The Company of Writers

Elizabeth Bluemle - May 20, 2013

I’ve just spent 10 of the past 17 days in the company of children’s book writers and illustrators, first at the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference in Massachusetts, and then at a writing retreat in Taos. Not long before those, I was at the Albany Children’s Book Festival. All three venues reaffirmed the conclusion I come to time and again: that we have the best field imaginable with the best people in it. This includes all of the people involved in and passionate about literature for young people: the writers and artists, editors and designers, marketers and reps, teachers, librarians, and booksellers who dedicate their professional (and usually personal) lives to it.
Many times, I’ve spoken with writers and artists who don’t work with children’s books but have friends who do, and they comment on how unusually supportive children’s book folks are of one another. One gallery owner told me that while children’s book illustrators attend openings, routinely compliment one another’s work, and buy each other’s art, that almost never happens with artists in the adult realm. Apparently, this lack of support is also noticeable at readings. “At a fiction reading,” one author told me, “you rarely see other authors in attendance, much less enthusiastically cheering one another on. The adult literary world is cattier and so much more jealous.” This is in stark contrast to book events for kids and teens, which routinely include picture book, MG, or YA writing colleagues there to cheer on friends and acquaintances.
The contrast puts me in mind of the “crab effect,” which came up in discussion in Taos last week. The “crab effect” refers to the phenomenon whereby crabs in a bucket will actively seek to pull back one of their own who nearly escapes. It seems like such a waste of time and energy, to make the world smaller by begrudging someone else’s success. It’s human (and, evidently, crab, too), of course, especially since a creative person’s lot is to fend off insecurities and doubt, but I think children’s book people are particularly good at being able to do this without needing to bring others down. How nourishing it is to be in a creative field where people actively help one another, sharing their expertise and opinions, their encouragement and wisdom, and leaven it all with plenty of humor to help each other get through the bad times.
A relative of mine once said the best thing my mother ever taught him was that love is not a pie, that one piece to someone does not mean there’s less to give to the next person. She taught him that love begets love, expanding to accommodate everyone in its circle. I feel that way about the children’s book world: there is room enough for everyone with talent, dedication, passion, and perseverance. I believe that a good story will find its home, and that every work of excellence lifts the entire field along with it. I feel lucky to work in a field where, by and large, rather than begrudging another writer or artist’s success, people in our field truly do celebrate each other’s work. Perhaps it’s because people who create art for children are — by trade! — almost necessarily sensitive to other points of view, to tender feelings, to the desire to be one’s best self. I suppose children’s book folks would like to live up to young people’s expectations and hopes of us, and it makes us all better human beings to strive to meet those hopes.
It’s not that there are no egos and petty insecurities among children’s book authors; of course there are. But those are much rarer than the deep and sincere appreciation most everyone in our field expresses for terrific books and their creators. Over and over again in these past two and a half weeks, I was reminded of this, in the generous workshops people gave at NESCBWI, in the camaraderie at the book festival, and in the deep connections made during a week’s writing, talking, sharing, and laughing.
So if you’re a children’s book person, pat yourself on the back and feeeeeel the love! And if you aren’t, you may want to consider switching fields.

12 thoughts on “The Company of Writers

  1. Ellen Wittlinger

    I give some of the credit for this comaraderie to SCBWI which provides children’s book authors and illustrators with a model of fellowship and support from early in their careers. SCBWI leaders model the non-competitive notion of helping those just beginning to work in the field. I started out writing for adults and there was no organization like this. Most of us met other writers only in our graduate programs which were the epitomy of competitiveness. I was amazed at the congeniality of my fellow writers when I switched to the children’s book field. SCBWI deserves a lot of the credit for this difference.

  2. Deborah Underwood

    Wonderful post! This has been exactly my experience with the children’s book community. At one of the first conferences I attended, a woman I’d just met said I should let her know if I ever needed someone to take a look at one of my manuscripts. She is still one of my valued critique partners, and I was delighted to discover that her generosity was not the exception but the norm in this field. And I concur with Ellen Wittlinger’s comment that SCBWI is responsible for much of this camaraderie.

  3. Benjamin Martin

    I have to agree wholeheartedly. SCBWI and other online communities (such as Verla Kay’s Blueboards) are an amazingly inclusive group of talented people. Living on a small island in Japan, it’s nearly impossible to make regular contact with other writers, but there is still a ready welcome from writers and illustrators around the world. It’s a great community to be a part of, and I look forward to being able to return the help and support I’ve received along the way.

  4. Rebecca Van Slyke

    Beautifully put, Elizabeth! I’m so proud to be part of a community that is so passionate about making great books for kids, and is so very, very supportive of its own. I’ve met the best, kindest, most generous people at children’s writers’ conventions. They range from people who are just starting out to the rock stars of the children’s book world.

  5. Elizabeth Falk

    I feel the same way whenever I leave an SCBWI event or a children’s book festival. It’s a delightful combination of humor and hope with a sprinkling of magic – the nurturing spirit of children’s authors that allows the well published to mentor and cheerlead the efforts and accomplishments of others in the field. Over and over again I have experienced the generosity and contagious enthusiasm of children’s authors – just like the author of this article!

  6. Dianna Winget

    This has been my experience as a writer of middle grade novels! I’ve received a tremendous amount of encouragement, support and advice from more experienced children’s writers who have gone ahead of me. I second Benjamin’s comment above about Verla Kay’s blueboards–what a wonderful community, global no less. I don’t know what I’d do without all my blueboard friends.

  7. Lorraine Kleinwaks

    I’ve never posted before, but I wanted to thank you for the beautiful and inspiring post . Having worked with some amazing YA authors for an anthology, I’ve got to say it was a tremendous experience and so exciting to get to meet some of these kind-hearted, talented authors. I’ve been to one SCWBI event and was equally impressed. Thanks, Elizabeth, for your eloquent words and sentiments.


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