Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Portfolio Tips from SCBWI Mentorship Winners

For all the members who are signed up to participate in our Los Angeles Summer Conference Portfolio Showcase, as well as all the members who are working on their portfolios in general, we asked some past recipients of the Mentorship award ( for their best tips for assembling/developing/improving/critiquing/editing your own portfolio. Read on for super helpful tips and advice!
Brooke Boynton Hughes
During a critique with an art director several years ago the art director basically said, "Your work is nice, but that's about it."  After digesting her words I realized that most of the images in my portfolio weren't created from a place of excitement or love, but rather were created based on what I thought other people would like.  


Up to that point I'd been nervous to include the images that I secretly loved, which were sort of dark and a little scary, because I didn't think anyone else would like them, and also because those images felt personal and a little vulnerable. However, once I started including more personal images in my portfolio, the images that were based on my childhood feelings and memories and the images that I was really excited to create, people started responding more positively, and excitedly, to my portfolio. 


While it's important to include a variety of images in your portfolio (double spreads, vignettes, varying points of view, consistent characters, etc.) and to show a mastery of your medium, I think the most important thing is to include images that are unique to you and that express your individual voice as an illustrator.
Debbie Ridpath Ohi
When putting together your portfolio, make sure you include a sequence of images that show that you can tell a story through illustration, plus show that you can maintain consistency in how you draw a character or characters. Most illustrators can come up with great-looking standalone images; the challenge is to show editors, art directors and agents that you would be able to illustrate a picture book. I made this mistake in my first portfolio and it’s one of the most frequent beginner mistakes I’ve seen when critiquing portfolios. Remember that it’s not just about the art; it’s also showing that you understand visual narrative and pacing. Go to your local indie bookstore or bookstore and read lots of good picture books!
Here are some excellent articles from SCBWI Portfolio Showcase winners:

Jen Betton

When creating a series of images from the same story for your portfolio, it is good to make sure that each one of those images in the series is different from the others – not just in terms of scale, viewpoint, and composition, but also in what aspect of the story it is telling. For example, one piece might highlight the relationship between two characters, one piece might show some action, and one piece might show an environment. Sometimes I’ve ended up with pieces that are essentially duplicates of each other—showing the characters at very similar moments in the story—and that takes up valuable real estate in your book!


Portfolio-related posts on my blog:


Maple Lam
Every picture tells a story, but some tell more intriguing stories than others. I like to look through a picture book, pick 2-3 spreads that stands out, and analyze why they make my hair stand, or make me smile, or make me want to eat up the entire thing (visual hunger). Such analysis helps me when I develop my own portfolio pieces.
K-Fai Steelekfai-1
Look at your portfolio and ask yourself if you are including images that tell a story, or suggests that something exciting/big is about to happen in the story. When assembling my portfolio from 2015 LA, I was conflicted between which one of these toad images to add in, when a friend suggested that the image with the car contained much more drama—more story—than the two looking at their reflection. kfai-2



Meridth Gimbel
Portfolio Do’s and Don’ts:
Do choose artwork that reflects the genre: 
When choosing the art to go into your portfolio, make sure that your illustrations are appropriate for a children’s book audience. A kidlit portfolio geared towards picture books should have illustrations of children, babies, and animals. A middle grade portfolio should have some cover illustrations and black and white illustrations. Fine art sketches, or illustrations geared toward a more mature adult audience, or including original art in your portfolio will make you look like an amateur. 
Do illustrate the same character in a sequence of different illustrations:
This shows that you can illustrate the same character over and over and over and over again (which is necessary for a 32 page book or a middle grade book).
Do vary your artwork:
Your illustrations should vary in the setting, the composition, and have show different emotions. Have your illustrations tell a story. Make the Art Director wonder what happens next.
Do place your best illustrations as the first and the last page in a portfolio:
The first page of a portfolio should be your best piece. It should aptly sum up who you are as an illustrator and what Art Directors can expect from your art. The last page of a portfolio should be the second strongest piece. This illustration that should leave a good lasting impression.
Do have supporting pieces in between your strong pieces:
Think of your portfolio as a fence. Start off with a strong piece (like the post of a fence), and then have a supporting piece (like the railing). Make sure there are strong pieces that are placed between the supporting pieces to hold up your work.
Do pay attention to spec sizes for SCBWI:
Most portfolio showcases have a size restriction. If you don’t pay attention to the spec sizes of your portfolio you may not be able to present your work.
Do get high quality prints of your originals.
Do include a dummy if you have it.
Don't have more than 12 pieces:
In your portfolio you should have 10-12 pieces. Only pick your best pieces. The art directors look at your worst piece and acknowledge that you may produce work like that. If you aren’t sure if you should put the illustration in your portfolio . . . Leave it out.
Don't put work in your portfolio if you are don't want to work in that style.





On the Shelves…Elliott Bay Books


ea5235ec-5e55-4682-8b27-8a44549d35f1  Amazon recently released its annual list of "most well-read cities in the U.S." with Seattle claiming the top spot. Holly Myers, Children's Book Buyer at Elliott Bay Books, in Seattle, Washington, gives insight as to the why the city is a literary haven.





What's trending at Elliott Bay Books right now? 

I have noticed more and more established, grown-up authors are being published and writing for children and young adults. I find this to be a bit of a double-edged sword. I have often said that some of the best writing ever published is in the YA department, so it pleases me that these books are reaching a larger audience. At the same time, however, it worries me that publishers aren't looking for new talent. It is hard enough to get your first book published just competing against other first time authors, but imagine how much harder it becomes to compete against authors already established in another genre.


What makes Elliott Bay Books a hot spot for author and illustrator visits?  

We have been fortunate to have dedicated space here in the bookstore for author visits in our new location (we moved from Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill in 2010), and we are working to cultivate relationships with local schools in the hopes of being able to schedule larger events. Authors, illustrators, and schools are welcome to contact me directly. It's probably best to contact us through email: or That said, it may take a day or two to reply!   We are so lucky here in the Puget Sound area to have authors and illustrators who will do all types of event for any size of audience!


What grabs your attention when selecting books for the store?
We use publisher reps and rely heavily on them. They have all the inside information that is important, and they know our store and what works for us. I'm also pretty sure they have a Holly Cry Test ("If it makes Holly cry it's a good one!"). Personally, with picture books, the art has to be striking but it is equally important the text match the beauty of the book. I still have a pretty good relationship with my inner child, so I have an easier time ordering intermediate or middle grade fiction. These books offer all of the magic and innocence of childhood. Young adult books are much harder for me (which is why I so appreciate our reps) because I get impatient with the teen angst!


What is your favorite part of being a bookseller?
I love everything about books: the feel, the smell, and what they hold inside! But my favorite thing about being a bookseller has always been the people. I like people who like books. Book people are my people.


Personal book recommendation?
How could I ever choose? It's usually what I just finished last, but I am a dedicated fan(atic) of Ray Bradbury and Kate DiCamillo. I think either of them could write a grocery list and it would make me sigh with satisfaction and gratitude.


SCBWI Exclusive with…Kate McKean, Agent, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency


KateMcKean-127-Edit  Kate McKean joined the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency in 2006. She earned her Master’s degree in Fiction Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi and began her publishing career at the University Press of Florida. She is proud to work with New York Times best-selling authors in a wide variety of genres including Mallory Ortberg’s Texts From Jane Eyre, Madeleine Roux’s YA horror series Asylum, and Brittany Gibbons’ memoir Fat Girl Walking


 What path led you to becoming an agent?

 I started, like many, as an English major. My genius sister suggested I get an internship at the university press at my school, and I did and that lead to a full time job as an editorial assistant after graduation. After working there a year, I went to graduate school for my MA in Fiction Writing and after having just about all I could take of being a student, I packed my things and drove to New York to become a literary agent. I knew it would suit my outgoing personality. That was almost thirteen years ago. 


When you are reading a submission, what are the key elements it has to have to make you want to sign a client?

I first want to forget I'm reading a submission. I want to feel like I'm reading a full-blown book. That usually means I'm immersed in a world so much I forget what's going on around me. I want a submission to call to me, even when I have to do other things. It's hard, or near impossible, for an author to plan on that, but it boils down to writing an unforgettable book.


Off the page, I look for clients who are hardworking, realistic, who will roll with the punches, and who understand that publishing is a team effort. 


Once you take on an author, what are your next steps for submission?

Every book is different. If I feel it needs a lot of editorial work, I'll discuss that with the author upfront and we'll devise a plan. I often don't know if I'll be line editing something or just writing an editorial letter until I'm knee deep in the book, but we figure out what the book needs and move toward that. Sometimes there can be more than one round of edits, but as my client list grows, I take on fewer and fewer projects that need that much work from the get-go.


When the project is ship shape, I create a submission list and discuss it with my client and I take their input and discuss any questions they might have. Then I write a pitch letter and start making calls and sending emails. Hopefully, it's not too long a wait until we have good news!


What’s on your manuscript wish list?

I'd like some fun YA romance and more contemporary YA of all stripes. I'd also like serious, literary middle grade that will break my heart into a million pieces. I am also desperate for nonfiction of all kinds for YA and MG audiences! Send me your nonfiction! 


Three tips when querying an agent:

DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Submission guidelines are there to help you.


In your query letter, tell me what happens in your book!


Avoid all self-deprecating, cutesy, goofy, or sarcastic remarks about querying or publishing in your queries.


You can query Kate for the month of June

Follow her on Twitter @kate_mckean