“Make your art uniquely you—imitation is good for practice/honing your skills, but publishers want something that stands out from the pack—and that will be what you have to offer if you follow your own instincts and create from your experiences and things unique to you.”
Stephanie Roth Sisson has illustrated over sixty books for children including several for American Girl’s Bitty Twins, Princess Posey series and others. She just WROTE and illustrated her first book for kids. A biography of her childhood hero, Carl Sagan called Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos.
She currently resides in both California and the island of Mauritius (take a right at Madagascar). Now that she has written her first book, she’s hooked on the doing both the writing and the illustrating and is already at work on her next books! To see more of her work, visit her website.
This week we’re excited to feature mom and children’s book illustrator, Stephanie Roth Sisson. Her work first caught our eye on the website of Red Fox Literary and after browsing her gorgeous portfolio we knew we wanted to feature her. In addition to being a delightful illustrator, she’s also recently authored her first book and is a bonafide globetrotter, splitting her year between California and Mauritius.
Getting to draw beautiful pictures all day sounds like a dream job! How did you start in illustration? Did you pursue formal art training? How is it starting out as a working illustrator?
Yes! Illustration is a dream job for me. I was a quiet kid who loved to draw and I still do. I am still (mostly) pretty quiet. No, I have no formal art training. I started off on my mom’s lap, scooted up to a table with a pencil/crayon in hand, with her patiently drawing with me, and I have continued to draw—but not on her lap.
When I was in the fourth grade, Tomie de Paola came to my elementary school (he had a full head of dark hair then!) and I was selected with other representatives from our classes to meet with him in the school library. It was then that it occurred to me that this was something that people did—they drew for a living—it was a real job.
I was lucky in that when I started my professional career I had no idea what I was doing. I went to the offices of local publishers and showed them my illustrations. I clearly had no idea what I was doing, but I think a few of them saw potential, and in those days editors had time sit down with new illustrators and give out a bit of advice.
So, I listened and put together a portfolio with a variety of illustrations (people, animals, various settings) and some with the same character expressing different emotions. Eventually I got my first assignment and went from there.
If you had a time machine and could chat with any illustrator, who would you choose?
So hard to choose!! But, I would actually choose Ursula Nordstrom—who wasn’t a, illustrator or author, but an editor. She worked with all of the greats : Maurice Sendak, E.B. White, Charlotte Zolotow, Shel Silverstein, Margaret Wise Brown. There is a wonderful book by Leonard S. Marcus called Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom which is a collection of the correspondences she had over the time she was an editor with the creators of some of the best known and loved books for children ever.
I go to it whenever I’m feeling down or have lost my focus. There is a letter from a young Maurice Sendak to her, full of doubt about his talent, and her reply is perfect—I imagine him reading it and feeling enough confidence to sit back down and create.
How does your children’s book illustration come in?
Ah, well, the first books I did worked like this: I would send samples in to a publisher and they would call up or e-mail when they had a job that matched my style. I would take pretty much any assignment that people asked me to do for the experience and the money (making a living as an illustrator is not easy — it is a take work when you can get it sort of thing).
Eventually, after many books and a lot practice, I was picked up by my wonderful agent, Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. She networks with editors and art directors and that’s how I have come to illustrate some of my more recent books. What she did for me professionally though, something that has been ground breaking for me, was to encourage me to write.
That’s where my Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos came from. Together with my incredible supportive powerhouse critique group (amazing talent in that group), we eventually put together a book dummy on the life of Carl Sagan. When the book was ready to pitch to editors, Abi put together a gorgeous letter and sent it out with the dummy, and it quickly found a home.
Then my super smart, savvy, brilliant editor helped me shape the final book— which even after purchase underwent huge changes. Now I am officially an author-illustrator and I am hooked! I have another book rolling right now and several more ideas waiting to be developed. I want to do mostly my own books now, although if a great manuscript comes my way I would still illustrate it.
By the way—I don’t have any contact with the authors of the books I illustrate until after I’m done illustrating. I know a few of them now, but we don’t work together. When I’m illustrating, I work with an art director who guides my work.
What is the process for a children’s book going from manuscript to illustrated book?
The process in general is that writers send in their manuscripts to editors at publishing houses that they think are a good match for them (researching to make sure they are sending their work to an appropriate house) and if the editors like something, they bring it to a meeting with their fellow editors/art directors (and later the marketing team) at the publishing house. If there is a consensus, the manuscript is purchased and then the work of finding an illustrator who is a good match starts.
The manuscript goes though the final edits before going to the illustrator. Sometimes an art director will ask illustrators to create a sample piece of work for the manuscript—something to get a sense of what they would do with the book. Other times they will just choose an illustrator and go with him or her.
They get the illustrators through various sources: agents, illustrators’ directories, websites, postcards. (Illustrators will sometimes send out a postcard with a sample of their work several times a year to various art directors.)
A big, famous publisher calls you up to say they’re opening their vault and you can re-illustrate any children’s book ever, which do you choose?
Wow! maybe something by Edward Lear would be fun.
Who are some of your favorite children’s book illustrators who keep you inspired?
I could make a really long list of favorites! Some of them are Oliver Jeffers, Viviane Schwarz, Wolf Erlbruch, Melissa Sweet, and Lisbeth Zwerger.
Do you have any tips or resources for moms who would like to get started in illustration?
I think the SCBWI should be stop number one for someone wanting to get into the children’s book field. They have been invaluable to me—especially the conferences.
I would tell anyone to draw at every opportunity—being a mom can make it so hard to find time. Start keeping a sketchbook handy and draw the things that interest you. Keep in mind that being able to draw kids (use yours as models!), animals, classrooms, the rooms of a house—things that you typically find in books for children—is important. Then start putting together some samples of your work, send out postcards, start a website with samples of your work on it.
Get inspired and keep inspired—I have boxes of illustrations from others, photographs and random things I’ve collected that I refer to in order to keep my work fresh and fun for me. Pinterest is pretty great for that too. I’m addicted to it at the moment. Make your art uniquely you—imitation is good for practice/honing your skills, but publishers want something that stands out from the pack—and that will be what you have to offer if you follow your own instincts and create from your experiences and things unique to you. Create your own style.
Thanks so much for the lovely interview and inspirational illustrations Steph! We loved hearing about your process and are looking forward to seeing what books you come up with next! Steph also shared a fun drawing game she does with her children and is sure to encourage the little budding artist in your family.
For all you moms of little stargazers, Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos is really gorgeous and a great stocking stuffer! See it in action:
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