Monday, October 5, 2015

Interview with new SCBWI mentee, K-Fai Steele

K-Fai Steele was the recipient of the SCBWI Mentorship Award at the 2015 Summer Conference. Kidlit Artists would like to officially welcome K-Fai to the blog, and ask her a few questions about the Mentorship experience and about what she is up to these days.

Did the feedback you received during the mentorship critiques either change or confirm the 
direction of your illustration?  Are there any specific examples you can share?

The feedback I got during the SCBWI mentorship critique kind of totally reframed the way I think about my work, on both the long-term planning, as well as day-to-day technical aspects. I don’t have a formal illustration background; I’m for the most part informally and self-taught with most of my creative education starting after college when I worked for the artist/musician/actor John Lurie, at MoMA as an art handler, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as essentially an art janitor, and as a faculty member at the Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study. For me, drawing was always one of the outputs of/compliments to a creative lifestyle. It was never a viable career goal. But I kept encountering the same problem: when I’d receive commissions, I would freeze because it was “real” (money was involved). My work would tighten up and you could see it in my line quality, which would lose all the spontaneity and joy. At the SCBWI LA mentorship critique I got the advice let my initial, instinctive drawing as my “finished” drawings. It was nothing that I didn’t know, but it gave me validation: these 5 brilliant people telling me that it was okay to be myself - in fact, they loved it when I was my most me in my drawings.

What kind of projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a lot of projects. In a previous job where I worked on several grants at once, I got the advice to find the common thread that tied them all together, essentially turning all projects into one giant body of work. So right now I’m working on a book dummy for the Creator’s Club about a young seal and her friend (a pig), a couple of reluctant learners who develop a friendship and a cool wearable electronics project together. I’ve done a lot of “maker” STEM education in the past, and seen a lot of kids who suffer from lack of self-esteem and lack of support, and this book was a response to that inner voice that tells you that something like math or computing isn’t “for you” because you don’t already know it.

I’ve been churning out ideas for books. At SCBWI I learned more about picture book structure, and over the past year I’ve taken a couple of writing classes. Those have helped more than I anticipated. I have a big backlog of story and character ideas that were just waiting around for me to figure out how to put them into 32 pages. Now that I’ve learned the structure, it’s sort of like I’m exploding all the time.

I’m also playing with electronics as a way to make drawings and stories a bit more interactive. Electronics plus writing and drawing a different way of feeding my brain and engaging a similar problem-solving mechanism. The results can be magical. I’m trying to develop some cool things before I try to figure out how to make it scalable into picture books.

Is there any type of illustration (or other work) that you’re hoping for in the near future?

The dream fun project: I’d love to do food or medicine packaging. I remember at some point over the winter getting the flu, standing in the aisle at Walgreens and wishing that the packaging indicated more about the specific ailments I had.

I’d also love to put the book dummy I’ve been working on out in the world. After working years in library education programs as an artist teaching STEM workshops, I noticed a dearth of books about making and the creative process when you don’t think that you’re a “math” or a “science” person.

Is there one really helpful piece of advice that you’ve gotten since pursuing illustration?  Any one piece of bad advice?

I get a lot of practical advice from kidlit friends, but I think specific advice is only useful when it responds to your own needs and goals. And besides, most of the inspiring advice I hear or read doesn’t really come out of illustration or kidlit stuff; it will come out of poetry, essays, or articles. I read this amazing profile in the New Yorker on the swimmer Diana Nyad, and a quote from her has stuck with me over the past couple of years, “[in your life] there’s a real speeding up of the clock and a choking on, Who have you become? Because this one-way street is hurtling toward the end now, and you better be the person you admire.”

What was one of your favorite quotes or lessons from the SCBWI Summer Conference?  

Pat Cummings told me to have a story in mind for each of the drawings that you make. My drawings are so character and narrative-driven, it's not that much of an extra leap, and is sort of a luxury to dream up after you’ve drawn it. I loved Dan Santat’s session on telling a story through pictures. He gave advice to develop the story through images first, then “sprinkle” the words on top (if you were with me now I’d be repeating his gesture). I had a ton of words in my picture book dummy that didn’t need to be in there, so this was a really helpful exercise in developing the second version of my dummy.

What were some of your favorite books when you were a kid?

My family read together a lot when I was a kid. I still read out loud with my dad when I see him, the last time was in Maine in July when we rowed out to the ocean, tied up to a buoy and read parts of My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgard. The books that fueled my imagination, the ones I read over and over as a kid, were the Fox series by James Marshall, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, anything by Roald Dahl. I had a very loved copy of Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel. The Tinder-Box by Hans Christian Andersen really sticks out for me too, I just couldn’t get over the description of a dog’s eyes as big as wagon wheels, probably because my parents had an antique shop when I was growing up, and I knew exactly how large wagon wheels were. I read a lot of comics as a kid, and devoured Garfield, the Far Side, and those books by B. Kliban. When I read these, and watched sitcoms like Seinfeld and Cheers, I don’t think I understood the humor entirely. I read and watched them very seriously. I think comics and funny TV shows were a way for me to make sense of the adult world and adult communication.

Some other later-in-life inspiration: I got to hang out with Tomi Ungerer and Lynda Barry a few times through fortunate circumstances. I drew a lot with Lynda, she’s an amazing, brilliant inspiration. She is the exemplar of the artist I strive to be: someone who is a creative well, so everything she puts out in the world comes from a deep, curious, observant place.

Where can we find you online?

Visit my website to see my portfolio. If you want to see what’s going on in my head and in front of me, instagram @areyouokfai and twitter @kfaisteele

Thanks K-Fai!


  1. Wow. CONGRATULATIONS! What an honor to be chosen. Your illustrations are so immediate and spontaneous, I love them and I'm sure young readers will be drawn to them too.

  2. Wow. CONGRATULATIONS! What an honor to be chosen. Your illustrations are so immediate and spontaneous, I love them and I'm sure young readers will be drawn to them too.