Thursday, February 27, 2014

Conference Diary: SCBWI Winter 2014

Last weekend, I attended my first SCBWI national conference with my talented author-illustrator pal, Mary Jane Begin.

It was a whirlwind of fun, inspiration, fabulous meals and networking—and it's taken me three days to gather myself to post about it. I've been looking at photos, reading over notes, filing through the many business cards I picked up along the way, and letting it all sink in.

Although I'm not exactly a newbie to publishing—and Mary Jane is a veteran with many books and awards to her name—neither of us had been to the New York conference before, for a variety of reasons, including deadlines, kids, writing and teaching.

So, we were excited. I couldn't wait to be in New York to meet some of the children's book folks I'd been chatting with for The Little Crooked Cottage and on Twitter, and to spend an entire weekend focused on all things kidlit.

I knew that I had the perfect partner for the trip in Mary Jane. She's whip-smart, game for anything, never gets rattled and loves to laugh. She also has a more esoteric quality I like to call flow. She's a magnet for positive people and serendipitous moments. And she loves dark chocolate. That's my kind of travel-buddy.

Skipping through Grand Central

When we arrived at Grand Central, we spotted a few familiar faces right away and immediately felt the energy of the conference. There's something visceral about being with your creative tribe, and I felt it the moment we walked into the hotel lobby.

Of course, our first priority upon arrival was food. We went in search of a sushi restaurant about twenty blocks from the hotel. Friday afternoon was chilly and drizzly, but that didn't dampen our spirits or our desire to walk the city, so we set out on foot. A few paces before our destination, we spotted a charming little restaurant on the corner, and remarked on how cozy it looked.

Tiny trattoria tucked in beneath the Queensboro Bridge

This was fortunate, because the sushi spot we'd chosen didn't open for another two hours. Whoopsie! That's the thing about New York—when one restaurant door closes, another adorable one with tall windows and little twinkling lights opens. We sat and enjoyed a delicious meal, and raised a glass to the great weekend ahead. 

Happy MJ with vino. Saluté!
Dining under the twinkly lights

Jane and I were not faculty or part of the illustration portfolios, so we weren't able to attend the Friday evening VIP cocktail party; however, after entertaining brief giggle-worthy notions about various ways to crash the festivities, we settled on the lounge upstairs, which had a stunning floor-to-ceiling view of 42nd street towards Park Avenue.

View of 42nd and Park

Fortunately, not long later, some VIP's came to us; including, to my delight, my editor at Harper Children's, Nancy Inteli. Nancy recently acquired my new picture book, Monster Trucks! (Summer, 2016). It was lovely to be able to meet Nancy person and give her a thank you hug!

Nancy Inteli, Editorial Director,  Harper Collins Children's Books 
Hangin' with the fabulous and talented  Caryln Beccia!

After a fun night and another great meal at The Smith Midtown...

Two words: creamed kale. Heaven.
You can't tell in this pic,
 but we're doing the happy food dance.

...and a brief stop here... we called it a night.

Saturday morning, we were up and at 'em early (miraculously).

Badges, notebooks, coffee: check! (Ok, we look a little sleepy. )

All the presentations for the weekend followed the theme of Seven Essentials. Jack Gantos (Newbery award-winner for Dead End In Norvelt) was up first with a keynote titled, "How everything I learned about fiction and nonfiction in picture books, poetry, short stories, novellas, or, angst, dialog, a hundred drafts, and good luck all end up in the crown jewel of literature: THE NOVEL."

That title speaks to Jack's electric personality. He's all spitfire and energy and humor and talent. He spoke about finding habits that work for you, content and structure, focused rewrites, connecting the dots with theme, and adding emotional depth to your stories.

Beyond his very helpful pointers, I think what came through was his passion and commitment to telling stories in all forms, as well as a joy an irreverence one can't help but love.

It was a fabulous kick-off to the keynotes.

After a morning of enlightening discussions, including a fascinating panel on The Future of Authorship, and breakout sessions in the afternoon, Mary Jane and I decided to seek a little inspiration outside the conference halls and head over to the NYPL to see Leonard Marcus's exhibit at the New York Public Library: The ABC of it: Why Children's Books Matter.

The weather had turned springlike in Manhattan and as much as we were enjoying the talks, we needed some air—and some art. Library Way, which cuts directly to the front entrance of the NYPL, is paved with quotes from literature. I snapped a few shots of my favorites.

The exhibit itself was similarly paved in riches. Expertly curated and gloriously designed, it was the perfect end-note on a roundly inspiring day.

We arrived back to the hotel feeling glad we hadn't missed the opportunity to see the exhibit, but barely able to catch our breath before the cocktail party—which was a blur of fun connections, old friends and new faces.

It was great to meet Ame Dyckman (Ezra Jack Keats Award-winning author of Tea Party Rules) and Drew Daywalt (New York Times bestselling author of The Day The Crayons Quit) in person, after becoming friends in the Twitterverse, and featuring them both on The Little Crooked Cottage.

Ame Dyckman, Drew Daywalt and moi. 

Another unexpected treat was bumping into talented YA author, KM Walton. I met Kate years ago, before her first novel published, at the home of good friends. Since then, Kate has published two novels: Cracked (2012) and Empty (2013), with another title, The Lies We Tell, forthcoming in 2015. It was lovely to be able to reconnect after cheering Kate's successes from afar. Keep an eye on KM Walton. She's one to watch.
Striking a pose with KM Walton

But my favorite moment of all came on Sunday. Kate Messner delivered the best, I mean it, the best speech I have ever heard at an SCBWI event. Her keynote on The Spectacular Power of Failure was inspiring, moving and full of hope.

Who among us hasn't faced the fear of failure in our work? Kate encouraged us to take a moment to celebrate each of our successes, large and small, instead of automatically moving the bar before we've had the chance to appreciate our accomplishments.

She turned the entire notion of failure on its ear by putting it in perspective. "You can't have brave without scared," she said quoting Linda Urban's novel Hound Dog True. We learn from failing, and reevaluating and trying again."

She encouraged us all to "live our creative lives bravely," and to do the same by our characters. "Let them be flawed, let them fail, and let them survive."

Kate ended the speech by reading a poem.

What Happened to Your Book Today
by Kate Messner (Copyright 2011)
I don't have a photo to share of this moment because a.) I was blubbering and wiping my nose, and b.) I was on my feet, clapping and joining in the standing ovation that Kate received for her uplifting, heartfelt and encouraging words.

I looked to my left, at my friend Jane who was teary-eyed and clapping, too, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.

This is why we do what we do. Kate summed it up beautifully.

Even without all the rest—which was magical—that one reminder was worth the trip.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ideas beget ideas. . .

When my first child was a baby, I remember the pediatrician saying to me that I should not be afraid of letting her take a long nap. Like any new mom, I worried about keeping her on a schedule. Eat, play, sleep, repeat was the conventional wisdom of the day. But sometimes she slept right through the next feeding time. Should I wake her up? What if she sleeps so long that she doesn't sleep at night?

Then the doctor said something to me that really helped: "Sleep begets sleep."

And he was right. On the days she took long luxurious naps, she tended to sleep through the night.

As I embarked on my first PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), I realized that creativity works much  the same way. The more energy I put towards it, the more it flows. Ideas beget ideas! I should know this. I should believe this. But somehow, I sort of... didn't.

On day 1, it felt forced, like I had to try a little too hard to squeeze out one measly, puny idea. My inner worry-wart piped right up. If the first idea is this hard, how will I possibly come up with twenty-nine more?!? 

But then something I wrote in my notebook sparked the seed of another idea, and then I had two or three more after that. And the next day I was reaching for that notebook all day long. Eureka! This works.

Sure, not every idea is a keeper. Most aren't. But so what?  Even if they are just roundabout, mixed up ways to a decent idea, then they are worthy.


I guess I never really realized it, but until now, I sort of believed in the Magic Muse. Somedays she shines her light on you, other days--not so much. The knowledge that I have the ability to turn on the tap of ideas and get it flowing is empowering. (And a relief.)

So thank you, Tara Lazar! And thank you to all of you PiBoIdMo-ers who are scribbling and blogging and cheering each other on. Inspiration begets inspiration! And you guys are super-inspiring.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ode to Procrastination

Monday looms,
worry blooms,
deep within my chest.

Too much work,
deadlines lurk,
words ignored, protest.

Tuesday dawns
stretches, yawns,
promises success.

Laundry calls,
writing stalls,
must clean up this mess.

Wednesday waits,
doubt abates,
ready to create!

Cell phone bleeps,
meeting… eeps!
twenty minutes late!

Thursday’s here,
dear, oh, dear…
only one day more.

Cupboard’s bare,
do I care?
(Better hit the store.)

Friday’s free,
words and me
waiting to set sail!

First, a snack,
hurry back,
think I hear the mail...

by Anika Denise

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Recently, I wrote a post over at The Little Crooked Cottage on self-doubt and the creative process.

It was an honest post, complete with an unflattering photo. But hey, I work in my jammies most days, so why pretend?

I wrote the piece because self-doubt happens, and I wrote it to help others (and myself...)

SNAP OUT OF IT! And move beyond it... to inspiration.

One of the ways I do this is by reading books I call the BYHWO's, or the "Break Your Heart Wide Open" books.

Reading them is a little like kidlit therapy. They're the books you can't stop thinking about. Perhaps they've made you cry. They're soulful, honest, heart-wrenching, hopeful books that change you in some way after having read them.

I thought it would be fun to share a few of the current titles on my BYHWO list, and hear which books would make yours. This is by no means a complete accounting. That would take all day and would veer into the other scourge of the freelance writer: procrastination.

The following are just a few books I've read (or reread) recently that broke my heart wide open, and left me feeling grateful that these stories -- and the writers who wrote them --  exist in the world.

The One And Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

Wonder by RJ Palacio

One for The Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

See You At Harry's by Jo Knowles

Nowhere Girl by A.J. Paquette

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo

The Magician's Elephant by by Kate DiCamillo

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

The Underneath By Kathi Appelt

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

My Summer of Rainbows

I seem to have taken up a new tradition of writing a reflective post just after back-to-school. Last year's post was: My Summer of Laughter and Forgetting. It was about my first fragile attempt at putting the pieces back together after losing my mom. It was apt, and it was honest. Reading it now, I wade in the emotions of that time and emerge on the other side, feeling stronger than I did then; just a little bit more at peace with what happened.

Sadly, the summer of 2013 came on the heels of another loss for our family. A heartbreakingly similar one. My aunt, my mom's sister--whom I loved dearly--passed away in June after a long illness. I know I'm not alone in my big, close-knit extended family when I say, we are all feeling a measure of shock that this could happen again, and so soon. But it did.

My aunt's services were different than my mom's. Ever the nonconformist, my mother had requested a party, not a memorial. (There was a band.) My aunt's took place at my childhood church. They were more traditional, but no less beautiful.

The evening of the wake was gray and drizzling. The weather seemed to reflect our heavy hearts. And then, when calling hours were over, we stepped outside. The rain had stopped. The pavement was slick and glistening. I turned my face to the sky. And there it was--a rainbow--stretched wide across the sky just above us.

Days earlier, only hours after my aunt had passed, a friend emailed me a picture of a huge rainbow over the lake where she'd lived. And here it was again.

Now, I understand rainbows are naturally occurring (and not all that uncommon) weather phenomena. But you simply can't look up at the sky, feeling as bereft as we all did, to glimpse the most exquisite rainbow you've ever seen, and not wonder if there's a message in it.

Divine--or not, I chose to see it as an affirmation of the belief my aunt held until the end--that she was blessed, that we are all blessed, and that we should feel grateful for all the the good and the love that surrounds us.

This summer I saw more rainbows than I can count. It seemed after each rain, there one was. Friends saw them, too. Many a morning I'd wake up with a picture waiting in my inbox of a rainbow they'd seen the evening before, or on their morning walk.

I feel like a My Little Pony character when I say: it was a rainbow-filled summer.

So much so, that I began to ask, "Where's the rainbow?" after each storm. And not just the literal storms, but the metaphorical ones, too. Late in the summer, my husband faced some professional challenges that kept him up more than a few nights.

Amidst the worry and weight of it all, I asked, "Where's the rainbow?" A few days later, there it was. In the form of a new, better solution that has made him happier and more successful.

Now, when darker moments happen, I wait for the splash of color in the sky. I remember that the truest gift is having the mind, body and spirit to weather the storm--and move forward.


[G Love playing at the Beachcomber in Wellfleet, MA this summer. I turned to my friend and said, "I hope he does Rainbow." A moment later, I heard the chords to the lead-in for the song. ]

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ode to a Crumb

The first submission in my call for silly poems is in! I love the simple silliness of this delightful ode to a tiny crumb.

Ode to a Crumb
A crumb is so cool!
People eat them
and sweep them up
and throw them in the trash
and they live -
in your sandwich!

- Adam, from Texas, age 5

Keep the submissions coming! One young poet (selected at random) will receive a signed copy of PIGS LOVE POTATOES and BELLA AND STELLA COME HOME!

Submission deadline: May15th. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Monkey Bean

My favorite poems as a child were the silly ones. I loved all the classic Mother Goose rhymes and poured over books by Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein. 

I even tried writing my own funny rhymes, filling notebooks with silly verses and scribbles--a few of which my mom was kind enough to rescue from the attic and save for me.  

Here is one I found recently in a notebook from when I was about 10-years-old.

I thought it would be fun to share - in honor of National Poetry Month - a silly poem from the very earliest days of my writing career.  

Monkey Bean

I looked into my jellybeans

and found

a jellybean that wasn’t smooth

or round.

It was a Monkey Bean

shaped like a monkey

shiny and green.

I cannot say

I was too keen

to try this bean

I’d never seen.

Is it mean,

to eat a Monkey Bean?

And how would it taste?

Would my Monkey Bean –

be a funky Bean?

I had to know.

I had to try.

I closed my eyes,

and opened wide.

Frozen where I stood

I gulped it down.

It tasted good!

~by Anika (Aldamuy) Denise circa 1983.

Do you have a favorite funny poem?  Or better yet, can you try writing a funny poem of your own?  Try it, and then ask your grown-ups if it's ok to send it to me to be posted on this blog. And remember, the sillier, the better! :)