Friday, October 19, 2007

Another dispatch from Robin Brande's Kidlitosphere Conference

Flux debutant Brian Mandabach was also at Robin Brande's Chicago shindig and he just sent this in-depth report. (We instantly forgive its lateness, since he's been busy attending to the launch of his excellent novel and passing on his craft to high school students . . . in the very high school he attended as a teen. Good luck, Brian. I'd be in the fetal postiion.)

Ten days ago, I'd just returned from the first annual Kidlitosphere conference, and the flat lands and thick skies of Chicagoland were lingering in my mind. But now, as happens in the week after a trip, memories have faded to fragments, and photo albums can only vaguely call the memories to mind.

The last thing I saw as I exited the O'Hare Radisson was podcaster and photographer Mark Blevis wearing a very beautiful OR NOT t-shirt, which he'd won (along with a copy of my book) after dinner the night before. Author PJ Haarsma and Faith Hochhalter had orchestrated a fabulous raffle, the proceeds to benefit Haarsma's efforts to give books to school libraries, the prizes being bundles of signed books. Faith introduced each book with an extended rave, comparing them to other fantasy books while insisting that each was an original work of genius. Until she got to my book and t-shirt, which I had (with permission) slipped in at the last minute because I'd been waiting for the right opportunity to give them away. "And these," she said, holding OR NOT and its t-shirt dubiously aloft, " . . . these go together, I guess."

If you can imagine how I felt then, you can picture me during a few of Kidlitosphere's other awkward moments: before dinner drinks, mingling during breaks—those unstructured times when it became clear that I was an afterthought, an outsider, a new kid trying to figure out what the deal was and how he fit into it.

But hostess Robin Brande, with her gift for the gracious, invited me up to be the first to draw a name to give away my prize, and Mark seemed very happy to get my book t-shirt. So I was happy.

And the dinner itself was wonderful, not because of the usual chicken and pasta buffet, but because I was surrounded by fabulous librarians. I sat with Camille Powell, whose bookmoot blog I identified as a Tolkien reference, and Susan Kusel, whose wizardwireless is all about the boy wizard. Susan got passionate about the epilogue of THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, and I was fascinated to find my question as to why she liked it answered in an oral essay punctuated by her referring to her iPod (containing all seven Rowling novels) and more than one admission that she (Susan) was a nerd. I told her to stop calling herself names and to keep talking. She's amazing.

So were all these librarians. I've never been surrounded by so many people who know so much about books and love them so much and in such an unassuming way. When I asked Gregory Pincus what he was reading, he said "A lot of picture books." So we talked picture books, with Maureen Kearney "preaching the gospel of IT'S NOT A BOX." As she did with fellow FLUX author Barbara Shoup, Maureen made me feel right at home. I only wish she was my librarian—if she was, my kid would never miss another story time at the local branch.

Now back to the educational stuff, or the formal sessions, anyway: The afternoon of the conference consisted of three blogging presentations:

1. How to be a B-list Blogger, by Pam Coughlin, (motherreader) which had me wistful about getting more traffic, but finally convinced that the B-list is way beyond somebody trying to teach and write fiction AND be a half decent daddy. I love the blogosphere—but I'm part time here at best.

2. Ann Levy on how to write better reviews, including short, medium, and long form. The long review she had us read— by Ursula K. Leguin from The Guardian—got some fantastic discussion going. So great that, before we really got the lesson on the long form, time was up. In addition to her instruction on the art of the book review, Ann urged us all to raise the level of discourse on our blogs, bringing the kidlitosphere out of the insular dimension of cyberspace and into the realm of public intellectualism so jealously guarded by the bona fide critics in print. A tall order. Most kidlit bloggers seem more interested in talking about books they love with other book lovers than they are in joining some sort of Academy. They may have more impact in the public discourse than the Roger Hornbook does anyway, but raising the standard to which they hold themselves can't hurt. Or so it seems to me.

3. Liz Burns on the ethics of blogging: Does it make reviewers less objective when publishers give them lots of books along with really good chocolate chip cookies? Should one write "bad reviews" or abandon books one doesn't like after a couple of chapters so that one can tie into a book one does like? How does one blog about books with integrity? Liz is fun and earnest both—but I'm afraid to criticize her and equally afraid to suck up to her. ;-) The former might cause her to avoid reviewing my book for one reason, the latter for another reason. I shouldn't have even mentioned her name. But if I didn't, it would have seemed like a snub. It's a Catch 22, but the consensus seemed to be that the only sure way for an author to piss these people off is to harass them: "As I asked in my last 3 emails and my previous 12 comments on your insightful and erudite blog, have you read my book yet? WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO REVIEW IT?!?!? At best, that sort of behavior will land your book on the never read stack. At worst, it might inspire someone who wouldn't have given you a review at all to give you thrashing.

Opinions on all of this stuff were wide and well spoken. Many wouldn't dream of doing the last thing, for example. Some stay away from writing negative reviews of authors who aren't getting much press, for fear that their opinion could really hurt the person's career. Others think that a little criticism of a book that is widely and, according to their estimation, undeservedly celebrated is a duty.

Overall, it was great to hear what everybody had to say. And if I felt somehow on the sidelines, it was because I'm new to all of this. I was a little intimidated by some of the bigger bloggers and writers, but I think that's because of my own insecurity, not because they were standoffish. I'm sort of scared of Liz, and Betsy Bird, and Barry Lyga*. But that's my problem.

I was more comfortable walking into a room full of seniors in creative writing class—two days before—at Barrington High School, than I was mingling with kidlitosphere people at the Radisson Hotel. But that's another story.

I also hadn't participated in the pre-conference online discussions—because I've been too busy teaching and getting ready for the release of my novel. And finally, I was late and missed the morning session because I was lingering over a pot of room service coffee with my wife in our hotel in the Loop. When checkout time isn't until noon, and you're on your first kid-free vacation in a decade, it's tough to rush out the door. But that's another story too, and I've written far too much as it its.

I'm kind of slow to open up in a group of new people, many of whom are on intimate terms despite how seldom they meet in the flesh. But I certainly enjoyed being around so many book lovers, who were very welcoming in spite of my own reticence. As for the founder of the feast, Robin Brande, kudos are very much in order.

I hear next year it's Portland. Which means my wife and I will need an extra day just for Powell's.

* Andrew's note: Scared of Barry Lyga!? I've met Barry twice (once at a somewhat scary SCBWI conference), and he's gotta be one of the least scary, most friendly people I've ever encountered. Barry, if you read this, please write Mandabach and tell him you're not scary.


literaticat said...

LOL - Mandabach had better get over being scared of Barry Lyga - they are doing an event together at my store in November!

zee said...

This is a great report of a newcomer experience. I wonder why Brian didn't post this on his blog. If he had, I would comment and tell him that everyone is an outsider in the beginning.

Barry said...

Dude, I am fearsome. Totally. All should tremble before me, and stuff.

Mandabach is right to quake in my presence.

Mark Blevis said...

It was great to meet you, Brian. The shirt is in my rotation and your book is in the queue to be read.

Brian Mandabach said...

I can be scared of whoever I want to be scared of. Even if he is a really nice person.

And you're right, Zee. But the reason I didn't post on my own blog was because I wanted my editor to screen it on account of being terrified of Barry! *quake! tremble!* Not to mention all those librarians!

Micol Ostow said...

Great write-up! I can completely relate to feeling like a new kid on the block and somewhat overwhelmed. But it was great to meet so many YA book-types. Maybe in Portland Brian and I will actually have a face-to-face "reunion" of Flux authors.

Betsy Bird said...

I'm even scarier than Barry. The double threat of both librarian and New Yorker? Booga booga! Of course truth be told, I'm not very scary when you talk to me. Try kicking me sometime. I crumple faster than a flan in cupboard.

Bkbuds said...

Oh dear. Now I'm admissions director to the Academy. All that sweat and trembling over whether people would string me up, and all the time you all were scared of ME. Sigh.

Nice meeting you. See you at Powell's next year.

And I was really bummed I didn't win that shirt. It was the only thing I really wanted. Humph.

Wizards Wireless said...

Thanks for all the kind comments, Brian! I felt pretty awkward and out of place myself... and a bit in awe of everyone else too.

Talking with you about the HP7 epilogue was the first time all the ideas in my head about it came together. I wrote a post on my blog about the epilogue, which is basically a transcript of our dinner conversation.

Great talking with you (and you didn't seem out of place at all).