Featuring amazing, overwhelming, stressing, tiring, inspiring, finger-itching events, people, and books
02/08/2012 - 04/08/2012 19 °C
Thursday evening we drove out to the Century City neighborhood in the city proper of LA (as opposed to the Valley), where I'm staying at a guest house referred to me by their friends across the street. Apparently it's not uncommon for people to run "bed and breakfast" joints out of their homes in residential areas.
I arrived an hour early to the hotel hosting the conference and hundreds of the 1,200+ conference-goers (about 10% of whom line up at the in-house Starbucks to get their coffee fix even though there's free caffeine downstairs). There were some labor protesters outside, which I thought was sweet until I realized their bullhorns were to keep people from sleeping and their issue was essentially based in some union politics (according to the conference attorney, anyway).
Because I had time, I ran over to the brand-name mall down the street, which was the ritziest I'd ever seen, to grab a bathroom and buy some energy bars from the local supermarket, which are literally keeping me alive right now. Then I ran back too late for the newcomers' orientation but in time to meet someone by sitting down next to her in the ballroom waiting for the program to start, who told me I hadn't missed much. People here are very friendly; the fact that most of them are 30- to 60-year-old women probably has something to do with that. You can literally walk up to almost anyone with any general question and launch into some friendly conversation. The air is charged and everyone is tense and nervous and excited. Especially when their favorite authors take the stand.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, Lin Oliver got up and opened the " Olympic games," called in the "contestants" to walk down to their seats, and had them light the "torch" to kick things of. All the faculty (authors, editors, agents) came by and said one word that inspires them. Examples are: serendipity (Karen Cushman), hysteria (Jay Asher), and joy (Patricia MacLachlan). This was helpful not only so I could know which famous people were there, but also to get a good look at the editors I'm supposed to be stalking, I mean introducing myself to. Lin also told us about all the contests the conference is sponsoring, including the Olympic news headline-children's literature jokes, like "Steroid Scandal for Clifford the Big Red Dog." I later found her and hugged her per the request of our own Donna Jo Napoli. She had to go back to running things, but told me to find her again to talk to her!
Then Arthur A. Levine, founder of the Scholastic imprint of the same name, did a presentation of the books he's published that he considers timeless, including The Four Questions, The Rough-Face Girl, Mirette on the High Wire, Good Night, Gorilla, When She Was Good, How Are You Peeling?, Millicent Min, The Snow Day, The Arrival, and of course Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (you can look up more of their books here). He talked a bit for each book about what gives it a universal dimension; for instance, for The Golden Compass (also known as Northern Lights) he talked about what all kids really love about the book - daemons. Why? Because Pullman created what everyone wants most, a perfect best friend that keeps them from ever being lonely. Then he puts that bond in mortal peril - he called this the human condition of intimacy and separation (just one of many golden nuggets).
Then we heard from Tony Diterlizzi, who illustrated the Spiderwick Chronicles, about imagination and the fairy tales that inspired his childhood. He talked about the similarities in the older stories of Dorothy, Alice, and Wendy, and the characters of Obi-Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. He mentioned Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and talked about his own quest story, The Search for WondLa, which (judging by the first few chapters and a lot of artwork) is fantastic. Then it was time for the first workshop session, where Matthew Kirby talked about plot as form, not formula. He said a lot about "models of plot" (the quest, the bildungsroman, etc.), the outer and the inner, or internal, plot, and how they should be intertwined, as shown in the movie Super 8. He also quoted Richard Peck that a book should be a question, but never the answer.
Then I went back to the mall's food court for lunch. I had veggie sushi and tofu salad at Seiki-Shi Sushi, which was pretty good. Later I went back for dinner at Take a Bao, where I had their veggie soup and tofu rice, which wasn't so good. I did get to meet another writer, though. Then it was back to some keynote speeches, which I didn't like so much as the earlier ones, though by the second workshop I realized this was probably because my blood sugar was tanking. Fist we heard from Sara Shepard on how to keep a series going, then from Patricia MacLachlan, mostly on humorous anecdotes about her grandchildren. At least, that's what I took away from it.
For the workshop I went to Gary Schmidt's talk on layering characters, which would have been better if I'd figured out I needed to reverse my bad (dare I say defiant?) mood beforehand, not halfway through. Anyway, we did an exercise where he passed out large envelopes for us to share. Luckily for me, he didn't have enough, so when everyone opened their envelopes to look at their 150-year-old European photos of their new characters, I got to invent mine instead. Then we went through exercises like "Your character goes home. What is their favorite room? What is their least favorite room?" or "How does your character walk? How do they sit?" or "How do they begin a conversation? How do they end one?" It was really supposed to be about personality and depth and backstory, but since I had invented my own character I had to add all the world-building to it, too. (No, I'm not telling you who my character was. Yet. Maybe.)
Then we went back to the last keynote of the day, which was Dan Gutman's hilarious backwards 13-step-program for how to get tons of books published, even if you're an idiot like him. It included many irreverent but poignant pokes at the industry, including how he did a lot of his own publicity early on when he realized his publishers weren't going to do it for him. This was partly because he does a lot of what I would call stupid-humor-for-young-boys chapter books, the kind I usually hated to read and thought were really immature. But Gutman made the case for his books via the issue of boys.
For those of you who don't know, most of the young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) and even elementary school level literature in the US is directed at either girls or a mixed-gendered audience. Someone today mentioned that 80% of buyers are female, an incredible statistic that might not be true, but nonetheless expresses the issue at hand. Various faculty mentioned that people in the industry have a perception that boy's don't like to read, and it's true that that currently they tend to be "reluctant readers." In fact, half of all the male speakers I heard said the same of their own younger counterparts. Gutman's service to this "problem" (as an anthropologist it's interesting how everyone here assumes the necessity of enjoying reading) is by writing silly, honest, funny, non-condescending series specifically for boys. And he said that he gets parents and educators who tell him all the time how his books help their sons and male students learn that reading can be fun and informative and interesting, not just boring hard work. In terms of improving literacy skills for young boys, this is a gift. In fact, knowing how much people talk about these skills as a predictor for school outcomes along racial and socioeconomic lines, I wouldn't be surprised if this is one reason boys do worse in traditional American schooling than girls do.
After dinner I was planning to go to my regional social, but missed it for the LGBTQ Q&A session. It was in a small room with the chairs arranged in a circle, and one of the regional advisors there started playing "We Are Family" and "Born This Way" with his SmartPhone using one of the mikes, to set the tone. SCBWI has been called a tribe by its members, and at this session they stressed that we were like a tribe within the tribe, even more like a family. Among the faculty was Arthur A. Levine himself with some books from his imprint that addressed queer issues, which he gave away at the end. We started out with a round robin where everyone introduced themselves and asked some questions. It was great to have Sonya Sones, Emma Dryden, and even Levine answer my question on how to write as an ally. They said that yes, writing "the other" is hard, but that my uncertainty can help me write my characters' uncertainties in a way that rings true.
Passing the mike around quickly devolved into a huge discussion over whether non-queer people can appropriate queer literature using queer characters and stories. It was interesting to me that Levine, who identifies as gay, had a hard time understanding people's hesitation with writing a story that isn't theirs because it is so politically charged, even though on some level we are always writing someone else's story. He even suggested that their hesitation stems from internalized homophobia, afraid that by writing queer characters people will think that they themselves are queer (though I later heard him say to someone else that he had been playing devil's advocate). He also mentioned that when he started in the business, for thirty years there was nothing, and now he's published five queer-related books in the last year. So perhaps he's so happy to see this happening - and, let's face it, of such an older generation - that he doesn't see this issue as like appropriating race or socioeconomic class, the way some of us might.
A lot of people did ask what the big deal is. "Love is love" was an oft-repeated phrase. A lot of people also expressed the desire to include even cursory mentions of queer tertiary characters, like a scene where arranging a playdate depends on a girl having to ask her moms, instead of her mom. People wanted to write picture books about first crushes that happened to be gay, MG novels about dealing with a stepparent who happens to be lesbian, YA novels where the family friends happen to be a same-gender couple, and even futuristic and fantasy books in a post-gender, sexuality-is-nothing-to-comment-about world (like The Summer Prince). There was a teacher of a transgendered boy who wrote a picture book for him, and a urologist writing about someone with androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) who got to take home the one book in Levine's pile that even included an intersexual character. And Lee Wind, the moderator, mentioned his blog of young queer fiction called "I'm Here. I'm queer. What the hell do I read?"
Sadly, asexuality was not mentioned. (Nor was aromanticism, though given the strong emphasis on love, I wasn't surprised.) Something else I noticed is that these people were a generation or two older than me and having trouble just articulating themselves about this stuff; it really made me feel quite lucky to have grown up in it, and to have gone to school somewhere we could open it up and talk freely without being daunted by the complexity of this new conception of gender and sexuality and romance that is developing.
Afterwards I talked to Dryden, an agent/editor of a small house, and even Levine, though he was reticent to give his contact info and even covered his name on his badge with his door prize ticket (probably to hide from all the stalkers). I was also asked by one of the attendees about my own experiences as a high school and college student with the different cultural dynamic around queerness. I told her about how my high school wasn't very open, but my college was very liberal, and that I barely keep track of the sexualities of my friends, though I admit to always remembering who is genderqueer and trans.
And that was all just yesterday.