My role as an art director is delightfully multifaceted. At Candlewick, I oversee the design and development of four Imprints and one Division:
Candlewick Entertainment - our media-focused Imprint that creates projects like movie tie-in editions; licensed character programs like Peppa Pig, Gigantosaurus, and Dungeons and Dragons; and non-fiction collaborations with institutions like the
Big Picture Press, Templar, and Nosy Crow - our UK-based Imprints that yield gorgeous projects ranging from heavily illustrated non-fiction to interactive novelty board books.
And lastly, I art direct our newest Candlewick Division: Walker Books US , which specializes in commercial middle-grade and YA fiction, non-fiction, and graphic novels. So on any given day, I’m wearing quite a few hats! I have video conferences with
colleagues from the UK, phone calls with licensors around the world, and am in constant communication with our in-house team in Somerville, Massachusetts, as well as our local office in Brooklyn, New York.
I love variety, so I’m fortunate to work across all of these Imprints on books of all shapes and sizes. My job is three-fold: As an art director, I collaborate with illustrators and mentor junior staff. As a designer, I brainstorm and execute projects from concept to completion. And as a visual storyteller, I work closely with our editorial staff to craft projects where art is integral to the story. At the end of the day, the most important aspect of any book is the story. And my job, all parts of it, is to use design and art direction to continue telling the story. I like to describe design as the glue that holds a book together. Design is a seamless thread that unites cover to interior and enhances the storytelling experience.
Oh, wow. I could fill this entire interview with the lessons I’ve learned and those who have helped me along the way. Publishing is a village and I certainly had help getting to where I am today. A few of the most important lessons that I still hold close to heart are from these four mentors:
Molly O’Neill: Molly is a terrific editor now terrific agent who was my first NYC roommate and inadvertent kick-starter of my publishing career. Back then, Molly would give me (her art school roomie) marketing design projects from Clarion Books where she worked. By the time I graduated from Parsons School of Design, I had a children’s marketing design portfolio. But the most important thing Molly ever gave me was the nudge to get outside of our little apartment and let New York inspire me. She watched me wrestle with the creative process, seeing how desperately I just wanted to have all the great ideas without understanding where great ideas come from. Molly taught me how to walk away from a project in order to refill my creative well. I still have a card she wrote, with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.
Erik White: Erik was my first Art Director in publishing. He hired me shortly after college to work in the children’s marketing design department at HarperCollins. Erik was a very good manager. He was patient, skilled at interpreting feedback, and very aware that a team should work hard and have fun. He once let me and another designer take the afternoon off to go see all three, extended edition Lord of the Rings movies back to back at the Ziegfeld Theater (which has never been well-known for comfy seats!). It is for sure one of the best—and nerdiest—things I’ve ever done and I think Erik wished he could have come with us. Erik kept a sign on his desk that said: You are not making art. It wasn’t meant to downplay our job or the creative process. It was a reminder not to let the work become too precious.
Chad Beckerman: Truly, Chad taught me most of what I know about making books. Chad was the Creative Director at Abrams Books and he hired me as a book designer even though I didn’t have any formal book design experience. He encouraged my design instincts, indulged my meticulous pace (which I know drove him crazy!), and advocated for me as I grew into an art director. Chad taught me the importance of thinking outside the box, looking for illustrators everywhere, and most paramount for this introvert: how to save time by talking to someone face-to-face instead of sending an email. Chad had an eye for talented people and team chemistry, and he constructed the best group of designers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. After nearly 10 years, when I was leaving Abrams to begin a new venture at Random House, Chad gave me what is now my favorite bit of advice. He said, Give yourself time to be great.
Martha Rago: Martha is the Executive Creative Director at Random House Children’s Books and I have her to thank for giving me one of the biggest breaks of my career. After rising through the ranks at Abrams, I was ready for a change but not sure where to go. When Martha offered me the opportunity to be the Art Director of the middle-grade team at Random House, I felt like I’d won the lottery. Being an Art Director is equal parts directing projects and people, and I was spring-boarded into full time management. Martha showed me how to have a passion for books and a compassion for people. She nurtured everyone around her and always focused on creating strong partnerships. I learned how to be a mentor from Martha. I’ve been at Candlewick now longer than I was at Random House, but year after year, Martha still remembers my birthday and reaches out. Meaningful relationships matter.
When I was a kid, around age 8, white Keds sneakers were all the rage. I remember begging my mom for a pair so that I would fit in with all the girls at school. My mom, who has always marched to the beat of her own drum, asked me, Why would you want to fit in when you can stand out? That kind of thinking didn’t really work on a shy, slightly insecure 4th grader who thought fitting in was the only way to be cool, but it resonates with me now.
I like to keep publishing trends in my periphery; just aware enough to know what’s going on without being directly influenced. It’s good to keep an eye on what’s selling and what kids are into, but what’s popular now might not be popular two years from now when the projects I’m currently designing hit shelves. Publishing is a slow industry. It usually takes years for a book to get from submission to store shelf. As a creator, I never want to replicate what’s already been done, even if it’s the easiest way to capture an audience’s attention. I’m always looking for new and authentic ways to tell a story.
That said, I don’t design in a bubble. I do make it a point to get to bookstores as often as I can. I love holding finished books in my hands and appreciating the hard work of the creators. I usually scroll through newsletters from PW, Goodreads, and local bookstores when they arrive in my inbox. I also talk with my editorial counterparts about the literary trends they’re noticing and how those fit with our publishing programs.
I like to balance my awareness of what’s trending in the children’s book world with visual inspiration outside of the industry: Movie posters, subway art, Instagram posts, fashion, museum exhibits, graffiti, gaming apps, magazine covers, current events, storefront typography, etc. When an image or an idea resonates, I write it down, drag it onto my desktop, or take a photo to catalog it for later. I also think about what kids are looking at, how they’re interacting with one another, being entertained, and gathering information. Those formats and platforms don’t always translate into books, but they can offer a lot of food for thought.
Funnily enough, white Keds, 30+ years later, are back in style. Maybe I do know a lasting trend when I see one :)
Every publishing house, imprint, editor, and art director has their own aesthetic. And while I certainly have my own preferences, styles that I liked five years ago aren’t necessarily those that I gravitate toward today. For me, and most of the folks that I work with, any preference for a specific illustration style is usually project specific.
Candlewick has a long-standing reputation as a publisher of beautiful books. Both Candlewick and Walker Books US work with illustrators with styles ranging from highly commercial to fine art. While Walker Books US was established to be more of the commercial arm of Candlewick, our goals are the same: Craft beautifully made, authentic stories that kids will want to read over again.
Ha, well, I’ve designed hundreds of books in my career and I’m not sure how many of them have been considered bestsellers. Obviously, it’s always the goal for books to sell well. There’s a team of people behind every published project. Critical acclaim alongside commercial success celebrates and rewards their hard work. But the most valuable part of creating a book is knowing that it met the author or illustrator’s expectations and that it touched the life of at least one kid. Here are a few of my favorite projects from throughout my career:
Make work that you love. Don’t worry about pleasing a potential art director or client with your personal work. If you create what you love, people will hire you to make projects that they will love.
Don’t apologize. If you feel like you need to explain a piece of art or defend it in some way, ask yourself if it’s ready to be shown. You should never feel like you need to apologize for anything in your portfolio. You should be proud of each piece you include.
Be organized. You can leave your bed unmade or your kitchen a mess, but do not present a disorganized portfolio! It makes a bad first impression and can be hard to see through, even if your work is good.
Allow time for distractions. Distractions—especially in this day and age!—are unavoidable. Don’t berate or cut yourself off from them. Give yourself permission to use them as fuel for imagination.
Yesterday? The day before? :) I work with so many talented illustrators. They all come to the table with different kinds of creativity and ways of seeing the potential in a project. I find that the best kind of creativity happens when there’s collaboration and an open dialog between us. I like to give loose guidelines at the beginning of a project because I’m very interested in the ideas an illustrator will have. I never ever want to limit the scope of a project’s potential or hamper an illustrator’s creativity by levying too many restrictions or presenting my ideas first. I’ll share initial thoughts, but I prefer to leave it up to the illustrator to add to or disregard my ideas in favor of a better one. Two heads are always better than one.
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi. I don’t remember having many favorite picture books. I do remember desperately wanting to know how to read for myself. (I came home from the first day of kindergarten in tears because I didn’t learn how to read that day!) I was about nine the first time I read Charlotte Doyle and I remember reading it over and over again. I loved her spunk, her determination. I loved that she didn’t conform to society’s notion of what a young lady was supposed to be. She did her own thing her own way. It resonated.
I am incredibly lucky to wake up every day and do a job that I love. So really, each book is a dream project. If I had to ask one thing of the universe, my request would be that the books I create ignite the imaginations of as many kids as possible - that children can find in the pages I’ve designed a better way of seeing the world and perhaps a more loving and accepting way of seeing themselves. Books are designed to be a mirror for the reader. They have the power to transport us, inform us, challenge us, and ultimately, help us see ourselves more clearly. That’s how books shaped me. I learned about the world through stories. And when I grew up and experienced the world for myself, I knew how to ask questions, exercise compassion, and open my imagination to endless possibilities.
gestalten is an international publishing house focusing on illustrated design books which I co-founded in 1995. We had regularly worked with illustrators, many of which had continued to become very well known in the world of children’s books. The books these individuals created appealed to our aesthetics and ethics. They energized, excited and inspired us to start "Little Gestalten” known as “Kleine Gestalten" in Germany.
I am an Industrial Designer by trade and by education. When the first computers became affordable in the early 90s I was intrigued by the new possibilities and the self empowerment they lent to creativity. At gestalten, we were exploring desktop publishing and started working in communication design and curating design shows.
In Great Numbers - How Numbers Shape the World we Live In is a book that aims to spark children's fascination with numbers, and explains how the world came to be what it is today through them. I learnt quite a bit myself when we did the book.
The World of Whales - Get to Know the Giants of the Ocean: children and adults are fascinated by these majestic animals that, in many ways, seem to be familiar to human beings but live in an environment that is as unknown to us as outer space.
Precious Planet - A User’s Manual for Curious Earthlings is a book about Earth that conveys deeper insights by comparing our planet to a human household.
Life and I - A Story About Death is an optimistic story about death. Death is not portrayed as a scary monster but as a rather normal companion to life without which life could not exist. Grown-ups and children alike may find solace in this story and I think it is a great book to start a conversation about this often complicated subject.
The Big Book of Treasures tells joyful stories about how in the course of history great treasures were made, lost, and eventually found again. Raphael Honigstein, the author of The Big Book of Treasures is a well-known football journalist in the UK.
Easy Peasy - An Introduction to Gardening with Kids: the playful artwork by illustrator Aitch captures your imagination in a mesmerising way. The planting can also be realised indoors for children without a balcony or a garden. We always try to stay inclusive with any books we create.
All my Animals: Polish illustrator Dawid Ryski was part of our publishing programme from its beginnings on. He has a very good understanding of the children’s eye and their perception, matching his artwork to their particular age group.
Goliath - The Boy Who Was Different: The title represents the Little Gestalten publishing programme very well as the illustrations are marvellous. The pages are rendered in very bold and striking colours, shaped in geometric ways - reflecting that no one's life ever follows a linear path. The story of the boy Goliath, an attempt we follow in all our children’s books, is to help children who feel different to other children verbalise their feelings and eventually find their own place in the world.
What Do Grown-Ups Do All Day? Do you remember what it was like when you were a child and wondered what the grown-ups do all day? This book tries to give examples of what kind of professional occupations there are, and wants to inspire children to make use of different opportunities. Our fourth book with Dawid Ryski breaks up gender stereotypes and empowers children to become what they want to.
First of all we would like to inspire children’s endless curiosity for the world that surrounds them. We try to show the value of compassion, appreciation and respect without preaching to the kids. We would like to open the door a little bit more and hope that children are inspired to walk through it and explore and appreciate the beauty of the real world as an addition and alternative to the digital world.
If you are hoping to impress the most critical of all audiences (the children, not us), get your story straight, make your characters approachable and not square, make your designs unique and try to employ a light approach to the creation process.
We saw a surge in children’s book purchases during a time when families spent more time together. Having to cope with homeschooling books became more popular. We were very fortunate to fill in this need with a plethora of educational and entertaining material and activities from our books that our reading parents found very worthwhile engaging their children with. We thank our audience for this tremendous feedback during the harder times this year. We were also able to offer a lot of the stories and content from the children’s books digitally, to offer equality to all. We wish everyone to stay healthy and for the pandemic to come to an end soon. It is impressive how seriously children take the situation and how well they implement the distancing measures when returning to school.
Portrait photography by Dan Smith
After completing my Arts degree (majoring in literature and cinema studies), I spent 8 years working for a variety of large publishing houses (both educational and trade publishers) in Australia, Europe and North America. I then moved out of publishing and worked for communication and marketing companies for 8 years. All these experiences gave me a solid foundation in publishing as I pursued my next step.
With a deep appreciation of the arts and literature, it was my life-long ambition dream to create my own publishing house, focussing on children’s books. The enormous scope for creativity in children’s books is the perfect fit for me. The ability to marry my love of the visual arts and literature has been a dream come true.
That’s true. At the time, I was disappointed by the diversity of children’s books available in Australia. The contrast was highlighted on a family trip to Europe in 2009, where I appreciated the diversity of creative and imaginative books children were reading in places such as France and Finland. Why weren’t Australian children being enriched to this extent? This was the catalyst for me to start Berbay Publishing. I was inspired to create enriching children’s books to help shape the way they see the world.
Thus, Berbay was formed. Our mission is to publish books that inform, delight and challenge children with intelligence, ingenuity and fun. We publish books that allow children to be adventurous visually, emotionally and intellectually and to inspire wonder and curiosity.
The advantages are that we are nimble and can take creative risks. We are in charge of our own creative agenda. Our publishing list is not driven by an accounts department. This has served us well: by focussing on what books we love and believe in our list has grown and received many accolades.
The challenges are always on the financial side. Operating a functional business within the constraints of limited working capital is always challenging and made even more difficult in a worldwide pandemic
We work with a diverse range of creative people - from ceramic artists to paper-cut artists; from watercolours illustrators to oil painters. I am always looking for fresh, innovative and surprising artists and illustrators and I’m particularly attracted to the art of “hand-made” work. But most importantly, the illustrations or artwork, not matter what medium we use, must be accessible for children.
For me, nothing beats the sound of a child laughing. Humour is a great tool to engage a child and their imagination. It allows a child to relax and be creative, be absurd and ridiculous but it also has the power explore serious topics and deep thinking.
Two very funny picture books Berbay has recently published are Norton and the Bear by Gabriel Evans and Sneaky Shadows by SC Manchild and illustrated by Sam Caldwell.
Norton and the Bear is a hilarious story about copying someone else’s behaviour that explores the good and bad of every kid’s least form of admiration.
My husband is my most significant and influential mentor. His business acumen and “go get them” attitude has allowed me to dream big. He allows me to bounce ideas and creative concepts, he challenges me with new ways to see things and, importantly, he makes me laugh daily with his wicked sense of humour.
Heads and Tails Insects by John Canty has been a standout success. Its strong sales have been boosted by several prestigious awards, including winning best international picture book at the CCBF in Shanghai last year in November (being the first Australian book to ever win this international award) and receiving a Children’s Book Council of Australia Honour award (Australia’s most prestigious children’s literary awards).
We have also licenced this to North America, the UK, France, Germany, Korea and China.
Our other best-selling series is the Chihiro Takeuchi board book series with the Wall Street Journal voting it one of the best board books of 2019.
The impact of the pandemic has been hard for a small publishing houses who already work on thin margins. Bookshops and libraries closed due to lockdown restrictions and international bookfairs cancelled have been devastating on domestic and international sales.
Our focus is making sure that we have the strongest possible titles ready to share as the industry recovers. We cannot control the market or COVID-19, but we can ensure that the books we produce offer readers something special and different that inspires them to keep returning to our list. Our 2021 list will be our largest list by far, but it’s still as highly-curated as ever, with a focus on satisfying and responding to the natural curiosity that children have
Original and innovative books always stand out and help with success in a very saturated market. These original and innovative books encompass universal themes such as friendship, family, courage, loss and love.
Sneaky Shadows uniquely showcases the limitless possibilities of shadow-casting in a book of imagination and absurd misdirection.
I started my working life in publishing as a Project Editor with a small company called Tempus Publishing, soon becoming Commissioning Editor and later Acting Publisher. After a couple of years there, I realised that my passion lay in children’s publishing so I wrote to Barefoot Books and was fortunate enough to land a job as their Group Publishing Manager. I was based in their Bath offices in England for seven years but also spent a year in their US office in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By then, I had two small children so I took a break from my full-time role to spend more time with my family. I set up Conker House Publishing Consultancy with an ex-colleague which led us to many stimulating and rewarding collaborations from educational resources for Ghana to papers for the World Economic Forum, alongside plenty of children’s books, too. In July 2019, Barefoot Books offered me the role of Editorial Director which I happily embraced so here I am!
I would have to talk about the same project on both fronts. In 2011, we published the Barefoot Books World Atlas, written by Nick Crane and illustrated by David Dean. It is a truly stunning book, packed with information and beautiful illustrations. A project that already felt rewarding and challenging became even more so when we turned it into an all-spinning and all-dancing app. The globe literally spins at the touch of your finger, the soundscape changes as you navigate the globe and it is populated by loads of incredible animations. Needless to say, the world of app development was quite different from book publishing so there were many challenges but we are so proud of the product we created. We have recently upgraded the Barefoot World Atlas App and it has been featured by Apple as ‘App of the Day’!
What I particularly love about the creative process at Barefoot Books is that it is never formulaic. Sometimes it’s a manuscript which captures us all with its language and prose. Other times the visuals can lead the development of a book. Sometimes we start with a concept and build out from there, finding the right contributors and bringing in inspiration from far and wide. We work very collaboratively across sales, design, marketing and editorial so everyone pitches in with ideas including our children. They are often the best at coming up with fabulous concepts!
i) From My Window was released in March 2020 and epitomises all that Barefoot stands for – an #OwnVoices book about the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The book poses the question, “What do you see from your window?” which feels so relevant as we all deal with the current lockdown around the world.
I’d recommend having a good look at the existing Barefoot Books products. We have a very distinct look and feel to all our publishing, with a particular love for a strong palette, rich textures and the ability to capture character. We’d rather see a smaller but well-curated portfolio which is tailored to what we are looking for than a range of too many different styles.
Creating a Barefoot book is a collaborative process from start to finish so we definitely look for artists who are happy to exchange ideas and respond to feedback. Enjoying being creative is really key!
I think the coronavirus pandemic has to be mentioned in answer to this question. We are all still waiting to see what long-term impact it will have on the world of children’s publishing. I really hope that the children’s book fairs will be able to get back up and running again soon.
Having grown up in the Lake District, a picturesque part of England and home to Beatrix Potter, I would have to mention Peter Rabbit and his friends. There was so much to love in the various characters, the intriguing plot lines and the beautiful scenery as a backdrop.
Tessa Strickland, co-founder of Barefoot Books, is someone I have always seen as an important role model. She approaches every challenge with integrity and thoughtfulness – something that I aspire to do, too!
I’d like to think we have several of these in our product development process right now. We are always looking for topics that will captivate young minds, build strong characters and make reading a pleasure and not a chore. A book that incorporates all those elements stacks up to be a dream project in my mind. As I look at the world around me, children’s publishing could not feel more important than it does now.
ii) I Took the Moon for a Walk is a real Barefoot classic and has been a bestseller for many years. Carolyn Curtis’ lyrical text captures young minds while Alison Jay’s imaginative artwork continues to delight on every reading.
iii) Ready, Set, Go! is another recent publication well worth shouting about. Coming from a family crazy about all sorts of sports, this has been great fun to develop alongside Celeste Cortright and Christiane Engel . As ever for Barefoot, the book is diverse, inclusive and opens children up to a whole world of possibilities.