Sunday, April 7, 2013

SCBWI Conference Review

Two weeks ago, T. A. Barron, opened the 20th Anniversary  Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, MD/DE/WV speaking on “the Magic of Words.” With the power of words, authors create new worlds and offer inspiration, he said. Authors must believe in their art and try to find just the right word. Writing can be like weaving, finding different colors and textures. The threads have to fit.  He also gave comparisons to making music and planting a seed.  Barron is the author of the Merlin Saga, which includes 12 books, the Great Tree of Avalon trilogy The Hero’s Trail and many other books. More information and his documentary film about young people, Dream Big, can be found at

Jill Santapolo spoke next on creating realistic, relatable characters. Characters should be interesting, imperfect, vulnerable and kind. She stressed that characters must have goals and motivations: both a plot goal and a heartline or emotional goal. Santapolo is a PenquinGroup Executive Editor and author of several books. She also teaches fiction writing through McDaniel College and is an MFA thesis adviser at The New School.

An agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency, Ammi-Joan Paquette focused on writing the beginning of a novel. The first sentence should hook the reader and set the tone. The first page is no place for backstory or a lot of scenic description, but should introduce the main character, create story tension and give hints about where the story is going. It is a chance to entice the reader (or editor) to continue reading the first chapter and more. She also stressed preparing a pitch - talking about your book aloud - what is fresh and why it stands out. For more information check out 

Steve Mooser is author of more than 60 books and current president of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which he co-founded 40 years ago with Lyn Oliver. He spoke about a different level of literacy and stressed taking creative control of your work. Smart, interactive content is important to compete in the world of websites, blogs and digital books. His Class Clown Academy is a middle grade book and interactive website

Illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky gave a guided tour through some of his book projects. Even writers can apply some of the same principles, such as analyzing the values at play, drawing upon your experiences and working with publishers. Illustrators face many of the same challenges as writers and since you may be working on this project for some time, it is important to love your work. His illustrations won many awards including the Caldecott Medal for a retelling of Rapunzel and three Caldecott Honors for Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin and Swamp Angel. He shared his ideas and artwork from His Z is for Moose, one of only two 2012 children’s books to receive six starred reviews from the six major review journals

Making sure a picture book isn’t too quiet (one of the main reasons an editor may reject a book) was the subject of Sylvie Frank, an associate editor at Paula Wiseman Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. She stressed structure: beginning, complications, climax, falling action and resolution.  Something new must happen on every spread.

Focusing on the Dos and Don’ts for crafting natural dialogue that flows and keeps readers’ interest was the subject covered by Evelyn M. Fazio, an award-winning publisher who has three decades of book publishing, authored several books herself and now focuses  on YA and middle grade fiction through her agency, EMF Books LLC.  The little details that can make or break a book include balancing sentence length, sounding natural, making it clear who is speaking, making the dialogue match the character’s personality and balancing dialogue and narration.

I tried offering just some information from each of the main speakers. Believe me, lots more detail was provided, with interaction between the speakers and conference attendees.  I also met new writers and connected with friends. Besides being enjoyable, conferences like this, also motivate us to write more and help us write better.

The SCBWI local organization scheduled their annual conference for September 21 and 22 this year. More information is available at Check out regional events.