those that I have already read
1. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
2. Dust of a Hundred Dogs by A. S. King
3. Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin
4. A Visitor for Bear by Bonnie Becker and Kady MacDonald Denton
5. Wintergirls by Laurie Anderson
6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins *
7. Ash by Melinda Lo
8. The Other Side of Blue by Valerie Patterson
9. Sarah Plain and Tall by Patricia Maclachlan *
10. Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta