Pre-#NY16SCBWI Interview: Sophie Blackall


Dear Illustrators,TeamBlog_Widget_LA2015_team[1]

Haven’t decided whether to attend the 17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC or not? Well, here’s a reason to sign up today: beloved illustrator Sophie Blackall will be on faculty leading a pre-conference illustration intensive. Now don’t procrastinate any longer, go sign up!

Blackall is a Brooklyn-based Australian artist who has illustrated over thirty books for children, including Ruby’s Wish, Big Red Lollipop, The Baby Tree, A Fine Dessert, Finding Winnie and the New York Times bestselling series, Ivy and Bean. She has won the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Founder’s Award from the Society of Illustrators, a Horn Book Honor, a Golden Kite Honor and two books have been New York Times Top Ten Picture Books.Finding[1]

I’m pleased to host an interview today with Sophie Blackall:

Don: Sophie, it’s such an honor to interview you here. I’ve been a fan for quite a long time.

Sophie: Thank you, Don, right back at you!

Don: In an earlier blog post, I once joked about the need for an entire section of a bookstore to be dedicated to you and your many books. How many books are you juggling at once now? Can you talk a bit about your process of managing several books at once?

A-Fine-Dessert[1]Sophie: Kids always ask how long it took to do the drawings for a book, and often I find myself saying, “A year”, which feels about right. Then I do the math and realize I have done at least two (and up to four) picture books and a chapter book and a bunch of other projects every year for the past 13 years. And THEN I realize that I haven’t had a proper weekend in about 13 years. And then I feel like taking a nap. AND THEN I talk to Dan Santat who once did 13 books in a year. And then I get back to work. All of which is to say I am trying very hard to do fewer books. It’s hard when you are supporting a family and you have college fees on the horizon and you’ve chosen a job which is – as often as not – a labor of love. But if it wasn’t true love, I’d have switched careers long ago.

Don: You’ve illustrated just about every type and genre of book for youth readers. What types of manuscripts attract your attention?

image2[1]Sophie: I work so far ahead that if I take on a manuscript, I probably won’t start work on it for three years. Recently I’ve been saying no to almost everything (which is terrifying), so that I can close this gap and feel a bit more spontaneous. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s a bit like ordering something off a menu and not being able to eat it for three years. Am I sure I’m still going to feel like steak frites with truffle mayo when the time comes? (probably, but you never know, I may have a vegetarian phase.)
I have been incredibly fortunate to work with some fantastic writers, including Meg Rosoff, Annie Barrows, Judith Viorst, Aldous Huxley, Matthew Olshan. They are all funny and have distinctive voices and they get kids. This last is extremely important.

I also have a secret list of authors I would love to work with. It would be hard to say no to any of them, should I be lucky enough to be offered a manuscript.

Don: Your subway poster is a wonderful work of art, yet it has nothing to do with children’s books. What are some other way’s you’ve used your art in your career?

MTA.subway1[1]Sophie: I like to draw for grown ups, which is not really very different from drawing for children except for the subject matter. I have also had the honor and privilege of illustrating projects for UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and Save the Children, which have taken me to Congo and India, Rwanda and Bhutan. My favorite things in the world are children, drawing and travel, and these projects combine all three.

Don: BABY TREE (Nancy Paulsen Books) is a story that you wrote and illustrated. Can you talk about your transformation from illustrator to writer? Fears, goals, self discovery.

Sophie: I credit my editor, Nancy Paulsen with reminding me to write. She asked why I hadn’t written more of my own books, and I said I had a bunch of half-finished stories on my desktop. She gave me an end-of-Summer deadline, promised me lunch, and over sushi in September I delivered THE BABY TREE. I am writing more of my own picture books now. It’s fun to happen upon a story and then throw oneself legitimately into research, and then in the process uncover another story, and another… I think this might be familiar to you! These books usually begin with something I want to draw. And then I read everything I can find on the topic. And because writing is still relatively new, it seems a) easier and b) more fun, than drawing which is HARD. A kid asked me recently if I found drawing relaxing. Ha! Drawing is a stressful, terrifying, frustrating, dreadful past time. Did I say earlier it was one of my favorite things? Yes, well, it’s that too. But painting is the reward for drawing. Painting is pure joy.

Don: I’m thrilled that you will be on faculty at the National SCBWI conference in NYC. Can you tell our readers what to expect from Sophie Blackall at #16NYSCBWI?

theBabytree[1]Sophie: I’m thrilled to be presenting at the Winter conference, if indeed we have any Winter this year.
The theme is building and sustaining an illustration career. I’ve been doing this for a while, but it hasn’t all been roses. Or picture books. I illustrated a magazine column on stain removal. I painted signs for a supermarket. I did before-and-after liposuction diagrams. Yup.

But throughout these trying times, I thought to myself: I am learning something about illustration with each horrible assignment. It still counts as drawing. I am scraping together my rent with MY ART. And I’m not working in a tollbooth. (Which happens to be my worst case job. Needless to say I’m grateful to the many toll booth workers in the world.)

So, we will be talking about how to make a living doing what you love.

Don: Thank you, Sophie!

Be sure to check out Sophie Blackall’s session, How to Avoid Working In a *_______ (*your worst case occupation here), Making a Living Doing What You Love, on Friday at 9:50 am.

Click here for more information about the17th Annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC and to register for the full day Illustrator’s Intensive.

Pre-#NY16SCBWI Interview: David Saylor

TeamBlog_Widget_LA2015_team[1]Here it is, the week of Christmas, when I should be decking halls and wrapping gifts. But I love my job, so the fa-la-la-la-la will just have to wait. Instead, I’m conducting a pre-#NY16SCBWI interview with a super cool conference faculty member. Luckily, David Saylor was totally game, this last second (quite literally) before his holiday break. I guess he loves his work as much as I do.saylor_sm[1]

Saylor is vice-president and creative director for the Scholastic Trade Publishing Group and the founder of Scholastic’s ground-breaking graphic novel imprint, Graphix. In addition, he was the art director for the American editions of Harry Potter. Saylor’s most recent books (art direction and design) include THE PRINCESS AND THE PONY by Kate Beaton; 8: AN ANIMAL ALPHABET by Elisha Cooper; WHERE’S WALRUS? AND PENGUIN? by Stephen Savage; and THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS by C. Clement Moore and David Ercolini. Other books that appear in this interview are also books that he’s art directed.

Princess and the Pony FINAL TEXT.pdfDon: David, it’s such an honor to interview you here.

David: :-) Thank you—I’m very happy to help!

Don: When considering a new illustrator, someone you haven’t worked with before, what qualities do you look for in their art?

David: I’m always looking for artwork that has a great narrative sense, meaning that the artwork extends and amplifies the story. All picture book artwork needs to capture a moment that’s very specific to the story, but it also needs to include all sorts of details and emotion to build a believable world beyond the basic plot.

Don: The artist?thF90JTZTX

David: If I haven’t worked with an artist before, I like to make sure we’re in agreement on the stages of how we’ll make the book, whether it’s starting with character sketches, rough thumbnails, full dummy, or color samples. And I love to work with an artist who has an interesting vision for a book and then the consistency and skills to create a memorable book.

8 an animal alphabet[1]Don: When developing a portfolio, what are three important things for an illustrator to consider?


  1. Show work in your portfolio that’s appropriate to children’s books.
  2. Show work that is consistently great.
  3. Show work that evokes an emotional response: artwork that makes the viewer feel something.

Don: Social networking. I’ve heard some industry professionals say that using Instagram or other networks are now paramount to an illustrator getting discovered. What are your thoughts on the subject?

David: It’s essential these days to showcase your work on a website, blog, or tumblr page. Online is where most art directors and editors will go (these days) to see the variety of work an artist creates. I myself am not on social media like Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, so I prefer it when artists have sites that are easily accessible and don’t require signing up for anything or creating an online account. My sense is that social media is more useful for publicity purposes and keeping in touch with fans, though it can also be used for industry networking.Walrus-and-Penguin[1]

Don: As an illustrator of color myself, and a member of the We Need Diverse Books team, I’ve taken notice of Scholastic’s list, it’s nicely diverse. Can you offer some tips to illustrators who are looking to illustrate diversely, across their race/culture/experience.

David: It’s up to publishers to reflect the world around us in the books we create. We need to be more aggressive to find and hire illustrators who represent all cultures and communities. It’s heartbreaking when children can’t see themselves reflected in contemporary books. And all illustrators need to think about being inclusive and culturally accurate. If you’re going to illustrate humans in your work, then it’s crucial to paint and represent kids of all cultures and backgrounds, not just your own familiar world.

glamourpuss[1]Don: When I first got into the business, artists dropped portfolios off at publishing houses or advertised in source books. Later, they moved to online portfolio services. What is the best way to get an art directors attention today?

David: See above: social networking and having an online presence of some sort. And then by being active in an organization like SCBWI where you can meet professionals and show them your work. I think it has always been hard to get noticed, and sometimes getting somewhere means finding an agent to represent your work to publishers. Even though publishers generally don’t review portfolios anymore, we do go where artists are: schools and conferences. And many artists come to our attention through agents.

Don: I’m thrilled that you will be on faculty at the National SCBWI conference in NYC. Can you tell our readers what to expect from David Saylor at 16NYSCBWI? (just a short tease, something to get people excited about signing up for your intensive.

David: I promise to be brutally honest :-)

Freedom Tour Austin Launch

Last month, I launched my book, POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON, in the North Carolina area, under the banner of the Freedom Tour: A Children’s Literature Book Tour. Last weekend, I bought the tour home to Austin, with a celebration at the George Washington Carver Museum. I was honored to be joined by fellow collaborators Kelly Starling Lyons and Chris Barton. Kelly is the author of the book I illustrated, Hope’s Gift. Chris is the author of, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, in which I illustrated. The event was a rousing success, with so many friends and the local community turning out to celebrate our books with us. Here is a glimpse of the special day.

Kelly Starling Lyons, Chris Barton, Don Tate
Cakelustrator Akiko White created this beautiful specialty cake!
Cakelustrator Akiko White created this beautiful specialty cake!
Buffalo Soldiers, Heritage Outreach Program
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Shelley Ann Jackson, Lalena Fisher, Jeff Crosby, and families, all came out to help make the day successful. Thankful to these friends.


The Typewriter Rodeo Poetry Group was a big hit! They wrote poetry on the spot for guests, using vintage typewriters.

_DSC7779 _DSC7766 12108189_936464149725544_8994538253349852609_n _DSC7813 12109043_936464699725489_1874238918846911039_n


12141532_10208267894683024_4639817087581428712_nOn the day before the Carver event, Kelly and I spoke at Menchaca Elementary, which was the perfect way to kick off the Freedom Tour weekend.

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Holding my book about George Moses Horton alongside of the highway marker that honors him.
Holding my book about George Moses Horton alongside of the highway marker that honors him.

While visiting schools last week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I asked students why authors have book launches. Their answers varied. “Because they like parties,” they answered, and “Well, why not?” My answer: because creating a book is not easy, and when it finally publishes, authors need to celebrate that milestone. Last week in the North Carolina “triangle” area, I did just that—I celebrated the publication of POET: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF GEORGE MOSES HORTON!

Richard B. Harrison Library, Raleigh, N.C.

On Monday we held our first celebration at the Richardson B. Harris Library in Raleigh. It was an enthusiastic crowd that set the tone for the week. The highlight of the evening was having a descendant of Poet Horton in attendance.

On Tuesday, I presented to an excited student body at Northside Elementary in Chapel Hill. That evening, I had dinner with the publisher of a future book (written by Eloise Greenfield) and was also joined by Dr. Pauletta Bracy, a national children’s literature dynamo! Dr. Gulla, who runs Alazar Press, presented me with two books written and signed by Ashley Bryan, who also publishes with them. It was a wonderful evening.

Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C. created a beautiful display to honor Poet Horton and my book. Thank you!
Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, N.C. created a beautiful display to honor Poet Horton and my book. Thank you!

Wednesday, I spoke at two schools, Perry Harrison Elementary and Horton Middle School, named after Poet Horton. In the evening, McIntyre’s Books hosted a second launch celebration, which was a standing room only event! McIntyre’s is a charming bookstore in the center of the scenic and celebrated Fearrington Village. My literary agent was present, as well as many family members of Poet Horton. And we sold out of the books—a good problem to have!

Signage in front of McIntyre’s Books advertised the evening event
McIntyre’s Bookstore

McIntyre’s Book Store. Before the evening was over, it was a standing room only!

During a Q&A, someone asked me to read from the book.

It was such an honor to stand alongside of many of Poet Horton’s descendants!

On Thursday I was interviewed on the local radio station, WUNC. Bob Anthony, a curator at the North Carolina Collection’s Wilson’s Library, joined me. It was a great interview; I spoke about the process and inspiration behind creating the book, while Bob filled in all the details about Horton and history in North Carolina, as related to the poet and Chapel Hill.


Thursday evening was like a dream come true. When I first conceived to write Horton’s story, I wanted to be able to return to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to launch the book. That happened on Thursday night! And the people in the community turned out too. A highlight was handing a copy of the book to the UNC-Chapel Hill researchers who helped me to write the story, as well as a curator at the Hope Plantation, who offered hours of help. Again, books sold out. 

This Horton descendant came to three of my launch events! Thank you, Marian Horton and the entire Horton family


Friday’s school visit was at Alderman Elementary on Greenboro, N.C., where I spoke alongside author Kelly Starling Lyons.  After that, I was free for the day, and my wife joined me for afternoon fun! We hung out at that wonderful Fearrington Village hotel. We ride bikes, ate fancy food, and hobnobbed with fancy people. 

Author Kelly Starling Lyons and I present at Alderman Elementary in Greensboro, N.C.
Author Kelly Starling Lyons and I present at Alderman Elementary in Greensboro, N.C.; center is the wonderful librarian there who hosted this event.

Saturday’s event at the Chapel Hill Public library was the biggest event of the week by far, and again, we sold out of books. I spoke for an half hour then the youth poetry group, The Sacrificial Poets (who are just amazing) performed their poetry. They spoke about freedom and inspiring children and they were just great. We also launched the poetry guide created by the Sacrificial Poets.

Signing books at the Chapel Hill Public Library
The Sacrificial Poets (SacPoe) performed their moving poetry
Big support from the SCBWI-Carolinas!

Chapel Hill Public Library

#TatePoetLaunch was an unforgettable week, which happened as a result of my winning the SCBWI Launch Grant!

Eric Rohmann: The Pre-#LA15SCBWI Conference Interview

220px-Eric_rohmann_2012For my next and final #LA15SCBWI pre-conference interview, I had the pleasure of interviewing Caldecott-winning author and illustrator, Eric Rohmann. I first met Eric and his marvelously talented wife, author Candace Fleming, at a Texas Library Association conference. Since then, I’ve come to know Eric and Candace as two of the nicest and most generous people in our business—two of the biggest names in children’s publishing, yet they greet everyone graciously and with humility. Later on, I heard Eric speak about page design and page turns at a Highlights Foundation workshop, and I walked away a better bookmaker having heard him speak.

For today’s interview, I changed things up a bit. Rather than my asking the questions, I put questions out to Eric’s fans on social networks. Here’s what Eric said about social networking, and what his fans  wanted to know about him:

Eric: No matter how many times I log into my MySpace page (after the dial-up modem has finally connected) I read about this “Facebook”.
Harold Underdown: Do people still make “Half-a-bee” jokes or have you been able to move on?

Eric: (Smiles) If this is what I think it is, I’d forgotten… But now that you bring it up my facial tick has returned.

Henry L. Herz: Any tricks for creating really voicey characters?

Eric: I always read aloud.  Then, I get someone else to read it aloud.  Also, write characters you know.  I could not write Huck Finn’s words, or the words of a geisha in 19th Century Japan, but I can write a suburban kid in the midwest (or a Rabbit or a boy with a pumpkin for a head…)

cvr_oh-no_200Larry Dane Brimmer: What is life like with Candy Fleming?

Eric: Glorious…  It’s been wonderful  to  make pictures for some of her stories.  She appears to have a future in the business.  Selfishly,  it’s great to have a clever, creative brain consider my work.  She is always my first eyes and ears.  You know her, Larry, and I think you know she knows her books.

Nick Bruel:  Without exaggeration, Eric Rohmann is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met.  He’s incredibly politically astute and can probably speak with authority on nearly anything. Ask him about his process- what materials he uses, etc.

Eric: (Blushing crimson…I’m  particularly  conversant about 14th century gender-fluid poetry,  the role of giant pandas in the discovery of the atom, and  Icelandic-Cuban cuisine (Ice Cube?). Readers, of course, see the finished book— that’s the point– and so they don’t often think about the process.  The writer/artist thinks mostly about making the book. When I ask other illustrators to buy or trade their work they will typically part with finished pictures but not the preparatory art that lead to the book.  The important part of the artistic life is making something.

Matthew Winner: What’s Eric’s artistic weapon of choice at the moment? cvr_bone-dog_300_ds

Eric: I use any good 2B drawing pencil and sepia drawing ink. I use Gamblin oil-based relief printmaking ink (intense pigment load!).  My oil paint and watercolors are made by Windsor and Newton.  The watercolor brushes I use are sable (costly, but last forever).  I write in my journal/sketchbook with a TWSBI fountain pen filled with diluted blue-black Noodler’s ink. My wood cut tools of choice are made in Japan by the same workshop that makes  samurai swords.  WMD, indeed.

Matthew Cordell: Ask him about his pet tarantula. I mean, what’s up with that?

Eric: Gosh Matt, last time we were at your house we kinda lost Betty somewhere in your living room.  Good news, the venom only paralyzes.  Death is really, really rare.

John L. Bell: He’s notable for having worked in such different styles for different books. He’s no doubt spoken about that, but it’s still fascinating.

Eric: The choice of technique must always arise from the story.  When I write or read a story I want to illustrate I try lots of things until I find some way that best and most clearly tells that story.  Story is all and everything.

Rohmann--RabbitCathy Bonnell: After so many beautifully successful books, is there one by another children’s book author/illustrator you wish you had done?

Eric: The list is long.  I look in wonder at any book  that I could not have made but wish I had.  The Carrot Seed is perfect; so are Milo’s Hat Trick, Officer Buckle and Gloria, Clever Jack takes the Cake, and Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.  Mo Willems and Kevin Henkes appear to have some connection with the childlike mind that I only dream about. I know why the books work. I can take them apart and intellectually explain their wonders.  But I cannot make those books and so they appear to be wrought by magic.

Kelly Milner Halls: Will he ever do another dinosaur book?

Eric: Odd… I have recently been reading books about dinosaurs again.  It’s that thing old guys do—go back to what you loved as a kid… (#Rosebud).  I won’t make another dino book unless I can find an idea as good or better than Time Flies.  Candy and I have a non-fiction book about giant squid next year.  Not dinosaurs, but mysterious monsters, big and scary.

Kathy Doherty: Does he and Candace have more books in the making?

Eric: The aforementioned Giant Squid (Roaring Brook, 2016), Bulldozer Helps Out        (Simon and Schuster, 2017), and a few other projects I need to talk her into letting me work on. Yes, they are that good.

Gregg T Golson: Can he write a sequel to My Friend Rabbit?maxresdefault

Eric: Every time I read Rabbit to school groups I am confused by just how I made that book. It’s a freaking mystery to the guy who made it!  In truth, I’m just as curious about what happened those characters.  In my notebooks I have sketches and storyboards of possible stories, but so far they all are lame shadows of the first book.  Alas…

Marjie Podzielinski: Favorite media to work in?

Eric: The one I’m not working with at the time. You always try to challenge yourself because hardship makes a better book— but it also makes trouble.  When I am making prints I long for the simple, direct process of oil painting and when I’m making watercolors I wonder how much better life would be making prints.  The anxiety is killing me. I hope it lasts forever.

Don Tate: Can you give us an idea about what you’ll talk about at #LA15SCBWI?

Eric: I’m going to talk about the language of pictures— how a good picture book uses words and pictures in concert, one feeding and enhancing the other.  Pictures in a book are not just decorations but full partners in the storytelling.  I’ll also yell at people and complain about stuff, lamenting youth culture and the flavorlessness of supermarket tomatoes.


Joe Cepeda: The Pre-#LA15SCBWI Conference Interview


This summer my teenager has been away in Las Vegas visiting grandparents. Needless to say, it’s made for a productive book-making summer for me. But alas, today I awoke in a panic. It’s July 6th, two days following the Fourth of July holiday. The #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference is less than a month away, and I haven’t posted my second faculty interview yet. Well, here it is; I’m on it now.

I’m excited that illustrator, Joe Cepeda, will be on faculty this year. His session, Style 61A+Bj1V5CL._SY410_BO1,204,203,200_Versus Voice: An Illustrator’s View, will be on Saturday from 3:15 to 4:15. Cepeda is the illustrator of award-winning picture books such as What a Truly Cool World (Scholastic), Nappy Hair (Knopf), Mice and Beans (Scholastic), and The Swing (Arthur A. Levine Books), which he wrote as well as illustrated. 

I’m honored to host Joe Cepeda on my blog today:

Don: What brought you to illustrate children’s books?

Joe: I studied engineering, though I decided do something else and found myself pursuing Illustration.  I thought I’d be working as an editorial illustrator, illustrating magazines more than anything, yet found myself illustrating books almost right out of the gate. I showed my portfolio to publishers early on and was fortunate enough to meet with some talented editors who felt I might be able to illustrate a children’s book. How I work, from a content standpoint, to a production one, is certainly affected by experiences studying math and science.  The truth, however, is a bit more basic than that.  What I’ve come to learn over time is, at root, I’m a maker of things.  Engineering, science, drawing, composition, math, are all contributors to the process.  I’ve built a good amount of the furniture in my studio. I mix paint a certain way. The process of carving out space in a picture follows both logical and organic paths. I try and call on whatever’s needed to make something work.

51w-bVVGX+L._SX386_BO1,204,203,200_Don: Can you talk a bit about your work, your style philosophy?

Joe: I’ve never had much use for the term, style.  An art director once told me that she could pretty much categorize all children’s book art into about seven different styles.  I think she’s probably right.  I’ve always remembered that.  It’s a very liberating thought.  Why bother trying to make an eighth style?  I’ve never felt a strong need to individualize my mark-making, It’s more about making marks that work.  Chasing down style is a dubious pursuit. For me, the question of work is more philosophy than anything, or ethics, or gamesmanship, or integrity or authenticity or poetry or industriousness or ritual.  I don’t mean to be too abstract, but I’m constantly trying to find my work. I actually have a note in my studio that says, “Find your work.”  For me, as an illustrator, it mostly means trying to make as honest a picture as one can.  It’s a constant, career-long pursuit.  It doesn’t end… and it shouldn’t. The question of what is true will always be there.  As for medium, mostly I’m an oil painter painting over acrylic on board.  I’ve recently delivered work completed digitally.  I’m working on large charcoal drawings right now.  I stumble through writing.  If I couldn’t paint or draw tomorrow, I’d work in wood.  I’d be fine with it.

Don: I consider you a mentor, in that I have many of your books lying around in my studio for inspiration. I love your playful, almost electric, color pallet. Where does that come from, who are your mentors?

61SQM1hSh5L._SX409_BO1,204,203,200_-1Joe: Thank you for the nice comments.  It’s hard to think of particular mentors because I really never anticipated a professional life as an image-maker, much less illustrating children’s books. I sort of fell into books simply because I was somewhat desperate to get work after a fifteen-year scenic journey through college. Certainly, there have been people along the way that gave me good advice about how to live and how to work.  Like most, I wasn’t always a good listener.  The first artists that I can remember paying a little attention to as a young person were Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Robert McCloskey, Diego Rivera and the Chicano muralists painting in East Los Angeles where I grew up.  Later on, once I was headed in this direction I was inspired by cartoonists like Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant, the Ashcan school artists, John Singer Sargent, Franz Kline, Alexander Calder, George Tooker and illustrators like Brad Holland, Arthur Rackman, Bernie Fuchs and a whole bunch of others. The more you work at something, the more you recognize how difficult great mastery can be.  That’s what inspires me, when I’m witness to true virtuosity. It’s not any particular style of work that will speak to me more than another.  When great skill meets honesty and theater, that’s an inspiring picture.

Don: Many of your books feature people of color. That makes you a diverse illustrator, and that is one of the things that initially attracted me to your work. Can you talk a bit about the importance of diverse books?

51ulFrHNC2L._SY427_BO1,204,203,200_Joe: I’ve been fortunate enough to illustrate books about different ethnic groups.  As a Chicano illustrator, I’ve tried to nurture a career that wasn’t solely focused on making books about my culture (though, I love doing books that reflect the Latino experience). The reality is I don’t recall reading anything that’d I’d consider a mirror book.  It just wasn’t around.  The kids I knew were Dick and Jane, Charlie Brown and Lucy, Dennis the Menace, Opie, Curious George, the Brady Kids and my favorite, Homer Price.   There is a powerful thing that happens, when a young reader sees someone who appears to be like them in literature. Navigating the world and it’s adventures it affords will not seem so foreign. The experiences offered in life will not solely be for someone else to endure or relish.  You can step forward when the heroes in your books have shown you a way… a path that you are invited to take, because you feel included.  Many of us have stepped forward without invitations, and good for us.  It’s just a more honest place to be when the party door is open.

Don: If you could have a conversation, offer career advice to a younger Joe Cepedia, aspiring children’s book illustrator, what would you say?

Joe: Great question.  I suppose I would tell young Joe (who wasn’t that young when he started illustrating) to be a bit more relentless, a bit more focused when it comes to industriousness.  It’s probably a simplistic thing to say, but I’d advise him to work harder… certainly, work smarter.  When it comes to finding one’s best means of production, style, medium of choice, one’s artistic voice, one’s editorial compass, etc., there’s really only one way to get there… through working.  Over time, we can start to recognize good authentic work in ourselves more often than not.  Most of the time, we’re just trying to get the odds in our favor.

Don: I love the emotion you capture when illustrating people, the expressions, body language, appropriate clothing–hair. Your characters are not generic, they are real people with individual personalities. Where do these characters come from?

Joe: I am not a big researcher. I look to defer to invention as much as possible.  Some books 51Y4KapGrZL._SX393_BO1,204,203,200_require plenty of research, simply to be accurate and true to the content of the manuscript.  Other books, less so.  Characters are certainly something that I try not to research.  People are funny, you don’t always have to research funny. There has to be something cultural specific, or historically specific for me to do the research (Swing Sisters is a good example).  I enjoy when characters introduce themselves to me as i build the environment of the story around them.  Many times the world they inhabit will inform me of what they should look like, maybe even act like.  However, there’s something very entertaining when the unexpected occurs, when a character has inappropriate assets (is that an oxymoron?). If it’s done with just the right amount subtlety, it can be good comedy.  My concern is that sometimes research sometimes neuters the magic of a good portrayal.  Within all groups there are individuals who stand out, who are different and, many times, that’s what stories are about.  My sense is that, for the sake of cultural accuracy, illustrations can become predictable or a little stale. 

Don: As an illustrator myself, I often struggle with self doubt. I think all creative people do. Can you talk about any struggles with self doubt pertaining to your own work, and how you combat that?

Joe: Well, there’s no getting around that. As illustrators, just about everybody deals with some degree of self-doubt.  Careers have ups and downs.  I’ve had periods of great productivity, and too-long stretches of inactivity or missing the mark. Most of us often wonder if we’ve hit ruts.  Since a good portion of our success mostly means the ability to work at this profession more hours than hours spent as a substitute teacher (I did that while I built my Illustration business) and is directly related to book sales, it can feel like we don’t have much control.  So, there is business, and there is craft.  I’m not smart enough to know what will sell.  I made terrible business decisions, especially early on.  Fortunately, you can teach yourself to be better at that.  You can be better at building a circle of resources that will help you make good decisions about your career.  You must, however, be best at maximizing your authenticity when it comes to making good work.  It’s the greater challenge, ideal results are ever evasive.  You need to make things of beauty as often as you can.  It comes back to honesty and being an authentic creator. If you work with integrity and persistence, the hope is you can ride out and get beyond the lulls and ruts. Heck, something might even sell, or, win an award.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read reviews, but, they rarely have much to offer me.  They may be useful to a potential reader, which is who they’re meant for, but they have nothing to do with getting to work.  It’s not like they’ll help me break down the next manuscript.  As a matter of fact, I’d be very disappointed in myself 51kMA7DszGL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_if I let that make it’s way into the process.  I’m guessing they help sell books and there is no denying the benefit of a lovely royalty check, but, a good review, or an award never made me do better work.  Frankly, some of my best work, the work that brought me a higher level of contentment and accomplishment, has been largely unnoticed.  In comparison, I’m not sure why other work has garnered awards.  Positive accolades may serve in getting you work, which is helpful from a business standpoint, yet do very little to facilitate a sound path to work of integrity.  It seems to me negative reviews would be virtually negligible in helping an illustrator get on with her craft.  After all, an editor, an art director, and publisher have a hand in that negative review, too.  In my mind, they also have as much to celebrate with you when your work in a book is heralded. 

Don: Any advice to illustrators preparing a portfolio?

Joe: Well, when it comes to a portfolio, I guess I’d have to ask, “What’s the goal?”  If you’re trying to win a competition, make sure your pieces are sound and memorable.  Make sure the craft is as good as you can make it.  Make sure that your storytelling acumen is fully on display.  Show that you have an understanding of sequential art.  Character, perspective and a sense of drama and emotion are essential components to include.  The standard suggestions are always valid.  That is, don’t include anything you don’t feel good about or any work that you don’t want to get hired to do.  If you are having your portfolio reviewed, the aforementioned advice is also applicable, however, know what questions to ask.  Handing someone your portfolio and just waiting, well, you run the risk of getting a “review.”  However, don’t be rude and overrun the time spent with someone.  Listen, listen carefully, then ask.  What do your really want to know?  There is a true art to asking real questions that serve.  This is an opportunity for good advice.

Don: Whet our appetites. What can we expect to look for from you at the conference?

Joe: Well, I’m looking to talk about that illusive thing, the illustrator’s voice (I’m not necessarily in love with that term either).  I believe the title of my workshop is, “Style Versus Voice: an Illustrator’s View.”  It’s true authenticity we should be looking for in our work.  I’m hoping to share some of successes and struggles with that.

Don: Thank you, Joe! I look forward to chatting with you in person!

Seeing stars for 2015!

I have two books out this year. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans), written by Chris Barton; and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. So far, both books have garnered two starred reviews. I couldn’t be happier! Here’s what reviewers are saying:

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, (Peachtree, 09/01/2015)


The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch


“[Tate’s] decision to illuminate this remarkable man’s life offers a new perspective with remarkable clarity.”

School Library Journal

“A lovely introduction to an inspirational American poet.”


The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, written by Chris Barton, (Eerdmans, 04/01/2015)

FrJohn-Roy-Lynch-final-coverom Booklist

[F]ascinating story . . . Tate’s often expansive illustrations emphasize important incidents in the text. . . . faces, full of emotion add to the power of the telling and the rich soft tones of Tate’s palette welcome the eye to linger.”
***Starred Review***

Publisher’s Weekly

“Barton offers an immersive, engaging, and unflinching portrait of the difficulties of the Reconstruction era, while Tate’s cartoonlike artwork softens moments of cruelty and prejudice without diminishing them.”
***Starred Review***

Don Tate on Kidlit Superhero Dan Santat #LA15SCBWI

unnamed-11Children’s book creators are my superheroes. They create stories for children that inspire and change lives. That’s important work in my book.

I’ve had the fortune to meet (and in some cases become friends with) many authors and illustrators, it’s one of the coolest fringe benefits of my career. Later this summer, at the #LA15SCBWI Summer Conference, I’ll get the pleasure of meeting Dan Santat and hearing him speak—and I can’t wait!

I first became aware of Dan Santat through his presence on social networks. I found the artwork he posted to be brilliant and exciting and clever and funny and, well . . . all of the above and a bag of chips. That’s not my opinion only, though, the Caldecott folks thought so too. Dan’s THE ADVENTURES OF BEEKLE: THE UNIMAGINARY FRIEND is the 2015 Caldecott winner, in case you didn’t know!

As a member of Team Blog, I get the pleasure of interviewing him here before I meet him in person later this summer. So here goes:Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 7.36.34 AM

Tate: First of all,  seems like you produce a gazillion books or more per year—best-selling, award-winning books. Do you sleep?

Santat: I’ll admit that for the last ten years I got very little sleep. I averaged about 5 hours per night to be precise. When I would go to bed I would think about stories in my head right before I fell asleep. Life was possible by streamlining my art process and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Tate: What drew you to the field of children’s books, as opposed to, say, advertising, visual journalism, or other areas of the commercial arts?

Santat: When I went to art school I originally had plans of going into animation. After I took my first 3D Animation class I realized that I loathed the process of animating (especially on a computer) and I started looking for a more efficient means of storytelling. There was a children’s book illustration class which I thought was a great segway from animation and so I enrolled in the course and I immediately fell in love with it. By the time I graduated I realized it would probably take a while to get myself established in book publishing  and so I got the first job I could find which was as an Environment Artist at a video game company while doing editorial illustration after work and working on my art portfolio. I was also doing gallery art, some freelance animation, and other things to just get any kind of experience and get a taste of the whole art world. Two years out of school I got my first two book deal.

Screen Shot 2015-05-26 at 7.53.20 AMTate: As you developed yourself (your style) as a young illustrator, who were your inspirations?

Santat: In art school I loved the work of folks like Chris Van Allsberg, NC Wyeth, Dean Cornwell, David Shannon, and William Joyce. As a kid growing up I loved many comic artists like Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, Masamune Shirow, and Bill Watterson. Honestly though, as a storyteller and artist the biggest influence in my life was my advertising teacher Roland Yung. He made me view illustration less about simply making something look beautiful and more about seeing things as problems that have to be solved and there are effective ways to enhance the communication of those ideas. It was less about how I drew things and more about why I drew things they way I did. Form follows function is more of a product designers philosophy but I swear by it a an illustrator.

Tate: I love your illustration work. It’s computer generated but totally passes for natural media. Has the computer always been your tool of choice?

Santat: I used to be an ink and acrylic kind of guy. I was always stronger with my line work than painting because I had never painted anything until I got to art school. Acrylic was great because it dries so quickly that I could draw on top of it, sand it down, glue things down over it, etc. At art school it was required that all students were proficient in Adobe Photoshop but as an illustration tool people were still trying to figure out how to get that “digital” feel out of things. I loved the computer because it was quick and clean. You could scan in paper and images and things and incorporate it into your work. I fell in love with the Wacom tablet and I still use one today (an 8 X 12 Intuos 5) I’m not a Cintiq guy mainly because I like using my monitor to watch TV shows and sports while I work. I can also easily throw my Wacom into my backpack for travel so I can work on the road. Digital art was still quite taboo in many illustration fields and so when I entered the freelance world I began mainly working in acrylic. Eventually, I ended up getting so much work (especially in editorial illustration) that I would start doing the jobs digitally trying to hide the fact that they were digital by integrating textures (which I did horribly) and then at a certain point I realized that no one really cared if it looked digital and so I did the transition to full digital. The computer actually gave me the courage to experiment more with my work. It improved my sense of color, too. Now, I actually have a 50/50 method where I make art textures by painting swatches on paper and then scan them into the computer and I integrate them into my artwork. I also don’t use custom brushes because I don’t want to be in a spot where if I had to work on a computer and didn’t have access to them then I couldn’t work.

Tate: I’d like to talk diversity. As a child, what was the first book that you encountered that featured a character that looked like you? How did that book make an impact on the Dan Santat we know today?

Santat: Gene Luen Yang‘s “American Born Chinese” was the first book I read where I thought I was looking thin a mirror of myself. Although I’m Thai, I still related heavily on the issue of being an Asian kid in a predominantly white community and somewhat feeling uneasy with my own cultural traditions. I mean, I’m sure I had previously read books with Asian characters but I wasn’t so mindful of the fact until I read his book. Gene’s book was like personal threrapy in a way. There was a part of me that felt like I wasn’t being a good Asian because I didn’t fully embrace my Asian-ness and it was nice to know that there were others who felt the same struggles.

Tate: Have there been challenges along the way related to being a creator of color?

Santat: I’ve never had any struggles whatsoever in terms of getting work, or getting my foot in the door of any business. I did notice in some industries, like TV animation at the time, where folks were still a little weird about having main characters of a different ethnicity, but I’ve seen that change over the years. I do notice how much more mindful folks are in certain fields like textbook illustration where it’s so aware that it gets a little annoying. They want to represent everyone equally, which I appreciate, but to a point where it’s trying too hard. For example, if I had to draw a classroom of kids I would get art notes back like, “OK, make that boy Hispanic, make that one an African American girl, and make that Asian boy look MORE Asian, oh and put the African American girl in a wheelchair and the Asian boy in crutches.” Suddenly, I have an illustration that represents a diverse cultural leper colony.

Tate: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a hundred times, but where did Beekle come from? Was he your childhood imaginary friend?

BEEKLE_2Santat: I actually didn’t have an imaginary friend when I was a kid but I always loved the concept. I also found it interesting that imaginary friends never have a say in the matter. They are the ones who are destined to be friends with some kid whether they like it or not. It’s much like kids with their parents. There is an unconditional love that is present although you as a child don’t get to choose who your parents are (though many of us wish we could.) Beekle originally existed as a story about an imaginary friend who was so odd that no one could imagine him and so he went out of his way to look and act like the other imaginary friends so he could find a friend. My editor and I discussed that this was more of a behavior that an older teen would perhaps embrace and so we shifted the thinking to the thoughts I had about my first son and the thoughts that ran through my mind about the anticipation of becoming a first time parent. You don’t know who this person is going to be but you’re curious, and you fill your mind with ideas of what they could be like. It isn’t until you finally hold your kid in your arms when it all becomes a reality and you give your child his/her name much like Beekle did in the book. From a child’s point of view it’s the anticipation of your first day at school and making your first friend. Beekle was my son’s first word. It was his word for bicycle, and my wife and I thought it would be a great name for a character in a book and so, I wrote this book for him as a love letter. I wanted to make a clear message to my son that even though I may be strict, or that maybe we don’t see eye to eye on things, even years down the road, this will be a thing that he can read when he is older, and maybe share with his kids (or grandkids) and it can be read for generations down the line as how I would love my family to be defined.

Tate: Dude, you won a Caldecott! That’s beyond cool. How has life changed—if at all—since winning the highest award? Are you able to get any new work done, or are you constantly under interview pursuit from th-1folks like me?

Santat: I’m much more relaxed. In fact, now that I reflect on the last ten years of my life, I wonder how I even got through it all. I don’t think I realized how intense I was at my craft until now. I think, it quite possibly even saved my life, because I struggled my whole life to feel like I did something significant. Something that felt worthy of my peers. This is the one time I get to embrace that. It’s less about showing others my worth but, in fact, proving to myself that I belonged in this business. I sleep more (which still isn’t saying much) but work isn’t constantly on my mind anymore. I don’t worry about things as much as I used to, for now. I do have other concerns that come from winning, but that’s a different matter. I’ve been asked to many more events and I’ve had to travel much more. This is even with the fact that I’ve turned down half the things I’m offered. I’ve done more interviews, been asked to participate in more panels, and contribute art to auctions, etc. Getting back into the groove of work has been a struggle, but publishers keep reminding me of my contractual obligations. It’s clear to me that publishers want to get in on this train, as well, but my agent has been very good about regulating all of that. She’s been my best friend in all of this. She wants me to take the time to enjoy this moment and soak it all in.

Tate: Now, concerning the summer conference, I understand that you will co-lead the Illustrator Intensive. I wanted to sign up for that, too, but I decided to polish my word chops. I signed up for the writer’s intensive. Without making me regret my decision, can you give me a hint as to what I will miss?

Santat: The illustrators intensive, I feel, has always been the best thing for illustrators at SCBWI. I feel it’s the whole conference for them. I do admire you venturing into the writers side of things, however, because I feel that having that knowledge just makes you a better craftsman as a whole. I think your illustrations will improve by the way you communicate as a result. I’m doing an intensive about how your work needs to address the problem at hand and not marketing yourself as just a style. I’ll also be doing two break out sessions during the regular conference. The first is about how to write books from the point of view of an illustrator, the other is about how to improve your illustrations simply by being a better graphic designer and composing your images more thoughtfully. Then there’s also the keynote. You have no idea. Keynoting at the Summer conference has always been a dream of mine.

Tate: Thanks Dan!

Click here for more information about the SCBWI Summer Conference and to register for the full day Illustrator’s Intensive.

Fun in Nac!

I spent four days presenting to students in Nacogdoches, Texas (here’s a writeup). It’s north east of Austin, a five hour drive, but well worth the road trip. I truly loved my time in the city, where I could get everywhere in less than five minutes. And the students, teachers, and librarians were blast! One librarian even tweeted pictures, and the newspaper there covered it. Here are a few photo highlights from my trip:



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Due to technical difficulties, I developed a new hipster fad: the beard microphone.
Due to technical difficulties, I developed a new hipster fad: the beard microphone.