This weekend I had a chance to take a break from politics and attend the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators 18th Annual International Conference in New York. It was my first time, and everyone was so warm and welcoming.
On the first day, Fish in a Tree author Linda Mullaly Hunt spoke with me at the Friday Professional Author’s forum, and Jodi Kendall (whose book The Unlikely Story of a Pig in the City is out October 2017) and Marcie Colleen (who writes the Super Happy Party Bears chapter books, among others) took me to Grand Central Station’s food court for lunch.
Mathew Winner (of All the Wonders podcast and blog), was so knowledgeable about social media, and so open to meeting new, awkward people like me. Erica S. Perl (Ferocious Fluffety and many more), said hello on that first day and kept letting me hang around whenever I felt awkward. Ellen Hopkins, of Crank and Traffick fame, chatted with me at the Saturday night get together when it was clear I had no idea who she was, and when I finally realized it and fell all over myself apologizing (I knew her books, but not her face, and she had no name tag), she graciously let it slide.
But it was’t just about schmoozing and self-promotion. And it wasn’t just about writing craft. As the weekend went on, it was clear that the unstated themes of the conference were Bravery, Diversity, and Empathy. Over and over, the keynote illustrators and writers were moved to talk about their response to the current political and emotional climate in this country. Bryan Colliers moved us to tears as he talked about the illustrations in Knock Knock, a picture book about a boy separated from his father. He spoke of how each of us saw that child every day, separated from a parent by death, deportation, incarceration, or simply “gone”, and how our empathy for that child’s story changes lives. Cynthia Leitich Smith had us examine how we depicted diversity in our books, and she gave me a lot to think about with regards to identity and the Own Voices movement.
The editors and agents and authors repeatedly revisited the idea that when we bravely and empathetically tell stories about diverse children, we make space for them in a troubling and sometimes hostile world, and that in times like these, that is more important than ever. Diversity means all kinds of things–nearly every one in this country has some hyphen, whether it’s based on religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, regional or socio-economic factors. Sara Pennypacker summed it up in the closing keynote, when she spoke of each of our efforts as “positive acts of creation” that remove one drop of evil from the world.
In times of crisis, writing and reading children’s books can seem frivolous, chatting about our art can seem self-indulgent. But we need to dream better versions of the world before we can realize better versions of the world, and art for children is the first step. Children grown on diverse voices get used to diversity, and are far less likely to vote for hate in the future. By bravely writing about diverse people with empathy, we write the resistance.