Tell me a little about yourself: I was born and raised in and around the small-to-medium-sized town of Greenville, South Carolina. At the age of 24, I moved to Chicago and have lived here and in the suburbs ever since. I’m married to young adult author, Julie Halpern, and we have two wonderful children, Romy and Dean, and a crazy cat named Norbert.
How long have you been illustrating books? The very, very first book I was hired to illustrate was a middle grade novel titled The Gorillas of Gill Park (written by Amy Gordon). That book came out way back in 2003. Shortly after, the first picture book I illustrated, Toby and the Snowflakes (written by none other than my wife, Julie Halpern), was released in 2004.
How did you become a book illustrator? As long as I can remember, I’ve loved to draw. I always looked forward to and thrived in my art classes throughout elementary, middle, and high school. I ended up studying art in college, learning all I could about all different ways to make pictures. Once I graduated college, I tried a few different ways to make a living at art, and lucked into children’s books. (When I met my wife, she was an elementary school librarian.) I loved illustrating children’s books above anything else I’d ever done in art! I love the people I work with, and I love the entire process of making books. All the way from the scribbles and sketches, to the planning out of pages, to the creation of the final art, and all the way to the end where I finally get to hold a finished book in my hands. And I love knowing that these books will land in the hands of the best audience in the world: kids.
How do authors pick their illustrators? One would think that authors choose the illustrators of their books and that authors and illustrators work together on the story and pictures until the book is finished. But believe it or not, this is not how it happens! When the author and illustrator are not the same person (when you have one person who writes the story and another person who makes the pictures), usually the story has been written and finished first and has been accepted by a publisher to begin making it into a book. Then the folks at the publisher (an editor or art director or both) will decide what illustrator they think would best fit the story. An illustrator is hired to make the pictures for the book and the author is typically not involved at all in the making of the illustrations. Even though, in most cases, I do not work directly with the authors of books I’m illustrating, I always enjoy meeting them on social media or better yet in person, whenever possible!
How do you know how to illustrate an author’s story? That’s an interesting question with a kind of complicated answer… For the most part, when I’m hired to illustrate someone else’s story, what I choose to do is completely up to me. Sometimes there are some notes about certain things or certain parts of the text, but I have to figure out much or most of it all by my lonesome. I always start by creating sketches of how the main characters will look. I share those with the publisher and they sometimes share with the author. Some changes may need to be made here and there, but once those character looks are finished, I start sketching the pages. It’s a lot of problem solving. Trying to figure out backgrounds for things and colors and facial expressions, and so on. So many details that have to be figured out. But it’s a lot of fun. Sort of like solving a puzzle or something like that.
Do you have a favorite book you have illustrated? I love all of my books and all of the authors of the books I’ve illustrated for all of their many different qualities. But I’m going to give an incredibly selfish answer and say that my favorite books to illustrate are the ones I’ve written! It’s not that often that I get to write and illustrate my own books—and be in complete control. [insert evil laugh] I always have considered, and maybe always will consider myself an illustrator. Occasionally, I am bequeathed a good story idea by the universe that is deemed publishable by the… publisher. Generally speaking, my favorite book is always my newest one, so in this case that book is WOLF IN THE SNOW.
Do you illustrate by hand or by computer? I use the computer for some things, but generally speaking, I illustrate using pens and brushes and paper. My art is drawn with old-fashioned pen and ink (very much like when folks used to write with a feather dipped in ink) and color is painted with watercolor. I know my way around the computer a bit, but I do not use it completely to make my artwork. Nowadays, though, one could make illustrations for a book without touching a single piece of paper! But I like paper way too much to ever do that.