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

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