Aram Kim Interview

Aram Kim

Art Director, Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

How long have you held the position of Art Director for Macmillan Children's publishing & what has been your career path to date?

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.  

Could you describe the variety involved in a typical day working across Macmillan's imprints?

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.

What impact has your own childhood had on the kind of stories you particularly enjoy working on?

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.

What's the most powerful story you've had the pleasure of art directing?

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.

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Describe the most awe-inspiring sketches you have ever received from an artist.

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 Chefs 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. 

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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.

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For members looking to appeal to Macmillan Children's publishing, what things should they a) include and b) avoid showing in their portfolio?

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.

Aside from artistic talent, what other qualities do you look for in an illustrator?

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.

Tell us about a highly credible & believable character developed by an artist which really succeeded in engaging and winning the reader over.

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.

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Who have been some of your greatest career mentors?

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.

You also write & illustrate your own children's books, could you share some of those with our audience?

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 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, 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.

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