An interview with Serendipity 2015 conference organizer, Rob Bittner

BittnerSerendipity is the Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable’s capstone event, a showcase for outstanding “talent” in children’s literature publishing and its authors, illustrators, and editors. Serendipity draws speakers and panelists from all over the globe. Months of planning and organizing make the event come together. Although it’s a large team-effort, one person (sometimes two) is the prime organizer. The organizer of this year’s dark-themed Serendipity, is the very busy Rob Bittner and he has agreed to answer some questions about the conference and talk about what makes this one particularly noteworthy.

KT: First of all, tell us a little about Serendipity 2015. Why attend? What can we expect of the day?

RB: This year’s lineup is one that I’m particularly proud of, and I think people who attend will find themselves educated, challenged, and energized! I mean, how often do you get the chance to meet such world-class, award-winning authors and illustrators? This really is the chance of a lifetime, especially since this year we introduced a special rate for teens, so they can come and meet these seriously amazing people! I would hope that if you love children’s and young adult literature, you will come to be a part of that community and talk to friends and colleagues[who will be there]!

KT: The event title is very provocative. You use the words “eerie,” “edgy,” and “exceptional.” Not terms, perhaps, that we readily think of when talking about literature for children. Can you give some examples of how they might apply?

RB: Children’s literature is always pushing boundaries. Holly Black’s Doll Bones, for example, takes something simple, a story about children and a doll, and creates a story that will give you chills, turning the doll into something both menacing but also intriguing. I think it’s important to remember that there is a darker side to children’s literature, but that doesn’t mean the literature can’t be fun and exceptional at the same time. Doll Bones did get a Newbery Honor, after all!

KT: What aspect or feature of the upcoming Serendipity most interests you?

RB: I love the way each of the authors manages to take a different perspective on important issues like adolescence, sexuality, friendship, imagination, and family. I love hearing the way different people react to all of these radically different books and narrative styles.

KT: Some Roundtable events inspire costumes. At a past event, for example, lots of admirers of Marie-Louise Gay’s books turned up as Stella. You are encouraging attendees to show up in costume—with a prize for the best. Are you going to be wearing a costume? Can you give us any hints regarding which character or book you’ll be looking to for inspiration?

RB: Hmmm… I still have time to get a costume together, right? I will likely be going for something from an Andrew Smith novel, though I may just show up in a pink swimsuit like my hero, Flora. One thing I hope everyone will be sure to do is dust off their Instagram accounts so we can show off all the costumes throughout the day! We will be having a photo booth set up during lunch!

KT: What guided your selection of speakers for this year’s Serendipity?

RB: I see so many people working on literature conferences and the speakers are, more often than not, authors of fiction with happy endings. I wanted to do something different, but also keep things interesting and even possibly light-hearted, as contradictory as that seems. I think this lineup speaks to that desire! I mean, have you read Grasshopper Jungle?

KT: What is it like talking to and arranging details with famous authors and illustrators?

RB: It can be intimidating. While I find I can develop a good rapport with authors, working with publishers to schedule them is a unique experience, often requiring a lot of patience. You definitely don’t want to have an aversion to emailing people!

KT: Can you share some stories about people you met or corresponded with while organizing the conference?

RB: Organizing this conference has allowed me to meet a lot of great people at various publishers, and getting to know the authors more is a great pleasure. I don’t really have anything specific, though at one point I did attend a dance party in Vegas with Holly Black.

KT: There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about children’s lit. What do you see as the biggest?

RB: Children’s literature seems to be a constantly expanding area of the book world. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about children’s literature is that it has to be happy or have a moral, but as you can see from our authors, that’s not always the case. I think children’s literature has the unique ability to speak to audiences all the way from children, to teens, to adults. I love that so many books for children and teens aren’t pretentious!

KT: You are heavily involved on book award committees, such as BC Book Prizes, the Newbery Medal Committee, and the Stonewall Book Award. About how many children’s books do you read a year? Any new authors that pique your interest? Any we should be keeping an eye on?

RB: I think I read about 300-400 books a year, between picturebooks and novels. It really depends on the type of award I’m reading for. Either way, it’s a lot!

I can’t single out authors on here because there’s just too many. There’s a lot of great stuff coming out later this year! If you want specific titles, come talk to me at Serendipity!

KT: Given that we’re talking about a children’s literature event, I think that readers of this interview might be interested in knowing what you like to read. Who are some of your favourite authors? And, what are you reading right now?

RB: First and foremost, I like books that really work to be different when it comes to gender and sexuality. Boundaries are there to be pushed, and there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s doing just that. I think it’s important for literature to change with culture, which is why I love reading what’s coming out NOW, so I can see how it’s mirroring contemporary society.

I love A.S. King, Gregory Maguire, Mac Barnett, and many, many others, including our speakers, of course! Right now I have to be secret about what I’m reading because I’m on a committee, but needless to say, pretty much all YA written in 2015 is up for grabs!

KT: I hear you are quite the wine connoisseur. Can you suggest wine pairings for those who like to sip while reading children’s literature?

RB: I find a nice Sauvignon Blanc works for shorter works of fiction, like picture books, while a big bold Shiraz is a great pairing with longer works and books with darker themes. Graphic novels often pair well with a nice Rosé or bottle of sparkling wine. But if you prefer cocktails, might I suggest looking to Tim Federle’s Tequila Mockingbird?

KT: OK, and just for fun . . . if you had a superpower, what would it be?

RB: Hmmm… I would want to be an author! I seriously feel like authors are superheroes.

KT: Is there anything particular you’d like to say about Serendipity 2015 to the people reading this interview that I might have missed asking about?

RB: I don’t want people to get bored with me, so I probably shouldn’t say anymore. But I just hope everyone enjoys the conference and finds their own expectations about children’s literature challenged and expanded!

Robert Bittner is a PhD student in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University. He has a BA English and a MA in Children’s Literature. Robert has spoken at numerous conferences on LGBTQ issues in children’s and YA books as well as on censorship and sexuality. In the past, Robert has also been a juror for the BC Book Prizes, the Newbery Medal Committee, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award and the Stonewall Book Awards. He currently sits on the Michael L. Printz Award Committee. He feels like he lives under constant threat of being buried under piles of books.

Karen Taylor has a BA in English and a MA in Children’s literature and is a member of the VCLR Steering Committee.