Thirty-eight agents, editors, art directors and acclaimed authors. Two days. Twenty workshop sessions. The NJ-SCBWI is one little conference that packs a writing wallop.

Over the next few days, I’ll share notes from the event, from my own journal and that of writer Natisha LaPierre. So even if you weren’t there, it will feel like you were. (Just surround yourself with friendly folks passionate about children’s books while you read.)

peckThe first keynote presentation by Richard Peck, Newbery award-winning author of The Year Down Yonder, set a serious yet exciting tone for the conference. His unique voice extends beyond his books–when he speaks, he feels as big as a Shakesperean actor, filling the room, enunciating, using his entire body. (It was no surprise to learn that he belongs to a group of authors known as the “Authors Readers Theatre”  who travel the country performing each other’s works.) Charming, witty, it is impossible not to be drawn in by Mr. Peck’s dynamic presence.

“I am a writer because of two boys on a raft,” he began, noting his love of Mark Twain. “Writers are readers first. Nobody but a reader ever became a writer. Read 1,000 books before you can write one.”

Mr. Peck encouraged attendees to look at other voices in order to find their own. And what does he think about “write what you know?” Rubbish. “A story is something that never happened to the author,” he said. “I assure you that J.K. Rowling never attended Hogwarts. Beatrix Potter was never a rabbit.”

A writer’s job is to add hope to reality. A story is always about change, and change is animated by epiphany. In his master class on Saturday, Mr. Peck explained epiphany further. When he asked middle school students to define ephiphany, an 8th grade boy said, “Epiphany is when everything changes and you can’t go back.” Mr. Peck thought that was the finest definition he had ever heard. The teacher informed Mr. Peck that the boy had lost his father, and his mother before that. That boy has been overdosed on reality. Now he needs hope.

yeardownyonder“A lot of fiction is about remembering better days.” The elder characters in Mr. Peck’s books are often patterned after the old men who frequented his father’s filling station in the 1930’s and 40’s. He recalls their conversations and makes “rough music out of real speech.” You can write in the voice of a young character, but have that young person know old people. Children want adults to be strong, but they often can’t find them.

Years ago, the books in his school library were kept under glass and you had to find the teacher for a key. “Consider that metaphor,” he said. “The teacher has the key.” Book are still as precious, but it is up to the writer to make them so. “You can teach children or fear the parent, but you can’t do both. We are the last literature teachers left because we can’t be fired. We’re unemployed!”

Every week Mr. Peck visits the book store and spends an hour perusing first lines. “We live in the age of the sound byte, so you have to ‘byte’ them out front.” He recited the first line of Charlotte’s Web to remind us of its power: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Six words on one line ignite the imagination. And then he gave a fine example of voice with M.T. Anderson’s Feed: “We went to the moon to have fun but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

He always travels with a book from the past and a new book. The book from the past reminds him that we’re all links in a chain, while the new title keeps him tuned to what’s coming next. “If we don’t know what publishers are releasing this year, how will we get on next year’s list?” He’s reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls, “the greatest argument for writing in first person. It skates too near to the truth.”

Mr. Peck concluded by reminding us that “a story is always a question, never an answer. We can ask the questions that no one else will ask.” Story is the most important gift we can give our youth. Think about that 8th grade boy. “Story might be the companion that a child needs.”