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Secret Life of an Expat: Books in Bologna

ng37bI have just returned from a trip to the annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair. The fair is set up so publishers from all over the world can and show off their new titles, hoping to sell the rights to publishers in other countries, as I understand it. It was kind of like Comicon, in that there were rooms the size of airplane hangars filled with tables and booths of pretty books, but I only saw one person in costume (a big plush dog), and it really wasn’t for the fans.

So why was I there? Every other year, The Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) has an international conference in conjunction with the Bologna Book fair, and I am a member of SCBWI. SCBWI is based in Los Angeles, and now has outposts of English-writing writers all over the world. I joined the French chapter in November so I could attend a conference on picture book making, and then I signed up to go to Bologna.

SCBWI covers all children’s literature, from board books for babies to young adult fiction, and their conference was very well rounded. Even though I am sometimes an illustrator, I attended as a writer, so when the group broke up into writers and illustrators, I stayed to hear the advice for writers.

Our first speaker was young adult novelist Ellen Hopkins. Her titles include Crank, Glass, and Tricks, and yes, your first guess about their difficult subject matters is correct.

I don't have a particularly good reason for including this photo of a siren from the base of the Fontana del Nettuno in the central Piazza del Nettuno of central Bologna... I just still can't get over it.

I don't have a particularly good reason for including this photo of a siren from the base of the Fontana del Nettuno in central Bologna... I just still can't get over the spurting nipples. I guess I could say it's a metaphor for the SCBWI conference being, uh, nurturing.

The best thing I took away from Ellen’s talk was to not talk down to kids, and don’t be afraid to tackle tough subjects… or use the f-word. She shared several pieces of fan mail with us, missives from kids who are in the same boats as her protagonists and are so relieved to feel understood, and kids who are so sheltered they’d never even heard of some of her issues, and now that they’ve read Ellen’s books, they will definitely not be tempted to experiment with methamphetamines, or teen prostitution.

After lunch, Newbery Medal winner Richard Peck sermonized us on writing for kids. His speech was one of the funniest and most inspirational things I have ever heard, and not only gave golden nuggets of advice (“never write about anybody who can just walk away”), but also made us feel superior to other writers because we were drawn to writing for kids. He said writing for kids is the hardest kind of writing because you are always getting older, and your audience always stays the same age. He stressed getting out of your chair to act out your dialogue, and warned that if you didn’t do this, your writing will suffer and you may be “reduced to writing for adults.” His final words, somewhat paraphrased, were: “If kids can’t find themselves on a page, they’ll go looking for themselves in the wrong places.” Makes everything seem more important, doesn’t it?

Then a panel of agents did a thing called “First Pages,” which is reading the first page of a book submission and giving feedback. You have to hook an agent or reader on the first page, so this was very important. They discussed what was good about a page, or what would make them throw it in the trash. Like, “so many submissions start with the character getting up in the morning, or on their first day of school.” Or, “rhyme works really well when it works, but one must wonder whether it’s the story or the fact that the words have to rhyme that’s driving the poem.” Or, “regionality can be a no-go for publishers.” Or, “watch that your narrator doesn’t sound too much like a nostalgic adult,” or, “awkward physical descriptions of nervousness are like a plague on submissions, but they are an easy fix.” All in all, it made me both worry for my book in progress, and feel like I’ll be returning to the rewrite battle with shiny new guns.

Then some publishers talked about the state of the industry, and we heard some inspirational words from SCBWI co-founder Stephen Mooser (make sure you sweat over your work), and it was done. I had a stomach ache the whole time, from endless pasta and cappuccino binges, and the bottom of my feet are still throbbing from wandering the marble and stone lined streets of beautiful Bologna. Can’t wait to get writing.