Notes from the SuperDuper 2009 SCBWI Western WA conference

Okay, so I’m sitting down to write out some notes on the SCBWI Western Washington conference I attended last weekend. They titled the conference “Feed Your Genius” and it was indeed a feast! This was my first year attending the Washington conference (as I reside in Portland, OR and normally attend the Oregon chapter conference), and apparently last year was the first year they extended the conference to two days. I can’t imagine how much planning and work goes into this thing, but they must have the best volunteers ever. It was superbly organized and ran like clockwork! KUDOS!!

They managed to attract such luminaries as authors Ellen Hopkins and Jon Scieszka, author/illustrators Adam Rex and Grace Lin, agents Nathan Bransford, Michael Stearns, Kelly Sonnack and Steven Malk, editors Krista Marino Delacorte Press for Young Readers, Sarah Shumway Katherine Tegen imprint at HarperCollins, Connie Hsu Little Brown, and Executive Art Director at Scholastic, Elizabeth Parisi.

It was impossible, of course, to attend every breakout session, but the highlights for me were:

Connie Hsu (assistant editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and subversively funny) who said that she thinks children are “morbid and strange” and though she doesn’t want to see books about cute animals, she likes to see anything with dead animals (I’m paraphrasing here!). She describes herself as “hungry & completely strange”.

Steven Malk (agent with Writers House) who reps wonderful authors and illustrators the likes of Jon Scieszka, Lane Smith, Kadir Nelson, Cynthia Rylant, Marla Frazee, Carson Ellis and Nikki McClure. He “likes to see people set a goal and really go after it”. The gems of advice I took away from his session were that you should develop a strategy for your career…slow down and be patient…become an expert in your field…don’t dabble – do it with passion…have a career model (who is it you admire in the field and how did they develop their career?)…take control over your career – every decision you make does impact your career…present yourself as a professional – you never get a second chance to make a first impression…if at first you don’t succeed, don’t abandon ship — stay positive and stay on course…slow but steady wins the race…and ENJOY the ride! He was gracious and kindly towards one and all. A real gentleman.

Elizabeth Parisi (art director for Scholastic’s trade hardcover lists, she designs YA and middle-grade novels and picture books, overseeing more than 120 books per year) was amazing. She confided that she studied illustration at RISD, but felt she didn’t have the skills necessary to pursue illustration, instead finding her way to art direction/book design and is completely satisfied and passionate about her work. In addition to all the critiques of picture book dummies she did, she took her time to design COVERS (!) for each of the dummies submitted, by way of demonstrating  “What Makes a Great Cover”, the title of her break out session. She showed such generosity and patience in answering every last burning question we had. A real star!

Sarah Shumway (Senior Editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins children’s Books) critiqued the first five pages of a middle-grade manuscript I had submitted.  She gave valuable and constructive criticism which I took away and will incorporate into a better product! I am so appreciative of the thoughtful advice. Plus, one of her break outs I attended on pitching your manuscript was invaluable. She challenged us to write a one sentence pitch that would sum up our stories (confiding that it is the hardest part of her job).

Last, but not least, Jon Scieszka had us in tears (yes…the funny, good kind) at the end, regaling us with hilarious tales of his travels as America’s first National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, as well as reading from his book Knucklehead. He sent us off on a hysterically high note and I only needed a little bit of real caffeine to get me back to Portland.

I made some great new friends and contacts as well as renewing friendships with writers and illustrators I had made contact with at previous conferences. It’s weird that after you’ve attended a number of these things (including the NYC Winter conferences) so many faces start to look familiar. A lovely reunion of like minded/spirited souls.