WIFYR 2020 Conference: Children’s Picture Books

“We must bring stories and experiences and values to a new generation. Children’s book people are good citizens of the planet and they can start children on the path to thinking and reasoning and healing.” (attributed to Justin Chanda in a speech at an SCBWI conference in Los Angeles).

Eleven years ago, I was finishing my degree at BYU. I had a 20 hour per week internship for college credit, another internship off-campus, and my continued on-campus job mentoring freshman students. I was also preparing my proposal and trip to Brazil for my Honors Thesis. I had a lot going on, but I still needed a full schedule for the semester. So I looked into some “light” evening classes, and I chose an elective about writing for children and adolescents. (I also took a Brazilian theater class that was AMAZING but that’s for another post, haha).

Spoiler alert: “light” is relative. It was a lot of work and involved lots of critiques that were not for the faint of heart. The class was taught by the late Rick Walton, who had published many children’s books. I have since learned how incredibly lucky I was to learn from him as he was an amazing mentor to many in this field.

I wrote many books and came up with a lot of ideas in that class, but there was one particular manuscript that had my heart. And it had Rick’s, too. He told me that book had potential and that I should really work hard on it and see what I could do with it. That has stayed with me.

So I did. I worked a lot on it, submitted it to a lot of different places and even reworked it significantly with a publisher’s editor but ultimately it was in the midst of the recession and children’s books weren’t selling, so publishers weren’t buying, and I set it aside for many years. Here and there, I’ve worked on various manuscripts and submitted them half-heartedly to a few publishers, but I haven’t tried that much.

As I approached 2020, I felt it was time to really find out if it was worth it to get back in the game and see how I could improve my writing. I set some pretty serious goals.

Some author friends recommended a local conference called WIFYR–Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, and I thought it would help me start back into the world of book writing and submitting.

But 2020 has been a real downer and my creativity and hope has been very stifled. And the WIFYR conference changed to be just virtual like everything else, and I just wasn’t feeling it. But (thank you small world) the picture book workshop I had been entertaining was being taught by a college friend’s mom. I used my connection and asked my friend if I could chat with her mom. Lezlie Evans gave me just the right amount of encouragement to give the workshop a shot. So two weeks ago, I took a week off work to sit in front of my computer some more as I joined a virtual class and watched a ton of recorded sessions.

Our awesome picture book class with some of our favorite books. I actually shared “The Rough Patch” by Brian Lies as one of my fave reads, but it wasn’t near me when we were getting ready to take the picture, so I chose “The Stinky Cheese Man.”

One presenter, author Christian Heidicker said, “WIFYR brings writers out of the darkness.” This was true for me. The conference was amazing. I became friends with an inspiring and loving group of creative and hope-filled writers.

Pro tip: If you ever need to feel supported, hang out with writers. Writers are beautiful people who want to share a message with the world. A good group of writers helps you strengthen your work, and it’s cool to have people unabashedly tell you what’s working and what’s not. They are my people.

I work-shopped a new manuscript that helped me feel encouraged. I learned new skills and was reminded of old skills. And all throughout the week were inspiring moments to encourage us in our craft.

Children’s books are important. They are often the first messages children hear in building an understanding about the world. And we need people who will tell the right messages. As Lezlie taught us, “Your job is to be a child’s best friend; you may be their only friend.” As Christian Heidicker said, writers are “trying to cure the loneliness of the world.”

Our discussions helped us learn to respond to today’s needs. A huge goal of our writing was to help each other make the messages universal. This included looking for diversity and broadening our messages. It included watching for themes that promote love, unity, and uniqueness. And watching for “own voices”–making sure that the story is ours to tell.

As many of you have noted over the past few weeks, there is a lot of work to do in the children’s picture book industry to promote the voices of people of color. There are many people who are working to make this happen, and it is promising to see change. I hope to see more of it.

Since the conference? I’ve been rewriting and researching. I’ve been pitching on #PBPitch day. I’ve been reading more picture books.

I’ve also been going through all my digital files to find old manuscripts. Not suprisingly, I hate most of what I have previously written. I’m probably not being overly critical–a lot of what I started with isn’t very good. I’m not sure I’ve improved much as some of my newer stuff isn’t great either.

And I’ve fallen into a slump again already, haha. But you can’t publish if you never write something. So I’m going to keep writing and critiquing and editing and rewriting. And submitting. And trying. Writing is a medium I want to use to bring more hope, healing, and laughter to the world.

*In a future blog post, I hope to share some children’s picture book recommendations.

If you are interested in writing for young readers and want some good resources on books or conferences or sites to look into, I am happy to point you to a few I’ve found.

P.S. Here’s one fun and cool book I discovered recently. 🙂

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