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Contributor: Soline Holmes '98, Lower School Librarian
Academy of the Sacred Heart freshman, Isabel Rees, was named the winner of the SCBWI 100-word student writing contest at this year's JambaLAya KidLit Conference. The conference was held at Sacred Heart for the second year on March 17, 2018 with more than 100 writers and illustrators from Louisiana, Mississippi and as far as North Carolina in attendance. Junior Ali Redmann was the runner-up in the contest.
The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) annual JambaLAya KidLit Conference was co-sponsored by Sacred Heart, Octavia Books and Sir Speedy Professional Printing and Marketing Services.
The morning began on an inspiring note when Linda Williams Jackson, author of the acclaimed Midnight without a Moon, spoke about her journey to become a traditionally published author. Ms. Jackson explained that while she had a self-published book, The Lie That Binds, in print, she had been trying to get traditionally published with an "advance-offering, royalty-paying publisher." Ms. Jackson explained that she spent more than six years going to bed asking, "Why am I doing this?," and she sometimes wound up in tears at her computer over the rejections that she had received. Ms. Jackson quoted teacher Leroy Washington's motto that "anything that's worth doing is worth doing badly until you get it right."
Music and journaling helped Ms. Jackson get through difficult times. A self-proclaimed "journal junkie," Ms. Jackson writes in her journal every day. She shared one of her journal entries from January 12, 2015. It was based on a Bible passage from Numbers about "Whose Report Will You Believe?" So many different editors and agents were giving her different opinions and advice, and she had to really listen to her heart. Less than two months after this journal entry, Ms. Jackson received the e-mail that changed her life and that gave readers the gift of Midnight without a Moon. Set in Mississippi in June-October of 1955, Midnight is the beautifully written story of thirteen-year-old African-American Rose Lee Carter who dreams of moving North to Chicago. Rose's desire to get away becomes more imminent after the murder of her neighbor and the real-life murder of Emmett Till, a young African-American man from Chicago. Author Jackson said that this story came "straight from her heart" because she wanted to tell the story of her grandfather who was a sharecropper and that Till's murder happened close to her home. (Personally, I highly recommend this book. Jackson's language is poetic, and, despite the heavy subject matter, she leaves her readers with moments of laughter as well as tears.) Copies of the sequel A Sky Full of Stars were available for purchase through Octavia Books, and Ms. Jackson autographed them at the end of the day.
New York agent and children's book author Alexandra Penfold spoke several times during the day at the conference. She read sample query letters and gave advice on "How to Hook an Agent with a Query." (The query letter is a formal letter sent by an author to an agent or editor to propose books and ideas.) Penfold explains that in the query letter she looks for character, setup, stakes, and books that makes her want to read more. Later in the day, Penfold gave another talk about Best Business Practices which include being on time, being great to work with, and being exceptionally talented. An author does not need to be all three of these things, but, of course, it helps! She elaborated that it is important to be a "thanker" and to always thank those who help you along your way!
Children's book author and illustrator Leslie Staub gave an insightful talk on "Picture Book Alchemy." Staub was the illustrator for Mem Fox's charming classic Whoever You Are which is a celebration of diverse cultures. She is also the author of the SCBWI Golden Kite Honor book Time for (Earth) School, Dewey Dew about a young alien from Planet Eight Hundred Seventy-Two Point Nine who is apprehensive about his first day of school on Earth. Staub explained that she wanted to write this book to talk about issues of "otherness" without bringing up issues of race. Staub said that she heard somewhere that it takes "10,000 hours to master something." She is clearly a "master" of her work as Staub displayed her storyboards for books and showed how she moves text and illustrations around over and over until she finds the layout that she likes best. Staub was fascinating and made one realize how much work goes into creating a 32 page picture book. (Writers at my table concurred and said that they think writing a picture book is harder than writing a novel.) Staub's closing remarks were especially inspiring for writers--"the world is made up of stories."
In the afternoon, Scholastic Books Senior editor Mallory Kass joined the group to discuss those ever-important first chapters for Middle Grade and Young Adult novels. Kass explained that, generally, the first page should set the tone, the voice, the point of view, the conflict, and the setting. To demonstrate this, Kass displayed first pages of famous novels including Roald Dahl's Matilda, Lois Lowry's The Giver, and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. She also invited everyone to participate in a writing exercise and write a description of a sunset from the point of view of someone who has just had their heart broken or of someone who has just gotten something they wanted. Several participants read theirs aloud. It was amazing the beauty that these writers crafted in a matter of minutes. When Ms. Kass is reading submissions, she asks, "Is this a character I want to spend the rest of my life with?"
As a librarian, it was fascinating to be surrounded by authors and illustrators and to learn the process through which the books that we love and that inspire our children to become lifelong readers are created. It is so wonderful that Sacred Heart acts as a host to this important event. I would not be surprised if our beautiful, historic campus inspires some of the SCBWI writers and appears in a novel on our library shelf soon!