Women with purple hair. Pinched ladies with tiny butts, flat stomachs, and narrow noses. Frumpy librarians with gray-haired braids and tennis shoes under their floral-printed dresses. A sparse group of well-dressed men who were either suspiciously dashing or reminded me of absent-minded professors. Authors and illustrators, editors and agents. Some with superiority complexes and others as gentle and humble as saints. What an odd collection of people!
The authors and illustrators at the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference were a crowd of 1,234. Not many of us were ever cheerleaders in high school. We were a crowd of self-proclaimed introverts that were strangely so good at talking. There were “veterans” who were so eager to give me their business cards and talk about their agents. Then there were bright-eyed newbies like me, though after yesterday I don’t think my eyes were so bright—a pox on those speakers for making me cry!
I can hardly believe that I’ve sat in the same room as the editors of Amazon Children’s Publishing, Abram’s Books, HarperCollins, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers. I’ve spoken to the author of Sara, Plain and Tall. And heard the creator of The Spiderwick Chronicles. This was the real deal. This was the place where authors are found or created, where the market catches fish and finds diamonds. It’s where the great minds glean and give.
I can recall four names in the sea of people: Svetlana the Ukrainian who has lived in the US for 17 years, Wayne the loud-laughing congenial fellow who sat next to me on the first day, Amy who recognized providence in our meeting at the Golden Kite Luncheon, and Clare Vanderpool, the Newberry Book Award winner who was so kind to sit with me after she made me cry during her talk. Alright, I’ll take my pox back.
For three days the SCBWI attendees stretched the Starbucks’ line halfway across the Hyatt lobby. For three days we congested the escalators (do others find those moving steps as difficult to ride as I?). We power-walked to the men’s restrooms that had been converted into the ladies’ room. We tucked business cards into our nametags. And we browsed through the bookstore, patting, caressing, smoothing, and fingering those wonderful children’s books.
It’s been ages since I’ve been somewhere where nobody knew me. Where I could be daring and shy, independent and engaged, observant and observed. It was both liberating and lonely, especially at the Golden Kite Luncheon as I wove through the tables wondering where I should sit. I watched people hollering to their friends and giving directions over their cell phones. They waved their hands and said, “Can you see me now.”
Then I longed to hear someone calling my name. “Abigail, sit with me!” But no one did. And I didn’t see any familiar faces. “God, please have me sit where I should.”
I walked from one end of the Hyatt ballroom to the other and at the far side, I tapped an empty chair, “Is this seat taken?”
“No, go ahead.”
I sat between two ladies. One with prickles and a forced smile, and another with chopped short hair like mine and discerning eyes. We chitchatted about our work and lives, and she noticed my distracted expressions whenever I failed to listen well. When babies came up, I said, “I’ve just had my first. He’s four months old, and I’ve finding it so hard to do any kind of writing anymore. How did you manage to keep writing while you had two young kids?”, she cocked her head and said, “You look like you’re going to cry.”
In case I hadn’t planned on crying, I sure was now. The floodgates opened after that. We had so much in common, so much to share, so much to glean. When I mentioned that I was a churchgoer, her dark eyes brightened and she smiled. “Me too!” Then we couldn’t stop talking…about babies and church and God. We cried together and forgot about eating until we noticed that everyone else at our table was politely waiting to start on their chocolate mousses. Then I downed my ravioli and chicken, and she called the waiter to take her plate away.
I’m not crushed that I’m going home without a soul interested in my story—I’ve told no one about it anyway. I’m better at asking questions than answering them. Where are you from? Do you write or draw? What genre? What’s your story about?
I’ll take home packets of information, names of editors who might look at my work, and some wise advice, like don’t write crap. And good writing is musical. That raising an infant is like being on an airplane; when the oxygen masks drop, put on your own mask before your child’s. And let your mind run wild while folding laundry, unloading the dishwasher, and feeding the baby.
And that all things have to leave us at one time or another.
And to be patient. Give it time.
And the best of all: to let the wind blow through the holes in your soul; to let it make music for others to hear.