SCBWI Picture Book Retreat 2018

This year's Picture Book Retreat at Holland House was once more a marvellously intensive analysis of illustration, writing, and the current market for picture books. John Shelley presents some memories from attendees.

From 13th-16th July the leafy Worcestershire village of Cropthorne again welcomed SCBWI members to the gardens and rustic architecture of Holland House for our annual Picture Book Retreat. Ably managed by organisers Mike Brownlow and Paul Morton, guest presenters this year were Orange Beak Studio (art director Ness Wood and author/illustrators Pam Smy and Maisie Paradise Shearring), and editor Emily Lamm from Hachette Children's Books. I was also helping out as one-to-one mentor. 

Holland House. (photo: © Jasveen Soor)
The weekend got off to a great start with exercises to develop characters, run by Mike Brownlow and (as shown here) Paul Morton... (photo: © John Shelley)
... followed by a brief explanation of how picture books are constructed, by some bloke (a.k.a. me) (photo: © Paul Morton)

The weekend was a hotbed of workshops, presentations and discussions, fuelled by wonderful catering offered by the kitchens of Holland House, and each day ending in lively discussions under the stars in the gardens. 
Afterwards I asked some of the attendees for their feedback ....

What was the highlight of the weekend for you (book related or social)? 

Jill Calder: Incredibly thought provoking workshops / activities with Pam and Maisie on both days. They have REALLY made me think about the environments and settings in my illustrations. So useful. Social highlights were the joyous mealtimes and the last evening sat outside late into the night with a bit of a sing-along to Glyn Scott playing the ukelele! Perfect ending.
Clare Tovey: For me this year, Holland House and gardens, the opportunity to have lots of quiet time on my own, plus good times with lovely fellow SCBWI people.

Pam, Maisie and Ness of Orange Beak Studios (photo: © John Shelley)
Ness discusses cover design (photo: © Su Dore)
Pam shows how setting can be used to show details of character (photo: © Paul Morton)
Sketchbooks exploring the environment of characters in Pam and Maisie's Saturday workshop (photo: © John Shelley)

Trish Phillips: Meeting so many like minded people, what a buzz!
Elaine Cline: Being with like minded people who are passionate about picture books.
Cathy Bee: The evening quiz and plane competitions! A chance to mix and come together with everyone as a whole group. 
Su Dore: Highlight was definitely meeting like-minded people. Everyone was lovely, the organisers, the staff, the guest speakers and of course the other wonderful participants!
Imogen Foxell: Everyone pitching in to help me finish collaging an imaginary book spread in under three minutes (it was just like the bake-off). And all the meals, obviously.

The dining room (sketch by Imogen Foxell)

Juliet Clare Bell: Highlight of the weekend: work -a fantastic and extremely practical editor talk by Emily Lamm, and my one-to-one with her. These two things alone would have been worth coming for. Social highlight? The Sunday night where over twenty of us stayed out in the garden chatting and drinking and watching the stars till the small hours, with the addition of Glyn's ukelele and singing.
Catherine Lindow: Highlight - Workshops within a residential weekend. Immersion! Participating in them and then coming away with that focus in your mind and then applying those same thoughts to your own work was so helpful. There was a continuity to the weekend which was, yes, in part down to the same facilitators being present, but also down to the fact that we were staying there, talking about our work with each other, talking about picture books and PB things, eating there, sleeping there... I loved how drawing became 'just something people do' and mornings would see the gardens spattered with sketchbooking SCBWI's. I came with a slightly conflicted feeling about my work and left feeling truly buoyant.

Catherine Lindow sketching on the lawns... (photo: © Paul Morton)

Susmita Roy: Meeting many creative and inspiring people who are into picture books, to share experiences, ideas etc, the chats, the magnificent paper plane flying challenge and Su creating the Retreat Facebook group.
Nick Bromley: Being re-energised by meeting so many talented, kind and inspiring individuals.

Saturday night start of the Quiz after the Show-and-tell displays (photo: ©Paul Morton)

The winning team of the picture book quiz on Saturday night - Gary Fabbri, Maisie and Pam (photo © Orange Beak Studios)
Jasveen Soor: Highlight for work was definitely meeting, mingling & being inspired by some wonderfully talented, friendly and like minded people (maps & all!). Social highlight was the last evening & Glyn’s wonderful ukelele rendition.
Nick Cross: It was so great to be amongst creative people, and discussing or doing creative stuff all day long. That really was a privilege. We had a lot of laughs and learnt plenty into the bargain.

What was the biggest thing of value for your work? 

Jill Calder: Again the workshops about environment and belonging with Pam and Maisie. My mentor meeting with Ness was a much needed "A-HA!' moment and finally, just being with a bunch of brilliant scoobies, sharing our work and experiences.
Clare Tovey: Emily Lamm's talk; Paul's demonstration of ProCreate (especially how to make a custom brush); and my mentor session, which was just perfect for what I had asked for and needed.
Trish Phillips: A really productive one-to-one along with valuable workshops. 
Elaine Cline: Brilliant one-to-one and Emily Lamm's talk.
Cathy Bee: I really enjoyed having an illustrator read two of my stories and give their professional view on how they saw it visually - hugely inspiring and insightful.

Maisie showing how she uses setting details in her own work (photo © John Shelley)

Su Dore: Reassessing the need to show more belonging of a character in their own environment to create a safeness (and what would happen if this was reversed) and the value in the details you can add which the reader will subconsciously interpret.
Imogen Foxell: Being away from the everyday enough to be able to think about some new projects, while being surrounded by inspiring people.
Juliet Clare Bell: Emily Lamm's talk and the one-to-one but also getting me more excited about picture books by being surrounded by picture book enthusiasts. Recommitting to having weekly accountability skype sessions with another pb maker. 
Catherine Lindow: Within that framework it was amazing to have a 1-to-1 with Pam Smy where she really took what had been discussed in the workshops and applied it specifically to my work. By that time I was really signed up to what she had presented so I was very ready to listen. I have had feedback sessions in the past where I came away honestly not knowing how to move forward. That was not the case this time. It was a real spur to action because I suddenly felt I knew what had to be done.
Delegates hard at work (photo: © Orange Beak Studios)
Delegates hard at work - sketch by Trish Phillips

Susmita Roy: The informative sessions by Maisie, Pam, Ness and Emily Lamm and all the feedback I received, i.e., from my mentor (John), Pam, Ness and Emily during their tea/coffee time and the fellow Scoobys, which will help me to continue working on my projects.
Nick Bromley: The importance of developing background to give your story and character believability and presence.

On Sunday, commissioning editor Emily Lamm from Hachette Books gave a valuable talk on the current market for Picture Books  (photo: © Paul Morton)
Jasveen Soor: Biggest thing of value for my work was the one to one with Maisie & coming away with a real sense of how to continue & what to focus on. Also was intrigued & awed by so many images & their creators.
Nick Cross: Ironically, the biggest learning for me was that picture books might not be the best fit for my style of illustration, at least currently (my one-to-one was incredibly useful for discussing these issues). So I can concentrate on illustrating my older fiction and not feel guilty about it!

Pam running the Sunday afternoon workshop on cover design (photo: © Paul Morton)
 (photo: ©Paul Morton)
Cover designs from cut up tones of grey (Photo: © Orange Beak Studio)
(Photo: © Orange Beak Studio)

Anything else you'd like to share about the Retreat?

Jill Calder: Holland House and the village of Cropthorne was a magical setting (even if it was a bit epic for me and Catherine to get down to!). We were very well looked after by the staff and the food was glorious. Mike and Paul and Anne Marie did a fantastic job organising this, so well done all - apologies if I have missed anyone out!
Clare Tovey: The extra mile in care that the Holland Park team took in vacuuming the ceiling in my room and the one next door: both were covered in weird little insects! The joys of the country.
Trish Phillips: This is such a blissful weekend of indulging in your own creativity, I would highly recommend it.
Elaine Cline: It was enormous fun and a chance to indulge in picture books.

(photo: © Catherine Lindow)

Cathy Bee: It's a lovely relaxing weekend to charge the creative batteries.
Su Dore: The food was amazing!
Imogen Foxell: Don’t expect to retreat monkishly into your cell and finish twelve picture books. It’s more about chatting and sketching in the garden, and convivial conversations late into the night.
Juliet Clare Bell: Use it in the way it works best for you. I snuck off during certain sessions so that I could have quiet time writing something when it felt like the right thing to do. Thanks to everyone. It was lovely, and I've come back rejuvenated.
Catherine Lindow:  Agree with Clare above - I also found at one point I needed to absorb some of the new thoughts and I opted out of one of the workshops, feeling rather guilty but knowing my head was in danger of exploding. The whole weekend was an enormous pleasure and I loved meeting you all. I'm tempted to use hyperbole and talk about game-changers and watershed moments and the like but it's probably too early to tell. Anyway I loved it, thank you.

On the last evening Paul got us to design, decorate and test paper aeroplanes. Here's his!
The winner with the longest flight was Su Dore! (photo: ©Paul Morton)
Susmita Roy: A serene place to be at with the like minded people. The food is great, and the Holland House staff and the retreat organisers are very helpful.
Oh, and learning to use the staples manually!
Nick Bromley: The path to becoming a published writer/illustrator is not always straightforward, and there are many stops, starts and diversions. But keep persevering, keep positive and magical things can happen.
Jasveen Soor: The setting of Holland house especially around the gardens etc are just perfect for expressive output! Add that to yummy grub, choice tipples & sometimes bonkers conversation = a fab fab weekend!
Nick Cross: The food! Come for the food and stay for the inspiration.

Photo: © Catherine Lindow
Our enormous thanks to the guest presenters, the organisers, and the staff of Holland House for making the weekend such a great success!

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There are many more photos and anecdotes of the weekend on the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat Facebook Page!

Header photo © Gary Fabbri


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently the picture book Magic for Sale with words by Carrie Clickard (Holiday House). He was one of the UK nominees for the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. Twitter/Instagram/Facebook @studioNIB


  1. Waaah! So sorry to miss it. Please may I sign up for next year right NOW?

  2. Brilliant report John. Brought back the atmosphere of the retreat perfectly.

  3. A really interesting read. I didn’t go on the retreat , but catching up on everyone’s feedback here was most insightful!


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