This is my second year as an Art Director at Macmillan Children’s. My very first job in publishing was as a design intern at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. I started working there after I graduated from the Illustration as Visual Essay MFA program in the School of Visual Arts. I was trying to publish my picture books then and didn’t imagine having a career on “the other side of the table” of the book industry. I was reaching out to editors and art directors with my portfolio and dummy books. I also invited them to my graduation show where my thesis was children’s books. One of the art directors I reached out to, Saho Fujii from LBYR, came to the show and gave me great feedback. I was blown away that a real art director responded to my invitation, came to the show, and gave me feedback in person! A couple of months later, she emailed me about an open internship position at LBYR. I thought it would be wonderful to work and learn inside of the industry where I was trying so hard to break in. I went in for an interview and got the job, which became my first job in publishing. I thought I would learn all the practical tips from “behind the curtains,” and help myself publish my books! Not surprisingly, however, I fell in love with people and work in the publishing house. It is such a collaborative environment and everyone is so passionate about children’s books. I was surrounded by amazing creators and storytellers! I got to work with illustrators I admired! I felt as if I found my perfect home. I never left the industry since.
Macmillan has three pub seasons (winter, spring/summer, and fall) and each designer generally works on 3-8 titles per season. Because picture bookmaking is such a long process, we are working on anywhere between 8-15 titles at a time all in drastically varying stages.
At the moment, I’m reviewing, color correcting, and making the final adjustments for the books that will publish later this year (2022), hands-on designing and receiving final arts for books that will publish early 2023, reviewing the second or third round of sketches for the books that will come out mid to late 2023, and also setting up a kick-off call with artists who are working on a book for 2024.
A big chunk of my daily calendar is filled with multiple meetings where I review sketches or final arts with editors or other designers on various books that we work together. Communicating with artists is also the biggest part of our daily responsibility. We try our best to communicate our thoughts and feedback clearly and openly with illustrators and make sure that illustrators are fully included in the discussion. We need to learn how each illustrator communicates differently and what they feel comfortable with. Some prefer email communications while some prefer talking on the phone. We do a lot of video calls as well. Working with various amazing artists is my favorite part of the job.
And of course, we need to design the books. Designing a book also takes place over a period of time. We usually create preliminary ones to share with the team at various stages, but once we have the final art in, we pay full attention to the detailed design. We make sure that the design meets the sentiment of the book, enhances the story and the art, and brings everything together. Since the cover is often the face of the book, everyone in the team from other departments gets to see the final design of the cover and give feedback.
As a kid, I always gravitated to an exciting story with a strong story arc. I still think that is very important, and that’s how I try to write and illustrate, too. However, when it comes to the books that I enjoy most working on, I am strongly drawn to the books telling stories with specific cultural backgrounds and elements. They often tell universal stories through a specific cultural lens, with which all the readers can resonate. On top of that, I get to take a glimpse of the culture that I wasn’t familiar with. It is enticing and enlightening. I feel my world gets a bit wider each time I work on those books and spend lots of time with them.
A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart has a special place in my heart. An emotional journey of a young Black boy after the police shooting in the neighborhood is an incredibly difficult subject matter, to say the least, especially for a picture book for very young readers. It was incredible to witness the whole process of how this beautifully and powerfully written text by Elliott Zetta was brought to full life by debut artist Noa Denmon’s masterful and heartfelt illustrations. Noa was new to the children’s book field, but we loved Noa’s art style that was sophisticated and rich. As for anyone new to the field, the process must have been long and draining for Noa at times especially with a heavy and important subject. Nonetheless, Noa persevered, did multiple rounds of revisions over and over again for various scenes, successfully bringing out the full range of emotions from characters and readers alike. Noa won a Caldecott Honor with A Place Inside of Me that year and I am incredibly happy that Noa’s beautiful art that is full of heart got much-deserved recognition.
Without any exaggeration, I am constantly amazed by the sketches shared by the artists every day, so it is really hard to pick an example. Even though I love discovering new artists and finding talents, working with debut illustrators always has a bit of risk and I often mentally prepare myself for unexpected turmoil that could come on the way. Niki Nakayama: A Chef’s Tale in 13 Bites was certainly not an easy book to illustrate, covering the life of a renowned chef. Because of the nature of cooking Niki was known to do, fantastical elements had to be very naturally blended in with the factual illustrations. There was a ton of research for the illustrator to do and vigorous fact-checking was to follow.
I appreciate seeing the varying range of environments and settings along with the characters. Very often, I receive art samples or a portfolio mainly consisting of spot arts of characters. Character building is very important, but it is often not just about how the character looks, but also about what kind of setting the character is in, and how that environment plays the role to tell the story. If you pick up any children’s book (or the one you love!), you will see that the book consists of double-page spread art, single-page art, and spot arts with varying degrees of settings. Try to do that in your portfolio.
I often recommend including the urban setting, natural setting, home setting, and everyday setting like school, park, or playground. Including a few pieces where multiple characters interact with one another is vital, too, since it’s rare that we only have one character per page in a book, and children’s book is often all about emotions coming from relationships.
I recommend not including anything that you don’t enjoy doing anymore even if it seems like a wonderful portfolio piece. For example, if you have a beautiful woodcut piece that everyone loves, but if you don’t want to make woodcut anymore, don’t include it. It can lead to misunderstanding and miscommunication if the publisher likes that very piece, hires you for that style, but you turn in something completely different.
Open-mindedness to collaborate is very important because picture book making is such a collaborative process, and also a very long one. The reason why I love picture book making so much is that you get to work as a team and bring out the best of each other by constant discussion and brainstorming to make the book better and better. To be a part of that process is very rewarding. Also being an open mind leads the illustrators to experiment more and push their limits. That is extremely rewarding as well. But when an illustrator is closed for suggestions and feedback, the whole process becomes rigid and not enjoyable. And again, it is a long process. When no one enjoys that long process because the communication is closed, the book that comes out of it loses a bit of light.
I often tell illustrators that there is a whole team of people who are rooting for their art and the books they create. Even though they mostly communicate with designers/art directors, and sometimes with editors, there are a lot more people behind the scene who are helping to make the book more beautiful and helping to bring the book to more readers. An entire team is there. I want the illustrators to trust the team, open up their ears/minds, and communicate with us. That will help make the best book.
Author and illustrator Benson Shum created this absolutely lovable character Anzu, in his book Anzu the Great Kaiju. Anzu has such a warm personality and has a big heart. If I could, I will be friends with Anzu. Anzu’s personality is shown through his sunny color, kind eyes, in his bright facial expressions, and open body gestures. Everything builds up to make Anzu very believable and he feels very real. Benson masterfully crafted the whole world where readers can instantly understand this sweet, warm-hearted, sun-colored Kaiju who has a long lineage, a loving family of strong personalities, and a passion to grow up to find his own path. Anzu the Great Listener is the sequel to be published next year, and I am very excited for readers to continue the journey with this lovable and thoughtful Kaiju.
There are many and I am incredibly lucky to have met them. Pat Cummings was my thesis adviser in grad school. I learned everything about making children’s books and a lot more from Pat. Without Saho Fujii, I wouldn’t have started working in the industry at all. I am very lucky I trained under her, learning all the basics and best practices of designing picture books. I only worked with Patti Ann Harris for a couple of months before she moved from LBYR to Scholastic, but the way she grew and empowered her team members left a big impact on me and I still frantically reach out to her for questions in my career. Laura Pennock, an adult book division sales executive, might sound like an unusual mentor for a designer, but she has been my go-to person for any questions I have to navigate in the corporate world and has been the biggest support. I was paired with Laura in the mentorship program from Macmillan when I requested that I wanted to learn more about sales, which always felt like a strange, unknown world to me.
All my mentors have been so giving and supportive, they taught me to be that way to others, without even telling me.
When I do school visits or book events with children as an author/illustrator, I am often asked what my favorite book is among the ones I wrote and illustrated. Even after years, I can never answer that question without agonizing over it. And my answer changes every time. For Childrensillustrators.com members, I would like to share my second picture book No Kimchi for Me! because it is the book that taught me the joy of connecting with readers. The book started with my simple desire to illustrate a Korean custom of eating savory pancakes (kimchi pancakes, seafood pancakes, spring onion pancakes, etc) on a rainy day. I grew up with that custom and I always loved it. When it rains, it is common for people to start thinking of eating savory pancakes. It’s fascinating! I went through countless revisions to get the story where it is, with a lot of people’s help (many workshops, critique groups, and first and foremost my editor Grace Maccarone’s invaluable feedback at Holiday House). When the book was finally out in the world, it got more love than I ever expected, and I started getting photos and messages from readers from all over. It was simply incredible to me to witness how a very personal story reached so many people, and how they connected with the story and characters I created. It also opened the door for me to keep working on stories with the same character Yoomi, expanding her world wider and wider, making them into a Yoomi, Friends and Family series including Let’s Go to Taekwondo! and Sunday Funday in Koreatown to this date. I learned so much through No Kimchi for Me! - while I was making it and after I made it. The story itself is not quite about that Korean custom I was inspired by, but for any members of Childrensillustrators.com, if you ever get a chance to see the book, you will recognize that the story does take place on a rainy day, and it will eventually show savory Korean pancakes. Then you will know how it all started. It is a little secret I would like to share here.
I was concerned that this book might be too stressful for Yuko Jones, a debut illustrator we signed on for her beautiful, warm-hearted watercolor illustrations, to work on. It turned out to be a completely unnecessary concern. Yuko was amazing to work with. She communicated very clearly from the beginning regarding her process, the time she needed, and the resource she could use. That assured me that we could work through any difficult parts of the project together. When we received sketches from Yuko, it was simply mind-blowing. I remember reviewing the sketches with the editor, Grace Kendall, and we kept saying “this can’t be more perfect.” Yuko created the beautiful world with her fluid and warm illustrations telling the story of this ambitious and creative chef and her vision of food and art. There were so many details even in the sketches, we could be simply lost in illustrations for a long time.
Although being a psychologist was the biggest dream of my youth, in my first year at university, I realized that while I wanted to learn psychology and loved the subject, I didn't necessarily want to be a psychologist. While contemplating how to build my career after graduating, I channeled my love of writing and submitted an essay and resume to a very well-known literary magazine in Turkey. The editor-in-chief of the magazine said that he was impressed with my writing skills and wanted to meet with me. This meeting was a turning point in my life. The editor became a mentor to me and helped me think about how I could turn my knowledge, interest, and love into a career: children's literature! It was the perfect field where I could combine my psychology background and passion for books and literature.
After this meeting, I began an internship in a children's magazine affiliated with the same publishing house. The experienced and professional team helped me learn things quickly and enabled me to grow. Now that I had made my final decision, I had already immersed myself in the magical world of children's literature. After graduating, I was hired at the same place and started working as an editor for Gonca Children's Magazine. Gonca was not only a magazine but also a media organization that made a name for itself in Europe with its many social responsibility projects. For example, we gifted saplings along with the magazine and planted more than 1,500,000 saplings with our readers in different countries. It was a huge opportunity to be a part of this visionary team.
In the first years of my career as an editor, I started my master's degree in publishing. It was one of the first publishing master's programs in Europe and enhanced my knowledge in the field to a great extent. I continued my publishing studies at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany.
Later, while continuing my freelance work as an editor in Canada, we met with a group of children's publishers with the dream of making a new children's magazine and studied the market for months. Our biggest goal was to create the best magazine on the market, especially visually. Thus, Atlasia was born. We attended to every detail, from creating the name to the most minor page details. And now, in our second year, we proudly and happily reach thousands of readers from all over the world.
Atlasia is the fruit of a Ph.D. project. Our editor-in-chief, Hasan Ahmet Gokce, during his doctoral studies at the University of Waterloo, designed a children's magazine as a project to facilitate the integration and integration processes of Muslim immigrant children into Canada. With the help of such a magazine, children would be able to improve their English and at the same time develop their religious knowledge. The magazine would also reinforce the sense of being a part of a society in children and increase their self-confidence. Therefore, we built Atlasia's main goals around these missions.
We designed Atlasia as a new world for children. When we researched available options for Muslim kids, we found that we could create more fun and inspiring magazine than those on the market. Our goal is to meet the needs and expectations of today's children, both in terms of content and visuals. Atlasia presents children with a fun and exciting world to engage with while also validating and strengthening what is often a marginalized identity.
At Atlasia, our main goals are to provide quality content to English-speaking children worldwide and introduce them to universal moral values. In addition to these, the magazine is not only used as a reading material; we position it as a playmate and as an opportunity to enable family communication. We recommend most activities presented in the magazine be conducted with family or friends. Thus, we aim to respond to our target audience's psychological and social needs.
Atlasia is the very meaning of a dream coming true. We've always dreamed of an inclusive magazine that embraces all kids, including Muslim kids worldwide, and offers them the best quality content. Atlasia is the fruit of this dream and years of hard work with a dedicated team.
At the heart of Atlasia, there is our editorial team of 6 people. The entire curriculum, content, and visuals of the magazine are imagined and designed by this team. Our editor-in-chief, Dr. Hasan Ahmet Gokce, is an academic who has devoted 20 years of his life to children's publishing. He is a publisher specializing in literature, theology, and Islamic arts. Sarah Bayza, the most creative editor of all time, studied sociology and has a natural talent for writing for children. She observes the market very closely, which keeps us up to date on the latest trends and ideas. Betty Oz, the funniest member of the team, studied graphic design, and she adds that humorous touch which is the essential part of children's publishing. Ishmael Bay is an award-winning children's illustrator and graphic designer at the heart of our magazine's visual quality. And Maya Salem is a curriculum expert actively working with children in the field. Each team member is committed to integrating their knowledge into children's publishing. I am in love with this team's energy that works wonders together!
Of course, besides this core team, we have a great marketing team that aims to bring Atlasia to the best place. They are literally the best at giving us feedback by attending to the reader participation and activity feedback and marketing to our young readers in the best possible way.
In addition to these two teams, we have writers and illustrators from all over the world. They reveal what we dream of in the best possible way. I would say I cannot imagine the absence of even one of them.
After returning to our home offices due to the pandemic, I can say that I am currently doing my dream job as someone who likes to be at home, be on my own, and deal with books. The first thing in the morning is to check my mailbox and respond to urgent emails. I prefer not to leave any unanswered or delay my response to them. Then we hold our daily editorial meeting with the team and plan a division of labor on what we need to get done during the day. The rest of my day is spent meeting with the writers and illustrators, making plans for new content, and smiling at our readers’ emails. My dearest fluffy cotton candy cat is with me the whole day; my best luck. Really, who wouldn’t want to spend their workday with their best furry friend!
Oh, thank you so much! Atlasia’s most outstanding achievement is undoubtedly its visual quality. All the illustrators we collaborate with are so good that I don’t know which one to talk about. I can mention the first one that comes to my mind. One of our monthly sections is a puzzle page that we created by illustrating over 50 characters. Our editor, Sarah, builds all the characters one by one and fits her dream scene into a Word document. A short document of 20-30 pages :) We prefer to free our artists by saying certain things on most of our pages, but since this is a puzzle section and there are many scenes we want to have, Sarah describes every detail. Our talented illustrator, Vikke Samson, brings all of Sarah's characters to life so beautifully that we are amazed every time. There’s such a bond between them now that Vikke wonderfully adds new characters to the composition that Sarah didn’t write, and “I thought you might want something like that,” she says. That demonstrates this closeness that we have with our illustrators and that understanding each other is the most important thing to us.
Here are my favorites from this section:
Although we have just completed our first year, we have such beautiful covers that I don’t know which one to choose. Let me start with the most recent. This is our March 2022 issue’s cover drawn by Sara Nikforouz. Sara’s colors and unique style fascinate me. All she needs is the theme, and the rest is up to her incredible imagination.
Another is the cover drawn by Sepideh Baratian for our September 2021 issue. Sepideh’s style is entirely different; she is a cut-paste master! She first visualizes it in her imagination; then, she creates her illustration by cutting and pasting her papers.
And third, the first cover of Atlasia, a drawing by our beloved artist Olga Surina. Olga’s vibrant colors and cute characters exemplify the bar we want to set in our magazine. As you can see, even on our covers, we aim to include children from different backgrounds so that all children find something of themselves. While we created our magazine as a product for Muslim children, it is inclusive, and we hope that all children will find something for them in it.
Rather than styles or subject matters, the first thing I personally look for is the artist’s love for children. Don’t be surprised if I say this; it’s usually clear from a portfolio whether the artist does their work with such passion or if they are simply using a skill. Regardless of skill and training, an artist who loves children can enter that world more easily and effortlessly bring us into the world they have created. Before technical details, I look for this magical atmosphere in portfolios. Other than that, the works that draw our attention in terms of style are those of artists who use colors very well. As for character designs, we care about facial expressions, body movements, and anatomy. For us, it’s great to see both editorial drawings and different character designs in portfolios.
Most of the feedback we receive from our readers is about our modern and high-quality visual identity. I want to quote one of them directly because it is a summary of what Atlasia intends to do:
Dear editorial team of Atlasia Kids,
I wanted to commend you on the brilliant graphics, illustrations, and marketing you have done for this magazine. I will be subscribing for my girls - as a huge fan of Highlights Magazine yet never seeing the representation, and it is lovely to see what you have created here in such a modern yet Islamic way!
We see the magazine not as ordinary reading material but as a new world that offers different reading experiences. At this point, we use the power of graphics. We have an icon set we call Atlasia Toolbox. These icons are designed because our readers have different intelligence types, enabling them to have different experiences on our pages. For example, we present some folk tales and stories as audio stories for our auditory-intelligent readers and show them on our page with the “listen” icon. For our readers who like to do hands-on activities, we have a “do it” icon.
In addition, we include special instructions on some of our pages for different reading experiences that will improve the reading culture and, at the same time, entertain our readers. We write down notes such as “Read this page in the kitchen,” “Read this page under the table,” and “Read this page on the bus.” Thus, the reading experience becomes different for each child.
As I mentioned above, we include guidelines to enable social communication in the magazine. For example, we encourage them to share the personality quiz with their friends or recommend that they do the activities on some pages with their parents. In short, we aim to include fun and interactive activities on as many of our pages as possible.
Atlasia, for me, is like a message in a bottle. Every month we write a message on a piece of paper, roll it up, and put it in a nice bottle. Then we leave it adrift in the ocean. We do not know which shore it reaches or which child receives that message. All we want is to put a smile on the face of every single child who receives our message. Yes, this is our biggest dream!
Growing up, my parents always encouraged my creative side by appreciating my many (way too many) drawings. My Dad is also an artist, a woodcarver, so I spent a lot of time as a child just watching him work. And as I grew older, I always gravitated towards art classes and art related events, from elementary school all the way to college. I majored in Graphic Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, then started my career as a general designer in several industries for a few years until I grew interested in creating books for children. So, I sent out application after application until I eventually landed an interview and was offered a Designer role at Macmillan.
My core responsibility as a designer is to take a manuscript and create an appealing package that fits the tone of the story. That includes choosing and working closely with illustrators for picture books and guiding them as they develop their beautiful artwork. And for YA novels, middle grade, and nonfiction titles, I focus on the interior design—creating engaging layouts using text, photos, doodles and/or spot art. On a typical day, I’m usually reviewing artist sketches with editors and writing up notes for revisions, designing and laying out picture book mechanicals and novel interiors, reviewing proofs for final printing and making text corrections for book passes.
Absolutely! Every day, I have the opportunity to work on books by incredible creatives. And the most recent titles that were a real delight to work on are Show the World by Angela Dalton and illustrated by Daria Peoples, My Love for You Is Always by Gillian Sze and illustrated by Michelle Lee and You Can Be ABCs by Robert Samuel White II, Robert Samuel White III and illustrated by Robert Paul Jr.
I tend to collaborate based on an individual’s learning style. We all absorb information differently, whether it’s through visuals, written text, audio, or a do-it-yourself approach. This means, if I’m attempting to explain an idea to an artist or teammate and they can’t quite understand what I’m trying to convey, I’ll then try to communicate the concept in a different way. Either by creating a quick visual mockup or providing a photo reference. Or perhaps explain it verbally in a meeting, as opposed to through email. And the same applies vice versa. If I’m having a hard time grasping an idea that’s being explained to me, I might ask the person to either reiterate it differently or provide a simple drawing or chart, which helps me the most as a visual learner.
When we think of highlighting a particular point in any story, we tend to think BIG. And changing the scale of an object or text is usually the easiest way of achieving this. But sometimes, just seeing something unexpected is enough to draw the readers eye to a different spot on the page, like a bold color or the lack of content. For example, when trying to pull attention to central points on a spread, taking away the excess can be the easiest way to do this. Meaning, removing any extra background elements that aren’t necessary in conveying the message on that page and embracing the negative space that remains.
I really enjoy the jacket and cover design stage of a book project. I tend to get a bit carried away with color options and comps, but I like the collaborative aspects of sharing options with the team and pulling different elements from each comp to create the final look. The lettering created for My Love for You Is Always is one of my favorite type treatments, particularly because I got a chance to work with my hands and start with basic sketches before moving onto the final rendering.
Here is the final result:
Speaking specifically for picture books, we always look for variety in an artist’s portfolio. So, we look out for drawings of children and people with movement, different perspectives, and variation in expression. Other elements that are important—depending on the style—are lighting, variety in color, and consistency in scale and proportions.
Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter was unlike any book interior design I’ve done before. It was both uplifting and heartbreaking as it tells the story of what sparked the movement, key historical events and figures, and how it’s shaped our country and its people. The photos by New York Times photographers are so powerful and show the resilience of Black Americans despite adversity, systemic racism, murder, and discrimination. Laying out the text and photos was an emotional, yet inspiring process and I’m so happy with how it all came together.
Being outside inspires me a great deal. I try to take daily walks around my neighborhood, and I always find something new and beautiful that I didn’t notice before. Taking the time to slow down and clear my mind helps me to pay attention to the small details. And in doing so, I can take my time to reflect on things that bring me joy and oftentimes stumble upon an unexpected and new idea.
“Ask questions!” I struggled with this early on as I felt like I always needed to prove myself and figure things out on my own. But a former coworker, who’s now a very dear friend of mine, once told me it’s okay to just ask. Ask as many questions as you need to in order to get a full understanding of what’s being asked of you. As the saying goes, "You don’t know what you don’t know". So, it’s better to ask (potentially nag) and do a great job the first time around than to sit in confusion, waste time and probably start from the beginning.
Show the World and You Can Be ABCs inspires readers to break from the norm to be bold, creative and explore the endless possibilities of all they can be. Both titles showcase young Black narrators and kids from different backgrounds that BIPOC children can relate to.
While My Love for You Is Always is a sweet and tender love letter from a mother to her child describing all the different ways love can be expressed through our senses.
And this conversation happens as they prepare a traditional Chinese dinner together.
Most recently, I’ve been especially proud of Neighbors by Kasya Denisevich, which won the Bologna Ragazzi Opera Prima Award in 2021. It was an honor to know that the Bologna Book Fair judges recognized how special it is.
I love the book’s themes, which are more crucial than ever: How important it is to connect with others, and how that connection and sense of empathy add vibrance and meaning to our lives. Kasya’s use of color brings the reader straight into that experience. The book starts out with a limited palette—black and white with a pop of red—and gradually gives way to full color by the book’s end. The takeaway is that our lives become more colorful when we are guided by curiosity and the quest for connection.
Two recent books by Shinsuke Yoshitake that I acquired from Japan are favorites as well: The Boring Book, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2020 and There Must Be More Than That!, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2021.
In The Boring Book, being bored is presented as a gateway to creativity and an opportunity to gain an expanded sense of the world. In There Must Be More Than That!, a child’s fears of the unknown are assuaged, not with a flip “Everything will be OK!” but with compelling examples of how perspective and an acceptance of uncertainty can actually be sources of strength during difficult times. I’m incredibly proud of bringing these books to Chronicle—they are both playful and thought-provoking with a striking graphic style, qualities that I’m always striving for in my acquisitions.
Novelty projects are an exciting part of my list because they allow me to partner with illustrators that I admire in different ways using a variety of materials.
After I acquired a reissue of Richard McGuire’s Go Fish Card Game a few years ago, Richard and I collaborated on two more card games, one focused on conservation and ecosystems, Richard McGuire’s Wild Cards, and one inspired by his 2001 New Yorker Valentine’s Day cover, Richard McGuire’s Playing Cards. The art in Richard McGuire’s Playing Cards is incredibly expressive despite the use of a limited palette. There is a narrative relayed in each suit: the “hearts” are about love, the “spades” about work, the “diamonds” about money, and the “clubs” about war. Richard has such a dynamic sense of storytelling, not to mention an impressive illustrative range. His art has a timeless quality, too.
I’ve also recently been working with Japanese author-illustrator Taro Gomi on original novelty projects. I’ve been Taro’s editor at Chronicle for a number of years, most recently re-issuing his picture book classic, Everyone Poops, so it was a goal of mine to develop original non-book projects with him as well. To make that happen, I pitched some ideas to Taro—a Funny Fish Go Fish card game and a set of playing cards. To my delight, he was up for them! Reviewing the original art for his card games has been such a thrill—there is so much nuance and energy in his work, and his sense of humor comes through in every illustration.
Finally, acquiring and developing ancillary products for the Moomin license has been a career highlight. Tove Jansson’s Moomin books are works of art, not to mention literature that I’ve enjoyed as an adult. Bringing that beauty to novelty formats like journals, notebook collections, and notecards was an incredible honor, and gave me an excuse to revisit Jansson’s original works.
At Chronicle, we are committed to creating distinctive, art-driven publishing.
I was presenting at a conference a few years ago, sharing some of my recently-published books and highlighting their production effects, like die-cuts on an unjacketed case and a cloth spine with a foil-stamping. Afterwards, an editor at another publishing house came up to me and said, “We always look to Chronicle Books as inspiration—I wish we could do that!” I hadn’t realized until then how unique it is that we focus on the look and feel of a book as part of the development process. In fact, we often talk about the production components in acquisition meetings—that sensibility is in our company’s DNA. At Chronicle, we want our books to have a tactile quality, which means we pay extra attention to cover effects, like spot UV or gloss, deboss and emboss, or paper graining on a picture book jacket. Those special elements make our books all the more giftable and treasured.
It depends on the project since I work on a variety of formats, from original picture books to novelty books, board books, puzzles, and games. Regardless of the project, though, I typically seek out a style that can be best described as eye-catching, soulful, and enduring. I also gravitate toward illustration styles that resonate with readers all over the world. I’m committed to reaching all readers, regardless of geography, so an illustration style often needs to have universal appeal.
Another quality that I look for is flexibility. It’s great to see a signature approach or aesthetic in a portfolio, but knowing that an illustrator is willing to step outside of their comfort zone to meet the needs of a potential project is ideal.
Finally, what typically sets an illustrator apart for me is their visual voice: That often comes through in a strong sense of color and line. If an illustrator is comfortable working in a limited palette, I like to see variations on that sensibility. I tend to gravitate toward illustrators who have a style that appeals to children all while speaking to an adult’s sense of artfulness. Since adults are the ones buying books for kids, they are always part of the equation for me—adults are also the ones who will likely be reading the picture book again (and again) to the youngest of readers, so it’s important to have a kid-friendly style that adults can appreciate, too.
One of the first projects that I remember being especially excited to pitch to my team was I Didn’t Do My Homework Because… by Davide Cali and Benjamin Chaud. A year earlier, I had acquired Benjamin’s The Bear’s Song, a buy-in from French publisher Helium that went on to win the Society of Illustrators Gold medal and was a New York Times Notable Book, so Benjamin was very much on my radar. The agent, Debbie Bibo, brought Davide and Benjamin together for this project, so I was able to present a solid, original concept to my publishing group for acquisition, with the author and illustrator already paired up. The art was still in early sketches, but the project was brimming with potential—it was just so funny and smart.
I also appreciated the fact that the project didn’t talk down to readers. Both the text and the art featured a wry yet accessible tone, and one of the most amusing “meta” moments I’d seen in children’s literature. It was edgy and unpredictable, pushing the bounds of what an illustrated book for children could be.
I was encouraged when my publishing group saw the potential that I did. And, even better, I was given the green light to acquire sequels, which I originated and pitched to both Benjamin and Davide before we even had a full year’s sales of the first book. That hardly ever happens! And it was validating when our international subrights team brought the book to the Bologna Book Fair and it quickly became an international bestseller. We now have more than 20 international editions of I Didn’t Do My Homework… and strong support from publishers all over the world for the additional books in the series. And we’re about to publish the sixth book in the series in Spring 2023, A Funny Thing Happened After School….
My takeaway from this experience was that it’s possible to reach readers all over the world with our publishing. And that young readers can process and appreciate irony. Children want their sense of the world to be pushed and expanded—that’s how they grow. One of the ways to achieve that as picture book creators is to experiment with tone—in the narrative and the illustrations—and to present a broad range of emotions and sensibilities. That depth sets a project apart and helps it to last.
I’ve been blown away so many times recently, but a project that comes to mind is Where the Wee Ones Go by Karen Jameson, illustrated by Zosienka. Karen’s prose is lush, lyrical, and dreamy, and Zosienka brings that same sensibility to the art in the book. Spending time with Zosienka’s work in Wee Ones is like traveling all over the world and connecting with endangered animals, all while keeping a safe and awe-inspired distance. If art can be a lullaby and a transporting force, Zosienka’s illustrations achieve that beautifully.
A picture book begins with the editor’s acquisition. If it’s a project submitted by an author-illustrator, I’ll share both the text and the illustrations—a mix of sketches and full-color pieces and possibly a portfolio link—with my editorial colleagues. If it’s a manuscript from an author, I’ll do the same, but without art since an illustrator is commissioned later.
The editors in our group discuss the project. If there is consensus, I’ll bring the project to the final acquisition stage, which is a meeting comprised of the editors, our marketing and publicity team, production managers, art directors, and managing editorial colleagues. I’ll write a proposal highlighting the project’s selling points and include competitive titles from Chronicle and other publishers. I also consider how Chronicle might best position the project in the market. This presentation is circulated in advance, and then I present these points and more in the meeting itself.
If the project gets the green light, an art director is assigned, and we begin the work of developing the project together. Using the example of Woodland Dreams: I first saw Karen Jameson’s manuscript at an SCBWI conference, and I brought it for acquisition at Chronicle a week or so later. Even at the acquisition stage, I thought that Marc Boutavant would be the perfect illustrator to accompany Karen’s text. Marc and I had previously worked together on novelty projects, and we’d met a few times in Paris.
I made an offer to Marc’s agent—he accepted—and the next step, after we had a final and signed contract, was sharing a sketch dummy of the book that the art director had prepared. That way, Marc could get a sense of where the text might be placed as he worked on the illustrations.
When the sketches come in, the art director and I will meet to review them and then share our notes with the illustrator—in this case, with Marc. Revised sketches are typically submitted a few months later, the art director and I meet again, relay any additional feedback, and then it’s time for the illustrator to go to final art. At that stage, the art director will place the illustrations in galleys, where the art and text coexist for the first time. Then, galleys are routed to the full in-house team for a production review and copyedit. There might be two or three more galley rounds, but the goal is to minimize changes with each round as we approach the end of the production schedule. During the galley stage, we’ll work with the illustrator on cover concepts, with the art director often mocking up a general direction, and the illustrator taking it from there, submitting three to four examples that we then share with our group and others in the company. And it’s always exciting to share galleys featuring the final art with the author—Karen was delighted by what Marc created and we were, too.
It's also worth noting that at the first galley stage, we’ll generate proofs for the illustrator to review so that we can assess how color is printing. That way, any color adjustments are made before we get too far in the production schedule. There a few galley rounds, ideally with fewer or minimal changes with each one until we finally send the design files to the printer.
It would be tough to pick just one, but a particularly thrilling experience was when I was invited to teach a week-long publishing course at Mimaster Illustrazione in Milan, Italy, in the winter of 2018. It was an honor to represent Chronicle and to share my list of picture books and novelty formats with a new generation of illustrators. It was also an opportunity for me to really take stock of how my list has evolved over the years—what I gravitate toward thematically and artistically, and to share that vision. Of course, the hope was to discover new talent while teaching, too.
That teaching experience was also meaningful because it was when I met Kasya Denisevich, who was one of my Mimaster students. She shared her picture book project, Neighbors, with me during the course’s portfolio review, and I immediately knew that I wanted to acquire it. Her illustrations were deeply moving, and she had crafted a text that worked so seamlessly with her visual style. The book was a journey of the self, guiding the reader through a relatable series of questions that grow increasingly meaningful as the book goes on.
I also met the Rome-based author-illustrator Marianna Coppo for the first time during that trip. Marianna shared a full sketch dummy of a new project with me, the entire book illustrated on index card-size paper. The project was about a misunderstood dog living a seemingly perfect life. I loved the questions that her project sparked: How do we know who we really are outside the constructs of societal or familial expectations? And how do we break free of those constraints and individuate? Those themes are important to everyone, so it was exhilarating to see them presented so dynamically in a picture book proposal. I acquired the project within weeks of returning to the Bay Area, and the picture book, Such a Good Boy, was published in 2020. That was actually the beginning of a trilogy. A Brave Cat, the second book, is now out, and we are publishing the third book, Fish and Crab, in Spring 2023. Each book focuses on the journey of self-discovery, all explored through the lens of pets. So, that meeting in Milan initiated an entire trilogy—something neither of us could have predicted at the time!
I love this question! I’m passionate about developing picture books that resonate widely, that transcend borders, and that are embraced by a global readership. I’ve discovered that the best way to do that is to focus on big themes that speak to enduring questions. This means that a picture book should acknowledge what it means to be human. Children, from a very young age, are craving engagement and content on that level: They live in an adult’s world, after all, so they are already getting daily glimpses into that existence. And they are developing their emotional patina, too—figuring out who they are and how they will navigate life.
A great example of a book that captures these “secret ingredients” is Marianna Coppo’s Such a Good Boy. Young readers are introduced to Buzz, a fluffy toy poodle. On the surface, his life couldn’t be more ideal: He lives in a luxurious house, has the best toys and expensive dog food, and even attends a regular appointment to ensure that he looks “perfect.” But Buzz’s life isn’t perfect at all, and it becomes increasingly clear to the reader that Buzz is actually resisting this focus on perfection. It’s limiting rather than enriching when it comes to his personality and how he engages the world. Society tells Buzz that he should be happy based on external considerations (the house, his possessions), but Buzz is developing a keen sense of who he is beyond all of that. Fully self-actualizing means getting in touch with his more wild, less pampered side. To fully be himself, Buzz must go on a journey, and the reader is along for the ride. With every page turn, the reader has the chance to engage in self-reflection, too.
Perhaps most importantly, Marianna treats readers with respect—not talking down to them, not assuming that these bigger themes are too “high concept.” Rather, there is such respect and wisdom relayed through the text and illustrations, which means there is a meaningful takeaway for all ages.
I would say that a picture book should embrace themes that often follow us into adulthood, finding a way to work them into a narrative that resonates with young readers. That way, the book becomes the springboard for re-reads, discussion, and even change.
I’ve never been especially focused on trends, mostly because I’ve built a list informed by ever-present themes related to self-exploration, emotions, individuation, and how that growth serves the greater community and our experience of the world. Courting these themes helps a picture book to find an engaged audience without chasing what’s “in” at the moment. Trends are always changing, after all. And young readers aren’t trend-focused—rather, they are hungry for powerful stories and characters that mirror their experience on an immediate, heart-felt level. I suppose “heart” is the ultimate driver of my list. As long as there is heart in a pitch, picture book proposal, or illustrator’s portfolio, my interest is piqued. That’s the key to so much, really—in art and in life—and, ultimately, why picture books have the power to be transformative.
Thanks for your patience and good work. I must say, of all the sites & advertising I've done, I think childrensillustrators.com is the one that works!
Meryl Jones - Craven Design (Agent)