Illustrators and Promoters of Children’s Books in China

And Yet, The Books is a five-episode documentary on books and the stories behind books in China co-produced by bilibili, a video website, and Beijing Xiaohe Culture Media Co. Ltd. Each episode is about twenty-five to thirty minutes long with a different theme. The themes include the work of editors and translators in China, the journey of secondhand books and bookstores in the mainland and Taiwan, the world within children’s books, the design of books and book covers, and the reading experience in a fast-changing society. The third episode features three people behind children’s books—Cai Gao, Xiong Liang, and Can Ran—and how they build a bridge between adults and children.

Cai Gao is an expert at capturing nature in her illustrations, and she said in the documentary that nature nurtures her. She is good at ruminating on ideas she gets from her observations and putting them on paper by drawing. She worked as a countryside teacher for six years in the 1960s, and she could draw the field and woods where she did a lot of labor with her eyes closed. Cai Gao won the Golden Apple Prize in the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava in the 1970s. Her work focuses on folk stories and children’s songs, and she believes dialects are the origin and the home of people and languages. The peaceful and joyful life is the main theme in her work since she intends to provide as much joy as possible.

Xiong Liang, one of the best-known illustrators in mainland China, has been exploring a way to combine modern children’s picture books with Indigenous tradition. His works are based on oriental traditions and philosophy with innovative narrative structures and expressions. He began to create children’s books after his daughter was born. In his words, he is “using images to create poems and prose,” and his secret is to show the emotions behind the images and to interact with the little readers. In one of his works, he tried to create a forest world full of adventures where children are encouraged to be curious about every creature along the journey.

Can Ran is a well-known promoter of children’s books. Reading is important in the school she founded for children. She believes a book acts as a boat, sailing to the inner world of a child, and that reading can help children become sensitive to this world and use their own language to describe their feelings. There is a library of more than ten thousand children’s books in her school. One of the activities there is to invite the children’s toys to spend a night in the library. The toys would climb onto the shelves to find books and read together before they go to bed. The next morning, the children would receive letters from their toys recommending a new book especially for each toy owner. Of course, each recommended book is chosen by Can Ran according to each child’s personality so that the book can sail to the inner world of the child.

A Brief Guide to Children’s Book Design

We all likely remember a children’s picture book (or several) that we adored as children. Personally, I had an affinity for Go, Dog. Go!, a Dr. Seuss-esque beginning reader written and illustrated by P.D. Eastman. As one of the earliest introductions a child gets to literature, a picture book’s design and content are important to consider at every stage of production.

According to the article “A Brief History of Children’s Publishing and the Art of Visual Storytelling,” pictorial storytelling has been a foundation in many cultures since the dawn of time, dating back to early cave paintings. However, the original “picture book” only dates back 130 years ago, from artist Randolph Caldecott.

Since then, picture books have evolved to serve different agendas, from educational, such as teaching the alphabet, to more “edgy” topics in recent years, such as tackling what it’s like to be a child of divorce. With every change, however, according to editor and illustrator John Shelley, one thing remains consistent: the design of a children’s book must keep a child interested and entice them to turn the page.

Shelley explains that there are four types of illustrations in children’s books. The first type is a “boxed” illustration, meaning the image is completely contained within straight, abrupt edges. This can be achieved by placing a border around the image or by cropping the image to give the edges a sharp, clean line.

The second type of illustration is called a “vignette,” or an illustration that has fading edges. The borders are more loose, giving the image a sprawling, this-was-drawn-right-on-this-exact-page feel.

The third type is called a “spot” illustration. These are the small, free-floating images sprinkled throughout the pages.

Finally, “bleed” illustrations are images that are situated up to the edge of the page. Some bleed images span the entire two-page spread, and an elaborate bleed image can be effective for a highly-detailed climactic point in the book. These illustrations require an attentive designer who knows not to allow important parts of the illustration to fall in the gutter, the place where the pages are bound at the spine. If there is any action or a central character in the center of these full-spread illustrations, they will get swallowed by the gutter.

Shelley argues that with these four different types of illustrations, designers can play around with pacing and the mood invoked by a picture book. For example, let’s say an illustrator used four spot images to show a character—let’s name him Fred—running to catch the bus. The first image shows Fred grabbing his coat, the next shows him closing the front door, the third shows him running down his driveway, and the final shows Fred stepping on the bus. By strategically placing these images, you can create a sense of urgency that you would not get from a vignette or bleed image showing him stepping on the bus with text saying “Fred raced to the bus.”

Shelley also explains that the way the images are placed in relation to the text is imperative. A picture book’s goal should be to get the young reader to want to flip the page, eager to learn what happens next. So, for example, if the image of Fred rushing to the bus is placed on the left-hand page with the text “Fred raced to the bus, knowing if he missed it, he wouldn’t make it in time to present his project at the science fair,” the reader will find out whether he made it or not by simply looking to the right-hand page. But if you place that image and text on the right-hand page, the reader must turn to the next page to discover if Fred caught the bus in time. Shelley argues that a picture book’s illustrations and text should lead the reader down the page and to the right. The bottom right corner should be the ultimate goal of a page’s design.

Other aspects Shelley mentions to consider for designing a children’s book include identifying patterns to maintain throughout the book and the use of large and small images to create drama or draw focus to specific details. The most important items to remember, however, are the following: First, consider both the images and the text, not just one or the other. Second, remember your audience: both children and the adults who purchase the books and read to them. Third, keep in mind that the ultimate goal of a picture book’s design is to keep the reader moving forward. And finally, don’t be afraid to experiment and break the rules.

Wait, There’s a Difference? Book Designers vs. Illustrators

Here at Ooligan Press, we don’t have a department dedicated just to book design, the way you might at a large publishing house. Instead, we have one design manager, and we invite all members of the press to contribute to our book covers. For instance, when we’re working on a new cover design, we invite everyone to submit designs over the course of four submission rounds, with weekly meetings for feedback from other members of the press. That means that anyone who submits a design is responsible for the following tasks: creating the imagery; choosing the font and layout for the title, subtitle, and author name; and, if their design is chosen, creating the final layout for the spine and back cover design. That’s how many book designers work, but that’s not the case for every cover or every press.

Sometimes an illustrator is brought in to create the cover art, and a designer is then responsible for combining that illustration work with the appropriate typography and text layout for the front and back cover. Okay, you’re thinking, why does it matter that we distinguish between the two?

Before I started PSU’s graduate program in book publishing, I was a graphic design major in undergrad. Actually, the degree written on my diploma was a BFA in studio arts with a concentration in graphic design. That meant that half of the classes I took—such as drawing, composition and color, printmaking, and art history—weren’t actually about graphic design. The core of those classes was about learning how to develop my artistic style to tell the viewer about myself, the artist. I then built on that knowledge by applying it to my graphic design work on posters, logos, and infographics. But I didn’t really understand back then that creating fine art was very different from the art of graphic design, which is about communicating an idea to an audience, usually in order to get them to take action. Simply put, whereas fine art (such as illustration) looks inward by asking the viewer to see the artist behind the art, graphic design looks outward by asking the viewer to see the art and go do something because of it. While these two concepts overlap in places, the purpose of each is very different.

When we think about illustration and graphic design in terms of book design, the difference between the two gets even blurrier. Cover design is inherently commercially oriented and audience driven, and that means book illustrators must keep the same considerations in mind that designers do, especially when the illustrator is also the cover designer. Some designers get defensive if others don’t like a particular artistic choice they made. For years now, I’ve often heard others defend their artwork by saying, “Well, I like it that way.” I think this gets to the core of why the distinction between illustrator and designer, between fine art and graphic design, is so important. When you’re an illustrator, you can make every edgy, interesting artistic choice you want to your heart’s content, because your purpose is to showcase your artistic style. But the minute you are part of a larger design project, such as a book cover, that creativity must be tempered by the purpose of the design; it must be tailored to the audience you want to reach. The book cover isn’t all about showcasing your artistic skill—it’s about selling the book, the story, the author.

How, then, do we balance these two roles? Below are the three pieces of advice I’d give when it comes to being both an illustrator and a graphic designer:

  1. Know what role you prefer. It’s great to be able to both create art and design art—that will make you more hireable in the long run. But know which one you are more comfortable with. Some artists have to have absolute control over the way they create art, because at the end of the day, they’re creating art for themselves first, the viewer second. That’s completely legitimate, but it usually means that working with clients is extremely difficult for them and will likely take the joy out of creating. And if you want to work in book design, you’d probably prefer being approached to create art because of your distinct artistic style, not because a client needs you to create a style for them. In contrast, if you are a designer, you should be flexible enough to take someone else’s vision and make it better through your own artistic skill, without changing the purpose or audience. Your client’s goal should also be your goal.

  2. Know when to break the rules. The general understanding is that in fine art, you can bend the rules in favor of artistic expression as long as you know why you’re doing so. For instance, you might draw a face with giant eyes that aren’t scientifically accurate in order to draw attention to the eyes, for whatever artsy reason. That’s not always the case with design. You could make a poster with tiny text for the title and chalk it up to artistic style. For a poster in an art exhibition, sure, that might be fun because it flips a viewer’s expectations. For a poster on a bulletin board that’s meant to communicate important information, however, such artistic “style” could get in the way of the design. Remember, when you’re a designer, you’re thinking about what a particular audience needs.

  3. Know when to let go of your ego. Sometimes you pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, and the people you’re working with say, “That’s not going to work for us.” Yes, of course it hurts. But if you keep yourself in the mindset that those people just don’t understand, that they made a bad choice, that the new thing you had to make instead is leagues beneath what you originally created, you’ll never be happy as a designer, and you won’t really be able to reapproach the design with fresh eyes. Remember, graphic design is outward facing—and to be blunt, it’s not about you. In fact, I find it a bit of a relief to tell myself that. When a client rejects a design, it’s not about whether or not they like you as a person, or whether they think you’re a good designer (if they hired you, clearly you’re doing something right). So don’t take rejection personally—just think of it as a problem you haven’t quite solved yet.

The Dawn of the Publishing GIF

It’s the dawn of the publishing GIF. If you pay enough attention, you’ll be able to feel it in the air: the buzzing, looping electricity that knows no bounds. It uses ebooks and the internet to infiltrate our homes and our minds, and once there, it stays and lays low, playing over and over and over again until it’s time. And, my friends, it is almost time.

Anyone else feeling this? No? Well, I guess it’s just me, but I’m here to make the case that GIFs are up and coming in the publishing world—and even to go so far as to say that they’ll eventually end up replacing illustrations in digital publications. Everything is coming together to make this possible: the technology for creating enhanced ebooks, the integration of animation in institutions offering illustration degrees, a growing interest in artists’ use of the GIF as an art form, and a growing interest in GIF illustrations among readers—book consumers like them, and when have we ever let down our readership (especially when they’re offering us money)?

Let’s start with enhanced ebooks, or interactive ebooks. These have a wide range of capabilities: they support audio files, video, animated GIFs, highlighting, note-taking, built-in dictionaries, and touchscreen actions that allow tablet users to interact with stories in a way that wasn’t previously possible. They can do all these things, but I’m just talking GIFs in this blog post. GIFs are the lowest common denominator and relatively cheap to develop; if you want a chance at competing with the other ultra-flashy ebooks, an animated GIF is the cheapest and easiest way to do it. If you’re interested in a longer discussion of enhanced ebooks and their capabilities (with a few examples thrown in), UX Magazine has a great article that outlines everything.

So that’s the story from the technical side of things, but what about the artistic side? More and more, schools are incorporating some sort of animation course into their illustration programs. Just read a few of the descriptions in Animation Career Review’s list of the top forty illustration programs in the US, and you’ll be able to see how the lines between static and animated art have blurred. In fact, some illustration programs are specifically incorporating animated GIFs into their curricula.

There are illustrators outside of the publishing world already using GIFs to tell small, simple stories—much like a static illustration, but with the sensibilities and nuance that movement can provide. They publish their work online, but why not collaborate with a publisher and publish it in an ebook? Here’s a short, incomplete list of some of my favorite artists to give you an idea of what I’m talking about: Daniel Barreto, Nancy Liang, harifa, Max Litvinov, and Qieer Wang.

Additionally, there are already some GIF-illustrated ebooks out and about. One of my recent favorites is The Bright Side by Maren Uthaug, an ebook from Denmark that was acquired and published as a printed graphic novel, but whose aesthetic inspired an interesting journey on the part of the publisher. I also discovered one while writing this post, but all I was able to find were the illustrations without the text. They’re for a book called Zły by Leopold Tyrmand, and they’re part of a graduate project by illustrator Karol Banach. Here’s hoping the complete ebook is out there somewhere, or at least soon will be. And of course there’s always Nathan Pyle’s NYC Basic Tips and Etiquette (basically a classic GIF ebook by now).

And finally, why are we doing this? Because readers love it. Whether it’s because of that turn-of-the-century bliss we get when surrounded by flashy, blinky, gaudy stimuli, or because we’re needing more and more sensory input to actually feel something, anything—whatever it is, SnapApp has put my dramatic stream of consciousness into numbers, if you’re into that sort of thing. If not, just know that people like reading interactive ebooks—they really do.

With all of this in mind, all I have to say is, Can you feel the buzzing in the air?

Mapping Literary Landscapes: Designing Diagrams for Ricochet River and At The Waterline

If you’re of the bookish persuasion (and if you’re reading this blog post, the odds are probably good), you may also be of the mappish persuasion: when you pick up a book and discover it contains a map, a little piece of you erupts in excitement over this double-page spread that promises a literary quest is waiting inside.
At Ooligan Press, our collective Pacific Northwest theme recently lent us the opportunity to design two different maps, as well as an illustrated diagram, to be included in two of our upcoming titles: the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Ricochet River by Robin Cody and At the Waterline by Brian K. Friesen, both which take place around rivers in the Northwest.
Maps are most often included in books that follow place-focused exploration and discovery. Sometimes a map will function as a guide to introduce the landscape of made-up places, as in a fantasy novel; other times, maps will be based on real geography, nestling fictional experiences inside known landmarks and locations. Additionally, including a map in a book can serve as a visual invitation to readers to understand and engage with the terrain of the narrative. Regarding Ooligan’s treatment of maps, Pacific Northwest locations set the stage for fictional scenes and pivotal moments, and the choice to include these visuals in the book’s interior design helps to reinforce a robust reader experience.
Ricochet River: These Mountains Look Familiar
For the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Ricochet River, working with the map was a matter of updating the original. We wanted to preserve the key elements of the initial map while also revamping the style to fit with the new edition’s more contemporary design. We kept the general landmarks, mountain ranges, river outlines, and compass, while changing the style slightly and adding in updated textures, labels, and illustrations to arrive here:

Illustration and design by Riley Pittenger and Julia Skillin.
At the Waterline: Knot a Problem
For a novel like At the Waterline—where much of the story takes place in a houseboat community along the Columbia River—a diagram of sailboat terms was designed and included, in addition to a map of Oregon and Washington with key locations emphasized. An illustrative approach to these featured landmarks allows for a more visually interesting representation, while the simplified layout and typography contribute to a more technical design feel to complement the nautical diagram. This consideration was also applied to the diagram of the labeled sailboat with the types of knots referenced in the story.

Illustration and design by Leigh Thomas (me) and Cobi Lawson.

Illustration and design by Riley Pittenger, Cobi Lawson, and Leigh Thomas (me).
With a budget for black-and-white printing, variations in texture can help create a more robust layout with dimension and depth. Hand-drawn illustrations add character, while digitizing the images and adding text and flourishes bring all the pieces together. Both maps, as well as the diagram (which was also incorporated in the design for marketing materials), have undergone stylistic revisions and proofing, and they will go through any remaining necessary adjustments and a final round of proofing before being sent to the printer. Layout and placement specifications help ensure that not too much of the map gets lost in the area close to the spine (also called the “creep” of a book). Thanks to a hardworking team of mapmakers, editors, and designers, At the Waterline and the new Ricochet River will hit shelves in the spring as two of the few Ooligan titles to have a map, inviting readers to follow along.
For additional geeking out over maps and books, check out From Here to There: A Curious Collection from the Hand Drawn Map Association by Kris Harzinski; it’s an entire book of illustrated maps just begging to be revisited.

Comics Events Two Ways: Emerald City Comicon and Linework NW offer different experiences for fans, creators

Within just a few weeks of each other, two comics-related events were held this spring in Seattle and Portland, offering different opportunities for fans and creators alike to celebrate nerd culture and embrace comic art and illustration. As a comics fan and editor, I was excited to have easier access to comics conventions after moving to Portland for the Book Publishing program, including Emerald City Comicon and Linework NW. I attended each event this year with different goals and expectations, but I was still surprised by how shows that cater to a common medium varied so greatly in audience and mood.

ECCC, held March 27–29 in Seattle, has quickly grown into one of the largest comics conventions in the country, attracting more than 50,000 guests annually to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center for panels, gaming, a show floor featuring comics creators, and celebrity guests. Linework, held April 18–19 in Portland, is a young event—this was just its second year—and hosted about 2,500 guests over the weekend in a packed Norse Hall ballroom of illustrators, cartoonists, and independent publishers.

As a publishing student and comics editor, my approach for these events probably differed from many attendees’. I went into ECCC with professional goals and plans to meet certain editors and creators, as well as to encourage promising creators in Artist Alley to consider submitting to Ooligan Press in the future. I applied for and received a weekend Pro Pass based on my editorial work rather than buying a three-day pass, which would have cost $85. While I was successful in meeting the people I wanted to and handed out some Ooligan cards to writers and illustrators, the nature of the convention made it a difficult place to focus on professional work.


The Emerald City Comicon show floor.

The sheer size of the show floor—which spanned two giant rooms—and the fact that I needed a map to find the people I was looking for added an extra level of stress to the day. Shuffling slowly among the crowds, I saw thousands of cosplayers and more than a few robots perusing the floor, and just about all of them seemed to be more in their element than I was. At the end of the day, I felt successful but exhausted, and when I returned home to Portland, it took me a few days to recover and feel ready to “make comics” again. I think part of this stems from my introverted nature, but also from the format of ECCC, which is primarily a show that allows fans to celebrate their hobbies and meet their idols.

Just three weeks later, back in Portland, I felt refreshed and prepared to take on another event, but this one had a very different feel. Linework is billed as an “illustration and comics festival,” where the focus is not so much on the fan culture surrounding comics but on highlighting the work of independent comics publishers, creators, and illustrators. I also decided to take a different approach to this event, focusing on enjoying and supporting the exhibitors instead of trying to conduct any business of my own. The fact that none of my current collaborators were at Linework certainly also contributed to that decision.

The experiential difference between Linework and ECCC was clear before I even walked through the door. I had arrived at ECCC two hours early to find close parking, get my pass, and wait in line for the show floor. I arrived at Linework forty-five minutes early and ended up being one of the first people through the door, which meant that aside from free admission, I also received a swag bag full of goodies donated by local comics shops, publishers, and vendors.


A Linework NW exhibitor chats with an attendee.

The Norse Hall is a small but beautiful venue, and where huge vinyl banners promoting publishers had hung over the ECCC show floor, Linework proceeded beneath an array of Scandinavian flags. I didn’t see any cosplayers this time, but the room was still crowded, and I again shuffled through slowly. Instead of handing out cards and making professional connections, I tried to have short conversations with exhibitors—learning about what they do instead of talking about my own projects. I even came home with a huge stack of new reading materials, including zines, handmade mini-comics, and even a concertina. Partly because of the size of the event and partly because I had homework, I only stayed at Linework for a couple of hours, but when I made it home, I felt energized and excited by the work I’d seen, and I carried that feeling into my editing.

I don’t think either one of these events was better than the other, but they do offer comics fans and creators uniquely different experiences. For me, those experiences were heavily informed by my goals in comparison to those of the other attendees. I plan to attend both events again next year, but now I have a better idea of what to expect from each, professionally and personally.

Networking Resources for Illustrators

In the world of publishing professionals, the graphic designer and the illustrator are finding that their skill set is being outsourced more and more often. Publishing houses are finding that they have access to a larger pool of potential talent than ever before through their online sources, and with the growing popularity of art-share sites like DeviantArt and even Tumblr, we are finding that the time of the artist’s bullpen is over. It has been replaced by video conferences with visual artists that live sometimes hundreds of miles away.

Although this shift in workflow has been jarring for the industry, it can be seen as both a positive and a negative change. Now that a large number of working graphic designers and illustrators are considered freelance, they have many opportunities to pursue different kinds of projects, make their own hours, and devote more time to personal projects and publishing endeavors. Conversely, it has also led to a lack of regular work and networking opportunities for those artists that do not have a strong network already in place. Luckily, there are avenues that graphic artists can employ to find others in their field and make contacts that can lead to new clients.

Online communities are some of the easiest to get into, and they provide a great place to showcase your work. Sites like DeviantArt, Artrift, and CG Society act not only as online galleries, but also offer robust social options for those that are looking for critique, or for collaboration with other creatives on new projects. Whereas art directors used to rely on portfolios and samples sent in by prospective designers and illustrators, many are now turning to these online communities to find new talents. Making sure to put your best work up is important, but artists should also remember to keep a few key pieces to themselves to include in the portfolios they send to clients.

Although online communities are a great way to dip your toe into networking and sharing your work with other graphic art professionals, creatives should never forsake gathering. One of the main drawbacks of working on your own is the feeling of isolation. Being in your own headspace for too long can have negative effects on your creativity as well as your social interaction skills, which are vital to communicating not only with clients but also with others in the art community. This isolation can be remedied by joining one of many artists groups in your community, as well as those online. Even though the communities online can be lively and engaging, we should never forsake the simple pleasure of sitting down with our peers and sharing our thoughts.

But where do you look for these groups? In Portland there are at least ten different art networking groups on the website Meetups alone. These groups are devoted to giving art professionals a place to meet, share stories and tips, and talk about current work. They are great places to meet future collaborators and get the inside track on possible freelance work. In addition to these informal groups, there are also the official trade groups like SCBWI, or Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. For a yearly membership fee you are able to take part in monthly meetings, go to annual workshops, and rub shoulders with other industry professionals. However you choose to do it, networking is essential to developing as a freelance graphic artist. These social groups give you the opportunity to share your work and ideas while learning from the experiences of your peers.

Webcomics and Their Effect on the World of Graphic Storytelling

Like a lot of comic fans, my relationship with the medium started at a young age. I would pick up my stack of books at the corner store, generally along with a large bag of Atomic Fireballs, and pay at the counter. Comics have never been very expensive, unless of course you travel in the vintage circles, but in recent years there has been a change. With the growing popularity of web comics—long-form graphic storytelling via the web—we have come to a point where fans of the medium are getting their fix for free. Web comics rarely charge a fee, generally keep a full archive of previously posted stories, and provide active forums for fans to talk about the work. Some ask for a small donation to keep the pages coming, but even that model is changing. So, the questions is: Have webcomics changed reader expectations of graphic storytelling?

As I previously mentioned, I have been buying comics for longer than I care to admit. The price point for a regular book has changed since my first purchase, going from $1.50 to the current price of $3.95. I’m also a big fan of trade paperbacks, which collect full story arcs into one complete book. These books generally range from $15.95 to $19.95. Most independent comics publishers try to stick close to these prices as well, hoping to show their content as being worthy of the same cost as big publishers like Marvel and DC.

What does this mean for webcomics presented for free? Strangely enough, the effect seems to not have a great deal of bearing. Since webcomics are able to avoid overhead costs like printing and distribution, they have the freedom to focus on execution of craft. Although they do not make any money at the onset (except for those that show ads on their web pages) these books are able to grow pretty large, and returning, fanbases. Some webcomics have a strong enough following to warrant a print version of the comic, which usually appears as a self-published trade paperback.

Some larger publishers are reaching out to webcomic creators to partner for ongoing series. This has been the case for a treasured few. Strong Female Protagonistwhich found fame through author Brennan Lee Mulligan’s website, is a good example. Due to a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the book, a print format is now produced by Top Shelf Productions. This kind of thing is still rare, since most webcomics have a small community of followers, but it’s not unheard of.

Arguably the best thing that has come out of the growing popularity of webcomics is the variety of voices that readers can access now. In years past, as in most of publishing, the big publishers stood as gatekeepers and the arbiters of quality in sequential art. Additionally, distributors like Diamond maintained an iron hold over what books ended up in comic shops. The web has opened the gates for storytellers, and it has brought about a wave of new points of view from minority storytellers, women creators, and the LGBTQ community. Some of these stories would never have found their way to mainstream readers without the free and growing world of webcomics, but should we be concerned about the “free” part? Without incentive to create (outside of just recognition), some artists and writers are unable to continue creating their work. In a country where commerce is king, is there a way that online content can still benefit the creators? Many are working towards that end, but for the time being we have lots of great new comics to explore before their creators really start looking for their paychecks.

OR SCBWI: Art Directors, Agents, and Editors, Oh My!

Like many (if not all) of my peers at Ooligan Press, I want to be a published author. The program provides us with a comprehensive understanding of the publishing industry, but most of us who want to write professionally need to supplement our Ooligan education with critique groups, professional development training, and conferences. My interest lies in picture books, so I’ve been a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) for the past few years. The Oregon chapter is very active and hosts a number of free events throughout the year that are open to the public. The largest annual event is the Spring Conference (and is, unfortunately, not free). This is my second year attending the conference, and though it’s a bit costly to go, the information presented and the networking opportunities are invaluable.

What can you expect from attending a regional SCBWI conference? Above all else, this event contains the nicest and most supportive group of people you will ever meet. The majority of attendees are female, and you’ll find an above-average amount of teachers and librarians in the group.

Not pictured: men

Not pictured: men

An impressive roster of panelists is flown in from all over the country, and the weekend is filled with workshops, one-on-one critiques, and informal conversations while waiting in line for the restroom. This year, the writing panels cover everything from composing a query letter to creating diverse characters to capturing voice in your writing. Illustrators have sessions on promoting their work, finding a niche in the industry, and examining the art of book jackets.

Artist John Rocco discussing the original Percy Jackson book cover

Artist John Rocco discussing the original Percy Jackson book cover

The second day of the conference is primarily for intensives, which are sessions that often require the attendee to submit something ahead of time in order for it to be critiqued. These “show and tell” panels give authors and illustrators the opportunity to get feedback on their work from a group of agents, editors, and art directors. This exposure is really what makes the annual conference an invaluable experience, because after the conference, attendees are able to submit their work to the agents and editors for consideration.

Attendees perusing portfolios

Attendees perusing portfolios

The conference-going experience is exhausting, exhilarating, and energizing. At the end of it all I am inspired and determined to produce better work for next year. The following are some personal highlights from this year’s event:

Day One:

  • Seeing The Ninth Day by Ruth Tenzer Feldman (an Ooligan Press title) on the slideshow of new books by SCBWI-OR members (author Elizabeth Rusch, with whom I intern, was on the presentation as well)
  • Learning that publishers often have different boilerplate contracts for authors with agents and authors without (and the latter are often slightly exploitive)
  • Viewing the exquisite illustrations and beautiful, wordless story in The Boy and the Airplane by Mark Pett in art director John Rocco talk about the process of creating the Percy Jackson and the Olympians book covers (and half-jokingly complain that he is credited in the books in “the smallest possible font [the publishers] can get away with”)
  • Meeting talented local writer-illustrators like Anne Awh

Anne Awh posing with her art

Anne Awh posing with her art

Day Two:

  • Listening to local SCBWI members, including Barbara Herkert and Amber Keyser, talk about their path to publication
  • Receiving an insightful manuscript review from the stylish and eloquent Martha Brockenbrough
  • Getting advice on what mediums and styles to explore in my artwork from Lucy Ruth Cummins and John Rocco
  • Looking through the papercut portfolio of Liz Goss

Liz Goss and her lovely portfolio

Liz Goss and her lovely portfolio

To close, here are wise words from artist John Rocco: “The page turn is very important…it’s the difference between picture books and a bunch of pictures.” Now please excuse me, it’s time to start preparing for 2015.