I get this question a lot. I just returned from several days at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English (in St. Louis, MO, this year). I have gone every year for the past several years, and this year, I shared more on social media. As a result, I got several private messages asking, So what exactly do you do there? What do you get out of it?
It’s true that it’s not cheap to go and there are few immediate, tangible benefits. But there are many long-term career benefits, and it’s mostly about the relationship-building that happens there.
If you’re wondering about the nitty-gritty, here’s how I spent my wild (hehe–not really) NCTE time this year:
- Got up at 3 a.m. for flight.
- Checked into hotel at 8:30 a.m. (hooray for room being ready that early!).
- Practiced roundtable bit for Friday.
- Wrote a new draft of a picture book I had taken to my crit group last week.
- Lunch at Planet Sub, with gooey butter cake for dessert from Park Avenue Coffee Shop.
- Welcomed roomie Janet Fagal (former teacher and current poetry lover/advocate). Walked to convention center and picked up badges.
- Met poetry friend Irene Latham for dinner at Sauce on the Side. Spent a lovely couple of hours catching up, talking about life, poetry, children’s book industry, etc.
- Early to bed.
Breakfast (aka gooey butter cake) at Park Avenue Coffee Shop
Attended most of a session on picture book biographies
- Went to support critique group buddy Tracy Nelson Maurer, plus got to say hi to Phyllis Root, Jackie Briggs Martin, and Ann Matzke, all of whom I’ve met before but don’t know well.
- Got some fresh thoughts on how to approach my own nonfiction picture books (even though they are not biography).
- Got a lovely quote to use in my roundtable Wonder session.
- Took pics of everyone and shared on social media.
- Editor Carol Hinz was in the audience and snuck up to quietly give me my very first author copy of MEET MY FAMILY!, my forthcoming picture book!
Led a roundtable at a session all about wonder
- My topic was Wonder as the First Ingredient for Fascinating Nonfiction.
- My talk went well, and the interactive part was awesome. The activity I did with kids I now totally want to do with students when I’m doing a writing workshop.
- Teacher friends Catherine Flynn and Kim Doele came to my table.
- Jennifer McDonough, co-author of A PLACE FOR WONDER, the book I was passing around and recommending, was another table leader, and it was fabulous to meet her!
- I feel like I could expand my short bit into a full session at a teachers’ professional development conference.
- 13 tables—was worried I’d have nobody at mine, but my table filled up for both rotations. Whew.
- Passed around bookmarks, postcards, and a handout (which had my signing info on it) with all sorts of info about me and my books.
- Passed around several of my books, too, as examples in my wondering process—including MEET MY FAMILY!
- Caught up with session organizer, educator and poetry advocate Carol Varsalona, plus a few other roundtable leaders I knew, like Irene Latham and Charles Waters. First time to meet poetry friend Charles in person!
Attended half of a session on humorous picture books
- Got to say hi to Josh Funk and my poetry sister Liz Garton Scanlon (didn’t even know she was at NCTE until I happened to see an Instagram pic of the Arch!)
- Met Tammi Sauer, whose picture books I adore!
- Took pics of group and shared on social media.
Walked back to hotel and ate leftover calzone for lunch
Attended second half of NCTE Notables session
- Went to support Cynthia Alaniz, presenter and lovely blogger.
- Also went to support the Notables process, which I’ve been honored to have books recognized by in the past.
- Got some new book recommendations.
- Sat at Andrea Davis Pinkney’s table when she chatted about A POEM FOR PETER, which I love.
- Took photos of presenters and authors and shared on social media.
Attended a nonfiction session
- Went to support nonfiction writer friend Melissa Stewart and educator, blogger, and session organizer Alyson Beecher (I’ve presented in sessions organized by her in the past).
- Loved hearing Candace Fleming (whom I’ve met several times but I didn’t get to say hi to here) and Deborah Heiligman (whom I’ve never met) and Melissa speak.
- Sat with educator friend Catherine Flynn.
- Took a couple of pics and shared on social media.
- Got some ideas/thoughts that might affect how I talk about my own nonfiction writing, especially with teachers.
- Got a fabulous idea for a school visit activity from something Candace Fleming shared.
Attended last half of Poetry Notables session
- Went to support the presenters (some of whom I know from my former volunteering with the Children’s Literature Assembly) and the process. BookSpeak! was a Poetry Notable years ago.
- Got to see many friends’ books shared. Snapped some pics and gave social media shoutouts as much as possible.
- Said quick hi to poetry friends Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong as they left for their session.
- Chatted with organizers afterward. They’re looking for committee members, but my next book would be eligible, so I can’t be on it. But another time.
- Also chatted about a way I might be able to help out one of the other committees informally (not as a Chair or Co-Chair, in other words), because they’re organizing a session for next year about poetry.
Dinner at The Bridge with roomie Janet Clare. Remember going to the same restaurant a few years ago with poet friend Leslie Bulion! Yummy food, great conversation, but very loud. Still, a nice time. Ubered back to hotel.
Early to bed.
Workout in hotel fitness center.
Breakfast at Park Avenue Coffee Shop with roomie Janet.
- Stayed there after Janet headed to convention center so that I could finish reading a great book (GARVEY’S CHOICE) and catch up a bit on email and social media stuff.
Signing in the exhibit hall for another new book, HOW TO MAKE A RAINBOW.
- Got to say hi to editor Carol Hinz plus the marketing folks at Lerner.
- Signed 80-100 copies of the book, and also gave people bookmarks, my rack card (with book covers and awards and bio) and school visit flyers.
- Met several teachers who have used my books in their classroom. Met one teacher who has a forthcoming book, THE REVVED UP READ ALOUD, from Corwin Press, and she recommends one of my books in it :>) Connected with her on social media after NCTE.
- Author Loree Griffin Burns and teacher/poet Mary Lee Hahn and a few other friends swung by to say hi, which was lovely.
- Lerner gives away the book for signing, so it’s always a nice long line of appreciative teachers. Makes for a great atmosphere!
Children’s Book Award Luncheon
- I was a table host, meaning the folks at my table all got a free copy of IF YOU WERE THE MOON. I also handed out my promo materials at each spot.
- When they introduced the table hosts, each table had to do a brief cheer. My table did a lovely little moon twirl and shoutout:>)
- Teacher/poet Margaret Simon, Janet Fagal, Catherine Flynn, and Notables Committee Chair Diana Porter were at my table, along with 5 or 7 more people I didn’t know. Had lovely conversations about books, life, children/grandchildren, classrooms, dogs, travel, and so forth. Nice connections.
- Got to recommend several of my favorite books of the year, including one by a critique partner.
- Heard amazing talks from award winners Marilyn Nelson, Melissa Sweet, and Jason Reynolds.
- Took a few pics and shared event on social media.
- Noted several books I need to read!
Attended a poetry session
- Went to support poetry friends Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Irene Latham, Jeannine Atkins, and Kim Doele, who were all presenting. Plus I knew I’d hear great, insightful things about poetry.
- Also went to hear the two teachers I didn’t know, Mary Anne Sacco and Emily Callahan, speak. It’s super informative to hear teachers talk about how they use poetry in their classrooms. Gives me great ideas for speaking, for writing, and for school visits.
- Loved hearing Heinemann editor and author Katie Wood Ray talk about poetry, too.
- Took pics and shared with quotations on social media.
- Connected with the teachers I didn’t know afterward on social media.
- Sat with Dylan Teut, educator and aspiring children’s writer and all-around amazing person. And sat with Catherine Flynn and Margaret Simon.
- Waved at many other poetry friends in the room.
Dashed back to hotel to grab a soda and freshen up
- A Thanksgiving dinner put on by Scholastic.
- Probably 1,000+ people there.
- Sat with Carol Varsalona and many other poetry friends.
- Tracie Vaughn Kleman, educator and poet/author, joined us! Haven’t chatted with Tracie in years! SO good to catch up with her.
- Heidi Mordhorst, educator and poet, was another person I hadn’t seen in too long!
- Nikki Grimes joined us! I have known Nikki and admired her work for quite a few years, but I haven’t seen her in person in a few years, I think.
- The traditional speech and then talk given by Dick Robinson sparked an idea. I have a topic I’m writing around, trying to figure out an approach. A phrase he used made me think of another approach I could try, and I sat there doing some brainstorming and list-making while ignoring the stuffing and green beans on my plate:>)
Casual poetry gathering
- About 10 of us gathered in the non-atmospheric bar back at my hotel: me, Janet Fagal, Nikki Grimes, Carol Varsalona, Tracie Vaughn Kleman, Heidi Mordhorst, Catherine Flynn, Margaret Simon, Colette (whose last name is escaping me at the moment)…gosh, I think there were a few more of us, but my brain was just fried. And still is. We sat and chatted about poetry, writing retreats, books, and lots more. It was just lovely.
- Headed up to room around 8 or 8:30 because I needed to pack and get ready for a very early morning the next day.
Up at 5.
- Ubered around the corner (it was still dark) to the convention center to help set up for the CLA Breakfast.
- Helped set up—centerpieces, table decorations, etc.
- Reconnected with many CLA folks. These are all educators who are movers and shakers and who are passionate about children’s literature. They’re really inspiring—and funny. Very nice to catch up with them, as I stepped down as CLA Secretary last year at NCTE, so I haven’t seen/chatted with them since.
- Sold raffle tickets for sets of Notables winners.
- Passed out my postcard with the poem for teachers on it to about half the tables (before people sat down).
- Heard Nancy Johnson read Georgia Heard’s beautiful poem, something like “Star Stuff.” It was a real moment. Must track down the poem.
- Listened to a truly inspiring keynote by Kevin Henkes.
WHAT WENT WELL FOR ME THIS YEAR
- Meeting new people and connecting with those I already know
- Talking on a deeper level: My online friends and colleagues are people with grandchildren they’re excited about, professional issues they’re worried about, family illnesses and deaths they’re sad about. They are real people, going through real life. Getting to chat in person, especially one-on-one, deepens our connections very quickly.
- Tips about speaking
- Getting ideas for school visits and for books
- Putting my name in people’s ears again, however briefly
- Meeting folks I might present with in the future
- Hearing from teachers how they use my books in their classroom
- Showing my publishers that I am committed to promoting my work
- Showing up for friends’ sessions and providing moral support
- Handing out my promo materials
- Sharing pics and tidbits from sessions on social media (did much better at this than in previous years)
WHAT DIDN’T GO SO WELL
- Basically, I didn’t get to the exhibit hall other than for my signing. That means little to no publisher research as far as gathering catalogs, saying hi to marking and editorial folks, and browsing the books they’re promoting.
- I also didn’t get to friends’ signings. I stopped by one, but she had left early. And other than that, my Fri and Sat were just too tightly scheduled. It’s always a balancing act between sessions and exhibit hall and unofficial events. This year, sessions and events won out, and exhibit hall lost.
- Didn’t get to the Nerdy Book Club gathering, which I would have loved to have gone to.
- Left my laptop cord in hotel room, so I lost almost a full day’s work when I got home:>(
Overall, I came home happy and exhausted. I have lots more notes to type up and books to put on reserve and emails to send. I’m glad this event is annual instead of monthly. But I’m also very glad that I’m usually able to attend. If you have at least one book out or a book forthcoming in the next year, I think NCTE is an awesome investment to make in your writing career.