Large kidlit gathering are like gourmet chocolate—special, and savored. Well worth me cruising down to Davenport, Iowa, last weekend to join 350+ kidlit creators. There, six SCBWI regions hosted the fourth Marvelous Midwest Conference (MMC).

With great passengers, the road trip itself is half the fun though! Thus, a shout out to lively discussions with my riders Mark Ceilley, Lou Aamodt, and Laura Ulrich. Once we arrived, more fun was had catching up with people I hadn’t seen since pre-Covid. Not to mention connecting with new kidlit people.

Opening welcome.

With MMC’s buffet of activities for authors and illustrators, I felt like a kid in Wonka Land (50+ breakout sessions, four keynote speakers, and several social/networking events). But one must accept they can’t simultaneously eat candy bars in different rooms. What did I devour?

Friday’s candy options began with a variety of 2.5 hour intensives (extended breakout sessions). I went to Linda Stephen’s workshop, which detailed book promotion strategies, timelines, and media kits. The panic level of debut authors dropped here, but the workload estimate was daunting. Afterwards, the first keynote speech was by Ellice Lee. She gave an update on book bans and kidlit’s ongoing efforts to address Diversity/Equity/Inclusion.

The evening ended with a costume party/art show/social. Construction props and outfits matched the conference’s work-in-progress (WIP) theme, with entertaining music, games, and community art. My costume was a caving outfit from my research for one of my WIP non-fiction books.

Saturday’s sweets started with the second keynote speaker, Gary D. Schmidt. He had the crowd at his mercy with his touching stories about prison inmates and hilarious letters from kids. He stressed the power of stories, and urged storytellers to be brave in the face of challenging times. His standing ovation was well deserved.

Whispering Woods reunion: Mark Ceilley, Lou Aamodt, Jill Esbaum, and myself

My first breakout session was Jill Esbaum’s look at inventive, hybrid non-fiction books. Her room was standing room only, and every attendee’s to-read list grew. Jill’s part of the dynamic duo who run the Whispering Woods Picture Book Retreat. It was nice reconnecting with her and Whispering Woods alumni during the conference. Plus three of the four of us carpooling down were alumni, so we snapped a quick reunion photo.

I then went to an agent panel, which shared the trials and tribulations of four agents. Advice was plentiful, as were “beauty contest” regrets of the books lost in bidding wars. One of these agents, Charlotte Wenger led my next breakout session on narrative voice. She analyzed numerous books, and led several exercises. Following that, I listened to prolific non-fiction author Jennifer Swanson. She profiled innovative books, and shared comical behind-the-scenes publishing stories. My evening ended surrounded by group critique sessions, where writers broke into small groups to give and get fresh feedback on WIP stories.

Sunday’s sugar fix launched with Sherri Smith’s opening keynote speech, “The Enchanted Plot.” Can kidlit creators save the world with “enchantivism?” Sherri detailed how stories can use evolving archetypes to alter society’s collective unconscious. This change isn’t easy or fast, but seeds are planted that can break historic cycles. In particular, those being oppressed rising only to become an oppressor themselves. Small steps were stressed, and “Don’t grow weary in well-doing.” A Pandora’s Box exercise was shared, with four attendees reading aloud short, heartfelt essays. In the end, another standing ovation.

Sherri Smith and her Pandora’s Box speakers.
Carter Hasegawa’s keynote speech.

Then, I was off to another Jill Esbaum non-fiction session where stellar examples of non-fiction voice were profiled. Laughs and admiration were plentiful. To read lists again swelled. Carter Hasegawa gave the final keynote speech, “The Gift of Failure.” He challenged everyone to stop seeing rejection as failure, or letting others define one’s goals or success. His comical personal story of “failure” rocked the house with laughter over and over. In short, it was a Christmas tree harvesting fiasco while driving a tiny Mazda RX-7. With the conference’s Work-In-Progress theme, his speech’s message earned its standing ovation.

In the final stretch, I attended Helen Frost’s historical fiction session. She detailed the tricky business of research, voice, and being respectful. Lastly, I went to James Ransome’s session about visual stories and pacing. His own art and other examples were impressive, as was his jovial vibe. After final words and door prizes, four of us piled into my car and drove back to Minnesota. The 75 hour bonbon blitz was done.

MN’s Kevin Kunkel (center) was bustling as the tech support volunteer, helping Helen Frost’s session get going.

SCBWI isn’t for every kidlit creator, but a large conference like this one always leaves me better informed, energized, and with an updated “must read” list. No large conference is without curve balls, but volunteers pounced on them quickly. My thanks to their efforts before and during the conference!

Now, after gorging on kidlit candy, it’s time to for all attendees to return to healthier food to fuel our read, write, and revise efforts. With pie now and then of course…