JambaLAya Kidlit Conference 2018


For the second year in a row, the Louisiana/Mississippi chapter of SCBWI knocked it outta the park! This is one of the best kidlit conferences I’ve attended, and I’ve been to a few. I tend to prefer regional conferences for the intimacy and depth of focus, not to mention the community building, and this one delivered. The faculty roster was also stellar, with each professional offering inspiration as well as practical advice.

New this year were Friday afternoon Master Classes, and I attended the writing workshop with Mallory Kass, senior editor at Scholastic Press and the author of The 100 Series under her pen name, Kass Morgan. Our focus on creating a believable, heart-wrenching character arc was just what I needed. Really useful questions:

  • What does the character want? What does the character need? Are those the same thing?
  • What are the stakes if the character doesn’t achieve what she needs?
  • What is this character’s central emotional conflict, and how does he pursue it differently than any other character?

Inspired, I ran home and spent 2 hours revising my current project’s first chapter.

Then Saturday, from morning ’til night, I was surrounded by books and the people who make them. I didn’t take photos, but I jotted down some of my favorite quotes of the day.

Author Linda Williams Jackson spoke eloquently about her journey to publication–both self-publishing and traditional publishing–and the need for writers and illustrators to believe in ourselves.

“I wanted it bad enough to frustrate myself every single day.” Linda Williams Jackson

Not only was her own experience inspiring, but the Q & A evolved into an important discussion about how to write about painful topics like oppression, slavery, and the Holocaust to teach children history while being careful not to erode their self-esteem. Powerful.

Agent Alexandra Penfold, with Upstart Crow Literary, talked about what makes a query letter jump out at an agent, using submitted examples. Later in the day, she discussed the importance of clear communication and collaboration between author or illustrator, agent, and editor. As the intermediary between the creator and the corporate entity that is the publisher, the agent is the writer’s sounding board and buffer…within reason. Her “concentric circles of crazy” cracked me up, even as they were a good reminder to maintain professionalism with the people publishing your work.

“You don’t want to be the subject of drinks. You want to be invited to drinks!” Alexandra Penfold

Author/Illustrator Leslie Staub offered concrete suggestions on how to create powerful picture books, bringing in examples of her storyboards and dummy books made from simple materials (cardboard and sticky drawer liner!). Of course I loved her likening picture books to poetry:

“Let there be magic in your words.” Leslie Staub

Editor Mallory Kass spoke about first pages and the importance of grabbing a reader from the very first paragraph, bringing in examples from books she had acquired and leading the group through quick writing exercises. We were all impressed by the level of talent in the room, particularly the ability to toss off brilliance in 3.5 minutes!

“The talent in this room is staggering!” Mallory Kass

In a breakout section later, those of us writing middle grade and young adult talked with Mallory about how important, and how personal, falling in love with a book can be for editors. Of course, we all want everyone who touches our work to adore it, but what doesn’t resonate with one editor might be another’s passion project.

Such a helpful reminder that as fraught as the journey to (and apparently through!) the publishing process can be, at its heart, we are all book lovers who want to see more excellent writing in the world.

My heartfelt thanks to the Cheryl Mathis, Sarah Campbell, Virginia Howard, and Gary Alipio for putting together another fantastic conference with grace and NOLA style. And thanks to our visitors and faculty for coming out and sharing their expertise. As Alexandra Penfold said, the kidlit community is small but collaborative:

“In kidlit, we share the cookies.”

Thanks for the cookies, y’all!

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