Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Member Interview: Rivkah LaFille

Congratulations to Rivkah LaFille, illustrator and winner of our Volunteer of the Year Award, presented at the Austin Chapter annual conference. For this month’s Member Interview, we asked Rivkah to share her perspectives on SCBWI Austin and her volunteerism. Thank you, Rivkah!

Please tell us about your volunteer work and what it generally entails, including your role in the conference this year.

Most of my volunteer work throughout the year is offering to help, then seeing where our Illustrator Coordinator puts me! But the volunteer work I love most is interacting with our Illustrator members. I run our monthly Illustrator Critique, help out with our Weekly Sketch Nights, and every year I help with coordinating the Portfolio Showcase for our Annual Conference. I’ve been doing that five years now, and it’s a special place for me. We have an incredible group of Illustrators in our chapter, and the Showcase is where all the hard work everybody has put into their art really comes together! I adore being a part of that.

This year, moving the showcase to a digital platform was a special task. Christopher decided what platform (Google Albums) to use, and I got to take it for a test drive to make sure it was accessible and easy to use. Then, I put together the step-by-step instructions plus screenshots, so our members wouldn’t have to figure everything out from scratch. One of my favorite parts of the Portfolio Showcase is the ability for people to leave comments on others’ art. I look forward to that every year, and having that feature in our digital showcase was a HUGE plus!!!

What initially interested you about volunteering for SCBWI, and what has the experience brought to you?

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I love helping to build and nurture a community. My passion is kidlit, and we are an essential resource! Kids of all ages need great writing, great art, and works that speak to them on an individual level. We are in the business of nurturing both minds and hearts. Nurturing a part of my community that serves the youth who need what we create, makes me giddy with joy!

Also, this may sound cheesy, but in our chapter I’ve found a family. I’ve tried to be part of many creative groups throughout my life, but this is the first group I’ve ever been in where I’ve truly felt like I belonged. I think it’s because of the nature of what we do: writing for children. But also, it’s a part of the culture that our individual members have nourished: a culture that is warm, welcoming, and encouraging. We cheer each other on and lift each other up and help each other grow. I love being a part of that, and other than my work, it’s what I love best!

We have a wide range of volunteers, from those just starting out to published authors/illustrators and everything in between. Where in the journey are you?

Far and not far enough! I was originally a graphic novelist, with an LGBTQ YA series published by Tokyopop (that was nominated to the ALA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list!). But that was a long time ago. For all but a few, graphic novels really took a dive from 2008-2015, so I decided to work on my art and writing outside of graphic novels: picture books, midgrade and YA, but mostly I focused on picture books and my illustrator craft. Now, I’m working on a graphic novel again with First Second and gearing up to pitch some original series to an agent I’ve had my eye on for a while now. 🙂

However, I have yet to have a picture book published! We have so many illustrators and writers who are successful, who have had work published, but it’s never a given that just because you’re successful in one genre that you’ll succeed in another (or that just because you’ve sold a few books that you’ll sell more!). Every bit of this industry takes years of hard work and dedication. I love how we can all be at different points in our careers, and yet the struggle, the emotional struggle, and the desire to become better creatives and tell a good story (verbally or visually) is the same for all of us.

What surprises you most about this creative life?

That I can do it while raising a family! I was convinced for years that having a family would slow me down, so I made a lot of sacrifices in order to NOT get tied down. My creative work was everything!

But after losing my mentor and best friend in 2015, it forced me to reassess my priorities. Now, I have a supportive partner and a beautiful son, and it hasn’t slowed me down ONE IOTA. In fact, it lit a fire in me, and incredibly, taught me, above all else, EFFICIENCY. Free time now is at a premium. So, instead of agonizing over what to do, I just DO IT and get it DONE. I just don’t have time to debate with my inner voice anymore! She shuts up and lets me get on with it.

Also, having a family to support taught me bravery and to never be afraid to ask for more. Life would be difficult for us if I didn’t. When I negotiated my contract with First Second, that was constantly in mind, and I asked for what I knew I needed. I’m a lot braver when I have more than just myself to support! It’s been a crazy valuable lesson.

What is your educational or artistic background?

I am a self-taught artist and writer. I’m lucky in that I can read a book and grasp its concepts without needing outside instruction, and college is…well…expensive!!! It’s certainly cheaper to buy books and read them, to take online classes, and to join critique groups, than to go into thirty years worth of debt, that’s for sure!

But the two things that have advanced me most as an artist (and writer) are active, thoughtful analysis as well as an ability to look at my work without bias. I’m an active Buddhist (as well as Baha’i), and weirdly, it’s really helped me with my creative work. I think one of the hardest things as a creative is the ability to look at your own work critically, without the shadows of your own experience! I think we all struggle with that. Learning how to step back and look at our work, almost like a stranger, has helped me to improve my work in leaps and bounds, but also to hang on to what is also working.

Do you have any favorite craft books, courses or resources?

TONS!!!! Kidlit graphic novels are REALLY taking off right now, so one of my favorites is a podcast sponsored by The Beat and Publisher’s Weekly called Graphic Novel TK. I think even if you aren’t an artist or into graphic novels, it is a CRAZY AWESOME resource. Every episode walks through a step in the publishing process, from idea through publishing to after your book is out. The hosts interview professionals within the industry itself, and all are wonderfully thorough, to the point of delicious “nitpickiness.” I love the whole publishing process, so it’s a dream podcast. LOL!

As for books, I read everything. And I do mean everything. Being a rabid consumer of your craft is essential! We learn best by observing those we love!

Quick-Fire Questions:

Who is one of your favorite current picture book illustrators?

In picture books, I’m super loving Ben Mantle right now. His palettes are warm, welcoming, moody, and beautiful. His characters are friendly, unique, and interesting!

In kidlit graphic novels, I am SUPER digging Ryan Andrews (“This Was Our Pact”). His art has really influenced my approach lately, especially my inking, coloring, and lettering. He also has a very unique graphic voice in a field that needs originality. The Marvel/DC look as well as the manga look have been prevalent for so long, that fresh styles and voices are deeply appreciated. I think it’s important to put our own spin on things instead of doing the same all over again!

What’s one of your favorite childhood books?

GWINNA by Barbara Helen Berger. It’s an illustrated tale about a girl born with a pair of wings, but doesn’t know it because her mother has bound them to her back, leaving her hunchback. It’s such a beautiful, heart-wrenching tale, and the art is simply STUNNING. I can definitely say, too, that the idea of having wings and being able to fly is such a deeply satisfying fantasy. Who wouldn’t want beautiful wings and the ability to use them??? Well, I know I would. 🙂

Would you rather live in a tree house or on a houseboat?

How about a tree boat! I love sailing, but I am terrified of swimming in the deep blue of the ocean. And stupidly, I have a phobia of fish!!!

I’m far happier in the woods, amongst the trees, watching the deer and their fawns every year! Preferably, next to a mountain I can climb in the summer and ski in the winter. So a pirate tree house, please!

Who is or was one of your heroes?

Getting to listen and talk to Dan Santat at our conference a year ago was AH.MA.ZING. He is DEFINITELY one of my number one heroes! It’s not just that his visual storytelling is amazing, it’s also his ability to cross genres (picture books and kidlit comics) and his productivity.

But I love most that he’s willing to wear his heart on his sleeve in front of a room full of people. That takes real courage, because it makes you vulnerable. The stories he tells are the same way, and it’s the kind of writer/artist I aim to be. Sincere and heartfelt. And productive! Isn’t that the dream? 🙂