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Inspiration for Budding Picture Book Illustrators

Back in the mid eighties I had put together a portfolio of art suited for children’s books. I did not have stories of my own, but I depicted scenes from Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little red Riding Hood and other well known tales. My work showed a lot of variety- from painstakingly cross-hatched pen and ink renderings  à la Maurice Sendak to rich, detailed watercolors  à la Trina Schart Hyman, along with some gouache, colored pencil and collage attempts.

I matted each of my pieces- many of which were quite large- and I stuffed them into a huge portfolio case. Then I put on my Sunday best, hopped on a bus to New York City and dreamed of life as a children’s book illustrator.

Heading to a major publishing house, I strutted with pride and purpose. The weight of my oversized  portfolio could not wear me down. I was absolutely buoyant.

Back then, the protocol was to drop off a portfolio early on in the day and pick it up in the late afternoon. I would spend the day in art museums, getting even more inspired.

At the end of the day, I would rush back to the publishing house, pick up my portfolio, peek inside to find a small, standard rejection slip, indicating that my work was not suited for their lists.

And I would walk out of the large office feeling very small indeed.

Rejection hurts. Rejection demoralizes. But rejection is part of the process. It doesn’t necessarily  mean the work is inferior. Many famous illustrators and writers have been rejected. If Dr. Seuss, after 29 rejections, had not run into a friend/editor who believed in him, who knows if he would have had the confidence to pursue his publishing career? And what a waste that would have been!

I think my biggest problem was that my art samples were all over the place. In my attempt to show that I could work in a variety of media, I came off as inconsistent. I had many different images, but no series showing the same characters  in different scenes and poses.

My best advice to illustrators starting out is to showcase what you do best. Pick the media  and style that is your strongest. Then draw/paint/make collage/whatever you do…and show a series of illustrations, i.e. pages in a book. Publishers want to see consistency-  that you can make the character and setting look the same from page to page, and that you bring the scenes to life with variety and interest.

It took me about five years to get published , during which time I also began writing my own stories. In those five years I  continued to study children’s books, to draw and paint,  to take art classes and  to attend writers and illustrators workshops.

I also  looked for any free-lance illustration job I could find- from a newspaper ad sketch of a pizza man for a local Italian restaurant to nature scenes on brochures for a local resort. They were not the children’s book illustrations I so dreamed of doing, but they did help to build personality in my work, and eventually led to my publication.

The point is I put myself out there.

And so should you! Good luck!

If you have any questions about illustrating (or writing) children’s books, please don’t hesitate to ask 🙂

About the author

Iza Trapani I am a children's book author and illustrator, fan of Mother Goose and Dr. Seuss, lover of big dogs, aspiring yodeler. When not in my studio, I spend time outdoors and have climbed over many a mountain to see what I could see.

18 Responses to Inspiration for Budding Picture Book Illustrators

  1. I love hearing about your early days, Iza – you tell it so much like a story! Of course, hearing about your rejections would have been harder is I didn’t know it all had a happy ending:) It’s true that rejection is part of the process, but boy is it a hard part. It undermines your self-confidence and makes you second-guess and question your work to a point that is not productive. I’m so glad you’ve met with such success. You are so talented. I was reading some of your book reviews yesterday while preparing my blog post and saw where (I think) Kirkus said you were “a staple of children’s literature” and I thought, didn’t they get that exactly right?! 🙂

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Thank you so much dear Susanna! You are always so kind. It’s nice to be seen as a staple (but maybe a paper clip would be better?:-) It’s true that rejection can be very discouraging, but we can’t dwell on that. We just have to keep moving forward, finding joy in our work and giving it our best effort.

  2. Cathy Mealey says:

    Iza, did you have a mentor that taught you about the importance of consistency in your portfolio? Was it SCBWI or another professional organization that helped you reframe your work?

    Although I am not an illustrator, I wonder if agents/editors look for the same idea of theme/consistency/voice in written work samples. Hmm…

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Cathy, I studied fine art in college. After graduating I took an illustration course which I loved. Both the teacher and students encouraged me to pursue children’s book illustration (which I was already doing.) My family and friends encouraged me as well. Early on I was part of a local group of children’s authors and illustrators- a few of them published. Then I joined SCBWI as well, but I was not too active. I was very shy at the time 🙂

      As for writing, it has been my experience that agents and editors do like books that lend themselves to a series. In that case, consistency of theme and voice is important. Other than that, it is fine for authors to write in a variety of styles, on a variety of topics, but the writing needs to be strong.

  3. BBF, what a super lovely post! I mean that. Ahhhh. Rejection. It has almost made me stop writing. Then the other side of the coin is listening to the wrong people. *sigh* It’s hard. But though it all I met you. That makes my heart smile. I love reading your journey. It gives my spirits a lift.

    How did you know which voices of critique to listen to. Did you take in what they had to say and then trust your own judgments? (Hard to do) I always second guess myself especially after a crit. I am so sure about the way to go with a story. Then someone leads me down a path that changes my vision for a particular story. (Susanna pulled me out of a recent mishap:-))

    Anyway, thank you BBF. I love you always!

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Dear BBF. Do not let rejection stop you. You are passionate about writing. Take critiques with an open mind but also retain some of your own counsel. I was not part of a critique group when I started out, though I did ask a few well known author-illustrators (friends of friends) who gave me a bit of advice. In the beginning I was very attached to my stories and hesitated to change them, but now when I re-read some of my early rejected stories, I realize how weak they are. There is a big learning curve and writing for children is considered some of the hardest. The best thing you can do is to keep writing and studying books and the more you do it, the more you will improve. Rather than second guessing yourself, consider the critique and see how you can improve your manuscript. Btw, what wrong people are giving you advice? Are you part of a critique group? Are they professional writers or editors, or aspiring ones? Everyone has an opinion, but it may not always be the right one for you. Consider the source, but if more than one person make the same suggestion, then perhaps you may take another look at your story. Keep writing, my friend! Hugs and love xoxoox

  4. I just love your stories, and can imagine you in your “Sunday best” heading out with a jaunty swagger. Delightful image!

    To tell you the truth, I am really looking forward to my first rejection letter. You know why? Because it means I’m DOING something, taking action to get published, not just sitting around reciting verses to the wall. It could be due to my many years in theater, but rejection doesn’t really bother me. Sure, I take a moment to lick my wounds, but then one must carry on.

    However, I did just started with a poetry critique group and I will say…ouch! My jaunty swagger turned into a limp pretty quick. Like you said, you must consider the suggestions and take what works for you — but if more than one person says the same thing, it’s probably a good idea to take heed. I think a strong sense of self is crucial for handling both critiques and rejections; otherwise you run the risk of losing your voice or, as Robyn experienced, your vision of your work.

    I have about a million questions and as many doubts. 🙂

    • Iza Trapani says:

      Thank you, Renee! And good for you for looking forward to your first rejection letter! That’s exactly right. “No guts, no glory,” as we used to say back in my rock climbing days. We have to put ourselves out there.

      And who are these people in your critique group? Are they seasoned poets, pros? You happen to be an excellent poet, so I can’t imagine them turning your swagger into a limp! (:- love your humor – not that you limped!)

      Do not doubt yourself, my friend. You are creating. You are open to advice. You have a strong sense of self and you have a great, positive attitude. You are doing everything right!

  5. Iza, loved reading about your journey. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Poetry Friday: Storytime with Iza Trapani and Little Miss Muffet

  7. Robin Hall says:

    Thank you so much for this website/blog I was always drawing and painting as a kid and still love to do it. I became a member of the SBCWI and attended my first meeting in New York 2014 and was amazed by how hugh this industry is and what kind of competition you are working with. It was very exciting but its basically an opportunity to get you in the door to meet and greet those you may end up working with some day. Thanks again for the inspiration.

    • Iza Trapani says:

      You are very welcome, Robin. SCBWI is a great organization and has helped many new writers and illustrators. I am a member as well. Keep drawing and painting and don’t worry about the competition. Every writer and illustrator has her/his unique style, as I am sure you do. Just keep honing your craft!

  8. Adriana Velez says:

    First of all I want to thank you for sharing your inspiring story and advice. I have always known that I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator, I even got my visual arts degree but the fear of rejection have always held me on my comfort zone that was to draw for myself. I now have a baby girl and she has become my inspiration to go for my dream. I not only want her to be proud of her mom but I want to show her that dreams are possible. I am now trying to get my drawings and a webpage. But it’ll be of great help if you gave me advice if there are any books or webpages that can lead me on the right path. I know it’s not going to be easy but I’m ready to give it my all. Thank you for your story once again.

  9. Adriana Velez says:

    Thank you very much for your time and suggestions I really appreciate your advice that will be of great help to all of us who want to achieve our goal of becoming a great writer and illustrato of children’s books.

  10. Pingback: Iza Trapani Artist Interview by Cindy Wider: Part 2

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