Last Saturday, the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable (VCLR) put on the annual Serendipity event. What is Serendipity? Well, basically the VCLR brings in really awesome* authors and/or illustrators and/or editors and/or other people from the children’s book trade world, and they talk about their stories and their work, and answer whatever questions the audience thinks up, and also mingle and chat and be generally nice to their adoring children’s-lit-geeky fans.**
This year’s fantastic line-up was Andrew Smith, Mariko Tamaki, Molly Idle and Kelli Chipponeri, and Holly Black.
They spoke for approximately 40 minutes each. It was inspiring. There is no way to reproduce the experience, but here are a few quotes from each of our speakers.
From Andrew Smith, author of (among other works) The Marbury Lens, Winger, 100 Sideways Miles, Grasshopper Jungle, and The Alex Crow:
Grasshopper Jungle was written, in part, in response to vicious public “debate” alias attacks, childhood memories of worrying about his older brother who, at nineteen, was sent off to fight in Vietnam.
“We’ve got to get over this nonsense of sending kids off to war to fight other kids.”
As a teacher and as a writer, he believes that
“poetry is sacred”
and encourages teens to learn, not computer coding, but the code of the English language.
“There is no separation between language and literacy and who we are as human beings, our reality.”
“Your brain is constantly breaking down the universe in the code of what humans are.”
If you don’t understand something, you turn to the person next to you and ask them to give you the word for it. Language is essential to experience, to comprehending experience.
And some words on writing.
“Think about the why. Don’t think about the what… Start with the why.”
“There is no such thing as writer’s block. Don’t use that as an excuse. If you can write ten words a day, it’ll take you a long time to write a novel, but you can do it.”
Final advice on writing: carry around a notebook and take notes in it. If you write nothing more, write one sentence a day. The sentence doesn’t have to connect to the one from the day before. But write one sentence every day.
From Mariko Tamaki, author of (among other works) Skim, Emiko Superstar, and This One Summer:
“Apparently, if you write about teenagers, you write for teenagers.”
She takes what she called the Canadian anthropological approach, which is that writing for children is not about explaining anything, but looking at the experience of what it is like. Following this approach, writing for teenagers means writing about adults and adulthood from a teen perspective. Some of that perspective will be accurate, and some of it will not.
Writing is describing without explaining.
From Molly Idle, author-illustrator of (among other works) Zombelina, Flora and the Flamingo, and Flora and the Penguin, and from Kelli Chipponeri, the Editorial Director of Children’s Books at Chronicle Books (and Molly Idle’s editor):
“Making wordless books is a really different sort of an animal” – MI
Making the Flora books was like a puzzle, fitting all the pieces together within certain parameters, KC added.
What was the idea behind Flora and the Flamingo?
“A friendship told through dance.” – MI
As they worked together on books, they found that talking on the phone or via Skype was much more efficient and built a stronger relationship than sending email messages. Talking, even when they were geographically distant, allowed for much better communication and more immediacy when it came to making decisions.
Their rule for discussion? Create a supportive environment in which everyone feels fully safe to express themselves. Their big phrase, much like improv theatre’s “Yes, and…” is:
“That’s a really interesting idea. Could it be even better if…”
From Holly Black, author of (among many, many other works) Tithe, Valiant, Ironside, The Spiderwick Chronicles (with Tony DiTerlizzi), Doll Bones, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, and The Darkest Part of the Forest:
“People often say to write what you know, a piece of advice that is vague enough to be confusing.” (Especially when it is said to fantasy authors.)
“A lot of fairy folklore is rooted in landscape.”
Co-writing The Spiderwick Chronicles, which is a series of comparatively short books, taught her tight plotting. (Useful to know!)
“[When you are collaborating on a story,] The greatest stuff happens when you disagree. You have to think about why you want it that way, and [consider] is there a third way. And often there is, and it combines the best of both [of what you wanted].”
She put up photos of books that were important, even foundational:
- Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee
- The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by Walter Y. Evans-Wentz
- The Middle Kingdom: The Faerie World of Ireland by Dermot A. MacManus
- An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs
Later books that had a powerful impact included:
- Jack of Kinrowan by Charles de Lint
- Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
- The Bordertown shared world
- War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
A common thread in each author’s story was how personal and intimate creating a book is. Writing drew on memories from their childhoods and teen years, on their own geographical/social/political experiences, on things they were curious about or stirred (or disturbed) by or fascinated with.
* I was tempted to borrow from A Very Potter Musical here and write “supermegafoxyawesomehot,” but that might leave you with the wrong impression. Supermegafoxyawesomehot in a literary sense?
*Which doesn’t take away from how completely intimidating it is to have an Actual Author whose books you have read for years sitting right. There. Three. Feet. Away. Or make it any easier to speak to her and not sound like a complete idiot. But on the plus side, since these authors/illustrators/editors/etc. ARE really nice, they don’t look at you as though you sound as stupid as you think you sound.