Children’s Book Conference Gives a Leg Up to Newbies

By PAT JOHNSON | Nov 08, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson Vivian Grey teaches Writing for the Children’s Market at the LBIF. Here she is at the 48th annual Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference.

In the summer Vivian Grey teaches “Writing for the Children’s Market” at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences, and it was writing for the children’s market and selling her first book that allowed her to purchase her house in Loveladies Harbor. Another milestone in her career was starting the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature One-on-One Conference 47 years ago.

This past October, the 48th annual conference drew 90 striving authors and illustrators to New Brunswick to meet with 90 established authors, illustrators, publishers and author’s agents for a day of talking trends and publishers’ needs, and providing inspiration to those hopefuls on the brink of publishing. The biggest draw to the conference is the pairing of those strivers with the professionals for an hour and a half of personal mentoring.

Mentees are chosen from the hundreds of manuscripts and portfolios that council members evaluate. Mentees must submit a work in progress that shows potential in the publishing world and also must show a dedication, knowledge of children’s books, and “an understanding that creating children’s literature is an art, a craft, a business and hard work.”

At the conference, held on Oct. 21 in the Cook Student Center on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus, the day began when Grey welcomed the participants before they went off to meet in small groups. Grey headed one that included Emily Feinburg, associate editor from Macmillan Roaring Brook Press, who is looking for picture books, middle grade and nonfiction titles; Cortney Code, assistant editor for Abrams, who is interested in fresh, character-driven Young Adult books and picture books with unexpected twists; Janet Reid, director of literary services at New Leaf Literary and Media, which represents authors and illustrators; and Olivia Swomley, associate editor for Workman Publishing.

Workman Publishing is different from other publishers, said Swomley, in that it has a team that develops much of its ideas in-house. It focuses on interactive books such as Stickey Fact books, sticker books that reveal fun facts as you peel up each sticker. Swomley is currently developing a book on computer coding for middle-school children.

Trends in nonfiction books are “forgotten females” and people of color, said Feinburg. “Children are exposed to politics – they know what’s going on in the world.”

Grey suggested that, because it takes about two years from concept to published book, authors should look to what historical anniversaries are coming up. For example, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing is in 2019.

Feinburg said her publishing house currently has 19 titles on the moon landing on its spring list and four about space. “No more about Apollo,” she remarked.

Biographies of women in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are currently hot, as are women artists.

“There are a hundred billion titles in STEM," said Swomley. “I'm editing a coding book in the Big Fat Notebook series.

Books based on Broadway shows are also making the rounds of editors and publishing houses.

Grey said that in nonfiction, even when the title is driven by a fictional character, called narrative nonfiction, writers should “fact-check everything.”

She then asked the professionals what they were looking for from an author.

Reid said authors must ask themselves, “Is there a need for the book?” Her best advice was to get involved in a writers workshop. “I don’t think of myself as the first reader,” said the agent. “The book should have many readers before submitting – and not family or friends.”

“If it’s well-written, well sourced – not just Google information; that’s not original research – if it has good scholarship, that’s what I’m looking for.”

Swomley said, “I want kids to be so excited to get their hands on that book. I love getting in on that process. Send me quirky, amazing projects, and we’ll help to get them started.”

Cortney Code said the traditional thought for an author who is also an illustrator was to send just the manuscript and let the publishing house pick the illustrator. Yet she would like to see the author’s ideas. “If it’s a visual narrative, send the manuscript with the illustrations.”

Grey asked for the professionals to speak about whether they would like to see a proposal or a query letter first.

Reid said most authors have written the book, “or what they think is the book – and I would encourage them to do that because it’s a hard thing to do. I’ve had experiences where the idea was great but the author didn’t know how to tell a story, didn’t understand the narrative line.”

“And should the author know the age level of the book they are writing, or are they afraid to match the age level to the topic?” asked Grey.

“I don’t ask them to do that. Just write the book and I’ll tell you who it’s for,” said Reid. “I want to make it as easy as possible. I’ll help you to get it to your audience. People get everything wrong anyway. If I get a manuscript that says it’s science fiction with a little bit of Haiku thrown in and appropriate for ages 2 to 20, well, that’s a conversation we will have later.

“An agent is your first friend in publishing. We want you to sell as many books as possible. Call it anything you want, as long as it goes over the sales counter many times.”

“Not everyone is going to like your book,” added Swomley. “You need to get over that fear. Yes, there is sales and marketing, but that shouldn’t be the only thing.”

“And what about the length of the manuscript?” prompted Grey.

“Write the book you want to write and an editor will help you trim it down,” answered Swomley.

Other suggestions for success were to pick the exciting parts of the story and start with that, especially in a biography. Don’t start with the birth of the person and end at their death; it’s not a timeline.

“We see that all the time,” said Reid. “And do your homework – find a match for your book. Look at the publisher’s list of books and look at the backlists. See what they have published and the type of books they are looking for.”

During a later panel discussion, the panelists agreed that because they get so many submissions, they learn to trust their gut reactions. For illustrators, the agents and editors are looking for characters that capture the range of motion and artists who can keep the characters’ look consistent from beginning to end. Also, “play with perspective; find interesting points of view,” said a panelist.

The conference keynote speaker was Pat Cummings, author or illustrator of over 35 books for young readers. She gave many words of encouragement for the attendees.

“Many authors and illustrators don’t realize how far ahead they are – it takes perseverance,” said Cummings.

Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, submitted her manuscript 27 times to publishers before it was picked up by publisher Farrer, Straus and Girous. (The book is being made into a motion picture by Disney, starring Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon with a release date of March 2018.)

“It takes inspiration, perseverance and belief. Just have to keep doing it until someone believes in you and it lands on the right desk,” said Cummings.

Cummings teaches at Parsons School of Design and Pratt Institute and conducts a Children’s Book Boot Camp in the summer. She is on the boards of The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and The Authors League Foundation. Her books have won the Coretta Scott King, the Orbis Pictus and Boston Globe-Horn Book awards.

But she started young, selling her pictures of ballerinas to her elementary school classmates.

“My dad was in the military, and we’d move from place to place,” said Cummings. Her sister Linda had an idea how to meet new kids each place they moved by putting their toys on the ground on a blanket in front of their new home to serve as bait for the neighborhood children. “In a town in Germany, we put our things on the ground and nobody came, so Linda went into the house to get a drink and I watched a group of children get into a yellow school bus. And I ran across the grass and got on the bus.

“My house got smaller and smaller and we got on a highway – I think it was the Autobahn – and we went into the Black Forest. Then we stopped and all the girls ran into a building, and I did the same. It’s a ballet school. I’m not stupid, so I stay in the back while they practice, but I can’t help jumping to the music. Then the teacher pinned a note to me and put me back on the bus with the other children, and the bus took me back home with the note. It said, ‘Please don’t send her back.’

“Of course my mother had been frantic. She had called the Army police and the German police.

“Anyway, I started drawing ballerinas. In kindergarten I found out about glitter, and I was making these gorgeous ballerinas and selling them to my classmates. I was able to buy Twinkies, I guess.”

Back in the States, Cummings attended Catholic school, where she was segregated with all the black children to a playground that had no equipment. “It was just dirt ground, and I didn’t know why I couldn’t play in the good playground.” Before this she had been taught on military bases that were themselves areas of relative peace in 1950s segregated America.

This experience is one of the reasons Cummings was determined to write and illustrate books embracing all cultures. “I want everyone in my books to be included.”

She went on to attend Pratt, and her first job came about by chance when a man offered her a job creating stage backdrops for a children’s play on Billie Holiday. She also illustrated magazines and advertising, but found she really wanted to do kids’ books.

The character in her award-winning children’s books Clean Your Room Harvey Moon and Harvey Moon: Museum Boy was loosely based on her brother. “Be cautious if you tell things about family,” she suggested. Her award-winning book Ananse and the Lizard is based on an African folktale. “Keep on trying new styles,” she told illustrators.

Her newest book is a Young Adult novel, due to be published in 2018. It is her first book for young adults. “I spent 40 years representing myself,” said Cummings. “I really loved renegotiating for myself; I loved it as a sport. Then I finally did a middle-grade novel and I sent it to every editor I really liked, and I got back really nice rejection letters. I had heard so many stories about agents, so I asked around to find out who represents whom, and someone recommended Marietta Zacker (Galt & Zacker Literary Agency). And I liked the way she talked about the people she represented.

“The same editor that had said no to me said yes to her. It was pixie dust, and it made a huge difference.

“So get an agent,” said Cummings.

She has also taught successful illustrators and suggests, “Just don’t hear no. Keep going. … It takes all styles, so never say never … and you don’t necessarily know how good you are.”

During her beginning illustration class, she asks for students to give her the premise of their book idea. One of her students, illustrator/author David Ezra Stein, said, “the interconnectedness of all life.” “I said, ‘Okaaay…’” said Cummings. “But he came up with Because Amelia Smiled, a book that starts with a smile and goes around the world changing attitudes.

“Another student was the ‘cookie lady,’ an older woman who sat in on my classes and brought homemade cookies, and always did the extra-credit assignments. Finally my boss said, ‘She can’t keep taking your class for free.’ But after three years, H. Ruth Karpes got published with Morris the Downside-Up Bat.

So don’t give up on yourself.”

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