Emma Byrne Interview

Emma Byrne

Design Manager, The O’Brien Press

Could you describe your role as Art Director at The O’Brien Press and give an overview of what a typical day can involve?

My job involves designing books and covers for a busy list of general and children’s books, and commissioning and art directing artwork across the board.

In particular, my job has a large focus on commissioning art for children’s books.

I work from home mostly but spend one day a week in the office. I live in rural Co. Wexford, in the southeast of Ireland, and the office is an hour away in Dublin. A typical day might involve going out to my office at home, which is in a renovated outbuilding, and putting on some music before I head into my mailbox.

It’s necessary to be a multitasker and as my work involves conceptual work, design and layout and then illustration commissioning. I work with a team of editors and a sales team.

It varies at different times of the year, but in January and February I am busy creating design concepts for the Autumn list covers; similarly in November and December, I work on concepts for the Spring list of the following year. This involves ideas for children’s illustration. I have a design meeting once a week where I present these ideas, including creating a shortlist of illustrators whom I think might work illustrating a title.

As well as the core practical work, one of the big aspects of the work is communication – this can involve email, zoom meetings and also face-to-face meetings.

In terms of the children’s picture books, I am given an edited text by an editor, I get it on pages then give art direction notes, which I then send to an illustrator and discuss possible approaches. It can vary, but it usually goes to scamps first, then first line and then colour. With discussion and author and editor involvement all along the line.

Select 3 of your favourite titles from your current list to share with our audience.

Hard to choose! But I am very excited by three upcoming books this season.

Over the Red Brick Chimney by Úna Leavy and illustrated by Shannon Bergin is a gorgeous story about a little goose who is migrating to Ireland for the Winter. He gets blown off course and is injured, but helped back to health by a little boy called Finn and his mother. It was my first time working with Shannon and she did an amazing job capturing the characters and atmosphere of the story.

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I See The Moon And The Moon Sees Me, Favourite Rhymes From An Irish Childhood by Sarah Webb and illustrated by Paul Delaney is a beautiful collection of children’s nursery rhymes. Paul’s quirky, energetic and vivid illustrations really bring new life to these wonderful age-old rhymes.

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The Keeper of the Bees by Eimear Chaomhánach is a book about beekeeping in Irish folklore and I put the case for it to be illustrated. Jane Carkill created magnificent drawings that explore the many themes of the book associated with bees such as legend, folklore and the natural world. Her work emphasised the mystical nature of bees and their importance.

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What are three things that illustrators should a) include and b) avoid in their portfolio?

I always love it when illustrators include a variety in their work. To include: good characters, good drawing skill, and an understanding of colour. Show me work that you are passionate about, and that you feel says something about you - and your experience.

To avoid: lengthy text explanation about process. The work needs to speak for itself.

Describe the most memorable project you’ve been involved in.

It changes constantly! A recent book would have to be Billy Conker’s Nature-Spotting Adventure by Conor Busuttil. The sheer level of detail in Conor’s work and his low-tech approach meant it was a challenging book to put together, but enormously rewarding. It was longlisted for the Wainwright Prize (Children’s) – 2023.

Another recent project has to be Paddy Donnelly’s The Golden Hare, just for the excitement that I would await in my inbox with new images arriving!

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Which creatives have had a big impact on your professional journey?

In terms of typography Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography, and Eric Gill’s An Essay on Typography, were game changing for me. Dave McKean’s illustration work on the Sandman graphic novels by Neil Gaiman, were astounding. And when I was small the Richard Scarry books made a huge impression.

What are some of the bestselling titles you have had the pleasure of art directing?

Fox & Son Tailers by Paddy Donnelly. Wonders of the Wild by Éanna Ní Lamhna, illustrated by Brian Fitzgerald. The Moon Spun Round: WB Yeats for Children, edited by Noreen Doody and illustrated by Shona Shirley Macdonald.

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When browsing an artist’s portfolio, what typically captures your attention?

Good characters, good drawing skill, and an understanding of colour. If an illustrator is passionate about what they do this will speak for itself!

Are there particular illustration styles or subject matters that appeal to The O’Brien Press?

I make a strong effort to commission artists that have a connection to Ireland in some way. Most of our list is around Irish subjects, even though we export them internationally, and it’s good to have someone who understands that cultural context.

Describe the process of working with an exciting debut illustration talent.

It is exciting to work with someone new, and actually a lot of my work is working with debut illustrators. I love finding and developing someone new! As they are new to the process, I find the unfurling of talent and seeing a person grow enormously rewarding. Typically I often work with someone who isn’t used to books, or sometimes balancing their images with words. In terms of process it can require patience on the illustrator’s behalf, as there can be a lot of back and forth. It also requires an understanding of collaboration, but it is lovely to see the final result. I work with a new illustrator as I might with any illustrator: I work up a text with art direction notes, send it to them for scamps and roughs, and sometimes character development, and then it goes from there.

What is your favourite children’s book of all time?

Very hard to pick one! I think Irish Myths and Legends by Lady Gregory, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, published by Folio, is exquisite! It has been very inspirational for me in how it pushes the form of illustration, and I just keep on returning to it.

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