Like Jim, I was away last weekend on book-related activities. I attended the SCBWI Eastern PA Poconos Retreat, doing manuscript critiques and a first-pages session, as well as sitting on an author/editor panel. Maybe it’s because I haven’t done a retreat in a few years, or maybe because this one was simply exceptional, but I came away as excited and rejuvenated about kids’ books as I’ve felt in quite a while.
First off, I was thrilled to see the traditional balance of projects among the writers, i.e., half picture books and half fiction. For so many years now, YA and middle-grade have dominated the kids’ books scene, and I’ve often felt a collective sense of despair among the picture book authors that there’s just no interest in their work. So it was very heartening to see that, despite no real signs of improvement in the market, authors are still coming up with stories for the youngest reader—and more importantly, are actively trying to get them published. No doubt, it’ll continue to be a struggle, especially as it’s generally not economically feasible for agents (like me) to rep text-only picture books until conditions improve. But I’m hopeful we’ll see more author/illustrators push things forward to a point where authors-only can get a shot, too—so keep it up, team!
I also noted more realistic fiction among my critiques than fantasy, which was a welcome shift. By far, the bulk of the queries I receive are fantasy-based or have paranormal elements, and while that’s all fine and good, I’d LOVE to see more fiction that deals with kids in contemporary, realistic settings. And it’s not that these stories can’t be creative or plot-driven—too often, I feel like authors equate fantasy with action, while realism is reserved for “issues.” There are tons of possibilities for high-concept storylines that don’t involve alternate worlds or werewolves, and I was very glad to see some of them this weekend.
Finally, it was great to feel just some good ol’ fashioned love for the book. We spend so much time wringing our hands over ebooks and the future of publishing (yours truly, guilty as charged), yet on the bus back to the city I realized that over the course of the weekend I only had one in-depth conversation about ebooks, and a good one at that. Moreover, as part of a silent auction, there was an impressive collection of picture books and novels from the 1940s and 1950s, including Adam of the Road with Robert Lawson’s illustrations and the original version of Ray Bradbury’s picture book Switch on the Night. Nothing like some beautiful oldies to reaffirm your faith in the printed word…
What’s your feeling about writers’ retreats? Do you find them inspiring? Helpful for your craft? Do they provide a sense of where the market’s headed? Or have you had bad experiences? I hope that’s not the case, but if so, what happened? I’d love to hear, as I’m trying to schedule some more retreats for 2011 and 2012—hey, maybe I’ll even see you at one of them!