I was very honored this year to be a winner of the SCBWI Tribute Fund. (Even if it meant I had to stand up in front of over 1500 people!) A brief moment of awkward public embarrassment was well worth what I received in return. I honestly can’t thank the entire staff of SCBWI enough. From Stephen and Lin for providing this grant and selecting me, to everyone in the main office I interacted with regarding all the details – they were all just so lovely.
And of course, a huge thank you to Helen, my Regional Advisor, who nominated me. (Who also took this awkward picture of me waving awkwardly to a crowd of 1500 people. AWKWARD!)
Now I would like to share with you my favorite parts of the SCBWI LA summer conference that I was able to attend this past July as a winner of this wonderful grant.
One of my favorite things about attending these conferences is how energizing they are, how they recharge my creative battery, and remind me that what I do is important. Especially in these uncertain times, it was such a reassuring thing to hear Lin welcome us into our own “Bubble of Love” (complete with actual bubbles).
It was also nice that our region got a shout-out for having such a large group in attendance, along with a handful of other states, but you know ours was the LOUDEST!!! We got a few more shout-outs, just so everyone could hear us make some more noise – something we were not shy about doing! (This happened several times during the conference, which was fun.)
VANESSA BRANTLEY NEWTON – SPREADING SUNSHINE
Vanessa Brantley Newton, illustrator of THE YOUNGEST MARCHER and MARY HAD A LITTLE GLAM (written by our own Tammi Sauer! OKLAHOMA SCBWI in the house!), opened the conference by making us get up out of our seats and dance.
In her keynote entitled, “Diversity Designed by Adversity”, Vanessa said we could let adversity ruin us, make us sad, or lean into it, wrap our arms around it, shake it off, and pack it under.
To illustrate her point, she told a story of a farmer who had a goat that fell down a well. Bemoaning the loss of the goat, he threw dirt down the well to bury it, but the goat just shook it off, and packed it under. Soon, it had a pile tall enough to climb out of the well.
“That’s been my life.”
She was born with dyslexia, synesthesia, and she also struggled with stuttering. Her dyslexia caused her to to go inward, to draw pictures. The synesthesia influenced the use of bright colors in her art. Her parents were both singers and helped her deal with her stuttering. “I sing in my head” the words she wants to say out loud. All these things didn’t stop her, they influenced her work.
Vanessa talked at length about the need for diverse books. She told the story of wanting to be a Breck shampoo girl when she was younger. She thought to have blonde hair, she just needed the shampoo.
She didn’t see herself reflected.
Then came Ezra Jack Keats and THE SNOWY DAY. She didn’t remember the words, but the pictures were powerful.
She told us how Ezra Jack Keats said, “I drew Peter because he should have been there all along”.
Vanessa called on us as artists, as writers to embrace our own challenges.
“You’re built for adversity.”
Some of the best stuff is raised out of adversity. You gotta be willing to put in the hard work.
You need to dream so big that it scares the hell out of you.
She ended by singing to us, and I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the room when she was done.
Honestly I couldn’t see…
TRANSFORMING LIFE INTO ART
Emma Dryden led a thoughtful discussion with this fantastic panel of authors.
Question #1: What led you to express the experience in your own life in novel form?
Alex Gino – Middle Grade is a big part of my heart. The only time I experienced any instance of transgender as an adult was as a joke. “I knew GEORGE was the book I wanted and needed to write.” It took 10 years.
Aisha Saeed – She never saw herself in books with the exception of the role of the bad guy until she went to college. She knew she had to tell her story. She wrote her debut novel about forced marriage because she had many friends who were going through this experience. If they said no, their parents would disown them. She writes to make sense of the world. She wanted to understand why parents who loved their kids would do this.
Ruta Sepetys – “Much of my identity is wrapped up in being an immigrant’s kid.” Not a lot has been told about Stalin and what happened in Siberia. She wanted to bring this story to young readers because YA readers are deep feelers and deep thinkers. Books we read as kids have the potential to make a profound effect.
Kim Turrisi – When she was 15, her sister committed suicide. Her story is about the aftermath of suicide. She didn’t see herself in any books like this back then. She wrote about the experience to help.
Question #2 – Glimpse into choices you had to make to stray away from the truth to serve the story.
Ruta Sepetys – She was interviewing human beings condemned to death who then survived. “There’s a tension between history and memory.” She will interview 100 people and interweave the stories to create a single one – very different from nonfiction. This will hopefully be more representative.
Kim Turrisi – She used notes from 25 different people to cobble together the backgrounds of the secondary characters.
Alex Gino – Many people assume that my book is autobiographical. The way my character is transgender is not the same way that I am. My main character isn’t much like me, but the way people respond is.
Question #3 – Talk about the process of going deep into the story.
Kim Turrisi – I had the suicide letter. I put it on the wall to challenge me. My editor challenged me by saying some things that actually happened may not feel authentic. Give more. It was tough.
Ruta Sepetys – As writers, we should go there. Emotionally we need to get in the trenches. If I feel loss, I have loved. If I feel it, hopefully my readers will too. Amplify the hope in the hardship. Someone has to make it out.
Aisha Saeed – She did the emotional digging. What would it be like to go through this? Why would she run away? Her editor helped her bring out the nuances.
Alex Gino – You have to have a balance between optimism and realism. My responsibility was to provide a mirror for kids who are Trans. We get to have nice stories, too. Then my editor had to remind me that bad things have to happen, so we feel better when there’s redemption.
NOVA REN SUMA – QUEEN OF THE UNRELIABLE NARRATOR
Break Out Session, “The Power and Possibility of the Unreliable Narrator”
POV is one of the most exciting tools you have as a writer. Make good use of it.
What is an “unreliable” narrator?
- Withholds information from the reader
- Breaks your trust (We expect to trust the narrator)
- Drives the plot
Should be unreliable for a reason – an important mechanism for the plot.
Unreliable Narrator often has a surprising, unexpected secret.
WHY is your narrator not telling the whole truth?
WHY is the big mystery.
You as the author need to know the answer.
Favorite example: Mary Katherine Blackwood from WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE by Shirley Jackson
More Unreliable Narrator examples:
Mica from LIAR by Justine Larbalestier
Julie from CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein
Mary from Allegedly by Tiffany D Jackson
Whim from CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn
Caden from CHALLENGER DEEP by Neal Shusterman
Nova went on to explain how using craft choices can help you show your unreliable narrator to your readers and ways to create an unreliable character.
This was such a helpful session! Nova really is a fantastic teacher.
After a full day of amazing keynotes and breakout sessions, our SCBWI OK gang met up for dinner with a former member who recently relocated to LA. She may have moved to California, but she’ll always be a part of us, too!
Hope you enjoyed the first part of my conference experience highlights. Stay tuned for Part II coming soon!