ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Joys of the Picture Book Retreat

The summer Picture Book Retreat is one of the most popular events on the SCBWI Calendar. John Shelley looks at the reasons why. 

Applications for one of SCBWI's most popular summer activities were announced a few days ago, and bookings are already full! The Picture Book Retreat is as popular as ever and, incredibly, has sold out in just two days.

So why is the Picture Book Retreat such a draw for illustrators and picture book writers (pardon the pun)? What makes it such a valuable experience for our members?

The River Avon from Holland House (photo © Jasveen Soor)

For a start there is the environment - beautiful Holland House is a classically built Tudor-style hotel retreat, set within a pastural ambience of gardens in the ancient Worcestershire village of Cropthorne. The river Avon flows past the bottom of orchard gardens, beyond which the Malvern Hills rise in the far distance. This alone is enough to put anyone into a creative frame of mind! And of course, July usually sees it all in glorious weather.

Holland House (photo © Julie Ballard)

This year our guest leaders will be author-illustrators Mini Grey (conference attendees last year will remember her keynote speech) and James Mayhew, well known for his live events with orchestras, and one of the judges of our recent Pictures at Play illustrators exhibition. In addition there will be day-visits from editors in the industry. If previous years are anything to go by, the weekend promises to be packed full of instruction, guidance and creativity.

Mini Grey and James Mayhew

I'll be there as on-site mentor, supporting attendees and helping our dynamic duo of organisers Paul Morton and Nick Cross to make things run smoothly.

The Picture Book Retreat is my favourite event of the SCBWI year, because of the way it allows writers and illustrators to mix freely. The emphasis is firmly on creativity, whether that's inspired by words, pictures, or a combination of both. The atmosphere is so energised right from the start of each day, and the attendees aren't afraid to have fun! It's definitely been a strong factor in my personal development towards becoming an author-illustrator. (Nick)

For me, on top of the instruction, one of the best things about the retreat is the comradeship of the attendees, and the chance to relax convivially with the workshop leaders. It's an opportunity to both examine picture books with other writers and illustrators, and together apply ideas and processes learned in the sessions. I always return from the weekend with batteries recharged, and a stronger focus on my own ideas.

 Preparation Tip

My advice for illustrator attendees is don't turn up empty handed. Take one or two fresh visualised story projects with you to share and discuss. If you haven't worked on your own stories yet, the approach of the retreat is the perfect challenge to hone your ideas into a dummy. The retreat is a few months off yet so there's plenty of time to get working on something now. Regard the retreat as a deadline for a first-draught dummy you can show and later polish for submission. It doesn't have to be submission ready, you'll be showing it to develop, not to be published, so loose sketches are fine. You'll find then, no matter what other new directions and ideas evolve over the weekend, you already have something concrete to show – an achievement before you've even arrived! If you already have dummies, work on a new one!

Getting down to work at the 2019 Picture Book Retreat (photo © Paul Morton)

Observations from the 2019 Picture Book Retreat:

"It was so much fun and so lovely to meet you all. I particularly enjoyed getting back into the fun of experimenting and exploring with creativity – and just chatting with other eccentric, creative people." Caryn

"I had a great weekend and am feeling excited about editing some old projects and starting some new ones. And I got two ideas for new books in the car to the station with Paul and Viv, which I’m really looking forward to playing around with, so extra thanks." Clare

"It was my first writers and illustrators retreat and I felt totally accepted as a newbie. A wonderful group of friendly, funny and amazing writers and illustrators. Thank you for all the constructive advice. It was so helpful as I am only just beginning a new journey in this area of my life."  Siobhan

Applications for this year's Picture Book Retreat are now full, but if you would like to be added to the waiting list, please drop an email to Paul and Nick . 
Header photo © John Shelley 


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently A Purse Full of Tales, a book of Korean Folk stories, for Hesperus Press. He's a three times nominee for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in 2018, 2019 and 2020.


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