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Five Key Takeaways from National Conference for Kids Book Creators

The most exciting thing I learned at the recent national conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is that the evidence continues to mount that young readers crave high quality nonfiction — especially of the expository kind, which is the style of my most recent two books. Melissa Stewart, a friend and mentor who writes nonfiction, too, has spent months compiling research from various academic studies. I got to hear her talk about this firsthand, but she has also generously laid it all out on her blog Celebrate Science. I’ve linked to a post with a big bunch of research citations, but many of her posts are relevant, so plan to spend some time digging into it.

Spending time listening to the best practitioners of one’s craft is inspiring. The mainstage panel on nonfiction included Deborah Heiligman, Barbara Kerley, Jason Chin, and Candace Fleming. All talked about how much research they did just to get to the point where they had identified the “vital idea.” Having chosen a focus often meant that much research had to be set aside and new research had to be done to fill in around the vital idea. I had so many moments where I felt like I knew exactly what they were talking about that I tweeted this:  Nonfiction nirvana. Inspiring workshops by Asked why primary sources: “I want to meet people in their own words.” asked why NF, “The world is so interesting, I just want to learn as much as I can and share it.” My peeps, y’all.

People expect an author/illustrator of expository books about math to be … well, not like me. Several people who stopped by my signing table expressed surprise at the woman behind Mysterious Patterns: Finding Fractals in Nature. Apparently, I’m a little more outgoing and gregarious than they expect. And, if they probe a little deeper than the surface they discover that I am only good at writing about math because I am NOT a natural mathlete. I come by my understandings by reading lots of explanations written by better mathematicians than me. And then I read a lot more explanations. Eventually, I get to where I can explain it to someone who started where I did. Rather than “write what you know,” my mantra is “write what you want to understand.”

Every industry professional — agent, editor, art director — is swamped with submissions. Every single one has more material coming in than they can possibly handle. This means we must rely on the wider community of writers and artists to help us get our work into its best possible shape — before we submit. There is no shortcut for putting in the work — even for the well-published among us. As Kevin Lewis, an agent with Erin Murphy Agency, and Alexandra Penfold, an agent with Upstart Crow Literary, put it: “Don’t jump precipitously. Wait a beat.”  “You only get fresh eyes once.”

Finally, I spent a lunch hour with #kidlitwomen organizers strategizing about ways to push for equal treatment for women and for all people from marginalized groups in children’s publishing. If you want to get involved in or follow this important conversation, please check out the kidlitwomen group on Facebook. A first step we identified is to gather data documenting disparities. These include unequal pay for the same work; fewer marketing dollars put behind work by or about women/girls/other underrepresented people, etc.

My trip to Los Angeles for the SCBWI Summer Conference was paid for in part by a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. The MAC is funded by the Mississippi Legislature and by the National Endowment for the Arts, which is in turn funded by Congress. I am grateful for this public support of the arts. My thanks go in particular to my state representative, Christopher Bell; my state senator, David Blount; my U.S. House Rep. Gregg Harper; and my two U.S. Senators, Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith.

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