Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Illustrator Info…The Road to Landing an Agent: K-Fai Steele

KFai Author Photo(1)


Illustrator and author K-Fai Steele won the Mentorship award at the 2015 Summer Conference. Shortly after attending the 2016 Summer Conference, she signed up with agent Erica Rand Silverman of Stimola Literary Studio. Sarah Baker, SCBWI Director of Illustration, asked K-Fai and Erica a few questions about the journey to signing with an agent, and what comes next!



What led up to the 2015 conference, where you won the mentorship award? Had you come to any SCBWI conferences and events before? Had you been a member long? Were you already set on wanting to create children’s books?


It took me about five years before I joined SCBWI and went to a conference. In retrospect, those five years where I dragged my feet were very much a time of creative incubation. I credit the Free Library of Philadelphia for much of my preliminary picture book education. I was introduced to William Steig, Tomi Ungerer, and Virginia Lee Burton through building archival enclosures for the dummies for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble and Crictor, and for hundreds of Virginia Lee Burton’s sketches for Life Story. SCBWI is an amazing professional development network, and you learn a ton about the publishing world. I’m sure I could have tried to be more efficient about getting the ball rolling for myself professionally a few years ago, but had I done that, I wouldn’t have been as prepared as I was for joining the SCBWI community and attending conferences.


In the year after receiving the mentorship award, what kind of changes and progression did you make with your work? How did you decide what you wanted to bring to the 2016 summer Conference? Did you have any specific goals for the conference?


The SCBWI national conference can be a firehose of information. After the conference it took me a long time to process my notes and the feedback I received (a lot on book layout design and narrative aspects of drawings) and I moved my focus to book dummies. I had so much momentum and investment going from the 2015 conference that I went to the 2016 NY conference, then the 2016 LA conference, but it wasn’t until my second LA conference that I felt like I could do some planning beyond my portfolio, dummy, and postcards. I looked up agents and other faculty members that I was interested in, with an eye towards their breakout sessions. These conferences aren’t one-and-done knowledge acquisition; I learned so much over different conferences about, for example, what agents do and why you might want to have one. I also started to feel much more comfortable with and trust the community as I started to make friends and see familiar faces.


You met your agent, Erica Rand Silverman, at the summer conference. How did you meet? Was she someone you were interested in for representation before you met her? Is there anything you’d like to share about the process of signing with an agent?


I was definitely interested in her as an agent and wanted to meet her at the LA conference. I found that Twitter was a useful way to see agent interests and get a sense of their personalities. It resonated with me that Erica engages regularly in conversations about equality and access, and the Black Lives Matter movement. I see books as cultural artifacts that engage with the world, and it is important to me to connect with people through SCBWI who have questions about the way things are in the world, and how books fit into that conversation. I loved Erica’s session; she was so clear and smart and treated the attendees with respect. I awkwardly said hello and told her that I liked her twitter feed. Luckily she recognized my postcard and reached out to me after the conference to have a phone conversation. We exchanged a lot of emails and phone calls before I got the amazing opportunity to be represented by her, and a few more conversations before I accepted.


Getting a representation offer is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying because it feels like one of the biggest decisions of your career, and that’s because it is. You have to make a decision that’s the happy result of your gut instinct with some evidence and knowledge. I solicited a lot of folks for advice. When you query agents you encounter so many closed doors, so when you get a first opportunity it’s hard to not say yes immediately without thinking about it. I’d recommend to anyone to not rush into it, and have several conversations and think honestly about what your needs are, and how that agent will be able to support you as you grow.


Now that you’ve signed with an agent, do you have any new goals and what are some new challenges?


One thing I talked to Erica about was the different challenges, phases, and themes that arise over an author-illustrator’s career. I have a vague sense of what some of those challenges might be, but Erica knows the roadmap; she can identify common beginner mistakes, what generally happens in year one, what happens after your first book, etc. My goal, as well as my challenge, is to establish a longterm vision as best I can, and to pace and plan projects on the micro level. I’m also working full-time, so managing my time, my life, and space for inspiration in a sustainable way is critical so I can do my best work.


What is your best piece of advice for SCBWI illustrator members who want to find an agent?


Much as in finding a significant other, there isn’t one way finding an agent happens/a way that it’s supposed to happen, but being in the same space where multiple agents will see your work is a helpful place to start. Go to conferences. They don’t have to be the national conferences, but those tend to have the largest faculties. Pace yourself when you’re there. They’re professional development opportunities, which means that they’re best when you participate in the community and you’re not just in it to land an agent then leave. Be patient with others and be kind to yourself.


K-Fai Steele lives in San Francisco. See more of her work at



EricaErica Rand Silverman was kind enough to answer a few questions about signing K-Fai and what she looks for in an illustrator as a client.


How did you know you wanted to represent K-Fai? (Was it based on her portfolio alone, did it involve talking together, and if so what kind of things did you discuss?)



Erica Rand Silverman:
First, I fell in love with K-Fai’s illustrations. We see a lot of art at the conference and her characters stuck with me. I could see immediately that her style was distinct and different from my other clients and her dummies showed promise. Then we met and I was impressed by K-Fai herself.  She is a go-getter and had clearly invested her time and energy into not only creating art but learning about the industry and history of children’s books. She has an interesting perspective coming from both the tech and education fields, and is already an engaged and active advocate for young people’s literacy. All of that coupled with a handful of some really interesting conversations and I knew I wanted to be a part of getting K-Fai’s work out into the world.
What is your best advice for SCBWI illustrator members who are looking for representation?



In the beginning, think less about signing with an agent and more about meeting and learning from people in the industry—editors, art directors, established illustrators, aspiring illustrators, up and comers, booksellers, librarians, educators, agents. Be creating new pieces often so that you can continue to grow even while you’re looking for representation. Don’t only ask whether a particular agent will want to work with you. Consider whether you and a particular agent are a good match to work together. Be patient, refill your creative bank often, love the work you are doing and remember that timing is also a factor in all this. So, don’t give up. Last but not least, read Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz. 


On the Shelves…Rediscovered Books

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Shop Small. The 'shop local' slogan carries a big message, and like local charm, Rediscovered Books has been helping Boise, Idaho, shop small since 2006. Co-owner Laura DeLaney tells us what's on the shelves. 

What sets Rediscovered Books apart from other bookstores?

Rediscovered Books is set apart because of the strong connections we have with many parts of our community that range from outdoor enthusiasts to literary fiction readers to graphic novel aficionados.  We work to create a place filled with fascinating books and ideas, a place where the staff has extensive knowledge and the skill and passion to share it with others, and where readers of all types can find and buy books that they love.  This is the goal of all independent bookstores, but what makes us unique is that we are connected to a particular place that we love, Boise, Idaho.  


What has been a successful author visit and why do you believe it was more successful than others? 

In my opinion, all successful author events create a strong connection between a writer and their reader regardless of their size.  This can happen in many ways from the small event where everyone has time to ask questions to an in-store podcast interview that is shared online to a large book signing with a well-known author.  All of these types of events have one thing in common, that many parties are reaching out to generate excitement for the event.  It takes all hands–the bookseller, the author, the publicist, and the readers–to create excitement and notoriety for an event to have a strong buzz and attendance.


What in your opinion makes a bestselling book?

 A bestselling book is a book that fulfills a need for readers in our culture.  That need can be for escape or understanding or any place in between, but books that find their audience in that moment in time are the books that land on our bestseller lists.  This is why part of our job as booksellers is to know more about books than just the bestsellers.  Great books are often just waiting for the right reader to discover them.


How is Rediscovered Books involved in the community? 

Our tag line is "where books and people meet" and that is representative of how our bookstore works.  We are usually out in the community multiple times each week supporting author events, school and public library events and community events. In the last month, we hosted a field trip for reluctant readers from a local high school, Indie Author Day at the public library, a poetry reading for the BSU English Department, Tasty Tales story time at our local donut shop, Guru Donuts and a readers theatre group for new and experimental plays, and we supported a Boise Public Library event with Dav Pilkey for 700 people at the Egyptian Theatre, to name just a few.  

This is a lot of flash and glamor, but our best way of connecting with our community is the daily interactions with people, helping them to find the next great book, listening to our customers' joys and challenges and being a welcoming place for every member of our community.


Personal Book recommendation? 

Here is one of my favorite books that has gone into the Indie's Next Publication:

Rebel Genius
Michael Dante DiMartino (Roaring Brook Press)


SCBWI Exclusive with…Matt Ringler

Matt Ringler is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm. 


What elements does a manuscript need to get your attention and make you want to acquire it?

I want a manuscript to make me feel everything. If it’s funny, I want to laugh so loudly that people stare at me. If it’s heartbreaking, I want to have tears coming down my cheeks. I want to be turning pages tensely while my knuckles turn white. I want to miss my subway stop. I want to come home and not turn on the television because I need to know how the book ends. And I want the face of at least one other person who I know would love this experience to pop into my head without having to think about it all.


How do you know something is right for a series?

Most of the series that I’ve worked on have come in as multiple books from the get-go. But once in a while, you get to take a standalone and make it into a series. If a story does its job properly then you care about the characters even after the story ends. Because you should want to know what happens next (or in the case of prequels, what happened before). Giving readers more of a world they already love—that’s how you know you something is right for a series.


What is the acquisitions process at Scholastic?

The Acquisitions process is one of the most exciting parts of this job. A manuscript comes in and you love it—and you really do need to love it because you’re about to dedicate a large portion of your time and energy on doing this. The manuscript is shared with the acquisitions team, which is made up of other departments like sales, marketing, publicity, manufacturing, the publishers, and other editors. And hopefully, everyone agrees that they want to move ahead. You don’t always get every manuscript you want, there is sometimes disappointment. But when you do, it makes it all worthwhile.


Between the time you acquire a book or series and the pub date, what is your role with your authors?

Hopefully, if an author is choosing you as their editor then they have some level of trust for you already there. But it is important for that relationship to continue to grow. In my opinion, that’s the most important part of the editorial process. Trusting each other, and being able to have open and honest conversations about what is and isn’t working. The process of editing the manuscript and putting together a publishing plan all falls into place once that relationship is solidified. There are a lot of moving pieces that have to come together before anything is printed. Cover and interior design. The marketing and publicity plans. Sales materials. Putting a book out into the world is an exciting experience. It can also be nerve wracking and intimidating—sometimes all at once. So making sure my authors feels comfortable and have the tools that they need to succeed are a major part of it. Also, phone calls. Lots and lots of phone calls.