SCBWI Winter Conference, 2014: A First-Timer’s Appreciation

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My 8 year-old daughter is ocean-obsessed, and we have recently been reading Holling Clancy Holling’s hermit crab book, Pagoo (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1957). Pagoo, in his little tide pool world, forever moves from one shell to another, these moves necessitated by the slow and constant growth that comes with repeated molting. Finding a new, better-fitting shell requires creeping out from the safety of the old one – becoming, for a stretch, completely crab-naked and vulnerable.

I thought about Pagoo during Kate Messner’s keynote yesterday, “The Spectacular Power of Failure”, at the annual SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City. Each time Pagoo outgrows a shell he catapults into another of what Messner, in talking about fear and failure, calls an “opportunity to be brave”. And he is brave in the face of a whole buffet of threats: the sculpin, the octopus, gulls, starfish.

It would be much easier if Pagoo’s tide pool was populated with only hermit crabs, wouldn’t it? All on this same journey of transformation together? The crabs could revel in their collective transitioning. They could compare notes. They could critique one another’s choice of shell.

In truth, though, hermit crabs aren’t so congenial: they spar and scuffle and pinch each other as they battle over choice shells. They possess a wicked ability to sense the soft-skinned vulnerability of a recent molt, knowing just when and how to attack. And worse, they are not above cannibalism.

A pre-conference FAQ email talked – in a section very kindly addressed to the many of us who struggle with “networking” – about the warmth and collegiality of the event. I did not actually believe the words though: it was, frankly, unimaginable. (Fear is a great vision-clouder.)

When SCBWI’s Executive Director and co-founder Lin Oliver took the podium Saturday morning, though, I began to understand. She was genuinely wecloming, smart and funny, and not the least bit perfunctory. She is clearly so committed both to the field and to supporting those who share her love of creating children’s books, whoever they are and whatever their experience level. Throughout the event, Lyn’s warmth, intelligence and honesty were mirrored in the words and sensibilities of many of the other presenters, and the same openness was evident in exchanges with conference participants too. As the email had suggested: no sniping or backstabbing, no jockeying for position (except at morning break times in the rush to the bathroom queues).

And definitely no crab-filled tide pool, this conference. SCBWI accomplishes something pretty extraordinary: they fill a space with hundreds and hundreds of vulnerable people who are stretching and reaching in an effort to develop and grow – as writers, illustrators, etc. – and they manage to create a supportive and smart environment that draws out attendees’ own best selves. Many thanks to Lin, for setting the tone, and to Sara Rutenberg and the rest of the SCBWI team for pulling the conference together. It was a great event – a beautifully conceived and well run “opportunity to be brave.”

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