Where do children’s books come from?
Creators, of course.
Think back to a book you loved as a kid. At some point a creator (or two, if it had both a writer and illustrator) had to haul that book – perhaps painfully, slowly, or with great effort – up out of the depths of the deep, dark well of creativity and bring it to life.
Creating kids’ books is nowhere near as easy as it looks. And sometimes we need others to help us have the strength to do that work.
For two days last week, I was privileged to witness what was probably the largest gathering of children’s book creators – writers and illustrators – in Israel’s history.
Bringing together 120 creators, plus nearly 20 faculty including representatives of two major U.S. publishing companies (Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster) along with several major Israeli publishers (such as Kinneret Zmora Bitan Dvir and Keter), Sail Away: SCBWI Israel Conference for Children’s Writers and Illustrators was the first-ever conference organized by SCBWI Israel, a 100-member strong branch of the international professional organization of children’s writers and illustrators – with 22,000 members in over 80 regional chapters worldwide.
Full disclosure: I was one of the conference organizers, so beyond my excitement about the event itself, both creatively and from a tribe-finding perspective, I was also thoroughly amazed that our four-person team was able to pull off such an ambitious endeavour.
So what do children’s book creators talk about when they (we!) get together?
Well, how to make great children’s books, of course!
Seriously, though, because non-writers and non-illustrators often have no idea what goes on at a children’s book conference, here are just a few examples of what we talked and did about over the two days:
- How to tell stories in words and pictures: with 15 page spreads and under 700 words in a typical picture book, the format can be both painfully restrictive and creatively liberating, like poetry.
- How to market books: while creativity rules the process of planning the book, a serious marketing perspective is necessary once it comes time to sell the book to an agent of publisher.
- Differences between the U.S. and Israeli market: for Israeli authors hoping to “sail away” (the theme of the conference!) on the sometimes-hostile seas of the U.S. market, this understanding is critical.
- Story crafting: from creating unforgettable characters to writing an opening for a story readers won’t want to put down, published writers delivered the secrets of their own success and helped inspire participants.
- Portfolio showcase: an exhibition for illustrators to show off their best work – with a prize awarded to the best overall portfolio, as selected by industry professionals.
- Pitchapalooza pitch competition: an opportunity for writers to offer their best story ideas in 100 words or less – with a prize awarded to the best pitch, as chosen by all conference participants.
- Personal feedback: participants could select a one-on-one critique with industry professionals to either go over their portfolio (illustrators) or a piece of writing (writers) and receive feedback on strengths, challenges, and marketability of their work.
Altogether, packed into these two days, there were 21 different talks, events, and programs on offer – all aimed at helping writers and illustrators take their work to the next level. But throughout all of it, regardless of the topic at hand, the Big Idea was simply giving all of us the strength to continue – to keep doing that hard work of telling stories to children.
Because although it’s lovely to have a professional conference, essentially, it comes down to one thing: reaching more kids.
That’s ultimately why all of us do what we do – including the agents, editors, art directors, and other professionals among us. Just that single thought – that someday, our work will be held by a parent, read to a child, or held by a child eagerly turning pages to find out what happens… that single thought is what brought us all together for this and every one of the many conferences run by SCBWI all over the world.
I know there are bad apples in any industry, but honestly, hardly anybody goes into children’s books to get rich, because it’s not a business that will make you rich – at least not quickly enough for most people, if that’s all they’re looking for.
Sometimes I have to repeat this to myself, like a mantra: “I’m not in this to get rich.” You know, just so I don’t get too frustrated at the snail’s pace of success, which seems to take its time getting to each and every one of the many talented children’s book creators I’ve come to know through SCBWI.
And yet on Friday, saying goodbye to everyone who came to the conference and dashing off into the streets of Tel Aviv and away for Shabbat, I realized this: I already am. Rich beyond belief.
That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on being rich in shekels (or dollars); actual compensation would be more than nice after all the work I’ve put in.
But surrounded by this supportive and warm community of creators, I realized I have so many precious resources I never knew about before joining SCBWI. Community. Inspiration. Hope.
And these, of course, are the things all the best children’s literature is truly made of.