As writers and illustrators of children’s books, we have the cutest fantasies. Who else dreams that their work will someday be decorated by a sticker?
And then there’s the conference fantasy, where the agent or editor of your dreams holds your manuscript overhead and says, “This is brilliant!” and she just happens to have a contract in her pocket, which you sign on the spot. It’s almost better than the sticker.
But here’s the thing. People are sometimes asked to send off stories or art, and there are similarly wonderful career-transforming moments. Usually, though, nothing quite so dramatic happens.
And yet… conferences are magic. Truly. Every picture book I’ve ever sold has come directly from my time at an SCBWI conference, specifically the one in Los Angeles. I’ve sold four picture books and have interest in a fifth; each one sprang from an idea or conversation I had at that summer conference, starting with my first one in 2008.
My future editor, Arthur A. Levine, had been in Seattle that spring for a conference, and through a happy accident of seating, we’d chatted through the evening, and he invited me to submit something to him someday. At the time, I was writing an epic novel about a pirate in part because I’d given up on picture books, and in part because, well, I can’t really remember why, which was ultimately the problem with that novel.
At our local spring conference, Arthur had offered sage advice from his then four-year-old son. “When in doubt, write about dinosaurs.” At the time, this didn’t strike me as anything other than adorable. (Who was I to write about dinosaurs, anyway? At the time, I was merely thirty-seven.)
When registration opened for the summer conference in Los Angeles, I really wanted to go. But I couldn’t. We had a family reunion that weekend. And what kind of jerk puts anything in front of family? As it turns out, I am that kind of jerk.
In Los Angeles, Arthur reassured us about the picture book market, which at the time was feeling kind of battered. On the flight home, I resolved to send him a thank-you note for being so encouraging. I looked out the window, and I thought about dinosaurs, and specifically their teeth, and even more fantastically, about who might love their teeth most of all.
Arthur ended up publishing the answer to that question—The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy—five years later. A year or two after I sold The DTF, I mentioned to Arthur at another Los Angeles conference a letter I’d written to my daughter when she asked for the truth about Santa. He said he thought it sounded like a picture book as well. A dear friend I’d met at the Los Angeles conference, Samantha Berger, gave me an idea for how it might be done. I wrote it. Arthur bought it.
Last summer, Samantha and I came up with an idea at the conference while we were eating pizza poolside. So far that has turned into a two picture book deal with Arthur.
These aren’t the sort of things you can predict when you’re thinking about going to a conference. The standard fantasy—that someone might love your work and buy it on the spot—pales in comparison to what really can happen. You go to these conferences and meet people who inspire you. You make friends. You hear words you didn’t know you needed to hear, things that make you laugh and cry, things that feed your mind in ways your everyday routine might not. All of this becomes the fuel of story.
I’d never thought to dream about what comes from inspiration and connection and friendship. And yet this combination is so much better than any contract, and why I’ll go to every SCBWI conference I can.
Fantasies are great and all. But real life? It’s better.
Martha Brockenbrough is the author of the YA novels The Game of Love and Death and Devine Intervention, and The Dinosaur Tooth Fairy, a picture book. Both are with Arthur A. Levine at Scholastic, as is her forthcoming picture book, Love, Santa, as well as two Bigfoot picture books written jointly with Samantha Berger. Martha also wrote the nonfiction middle grade Finding Bigfoot for Feiwel & Friends. In addition to her work on SCBWI's Team Blog, she is the founder of National Grammar Day and author of Things That Make Us [Sic]. Visit www.marthabrockenbrough.squarespace.com and on Twitter @mbrockenbrough.