Monday, January 31, 2011

Read 1,000 Picture Books: My notes from SCBWI Winter 2011

I’m going to work backwards from the closing keynote speaker – Linda Sue Parks. Her advice to all aspiring authors was to read. Doctors spend 7 years in medical school, writers need to read 1,000 books.

This reminded me of my ceramics professor in college who would give people the “throw 100 bowls” assignment. After 100, your fingers just know how to do it – you don’t have to think about it any more. In the same way, writers (and illustrators) need this vast base of experience – not to draw on consciously, but to shape your concept of what works.

I think I probably have read 1,000 picture books in the last 6 years – but not all with an eye toward design, plot, character development, or style. So I’m going to try to take this challenge and write up a few notes after each new book I read. Who knows how long it will take me to reach that goal!

Sara Zarr gave an inspiring speech about living a sustainable creative life – a life in balance, in which you make time for your creative work, but also time for family, friends, day jobs, reading, and exercise. This is something I struggle with – finding time for everything – or even for just the most important things. She suggested giving up TV and facebook time to read.  I don’t watch TV, but am certainly guilty of wasting time on facebook!

Jules Feiffer, who had just celebrated his 82nd birthday, showed us his spontaneous, loose illustrations and explained that he does no preliminary sketches but will often draw an illustration four or five times until he is satisfied with the drawing and the looseness of the line. He has been working in watercolor markers because he enjoys how out-of-control they are. Another reminder to myself to stop working on an image before it gets overworked.

R.L. Stine had everyone laughing over lunch with his dry, self-depricating humor. He read us letters from readers, such as: “Dear Mr. Stine: I have read 40 of your books and they are so boring.”

The breakout sessions with editors and art directors I found the least useful part of the conference, although I did get a few ideas of where to send my book dummy (once I get done revising it.)

Last of all there was a panel discussion on LGBTQ issues in children’s literature that was really interesting. The panelists all expressed a need for illustrators to show all kind of families in images – not just mom, dad, baby. One book they pointed out was “Everywhere Babies” by Susan Myers, illustrated by Marla Frazee. The book shows babies of all colors in all sorts of situations, including one image of two women with a baby. There’s no big blinking arrow stating “This baby has TWO MOMS!!” but I gather that the book has been controversial to some conservatives for that matter-of-fact inclusion. (The book also shows babies with grandparents, single parents, etc.)

Once again, a reminder that as illustrators we have tremendous power to expand on the text, and we should strive to be as inclusive of the experiences of as many children as we possibly can.


  1. P.S. This post was by Jeanette Bradley. I can't figure out how to get it to show my name! I also wanted to share the advice Madeline L'Engle gave me at age 12, when at a book signing I told her I wanted to write books like hers: "Read and write. Write and read. At least an hour a day."

  2. Jeanette, since you started the blog, you ARE RISD-CE Children's Book Illustration. :)

    Thank you for sharing your notes from the conference!!!


  3. I had a teacher in one of my illustration class who gave us an assignment to illustrate 100 apples. Between 90-100 the apples became small simple shapes, each colored differently. It was a great exercise on creativity, even though my creativity was lost at the end.