So I presented at the awesome Young Writers and Illustrators Conference in Belton, Texas today. Yep, it’s as amazing as it sounds—a bunch of kids who are sincerely interested in writing and illustrating show up in a big room to hear professionals speak. Most of the kids come accompanied by their encouraging parents, which is doubly awesome.
I must send a shout-out to some key folks: the Central Texas Reading Council and the Harker Heights Public Library, of course; the lovely Teresa Hough for putting it together; librarian Lisa Youngblood, who is the hippest, cheeringest, getting-a-crowd-goingest librarian you’ll ever meet; and her awesome daughter Sheridan, who helped with everything from madly scrambling to get a computer set up to procuring ever-important dry erase markers. Sheridan is in seventh grade and is a writer herself. We all expect great things from you (no pressure) someday, Sheridan.
I did a big, general presentation about being an author/illustrator, and then two smaller breakout sessions. During my opening presentation, I had some intimidatingly intelligent questions posed to me, both by people under 11 years old. The first was: “How do you feel about formulated writing?” I admit I paused a moment, stumped. Eventually I was informed that the student was partially referring to the way the curriculum teaches writing for the *TAKS tests.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I would have loved to have said, “I think it depends what you’re writing, of course. If formulated writing helps you learn to think about the structure of a piece of writing, that’s something you’ll have to learn anyway, especially if you want to be a storyteller. But free-form writing, where no one is judging you and you’re not judging yourself, and there is NO right or wrong, is just as important. Critical, even. That’s where you learn what you really think and feel about things, that’s where you learn to love words and the way they’re put together. It’s where you discover that you can make things up on your very own. Your imagination needs just as much practice as your technical skills do. Those two things don’t always work gracefully together, even for adult professional writers. But sometimes, once you know how to trust your imagination, you can soar easily through a standardized test, because you already love and care about words.”
What I did say was considerably less eloquent, but if you attended the conference yesterday, please know that’s what I meant.
The second awesome question (also posed by an 11-year-old) was, “What’s your advice on writing a memoir?”
This one I think I answered a bit better: “Well, as always, reading a lot and practicing writing is key. But as for the memoir genre, believing that what you have to say about yourself is very important. That you are unique and special and no one sees the world quite the way you do.”
Whew. These kids were on it. They were delightful.
During the breakouts the kids and I collaborated on creating a picture book. I drew their suggestions on the board (hence the need for markers) while they created dynamic characters placed in various moral dilemmas. Featured were Icenberg the Evil Ice Cream Cone, Farmer Bob the Mouse, and Nimbo the Ninja Banana. (I will say that this is not the first ninja banana that has ever appeared in an interactive presentation. They seem to be in vogue this year.)
I had one earnest young boy come up to me before presenting to tell me that he didn’t want any remedial art lessons. He quite literally said, “I don’t mean to offend you, but I already know how to draw a circle. I want something more challenging.” So we adjusted the art accordingly and I made Farmer Bob a rather sophisticated mouse, rather than the Mickey-type. Wrinkled overalls, hat, pitchfork and all.
Afterward, several young artists came up to show me their incredible art and writing. Kids who’d been sitting there DOODLING came up with characters so detailed I thought they were going to amble off the page. Kids with sophisticated vocabulary suggested things like, “Mr. Mittens deviously rubbed his hands together, and Farmer Bob sensed a dark ploy.”
I am super impressed. It looks like our great-grandchildren will have plenty to read and look at.