I receive lots of letters from folks with questions about writing, illustrating, publishing & art school. While I'd love to answer each one, sometimes bookmaking keeps me away from the inbox. Here are my answers to the most frequently asked questions. Hope they help and thanks for writing!
1. What kind of materials do you use?
Pencil, charcoal, watercolor, colored pencil, crayon, gouache, pastel, acrylic paint, ink, all on copy paper or bristol or Arches hot press. Then I use Photoshop to collage it all together.
2. How do you choose a book idea?
I love to follow my extra-curricular passions back to the studio. Do you have something you love to learn about? What are your other hobbies besides writing or drawing? Follow them down the rabbit hole! Nature, history, fashion, anthropology, archeology are some of mine. They are things I could never be tired of learning about.
PLAY. Most of my ideas come from wanting to stay in those worlds and play a little longer. Making books from that place creates a public doorway, so we can jump in together and play.
The best tip might be just to Notice. With a capital N. There are a million ideas for books and stories all around you, if you notice. They are in the trees. In the breeze. Sitting in a little patch of shade. It takes a lot of patience, but writing and illustrating is really mostly about listening and watching, being open. Most of my stories seem to "tell themselves", once I get around to listening to them, not the other way around. This is something I have to re-learn every time!
3. I have a story I want to publish. Where do I start? Can I choose the illustrator?
Many publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts, so it's a good idea to shop your manuscript to a literary agent first. A good agent will act as an editor, a cheerleader, and will open doors to the publishing world.
99% of the time, it is the publisher who pairs manuscript with illustrator, after the story is already sold.
4. I have a story idea, can you illustrate it?
Thank you for thinking of me for your project! Right now I'm all "booked" up and I only accept submissions through my agent at this time. Maybe we will collaborate in the future!
5. I'd love to write for children. Where do I start?
How exciting! I'd begin at your local library or bookstore.
Listen for the page turns in a picture book, the rhythm of the author's voice, the use of quiet. Every word is important. Watch how the story is fed by the pictures and pictures are fed by story to make something altogether new. Take note of the publisher on the spine of your favorite books.
Take classes. Join book clubs. All education is beneficial.
Read your story out loud constantly (until your neighbors and cat think you're nuts). Join a crit group or trusted writing partner. And read out loud to kids (check out this super How-To by author Mac Barnett and Taylor Norman). Children are the very best critics.
Here are three helpful books and I always recommend to folks:
Minders of Make-Believe by Leonard Marcus, historian of our industry. Engrossing tale of how children's lit came to be. (Note: actually, read anything by Leonard Marcus).
Writing With Pictures by Uri Shulevitz. Shulevitz is THE master of the dynamic book dummy, thumbnails, page design. Must-have for illustrators, but also extremely helpful for authors.
2014 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market by Chuck Sambuchino : A large annually-updated volume of contacts for agents and publishers, conferences and contests.
It's a great idea to join, or attend events held by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) If you are seeking a picture book community, they have regional crit groups for authors and illustrators. Illustrators can also attend annual conferences to hear talks by art directors, agents, publishers and editors, and have their portfolios reviewed.
Most importantly: be brave! Write what you love.
Don't be afraid to edit, delete, and start again. This is an art form for the detail-oriented. The space in a 32 page picture book is limited and valuable, and it takes time to fill the space just right. Sometimes it takes longer than you'd imagine (it takes me years and sometimes I end up with over 100 versions!). A book is an evolving, living thing, so keep your eyes fixed on the beating heart of it, but stay open to change and feedback.
6. I want to be an illustrator. Where do I start?
As illustrators, we double as fine artists AND communicators. Our mark-making, style choice, and material selection affect the tone, voice and scope of our storytelling. To learn how to communicate with your art, it's a good idea to learn traditional media skills at an art school or in art classes. (See my course recommendations below, in #7.)
It's important to be educated about the market you are entering, past and present. Read as many picture books as you can (chances are, if you love picture books, you are already doing that!) See what's out there, look at the rainbow of art styles. Make friends with your local independent booksellers, and patronize their store when you can. And it's TOTALLY OK TO OWN PICTURE BOOKS AS A GROWN UP. You can find your neighborhood bookseller at Indiebound.org.
Art directors and agents need to see your work so they can hire you. Create a portfolio website. Make sure your portfolio is full of concepts you'd LOVE to make into a book, in a style you would love to work in. Make a few pieces that tie together in a narrative way, with characters that appear in consecutive pieces to show you are capable of communicating a story. If you have a story, make a little book dummy! (See the above book recommendations in #5. Uri Shulevitz's Writing With Pictures is a great guide on that.)
Check out publisher and agent websites for submission guidelines. Email or snail-mail those 4x6 postcards with your favorite art, portfolio website address, and contact info to the publishers AND agents you like. You can also submit your website to free directories like IllustrationMundo.com. to gain online exposure. You can enter contests. Make connections with local illustrators.
It's a great idea to join, or attend events by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) if you are seeking a picture book community. They also have regional crit groups for other picture books/ middle grade/ YA authors. Illustrators can attend conferences to hear talks by art directors, agents, publishers and editors, and have your portfolio reviewed in person.
Most importantly: make art you love!
7. I'm a student in art school and I want to be a children's book illustrator, what classes should I take?
First. Don't give up. Art school is tough: more homework than humanly manageable, right? It's worth it: you're learn to juggle class loads, and this will ultimately help you juggle multiple jobs when you are freelancing full-time.
Overall my advice on course selection: Equal parts Traditional + Tech. Traditional media classes will teach you invaluable skills technology alone cannot offer. Technology is imperative for survival today in the digital world. Can't do one without the other.
Stories are usually about people, so draw LOTS of them! Fit Figure Drawing into every semester if you can. Seek out classes in Color Theory, Traditional Oil/Acrylic/Watercolor/Printmaking, Digital Illustration, Photoshop, Web Design.
Typography courses will give you a leg up, even if they are outside your major. A basic type class will open your eyes to the language of the letterform and page design (and a page is where your illustrations will ultimately live).
History of Illustration courses are SO valuable for understanding where you sit in the long and beautiful tradition of illustration: get lost in the Golden Age (Mucha/Dulac/Nielsen) learn about the Brandywine School, the Red Rose Girls, Japanese woodblock, 20th century editorial, and the long magical history of picture book art (chap books through e-book!)
Open your eyes wide. Stay connected to why you love books, why you want to make them, and keep at it!
8. Everyone says it's tough making a career out of illustrating. Is it worth going to school for?
Yes. And YES!
In my opinion, it is the very best time to become an illustrator. We live in a visual world, growing exponentially more this way with every new platform, interface, and technology invented. These new formats will need illustrating. What about book illustrators, has the e-book made them and printed books obsolete? No! There is room in the market for both formats to grow and mature...and BOTH need imagery to function. I believe there will always be need for professional picture-making, driven by new economic demands or just the innate human desire to make pictures (tangent: have you seen Cave of Forgotten Dreams? We've been illustrating forever.)
If you make art from the heart, it will find application and a home in the marketplace. Trust your passion. The economy and world is changing, and creative industries are exploding. These industries are fueled by passion and imagination. Imagination is increasingly valued in new media, science, industry, it's the way of the future. I truly believe it's the perfect time to invest in nurturing it and making it your livelihood.
Plus–international communication is only getting faster, more visual, and more connected. And what ultimately connects us globally, even beyond written language? Image. Our global lexicon is now so image-based, and illustrators are the image-makers, so there a better time to be one? Image is not going anywhere, and illustration may go by a different name in a thousand years, but I bet it will still be here, if we are. Illustration is a tradition worth investing in, because it has its origins and its ends in the very fiber of what we are as a species. We are the cultural communicators, we are the story-tellers. Stories and pictures will always be, if we are.
9. That was intense. Jeeze. What do you do to relax?
Put my face in my cat's belly and breathe in.
10. Do you love what you do? Will I love it too?
I love it.
It's not easy, but maybe that's why it's wonderful. It takes practice, but that's why it's worth doing. And because our job as storytellers is so based on playing, being present in the moment, on staying flexible for reinvention, it's a job that will always challenge you to keep learning, growing, and imagining– not just your story's possibility, but your life's possibility. It will keep you honest and open-hearted if you let it. It will keep you young, even when wrinkles show up. Imagining for a living seems like a pretty good deal. Every day is an adventure with an invitation...so I just try to keep saying "yes".
I think my favorite part of this job is when the collaboration begins: editors, art directors, agents, friends all help enrich the story in ways you couldn't alone. Your book becomes a team effort. And then it gets into the hands of children and parents and educators and librarians. And your book is not YOUR book anymore, but their book!
This is the biggest and BEST collaboration.
When a story is told, you let it go, and hope for the best. You hope it plants something good, or provides a little airplane out, or a laugh or shot of wonder. A job about hope is a good thing. I hope you love doing it too!