EVENT REPORT Picture Book Retreat 2017

The only thing lovelier than picture books are the people who love them! Candy Gourley reports on her, and many other SCBWI members' favourite event of the year - The Picture Book Retreat.

Last weekend was time again for my favourite SCBWI event: the Picture Book Retreat – a weekend I look forward to all year. This 2017 we were blessed, not only with hollyhocks and good weather but a fantastic faculty! Held in Holland House (pictured), a thatched Tudor manor with gorgeous grounds, it is a time for us picture book lovers to immerse ourselves in the adoration of the best story format of all. Which was exactly how we launched the weekend – with a picture book love-in! Each member talked us through the marvels of a favourite picture book. It was moving and inspiring. 

So inspiring was that evening that I raced around all weekend persuading people to make little videos about their books. Here's a strange and moving picture book from Switzerland introduced by illustrator Paul Morton – The Bear Who Wanted to Stay a Bearstory by Jörg Steiner, illustrations by Jörg Müller, translated by Anthea Bell. You can watch all the rather wonderful videos we made in the Talking Picture Books playlist on my Facebook author page (but only after you read this report!).


Author-illustrator Adam Stower (Silly Doggy), whose picture books have been translated into many languages, began by addressing the illustrators in the audience: 'Artists, do you still draw in the style you started in? Do you ever feel that you never find your identity?'

Adam Stower demonstrating how he draws monsters with children (with us standing in as children)

He then proceeded to show us the evolution of his art work over a 25 year (so far) career. The breadth of work ranged from forgettable educational workbooks to designing the label of Old Git beer to churning out covers for MoneyWeek magazine ...  he even illustrated for the Game of Thrones colouring book.

He has illustrated so many books that his child audiences are often stunned. 'You draw ALL these books?' they ask.

Adam explained that he often discovered his characters in his sketchbooks. He draws in his sketchbook religiously, randomly, freely, uninhibitedly ('You never sit down to write, you always draw a picture.' says his wife, who happens to be art director, Zöe Tucker). An image or character that makes a frequent appearance will lead to exploration, that may then result in a book. 'Character leads everything I do,' says Adam. 'One image in my head might be the anchor for a good book idea ... characters in my sketchbooks repeat, they pop up for years ... sometimes several ideas clump together and become one.'

He loves it when his child readers own his characters so much they argue with him, forgetting that he made the stories up in the first place. 'I love that they get so absorbed in the story that they do not think of me as the author.'


The Picture Book Retreat is attended by a good mix: the multi-published mingle with the aspiring, artists hobnob with writers (like me!), who can only watch with open mouths as the illustrators scribble away, beautifully, in their sketchbooks.

We who would like to be published appreciated the generous presence of Zöe Tucker, freelance art director who has worked in most publishing houses – notably the imprint Alison Green Books, named after the editor who played midwife to the wildly successful Gruffalo books.

Zoe shows us a beautiful art sample from a new artist Isabelle Folath

Zöe attended all the talks over the weekend, and to me, her every comment (she commented a lot) was a mini epiphany. I will have to bullet point the highlights:
• 'It's a romantic idea to think the author and illustrator can sit down and work on a book together.' The editor/art director interface between the two parties is political and is all about managing expectations.

• Authors and illustrators often complain about the power of the sales team, but they forget that the art director/editor worked on the book too. 'Why do some books hit the mark and others don't? We don't know.' At the end of the day, it's about 'the person who walks into the bookshop and how the message (about the book) is delivered ... it's knowing where your book wants to go. If you don't know, it will sell in smaller numbers.'

• 'How do you elevate your submission?' Zoe showed us samples of the mind-blowing submissions she is sent. 'This is what you're up against.'

• 'How can you get discovered?' Times have changed – Zoe (@zoetuckerdesign) relies on Instagram for talent-spotting: 'It's a ready-made portfolio for you'. Though maybe times haven't changed all that much – Zöe loves receiving beautiful cards and definitely keeps the stand-outs for future commissions. She will also trawl through your sketchbook in search of characters that can be built up into a story.

• What's the process? She will share a Pinterest of ideas with the artist. The artist will be given three weeks to work up characterisation. A brief will be given if your characterisation is successful. This is long. And work might proceed from that.

• Expect two to four rounds of thumbnails, it's part of the process.

• Money? Contracts start at £5000 – '£7000 to £9000 is a normal figure' – though some authors can still command advances that are off the scale.

• Expect more work when it comes to foreign sales. 'You have to reshape your story at every stage. Every foreign market has different tastes ... so DON'T BE A DIVA.'

• Character sheets: 'Show that you have the ability and the willingness to do it ... Make your figures work hard because I can make you work really hard!'

• 'Make that connection with your publisher and editor ... face to face is important.'

• Where do submissions often fail? 'I find the page turns are often wrong.'

• Make dummies. 'You will see the crescendo (of the story) better.' Zöe showed us dummies that she had herself created for books she was working on, including these dummies for How to Hide a Lion from Grandma by Helen Stephens. Zöe kindly agreed to talk us through the dummies in the video below:


I attended the retreat even though I had a deadline, and so I was tucked away in my bedroom, writing, when David Lucas (The Robot and the Bluebird) – who led the faculty the previous year – did his sessions. The first one was a group critique of actual published picture books, the second was writing your own picture book in ninety minutes. I'm hoping someone will blog about it ... but until then, here are some pictures (I managed to sneak in at the end).

David Lucas conducted a workshop on picture book creation. The sheet on the left is a chart showing the 12 spread-structure of a picture book. To the right of the chart are words on which to build character and setting. David asked the attendees to write down their deepest fears or anxieties (eg. fear of failure), these were used as a way to inject emotional depth into the picture book idea.

Illustrator John Shelley, hard at work during the workshop. In the background is a diagram marked HAND (craft), HEART (feeling) and HEAD (thought). Someone explained to me that David asked the audience to consider which way their stories leaned – and could they strike a balance?


Commissioning Editor Peter Marley, Oxford University Press

Peter Marley, commissioning editor for picture books at Oxford University Press (which has doubled its output of picture books in the last five years to 25 a year), speaking on the Sunday morning, focused on structure and story. Here are some bullet points:

• 'People often say: "I can't get the ending right." That means there's probably something wrong with the beginning.'

• 'Referring to structure quickly helps me figure out what the problems are with a story.'

• 'The hero must always undergo a transformation.'

• 'The best, most satisfying stories work on several levels.'

• 'A character always has a need to learn something ... and then they do. Learning something and moving on underpins most picture books.'

• 'I don't just edit on a piece of paper, I make it into a booklet.'

• 'Every word counts in a picture book. It really does.'

• 'Does your story have a problem? if you don't then you don't have a story. A series of events is boring.'

• 'One of the key indicators that (a text is not working) is when the final third of the book has too many words (because the story took too long to start).'

• 'In picture books, a word count of 500 to 700 words is best. More and you are struggling with page layout.'

• If you write in rhyme, remember that it's all about the story. 'I've seen rhyming texts get 20 translation deals.'

• 'Picture books are an international market. We publish to the coedition model (international sales).'


The final session was a spot of drawing with live models – Zöe, Gary Fabbri (who travels all the way from Sweden to attend the retreat), and John Shelley did the honours, to a relentless background of giggling.

Here's Gary Fabbri doing a superhero pose ... in the background are Sue Rawlins, John Shelley, Cathy Bee, Hannah Malkin and Loretta Schauer. Pictured below: Zöe and Gary; John, Gary and Adam

We finished the weekend playing croquet on Holland House's great lawn until darkness fell.

Unforgettable. It is so hard to believe that we are going to have to wait a whole year to do it all again.
Till we meet again! (left to right, front row) Liz Miller, Anne-Marie Perks, Julie Fulton, John Shelley, Hannah Malkin, Rachel Tilda Wolf, Sue Rawlins; (second row) Amanda Hamilton, Alison Padley-Woods, Cathy Bee, Cath Howe, Clare Tovey, Bridget Strevens Marzo, Katherine Lynas, Clare Bell, Zöe Tucker, Elaine Cline, Candy Gourlay; (back row) Loretta Schauer, Nick Cross, Paul Morton, Gary Fabbri, Mike Brownlow, Andy Stower, Alyana Cazalet, Paeony Lewis

Thank you to the SCBWI volunteers who gave us the best weekend of the year: Anne-Marie Perks, Loretta Schauer, Mike Brownlow and Bridget Strevens-Marzo. All photos are by Candy Gourlay – view more photos here and here.

Candy Gourlay loves drawing but is too busy writing novels. Her first picture book is due to be published in 2018.
Website: www.candygourlay.com
Twitter: @candygourlay


  1. Great review Candy! I blogged a bit about David's input which really inspired me. (http://wp.me/p46g9l-1xz) it was a lovely weekend of picturebook brilliance.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful report! Wish I could've been there but you shared plenty of highlights.
    Really appreciate what Zoe Tucker had to say about pacing a book. Nice to see everyone having a good time!

    1. I loved how she used the word 'crescendo' to describe climax!

  3. Fantastic Candy, I get quite a lot of undeserved mentions there I see :) It was great wasn't it!


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