My pleasure, Dionna. And thanks!
Wondering, did you love to draw as a child?
I loved to draw from a very young age. I remember always adding illustrations to my book reports in elementary school and I would spend a lot of time writing and illustrating little stories at the dining room table. Any days that we had art class in school were my favorite days. I cherish the memories of those early creative years when I would make things just because it was fun, it felt like play and I never once had the thought of wondering if what I was making was good or not.
As I got a little older, those anxieties about wanting to be good at it and worrying that I wasn’t good enough crept in and dimmed my creativity a bit. I was afraid of being judged, so even though I still loved to draw, I kept it private and didn’t like to show my drawings to anyone. However, my parents were completely supportive and gave me a lot of encouragement to keep going. I think that’s something a lot of kids go through and I’m even seeing it now with my own daughter. If I’m honest, it’s still something that I struggle with today (imposter syndrome anyone?) but I don’t let it stop me, because I just love making pictures too much!
How did you find your way to becoming a kidlit illustrator? Do tell a little about your first published project, how you were hired for it?
Once I made the decision to try and pursue work in children’s books, my very first step was joining my local SCBWI and attending their conference. My goal was to learn as much about the industry as I could and to get feedback on my portfolio. The first year, the feedback on my work was that it wasn’t up to a professional level yet. It was hard to hear, but it gave me fuel to keep going, keep practicing and learning. The second year, the feedback was much improved and I felt like I was at least headed in the right direction. I started submitting my portfolio to two agents to test the waters. One said they really liked my work, but they just took on another illustrator who’s style they felt was too similar to mine, so they passed and I never got a response from the other.
I was about to email a few more agents when out of the blue I got an email from the agency at the top of my dream list asking if I was seeking representation. She had found my work online and I couldn’t believe it! We had a six-month-long back-and-forth, sort of a trial period with me making new portfolio pieces and them giving me feedback. It was during this time that my agency landed me my first job illustrating a book with a small educational publisher. At the end of the trial period, I was offered to sign with them and they have kept me busy with amazing book projects over the last four years.
My latest picture book, Secrets of the Sea, written by Evan Griffith (Clarion Books), was one of my favorite projects to date. It tells the true life story of Jeanne Power, a Victorian era French scientist who was the first to design and build an aquarium for scientific study of sea creatures. She faced a lot of misogyny in trying to get her research seen with some men even trying to take credit for her work. She worked very hard to not only conduct her research, but to ensure that she was given the proper credit for it.
As an illustrator, how do you get into the character's head, so to speak?
For Jeanne Power, there was a black-and-white photo of her that I used as my starting point in designing her character. I also knew that she worked as a dressmaker, so I imagined her being very fashionable, which in Victorian times meant she wore a lot of beautiful dresses with big puffy sleeves. I gave her a different dress on every page and I especially loved the idea that Jeanne did not hide her femininity to try and fit in with her male, scientist counterparts. In my mind, she fully embraced the idea that she could be brilliant, strong, hard working, all while loving to wear beautiful dresses and being feminine at the same time. For authenticity, I did a lot of research on Victorian-era clothing, hairstyles and furniture, which was so fun.
Whenever I sit down to illustrate a book, I like to imagine who the character is outside of the book. How do they live their life outside of just this one story? That helps me to think of them not just as a character but as a real person.
When creating, what gives you the greatest pleasure?
My favorite part of the process is always the coloring-in stage. That is the most fun where the drawing is already there and I can enter the flow of bringing it to life. The initial sketches always give me anxiety. Starting on a blank page and having to create something from nothing can be scary. There are so many possibilities and a million ways to visually tell every story. Once the sketches are done and approved, that’s when I can relax more and the fun really starts for me.
What are you working on now and are you enjoying it?
I am working on two books at the moment. One is a chapter book series which I’m not allowed to talk much about yet, but I think I can say that it involves mermaids (so fun!) The other is a Little Golden book, which will actually be my third one. They are the absolute best clients! Getting to work on a Little Golden book was always a dream of mine and the fact that they are so amazing to work with is just the cherry on top.