This summer I went to the 40th annual SCBWI Summer conference. This was a well organized event I was referred to while going back to school to finish my BFA. I don’t know many artists personally who specialize in Children’s Books and I am a new comer to the field, so I went as a student of the game. It was hella (very) interesting and well worth the trip from the Bay Area to L.A.
I was able to pay the conference entry fee through the “QUICK Grant” which is awarded by Creative Capacity Fund to obtain professional development. Originally a year ago an instructor suggested I go, but I was unable to pay the fee then. This year I decided to find a way. The entry fee was around $500. The grant paid for over 90% of that cost. But renting a car, food, etc was another expense.
The SCBWI stands for Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s an organization that provides a membership based community of writers and illustrators who are either published or starting out like me. It is an additional source of information, regional advise, special events (like this one), grants, and even special awards. They’ve been around for quite a long time. And to tell you the truth, I’m glad I became a member. Joining did not get me a book deal, and it didn’t give me “the answer”, it was another step forward that has made me more knowledgeable.
The information packet contained detailed information on each day of the 4 day conference which included key note speakers, critiques, workshops, networking sessions, portfolio reviews, a book sale, guides to the industry, and a lot of helpful tips. The hotel was luxurious and huge! The conference took up three floors of this massive place and every day we heard from key note speakers in a huge banquet hall equipped with sound system and video monitors.
–I met people in my field! I know a lot of artists, but not many children’s books illustrators/writers. It was paramount that I go expand my horizons by meeting some new people.
–I learned many insider tips about the business. Things that the website does not come out and say, like for example. If you are a member of this organization, when submitting manuscripts or portfolios, some publishers will give Scbwi members first peek.
–I met some elders. Its comforting to know that there are people who do this successfully and can earn a living doing what they love.
–I got to see what my competition looked like. There were tons of portfolios out there, and tons of people both new and experienced to ask questions of. Most were open and helpful.
–Most of the art I saw was phenomenal!
–It affirmed my suspicion that there is a desperate need for someone, anyone with the guts to put bilingual and children of color focused books at the fore front. Both of these are barely a blip on their radar (in my opinion). It’s unfortunate for them because I felt like they’re blind to a lot of people by not being more inclusive of more diverse stories. But, it’s good for me because it showed me a wide-open opportunity.
–I got encouragement from pro’s first hand. When I submitted my portfolio for the competition I didn’t win, but one of the judges came up to me and spoke to me about my work after wards. That was extremely helpful!
–I gathered information and resources. Eventually I want to be able to share what I know about this business with others. I wouldn’t be able to share much if I didn’t go to learn from events like these.
-No People of color (POC)! There were about 2000 attendees including presenters. About 5% of them were people of color.
Specifically, No Men of color! Out of the people there, 70% of them were women. Brothers!! We need to be involved in this! When I go to the major book stores, even the black owned stores it is hard as hell to find a book that shows a positive, thoughtful, or even edgy image of a father of color taking care of his kids! That has got to change. Fail!
-Bi-lingual books. Ok, beyond just welcoming POC and making them a constant presence at an event like this, it is important to acknowledge language. Spanish and Chinese (mandarin/Cantonese) are the most widely spoken languages around the world next to English. But, no mention of bi-lingual books! None! Wack! Unacceptable!
-The cost. Most young artists, students, and aspiring illustrators or writers cannot afford $500, plus a plane ticket if they don’t live in LA, plus room and board. This event is grand, the hotel is grand, but they need to figure out how to cut costs somewhere so that more young people can attend. The majority of the women there were over 40, probably with regular 9-5 jobs. What about recent college grads? After the last day there were extra workshops that could have been useful to me, except for the fact that the cost $300 each
-Children! Here at a conference about children, there were NO children at the event. No young speakers, no classes invited, beyond the illustrated books, not one single image or mention by kids them selves. I feel like children although young have a lot to offer the discussion on how to make better children’s books. Also, I am a young parent. What if I wanted to go but needed childcare? That was not an option, and it should be. Especially for single parents.
I attended a workshop with Pat Cummings and Priscilla Burris. These two women (both women of color) gave some warm, stern, to the point insight on the business and their experiences. For example, most art instructors will tell you “make postcards of your work and send it out to publishers like crazy”. But what you don’t know is that an average art director (in charge of hiring illustrators) receives something like 100 postcards a day. That’s about 500 a week, or 2000 a month! It’s hard to get noticed in that race. An important note Pat and Priscilla made was to target your favorite books by finding out edited, art directed, illustrated, wrote them. Then send a specific collection of work and letter to that specific art director or team, because it shows that you are not just throwing work out aimlessly.
Steven Malk –I went to Stevens workshop about breaking into the business. Why? I did my homework before I got there and found out that he represented (he’s an agent) several of my favorite children’s book illustrators like Kadir Nelson and Adam Rex. What I found out is that illustrators work ten times harder than I thought they did. He gave a slide show about what kind of work he receives, what stands out and why. Now, some of you are saying “so what, what’s he know?”. Well, its an illustrators job to get paid well to do what they love. I mean, imagine working on a story you love for an entire year and being paid to do just that. And, I’ve seen the work of his clients. It’s tip top! I don’t want to be like his clients, but I wanted to know what information he would give. One of the jewels was that art directors get tired of receiving postcards. He showed personalized dummy’s (a mock up of a story in book format) and specially sewn together fabric/paper promotional pieces. It’s not all about money, but this definitely made me want to step my game up.
Sarah Stern – Sarah is one of the newest staff members to Scbwi and she made an impact on me because she remembered me. Months before I attended the event, I sent my work to various publishers, agents, etc in an effort to produce, work, and learn. One of the people I contacted and sent my work to when I first became an Scbwi member was Ms Stern. And when I checked in at the front desk, she remembered my work and my name before she saw me. That helped ease the anxiety of being one of maybe 10% of people there under the age of 50, and being probably the only man of color there, period!
E.B. Lewis –This brother was very nice. I was sitting outside in between workshops eating lunch. A little frustrated at what I didn’t see there, but trying to appreciate what was in front of me. I offered my food to anyone around me as a way to just make conversation and network. Low and behold, one of the people I talk to was E.B. Lewis! If you’re not familiar with his work look up “I love my hair”. This brother not only gave me advice, but he acknowledged me, my concerns, and my questions. All without an ego or authoritative tone. To hear about his work and his life helped me focus and be present.
Imix/Mi Vida- What the conference lacked in books about people of color and bi-lingual childrens books I got from Mi Vida (Highland Park) book section managed by former book store owner Elisa Sol Garcia (Imix). The store was beautiful. I swear East La is one of the only places I’ve been where I see Chican@s playing electric guitars and singing rock or punk songs. Artist Oree Originol took me on a brief tour and when I told him I wanted to see books, this is where he took me. The store breathed life back into my heart because it showed me again what is possible. The collection of books was seriously like nothing I’ve ever seen and I’m thankful to know there are people out there who care about telling stories that are often ignored by whites and mainstream society.
While I was on my way down there I drove by myself and got a chance to work out a lot of things in my head. Although I hate driving in traffic, I love riding to music so I just enjoyed driving through La’s west and East side, seeing all the people, all the stores, the smells, sounds. I know some folks hate L.A., but I was comforted by it. Lots of beautiful people out there. Also, when I got there I got a chance to hook up with Oree. We rode to the Iron Lak (spray paint)store because they were having a store opening with some dope pieces on the wall. There we also ran into Graffiti veterans from the bay Estria and Vogue. A good night indeed. Lastly, I stayed with my cousin Tremaine who I hadn’t seen since my grandfather passed away. We hadn’t really kicked it for several years so it was wonderful to see him , go to Amoeba Records, and just catch up, offering advice and sharing stories with this young father to be…..