Interview with Lin Oliver
"I could not have predicted the enormous generosity of the membership..."
A Conversation with Lin Oliver
By Anna Olswanger
LIN OLIVER HAS BEEN producing quality family movies, most of them based on children's books, for over twenty years. But she began her career as a writer of educational children's books, and out of her own personal need for a conference to train young writers, co-founded the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators in 1971 with Stephen Mooser. As the executive director, she personally produces the annual national conference, and together with Steve, oversees the publication of the SCBWI bimonthly bulletin, supervises the national office, and works with the regional advisors to plan and support regional activities. Here she talks about the past, present, and future of SCBWI.
How has SCBWI changed over the years?
Everybody who is a writer, an illustrator, an agent, or an editor of children's books has joined SCBWI. We started out with a handful of members, but with over 18,000 members today, we have become the largest writer's organization in the country, with an active professional membership. At our conferences, for instance, we have forums on book promotion, on building a career, on establishing a website, [regardless of whether one has been published or not].
SCBWI has become a regional organization in addition to being a national, and even international organization. We now have regional advisors in every state, and several in many of the larger states. We have over twenty international chapters, including France, Mexico, the Philippines, and most recently in South Africa. So we have grown not only in size, but in coverage. We delegate to regions the responsibility of organizing local critique groups and conferences; we sponsor over a hundred conferences a year throughout the world, in addition to the two annual conferences we host in Los Angeles in August, and in New York in February. We could not have predicted this grass roots movement--which makes it easier for our membership to participate. My greatest joy in having begun SCBWI is to see the network of friends that has evolved over the years. Our goal has always been to build a community. I think we have done that.
What specifically does SCBWI offer to new writers?
One of the things that we have tried to do is improve the quality of our members' submissions to publishing houses. When people join SCBWI, they get a packet of about twenty publications, including market surveys of book, magazine, and education publishers; an explanation of contracts; a listing of agents; and a guide to magazine formatting. We don't think we can teach talent, but we can teach professionalism.
What would you do differently if you were starting SCBWI today?
We began as an organization of writers. But when you work in the children's book field, illustrators are half the equation. So now I would set out to include artists, along with people who create for children in other media. We are known as book writers, but in fact, many of our members work in television, film, live theater, on the internet, and in all kinds of electronic publishing. The organization is for everybody who creates literary material for children.
What are SCBWI's goals for the future?
We have both philosophical and operational goals. Philosophically, we want the organization to become the unified voice for quality children's literature in literacy, free speech, and library advocacy. We are trying to create white papers in such areas as the relationship between books and other entertainments for children. We would like to be able to present these views in the political and educational arenas for politicians, teachers, librarians, and parents. That's the first goal.
Operationally, we would like to create programs with archival significance. For instance, we are talking about establishing a museum to house exhibits, both stationary and traveling, devoted to the creation of children's books. The museum would archive material from our members. It would include a gallery of new artists' works and historical retrospectives of children's books over the ages.
Both those goals fall into the category of statesmanship that we couldn't afford to do when we were struggling to grow and establish ourselves. But now that we are who we are, an organization that comprises virtually everybody who writes, illustrates, agents, edits, or cares about children's books, I think we have to assume an activist role in issues that concern children, and in documenting and celebrating children's books in our culture.
How do you choose speakers for the annual SCBWI conferences?
They have to be writers or illustrators of what we consider quality children's books. They have to be willing to prepare, because when they come to the conference they're doing something different than they do in their "sub-careers" as speakers at schools. If you are talking at a school or library, it's one thing. If you are talking at a conference to a group of your peers, you have to think about your work in a different way. So it's important to me that people who come on the faculty are willing to think hard about their work, and to come with something other than their usual canned presentation. It helps if someone is a good speaker. Usually I will check around. But I'm not looking for entertainers--I'm looking for people who can share. And that's the final criteria. They have to be willing to give of themselves. The editors who come have to be willing to look at manuscripts; the authors and the illustrators have to be willing to give individual consultations.
You've listened to hundreds of writers and illustrators speak at the SCBWI conferences. What makes some of them stand out?
One thing I've observed, if I can generalize about the writers and illustrators who have been with us over the years, is that they are individualistic. I imagine most creative people are, but the children's field tends to attract people who are not your run-of-the-mill adults. They are often oddballs. So you see this parade of wonderful eccentrics come through, and you can hear it when they speak. They reach kids who feel the same way. All children feel powerless in some way. They feel that they don't quite fit in, that there is something different about them. That's because they are new in the world and have nothing to compare themselves to. So when you hear the grownup version of these children, which is what the best of our writers and artists are--people who are in touch with their childhood and can express that to their audience--you hear an unmistakable quality of voice.
How do you think writers and illustrators grow?
I think they grow by holding to a vision, by not being corrupted by material concerns, or concerns in the marketplace. It's like an onion. You peel off layer after layer as you continue to dig inside yourself. You reach different levels of awareness, and you bring that to your work without consideration of what you've done before, or how people will judge you.
How can members best take advantage of SCBWI?
The most important thing they can do is to participate. If they attend the conferences, contribute to the newsletters, participate in the critique groups, if they make friends and continue to stay in touch with their friends, there is no way that they can't benefit. It's like everything else in life. The more you put in, the more you get back.
Anna Olswanger attended her first national SCBWI conference in 1985. Her interviews with publishing industry professionals appear online at www.olswanger.com.