EVENTS Picture Book Retreat is 10 (part 1)

SCBWI-BI's Picture Book Retreat has reached its 10th anniversary. Co-organiser Paul Morton and seven other previous organisers share their views and experiences of the decade.

Paul Morton (current co-organiser) 

Picture Book Retreat is in its 10th year, hooray! This ever popular SCBWI retreat is being celebrated by returning to Holland House after two years of pandemic online events. This four-day weekend event holds a special place in many people's hearts and has been the inspiration for many ideas that have gone on to reach publication.

Over the years we’ve hosted a wealth of experienced picture book talent and here’s a reflection on some of those by the people who helped it happen. Thank you to ALL the organisers. In particular to Anne Marie Perks and Bridget Strevens, who first created the idea of the Retreat. They said they had set one main criterion – a place to encourage creative exploration in the inspiring company of other writers and illustrators in a beautiful venue with plenty of space and great food. Holland House fulfilled this and some.

Character generation at a previous Picture Book Retreat

It was reassuring that this year’s retreat sold out within four hours of going live, showing the popularity of our event hasn’t waned. Over the weekend of 8th-11th July we will be listening, learning and experimenting and relaxing with Garry Parsons and Pippa Goodhart. 

Pippa Goodhart also writing as Laura Owen, has been writing childrens books for about 20 years, with over 80 books published, ranging from a board book to novels for adults.

Garry Parsons is an award-winning illustrator of books for children, including the bestselling picture book series The Dinosaur that Pooped by Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter.

A note for your diaries, next year the dates are July 14th to 17th.

Anne-Marie Perks 

In 2013, Bridget Strevens-Marzo and I brought together what we felt were the best elements from retreats we have been involved with in the past; the SCBWI Monterey retreat in California, and the Advanced Illustration Workshop put on by Highlights Foundation in Pennsylvania for me, and Moëlan-sur-Mer French retreat for Bridget. 

Our focus was to provide a place to explore and experiment outside of our comfort zones and publishing deadlines. To push for something new and surprising with the right mix of inspiration from our faculty, a touch from industry with visiting art directors and commissioning editors and space. Space to allow something to happen! We also wanted an added advantage to attending by assigning mentor times to all attendees to show their work and speak with another professional, one to one, for advice and feedback. 

In the first year, we brought in the right mix of visual storytelling and revisioning oneself through sketchbook practice and drawing from life with illustrator authors Helen Stephens and Gerry Turley. Each year, we also planned optional activities to play in, such as linocut printing, life drawing and accordion sketchbook making. 

Illustration play time

For myself, the picture book retreat represented the retreat I wanted to go to every year to recharge and connect. It is amazing to me that the ethos of creativity and play, connection with others equally inspired and dedicated to illustrators and picture book writers is still going. More than ever, I feel there is a need for this type of event after a long period of separation and isolation perhaps made larger by only seeing each other onscreen. 

My memories include lots of wonderful discussions around the table during family style meals, evening chats on the patio, early morning sketching, playing croquet until it was too dark to see the ball, drawing up my annual postcard with goals for that year I planned to achieve and the panoramic photo of us all on the last morning.

Connecting with others

Something that not many people know is we booked Holland House that first year sight unseen. Our search for affordable retreat venues wasnt going well, but then I found Holland House at the right price and it also looked amazing in their website photos. The lovely rooms, separate studio’ building, conference room, dining rooms, several little hideaway rooms, rolling lawn down to the river, herb and vegetable gardens; what wasnt there to love? However, it was not without more than a bit of anxiety that we arrived at our first retreat to set up. Well, you know the rest of the story, it did live up to the photos and more. 

View of the river

Bridget Strevens-Marzo

Aware that most of us childrens book creators dont have much cash to spare, I recall sometime in 2012 discussing retreat venues with Anne-Marie and plumping for the cheapest we could find with no real idea of what to expect from the very limited photos we had of the place.

Imagine our reaction as we came up the drive in Anne-Maries car, crammed with gear for that first picture book retreat to find a gorgeous Tudor mansion, in a picture-book setting, no less, with hollyhocks and huge lawns! I remember saying we had landed at Mrs Tiggy-Winkle's… though I had no sense of what her home looked like. We had simply wanted some time away with like minds, to share obsessions about say, the look of a characters ears, techniques, or story shaping. But we found so much more with Holland House. Every year Ive been there, Ive felt the spirit of the place and how it holds us together, guest speakers, volunteers and attendees alike, in one relaxing and enriching creative embrace.  

Sketching on the lawn

Loretta Schauer

I helped organise the retreat for four years (2014 to 2017) with wonderful key speakers Alexis Deacon, Helen Stephens, Lynne Chapman, David Lucas, Adam Stower and Zoe Tucker. I remember the feeling that once all the admin leading up to the weekend was done, and you were welcomed over the threshold of Holland House by the ever helpful staff, it was like taking a deep breath of fresh air.

Of course, the house and garden were always going to be a stunning setting to enter a world of making and looking at picture books, but I think just being in a different place can inspire creativity and new ways of looking at things. 

Creativity in action!

I volunteered with SCBWI quite a bit at the time, organising events and workshops, but often you'd only got time for a few snatched conversations with speakers and participants, so coming to the retreat was a particular treat as we had the time to chat for longer. The evenings provided a great opportunity to share work and have a good nose through some brilliant portfolios.

Creating a new book

Stand out memories include – croquet on the lawn in the dark, making concertina books, and having a go at lino-printing for the first time. It's amazing to see some of the participants who were unpublished at the time, going on to great success with their picture books too. I hope the retreat helped them, at least in some small way, on their picture book journey.

* Images courtesy of Paul Morton


Paul Morton runs Hot Frog Graphics illustration and design studio and is the author of Bug Belly – Babysitting Trouble. His second book Bug Bully – Froggy Rescue was published in 2021. Find Paul at Hot Frog Graphics website  and on Twitter @paulhotfrog


Tita Berredo is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures magazine.

Find her work at

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