This year’s SCBWI-L.A. WritersDay boasts some fantastic faculty members, all dedicated to helping attendees get to know the kids, editors, and others who make up their target audience. Two of those faculty members are former SCBWI Regional Advisors and current authors, Alexis O’Neill and Lee Wind. Alexis is a veteran teacher, author, and popular school visit presenter. Her books include The Recess Queen, Loud Emily, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, and more. Lee is the author of the young adult novel, Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill, named a BookLife Prize Semi-Finalist, one of Publishers Weekly’s Top Five Independently Published Middle Grade and Young Adult Books of 2018, and is the founding blogger and publisher of I’m Here. I’m Queer. What The Hell Do I Read?, an award-winning website about books, culture, and empowerment for Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, Questioning and Queer youth, and their Allies. And it’s our lucky day because both of them agreed let us pick their beautiful brains leading up to Writers Day!
SARAH PARKER-LEE: We’re so excited to have you both as faculty this year! Alexis, whose column for the SCBWI Bulletin, “The Truth About School Visits,” has been helping members since 2006,is doing a breakout session about new research on school visits. Interacting with readers is a universal experience for kid lit authors. Can you both tell us about one of your most meaningful ones? Or one of your early blunders, so we can learn from your mistakes?
ALEXIS O’NEILL: There’s nothing better than having a chance to interact with readers through school visits! One of my favorite visits was to the Lewiston-Porter Primary Education Center near Niagara Falls, New York. Every single kid and teacher in the school had read my book, The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, designed kites, and then before my assembly, stood up and serenaded me with a beautiful kite song, complete with movements. The kids were so wonderful, I completely teared up and had to gather myself together before I could go on! In terms of blunders, as I walked out of the hotel on one overnight trip, I discovered that I had forgotten to bring my computer from home and didn’t have my PowerPoint show on a flash drive, so I had to cancel my appearance and reschedule for another day. I now bring multiple forms of backup!
LEE WIND: Hi Sarah, thanks for the kind opportunity. Interacting with readers is pretty magical. After crowdfunding the publication of my book and raising the funds to donate over 800 copies to LGBTQ and Allied Teens, visiting Camp Brave Trails and meeting the young people who had received copies was remarkable. Mostly because even though they had read my book, they thanked me, in many cases because they felt seen. And I felt so grateful, because by reading my fiction story they saw a lot of truth about who I am, and who I was, and who I wished to be back when I was fifteen. It really was magical, especially as they were the first teens to have read “Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill!”
SPL: Lee, who is also the official blogger for SCBWI, is doing apanel about how books and reading help kids cope, and asks what exactly they’re coping with these days.You both are advocates for children and don’t shy away from the hard stuff kids face, like bullying and being valued for who they are, albeit for different age groups. Any tips for writers who want to address difficult issues without getting heavy handed? Can you recommend some good kids’ books that do that well, either something you read as a child or something recent?
AO: I’m an advocate for writing what you’re most passionate or curious about. You can tell when an author has borrowed an issue to address as opposed to having lived an issue being addressed. So my advice is, write what you have a passion for. In terms of books recommendations, I wouldn’t even know where to start. There are lists and lists to guide folks!
LW: Sometimes writing feels counter-intuitive. To make something feel universal, you don’t write in generalities – you have to write very specific details, emotions, and characters. Similarly, if we want our stories to resonate with teen readers, it’s not helpful to pretend there aren’t challenges in the world that they face. For me, having my main character Wyatt face intense homophobia as he struggled with coming out was a way to empower readers — in a sense telling them that if Wyatt can get through this firestorm, you can, too. Of course, having a hopeful ending helps!
There’s this Jackie Mason joke, about how there’s always a sex scene in movies, and the reason Hollywood people give for that is “well, everyone has sex.” And Jackie asks, well, everyone has soup, but you don’t see a soup scene in every movie! For my book, I didn’t want a sex scene. There was enough going on with Wyatt outing Abraham Lincoln, and the media firestorm, and Wyatt’s possible romance with the openly gay son of the civil rights lawyer they bring in when their family is going to lose their Lincoln Slept Here B&B. That’s the story I wanted to tell. And I used a lot of humor to balance the seriousness of Wyatt’s situation.
But there are YA books where they really lean into the intersectionality of identity, and have their characters exploring race and sex and relationships — I’m thinking of Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert. Much more serious. Much more sex. And that’s awesome… and it’s a different book.
I just read Persimmon Takes On Humanity where the author Christopher Locke tackled animal cruelty with a cast of anthropomorphized animals (kind of like a violent teen Animal Farm) and it showed brutal mistreatment of animals, and explored different takes on using violence to make change. Much more serious. Much more violent. And it was awesome… and also a different book.
No book can be or do everything, so you have to be clear about what you want your story to say, and then keep that focus and tone.
SPL: As former SCBWI Regional Advisors and current active members of our community, why is community so important to you? Why do successful authors like you, vs. aspiring ones, even need community?
AO: To me, the SCBWI community is how I got where I am today. At every turn I found generous people, teaching, advising, supporting, commiserating . . . This community has helped me through the hard times, celebrated with me in the good times. Wherever I go, even if I don’t know a single person in the room, I know that when I’m among children’s book people, I’m happy and at home.
LW: Writing (and illustrating) for kids and teens is an adventure, and everyone talks about the high points all over social media (“Whoo-hoo, here I am at the top of the mountain!”), but there’s a lot of slogging through the bogs — the tough parts of writing, the challenge of promoting what’s published, of dealing with disappointments, of juggling everything you have to do and still trying to be creatively engaged… No one really posts about being stuck in the bogs on social media. Having a group of friends and colleagues who get it — in a way our non-writer friends and family don’t — helps me (us) make it through!
SPL: A little birdie named Karol told me you both enjoy a good sing-a-long. What’s a song that always makes you smile?
AO: I’m Irish, so I love singing all kinds of songs. But in a big group, simple songs, rounds like “Make New Friends” or even “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” sound great as a community sing-along, Harmonies form as a result, making successes of everyone. Now that’s what puts a smile on my face!
LW: I’m pretty much in love with the Reba McEntire song, “Why Haven’t I Heard From You?”, which feels like a protest anthem against just how glacial publishing can be. “Really, this has been on submission for HOW many months and we haven’t heard yet?” Over the years, it has become my Karaoke standard.
SPL: Any other upcoming appearances or projects you’d like to share with us?
AO: I’ll be co-teaching a one-day class with April Halprin Wayland and Barney Saltzberg for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program on Saturday, April 13, called, “Writing a Picture Book and Getting It Published.” I hope folks can join us for a fun day! Also, I have two picture book biographies coming out next year with Calkins Creek — one is about reformer/photojournalist, Jacob Riis, illustrated by Gary Kelly and the other is about Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal Classification System, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham.
LW: I’m excited to be on a panel at the upcoming #KidLitCon19 in Rhode Island, which will be a chance to stand up as a children’s literature blogger and lean into being part of that community, which of course has a lot of overlap with SCBWI. I have a few projects out on submission, so hopefully will have some news to share soon… (Cue the Reba McEntire!)
And of course, I’ll be at SCBWI’s Los Angeles Writers Day 2019, which I’m thrilled about!
Thanks to both Lee and Alexis for all you do for SCBWI, including this interview! We can’t wait to learn from you at L.A. Writers’ Day 2019! To learn more about WD2019 and register (while tickets last!), check out the events page.
You find out more about Alexis through SchoolVisitExperts.com, where she helps authors and illustrators navigate the craft and business of doing school visits and other public appearances, www.alexisoneill.com, and through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.
To learn more about Lee, visit him online at www.leewind.org and find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband and their teenage daughter, where he’s also the Director of Marketing and Programming at the Independent Book Publishers Association. Queer as a Five-Dollar Bill is his debut novel.
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Sarah Parker-Lee is a Los Angeles Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators board member, the Managing Editor of Kite Tales, a Kirkus book reviewer, a story editor, and a content creator for non-profits fighting injustice all over the interwebs. She writes YA alt. history, sci-fi, & created the webcomic Dogs & Zombies: Dog’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. Twitterings: @SarahSoNovel
Photos provided by Alexis O’Neill, Lee Wind, and Charlotte Offsay. Book covers courtesy of their corresponding publishers.