And yours, too!
Will you be ready if a big moment suddenly drops in your lap?
Last week, it was announced that the most famous John Briggs in kidlit sold Holiday House, the publishing business he owned for more than fifty years. I never met the man, but I have long wanted to. Not because we share a name, but because I have never heard anyone — and I mean not a single person — say a bad word about him. He appears to be loved by staff and competitors alike. And that’s saying something in a business marked by fierce competition, rejection, and failure.
The sale of Holiday House (and Mr. Briggs’ coming volunteer work to help children) had me thinking about his accidental and unwitting help for me five years ago at the SCBWI Conference in New York City.
A few days after I applied to attend the Winter Conference, I received an email from the organizers asking me if I’d like to attend the VIP Party Friday night, the day before the conference officially kicked off. I said, “Sure.” I figured this was just a fancy name they gave a pre-conference get-together. VIP Party sounds so much better than “Hey, Everyone’s Invited, and It’s a Cash Bar.”
For the next few months, I didn’t think anything about it. I’d been to pre-conference events before. You schmooze, you exchange business cards, and you go about your day.
Come that Friday night in January, I walked up to the registration desk at the VIP Party, picked up my badge, and entered the ballroom. There stood Mo Willems. And Jane Yolen. And, oh, my God, that’s Jules Feiffer. And there’s Arthur Levine, who edited the American version of Harry Potter. And there’s an agent Nick Bruel once described as representing “the pantheon of children’s literature” who’d been interested in me for a few months.
This really was a VIP party.
What the heck was I doing here?
Fortunately, I’ve been in high-pressure situations before. I mean, I once attended the White House Correspondents Dinner where I bumped into Joe Lieberman. I met Alan Alda at a party and managed to interview him on the fly. I did the same thing with Leslie Nielsen. I could handle this.
So, I played it cool. I talked with Mo Willems about stand-up comedy, something we had both done in the early ’90s. I briefly, for about ten seconds, talked with Jules Feiffer about the cookies. I apologized for being in Jane Yolen’s way so that we didn’t have to do the side-step dance. Arthur Levine and I talked about Type I Diabetes because we’d both been diagnosed back in the ’70s. And that agent and I talked about a lot of things — some of it work, some of it personal, but we managed to talk for twenty minutes or so.
What I did not do was make a nuisance of myself.
I played it cool, tipped the bartender at the open bar (hey, this was a VIP party. Of course they had an open bar!), and acted like I belonged there. I got a chance to see how the upper echelon of kidlit acted, and it was enlightening. They were like co-workers who occasionally mentioned business and then asked how the kids were doing.
Yep, it was a regular VIP party.
But that didn’t answer my question: What the heck was I doing there?
My answer came the next day when I registered for the conference itself. They handed me my badge, which had my address on it. Well, not really my address. It was the address for Holiday House.
They thought I was the other John Briggs!
Nothing came of the party, of course. Mo Willems and I did not become lifelong friends. In fact, I’ve never seen him since. I’ve run into Jane Yolen a few times, but we never laugh for hours about that crazy time in New York City where we danced around each other. I’ve never submitted to Arthur Levine, and the agent eventually passed on me in a forty-minute phone call. I’ve connected with a few people I met there on Facebook and Twitter, but that’s about it.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a learning experience, because it was. I felt like I fit in there. I was with like-minded people who love and work with children’s books. And I can’t help but think about it again as the most famous John Briggs in children’s literature steps down after more than fifty years providing young readers with terrific books. I know we’ve never met, but I’d like to thank you, Mr. Briggs, for (surprisingly) letting me borrow your name for one night to test my mettle against the best in our business.
Enjoy your (semi)retirement!