SCBWI Success Story - Katrina McKelvey


It has been twelve months since I booked and planned to attend the highly successful Narrate Illustrate Meditate SCBWI Author and Illustrator Retreat held mid October, 2017 near Wilton, NSW. And I am now able to officially announce I have a contract thanks to that opportunity!

So how did this publishing offer come about thanks to this retreat?

The retreat was designed so authors and illustrators could come together, develop a piece of work, and learn from and listen to industry experts and each other.

This sounded like a great plan, so I booked it. I don’t apply for most writing retreats - you know, the ones where you get free accommodation and meals for a week while you write uninterrupted with a mentor on tap. My kids are still quite young, and honesty, I don’t want to leave them that long anyway. This retreat was nice and short so I could sneak away for a few days, fairly guilt free, and ponder a few writerly things.

After I’d passed through Sydney from Newcastle as school came out (huge mistake!), I got a little lost. Maybe this was due to having the navigation on in the car as well as the phone. Who does that? Two voices were coming through my bluetooth saying different things! As I was sitting in peak hour traffic trying to work out which one to believe, I realised I had no idea who would be attending. But my manuscript was packed and I was ready to resuscitate it - once I got there.

After arriving, I calmed down quickly as I said hello to lots of familiar faces. I knew half of the attendees in the end. And I had the best roomie - Deb Abela!


Then I was like a sponge, gathering hints and tips from anyone who shared them. Zoe Walton (Penguin Random House), Nancy Conescu (Walker Books Australia), author Tania McCartney, and illustrator Bruce Whatley gave out plenty of golden nuggets over the weekend. Bruce was a highlight, showing us inside his newly released book, Ruben. What a clever man!

I also had a manuscript critique with Zoe. She was so lovely and encouraging! Our half hour chat in the gardens was another highlight.

While this learning was happening, the main focus of the retreat was to develop a writing/illustration project in a supportive and professional environment. Peer critique sessions were regularly planned throughout the 3-day retreat to keep everyone on track. I had multiple copies of my manuscript ready to go.

On day 1 we were put into our critique group for the weekend. I didn’t know any of my group but meeting them was highlight number three. Thanks Nicole, Reena, Victoria, Lynne, and Meiling! At the conclusion of the retreat, most of us decided to stay as a group and become an offical SCBWI online critique group. We are still working hard and critiquing each other 12 months on.

During the first critique session we read our manuscripts. I knew my manuscript had a concept that was attractive - four publishers had confirmed that - but I couldn’t get the story right. Maybe these five sets of fresh eyes was what my manuscript needed. I devoured all their suggestions and then I let them rumble around in my head for the rest of the retreat.

I remember having an ‘a-ha’ moment on the last day during the last critique session. My manuscript took it’s first new breath. I was now ready to do a major rewrite once I returned to my familiar studio. I’m not good at writing when it’s scheduled into a program.

I didn’t want to sabotage my submission to a publisher by rushing my rewrite out the door, so I paid Sue Whiting to assess it. She did a wonderful job of pulling it apart and asking me lots of questions about what was driving my main character and what was the core of the story. She gave me all the scaffolding I needed to dive into yet another rewrite.


Once I was absolutely convinced it was as good as I could make it, I sent it to EK Books in February. I had sent an earlier version of this story to them three years earlier. Yes, three years! After another five months of waiting and sorting out a few behind-the-scene matters, I signed the contract. So here’s the offical announcement:

Isla’s Family Tree will be illustrated by Prue Pittock ( and published by EK Books ( in 2020. This will be my fifth published picture book, my third with EK Books, and my first with Prue.

Yay! There’s always hope - especially if you grab every opportunity that passes your way with both hands. My first file for this manuscript is dated 28.02.14. I signed my contract 13.08.18. Four and a half years later my story has found a home. We won’t see it until May, 2020, but the six year wait will be worth it. There’ll be a huge party, so save the date!

Thanks to the SCBWI Aus East/NZ committee for giving it’s members such wonderful opportunities to grow and succeed. I look forward to seeing lots of members at the SCBWI Conference in Sydney next year.

Katrina McKelvey