As a book creator of color, I know how intimidating it can be to attend a children’s book writing and illustrating conference, in a sea of people who don’t look like you (especially if you’ve never attended a conference). But I also understand that giving in to fear is the best way to never realizing your dreams. I met author Andrea J Loney at an SCBWI conference in New York a few years ago. She is African American, and she was one of the few other people of color I met that weekend. Since that time, I’ve witnessed her career bloom. I know that SCBWI had to play a part in that growth, and so I asked her to write a blog post that might inspire and encourage other creators of color to invest in their careers and experience an SCBWI national conference. Slots are still open, it’s not too late! — Don Tate
Guest Post by Andrea J Loney
Fifteen years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a children’s book writer. I joined The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and enjoyed the newsletter, but I didn’t attend any meetings or local writers’ events. And when I looked at information for the huge national conference near my home in Los Angeles, I thought, “No way am I doing this! It’s so much money! And it’s a whole three-day weekend? And what if the people there are snobby?” The mere thought of the conference terrified me.
So I continued to write my stories in isolation, learn my craft from articles on the internet and books in the library, and collect my rejection letters in despair until I finally gave up writing children’s books altogether.
Then three years ago, after rejoining SCBWI, attending local SCBWI writing events, and joining a critique group, I went to my first national conference in Los Angeles and was blown away by how helpful it was. Attending that conference felt like slapping a rocket booster on my writing career. Everything took off after then.
So here are the top six ways that attending SCBWI national conferences have helped me as a writer of color:
- At the first conference I attended in 2014, Lin Oliver told us that there were about 1,200 attendees and that roughly half of us were published. She said that the other half were pre-published (as opposed to “aspiring”). Spending three days with so many published writers really shifted my thinking about my career. It was at that first conference that I really saw myself as a professional. I sold my first book five months after that weekend.
- As conference attendees, we received writing and illustration craft information directly from working professionals. This was so different than reading an article on the internet or even taking a class at a college. Getting information on the state of the juvenile publishing industry from writers, illustrators, editors, agents and other people who are right in the middle of it was invaluable.
- We also were able to connect with and speak directly with agents, editors, and published authors and illustrators. I signed up for a critique and got great feedback on a manuscript from an editor. I spoke to an agent at a meal. After her workshop, I spoke with an author whose book I love and got her take on how I could improve my own work. And most importantly for me, I met people in the industry who would later support my efforts to get published.
- After the main conference days, there were “socials” which provide an opportunity to meet other writers and critique each other’s work. It was through these socials that I met some of my critique partners. We still meet regularly and we are all committed to studying our craft, improving our work, and getting published. Also, it was at the conferences that I made connections with many other writers of color.
- Being a writer of color at the SCBWI national conference meant that I created a presence. People noticed me and I used that to my advantage. When the question of diversity came up in a talk or a presentation, it was not an abstract or theoretical discussion for some of the attendees, because there I was, a black writer, sitting right next to them. When other writers of color entered the room, I saw them, they saw me, and everyone else saw us. Writers of color made up a small percentage of most of the conferences I’ve gone to, but when we are there, we do make an impression. And the greater the number of us in attendance, the greater the varieties of those impressions.
- Lastly, by attending the national SCBWI conferences, I’ve gotten to meet all sorts of children’s book professionals (published and pre-published) from all over the country. And do you know what most of these people have in common? They love children’s books and the people who make them. Kit Lit people tend to be genuinely friendly, generous, and enthusiastic – I’ve never in my life felt so welcomed by a creative industry. And I have learned so many things about writing and the industry from the folks I met at these conferences. And when success finally did come for me, many of the people I’d met at the conferences cheered me on, invited me to their blogs, and promoted my books on social media. So now I can say that I joined a nation-wide children’s literature tribe by attending these conferences.
So if you do decide to join us at one of the national conferences (New York in February and/or Los Angeles in July), here are some tips to prepare for a great experience:
- Bring your business cards! Don’t have any? Try Vista Print or Overnight Prints. You can even make them on your own printer. Before I had any books to sell, I put my photograph on my business cards so people might remember me. You can also include your email address, social media info, etc.
- Bring a notebook and be sure to take notes not just on what the speakers are saying, but on any new ideas that pop up during the talks. These speeches and workshops can be incredibly inspirational and I always leave the conferences with at least 15 new story ideas.
- Before the conference, familiarize yourself with the work of the speakers/workshop leaders. It helps to put the information they share in context, and even better, if you have a question about their books, you may get the answer directly from the source.
- Dress business casual, but wear comfortable shoes and layers since room temperatures can vary. You’ll probably see lots of cardigans! And don’t be afraid to add your personal style to your conference wardrobe.
- Be prepared to meet at least three new people and to give an “elevator pitch” on your book project. You never know who may have just the right information to help you get to the next step. You never know who you may help.
- Have fun and congratulate yourself for making an important investment in your creative career.
And if you’re coming to the SCBWI NY17 or the SCBWI LA17 conferences, come say hi! I’ll be the bespectacled chick with the flower in my Sisterlocks and wearing a Bunnybear pin.
Andrea J Loney is the author of BUNNYBEAR (Albert Whitman & Company, Jan 2017), the New Voices award-winning picture book biography TAKE A PICTURE OF ME, JAMES VANDERZEE! (Lee & Low Books, May 2017), and DOUBLE BASS BLUES (Knopf, Spring 2019).