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Spotlight on School of Illustration Children's Book Instructors

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Illustration by Julie Downing.

Writing and illustrating picture books isn’t child’s play. The artists and authors who create them just make it look easy. Academy of Art University’s School of Illustration is fortunate to have a team of talented instructors specializing in children’s books. Whether they do double-duty as writers and illustrators, the artists who help bring an author’s words to life with beautiful images or just focus on writing, are all successful professionals. While their skill sets and backgrounds vary, they all share a love for teaching at the Academy. In fact, several of these instructors are School of Illustration alums, eager to pass along the knowledge they gained as students to those who are following in their footsteps. 

“It takes pros to teach people to become passionate professionals,” said Chuck Pyle, director of the School of Illustration. “I count on hiring individuals who can communicate what they care about clearly and succinctly, and teach with passion and wisdom. These instructors ensure the next generation of children’s books artists and writers will be strong like them and prepared to reshape the world of children’s books. I love looking at their work—it inspires me.”

Academy of Art U News recently spoke to members of this accomplished group. They shed light on common misperceptions about what it takes to write or illustrate children’s books, talked about the rewards of teaching and imparted advice to students hoping to break into the children’s book industry. Though they’re a modest bunch, we also wanted to highlight a few of their many achievements and recent or forthcoming books. 

The triple threats

This trio thrives on doing it all: They write and illustrate their own books. And they enhance the stories of others through their art.

Angela Dominguez-author

Angela Dominguez.

Angela Dominguez

Although she’s loved books and making a mess creating pictures since she was a little girl, Angela Dominguez didn’t seriously consider a career in kid lit until the end of her college days at the Academy.

“I was a general illustration major and didn’t really start focusing on children’s books until my last semester,” said Dominguez, who was born in Mexico City and graduated from the School of Illustration with an M.F.A. in 2007. “Telling stories through illustration is really fun. I’ve also been writing for the past seven years.”

To date, she’s authored and illustrated 27 children’s books, including several award-winners. She especially appreciated receiving the American Library Association Pura Belpré Illustration Honor for Maria Had a Little Lamb, which she wrote and illustrated, and another Pura Belpré honor for her artwork in Mango, Abuela, and Me.

She said getting that kind of validation as a writer and artist was huge. “I remember looking up those American Library Association medals when I was a kid,” she remarked. “Receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Academy in 2013 was also very meaningful to me. The school has given me a lot of support and opportunities.”

Those opportunities include teaching a variety of children’s book illustration courses at the Academy since 2010. She advises students interested in a career in children’s books to research the market and learn how to draw the types of characters that appear in kids’ picture books while they’re still in school. 

Next up for Dominguez is the release of her debut middle school novel, Stella Diaz Has Something to Say. The book will be published in January 2018. 

“It’s exciting,” she said. “This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.”

Julie Downing

Julie Downing’s rich, jewel-like watercolor illustrations have graced the pages of more than 45 picture books. She’s also served as author for several of these books, including First Mothers, which she co-wrote with Beverly Gherman. 

“I love nonfiction,” she said. “It was really interesting learning about the lives of our presidents and their upbringings. The book sold when Obama was running for the first time, so it was exciting to think about having a different type of president. Quite a few publishers were interested in it.” 

In addition to winning many awards and honors, her illustrations have been featured in major shows, including this year’s The Original Art exhibit at the Museum of American Illustration in New York City. It’s the third time Downing’s work has been showcased in the juried event. This year, she earned a spot for her illustrations for Lotus and Feather.

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Julie Downing.

“I changed the way I usually work for this project, and it had a big impact on the art I produced,” she said. “I like to tell my students you’re never too old to learn something new.”

Downing teaches both graduates and undergraduates. Her two undergraduate courses include an introduction to children’s book illustration and an advanced class for students who want to delve deeper. 

“Students in the advanced class work on a single project for the whole semester,” said Downing. “I love seeing students get excited about the process. They come out with a project they can sell, and several of them have done just that.”

According to Downing, students often mistakenly believe that authors decide who will illustrate their books. “Actually, the publisher selects an artist,” she said. “Another thing students don’t always realize is how much say they have as an illustrator. They come in thinking the author’s going to tell them what to draw and that they’re just a hired hand. But as the illustrator, you are in charge of the visual story. The author isn’t really involved.”

Downing’s latest illustration project, “Tessa Takes Wing,” will be published next spring. “This was an especially wonderful experience because the author (Richard Jackson) was my very first editor years ago,” Downing remarked. “He retired and started writing picture books, and we became a team.

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Christy Hale.

Christy Hale

Christy Hale’s desire to create books dates back to her childhood. She recalls racing home after school with a friend to work on, and share with each other, stories they wrote and illustrated in her living room.

“I don’t remember the titles or anything particular about them,” said Hale. “I just knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer and illustrator.”

Her early stories didn’t land on the shelves of any bookstores. But dozens of books she’s written and illustrated since have. Over the years, her work has garnered praise from critics, peers and young readers.

Books she is especially proud of include Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building, which she wrote and illustrated. It racked up a slew of honors when it came out in 2012, such as the Boston Globe-Horn Book, California Book and Notable Children’s Book awards.

 The recognition she earned for the earthy-hued, textured collages she created for author Cindy Jensen Elliot’s Antsy Ansel, a story about the famed naturalist’s hyper boyhood, was another career highpoint. Among other honors, it received a 2017 Crystal Kite Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). 

“That’s kind of an honor because it was selected by my colleagues in the children’s book industry,” said Hale. “I didn’t even know it was up for the award, so it was a nice surprise.”

Her latest book, Water Land, features a die-cut design with cutaways and fold-out maps that will offer kids a fun, interactive way to learn about land and water formations around the world. It’s scheduled to hit bookstores early next spring. 

“I had the idea for this book since my daughter was in first grade and she’s 22 now,” remarked Hale, with a laugh. “Some books have a long incubation period, others develop more quickly. I have folders and folders of ideas that I nudge along at different rates.”

Hale built the online writing for picture books course she’s taught at the Academy for the past five years from scratch. She said online teaching suits her because she loves developing a curriculum and interacting with students one-on-one. In addition, she enjoys watching her students form a community as the semester unfolds. 

“It’s exciting to see them create their own network and support system,” said Hale. “I try to encourage them and help them with that.”

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The cover of one of Dominguez's children's books. Image courtesy of Angela Dominguez.

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Illustration by Sara Palacios.

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Illustration by Christy Hale.

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Illustration by Isabella Kung.

Telling stories through illustrations

These superb artists have mastered the ABCs of coming up with kid-friendly illustrations that not only reel children in, but also help tell a story.

Isabella Kung 

Academy graduate and illustration instructor Isabella Kung believes that strong storytelling skills are just as essential for those who create the artwork for picture books as they are for those who write them.

“As the illustrator, you usually dictate the pacing of a story, when the page should turn, things that are all part of storytelling,” she explained. “You can make all the pretty pictures you want, but if you can’t tell a good story, it doesn’t matter.” 

Kung, who always had a knack for drawing kids and animals in a cute, playful style, naturally gravitated to illustrating picture books when deciding on a career path. She also loves telling stories and reading children’s books.

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Isabella Kung.

“The children’s book industry embraces all of my passions,” she said. “I have more children’s books than adult books!”

When it comes to helping her students find their illustration style, she likes to use the example of a Venn diagram. “One circle is the kind of art you admire and aspire to, the other is the way you intuitively like to draw and paint,” she explained. “The place where they overlap should be the style you aim for.”

Kung also encourages her students to use their time in school to play with different styles and take risks, a luxury they likely won’t have once they start working.

“It’s hard to change styles when you’re a professional,” she said. “You can’t experiment on a client assignment. The worst thing that can happen when you’re a student is getting a bad grade. But it’s a great learning experience.”

She cited a book cover and spot illustrations she did for 826 Valencia, a nonprofit that provides writing resources for underprivileged kids, as work she’s especially proud of. “It wasn’t a big project, but it was very fun and for a good cause,” she said. 

Winning a Best in Show award for her portfolio at the 2016 SCBWI Golden Gate Conference was another high point of her career. Kung was thrilled to receive her honor from illustrator and author Leuyen Pham, one of her idols. 

Last year, Kung took time off to work on improving her writing. She has several stories in development that she hopes to publish soon.

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Sara Palacios.

Sara Palacios

For Sara Palacios, choosing a favorite among the picture books she’s illustrated is a bit like asking a mother to pick a favorite child. 

“I’ve loved working on all of them because they are all so different,” she said. “Every book is a fresh challenge.”

Her latest book, Lola’s Rules for Friendship, was just published. In January, another new book, Shaking Things Up: 14 Young Women Who Changed the World, will be available. Her work has received both Pura Belpré Illustration and Tejas Star Book awards. 

Originally from Mexico, Palacios studied graphic design and illustration there before coming to San Francisco and enrolling at the Academy. She earned both a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from the School of Illustration and has been an instructor for the department since 2014. Currently, she teaches Illustration 385, an online course designed for graduate students.

“I enjoy sharing with my students and the process of seeing them improve from where they were at the beginning of a class,” she said. “They’re all so enthusiastic and eager to learn. I remember how it felt to be in their position. They remind me that there’s always something new for us to learn.”

This semester, in addition to teaching, Palacios revamped the Illustration 385 curriculum. 

“The course was already well-constructed, but it’s always good to update a class with the latest information,” she remarked. “It was mostly a matter of reorganizing content and bringing in new assignments.”

The art of writing

This seasoned picture book author understands the fine art of writing for young kids. And she loves sharing her expertise with budding children’s book writers.

Elissa Haden Guest

“People think writing picture books is easy because they’re short,” said Elissa Haden Guest. “But it’s not. It’s similar to writing poetry because you’re constantly honing something down since you only have about 30 pages to tell a story.”

Guest knows what she’s talking about. She’s written numerous award-winning children’s books, such as Bella’s Rules and the early reader series, Iris and Walter. She recently sold her latest story, Baby Builders, to Dial Books for Young Readers. Her honors include the PEN Center USA West 2001 Literary Award, ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book.

In her class, she focuses on teaching students how to write picture books that deal with universal themes, including stories that convey and validate children’s emotions.

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Elissa Haden Guest.

A favorite quote related to this subject that Guest likes to share with her students comes from author Sue Bradford Edwards: “The single most important thing you can bring to picture book writing is respect for your young audience…”

She also instructs her students to avoid rhyming when writing for picture books. 

“People think rhyming is easy, but it’s very difficult to do well,” she said. “Publishers really don’t want to get stories that rhyme.”

Guest also noted that picture books aren’t just for little kids. There are versions suitable for everyone from preschoolers to high school students. “You might have a picture book for older kids dealing with a difficult subject matter such as the civil rights war,” she explained. “It’s a picture book, but for a much higher level reader.”

Though some of Guest’s students are older and have kids, many don’t. She spends a lot of time in the beginning of the semester helping them learn to see the world through the eyes of a young child. 

“Sometimes students are surprised by the wide range of subjects in picture books for young children,” she said. “They deal with death and many other things you find in literature for adults. There are picture books about fear of abandonment, separation anxiety, building friendships and finding your place in the world.”