The Austin SCBWI 2012 regional conference was a first for me—I’ve been to loads of conferences, but never in the capacity of a volunteer. My illustration critique group, the Girllustrators, sponsored the portfolio showcase. In addition to helping plan, prep and set up the portfolio room, we accepted portfolios and monitored the room throughout the conference. We also prepared goody bags for visiting faculty, shadowed Art Director Extraordinaire Patti Ann Harris, timed portfolio critiques and shuttled editors to their hotel. I had to miss some of the wonderful conference presentations, but it was worth it for the chance to get to know the faculty a little better. All in all, volunteering was quite fun and I was glad to have had the chance to participate.

Girllustrator volunteers: me, Emma Virjan and Lalena Fisher

There are already some great blog posts about the conference by Cynthia Leitich Smith, Nikki Loftin, Austin SCBWI, Salima Alikhan, ARA Carmen Oliver, and the Writing Barn. I’d like to focus on the less-covered illustrator’s perspective (although you can read C.S. Jennings’ report Illustrator Advice here).

Patti Ann Harris, senior art director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, was absolutely wonderful. Patti Ann studied to be an illustrator (She’s illustrated books written by the fabulous Diane Muldrow, who also spoke at the conference.) and began her career in children’s books as a designer of novelty books (board books, cloth books, pop-ups, touch-and-feel, etc.) at Cartwheel, an imprint of Scholastic. I love that she has experienced book making from all angles! She moved to Little, Brown to head up the novelty division and also took over picture books. Her passion for novelty books informs her design of picture books, too, and has led to such innovative titles as Look! A Book! by Bob Staake, with its surprising and fun die cut design.  Patti Ann and her staff at Little, Brown work with their illustrators to develop ideas for new books, which is great to hear. She’s also dedicated to hiring illustrators at all levels of their careers and helping them find their path. I was lucky enough to have lunch across from Patti Ann and she described her role as a sort of coach to the illustrators she works with. She is a down-to-earth, hard working, smart, and super nice lady and I am honored to have had the chance to spend time with her.

Patti Ann Harris and Diane Muldrow discuss the art director-editor relationship.

Some of the amazing books that Little, Brown has published recently are: Peter Brown’s Children Make Terrible Pets, Shark vs. Train by Austin’s own Chris Barton, the Caldecott winning The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney and Caldecott Honor Book Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell.

Patti Ann spoke of the importance of keeping a sketchbook and researching picture books to see what’s selling in today’s market. She feels that drawing skills, the character and gesture in your style, and conceptual thinking, the meaning and message in each picture, are paramount to one’s illustrations. Patti Ann is looking for picture books with layers to them; ones that cover more than one topic, tie in with a holiday, or combine two beloved subjects.

On a personal note, I had a portfolio critique with Patti Ann and she was very supportive. I’m trying to reinvent myself as an illustrator right now, since the last several years have been spent collaborating with my husband on non-fiction books (with a tight, realistic style) and I don’t want to return to my previous work (a very time consuming, painstaking oils on scratchboard technique). I’m trying to find a fresh new style that I enjoy and is also marketable for picture books. Patti Ann thinks I’m on the right track and encouraged me to keep experimenting. She suggests working with 4 or 5 projects at once so that I can take a break from each. She felt the strong points of my portfolio were the expressive lines, the mixed media, and patterns that have been added digitally. It was really helpful to hear. Thanks, Coach! (She also gave props to the Girllustrators for being a support system for one another in this often isolated profession. Gooooooo Girllustrators!)

Illustrators at the volunteer thank you party: Girll Amy Farrier, Jeff Crosby, Girll Marsha Riti, me, C.S. Jennings, Diandra Mae, and Girll Lalena Fisher.

Added to my personal library at this conference: The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies by Ammi-Joan Paquette, The Crossing by Donna Jo Napoli, We Planted a Tree by Diane Muldrow, and Rosie Sprout’s Time to Shine illustrated by Girllustrator Patrice Barton (Patrice has a brand new website! Check it out here).

And lastly, the art raffle was a huge success. Here’s me with author Kari Ann Holt after she won my print!