My goal was to illustrate trade picture books - ones with hard covers and dust jackets that you find at bookstores like Barnes & Noble. I was sending in art samples to trade picture book publishers, but the problem was that the samples I was sending worked better for the educational market, since that was what they were created for. They had an "educational look" to them. I needed to transform my portfolio to work for the trade picture book market, yet still create art that was my own style and felt right to me.
The portfolio critiques at SCBWI conferences were my main way of figuring out how to do that. I would ask the art directors very specific questions about why certain illustrations I created didn't work for trade picture books and how other illustrations by other illustrators did work for trade books. It took years to focus my portfolio and get closer to my own "trade book look." Even now, my art is still growing.
I broke into the trade book world by sending illustration samples to Shen's Books that featured a young Asian girl, since I knew they published multicultural books - research who you're submitting to! That landed me a contract to illustrate CORA COOKS PANCIT. That book won an award and had fabulous reviews. After that, I illustrated THE GOODBYE CANCER GARDEN, published by Albert Whitman & Company. That book received a Starred Review from School Library Journal and also had very nice reviews. After a number of other books, I created my first book as both author and illustrator, PENGUIN CHA-CHA, that was published recently by Random House, and more great reviews for that. Now I've illustrated the upcoming PRETTY MINNIE IN PARIS, to be published by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House. That book was written by Danielle Steel, so I'm sure it'll receive a fair amount of press.
I love my career and have been truly blessed by great projects and working with great people.
If you're tweaking your portfolio to break into trade picture books, there are a lot of resources to help.
First, I'd suggest joining the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Go to your regional conferences and volunteer. Most states are their own region, some states are joined, and some states have multiple regions. There are SCBWI regions in many countries too. See if you can receive a portfolio critique at a conference. Those have been quite helpful for me. If your region doesn't have much happening for illustrators, ask if you can volunteer to run an event for illustrators. Your Regional Advisor can apply for a grant from SCBWI to go towards an illustrator event to help with the cost.
If you do receive a portfolio critique, here are some tips on putting together your portfolio:
- 11” x 14” or smaller size is preferred. 8.5” x 11” works best to easily print samples.
- Do not bring original artwork in your portfolio - make nice color copies.
- Have your name on your portfolio and at the top or bottom of each page.
- Include 10-15 pieces of your best narrative artwork for children’s books showing a variety of emotion, characters, interaction, perspective, and body language.
- Don't include artwork that doesn't work for the type of books that you want to illustrate. So no nude figure drawings, still lifes, etc. The illustrations need to have a narrative quality; they need to show a story happening. Multiple sequential pieces with the same characters showing part of a story, like Little Red Riding Hood, is helpful.
- Bring questions that you want answered about your portfolio, such as what is your weakest piece. Bring paper to write down comments made during your portfolio critique.
- Don't take comments personally. The art director critiquing your work is trying to help. Listen well and look for ways to improve your art.
- Bring samples to leave with the art director who critiques your portfolio in case he/she asks for some. Don't expect them to ask though. And if they do ask, they may want a different piece than what you thought was your best, so be ready. Or send them a thank you in the mail with their favorite piece afterwards.
SCBWI's publication called THE BOOK has a section for illustrators. If you're an SCBWI member, you can download THE BOOK for free: http://www.scbwi.org/online-resources/the-book/the-book-member-download/
SCBWI has recently merged with Verla Kay's Blue Boards, so there are online discussion boards that you can take advantage of that are new. One new one is called Online Art Critiques: http://www.scbwi.org/boards/
If you search online for children's book portfolio tips, you'll come across a bunch like these:
- Portfolio Primer: http://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/tag/how-to-put-together-a-portfolio-for-childrens-book-illustration/
- Prize-winning Portfolio: http://idleillustration.com/2012/07/16/putting-together-a-prize-winning-portfolio/
- Portfolio Comparison: What made an SCBWI winner: http://wheelerstudio.com/2011/08/22/portfolio-comparison-what-made-an-scbwi-winner/
- Portfolio Tips Video from Midsouth SCBWI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iExVZ7uF-kM
- Portfolio Advice: http://lynnechapman.blogspot.com/2010/08/portfolio-advice.html
- Children's book art director Giuseppe Castellano has done a bunch of illustration critiques on Twitter: https://twitter.com/pinocastellano