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DUIN: Children’s books lack moral lessons

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 4, 2009

I just got another one of those notices in the mail for would-be children's authors. This time it's the annual fall conference for the Western Pennsylvania chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

These conferences lure you with the hope that you can be the next J.K. Rowling. The reality is far nastier, despite the names of various agents, publishers, magazine editors and art directors that grace the society's brochures.

The society's Northern Virginia conference, slated for November in Arlington, features an equally impressive slate of speakers. But several years ago, one of the Virginia organizers told me that she knew of only one person out of the hundreds present who had sold a manuscript as a result of attending one of their conferences. That's an unacceptable failure rate in my book.

Both Virginia and Pennsylvania conferences cost $95 for members, which does not include meals or hotel, although the Virginia gathering throws in some very nice refreshments. That's cheap compared to the society's two-day conference I attended this summer in Westminster, Md., for writers from Delaware, Maryland and West Virginia. Registration was $175, and when hotel, dinner, gas and 1½ days of baby-sitting were added in, out-of-pocket expenses came to about $450.

I went there armed with writing samples, proposals, the lot. So imagine my fury when every agent and publisher's representative told us they were not accepting packets of any sort; that we had to e-mail our submissions to their Web sites. I could have stayed home and done that. Supposedly these conferences are so we can have face time with all these publishers, but most of these children's book editors appeared bored with us and anxious to hop on the train to New York as soon as their gigs were up.

The Maryland conference was especially bizarre in that the choicest editors were sequestered at the lunch tables of the conference organizers, obligating the rest of us to jump them at the salad bar or nab them after their sessions along with dozens of other aspiring authors. I'm the writer of five books — including one children's book published in 1998 — so it was a bit off-putting to see these editors' eyes glaze over when I presented my ideas.

I began to realize we inhabit different worlds. First, there was no mention at the Maryland conference about religious and home-schooling markets, even though they are huge consumers of books for children. Libraries and bookstores were the focus, not the massively popular state home-schooling conventions or religious conferences.

My friend David Mills, a Pittsburgh-area author who penned "Bad Books for Kids" in a recent issue of Touchstone magazine, noted how few biographies, histories or autobiographies are marketed to children. Everything is fiction, of the "problem books" variety where the hapless teen struggles with the lack of boyfriends or girlfriends, acne, nasty teachers, bad parents, awful friends, sex abuse and drugs.

A lot are about the supernatural, particularly vampires.

Few are retold classics or heroic tales like "Lord of the Rings" or homespun adventures like "Little House on the Prairie." Very few speak in moral terms in what David calls the neoclassic tradition of the Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Despite the latter's crude anti-Christian propaganda, Mr. Mills wrote, the trilogy does include moving scenes of sacrificial goodness.

I can't say anyone at the society's conference I attended advised us how to create books that will last beyond our lifetimes. The emphasis was more on creating characters that connect with readers, ghostwriting, book packaging, the economy and children's publishing; practical but not inspirational.

Such is the 21st century, where much juvenile literature is a mile wide and an inch deep. The discerning parent and teenager will have to seek meatier stuff from previous centuries, when heroism and ideals still carried the day.

Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.