Picture Book Retreat - Report

The SCBWI Picture Book Retreat this year was another resounding success, with memorable workshops and presentations. Massive thanks to the speakers, and to organisers Loretta Schauer and Anne-Marie Perks. This week, attendee Helen Liston gives her personal view of the weekend.

It's funny how the word 'retreat' has the power to conjure such opposite notions. On the road to Pershore, I find myself dreading exposure: humiliating show-and-tells, awkward ice breakers and terrifying public readings of my work. All this after a period of writerly dormancy, and I'm wondering why I'm about to put myself so 'out there'. But it isn't long before I realise there's no pressure at Holland House, just a lot of gratitude and anticipation. More than a few who I meet are returners from last year's retreat, which speaks heaps. Even at first supper there's a very relaxed and supportive atmosphere. 

As for my fear of icebreakers, I don't have too much to worry about. After author David Lucas helps us reveal our psyche through sketches (samples withheld to protect the innocent) we're all left to get on and meet and share over meals, or in workshops or informal crit groups. There's a really free-flowing, non-hierarchical culture at SCBWI: because it's run by volunteers, everyone is in the mix when it comes to professional growth. YA authors looking for a change in direction, illustrators wanting to widen their range, newbies and multi-published authors, writers looking to become illustrators and illustrators looking to become writers... all comprise the group, and everyone has something to give and something to learn. 
John Shelley's sketches for the warm-up exercise (© John Shelley)
The two complete days are easily filled with a workshop taking up the morning, an editor or art director talk after lunch, and writing, critique or art time in the afternoon. With these, plus meals and the odd stint of sketching, writing or editing in a quiet spot, I feel we were all left wanting one day more for talk, reading and digging into the pile of books we'd jointly piled into a kind of Picture Book Lovers' Library. 

One of the things I love the most about being among PB-heads is discovering the variety of things that make us tick. David Lucas' talk reminds me exactly why I love the picture book form. David goes deep into the heart of our relationship with narrative by way of philosophy and folk art – for him narrative is about personal and emotional crises, about the exploration of boundaries, the harmony of symmetry and of meaning-making through pattern. And it should always – always – end happily. Lynne Chapman's session the next day is a more anarchic offering, in which crazy couplings spawn chaotic story ideas. Both sessions buzz with creative energy, and I have a feeling that more than one book will emerge from these sessions. 

As a non-artist I get a nice break from being a sort-of-writer during Lynne's art session on Saturday afternoon. On Friday we'd made concertina art pads, which Lynne then gets us to “muck up” with lovely sloshes of watercolour. The result is a page that looks a lot more exciting to draw on than a blank canvas. Lynne explains urban art, and encourages us to focus on objects that express the moment, as well as to write overheard speech into our drawings. People work in their concertina pads all weekend, sketching one another without inhibition. The finished book makes a pretty neat souvenir, and I'll be stealing this format for my after-school story club next year. 

Face time with a publisher is like gold dust for illustrators and writers, and I'm glad that my spot comes after a critique session and a super fast edit in my room, so when it comes to my mentor session, my manuscript is in better shape. Having the space and resources to allow this turnaround to happen is a rare thing indeed, and I'd do it every weekend if I could! Not sure our visiting Editor Ellie Parkin (Scholastic) or Art Director, Kristina Coates (Bloomsbury) would manage that on their schedules, somehow. Both editors give talks that shed light on the the PB publishing industry and how we can maximise our chances of getting read, and both answer loads of questions about submissions and current trends. It all helps me in my conviction that if I just keep working, listening, revising, polishing, meeting and attending... then maybe I'll get somewhere. 

Art Director Kristina Coates from Bloomsbury (photo: John Shelley)

Retreat co-organiser Loretta Schauer (L) with Ellie Parkin from Scholastic (R)
But hey, whatever the destination, this journey is a pretty good one. It's a total luxury to be in the company of picture book lovers for a whole weekend, and to get time to allow my head to be in a land of giants, foxes and fairies... always made easier when one doesn't have to do the dishes, of course. There's nothing quite like having three fabulous meals a day without having to think even a tiny thought about it. Even without domestic or work demands to distract us, we writers and illustrators suffer a sense of isolation and misunderstanding. But here we all understand the vagaries of writing, editing, submission, rejection and for some – hurrah! - publishing. It often feels like a crazy road to take, but here I feel less crazy. It's also a magical pursuit, and here we get to immerse ourselves in that magic for a whole weekend – amazing. 
At our final dinner on Sunday, author Clare Bell tells me this has been one of her favourite retreats, which makes me feel all glad that it's my first. I come away with way more hope and motivation than I thought I would. My concertina pad is nearly sketched in, my notebook is rainbow-scrawled with new ideas, my manuscripts are annotated for edits and I've a lovely lot of new friends and acquaintances. 

Returning to Bristol I have the happy-tired brain of my festival days: I'm zinging with ideas and the world looks a little bit lovelier than it did before I left. I'm under slept and under exercised from so much time sitting, talking, thinking and writing. But over the next week, when all the little leaps and retreats of heart are acknowledged and accounted for, I realise I've brought away a resolve to work harder and more positively, and to have just a little bit more trust in myself – as well as in the retreat experience. Next up – conference!

(all photos copyright ©Candy Gourlay unless otherwise noted)


Helen Liston is an English teacher, freelance writer, and kitchen disco dancer living in Bristol.


  1. Looks like great fun and lots of beautiful illustrations :-) Thanks for the article

  2. Great article, Helen, really made me wish I had been there. Thank you!

  3. It was the best retreat I've ever been on. Just fab. Thanks to the great organisers and participants. Can't wait for next year (I'm already rescheduling stuff around the new dates).
    PS Happy kitchen disco dancing... x

  4. Great article Helen, I've gone all nostalgic for that special atmosphere of the retreat. thanks. Paul.


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