Colleen Venable Interview

Colleen Venable

Art Director, Workman Kids

How did your career in publishing begin and what have been some of the 'stand out' moments so far?

I always say the best advice for people trying to get into kids publishing: Don’t be afraid to let your geeky, book-loving side show. I went to school with a double major of English and Studio Art because of my obsession with kids’ books. I graduated in 2002 and thought I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a job mostly because I was a big dork at school (*cough first in my class cough*), but it was a rough year in NYC, to say the least, and over 300 applications later - everything from data entry jobs to retail - I hadn’t even gotten a single interview.

Then I saw the most perfect job listing. It was for a receptionist and librarian at the Children’s Book Council. By that point my sanity was in question (as well as my food and shelter) and I was so excited to see that post that I wrote the world’s least professional cover letter: a list of all the reasons you should never tell people you’ve just met that The Twits by Roald Dahl is your favorite book. Somehow I wound up with the job and in the best industry in the world.

Standout moments include helping start the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature program, organizing the BEA breakfast, designing books that went on to be nominated for National Book Awards and win Caldecott Honors, and getting to work with some of the most talented people I’ve ever known.

Who have been your most significant mentors to date?

Molly Ker Hawn is an absolute genius, incredibly well-read, and insanely charming. She was also the person who saved me from that stack of resumes and gave me a chance. The head of the CBC in those days was the radiant Paula Quint, who could walk into a room and be best friends with every single person there within 30 seconds. I often wonder where I would have wound up had it not been for such incredible role models at that age.

Current mentor is most definitely my boss Daniel Nayeri. He has more energy and creativity than anyone I’ve ever known in ANY field. It’s infectious in the best way.

What sets Workman apart from its competitors and how would you describe your list?

We often say we strive to make “Art Objects For Great and Terrible Children.” For me, I want a physical book to be something that is a joy to hold, something that expands what you think of as a book. We don’t believe in chasing trends or making anything just because we think it will sell. Our staff is insanely creative: A paper engineer, a film maker, a former stunt man and pastry chef… It’s such a wonderful group, and we don’t believe in hierarchies. Everyone has a voice. I often tell people that I have Tom Hank’s job in BIG. If we can imagine it, we can make it. (No Zoltar machine needed!)

As Art Director for the Workman Children's Publishing Group, what would a typical day involve?

Stumble into the office like a pinball, bumping into walls, attempting to look awake (it’s a joke in the office my brain doesn’t turn on till 10am…maybe I should learn to like coffee…), open my email and find sketches from artists, grin like an idiot because these are all artists I’ve been dying to work with for years. I’ve got a wishlist of creators and so far have been able to sign up many of my favorites. Check on my staff and make sure no one is feeling overwhelmed, if they are, I either get them freelance help, or will work on a book for them for a bit or find a designer who wants a break from the project they are working on. It’s a very communal process that way. Production meetings, editorial meetings, sales meetings, interacting but at the same time doodling 30 second book covers. Get back to desk, scan and show scribbles to artists, wait for laughter at bad art to die down. They send back their own 30 second thumbnail doodle. Back and forth back and forth. The best covers have been the ones that felt like a fantastic game of ping-pong, every round with the artist the image gets better and better, and somehow, someway not only does the artist not want to murder me, but we both actually have fun collaborating. I honestly think that’s the thing that makes me a good art director, I really adore people and REALLY adore collaboration. It’s never me vs. them, whether the “them” is the artist or sales team. It’s always “us” and seeing how many great things we can make.

Workman is known for bringing cleverly designed titles to market, take us behind the scenes of a recent project which really excited you.

I’m working on a book right now about my new favorite woman in history: Mary Bowser. The book, Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring, is part true historical tale, and part interactive mystery for the reader. Mary was a freed black woman in the South who posed as a slave so she could work in the Confederate White House as a spy. And holy moly she was the best spy! She had a crazy photographic memory and could redraw any maps she saw, remember any code she saw. She was directly responsible for Union victories. How do people not know about this woman?!?! We are determined to fix that. As soon as I read the amazing script I knew who I wanted to illustrate: Tony Cliff. I worked with Tony on his incredible Delilah Dirk series with First Second Books, and knew he was both an incredible artist with a knack for strong female characters, but also crazy smart and, it winds up a big cryptology nerd, just like me. Along with the story, the reader is asked to figure out where Mary hid her diary that contained all her stories of being a spy. There are hundreds of hidden clues throughout the book. Tony and I practically turned it into a game: “Hey did you notice if you hold up the illustration to a mirror the wall says ‘The diary is not in here’”, “I did! And did you notice if you hold up this red acetate over all of the women in red dresses in the ballroom it reveals a secret code!” The book comes with a replica of an actual civil war cipher wheel and a few other spy tools. For me, I don’t want to just do novelty books that have no substance. This book is an incredible story, about an incredible woman, and elevated to a whole other level by Tony’s incredible art and our cryto-collaboration. Can’t wait for people to see this book!

What are some of the biggest risks you've taken in your career?

After my job at the CBC I got offered a job in marketing at Roaring Brook Press. I adored my boss, the wonderful Lauren Wohl, and all the librarians and booksellers I got to woo at conventions, but I never quite felt right in marketing. We shared an office with First Second Books, who had been interviewing for a designer for four months with no luck. Since they were without designers and a freelancer had flaked I helped them out by designing a simple gif ad for them for an issue of Shelf Awareness, something I occasionally did for Roaring Brook, despite having no design background. Mark Siegel, the head of First Second came over to my cubicle and the conversation went like this:

Mark: “Hey, Colleen. Do you know photoshop?”

Me: “Sorta. I can put people heads on other people’s bodies. What do you need?”

Mark: “Will you work for me?”

Mark was convinced there was more thought in that gif I made in a rush than there was in any of the portfolio’s he’d been seeing for months. The job was a huge paycut. I was going back to entry level after 7 years building myself up. I had zero experience, and would be working alone with no one to guide me. I’d have to go back to night school to learn all of the programs.

Despite many people telling me it was a bad career move, I did it. And holy crap did I love it and somehow was really pretty good at it! I think a lot of it didn’t even have to do with design skills, but rather the fact I look at books as a reader first. I will always be a bigger book nerd than I will be a design nerd and oddly enough it makes my books stand out.  

Are there any specific illustration styles or subject matters which are of particular interest to Workman right now?

Anyone who approaches books from a different angle. I’d love to see some innovative books for the youngest of young readers.

What are some of the most important factors when considering an illustrator for a project?

Be talented, be kind, collaborate, and communicate. If a great artist misses their deadline by a bit I don’t mind as long as I knew ahead of time they were running late. Communication is often the thing that can make or break an illustrator’s career. Talk to your editors and art directors! There’s nothing worse than having someone go radio silent. For me I want to work with collaborators, people who don’t think of it as just a simple job, but as an opportunity to explore art and grow. Illustrators who can geek out about books is always a good sign in my eyes because it means they are looking around them, and not just living in their own creative bubble. I love discovering new artists, so it’s essential for artists to have their work online (such as in an easy to find way.

Tell us about some of the innovative projects you're working on at the moment. Which 3 books from Workman's list would be your 'must reads'?

The one that’s been getting the most attention lately is Paint By Sticker which is on it’s fourth printing after being out for a week. A week! It’s so crazy how much that is catching on. It was a collaborative idea with our entire staff, which makes it even more exciting. Another project that blew me away is Train. Created by Mike Vago, it’s a book that has a groove across all the pages…and an actual toy train that travels across each spread, up over the edge of the page and through the next spread. It’s genius and in the hands many people could have been a cheesy commercial novelty book, but we didn’t want that. Instead we hired Matt Rockefeller to do these incredible watercolor-like landscapes. Visually you travel through the rainbow, starting in red morning light by the bay and traveling into the orange desert. His work just glows on the page.

Top 3 reads from Workman:

1. GO! By Chip Kidd: a complete 101 on design for kids, but I’ve known many an adult to fall in love with this book.

2. Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods by Hal Johnson: Based on legends of creatures that supposedly lived in the woods in the early 1900’s, this book of short spooky stories has, perhaps, my new favorite unreliable narrator.

3. Gallop! By Rufus Butler Seder: Yes, Gallop! Has been around for a while, but it’s the first book that really blew me away and made me say “who are these Workman people?!?!” It’s genius in design, paper engineering, and still feels a bit like magic.

I want to work on magic. Luckily I seem to have landed the right job. 

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