At this particular moment, I’m on a bus leading me away from the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference, toward the flight that will take me back home to Texas. But I’m also, at this very moment, trying to figure out just how soon I might make it back up to Long Island for another experience like the one I just had.

Folks, I am fired up. I have had more new story ideas in the past few days than I’ve had in I don’t know how long. I’ve read aloud unpublished manuscripts of mine in front of rooms full of strangers (well, they used to be strangers) for the first time in, I think, eight years. Since Wednesday afternoon, I’ve had the enormous pleasure of working with and learning from a host of creative, enthusiastic, and quite brave writers and authors ranging from complete beginners to some of the most accomplished talents our industry has to offer.

And to think that I enjoyed all these benefits and opportunities at a conference where I was not a paying student but rather a member of the faculty — well, it really feels like I’ve just gotten away with something.

Did I mention the cross-pollination? The readings of hilarious and bold and not-at-all-for-children new plays? The on-stage conversations I witnessed with director Chris Weitz (About a Boy, A Better Life) and with Jules Feiffer, a one-man graduate course in creative cross-pollination? The fact that I twice sang — OK, warbled — in public, one of those times in the presence of a somewhat well-known woman who knows a thing or two about The Sound of Music?

I’m gushing. A bit. I’m gushing a bit. That wasn’t what I set out to do here. I set out to thank Emma Walton Hamilton for inviting me to join the Southampton faculty, and to thank the other children’s lit faculty members (Andrea Davis Pinkney, Tor Seidler, Patricia McCormick, Peter H. Reynolds) and guests (Leonard Marcus, Susan Raab, Kate and Jim McMullan, Connie Rockman and Kate Feiffer), and the playwriting and screenwriting and digital media instructors, and my picture book students and everyone else’s for giving so much of themselves.

I was not entirely sure I had it in me to teach a three-day class. Honestly, the prospect scared me a bit, but it was that little surge of fear that clued me in to the fact that I really had to do this. And even before I arrived in New York, the mere act of preparing for my class had taught me so much I didn’t know (or had forgotten that I knew) about writing picture books that those hours I’d invested were already more than made up for, many times over.

(And here I must thank the many authors whose books and, in most cases, conversations with me about their books helped me zero in on what I wanted my students to know. The work and insights from these immensely creative folks helped fuel many conversations about — and, I hope, much inspiration for — writing both playful fiction and seriously researched nonfiction picture books. The complete reading list for my class is below.)

What does all this add up to? I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally, I’ve never been more excited about getting back to writing, and about carving out time in my life to make that writing a priority. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been willing to tolerate at least a little fear of what I was getting myself into when I told Emma, “Yes.”

For a long while, I’ve been reluctant to look for inspiration in the same place twice, lest a once-thrilling experience become too comfortable and easy to take for granted and result in diminishing returns. With the Southampton Children’s Literature Conference, I do believe I’m willing to risk making an exception.


Reading list for “You Don’t Have to Choose: Balancing Playful Picture Books with Rigorous Research”

Bubba and Beau, Best Friends by Kathi Appelt; illustrated by Arthur Howard
Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America by Kathi Appelt; illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein

The Hair of Zoe Fleefenbacher Goes to School by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Ard Hoyt
Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson; illustrated by Matt Faulkner

Handel, Who Knew What He Liked by M.T. Anderson; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
Me, All Alone, at the End of the World by M.T. Anderson; illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Audubon: Painter of Birds in the Wild Frontier by Jennifer Armstrong; illustrated by Jos. A. Smith
Once Upon a Banana by Jennifer Armstrong; illustrated by David Small

Not So Tall for Six by Dianna Hutts Aston; illustrated by Frank W. Dormer
A Seed Is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston; illustrated by Sylvia Long

Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm
Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tony Persiani
Shark Vs. Train by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Ice Cream by Elisha Cooper
Magic Thinks Big by Elisha Cooper

A Big Cheese for the White House: The True Tale of a Tremendous Cheddar by Candace Fleming; illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Seven Hungry Babies by Candace Fleming; illustrated by Eugene Yelchin

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
The Racecar Alphabet by Brian Floca

A Book by Mordicai Gerstein
The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein

Eggs by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Emma Stevenson
Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer; illustrated by Josee Massee

Mozart, The Wonder Child: A Puppet Play in Three Acts by Diane Stanley
Rumpelstiltskin’s Daughter by Diane Stanley

Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? by Audrey Vernick; illustrated by Daniel Jennewein
She Loved Baseball: The Effa Manley Story by Audrey Vernick; illustrated by Don Tate

Boogie Knights by Lisa Wheeler; illustrated by Mark Siegel
Mammoths on the Move by Lisa Wheeler; illustrated by Kurt Cyrus

The Fantastic Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau by Dan Yaccarino
Lawn to Lawn by Dan Yaccarino

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Mark Teague
The Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen by Jane Yolen; illustrated by Dennis Nolan