Kindling Words '08 - Recap

     I’m on the plane (the first of three) returning home. I’m exhausted but anxious to get back to work and apply the inspiration I gained from my weekend in Vermont.
     I’ve found that different conferences have been right at certain times in my career, and this was the perfect time to experience Kindling Words. All in attendance were editors or published authors and illustrators. Many were highly accomplished or even award winners, while others were just starting their journey. But the mutual respect shown to all was noticeable.
     Our kick off book signing at Phoenix Books was a hoot. You could tell an author from a customer by who wore coats (the staff was kind enough to take ours). Children’s book buyer, Natacha Liuzzi, made sure to have several copies of everybody’s books displayed and in stock. And what a crowd! Shoppers bought books and then wandered to find their author or illustrator to sign them. (There was a formal signing area set up, but we couldn’t stop mingling!)

     I’m not sure who’s sitting where (click the image to see it larger), but here’s some of the talented people in this photo or in attendence (I’m down to the right sitting on the floor): Laure Halse Anderson, Sarah Aronson, MJ Auch, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Robin Benjamin, Kathleen Blasi, Jeannie Brett, Robin Brickman, Elise Broach, Marnie Brooks, Tami Lewis Brown, Janet Buell, Janie Bynum, Laurie Calkhoven, Cinda Williams Chima, Jane Cowen-Fletcher, Katie Davis, Mary Delaney, Sarah Dillard, Elizabeth O. Dulemba (me), Michelle Edwards, Marion Eldridge, Elizabeth Falk, Catherine Frank, Donna Freitas, Barbara Garrison, Cecile Goyette, Jamie Harper, Amy Huntington, Alison James, Marthe Jocelyn, Sarah Ketchersid, Cheryl Klein, Michelle Knudsen, Judy Irvin Kuns, Leo Landry, Yolanda LeRoy, Martha Peaslee Levine, Arianne Lewin, Sarah Darer Littman, Gregory Maguire, Kimberly Marcus, Elsa Marston, Wendy Mass, Diane Mayr, Kate Messner, Andrea Murphy, Carol Murray, Denise Ortakales, Ammi-Joan Paquette, Linda Sue Park, Robin Pulver, Susanna Reich, Anita Riggio, Pamela Ross, Leda Schubert, Barbara Seuling,Mark Shulman, Janni Lee Simner, Rebecca Stead, Tanya Lee Stone, Melissa Sweet, Chris Tebbetts, Kyra Teis, Patricia Thomas, Amy Timberlake, Andrea Tompa, Harold Underdown, Nancy Werlin, Stacy Whitman, Vera B. Williams, Ellen Wittlinger, Jane Yolen, and Sara Zarr.
     The conference was held at the Inn at Essex in Essex, Vermont (near Burlington). It’s a sweet, older hotel which doubles as the New England Culinary Institute, so the food was amazing. My bed was big and tall and draped with a down comforter and pillows – so comfortable! And underground tunnels connected the three buildings which formed the estate so you didn’t have to brave the cold and snow if you didn’t feel up to it.
     And wow was it cold and snowy (although the locals said it was nothing). It was beautiful! I flew in over frozen bodies of water, which had me gaping out the plane’s windows like a little kid. I found it ironic how Southern I suddenly felt considering I usually don’t, but there weren’t many of us in attendance (me, Marnie Brooks from NC, and Janie Bynum from TX). But so much of what I saw was so completely outside my normal experience it was hard not to feel foreign. Even the light was different in Vermont. The sun hangs much lower in the sky that far north and casts long sideways shadows early in the day. It’s a beautiful and lucky place to be.
     We dove into our sessions pretty quickly and they were extremely educational. Instead of beginner subjects such as, “Do I need an agent,” and “How do I format my manuscript,” we talked about writing/illustrating method, technique and inspiration. Laurie Halse Anderson (author of the multiple award-winning “Speak”) gave three days of advice on character, scene building, plot, and revision techniques. Linda Sue Park (author of Newbery winning “A Single Shard”) delivered the keynote on Friday. Most interesting between their two presentations was how differently they each work. While I received great tips from both (and noticed some similarities to both in how I work), it helped to know there is no right or wrong method. It’s a matter of discovering what works best for you.
     Vera B. Williams headed the illustrator thread, and as one attendee said, “Vera, you realize we all have a crush on you.” Vera turns 81 Monday and has lived her entire life as an inspired adventure. I believe she is actually a fairy-human and gave her a hug later to check for wings. The most important lesson I learned from her is to play. She doesn’t worry about style or achieving a certain look (although she does shoot for continuity within a project). She’s more about enjoying the process, feeling the paint, relishing in the colors. I believe her books are a success because she is completely in touch with her inner 3-year-old. I don’t know about you, but my earliest memory is about age four. Vera’s memory goes much farther back and the sheer joy of toddlerhood is celebrated in her creations.
     Most enjoyable for the weekend, however, was getting to know my peers. Writers and illustrators are in general a highly intelligent group – everything fascinates us. So conversations came easily and were often wonderfully entertaining. I asked Barbara Seuling about her latest project, and was suddenly learning about the famous torch singer, Jane Froman. I asked Pamela Ross the same question and learned about the Chinook people and Pueblo Indians. I asked my roomie, Sarah Dillard, and was treated to a sneak preview of her forthcoming picture book from Sterling, “Perfectly Arugula.” (It’s wonderful!)
     We also held meetings during “white space” (down time for informal gatherings). Since we all speak the lingo of children’s book publishing, we were able to easily fall into related discussions and share our similar challenges and insecurities concerning our work and careers. I think we all benefitted from hearing about each other’s successes, goals, and obstacles - I know I did.
     One of the wonderful traditions of Kindling Words is the Candlelight reading. Because of the full crowd, a lottery was held to pick 20 readers (allowed 5 minutes each) for the evening. I was lucky enough to be chosen (although my nerves almost failed me when I ended up last to read). I read the first chapter from my new novel in progress, “Copper.” People shared poems (Amy Timberlake cracked me up with her poem on Global Warming!), short stories, and first chapters in all genres. The range was vast and we alternated between tears and laughter.
     Afterwards we headed outside to enjoy a bonfire in the middle of the snow where we had a fantastic time standing together and singing songs. (Stop sniggering – it was fun!) On the way back, I couldn’t resist the urge to make a snow-angel. How often do I get an opportunity like that?
     Overall, it was an amazing weekend. Sarah and I made great roomies. I got to hang with her and Amy Huntington much of the weekend, but we also spread out and tried to meet as many new people as we could. I really hit it off with several and feel I made some new friends. So now I’m anxious to get home, email them, and find out what exciting things they all have going on next.
     Thanks to Marnie Brooks, Tanya Lee Stone, Susanna Reich, and Janie Bynum, for arranging everything; as well as to those who invented the event in the first place, Alison James, Mary Lee Donovan and more, as well as early organizers such as Harold Underdown. I don’t know that I’ll be able to go to Kindling Words every year, but I certainly hope to return soon.

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