Indiana SCBWI Spring Conference

A few weeks ago I was able to attend a wonderful SCBWI, which had some very enriching sessions for illustrators, leaving me feeling inspired and excited to create new pieces and to apply what I learned to clients’ work!  If you are not involved with your local chapter of SCBWI or other professional organization, I encourage you to do so.  Attending national conferences, while obviously very great opportunities, can be difficult to attend, depending on your financial, traveling and other personal needs/situations.  Local conferences can be a great alternative, and can offer a more intimate experience for the attendees. For example, in addition to participating in the sessions for illustrators, I was also able to volunteer as a reader for a picture book manuscript critique session, which was a fun additional way to connect with the staff and members and be more involved with the weekend experience.  Here are some highlights from my favorite sessions.

Keynote Speaker LeUyen Pham

LeUyen Pham is an award winning illustrator and author who works in many diverse styles.  If you haven’t seen “Big Sister, Little Sister”, you should check it out.  My own daughter loves this book, written an illustrated by Pham.  In addition to talking with us about her history and journey into the publishing world,  she spoke about strategies she has used to stay fresh and relevant in the constantly evolving world of children’s book publishing throughout her career.  Pham style is constantly in a state of evolution, and she likes to very her technique and look, sometimes drastically, from book to book.  She encouraged illustrators to take on projects with which they feel a connection, to create samples that reflect the types of projects they would like to work on that year, and to send those samples to a small targeted group of art directors.  Most of all, Pham spoke about the importance of making personal connections with clients, and allowing clients to see you as a multidimensional person rather than just a work source.  IN noe of her breakout sessions, Pham talked about how she goes about constructing a picture book.  We looks at the development of visual hierarchy to facilitate storytelling in each individual scene, as well as how that hierarchy fits into the overall scope of the book, creating a natural flow between page turns.   She was such an inspiring and engaging speaker, and this particular session on picture book construction was so enriching!

BigSisterLIttleSister BoyLovedMath VampirinaBallerina







Maria Middleton, Associate Art Director

Two of my other favorite sessions were offered by ABRAMS Kids Books associate art director Maria Middleton.  The first few illustrators who signed up for the conference had the opportunity to work with Middleton on a “homework project” in which we had to create character and place them in a situation where they will encounter conflict, great or small.  We got to send her our sketches, which she reviewed ahead of time, and then created final art to be reviewed during a session at the conference.  This was so much fun!  I love seeing everyone’s interpretation of the theme, and the evolution for sketch to final.  Here is my artwork that I created for the assignment.


In a separate session, Maria talked about the makings of great cover design.  She encouraged us to think about the spine, which is often the only part of the book that is visible on bookshelves, and giving attention to typography.  For those illustrators who feel comfortable doing so, she suggested hand-lettering the title text, so that the cover has that added touch of image-text unity and customization.  She also walked us through the many stages of some of the book covers that she art-directed, explaining how the team arrived at the final cover design for each book.  It was intriguing to see the thought process behind each revision, and to see how those changes drove the cover towards a stronger design.

Portfolio Review

Each illustrator was able to contribute their portfolio to the portfolio display, which remained up for most of the conference weekend.  The guest faculty and staff members each marked their favorite piece.  I always find it interesting which pieces the staff identifies as strongest…they are usually not my personal favorites!  It is for this very reason that I think participating in the portfolio review portion of a conference is so important.  We as illustrators can sometimes let our personal feeling about our artwork cloud our judgement when it comes to identifying the strengths and weaknesses of our work.  Having an industry professional critique your portfolio is therefore a valuable experience for those who want to learn to identify and present their best and most marketable work to clients.  I was able to sign up for a personal portfolio review with Maria Middleton.  For those of us who live far away from the publishing hubs of the US, we get very few chances to meet art directors from the big houses face to face.  To have the chance to sit across the table from an art director from a big publisher, get feedback on your work, and ask any question you want about your portfolio is great opportunity, and I suggest that anyone attending a SCBWI or similar conference take advantage of the personal portfolio critique sessions if available.  However, to get the most out of your review, I recommend having some personal goals for what you would like to get out of the review, and having some questions prepared in advance.  This will help the art director understand through what lens to view your work, and to give you feedback accordingly.  For example, an unpublished illustrator just starting out might want to know candidly if his/her work is ready to compete in the publishing world, and if so, what markets the portfolio would likely be most applicable for.  Some illustrators a little further along in their careers might want to know what qualities in their artwork might be barriers for breaking into certain markets.  Of course, all illustrators should be open to suggestions for improvement, because no matter where we are in our careers, there is always room for growth.  And, as LeUyen Pham mentioned, continuous growth and evolution is critical for staying relevant in our field.

Thanks go out to all of the SCBWI staff and guest faculty who made the conference weekend so enriching and educational for us attendees!  I hope that over this year many of us have the opportunity to connect with our industry peers in ways that inspire us and help us to grow.  Thanks for reading!

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Uhles

    great story Jennifer, I’ve heard good things about the conference! I’d be interested to see which of your pieces were picked as the faculty favs… thats actually a great idea to get a small bit of feedback from all the faculty. I may pitch it out to the Midsouth conference.


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