Dave Szalay – Author/Illustrator
I think the SCBWI conferences have made a world of difference in my life. Seriously. I’m still relatively new to this field of children’s books. I’ve had dozens of mini-successes at every conference. They range from meeting and making new friends to learning new tips or tricks that advances my work. I always gain new perspective and am able to fill a gap that has been a previous challenge. Growth is inevitable. For me, I essentially reinvented my entire career and migrated into a new profession.
Let’s look at a four-year span.
I attended my first Ohio North conference in 2014, where I won the calendar contest and had a second piece voted in plus did a great illustrator’s intensive with Laurent Linn. I began to gain some confidence.
I attended my second in Ohio North in 2015 where I brought my portfolio and had a one-on-one with Lorraine Joyner. Received great feedback (I was selected again to be in the calendar.) I won the Ohio North Website Banner design contest with Patrick Greenish from Highlights as judge. (Patrick contacted me later for assignments).
In 2016, I couldn’t attend because I had obligations at my day job (professor at the University of Akron) that conflicted. Since I missed Ohio North, I decided to attend the Winter Conference in NYC. I entered my work in the Portfolio Showcase and nearly 200 cards and postcards were taken. I was sitting with Mike DeSantis and I started receiving texts and emails asking if I had an agent yet and if I would like to talk? Three agents contacted me. I really couldn’t even believe it was happening. They were three very different types of agencies.
I told them all I’d like a little time and then have a chat by phone with each. So I went home and researched each agency of to see who their artists were and what kind of work they did. Christy Tugeau Ewers made a great first impression. She has an incredible personality and just makes me smile. Even her text to me at the conference was full of enthusiasm and encouragement. A couple days later, I called Christy and agreed to happily sign with The CAT Agency.
During the next six months I received about 10 projects, mostly in the education and text book segments, but also a great short story for Spider/Cricket Media. This was, and still remains invaluable experience and really helped me establish the pace and rhythm of my process from concept to finish. Christy has shown a couple of my in-progress dummies to several publishing houses in New York, and I’ve received encouragement and suggestions along the way. Those are still active. I’m concentrating on improving my writing.
Christy also told me that many of the art directors and editors recognized my work throughout the year from the Portfolio Showcase. Many had taken my cards so I was on their radar. I’m constantly getting good feedback and guidance now. I also have a continual gauge on how my work is being received. As I walked through the Portfolio Showcase in New York, I realized how much talent there is and how fierce the competition is. I was in awe of the brilliant work I was seeing.
I attended the 2018 Winter Conference in NYC and I entered the Portfolio Showcase again and brought twice as many cards and postcards. This was an incredibly productive and active conference for me. I was more confident, I was more outgoing, and it seemed I was constantly on the move, meeting, visiting, sharing with more new and old friends. I was in my usual sponge mode, taking in tips and inspiration from countless illustrators and writers throughout the weekend. The final day arrived and it was time for closing activities and announcements. I was feeling exhausted and was sitting with my friend and fellow CAT agency artist, Holly Hatam. I was half-listening to the names and glancing up as the people on stage were speaking, they were announcing the Portfolio Showcase winners, and I was writing some things down in my sketch pad for later. Holly nudged me with her elbow and said, “Oh my God, that’s you!” “Go up there, they called your name.” I said, “What, that can’t be, are you sure?”
I didn’t hear my name and I didn’t even realize what it was for. I stood up and immediately felt the blood rush to my face and a little dizzy. I was prepared for someone else to stand up and walk up to stage so I sort of slowed down in case I needed to change directions and act as if I were walking out to use the restroom. But I headed toward the stage. Of course we were sitting all the way near the back so it was a LONG walk. I arrived on stage and Lin Oliver handed me a certificate and said, “congratulations”. There were a few others up there on stage. I was one of the three Honors Award Winners. The prize was a review and discussion by phone with AD Nicole de las Heras of Random House.
Since then I’ve connected with many great authors, illustrators, editors, and art directors. I currently have two book contracts for picture book illustration. One with Charlesbridge in Boston for The Superlative A. Lincoln by Eileen Meyer, and the second The True Story of Zippy Chippy (The little horse that couldn’t) with North South in NY (Nord Sud, Zurich). Both are coming out in Fall 2019.
So, that’s where I am today. I feel I’ve gone from zero to 100 in a new career direction. The best advice I received 5 years ago was to join SCBWI and attend the conferences!