CODY, Doll Bones, Eliza Wheeler, Jen Rofe, John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien, Miss Maple's Seeds, Sendak Fellow, Tell Me A Tattoo Story, The Encyclopedia of Writing and, The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children's Books, Wherever You Go, Writing with Pictures
Eliza Wheeler is the author and illustrator of Miss Maple’s Seeds, which debuted on the New York Times’ bestseller list. She also is the illustrator of several books, including Alison McGhee’s Tell Me A Tattoo Story, Pat Zietlow Miller’s Wherever You Go, and Holly Black’s Newbery Honor-winning Doll Bones.
Wheeler will be an illustration contest judge at SCBWI’s Writers & Illustrators Day on Feb. 25.
Erlina Vasconcellos: Congratulations on being named a 2017 Sendak Fellow! What will you work on during the retreat?
Eliza Wheeler: Thank you so much. I’ll be working solely on developing my own projects; a mixture of illustrating and writing. My second book will probably be my main focus, which is about my grandma’s childhood. But I’m also going to bring all the other littler story ideas I have on the shelf just in case inspiration strikes in a way that’s different than what I expect. I’m leaving it as open as I can.
EV: What will you be looking for as a Writers & Illustrators Day illustration contest judge?
EW: A voice that’s of professional quality, but unique. I also will be looking for scenes that suggest a larger story, or are emotionally gripping.
EV: What are the keys to a memorable picture book?
EW: Wow! That’s a huge question, so I will just say the one key that comes to mind is that it needs to make me care; about the character, or time, or place, or situation. That’s what I look for most in picture books.
EV: What mistakes do you see often from new picture book illustrators?
EW: I’m not sure that I notice any pattern of mistakes from debut illustrators’ books–by then they’re working with pro art directors and editors who probably help weed out the mistakes. But when it comes to portfolios, a few common ones:
1) Trying to cram in too many styles that aren’t well honed
2) Not having studied artistic composition, as well as basic anatomy
3) Using color schemes that are very literal (green grass, blue sky), and also just picking from primary/secondary colors. Neutral tints are so essential to great color schemes.
EV: When you were starting out, how did you go about learning about the industry?
EW: At first I did some Googling and book-reading, but attending SCBWI conferences was when I was able to ask and hear answers to all my questions, and learn about the industry in all its levels, and I’m still learning.
EV: You won the SCBWI Grand Prize Award for best portfolio at the 2011 National Conference. Any advice to illustrators or writers who are afraid to put their work out there?
EW: Putting your work out there should only serve one function: It’s one step on an endless road to gaining information and experience to make better work. If you can put all other motives aside, then it’s not quite so scary, because the focus is on the work and on how it can evolve. Any recognition or acclaim is a by-product of that process.
EV: Do you have to feel your portfolio is perfect before submitting for a review or critique?
EW: Absolutely not. Feedback at any stage is always helpful as long as you’re open to it. It also helps in building a thick skin.
EV: Any tips for making the most of a conference?
EW: Take advantage of critique services if you feel ready, but I would just say to listen to everything and recognize what resonates with you. Socially, if you don’t know anyone, I would recommend changing seats between workshops or keynotes, and make it a point to introduce yourself to the person to your left and right. And ask them about what they do, and tell them where you’re at on your journey. Kids’ book people are generally a very nice bunch!
EV: What have you learned about the process of working with a writer?
EW: For the majority of large publishers, the writer and illustrator do not collaborate, and personally this is how it works best for me. I work with the art director or editor, and the more freedom to imagine without direction or author notes, the better.
EV: Some new writers may not like the idea of handing over the vision of their book to an illustrator to interpret. What would you say to them?
EW: Self-publish, or see if you can find a publisher who lets the author have a voice during the illustration process. If you’re committed to going the traditional route, I would say trust the professionals to whom you’ve sold your story to do a good job of choosing the right artist and the right design team to create the visual part of the book.
EV: Can you tell us briefly about your road to getting an agent and getting published?
EW: SCBWI was how both happened. I met my agent, Jen Rofe, at an SCBWI event, and I met the art director for Miss Maple’s Seeds, Cecilia Yung, through the SCBWI Mentorship Program. When I won the portfolio showcase, the prize was a trip to New York to meet with publishers, and that was a great way to begin relationships with several editors and art directors. I have figured out that I have since worked with all the publishers I met on that trip (not all right away), so that was a big part of getting my career going.
EV: Do you do any work digitally?
EW: Up until now, I only used digital to make fixes if I got revision notes after turning in the final paintings. The current project I’m working on involves digital collage, which I’m excited to be experimenting with. We’ll see if I use it more in the future.
EV: What medium do you work in? Favorite art supplies or technology you use in your art?
EW: I use dip pens with India ink, and watercolors (brands include M. Graham and Winsor & Newton). I also love using these Pentel brushes that hold water, which flows out of the brush as you paint. I’m also using 300-lb cold press Lanaquarelle watercolor paper at the moment.
EV: Any books that you would recommend to illustrators to study?
EW: Writing with Pictures by Uri Shulevitz, and The Encyclopedia of Writing and Illustrating Children’s Books by McCannon, Thornton, and Williams are two to start with.
EV: Any mistakes you’d like to share that readers could learn from?
EW: I would say my biggest mistake was over-booking myself with projects out of eagerness to say “yes” to everything that came my way. I didn’t understand that (almost all) book schedules change and fluctuate, and so I didn’t leave myself any cushion for that. I’ve experienced physical and creative burn-out often since starting out, but have gotten better at saying “no” to projects for the interest of creating better work, but way more importantly, finding balance in daily life. (I’m totally still working on that part).
EV: What’s next for you?
EW: I have a picture book releasing this March: John Ronald’s Dragons: The Story of J.R.R. Tolkien written by Caroline McAlister (Roaring Brook Press/MacMillan). And I’m currently working on the picture book, Fairy Spell: The True Story of the Cottingley Fairies, written by Marc Tyler Nobleman (Clarion/HMH), as well as the fourth book in the CODY middle-grade series, by Tricia Springstubb (Candlewick). Hopefully 2017 holds lots more work on my own stories as well!
And if you’d like to attend the Los Angeles Writers & Illustrators Day event, there’s still time to register! More info and registration instructions here.
Photos courtesy of Eliza Wheeler.
Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she is writing — and rewriting — a picture book and a middle grade novel. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda