This week, Anita Loughrey interviews John Shelley, a SCBWI member since 2001.

I joined SCBWI in 2001. At that time, I'd been living in Tokyo for many years and feeling rather frustrated that, despite launching as a children's illustrator in the UK, since moving to Japan, most of my success had been with Japanese advertising, editorial etc, with publishing taking a much more secondary place. I'd completely lost touch with old clients in the UK, I was exploring ways to re-connect with children's publishers in the West, and found SCBWI on the web I think.

John in 2001
When I joined SCBWI, I was already volunteering as a committee member of the Japan Designers Association, JAGDA, (in fact the only non-Japanese member). JAGDA is great for its polished professionalism, but it is a design-centred institution, made up largely of advertising art directors and designers, with just a few illustrator members, and it has nothing at all to do with children's publishing. In contrast, I found the open-door, warmth and friendliness of SCBWI an immediate tonic. It seemed much more of a club, and it was all about publishing  I was instantly pulled in.

I joined SCBWI after being assured there was a branch in Japan  which, as it turned out, was not strictly true, as although there were scattered members across the country, the only organised group was a very tiny gathering of ex-pats on the American military base in Okinawa  a very, very long way from Tokyo! So initially my only contact was receiving the Bulletin magazine, which, though the US market was a mystery to me, had lots of interesting features, and provided some names of US art directors I could post artwork samples to. Though I'd never met any other member, the insights I found through the Bulletin, and from the website and other associated web links, were enough to maintain my interest until Erzsi Deak (former International Coordinator) persuaded me to help set up a Tokyo Chapter in 2003.

I was one of the three Tokyo-based members who set up the Tokyo Chapter, together with Naomi Kojima, an author/illustrator who'd been a member of SCBWI in the US, and Linda Gerber, a long-time SCBWI writer member from the US, who'd only just arrived in Japan. I organised our very first meeting in a café, which brought together a few Tokyo members for the first time. As both Naomi and I were illustrators with well established reputations in Japan, events for illustrators were inevitably better attended than those for writers. Linda soon gave way as RA to Holly Thompson, writing lecturer at Yokohama University. I was Illustration Coordinator, Naomi ARA. With Holly taking over, our coverage for writers really began to move: connections with the international schools network enabled us to run events with top names that were travelling to Japan (David Almond, Lucy Cousins, Allen Say, Satoshi Kitamura are just a few); membership grew by around a third within a year of regular monthly events; and, the local chapter website was launched. Naomi had to step back from volunteering for a while, so I became defacto ARA and Illustrator Coordinator until I left Japan four years later.

I was also active with SCBWI outside Japan thanks to Erszi, especially after meeting Bridget Marzo in Bologna, through whom I became involved with running our Bologna Stand, and was elected to the SCBWI Board of Advisors in late 2007. Unfortunately, this happened just before my wife died suddenly, and I left Japan, so personal circumstances prevented me from doing everything I wanted with the Board.

Bridget Marzo, Babette Cole and John Shelley, Bologna, 2010
After an interval, I began volunteering again in the UK, initially solely with Anne-Marie, then with the Illustration Committee after it was set up. I ran our illustrator's blog from 2010, which eventually became part of the relaunched Words & Pictures, and have been the Illustration Features Editor since it debuted online in 2013. I was also co-Network Organiser for Central East with Helen Moss from 2013-2017, but now focus all my volunteering attention on things for illustrators.

You'd think as an illustrator I'd be able to tell you how SCBWI has helped me with my artwork. But it is writing and storytelling that SCBWI has been the most supportive. Before SCBWI, despite at the time illustrating lots of books written by others, I had little outside guidance on how to construct a picture book, other than practical creative writing books and what I'd picked up intuitively.

Making picture books had never really been covered when I was at art school (despite having Tony Ross as the course head!), almost everything I knew was based on my own analysis. After I joined SCBWI all that changed  the workshops, the guides, the presentations, just talking and experiencing the way books are written, has been immensely helpful. Membership of SCBWI coincided with a marked improvement in the way I began constructing and visualising picture books, especially since I began working on more commissioned books from the US, and has been a support for my own often stumbling attempts at writing my own stories.

Sketch-duelling with Paul Zelinsky, Bologna, 2018
Without doubt my best thing ‘ever’ about my time as a SCBWI member is the community of friends I've found within SCBWI. I'll never forget the wonderful people I worked with in Japan and surrounding regions in the Far East, who have been and continue to be immensely supportive, sometimes beyond all expectation. My fondest memories of Bologna are dinners with SCBWI members from across Europe. When I was truly at the lowest point of my life after leaving Japan, SCBWI in the UK was there, a rock of steady support. My colleagues who I volunteer with now are all shining stars, and this only reinforces what I've found in all countries, the community of the society is the best!

If I had to choose specific events  the annual Picture Book Retreat takes some beating, though I'll never forget the four days of workshops Holly and I ran in Ulanbataar, Mongolia, or the Manila workshop I ran for SCBWI Philippines, or the Bienniel illustrator's exhibition (next one coming up) ... and ... and ... just too many to choose!

John Shelley's latest book cover
John's website is Instagram StudioNIB. Twitter: @StudioNIB

* Header image shows John in December 2018.
All photos courtesy of John Shelley.

Anita Loughrey is SCBWI's Membership Coordinator. Anita writes fiction for all ages, graphic novels, audio books, teacher resources, educational fiction, non-fiction and creative non-fiction on a wide variety of subjects for a wide range of publishers. She has over 85 books published in the UK and many more worldwide. She also writes two regular double-page spreads for the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum and teaches creative writing.

You can find out more about Anita Loughrey on her website and on her blog. Or follow her on Twitter @amloughrey and Instagram @anitaloughrey


  1. Wow, John, what a long relationship you've had with SCBWI! I'm so happy your vast contribution is now on record. Thank you for making SCBWI a special place to be.

  2. That's just a beautiful testament to what the SCBWI can do for members, sometimes in totally unexpected ways! Can't wait for our next meeting, John, maybe in Bologna again with a collapsing food table and great music for dancing in the book shop! ;)


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