I’ve attended a lot of children’s literature conferences over the past couple of decades. I’ve been to the SCBWI International Conference in Los Angeles about a dozen times. I’ve been to regional SCBWI conferences too numerous to count. I always look forward to them with a frantic sense of excitement. Or at least I did initially. I recall, in the beginning, stressing over what to bring to share, wavering between “This is brilliant,” to “this sucks! I have nothing good enough to show anyone!” I’d chafe over what clothes to pack for the climate as well as for the social element. I’d redesign business cards at the last minute and then decide to go with my old ones. I was an anxious, nervous—but very excited—wreck leading up to a conference.
What made it easier was seeing old friends there. And meeting new friends. And meeting friends that I’d only known online before. As writers and illustrators we typically work alone and conferences are wonderful breaks from that solitary world. Many friends I’ve met at conferences continue to play important roles in my life today. Even beyond kid lit. I remember sitting with friends in a freezing ballroom or a too warm meeting room, taking copious notes during both keynotes and breakout sessions, sharing insights with a glance and a smile, or a roll of the eyes. I have sketchbooks scrawled with words of wisdom delivered by both presenters and pals, and scribbles and sketches from downtimes. When looking at old conference notes and sketches, I can remember pretty clearly who I was sitting with, and what we might have been discussing when I created them. And just about every one of them is from a joyous time. Besides attending sessions, the time at lunch, or over cocktails, or out to dinner with these people became just as valuable and informative, perhaps even more so, than the sessions and keynotes themselves. Shared experiences with peers are helpful and motivational and come with a large serving of encouragement. In an industry that often hums with pessimism and foretells its own demise, motivation and encouragement are pretty precious commodities.
Over the years, as the conferences began adding up, the breakout sessions and keynotes started repeating themselves. Most of the presenters seem to be from a rather select pool of industry stars and most of the session topics I’ve heard before. Deciding whether to attend a conference, or if at a conference whether to attend a session, sometimes becomes less about the topic or the presenter and more about who else is going to be there. I’ve hardly learned all there is to know about this industry, and I know I benefit from taking similar sessions repeated times. But in the end I know the most valuable parts of conferences to me are the other attendees. They make up this terrific community of kid lit. And the conference brings that community to life.