Author-illustrator, children’s book artists’ den mother
What publishing genre relies on art and pictures more than any other?
Children’s book publishing, of course. But for a long time the professional organization of children’s book writers and illustrators did not have an illustrators’ spirit guide.
And so SCBW became SCBWI.
Then in 1998 the society introduced the country’s first children’s illustrators’ den mother. She was Priscilla Burris — illustrator, designer, picture book author and the former Regional Advisor of her own local SCBWI chapter.
She’s talented, professional, vibrant and she speaks quickly. Over the past 25 years she’s illustrated educational, mass market and trade books and other materials for children, parents and teachers. She’s also created art for products such as greeting cards, rubber stamps and apparel designs.
In her role as the SCBWI National Illustrator Coordinator, Priscilla organizes and oversees the portfolio exhibits and events for both the International Winter and Summer Conferences held in New York and Los Angeles.
Along with speaking and presenting workshops around the U.S.A. she also addresses illustration related issues, questions and inquiries received by the SCBWI international office throughout the year.
Working hand in hand with the SCBWI Board of Advisors Illustrator Committee, which consists of top industry professionals, Priscilla helps in planning the Illustrator Intensives, Socials and other illustrator-related activities.
She spreads encouragement, advice and just plain good vibrations to her fellow SCBWI illustrator members wherever she meets them at conferences, workshops and activities — not to mention the online forums and list-serves.
It all started with art school…
It was as a college student at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) where she began to discover her calling, and it wasn’t going to be as a “fashion illustrator.”
“At one point, I was firmly reprimanded for putting facial expressions on my drawings and models,” she says. “I was really scolded because expressions were not at all appropriate for that industry, so the instructor was absolutely right.
“It was a good lesson in that it taught me what I didn’t want to do with my life,” she says. “And actually, characters in children’s books do often wear clothing so nothing we learn is ever a waste!”
Initially, Priscilla thought fashion illustration was the only career path available to a young woman who loved sketching, drawing and doodling. However, after obtaining her degree in Fashion Design, she went on to teach preschool, while at the same time earning a degree in Early Childhood Education.
A children’s book class project turned on the light
It was the final project for one of these courses that clinched it. She was to write and illustrate a children’s book and read it to her classmates. Several thoughts ran through her mind when her final project was presented and warmly received, but the most delightful was, Could this be an actual job for an artist — creating illustrations for children’s books?
She’d first encountered the power and love of children’s picture books in the public library built right across her little neighborhood street in East Los Angeles where she grew up and spent countless hours. (Fast Forward note: Priscilla has had the privilege of being invited back to her childhood library as an author/illustrator for presentations to groups of neighborhood schoolchildren. She treasures the opportunity to encourage the students to write and draw, as well as sharing with them the delights of working in the children’s book field.)
Her first illustration assignment came as a result of a drawing of a little girl happily sketching, printed on her business cards, which had been posted in a local graphic design shop. It caught the attention of an educational publishing editor who saw it and put her to work.
How to get involved with the children’s picture book – creating world
Shortly after joining her local SCBWI regional chapter in the early 1990s, she approached her Regional Advisor asking, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” (A great way to begin one’s networking and making friends, too, she says.)
Eventually, she became her own chapter’s Regional Advisor, and after serving for a few years she and a couple of other Regional Advisors who were also illustrators brainstormed and created a proposal for an Illustrator Coordinator for the SCBWI. This was warmly and enthusiastically accepted and welcomed, and Priscilla happily stepped into her new role (always mindful and grateful to Tomie for his initial push and passion for the “I” in SCBWI!)
“As a result of this fresh beginning of representation and focus of our illustrator membership nationally and internationally, we began to see the appointing of local regional Illustrator Coordinators, or Liasons, as being very insightful and helpful illustrator member-links to their Regional Advisors,” Priscilla says.
“Currently, with an international membership of more than 22,000 members, this has been a growing dynamic in new, innovative and incredibly helpful events specifically created and designed for illustrators in the children’s book field.”
Of the total number of members around the world, 16,865 identify themselves as writers and 4,748 identify themselves as illustrators.
Networking takes place on a global community listserve that Priscilla moderates, along with Bridget Strevens-Marzo, who serves as the SCBWI International Illustrator Coordinator.
What’s in it for ‘moi?’
So, who better to ask than Priscilla Burris this question.
What does membership in SCBWI offer an illustrator or aspiring illustrator?
“It offers a professional community where you can grow — and it offers a hand to help if you’re willing to take it, and apply what you’ve learned.” she says.
“Although there are many different organizations and associations for artists and illustrators, specifically for children’s books, the SCBWI is the place to be.
“Here there are widely known and highly esteemed authors and illustrators, editors, art directors, and agents with wisdom to share. The SCBWI offers a vast array of opportunities where an illustrator can grow and learn and be challenged in his or her career,” Priscilla says.
“From the events, workshops, and critique groups taking place on a local level, to the international conferences held every year, so much can be gleaned that can move you further in your professional life as a children’s book illustrator.
“These are venues where you can meet and make contacts with like-minded creatives and hear the latest information on the industry from the speakers and presenters. A lot of information and networking takes place just from meeting and chatting with other event attendees!
“There are articles and columns in the SCBWI Bulletin devoted to illustration, which are very useful as well as informative.”
Since one function of Priscilla’s role as SCBWI National Illustrator Coordinator is teacher-mentor-spirit guide, let’s not let her get away without asking her for a few nuggets of her professional advice.
So what parting counsel does she have for illustrators (beyond urging us to join SCBWI and find a regional chapter to participate in?)
Here are some of her quotes:
“It’s great to come up with an intriguing or endearing character for a story, but in the picture book genre, the challenge is to create the setting, story-telling and page-turning that is so vital.”
“I’ve found that as an illustrator, it behooves you to listen in and learn from presentations and talks that seem specifically designed just for the writers of children’s books. You’ll be amazed at how much you will glean. I cannot state this strongly enough.”
“Obtaining work in this industry is definitely the right timing, but it’s also being continually ready and always having something newly fresh and ready to send out.”
“Don’t dwell on the glamour of it all. Rather, focus on the craft of illustrating a story as well as the continual networking with others of the same professional mindset.”
“Besides your social media and online portfolios, periodically mail out your images to prospective clients, as well as those you have heard speak that have proven helpful or inspiring.”
“Put together some of your illustrations with stories, along with your other portfolio samples, so the potential client viewing it will have a story to look at.”
“Be careful what you ask for. In other words, don’t show in your portfolio or promos what you wouldn’t want to labor over for a 32 page picture book and all that entails.”
“Know the characters you are illustrating inside and out — their traits and personalities.
“When I am developing a character, I like to get to know a character visually, by creating five or six versions and then set them aside where they can be seen as I walk by. This is what I did for my book Five Green and Speckled Frogs.
“I drew several variations of my frogs. I was afraid they were getting a little too goofy. I wanted them funny but not goofy. They ended up in the final book pretty close to how they were in the first version, but more further developed in the process.
“Learning your market and target audience is so important. From realistic styles, to edgy or cartoony, you should know the places that need and publish your style of art. One of the ways to learn this is by attending SCBWI conferences, networking and talking with other illustrators and writers.”
“It’s always competitive. But publishers are continually looking for fresh new ideas and characters and stories. There’s always room – and a need – for great illustration!”
“Enjoy what you are working on, what you are creating. Ultimately, you need to be proud of your own creative works.”
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From Priscilla’s International SCBWI profile page:
Her works include Five Green and Speckled Frogs (Scholastic), which she wrote and illustrated, I Love You All Day Long, and Daddy All Day Long (HarperCollins), written by Francesca Rusackas.
Since January 1998, Priscilla has held the position of National Illustrator Coordinator for the SCBWI. This position allows her to plan for, work with, present, and speak to illustrators and author-illustrators.”
She’s represented by artists’ agent Christina Tugeau.
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In the next post we’ll be asked to put our collective creative heads together. In this blog’s first ever reader poll, we’ll be helping talented New York illustrator Lisa Falkenstern and her editor to choose a title for Lisa’s new picture book. So please stay tuned — and be ready to brainstorm.
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Mark Mitchell hosts the “How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator” blog and he offers an online course on children’s book illustration that you can learn about here..
He’s the Illustrator Coordinator for the Austin, Texas Chapter of SCBWI.
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