Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Color in a bleak time

2 months after K-Fai Steele wrote her post and we’re still here; still neck-deep in a crisis. Things haven’t necessarily gotten better, but the initial panic--the gut reaction to hide, run, flee, hermit, turtle-up--has somewhat vanished and impatience, longing, and (most of all) boredom has set in. We’ve cooked all the things and we’re tired of doing dishes. We’ve tried sourdough and have discovered it’s a full time job. We’ve tried gardening or car washing or walking for hours on end. We’ve watched SO. MANY. SHOWS. Now what?

If you’re one of those people that has done nothing “productive” art or story-wise: this is OKAY. You have every right to feel this way and caring for your mental, physical and emotional health is incredibly important right now. Take care of yourself and your families as best as you are able. I repeat K-Fai’s thoughts, because this is important: you don’t have to do anything productive right now. Stories will keep. That drawing will be on your desk when you return to it. You do you.

If you have been cranking out work since the outside world has temporarily been removed as a distraction in your life, then I applaud you! Keep going and make the best of your time!

Me? I’m somewhere between these two. I have had incredibly productive days and incredibly unproductive days. Some days I'm cooking-productive, some days I’m cleaning-productive and some days I'm creatively-productive. Still others, I'm an unproductive couch (or hammock) potato. I’ve been making good progress on a couple of projects. I’ve also watched all my original travel plans for this year get cancelled one by one by one. X. X. X. X. I can’t visit my aging mother-in-law. I can’t visit friends. And THAT has been incredibly disheartening.

But one thing has helped brighten my spirits over the past two+ months as we take our daily walks: messages of love, hope, and positivity that have colored the sidewalks and streets in our neighborhood.

So I decided to respond in fashion with my own message:

And after that, I created this:

I drew a little every morning and evening, skipping mid-day, since summer is descending upon Southern California with a vengeance (and I burn very easily).

This little act improved my emotional well-being. It made me feel connected even when I am disconnected from the world. It made me smile. It made others smile. And that, right now, is enough.

I recommend anyone with a little bit of sidewalk (or fence or wall) space and some chalk to go out there and send a message out into the world. If you can’t draw, then write. If you don’t know what to write, then just add color in any shape and size. Things are bleak and dreary enough right now. Who better than the kidlit community to add a touch of magic back?

This can also be a fun project to do WITH kids!

If you look on Instagram, you can find more examples of these positive messages by searching the hashtags: #chalkart, #mural, or #drawthecurtains

Fellow Kidlit Artists' blogger Rob Sayegh has been knocking it out of the park (or over the bridge!) with his incredible daily window drawings:


P.S. May is Mental Health Month. Learn more at: 

Here's some statistics from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness):


© Cole Montgomery 
Gail Buschman is a graphic designer and children's book creator who loves to travel and explore new places.

More about Gail at her websiteinstagramtwitter, and facebook.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

It Is Normal to Not Be Productive During a Global Crisis

Drawing by a student at Clear Creek Elementary (Charlotte, NC) that
captures exactly how I've been feeling these past few days
I’m writing this blog post from San Francisco, on day 4 of “shelter in place” which means most everything (schools, all workplaces, stores, gyms, bars, the library) is closed and everyone has to stay inside.

Last week at this point everything was changing at an alarming pace. It was unclear if schools would close, I was wondering if I could still responsibly go to a pilates class (I didn’t because I was anxious and lazy), and after every store had run out of toilet paper I unpacked my travel bidet from my camping gear. On top of this I was fretting about the democratic primary results and trying to meet a deadline for a book I’m working on. Then I got the message that the entire city was essentially closing down for an indeterminate amount of time.

I feel afraid, out of control, and bored, which are feelings that are really interesting and challenging to have at the same time. I’m also feeling unproductive. A lot of people in the kidlit community are rolling up their sleeves and doing livestreamed storytimes. So this is great if it's within your comfort zone to record yourself live (I’m going to do some too) and we also need more in other languages like Spanish and Cantonese, and for deaf kids, as Alia Jones wrote on Twitter in conversation with Sujei Lugo and Ann Clare Le Zotte. Even still, the response from the kidlit community re: what can we do? has felt anxious and frantic, which makes sense, because that's the state of our communities now. I’ve even read some particularly tedious and annoying posts over the past couple of days where people humble brag about how much more productive they’re being (they’re even exercising!). Sure, I get it, being an illustrator means you’re already socially isolated, but when we look up from our drafting tables now, everything has changed. We’re making content, but are we just scribbling while Rome burns?

My husband who’s a PhD student has been receiving health alerts from his university. He pointed out a very small part at the bottom of one he received a few days ago (italics are mine):
Finally, for all community members, we realize that there are significant implications of these restrictions for your academic and research progress. Please know that it is entirely reasonable that progress would slow during times of unprecedented global crisis such as this.
In other words, Stanford was telling its students that it’s completely natural and normal to not be as productive as usual during a pandemic. This message isn’t just for PhDs; it resonated with me because as an author-illustrator I’m a freelancer and I’m expected to be productive in a way that’s publicly shareable. So I was given permission to not feel bad about my lack of productivity. For some of you this may be obvious; for me it wasn’t. We’re at the start of a global pandemic and might be quarantined to our homes for months. It’s noble to put out a livestream. But it’s ok to not.

It also reminded me to not equate my self-worth with my productive output, which is a really hard thing to do in our culture and economic system. As a freelancer the only person setting limits on what I get done in a day is me. It’s easy to feel like I’m wasting precious time if I’m not constantly hustling, whether that be getting book deals, doing book promotion, impromptu teaching gigs, or flying for an entire day to give a 45-minute talk. I could fall asleep on my bed every night surrounded by book dummies and picture books and still feel like I wasn’t getting enough done. There’s little continuity to this job, and it’s often isolating and competitive.

It’s tempting to beat yourself up over some made-up metric of productivity. We don't tend to work a typical 9-5 in an office, so it's hard to know what a typical work day looks like, and it's different for everyone. In a recorded lecture that's part of the James Marshall papers at UCONN Marshall says, "My friend Arnold Lobel gets up at 9:00 am every morning and works from 9-5, and has done this for 20 years. His wife Anita Lobel (his ex-wife) refers to him as that little shopkeeper. I thought oh Arnold’s done such beautiful work, I will try this approach myself. And I thought I was going to have a stroke, nothing would happen. I work, work and nothing would happen." You have to figure out a schedule that works for you. But I do think there's a touch of imposter syndrome that occurs when you think that your method of doing it is unconventional, or not adhering to the myth of hard work being long, agonizing hours.

Marshall continued, "I work in basically creative periods of about 3 weeks that’s all I can stand…This is dangerous because when I tell librarians how short it takes me to do a book, I can see in their eyes my stock going down. You have to tell them you worked five years on this book and you’ve drawn with the blood of your slaughtered children and then it’s a masterpiece."

We live in a culture and economy where it's reasonable for freelancers to work 24/7. The consequence is that it can feel like every second that goes by is a second that is potentially wasted. Is that day off from working or from engaging in social media the day that will cost you that dream book deal? I, for one, would like to get off this ride.

In January I was lucky to do a week-long school visit at the American International School in Chennai, India, and I met with high school juniors and seniors to talk about my career path as an artist and a writer. I didn’t mince words; I basically said if you’re not independently wealthy or you don’t connect yourself financially to someone who is, you should be prepared to get a day job. And know that you’ll end up working on projects that you’re not totally passionate about to make ends meet. I gave them ✨practical advice✨. One student asked: do you feel bad when you work on a project you’re not passionate about? Why would that be worth your time at all? I’m sure I pulled myself together and backpedaled, but their question stuck with me. Of course I want to be passionate about everything I make. I don’t want to be scared by the possibility of jobs drying up. I don’t want to become cynical. I want to remind myself that my job is fun (because it is). But I don’t want to have to prove and perform my worth all the time in a public way.

As I enter a second week of who knows how many more weeks of shelter-in-place I’d like to be kinder to myself and be less of an awful boss to myself. I want to open up more space for silliness and humor, and I want to be able to say that I’m scared. I want to be okay with letting my progress slow a bit. Everything in publishing seems to be slowing down too, do you really think anyone’s working? And finally, it’s fine if you don’t do that livestream.


K-Fai Steele (she/her) is an author-illustrator who grew up in a house built in the 1700s with a printing press her father bought from a magician. She wrote and illustrated A Normal Pig, and illustrated Noodlephant by Jacob Kramer, a Kirkus Best of 2019 picture book. She also illustrated the forthcoming Probably a Unicorn by Jory John. K-Fai was a Brown Handler Writer in Residence at the San Francisco Public Library, a James Marshall Fellow at the University of Connecticut, and an Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Memorial Fellow at the University of Minnesota. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on instagram @areyouokfai.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Interview: Maria Middleton - Art Director at Candlewick Press

by Dorothia Rohner

I had the pleasure of meeting Maria Middleton when she was the art director at Abrams in 2014. Last year she was on faculty at the Iowa SCBWI Autumn Prairie Retreat for writers and illustrators.  Her insight enlightened and inspired all of us that were in attendance. I invited her to share some of her knowledge about picture book illustration here on our blog. Maria agreed to answer a few questions about book design, illustration and process.

Thank you so much Maria! Let’s get started.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you landed in the children’s publishing business and how you became the art director for Candlewick Press?

A: On the first day of kindergarten, I was certain I was going to learn how to read. I must have expected an automatic download of literacy but instead I got some crayons and a nap. I went home in tears, upset that I’d have to spend the first year of my education without knowing how to read. (Being four is tough.) Not surprisingly, I am an overachiever. In school, I worked hard. I got straight A’s and excelled in art and English. I never got into trouble, except for sneak-reading novels under my desk instead of doing work. Bunnicula, The Secret Garden, Number the Stars, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, ALL the Nancy Drew mysteries—I loved how stories could transport me to other worlds. 

After highschool, I moved to New York City, literally a world away from the small Virginia town where I grew up. My roommate had a job in the marketing department at Clarion Books and I was studying graphic design at Parsons. Seeing an opportunity to help me pay my half of the rent, my roommate hired me to design Clarion’s promo projects. By the time I graduated, I had a children’s marketing design portfolio which landed me my first full-time job in the children’s marketing department at HarperCollins. Characteristically, I poured my heart and soul into that work, carefully kerning type on everything from catalogues to shelf-talkers, until I realized that these projects—while important—were temporary. A kid wasn’t going to save an ice cream coupon or treasure a bookmark. What I really wanted was to make something lasting. I wanted to make books. 

I designed my first book at Abrams. I spent almost ten years there, honing my skills, learning how to trust my instincts, becoming a diplomatic communicator and a good listener, and ultimately, an art director. I left my Abrams family to lead the middle-grade team at Random House and a couple of years later, the opportunity to work for Candlewick arrived. I wasn’t looking for a move, but I was thrilled (and maybe a little terrified) by the prospect of launching a new division that would become Walker Books US. 

Now, almost two years and approximately 50 titles later, I’m extremely proud of where I am and how I got here. If I’m being honest, some days I’d take crayons and a nap over writing emails and going to meetings—BUT—I really do love what I do. I’d also be absolutely remiss if I didn’t say that my journey has taken a village of mentors, mountains of inspiration, and quite a lot of dumb luck. I offer daily gratitude to the people who took a chance on me, gave me a job or offered words of wisdom. Publishing has no shortage of good and kind folks.

Caption: When I was hired to be a book designer at Abrams, I’d never designed a book for publication before. I had a portfolio that was mainly marketing design, but this was a piece I kept in. I’ve been in love with typography since my first days as an art school student. So as a senior year design project, I created a typeface of dingbats based on the wrought iron fences on my block in Brooklyn. Years after he hired me, my creative director said this was the piece in my portfolio that made him take a chance on me. He said he knew I could design books because this piece proved that I would pay attention to the details.

Q: There are so many talented illustrators on the internet. Where do you look to find illustrators for your book projects?

A: On the internet, my go to is Instagram. It is the visual social media platform that encourages sharing without the pressure of constantly updating your portfolio. Instagram is a place where creatives can post work in progress or finished pieces in real time. It’s also easily searchable via hashtags. 

I also look at agency websites and sites I’ve bookmarked. But really, I look for illustrators everywhere. I hire from postcards and conferences. I take pictures of street signage and bus ads, I save magazines with art that I like. If I like your work, I will remember you and I will keep you in mind for a project. 

Q: What makes one illustrator’s work stand out and make you want to work with them? 

A: My tastes in illustration are wide-ranging. I appreciate everything from fine art to graffiti. So much depends on the project, the genre, and the tone of the text. But for children’s books, the kind of work that stands out most to me is work that poses a question or presents a narrative. Working in publishing means that we’re storytellers. We want our audience to turn the page or ask for more. It’s essential that children’s art and design continue telling the story and engaging the reader. 

Q: Can you share some of your favorite recent picture books that you’ve worked on? How did you find the illustrator?

A: We have a handful of picture books in development for future seasons, so I can’t get too specific about the projects just yet, but I can share how I found the illustrators. I hired one of the illustrators after I met her at an SCBWI conference last year. (Yes, that really does happen!) She won the portfolio review for the show and I kept her in mind for the right manuscript which arrived a few months later. For another project, the editor had a specific illustrator in mind. We wanted someone who could capture vibrant characters and musical instruments. And for a different project, I found the illustrator by going down the Instagram rabbit hole, searching for #cutegoatillustrations and #cutegoatart. Use hashtags, folks. You never know when they will meet the right search criteria!

Q: What are three things that would help improve a picture book illustrators portfolio or dummy book?

1. Read your story out loud, preferably to a kid. 

2. Read other published picture books. Go to your library and local bookstore. Ask the librarians and booksellers what they like and what kids have been reading. Educate yourself on the kinds of stories that are being published. Keep what resonates. Forget the rest. 

3. Let the art do the talking. Less is more and subtext is everything. You never want to tell the reader with words when you can show them with art. The illustrations are there to support the text and illuminate what might not be said. This adds depth and keeps the reader returning again and again.  

Q: What are three things that picture book illustrators should avoid in their portfolio or dummy books

1. Apologies. Don’t put anything in your portfolio that you don’t love or feel isn’t ready to be shared. It’s totally OK to put in a work in progress, but don’t apologize for it if you’re genuinely looking for feedback.

2. Guesswork. For a dummy book, it’s OK if sketches are loose, but don’t leave out the text (which can 100% be cut and pasted in). Also, do include a finished spread indicating the kind of medium you envision for the project.

3. Disorganization. You can decide to leave your bed unmade or your house a mess, but do not present a disorganized portfolio or dummy book. It makes a bad first impression and can be hard to see through, even if your work is good.

Q: I really enjoyed visiting your blog with visual concepts, iterations and inspiration.
As a graphic designer, can you share your creative process when you are designing  a book? 

A: I think of myself as a visual storyteller. When I’m reading a manuscript, I’m always writing down words or doodling ideas for the overall style or the cover concept. I collect images and assemble them into mood-boards that inspire the design direction. 
Caption: An example of a mood-board, this one for the middle-grade fantasy adventure,  Malamander.

Caption: The illustrator moodboard of Tom Booth’s work. His style married perfectly with the text for Malamander.

Caption: My first sketch for the Malamander cover.

As a book designer, and specifically for cover design, I work in visual metaphors: iconic images or powerful moments that I think will draw a reader in. I always go back to what I’d want to see as a young reader, something that’s different that I can’t immediately gleen from the book title. 

I describe design as the glue that holds a book together. As an art director, it’s my job to visually articulate the tone of the book. This often begins with a stylistic or illustrator choice, but includes trim size, paper stock, typefaces, color palette, margins, jacket effect, etc. All the little things that enhance the reading experience are my job to consider.  

Once I’ve hired an illustrator and they’ve created a tight cover sketch which has been approved by the publishing group, my next step is to approach the display typography. I LOVE typeface design. I customize the letterforms for my book covers because I think they should be specific to each project. I begin with a lot of options that look something like this:

Design- Maria Middleton Candlewick

Design- Maria Middleton Candlewick

Caption: Display type choices for Malamander.

For me, type and image must work together. Like the art, a typeface tells a story, too. 

And when I’m picking the right display or text typeface, I’m asking myself: 

1. Does this work in harmony with the cover art? and 2. Does it continue to tell the story? 

Q: On your blog it shows so many strong versions of a cover. What criteria is used to choose the final design?

A: In publishing (for the most part), no one person is responsible for the final design of a book. To varying degrees, an art director or designer takes into account the opinions of the author, the illustrator, the agent, the editor, the publisher, the sales and marketing departments, and sometimes the book buyer. Knowing there will likely be lots of opinions, I begin by honing in on what the book is about. 

When I’m conceptualizing a cover, I make a mission statement that lists this in order. For example: 
This is a fantasy adventure
about a mysterious monster
and the two kids trying to discover her secret
in a Victorian sea-side town in the dead of winter

The most important thing for me to capture is in that first line. The next most important thing is the second, then the third, and fourth. This visual ranking of imagery is a roadmap for who I hire as an illustrator, what the composition will be, and ultimately, how a reader will come to the book. Of course that mission statement can be revised once the aforementioned publishing group weighs in. But that is the bookmaking process. It takes a village.  
Caption: The final cover for Malamander.

Q: Would you like to add any other thoughts or words of wisdom for kid-lit illustrators?

A: Publishing is a labor of love. It’s not a fast-paced industry. There is no get-rich-quick here. Publishing is an industry where we toil and sweat and cry—often for a long time!—before we find our footing. Don’t be discouraged. Keep showing up everyday and doing the thing you love. There will be an editor or art director out there who gets your work. Remember that it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most. 

Q: Would you like to highlight any of the forthcoming books that you’ve worked on? Any other thoughts?

A: Malamander, of course! This book is the first in a middle-grade series from Walker Books US. It’s wonderfully written by Thomas Taylor and beautifully illustrated by Tom Booth. I want to highlight all of the books that I work on but here’s a just a few more: 


Thank  you so much Maria for taking time to share your insights on illustrating and designing books for kids. 


Dorothia Rohner illustrates and writes stories for children that combine nature, humor and the magic of imagination.

Author: I Am Goose! (Clarion, 2020)
Twitter: @dorothiar
Instagram: @dorothiar

IG  & Twitter: @perfect2020pbs

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Keeping your drawing hand healthy - by Ana Aranda

Our hands are very precious as visual creators and it can be very frustrating when they are injured. I’d like to share with you some of the things I learnt about keeping your hands healthy if you work in the illustration/creative field. 

If you have ever felt pain in your hand or if you would like to avoid this from happening here are some recommendations:

  • If you have pain in your hand, go to the doctor right away. Only a doctor can accurately tell you what is happening and how to treat it. If you have to go unto any treatment it is best to see the doctor as soon as possible so that your treatment starts as soon as possible.
  • Before drawing, do warm up exercises. Think about it as if you were a dancer, using your body for your work but on a smaller scale- you would need to do warming up, and then cooling down exercises. Here is a quick and simple routine to do before you start drawing:

Use both of your hands:

  • Additional stretching exercises and resources:
-5 exercises to improve hand mobility- Harvard Health Publishing -Tennis Elbow Stretches & Exercises - Ask Doctor Jo -Rice bucket exercise for climbers -Book - Draw Stronger: Self-Care For Cartoonists and Other Visual Artists

  • Take breaks, even if you are deep in the zone. Use a timer -I like using a kitchen timer to be independent from my phone or computer. You can do 30 or 40 mins work, 5 mins break and after 4 cycles a 10 min break or longer. You can also use the Pomodoro technique which consists of 25 minutes of work, followed by a 5 minutes break. There are several apps that you can download for this, such as Focus Keeper or websites such as Tomato Timers. Taking breaks will give your body and mind some space to breathe after a high concentration period of time. You can take the breaks to drink water, walk around, do anything but use your hand.
"Hibiscus and Friends" by Ana Aranda for Nucleus Gallery
  • Workstation ready. Make sure that your desk is in the right position which won’t injure your hands, neck and back. You can have your desk at the height of your elbows and draw on an angled surface. A drafting table works great or if you work while traveling you can take a thick binder, have non slippery plastic and draw there so you have an angle.

  • Posture. Your spine should be aligned and not curved. If you like to get very close to your paper, then bend one of your feet backwards, with your other foot forward and use your left hand (if you are right-handed) to hold your head while still keeping your spine straight. Ideally your paper/surface can be closer to the level of your eyes.

  • Create a bigger grip on your pencils/brushes. You can do this with microfoam tape, buy a spongy grip that you can reuse for several materials or buy mechanical pencils that already have a big grip.

    Also check out this blog post by Susie Ghahremani about this topic!
    From Susie Ghahremani's blog post Get a grip
  • Work out. Some recommended sports are the ones that strengthen your upper extremities and muscles, such as swimming.
"Fish Frolic" by Ana Aranda for Tr!kster Gallery
  • Eat and sleep well. 
  • Keep calm and do whatever you can to stay in peace. If you are injured and in the middle of a process of getting better sometimes the part of your body that you need to take most care of is not your hand, but actually your mind. Some things that you can try are meditation, acupuncture, massages, or any relaxation/healing techniques.
    Here is an interesting book about pain and how our mind can affect our body: “Explain Pain”
  • Fuel your mind with inspiration & experiences during the times that you have to rest your hand. Go to museums, galleries, concerts, read books, meet with interesting people, experience and say yes!  You can also work in parts of the creative process that don't require drawing, such as research.
  • Teach yourself to be ambidextrous. As my amazing art director Cecilia Yung told me: your creativity not only comes from your hand. There are plenty of ways to be creative, and also to create art and to draw. During the time that I had to rest and heal my right hand after an injury, my mind was so restless that I had to draw somehow. I started using my left hand and taught myself to draw with it. I even opened an Instagram account for it.

 Left handed drawings by Ana Aranda

Now that my right hand is recovered and healthy, I try to incorporate my left hand for backgrounds and things where I want a more spontaneous feel and then create the details with my right hand.
Illustration for SCBWI's Spring Bulletin, 2019 For this illustration I used my left hand for the backgrounds and parts of the drawing, and the right hand for the more detailed work.
Nowadays what I do is have two sides in my sketchbooks. One end for right hand drawings and the other end for the left hand drawings. 
  • Try not to press too hard when drawing. This might seem very obvious, but when pressing too hard, your hand accumulates a lot of tension. After a few hours of drawing you can start feeling it. Try drawing softer or use a pencil that is more greasy (I personally love the Palomino Blackwing) or you can draw with brush pens instead.

Palomino Blackwing pencil

Zebra Brushpen

Have you ever had a hand injury or ever felt pain while drawing? Feel free to share your experiences and share this blog post if you find it helpful!

Thanks for stopping by!

*Please note that I am not a certified doctor and these are recommendations based on my own experience after recovering from a hand injury and recommendations from doctors, physical therapists, friends and fellow artists -thanks so much to everyone who helped with info and resources for this post! Also remember that each body is different, and what works for one person might not work for another. Listen to your body and find a method/workout that you feel most comfortable with. 

Ana Aranda writes/illustrates for children. Some of her illustration titles include "The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra", written by Marc Tyler Nobleman, Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books, "Plus Fort Que Le Vent", written by Julia Billet, Éditions du Jasmin and "Our Celebración!", written by Susan Middleton Elya, Lee & Low Books.
You can find her work at 
these different locations:
Instagram: @AnarandaillustrationTwitter: @anaranda2