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  • Naomi Blayney

A Journey of Discovery - the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat

My goodness how time flies. It has been a while since I wrote a blog but I have been incredibly busy. I've had a lovely holiday with my children and I went to Wimbledon with my Mum (we got to see Djokovic and Norrie play on Centre Court!). Holidays are often a great time to stop and reflect - as much as you can with small children. I like it when I get the chance to think about what the year has brought me and what is yet to come and how I can make the most of the opportunities that lie before me. One of the highlights of the summer this year that I've been reflecting on was the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat.

The retreat was held in July at Holland House, the most beautiful building in a delightful village in Worcestershire. It was my first retreat and I must admit it was a fantastic experience. I came away feeling drained as it was a gruelling few days but also energised and full of ideas. This year the retreat was organised by Paul Morton, Clare Welsh and Natascha Biebow and they certainly did a great job.

The first session was from illustrator Garry Parsons about creating atmosphere in picture books and the strength of emotive illustration. He took us through several examples of picture books that create atmosphere really well like Emma Chichester Clark's Melrose and Croc and, what turned into the weekend favourite The Hairy Toe by Daniel Postgate. This session gave me some helpful practical tips like the use of colour to convey a mood as well as the use of varying angles and even wordless pages.

I was so happy that author Pippa Goodhart was presenting. My two girls have a number of her books and until this weekend I hadn't realised she wrote the later Winnie the Witch books which we love in our house. She ran two very interesting sessions. The first was about using flaps in picture books which had my mind racing with all the ways I could build these in to my books. The second was about performing through the book. She expertly led us through the use of page turns in building tension or in delivering a joke and the ways a book can interact with the reader. She showed us how colour can be used to present different viewpoints and how the illustrations can do some of the heavy lifting in telling the story. I think this might have been my favourite session. I was so very impressed with Pippa's knowledge and insight I came away immediately thinking about how I could implement the things I had learned in my own stories.

There were presentations from Perry Emerson from Little Tiger Press and Malena Stojic from Happy Yak. Both gave an insightful roundup of their corner of the picture book industry, highlighting key trends and their top tips for submitting work.

Although I'm an artist, having to draw on the spot generally freaks me out so the sessions where we had to draw things and stick things made me nervous but they were a lot of fun. I know many picture book author illustrators do school visits so I guess I'll have to get used to being a bit more spontaneous! I have a few booked myself towards Christmas to run some ideas past real children as part of the research for my MA.

One of the most nerve wracking aspects of the weekend was the 1-1 session where I presented a dummy book for feedback. This picture is me with my dummy book - The Revenge of Red Riding - you guessed it, a modern take on Little Red Riding Hood. I took away a helpful list of practical steps to improve my work.

Besides the main sessions, the food was excellent and the company even better. Just sitting down at a table with fellow creatives is inspiring. It's almost like we absorb each others' creativity by osmosis. There was even an impromptu critique group one evening which was massively helpful in running our work past an audience of fresh ears. Gary Fabbri was kind enough to lead a few yoga sessions. Well, I only did one and it beat me. Hats off to those who joined in on the subsequent days, you are more dedicated than I am. As a tired parent with children who don't sleep, I instead chose to have a lie in and enjoy the peace and relaxation. There was a steady flow of coffee and cake all day which helped to keep us going.

If you've ever considered such an event and then decided against it, I urge you to reconsider. It was an assault on my senses and my tired brain but in the best possible way. I came home, wrote up my notes and immediately wrote a new story using some of the tips I had learned. I'm also chuffed that I made a special writing friend and we have been swapping stories to critique ever since. I feel as though I discovered more about myself as a writer and illustrator over the weekend and it helped me to fine tune the direction I want to take my career in. If you also went to the retreat, pop a comment below with your favourite part.

Please complete my survey on Gender Representation in Picture Books...

Last but not least, I'm still plodding on with my MA in illustration. As you know my academic focus is on gender representation in picture books. I recently did a survey for parents to gather their views on the subject. Now I've released a second survey for industry professionals. If you are connected to the picture book industry in any way (authors, illustrators, publishers, agents and more) I'd be most grateful if you could complete this survey:

Thank you for reading, see you next time.

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