I was always a big reader growing up, so when I found out there was a whole industry dedicated to making the books I had loved, I did everything I could to learn more about it. I listened to podcasts like Minorities in Publishing, read posts by industry Representation Matters mentorship program professionals online, and researched mentorship programs. I ultimately was accepted into the which connected me with a senior and junior publishing professional who shared their insights in the industry. Simultaneously, I saw a call online for an internship at Clarion Books (which at the time was an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), interviewed, and got the role. Through my time as an intern, my mentors guided me, and when a role opened up as a full-time editorial assistant at the Books for Young Readers imprint in the company, I went through the application process got the job which was my first full-time role in publishing. Through my time at Clarion Books and HMH Books for Young Readers, I learned so much and ultimately transitioned into my current role as an Associate Editor when the trade division was acquired by HarperCollins’ Publishers.
Fibbed is my debut graphic novel as an author-illustrator. It was inspired by many things, from reconnecting with my family as a first-generation immigrant and my love of folktales and fantasy. Particularly, it draws from Ananse (Anansi) folktales from Ghanaian lore, which follow the trickster spider who is said to have brought all the stories to the world. In Fibbed, my main character Nana is visiting her family in Ghana for the summer after a series of incidents at her school land her in hot water. There, she discovers that there’s magic in the village forest and must team up with Ananse to save the magic from a group of greedy contractors trying to steal and sell the forest’s magic for profit. Nana’s journey is about finding your voice and learning from the past. Themes of family, environmental stewardship, and community play an important role in the story.
But most of all, it’s about searching for the truth, and finding instead, the power that comes in believing; in others, in ourselves, and in the intangible.
I grew up reading everything and anything as a kid, from fantasy stories, contemporary comics, to epic tales inspired by history and myths. Some of my favorites included Ella Enchanted, Fruits Basket, Kare Kano, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Eragon. Additionally, I read so many seminal books in high school and college that still stick with me today, like Brown Girl Dreaming and The Wrath and the Dawn. I definitely think these stories inspired my genre interests. As an editor now, I’m still particularly drawn to fantasy, contemporary, and historical fiction. For my list, I look for works that reflect the diversity of the world around us, from coming-of-age middle grade narratives about family, friendship, and adventure, sweeping young adult fantasies with a hint of romance, rom-coms and contemporary stories, to historical fiction and graphic novels in the contemporary and fantasy genres.
I think the great thing about portfolios is that they’re a reflection of you. To me, that’s so important to keep in mind, and the advice I would offer your members is to take your portfolio as an expression of this. How does the work in your portfolio reflect your strengths, your interests, your style as an artist and the work you’d like to do in the future? Sometimes as a creator, it’s easy to focus only of what you think someone else wants, even though that’s important in terms of figuring out how to pitch. But what’s more important is defining who you are, what your work represents and then finding the right collaborator. That’s what I look for in an artist’s portfolio rather than a specific subject matter, though of course depending on the project I’m working on, I would consider portfolios in the specific genres of that project. So for me, creators who are able to hone their craft and really showcase their strengths and creativity in their portfolio are the ones that resonate.
So the spreads I’m selecting are from The Secret of the Ravens by Joanna Cacao. The story follows twin siblings, Elliot and Liza. In the story, Elliot must join forces with a mysterious and ancient mage to save Liza from a deadly poison after the two are swept up in a series of magical Raven Quests.
When I first came across Joanna’s art, I was immediately drawn to how beautifully she is able to bring to life worlds and characters through her stunning color palettes and expressive renderings. Her art has a vibrancy, energy, and emotional core to it that makes you feel like you’re in the story and the world and characters are alive. I have so many favorite pieces from the book. One of the previews we shared on the book’s catalog page showcases when Elliot and Liza first arrive at the Kawumiti Kingdom capital.
Here you get to see a taste of Joanna’s gorgeous landscape work, the expressive nature of her character designs, and the first sense of this world and the struggles the twins face as they try to build a better life for themselves. Elliot and Liza only have each other, so when that tragically changes, Elliot is thrust on a quest to save Liza—even if it means sacrificing everything.
When it comes to a creative block, I think my advice to illustrators would be to step back, reassess, and reconnect. Stepping back could mean giving yourself a break if you feel you’ve been creating a lot of work but haven’t felt that spark. It’s just giving yourself time to rest.
Reassessing to me is about reflecting on what you have created so far. A lot of times it can feel like creators need outside validation to celebrate a piece but taking the time to reflect on the work you’ve done with a positive outlook on what you loved, what you’d want to do more of, and how you’d like to continue honing your craft can help give space to overcome a creative block.
Finally, reconnecting with art itself can be so helpful to that end, whether that be celebrating the works of other creators you love or exploring a new style that you’ve always wanted to try. Finding a way to enjoy and be excited about creating can help immensely when overcoming a creative block.
Luckily, I’ve had a lot of mentors and cheerleaders throughout my career. From my mentors at Representation Matters, my early and current managers at HMH Books for Young Readers and HarperCollins, and my coworkers and peers. As challenging as this industry can often seem, it’s also filled with so many kind and passionate people and I’ve found those connections to be so rewarding.
All of my dream projects were books I could never have imagined or dreamed up myself. That’s the magic of working in an industry where we get to share the stories of creators. To me, dream projects are when visions align across the illustrator, author, editor, and the team in the publishing house. I’m continually amazed by the many stories and voices there are to share and the incredible creators behind them. Every project has something magical and unique about it, and the heart of that is the creators behind the books and the collaborative process that’s the nature of publishing.
There are so many amazing releases coming from HarperCollins Children’s Books this year! We have everything from delightful picture books, heart-felt middle grade novels, to adventurous young adult novels and graphic novels. Some of them I have been lucky enough to work on like The Secret of the Ravens and The Lightstruck and others I’ve been excited to get to experience as a reader such as The Probability of Everything, Frontera, Cindy and Panda...
The Do-Over, and The Hills of Estrella Roja to name a few on both ends. But there are so many incredible stories coming this year and I can’t wait for readers to be swept away by the work of our amazing creators!
I actually started in publishing in high school. Back then, there was a press called Landmark Editions that used to run a contest for kids. To enter, you wrote and illustrated your own book, and if you won in your age group, you got a publishing contract. I don't think there were very many entries the year I entered, but I was thrilled all the same when I got the chance to publish my book. I fell in love with every part of the process—flying to their offices, drawing sketch after sketch, studying great picture books, tapping out meter and rhyme over the phone with my editor (those calls could get tense! but she was the matriarch of Landmark and I adored her). Most nights I stayed up into the early morning working on that book, just for the love of it. (Interesting side note: Landmark was the same company that gave Dav Piley his start with World War Won). I studied business in college, but when an internship opened up at a local publishing startup, I applied immediately. I started as a graphic designer and creative director there, then became the publishing director. We grew the company into one of the fastest-growing publishers in the US, and then I finally left to start Bushel & Peck with my wife, Stephanie.
I've never not loved working in book publishing, but it's a different level of passion when you run your own press. While you always have to keep your eyes on the numbers, your press eventually becomes an extension of you—what you're excited about, what you're curious about, what you want to share with the world. I remember staring at the ceiling once shortly after leaving my previous job, just thinking for a bit. We were in the middle of starting Bushel & Peck, and it occurred to me that I didn't have to start a publishing company. I could have started a new career, gone back to school, anything! But what pulled me to publishing like nothing else was knowing that making books gave me a voice. There are plenty of careers that are fun, creative, and everything else I love about publishing, but it's that voice that's so different from anything else.
There are so many! I love The Interactive Constitution, because it takes something so dry to kids and makes it compelling and engaging with such a novel format, like its color-changing words to help teach vocabulary in the Preamble. (Plus, I'm passionate about American history and civics education, so it's a book we were thrilled to see do well.) But that's a hallmark of many of our books. Any good publisher looks for the perfect marriage of text and art. You might think of those as X and Y axes. But to me, a great publisher will add a third Z axis: format. Can the physical book itself be part of the experience? If it's a book on music, do you add sound? A book on something physical like anatomy, do you add flaps to enhance the physicality of what the kid is learning? If it's historical, do you choose rough woodfree paper to add a tactile sense of time and place? These are the details that make publishing exciting for me.
Any time we nail the intersection of art, text, and physicality and align the result with the right market, the book tends to do well. Our illustrated poets series is a great example. In that case, we paired beloved poems with vintage collage art that is just so beautiful and really adds to the experience. You can almost feel Poe or Dickinson in the art itself, because so much of it is from the same era. It also created a series of crossover books that sell just as well for adults as they do for children, plus it differentiated our series from those that tend to have more kidlike art, which we felt wasn't the right choice for such celebrated literature.
Both! More than anything, what we look for is an illustrator who can add an extra dimension to a book. Good illustrators draw what they're told and make a beautiful book. Great illustrators enhance the story and add an extra layer of richness, detail, and emotion beyond what the text can convey. Whether young or established, these are the types of artists we like to work with.
I don't know about other publishers, but one of the biggest hesitations we have when hiring an artist is wondering what their work for us will actually end up looking like. Portfolios or past publications help greatly with this, but there's always a bit of a risk in hiring an illustrator you haven't worked with before. For this reason, a couple of pieces of advice come to mind. First, always put your best foot forward. Portfolios tend to be judged on the best and worst pieces, and sometimes the worst pieces tend to get the heavier weight because publishers are afraid that's what they'll get if they hire you. Trim them down to your best, most sensational pieces, and that will get publishers excited. Second, try to be clear about your style. You don't have to limit yourself to one illustration style, but be clear about the different ways you like to create and what a publisher might expect if they hire you. When portfolios are a bit all over the map with medium and style, it brings back that uncertainty for the publisher: what am I really going to get if I hire this person?
Having the freedom to create what you're passionate about is always one of the top perks of running your own press. That brings a slew of its own headaches and challenges, but if you love what you do, all the stress takes a distant second place. That's not to say there aren't lows and sleepless nights, but they're nothing compared with the thrill of seeing a book succeed or holding something in your hands you carefully crafted from its inception.
All the greats: Harry Potter, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Little Britches, Winnie the Pooh, Henry Reed, and on and on.
I learned so, so much from Christopher Robbins, the current CEO of Familius. And along the way, there have been countless people who have shaped my publishing worldview. Every interaction is an opportunity to learn!
Anything that lived years at the top of the New York Times, of course! But really, if a book somehow touches a life, then that's pay dirt for us.
I started making and studying art in elementary school and was part of specialized art programs in junior high and high school. In fact, I went to the “FAME” school (LaGuardia H.S.), which is behind Lincoln Center. Then I attended the historic museum school, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, for my BFA. It feels like I’ve always been surrounded by creative people.
My career began in newspaper and magazine design in Chicago and Silicon Valley. Then I moved back to NYC and began to pursue my dream of being a Book Designer. I spent the first half of my book career in adult books, first at Avalon, an Indie, and then at Random House Adult. I made the move to children’s books by joining the amazing team at Disney Hyperion. While there, I was best known for my YA and MG cover design, though I did some picture books too. And I found picture book editors and artists were some of the best people to know and befriend. I then became the Associate Art Director at Workman Kids, before co-founding RISE with Cecily Kaiser in 2019.
That’s tough…I wouldn’t say favorites, but the RISE titles I identify the most with are:
Who Was Celia Cruz? Board Book
I AM!: Affirmations for Resilience
Our Skin: A First Conversation about Race
I would say we are looking for thoughtful illustrators who want to work on books that are authentic to them. Books whose subject matter has some connection to their lived or learned experience. Our books help kids (0-5) understand and feel empowered in the world around them. So we don’t have a lot of “fantastical” books. And we tend to hire artists who have more realistic proportions, and who make art about our everyday world. We also like art that can be appreciated by everyone, including the many adults who select, purchase, and read these books to our young audience. We often hire fine artists, editorial illustrators, or artists who have never even thought of illustrating for children.
Make work on the subject you are passionate about.
Hashtag your work’s subject matter.
Write super long bios that tell me a lot about you and the things you are passionate about. I want to know what experience shaped you and your work. Where did you grow up? Are you a child of immigrants? Do you love math, science, food, typography, music? All of that should be in your bio.
Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert, art by Chris Silas Neal
Picture Us In the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, art by Adams Carvalho
Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty, art by Alexander Jansson
Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds, with art by the incomparable Kadir Nelson
EVERY SINGLE BOOK on the RISE list, which I am SO proud to have co-founded.
Pretty much anything I get from Edel Rodriguez blows my mind. I literally can’t picture anything he is going to turn in. That really impresses me. When people are unpredictable BUT BRILLIANT. He’s a pro and one of my heroes. I feel so lucky that he was on our inaugural RISE list.
If you look at any page of I AM!: Affirmations for Resilience, you are looking at Edel’s first hunch on each page, with minor tweaks. That spread that reads, My Friends And Family Love Me! That shouldn’t work, but it does. The crazy bend of the kid’s body. It’s brilliant in that it captures the extreme joy of kid gestures. So smart!
I love nurturing and challenging talent. It’s the best part of the job.
My whole career, I have pulled artists I like into whatever age group I’m designing for. Rise is no different. If you are outstanding, I’ll want to hire you. There are many ways to be great. You can be starting out, but already be a stand-out. My job is to see which projects are a match for an artist.
Sometimes I hold on to someone for YEARS, before the right project comes along. That’s what happened with Being You artist Andy Passchier. Andy sent an adult graphic novel proposal to my last job. And I KNEW, Andy was IT. THE REAL DEAL. A smart, insightful, funny, visually powerful artist. That publisher passed on Andy’s project, but I KNEW that eventually I would find a way to work with Andy. When I read Being You: A First Conversation about Gender, I was jumping up and down, because I knew Andy was THE ARTIST, and their project had finally arrived.
Short answer, a style that feels universal. That can be many different things. I would say for me, they need to make fearless color choices. Pop colors translate very well.
Career Mentors—David Tran, Elizabeth Rendfleisch, Joann Hill, Rotem Moscovich, Lily Malcom
Design Influences—Elizabeth H. Clark, Nicole Caputo, Charlotte Strick, Jon Gray (Gray 318)
Picture Book Heroes—Minh Le, Isabel Roxas, Raúl the Third, Kadir Nelson, Yuyi Morales
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.
Childrensillustrators.com totally rocks!
Judy Neis - The Neis Group (Rep)