I actually took a whole lot of notes at the SLJ Leadership Summit in Alexandria this week. Do I sound surprised? I'm kind of surprised. I've been doing the same thing for kind of a long time now - 7 years at the public library, 5 years writing kidlit book reviews, and I guess I've gotten pretty complacent. Arrogant. Lazy. You pick. So these two back-to-back conferences I've been to, KidLitCon and the SLJ Summit, with their arrays of high-functioning, extra-smart, thoughtful and energetic speakers, kind of rocked my world.
First of all! Mary Ann Scheuer has posted about the apps presentation that we did at KidLitCon with Betsy Bird. She's going to be writing quite a bit more about what makes a good app in the next few weeks, and I will be following avidly.
Next, here are a couple of things I took away from the SLJ Leadership Summit, so ably and affably hosted by Brian Kenney and Rocco Staino. Rocco had to do some inspired vamping for time when presenters suffered the waking nightmare known as Why Won't The Tech Work I Tested it Just This Morning Dammit. The number and variety of devices the projector in that ballroom had to hook up with, I hope it took a Valium and a dose of Flagyl afterwards.
Brian Selznick in his shiny gold shoes was the keynote speaker for the day. He asked, "WHY is a book illustrated?" which is something I like to think about when I'm reviewing graphic novels. He also let slip that there's going to be an app/ebook of the Waterhouse Hawkins book, not because he is enamored of apps - he's not particularly - but because he knew Waterhouse Hawkins would be.
Selznick did kind of a lot of research for his new book, Wonderstruck. He enlisted experts on deaf education and lightning strike to vet the experiences of his deaf and lighting-struck characters. He visited his locations. At the Queens Museum, they let him step out onto the Panorama of the City of New York and take pictures. They what?? WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO GET TO BE ABLE TO DO THAT? I'LL DO IT. Oh, you have to create a Caldecott Award-winning 500+ page book? And hang your art on the walls of the museum? And have Martin Scorsese direct the movie of your book? In Paris? Hm. I'd better get to work.
He also visited the American Museum of Natural History. He did photo research with my old boss and learned the secrets of the dioramas (they all have secrets, and didn't you suspect that?) from Steve Quinn, who has been studying those things since he was a teenager, practically. The Wonderstruck website will have essays by Steve and others when it has been fully developed.
And he spoke of deaf culture. Deaf kids, raised by hearing parents, who discover once they get to college (presumably Gallaudet) that there's this whole deaf culture, a deaf world that is more than what can be defined merely as the absence or deficit of sound. It's magic, right? It's what half of all the books for older kids and teens are about, discovering your affinity with a new group, one outside your home. Finding that you are already inside somebody else's Venn diagram because of not only who you are but how you are.
On the theme of fiction, I spent some time tagging along with some terrific authors. Laurel Snyder, who signed Bigger Than a Bread Box for conference attendees, thus giving us all a leg up on our Heavy Medal reading; Jarrett Krosoczka; George O'Connor, whose hair at this point makes Gaiman look like an amateur and I mean that as a compliment; and Erica Perl, who I was meeting for the first time but who is one of those people who just seems to be everywhere.
Michael Buckley, as promised in his endearingly curmudgeonly contribution to Laurel and Erica's panel on social networking, came an hour late to the party and left immediately afterward. Guy has a very full dance card for a person who claims to be so antisocial!
All of these people need new author photos - each is in a particularly excellent place right now, hair-wise. Look at the teeny bikini of a haircut sported by Erica, shown here signing Dotty!
(I'm obsessed with everyone's headshot lately because I took a nice one of my neighbor and I think it might pay better than freelance writing (or, for example, reviewing children's books for free). I may nab Eric Wight at the Baltimore Book Festival and make him smile for my camera. Him too. Good hair right now.)
(He didn't use the word "necrophilia" though: shh! Naughty James!)
This led to a discussion of books one might consider unpublishable. I nominated Rotters by Daniel Kraus. I reviewed it. I think it is kind of a genius book but how the hell Kraus ever got the thing past the initial pitch I cannot fathom. Maybe he threatened to dig up the editor's family and steal their gold fillings. Rotters was apparently initially considered for the adult section, which is probably where it belongs, but nowadays it seems like anything with a teen protagonist gets marketed as YA, because that's the section getting all the foot traffic lately.
Here is a trend that really ought to stop. Publishers: either make your entire list YA, because after all teenagers are a diverse group, and some of them read David Wong or Mark Z. Danielewski, or let YA be YA.
Oh, YA. Wherefore art thou YA?
Don't ask me what is YA. There is a growing consensus, based on measurable consumption and general impressions, that "YA is for girls." I'll testify: you look at a table covered with recent YA titles from most houses, and that table will be purple and pink and red. Big dresses, flowing hair, curlicue typefaces (see above). Melissa Kantor, author of the Darlings books, once told a room full of teens and librarians that she had been told point-blank by an editor not to write a particular YA book with a male narrator. "When boys start buying books," she was told, "then you can write that kid's story." No wonder teenage boys grow up into men who read Lee Child and nothing else.
Need more. Spy fiction. For teen boys. Thank you.
Or not. One of the big conversations at this conference was about "transliteracy," book experiences that boing back and forth from the web to the book to the art room to the conversation to the notebook. An important facet - one of the most popular elements - of transliteracy is the input that a kid can have. Writing "next chapters" of interactive books like Inanimate Alice or Melissa's The Amanda Project; using familiar characters as means of self-expression; soliciting feedback from other kids interested in what you're interested in.
Maybe instead of looking for books that they can't find, teenage boys (or any other kids underserved by current offerings, *ahem* poor kids) can go ahead and write them. Find one of these online collaborative environments, mash a character together, give it a life that looks a lot like yours but is probably a trifle more exciting. See what someone else like you might do with that character.
Did I bring this back around? I think I did. Like the deaf kids Brian Selznick mentioned, who found another home after they left home, all of us, and the kids we serve, have other families, other homes, ones we fit into for a variety of reasons. I love geeking out with the kind of people who attend children's literature conferences. A kid at my school might need to go online to find her people - cosplaying devotees of magical girl shōjo manga.
And sometimes the twain do meet.