This is the fourth in a series of posts about the NJ-SCBWI Annual Conference. Visit all this week for insights from this first-class children’s book writing event.

continued from previous post

The first piece of Kate’s final writerly contradiction—listen to what others say; don’t listen—was demonstrated by a conversation between Kate and her agent, Holly McGhee.

Kate finished a picture book manuscript and sent it off to Holly. The conversation began with Holly:


Kate didn’t understand. “Huh?”

“No.” Holly repeated.

“But why?”

“I don’t care about the main character.” Holly didn’t even think it was a picture book. “This is a novel,” she said.

Slowly Kate realized that Holly was right. Kate wanted to write a picture book but a picture book is not what emerged. Deep down, she knew it was something more, but darn it, she wanted it to be a picture book. She was trying to get away with something, but Holly caught her.

Kate then explained “don’t listen” by circling back to the time after she had released THE TIGER RISING and BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, two southern novels. She received many accolades. People loved her work.

So she began to write another “novel set in the south about nothing really at all,” like her two previous books. Once people loved her work, she felt compelled to continue along the same vein. She wanted everyone to keep loving her. But what was coming out was not genuine. The love and joy and play in her writing was gone. She was forcing herself to create something she did not want to write. And all to please everyone else, not herself. (Remember contradiction #2?)

Instead, she began a fairytale about a princess and a mouse. She showed it to a trusted friend. The response? “It’s not what you do best.”

Again, people expected her to write a southern novel.

But she pressed on. The princess and mouse was where her heart led her, and that is where she would remain. “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”

Damning those torpedoes was an excellent decision, for THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX won the Newbery.

In the end, Kate DiCamillo assured us that a life of a writer can be “terrible beyond all imagining, but it will be okay.” Another contradiction. We know this business is tough, but we still choose to write because we can’t NOT write.

I, for one, will try to embrace the terror from now on, because that’s what writing is—being in the depths of the unknown…and yet in a constant state of discovery. The final contradiction.