The picture book Danny and the Dream Dog came about after a chance meeting at the SCBWI Conference. Soni Speight talks to writer Fiona Barker and illustrator Howard Gray about their collaboration.

If you think the SCBWI conference is just for writers, think again! There’s loads on offer for illustrators too, and it’s a great opportunity to surround yourself with people who are just as passionate about children’s books as you are. More than that, magical things can happen when authors and illustrators get together…

Howard Gray was just at the beginning of his illustration career when he booked a ticket for his first ever SCBWI Conference in 2016.

Howard – 'The conference was a landmark for me. On the lead-up to it, I had decided to focus all my efforts on becoming a children’s illustrator, having recently finished a PhD on something totally different: dolphins! Becoming a children’s illustrator, and, more broadly, a professional artist, was something I had always strived for. I had joined my local SCBWI crit-group to share my picture book ideas, and they were great and very supportive; and it was through them that I realised the conference might be just what I was looking for.'

Howard Gray
'For me, the conference was a kind of ‘calibration' opportunity to see what people thought of my work. My friends liked it, my family liked it, my Mum LOVED it! But what did people really think? Would it hold up in the professional arena? Did I have a lot of work to do? (probably). Was it back to the drawing board? (hopefully not). What were my strengths and weaknesses? Whatever the situation, I wanted to think positively about the conference experience and learn as much as I could. I also wanted to meet lots of people! To prepare, I worked a lot on my portfolio and had some business cards made. I familiarised myself with what was happening over the weekend – speakers, workshops and other goings-on. I loved the sound of the pre-conference activities on the Friday and signed up for the sketch-crawl straight away. It’s such a relaxed and fun way to meet fellow illustrators!'

'I also signed up to the Friday night crit, and although it was open to everyone, I decided to join the writers rather than the illustrators. It was there I got to know Fiona Barker. She’s awesome. She’s someone who really puts herself out there and achieves things, which I admire. She had a great story about a boy who wanted a dog and I had a story about a whale. In my story I had included a few illustrations which I believe caught Fiona’s eye.'

Fiona Barker

Fiona – 'As an author, going to a conference where you get to meet illustrators is fantastic! Drawing and writing are both generally solitary pursuits, so to have the opportunity to meet such talented people face-to-face is great! You get to see little tasters of illustrators’ work sometimes via social media or perhaps on a website, but to see a whole portfolio is amazing. Seeing the work and the detail close up makes such a difference and you can ask the illustrators themselves about their working processes which is fascinating. 
 Howard was in my Friday night critique group as part of the conference fringe activities. He had brought a text he had written and he’d done a couple of illustrations too. I was sitting next to him, so I could see how awesome they were straight away! The text was pretty funny too so I don’t expect it will be long before he has a book out as an author-illustrator (if he can fit it in between all his illustration jobs!).'

Howard – 'I had a 1-2-1 with an agent, as I had planned to send my portfolio to agents after the conference (or at least after a period of reflection and some re-working). I think my honest review of it would be that it was a mixed bag, but definitely worth it. Other illustrator-conference-buddies had awesome and constructive experiences in their 1-2-1s but I feel I didn’t quite get the direction I was hoping for. The agent I saw was lovely, and provided some excellent and invaluable feedback, but I quickly came to appreciate the huge amount of subjectivity and gut-based decision making in what we do.'

While his portfolio was on display Fiona got to have a better look at Howard’s work.

Fiona – 'I loved the illustrations he had done for his story in the crit but I didn’t think about asking him to collaborate on my text until I had been to look at his portfolio the next day. There was an illustration of a child with a dog. That’s when I knew...'

Howard – 'Fiona was planning on publishing her story, with a view to self-publish if she couldn’t find a publisher. Her book Amelie and the Great Outdoors was already published, so she knew what lay ahead of her. She was keen to find a new illustrator for her book and she asked if I would be interested. I wasn’t sure how serious she was at first to be honest, but as the conference went on and she had a chance to see my portfolio out on display, she made it clear that she was, in fact, serious. After the conference we stayed in touch and I did a few sketches and a character piece for her to take to publishers.'

Work in progress on one of the spreads
Fiona – 'I knew that approaching publishers as a team would be tough so initially, I commissioned Howard to draw a pencil sketch for one of the spreads in Danny and the Dream Dog. On the advice of an editor who saw the text and sketch, I started submitting them together. In my cover letter I made it clear I would be flexible if the publishers had a different concept in mind but that I admired Howard’s work and had commissioned the exploratory sketch. We were very lucky because Tiny Tree Children’s Books liked the text and loved the sketch too so they took us both on to create Danny and the Dream Dog. There’s exciting news for next year too but I’m not allowed to talk about it yet!'

Howard – 'Things really worked out and the following month I signed up with my agency, Bright, who took me under their wing and my illustration career is just about taking hold now... I received some artistic feedback from my agents the following year which ended up evolving the artwork in Fiona’s book too. To cut a long story short, the book got published by Tiny Tree last November and I am super proud to have been a part of it.'

The finished illustration as it appears in the book
Fiona and Howard are a real success story of the friendships and opportunities that emerge from the conference. They are working on their second book together, with Tiny Tree again, and this time the Marine Conservation Society too… it features a whale – which is obviously something Howard is excited to work on.

Promoting the book at Fleet Library

Fiona – 'Picture books and highly illustrated children’s fiction needs writers AND illustrators. It’s so much fun to work with someone you’ve met and got to know before getting down to the nitty gritty of creating a book together. The conference is a perfect opportunity to do that.  If it doesn’t sound like hyperbole, I’d say it has been life-changing. Without Howard I’m pretty sure I would be continuing to self-publish. Not a bad thing in itself but quite expensive! I don’t think I’d have found him without SCBWI and the conference. Now both Howard and I have agents who we met at the conference and we’re both working hard to make the most of the opportunities we have been given.'

Howard – 'I thoroughly enjoyed the picture-book making workshop we did with Viviane Schwarz. It was spread out across most of the Sunday but it was really fun! The Picture Book Industry Panel was really enlightening too. And the keynote speakers were awesome, really inspiring. I particularly enjoyed going to 'The Hook’ – it was a nice way to hear the pitches, and great to see a picture book and illustrations up there too – by Emma Graham! These sorts of events have a lot of stressing-out potential for me. Places to be, things to do, participation to be made. But I really enjoyed it, and wouldn’t change a thing. I did all the things I wanted to do, met some lovely people and would do it all again. I absolutely recommend it to others! And I have!'

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Fiona Barker's website is
Howard Gray's Illustration portfolio site is at

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Soni Speight is a freelance illustrator and designer who also champions the #PicturesMeanBusiness campaign. She is coordinating the illustrator speakers, sessions and reviews for the 2019 conference. | @sonispeight

Picture credits: Fiona Barker & Howard Grey

1 comment:

  1. What a fab and exceptional story of what the SCBWI conference can do! Interesting that publishers often tell us they prefer to do the matchmaking and keep the couple apart in case the author's not quite happy etc. But this looks like a real collaboration and I love the work too. Thanks glad I caught up with it, belatedly!


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