A new literary wind blew into our town last weekend. That’s when Decatur, GA, already a book lover’s Mecca, thanks to Decatur Book Festival, became permanent home to the annual spring conference of the Southern Breeze chapter of the SCBWI. The what? The SCBWI. Sometimes spelled out, other times pronounced “skibwee,” this long and clumsy acronym stands for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, a goldmine of resources, education, opportunity, and support for those who aspire to write or illustrate for kids.
A non-profit international powerhouse founded in 1971 by two writing friends in San Francisco, Lin Oliver and Stephen Mooser, SCBWI is now the largest writing organization on the planet, with over 22,000 members in 80 regional chapters. Its mission is to “support the creation and availability of quality children’s books around the world.”
The benefit of SCBWI membership is having access to a vast network of classes, critique groups, workshops and conferences where new writers can learn from professionals in the industry as they study their craft together. For writers and illustrators with finished manuscripts or portfolios, a major draw of SCBWI conferences is the invitation to submit their work to presenting editors and agents for representation. And for published authors, SCBWI means increased visibility in the market via sponsored events, book launches, book sales, speaking opportunities, and awards.
The Southern Breeze chapter includes Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida panhandle, and is headed by regional adviser, Claudia Pearson. Herself a powerhouse of organizational management, Claudia is responsible for moving the annual spring conference, traditionally held at Century Center Marriott in Atlanta, to the Decatur Library, with hotel accommodations at Decatur’s Courtyard Marriott. In a brief interview on Saturday, Claudia said, “We made the move because we wanted Southern Breeze to have more presence in a vibrant literary community, rather than being cloistered away in a corporate hotel setting.”
This year’s impressive lineup of Keynote speakers makes it easy to understand why aspiring writers come from three states to attend Southern Breeze conferences:
- Meg Medina, author of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and winner of the 2014 Pura Belpre Medal for the book that best celebrates the Latino cultural experience.
- Giuseppe Castellano, Art Director at Penguin Random House, New York.
- Karen Grencik, co-founding agent of Red Fox Literary in San Francisco.
- Neal Porter, founding editor of Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Book Group, New York.
- Elise Howard, publisher of Algonquin Young Readers in New York and editor of Newbery winner The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
The opportunity for writers at all stages in their careers to submit work to agents and editors like these is probably the key to SCBWI’s success. It makes the impossible possible in a publishing world that is inundated with unsolicited queries. Without SCBWI’s channeling, a writer’s magnum opus, along with her life hopes and dreams, can (and most likely will) languish in a slush pile.
But first, there is the fabled learning curve. I joined SCBWI in 2008 when I retired from teaching elementary school to chase the proverbial dream of writing for children. My learning curve, way higher and more rigorous than expected, has, on many occasions, nearly caused me to give up. I know why Isabel Allende said, “Intending to write a book in retirement is like saying, ‘I think I’ll be a dentist when I retire.’ ” Writing well for young readers requires deep study, daily practice, and a courageous spirit. On a chosen journey notoriously full of self-doubt and distraction, a lone writer needs a tribe of supporters to keep going. SCBWI provides that motivation and education through inspirational speakers, writer’s workshops, and critique groups.
My SCBWI critique group can sniff out a dangling participle or a sluggish plot sequence with merciless precision. They can also make a mean cup of coffee and pull me out of a writer’s slump like nobody else can do. In short, we’ve got each other’s backs, and we love attending SCBWI conferences together, especially at our own Decatur Library.
The Southern Breeze move is exciting for any southeastern reader with a desire, however clandestine or overt, to write for kids. Judging from the full house in the library last weekend, there are more of us than we knew. And it was wonderful to be infused with the purposeful literary energy that spreads through a group of like-minded writers. Welcome to Decatur, Southern Breeze! We hope you have a long and happy tenure in our bookish little town.
As an adult reader, do you ever read middle grade or young adult novels? If so, what have you enjoyed?