Maria Elias Interview

Maria Elias

Art Director for RISE, Penguin Random House

Tell us about your background and how you came to be Art Director for RISE at Penguin Random House.

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.

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

That’s tough…I wouldn’t say favorites, but the RISE titles I identify the most with are:

Who Was Celia Cruz? Board Book

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I AM!: Affirmations for Resilience

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Our Skin: A First Conversation about Race

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How would you describe the kind of illustration styles & subject matters you are looking for at RISE?

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.

What portfolio advice would you offer members of looking to appeal to RISE?

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.

You have designed and art directed hundreds of childrens books. What have been some of the stand out projects for you?

For YA—

Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert, art by Chris Silas Neal

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Picture Us In the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert, art by Adams Carvalho

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For MG—

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty, art by Alexander Jansson

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Miles Morales by Jason Reynolds, with art by the incomparable Kadir Nelson

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For 0-5—

EVERY SINGLE BOOK on the RISE list, which I am SO proud to have co-founded.

Tell us about the most imaginative response to a brief you've ever received from an artist.

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!

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At RISE, do you enjoy nurturing emerging artistic talent, or prefer working with established illustrators?

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.

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What qualities are required for illustrations to have international appeal?

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.

Who have been some of your most influential career mentors?

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

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