#LA14SCBWI, L.A., Emerging Voices, and Inspiration

It seems a long time since the Emerging Voices Award was announced (8+ months to be exact). So, while I didn't forget about SCBWI's Summer Conference I was so inundated with life (moving, finishing freelance deadlines, residency applications, more freelance work, unpacking still, and somewhat noisy upstairs neighbors) it's easy to forget that such an honor was bestowed and that the prize was about to come to fruition. A week before the conference Dow Phumiruk and I received an email from the founder of the Emerging Voices Award Sue Ganz-Schmitt about having lunch and we were bowled over. It was getting really real now! I was about to head to a conference I had heard so much about but was a newbie at. How would this all go down? I've been to Book Expo and other more focused and smaller conferences but SCBWI, this was a big deal.

Travels to L.A. were fine but the L.A. traffic was something I experienced firsthand even at 8pm west coast time. From the time I figured out the shuttle situation to getting a shuttle and then getting to my hotel it was about 2 hours. I was tired. Technically it was 3 hours ahead so really 1am and not 10pm even though my watch and the clocks around me said different. I was hungry (airlines don't feed you for 6 hour flights!) and I was hot. Humidity came to L.A. But I got to my hotel and was given a super nice room and then plopped myself down in bed and attempted sleep for a big first day.

Sleep was an enigma while in California. I continued waking up in the middle of the night because my body said "Hey! It's 7am get up!" And my mind said "Shut up body!" Anywho, Friday was the first day, registration day and the schedule was packed from 8:30am to 8:30pm. SCBWI had you covered. Free tea, coffee, and hot cocoa to start. As I went on line Dow ran up to me and we embraced! It was SO good to see a familiar face and to finally see that lovely face in person. Dow and I sat and talked and it was like we'd known each other for years.

Afterwards executive director Lin Oliver started things off. Lin's speeches throughout were light-hearted and warm reminding us that at any stage of your career there'll be struggles and successes and sometimes it seems completely insane that we pursue art when there's no guarantee of monetary compensation or an audience but that we continue to pursue it because we love it and can't live without it. As the days went on many established authors/illustrators would reiterate this to a packed house of over 1200 attendees that "You are not alone" "We're in this together" and "Never give up."

Attendees of the conference have the option to request a manuscript consult (for an additional fee) and intensives on Monday after the main conference has ended (also an additional fee). As winners of the Emerging Voices award Dow and I had these included with our all-expense paid trip. So, you can say I was a teensy bit spoiled going to SCBWI and being able to take advantage of everything offered. Just a tad bit. My manuscript consult would be on the first day and I'd be the first meeting with...Laura Rennert! Don't worry, y'all, I played it cool. Like Fonzie cool. I did not freak out when I learned this. I did internally but my external self was composed.

Laura is Maggie Stiefvater's agent and I love Maggie's work. Laura was also my dream agent when I was making a list of people to submit to. And in meeting Laura and getting her feedback and encouragement I found that she's an amazingly kind and generous person. Her feedback was constructive and incredibly helpful and at no point condescending. She really can see potential in work and point out very specific points to look out for. And the next day when we met again on the coffee/tea line she initiated convo and was quite welcoming. I know us as artists, especially aspiring/emerging ones, look at people in the industry as untouchable but Laura continued to disprove that myth by being very outgoing. Even on panels many said "She's so nice! She seems like she'll fight for her authors." And that's the type of agent you'd want.

Dow and I also got to meet with Sue Ganz-Schmitt who kindly treated us to lunch. And then I introduced her to the French macaron which she loved so I feel my work is done here. Friday included a great panel lead by We Need Diverse Books was on Friday where authors Lamar Giles, Linda Sue Park, Meg Medina, and Sharon Flake, along with agent Adriana Dominguez furthered the discussion of the need for diversity in literature and for attendees to sit and consider what's been said. Afterwards was the PAL signing & wine and cheese mixer where SCBWI members with books can sell them and we can get autographs. Dow and I got a copy of Sue's new book with Chronicle Planet Kindergarten. I adore this book. So cute and a wonderful tale, with illustration that perfectly captures Sue's voice. After that I did yoga that they offer on Friday and Sunday which is a nice time to meditate and get away and exercise. Lori Snyder lead it to some nice jams and afterward I was relaxed and ready for bed.

Saturday proved to be getting things into high gear and I was still on partial sleep. My friend Malaika and I went out for breakfast and she introduced me to The Griddle Cafe. I heard editor Justin Chanda's state of the state of the industry that publishing is here to stay and will continue to go through ebbs and flows and reinventions. Workshops (or talks) take place in the morning after keynotes and in the afternoon with additional chats/keynotes inserted in between to give you time to stretch your legs.

At this point is when I'd suggest taking breaks. Admittedly I missed a couple panels I would've liked to see to hang out with friends I haven't seen in years and that's okay. You can't do it all and sometimes if you do you may find yourself a bit overwhelmed and stifled being in a conference hall for 3-4 days straight. So seeing West Hollywood and Beverly Hills and eateries my friends were dying to show me proved a nice reprieve from the constancy of thinking and talking about the industry and allowed me to attend sessions renewed and wide-eyed and ready to engage with others, especially at the We Need Diverse Books poolside diversity chat where I got to meet Cindy Pon in person!

Saturday evening brought party time with the Poolside Gala that was also Tomie Depaola's 80th Birthday Bash. Unfortunately Tomie couldn't attend because he got sick before the conference but that didn't stop the celebration or well wishes for Tomie whatsoever. I got into the party in time for when people broke it down and also the costume parade that Sue and Dow entered. (Congrats Dow on getting 3rd place for the Leaning Tower of Pisa costume! Handmade by the way.)

Sunday was a day that brought some anticipation because Dow and I would be recognized for the Emerging Voices award at the Golden Kite Luncheon where other published authors were receiving awards for their books in categories of picture book, nonfiction, and fiction, as well as humor.

The main room for keynotes was turned into an awards hall with tables and us being served by waiters in fancy suits. Dow and I got to sit in front in the reserved section with other honorees and would be brought onstage for applause and pictures. We sat with Sue and her husband Martin, but also Lisa Yee, Arthur Levine, Bill Konigsberg and his super cool/friendly husband, and EB Lewis. And we were sitting right next to Judy Blume! Judy Blume was like Meryl Streep where everyone who went on stage gaped at her and said "I love you!" at some point. She's super sweet and friendly too so that basically makes it so much easier to love her.

As awards were announced and other honorees got stood up to receive applause Dow and I heard our names and got a bit verklempt as some would say. My mind was on simply not tripping up the stairs or on cords or anything. Big smile, arms around Dow and Martin for the picture, huge applause, a hug with Sue on stage, down the steps. No tripping! It was surreal and went by quickly but was also a moment Dow and I realized must be how other literary events feel like when you get honored for your work and people see your face and for a moment, if fleeting, you feel like your work has reached a milestone and you simply have to keep going.

As the honorees went up each said something funny, inspirational, and all-around appreciative of SCBWI and the chance to share their work and find an audience. Afterwards I was approached by two attendees. One an older Black female whose hand I gently took in my own. She shook a bit but had a smile as big as mine as she said "I wanted to make sure and say congratulations. We're counting on you." It's a lot to take in when someone says that to you and you feel the weight and honor of it. My work will always encapsulate diversity, I am an African American and my hometown is one of the biggest mixed salads of culture in the world. I'm honored to be from NYC and it makes sense, to me, that my work will always reflect the diversity of the life I've lived and I want to share that with others. "We're counting on you," even hearing it from one woman means that I understand that my work matters even for one person at one time it matters.

Now, I wasn't going around thinking I was a big deal at all but I was flying high yet also a tad bit bummed because tomorrow I'd be flying home and deal with more jetlag and not being fed on planes and not be in the vicinity of so much encouragement and understanding of other artists. To get congrats from Sharon Flake and Linda Sue Park and Bill Konigsberg's husband and other SCBWI attendees who wanted to know more about my writing was just...wow. So uplifting I can't even tell you.

Monday! Time to pack. Time to do my AM intensive and unfortunately miss the PM one with Maggie (Thanks time zones) and then head home for work in the early morn. Awesome. But first, first ten pages intensive with Kelly Sonnack!

Funny enough when I came in the lady taking the tickets proclaimed "You won that award!"  to faces turning around to face me. Wow, slight celeb status. Thanks. :-) Kelly started off the intensive reading the first page of several books she'd recommend in YA, MG, and picture book genres for us to get a sense of how to take hold. She broke down what we as writers should be seeking to do in these first pages to hook not only an agent but readers. After about 30 or 40 minutes she allowed us to read the first page or more of our work and have us all give immediate feedback. Me not being shy I raised my hand first to read from a new YA suspense I'm working on. I read the first page and got very intrigued questions and was told by Kelly I hit all the points for the most part and could rejigger a couple things but that she (and everyone in the intensive agreed) would continue to read after the first page and a half. I even got an applause. Such a nice way to leave SCBWI.

And that "sums" up my trip (Yeah, in 2000 words so far but it was 4 days!). I am so grateful to Sue and Martin for creating the Emerging Voices Award and for SCBWI believing in diversity and it's need in more books across the board. I am grateful to Lin Oliver, Sara Ruttenberg, and Kim Turrisi for organizing such a fantastic conference that was well organized and on point. I am grateful for my peers and everyone who said a kind word to me at SCBWI and for Pam, Marquita, Dow, Malaika, Susan, and Erica to see them at SCBWI and LA and to remind myself how much I am surrounded by talent and kindness and how excited I am for our journeys as artists and to share our stories with others. So, I hope to go back to SCBWI next year and maybe every year after that. I'd encourage you to become a member of this wonderfully open society and to take your work seriously and know that even though you may be creating alone that you are definitely not.