The SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference: My Annual (Re)Treat

Back in 2013 or 2014, a writer friend suggested that I join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind, but it probably went something like this: That sounds so established. That’s for real writers, and I’m not sure that I’m enough.

I’m so glad that my friend brought SCBWI to my attention (Thanks, Sue!) and that I joined. As it turns out, members are writers and illustrators on every point of the publishing spectrum, from those who’ve published dozens of books to those who are unpublished. There’s a place for every writer who is passionate about writing and illustrating (and reading) children’s books. And yes, if you write or illustrate, then you are real and you are enough.

One of the things that I most love about SCBWI are the conferences which are skillfully organized by teams of children’s writers and illustrators. I’ve been attending the annual Mid-Atlantic Conference since 2014. Each one has been a different experience, depending on where I am in my writing life, who’s on faculty, and whom I happen to meet. But I always walk away with new knowledge, connections, and inspiration. Always.

Am I sounding like an ad for SCBWI? Really, I don’t enjoy being a saleswoman. I find self-promotion hard. I give away too many copies of my book. And I’m that mom who avoids fundraisers. If I’m enthusiastic about something, it’s only because I believe in it. (Like, I will spread the word when my daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies. Want any come January?)

Conferences are a good fit for me, because I enjoy learning and connecting with people in person. And who doesn’t love inspiration? Besides, I savor the get-away from life and a hotel room all to myself.

When I attended my first Mid-Atlantic Conference in 2014, I was so excited that I could barely sleep the night before. And when day came, I felt that I had met My People. People who understood the deep desire to create books for kids, were working hard to make that happen, and were helping each other along the winding road.

When I attended my fifth Mid-Atlantic Conference a couple of weekends ago, I felt all the more that I was with my people. People who understood what it feels like to have work rejected by editors and agents. People who keep going despite (and maybe even partly because of) the rejections. People who still have the deep desire, who are still working hard, who are still helping each other.

Why, this conference has become so much like a second home that… the morning of the conference, I grabbed my tote bag, stepped out into the hallway, and realized that… I still had my slippers on! Okay, maybe that was just absentmindedness at work, but in any case, this conference has become a writing home-base. I did change out of my slippers, by the way.

Over the course of two days, I met new people and hugged old friends. I filled up my notebook with so many craft ideas and inspirational words from writers, illustrators, editors, and agents who gave speeches, sat on panels, and taught workshops. I will, as I have in the past, turn back the pages to those notes.

Pat Cummings leading her workshop, “The Plot Thins: Getting Brutal, Getting Published… How Harsh Self-Editing Can Turn Unsold Projects Into Marketable Stories”

The wise and wonderful Pat Cummings gave the keynote address and led a three-hour workshop. Her words, especially, have continued to resonate:

The bottom line is do it. If you love it, put it down on paper. You’re 90% there. Somebody else will love it, too.” – Pat Cummings

And…

If you won the lottery today, would you still be doing it?” – Pat Cummings

And…

How long are you going to be on the planet?” – Pat Cummings

This year’s conference felt extra special to me. Ever since, I’ve tried to put my finger on why. It was likely due to several factors including the very lovely faculty and my own comfort level. More than anything, though, I picked up on an particularly kind, gentle vibe. I wonder if others who attended felt it, too.

Given the divisive state of this country, I appreciated all the more the haven that this conference is. I took solace in connecting with others who believe in the power of books to build bridges between people. During a time when I’m grieving for our country (and our world), it was healing to be in the presence of a people who are trying to birth beautiful books for our greatest hope: children.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. I hope to see some of you there next October!

Attendees browsing the faculty’s books

Until we meet again,

Amy

The Big Read Holland Area: Connecting with a Community

Speaking with students at a school visit. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Earlier this month, I participated for two days in The Big Read Holland Area. Holland is located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. The first Europeans who settled there were — you guessed it — from the Netherlands.

Holland’s nickname is “The Tulip City.” This whimsical sculpture by Stuart Padnos stands in front of the Holland Area Arts Council.

My experience in Holland was simply powerful. Rarely does an experience resonate in so many ways: as a writer, former teacher, politically conscious citizen, and human being.

The Big Read, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a program that provides grants annually to about 75 communities across America. Led by Associate Professor Deb Van Duinen of Hope College, Holland received its fourth consecutive grant this year. They’re doing something right!

According to the NEA website, “…the NEA Big Read broadens our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book. Showcasing a diverse range of contemporary titles that reflect many different voices and perspectives, the NEA Big Read aims to inspire conversation and discovery.”

I had the joy of seeing a community putting NEA’s aim into action — particularly refreshing during this time of national turmoil.

For this year’s Big Read, Holland chose Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor Was Divine, a heartbreaking novel about a family’s experiences before, during, and after the Japanese American internment. Built around this novel and the internment, Holland offered a month-long array of programs incorporating book clubs, lectures, visual arts, music, film, and so on.

My well-loved copy

The Big Read is not just for adults! The committee chose my book, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, so that kids would have an accessible book about the Japanese American internment. A committee member told me that 600-700 copies of my book were distributed in the community. Wow! What an honor to think that so many kids in Holland have my book in their hands.

As you may imagine, the internment is a difficult subject to discuss with young people. The last thing I want to do, in my personal or professional life, is to crush a kid’s spirit. On the contrary, I try my best to lift up.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Whenever I share my book and give a program, I walk a fine line between educating kids about this dark chapter of American history and trying to inspire feelings of hope for their lives and our country. It feels like, and is, a tremendous responsibility.

Speaking to a group of 2nd graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Although my library visit was advertised for upper elementary students, younger children also attended. One boy, about four years old, asked one of the wisest questions:

Why were there guns?” He was referring to the guards who pointed guns toward the internees from the watchtowers.

Yes, indeed. Why?

At the library and at the schools, I spoke with a total of about 600 kids. What an opportunity to reach so many young people about the internment!

Yet my primary goal was to connect with them, in one way or another. I think that when we experience connections, it’s hard not to care about each other and the world. And I think that connections can also foster hope. Don’t we all need more hope these days?

Depending on the audience, I shared:

history about the Japanese American internment…

Discussing “Evacuation Day.” (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

…my maternal family’s experience at Topaz, one of the ten internment camps…

Discussing a photo of my mother and grandmother taken by Dorothea Lange. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…information about Topaz Art School where my grandfather, Matsusaburo Hibi, and my grandmother, Hisako Hibi, taught and painted…

Discussing Topaz Art School which my book centers around. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…my grandmother’s art which helped sustain her during the internment (as well as before and after)…

Discussing “Floating Clouds” (oil on canvas, 1944) by my grandmother, Hisako Hibi. (Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area)

…and Felicia Hoshino’s illustrations which were, in part, inspired by my grandmother’s art. Do you see the girl in the red cape in both pieces?

Discussing my grandmother’s painting, “Windy,” (oil on canvas, 1944) alongside Felicia Hoshino’s dust storm scene. (Photo Credit: Thea Patterson)

I asked kids to think about what it is they love doing and encouraged them to nurture that love. What brings you joy? What brings you peace? Their faces lit up and they were eager to share.

Photo Credit: The Big Read Holland Area

Of course, I read and took questions.

These kids asked so many compelling questions! (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

You never know what someone might connect with, and it was eye-opening to see the range of connections that students made during my visits.

Some students focused on the internment: “One of the saddest things about the internment was all of the loss.”

Some students focused on writing: “What did you struggle with when you wrote your book?”

Some students focused on personal identity: “Did you know that I’m half Chinese American, too?”

Still others focused on personal experience. Between school visits, I heard that my book resonated with a student whose parent had been removed from home due to immigration issues.

And just yesterday, I received an email saying that one student, who is going through tough life circumstances, connected deeply with the main character who “understands what it’s like to go through hard stuff.”

Heart-rending stories.

Speaking to a group of 3rd-5th graders. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Then there was a question that cut through the weight of the subject matter and made me chuckle: How old were you during WWII? You gotta love kids!

At one of the schools, I offered a high-five to students as they were filing out of the gym. I was surprised to be offered hug after hug. Ever mindful of physical boundaries, I repeatedly said, “You don’t have to hug me.” But many students chose to give a hug over a high-five.

Photo Credit: Anne Harrison

In addition to kids, I had the pleasure of connecting with adults in Holland. I shared a yummy lunch with Hope College students who serve on the college committee of The Big Read Holland Area. It’s a big operation (and even includes a high school committee). These bright students are getting it done!

Hope College students (from left to right): Ryan, Lauren, Becky, Thea

I also shared a long dinner with two wonderful librarians, Anne Harrison and Anne Pott, who serve on the main committee of The Big Read Holland Area. Dinner was scrumptious, the company lovely, and the conversation meaningful. Could I love librarians more? Authors and librarians (and teachers) share a special bond when it comes to books and kids.

With Anne Pott (front) and Anne Harrison (back), celebrating The Big Read Holland Area.

I asked the waitress for a menu to take home as a memento. Salt of the Earth seemed like a fitting description of the evening and of my experience in Holland.

I went to Holland hoping, most of all, to connect with people. I did and left with a renewed sense of hope — born of a community’s commitment to learning and growing, even when the conversation gets difficult. As with most things in life, going through the process can bring on something positive.

I found this downtown — footsteps leading up to an inspiring sculpture.

The President aims to start shutting down the National Endowment for the Arts in 2018. NEA programs like The Big Read, which reach millions of Americans, would cease to exist. It’s hard to fathom the loss that this would cause in our country, both individually and collectively. Please click here to read about it and to speak up for the arts.

I often quote Kate DiCamillo: “Stories connect us.” I think the same goes for all of the arts. They have a way of sparking connections within and between people, sometimes in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

My first time spotting a fireplace on a sidewalk!

Thank you, Holland, for your warm welcome. As 2017 comes to a close, I’ll remember my time there as one of the brightest spots of my year!

Signing and saying good-bye. (Photo Credit: Anne Harrison)

Until we meet again,

Amy

Still Reading to My Daughter…For Now

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC

My younger daughter, Miya, poked her head out of the bathroom before taking her evening shower. “Mom?”

I looked up from my laptop to her face which held an unusual mixture of eagerness, curiosity, and concern.

“Are you ever going to stop reading to me?”

******

Her question, like the look on her face, held so much meaning for me. Twelve years of books. Twelve years of connection. In sum, her childhood.

Of course, I’ve known for a long time that I wouldn’t read to this girl forever. But I’ve continued, often neglecting other things and letting her stay up past her bedtime.

She has given no signals to stop. I had thought by now, she would have. As she has grown from infant to tween, we’ve run the gamut from board books to picture books to middle grade books to younger YA books.

******

Her question came a week ago, the evening after her second day of middle school. Of course. That made sense! She had had half of her classes on the first day and the other half on the second day. She had caught a glimpse of her new life.

Her first two days of middle school went very well, bringing her (and me) relief and excitement. But being in a school with 600 other preteens and teens…well, she felt it: she’s no longer a little kid. And her school workload is increasing.

******

Are you ever going to stop reading to me? I wasn’t quite sure what to say. I let a couple seconds tick by.

“I hope not. I hope you’ll never get too busy with schoolwork that we won’t find the time.” I decided to leave out the part about hoping I’ll never get too busy, either (even though I feel I already am, but…).

“Yeah, that’d be sad. It suddenly occurred to me that you might have to stop one day.” And then her face brightened. “If I get too busy, we could just sit together and I could read my [school] book and you could read your book. And you’ll finally get to read adult books again.” (Ha! I do manage once in a blue moon to read adult books, but in the end, I’d still chose kids’ books.)

“Yeahhh,” I said with a sigh. “That would work.” I smiled.

She smiled back, satisfied with our long-range plan. And then she closed the bathroom door.

******

I was glad that she didn’t seem to think it uncool for her mom to still be reading to her. I was glad that she still wanted to spend her last moments of each day with me. I was glad that she loved stories so much.

I knew that this was not a signal to stop, but rather a signal to continue. Yay!

Yet I also felt a tinge of sadness, a little sense of loss. She was highlighting the inevitable next chapter; we would come to a point in our story when she’d read beside me instead of with me (which in and of itself, would still be a great deal).

******

Miya and me in Wilmington, NC, in June 2008 on a family vacation

I’ve been reading to Miya nearly every night since she was born, except for the nights when we’ve been out of town (but sometimes, even then). We’ve read in hotel rooms, on my bed, on her bed, on her floor, in her forts… I’ve read half-asleep, struggling not to stumble over words. As she’s gotten older, she’s read to me when I’ve been too tired or I’ve had a headache.

We’ve relished this shared experience. For so many reasons. Some feel beyond words.

If I were granted a do-over as a mom, I’d do some things differently. But not this one.

******

I started reading to Miya for the joy of snuggling together with books and with the hope that she’d fall in love with them.

As a reading specialist, I was also aware that kids (including older kids) benefit when books beyond their independent reading level are read aloud. I have felt very lucky for the ways that she’s gained as a reader, writer, and student.

But somewhere along the way, the heart of why I continued to read aloud shifted. It became more about what she’s gained as a person. And what we’ve gained in our relationship.

Together we’ve grown with and learned from characters. We’ve laughed a lot. And shed some tears. Many of the characters – and the stories themselves — have ended up feeling like our mutual friends.

And isn’t it comforting to know that even when we don’t see our friends, they’re still there?

******

A few weeks ago, the white supremacists came to my adopted town, Charlottesville, VA, for a “Unite the Right” riot. Like most of the world, I watched in horror.

How do you explain this display of hate and racism to a child? Happening in her hometown, the only place she’s ever called home? A place where she’s been privileged to feel relatively safe?

As an Asian American girl, she’s encountered microaggressions. She lives in a household where we talk about issues of race and racism (and other -isms). But this was a whole new level of discussion.

After James Alex Fields Jr. crashed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others, I sat down with Miya at the kitchen table. When I mentioned the KKK, a look of recognition crossed her face. And she did what she sometimes does during life events and situations, happy or sad: she brought up a book that we had shared.

“I first heard about the KKK in Gone Crazy in Alabama.” This is the third book in Rita Williams-Garcia’s heartwarming trilogy filled with African American history. We had read it two years prior.

I exhaled. I felt grateful that she had given me a path to discuss the horrendous events occurring just miles down the road. And I felt grateful to Rita Williams-Garcia for having given my daughter a historical context to work from and characters to care about.

I felt as if the story were holding our hands.

During that difficult discussion, I felt a keen sense of gratitude to all children’s book authors who send out stories that allow kids to learn about people and places beyond their own little corner of the world. As Kate DiCamillo, one of Miya and my favorite authors, says, “Stories Connect Us.” And these stories nurture empathy.

******

So when will I stop reading to her? I don’t know.

I do know that as long as she wants it and makes the time, I’ll make the time. Even if it becomes one or two pages a night instead of one or two (or three) chapters a night. Last night, I realized that I hadn’t made this part of the plan crystal clear, so I did. Just in case. She said that she already knew.

And then I joked, “Oh, I’ll be that crazy mom FaceTiming you when you’re in college. ‘Hi, Miya! I’m here to read you a bedtime story.’”

She laughed, knowing that I was kidding, that even her book-loving mom has limits (I think I do, anyway).

Then something in her face told me that she realized what I’d assumed she already knew: I’ve gained as much as she has from our time together.

Whenever Miya decides…for whatever reason…to move on…I’ll feel very lucky to have had this privilege: two people holding onto one book and each other while navigating this beautiful, messy thing called Life.

Miya and me on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, VA, in June 2017 after her last day of elementary school

Until we meet again,

Amy

Taking Risks in Writing and in Life

 

welcomegarden
Photo via visualhunt.com

Welcome to my first blog post! How exciting for me! But also…

…kind of nerve-racking. You see, I lead a pretty quiet life. And I don’t tend to seek the spotlight. Frankly, there’s a lot about being online that runs counter to my nature and upbringing.

So. Why. Blog?

Believe me, I asked myself that question repeatedly as my designer and I worked on my site. What, am I crazy? Putting myself out there? For anyone to see? The thought was/is enough to make me want to cuddle up with my cat and ditch the whole plan.

Just Wall-E and Me

I just joined Facebook last spring, my first step into the social media world. There were lots of reasons why I’d avoided it: time, privacy, trolls. In the end, even though it is a mixed bag, I’m glad to be there. Still, I pause nearly every time before I push the “Post” button.

That’s one side of the coin.

The other side is that I LOVE connecting with people. I live to find common ground. And I’ll talk to just about anyone. Ask my kids who are forced to stand there as I chat with people — familiar and new — at their schools, in stores, at the library, on the street.

I also live to write. I’ve been a diary/journal writer since I was a kid. A blog is, after all, a web log, isn’t it?

One of my childhood diaries

What’s the big deal, then? That brings me back to the other side of the coin.

The thing is I have to be real. That’s also part of my deal. By blogging in an open and honest way, I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable which in a face-to-face, back-and-forth conversation feels just fine. More than just fine! I thrive on that type of conversation where each person learns about the other and we share some good laughs.

But being online giving a monologue to who-knows-whom? Well, that just makes me feel naked. (No worries, G rated blog here.)

The nature of writing is solitary (too much so sometimes), but the business is public. Positive connection — bring it on! Constructive criticism — I’m good with that. But trolls — who needs that? Life is hard enough.

But life is also too short. So I’ve decided to implement the principle of non-attachment. You know, hit the “Publish” button and then…

I’ve got stuff to say and share that I think will resonate with some readers. And those are, after all, the readers I’m trying to reach.

If you end up being one of them, I’ll think of it this way: it’s just you and me having a nice little chat at school or in a store or at the library or on the street. Oh heck, while I’m at it, why not on a beach or a mountaintop? I envision tea or coffee. A steaming hot mug of French Roast for me. What do you prefer?

two-cups-of-espressoviavisuahunt
Photo via visualhunt.com

Yeah, I like that. Phew! Now I feel a lot better.

I’d feel even better if I could tell you exactly what the focus of my blog will be. But back to openness and honesty… I don’t know. The best I can offer is that my posts will be connected under the umbrella of things that I love: kids and kids’ books, reading and writing, inclusiveness in stories and in life.

Art by Robert Tai

Over time, I may find a more defined focus, a focus that grows organically and finds me. But it will take just that: time. Blogging over time.

If you’re good with this general map and open to seeing what happens, I’d love your company and conversation along the way! I’ll be spending more time writing manuscripts than blog posts, but you can expect to hear from me about once a month (i.e. I won’t be clogging up your inbox).

How do I know that I really want to blog and write and publish more books? Because despite internal and external obstacles, I’m going for it! As the late Randy Pausch said, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

brickwall

Thanks for listening as I take this additional step into the online world. Many years ago, my high school English teacher, Ms. Stewart, told me, “Take more risks.” Yeah, I think Ms. Stewart would be happy about this one. In any case, I know I am!

Until we meet again,

Amy