By Janet McDonnell
I’ve always been kind of jealous of those people who can say, “I knew from my very earliest years that’d I’d grow up to be an artist.” I did NOT always know I’d be an illustrator. In fact, sometimes I’m surprised to hear myself say I’m an illustrator. Yes, I always loved drawing, but I loved a lot of things when I was a kid. Such as the Jackson 5 and the Flying Nun. (Once I made a big cardboard hat and wore it while jumping off the picnic table, hoping to fly like Sister Bertrille.)
When it was time to choose a career path, Flying Nun seemed eminently impractical (and my dad was all about practical), so I enrolled at Northern Illinois University and started sniffing around for my future. For a while, I drifted toward a visual communication major, since it seemed like the “practical” art major, but there wasn’t enough drawing involved, and I decided it wasn’t for me. Meanwhile, I was loving my English classes, and so I declared myself an English major with an art minor. And of course the practical thing to do with an English major is teach English!
My first job out of college was teaching high school English in a rural community. It was a challenging job, to say the least, and the fact that I was only four years older than some of my students made it extra challenging. Stressed out and a little bit lonely, I discovered that I missed drawing. One night, when I was preparing my lesson plans for Romeo and Juliet, I decided to make a poster for each act of the play. I used pastels on Canson paper, and when I brought them to school the next day, the other English teachers oohed and ahhed over them. One even commissioned me to make a set for her room. A dim little lightbulb lit over my head.
When I got married and moved to Chicago, I reevaluated my career path. I wandered about for a bit, working as a freelance journalist, a cashier at the Walnut Room, and an assistant editor at a medical publisher. Eventually, I landed at The Child’s World, a small educational publisher in Elgin. Because it was such a small company, I had a hand in all aspects of book production, which turned out to be a fantastic learning experience. I not only functioned as an editor but also wrote over twenty educational books for preschoolers on subjects ranging from space travel to animal behavior.
I even functioned as a quasi art director, commissioning illustrators and then working together with them to create the look we needed to bring the text alive. It was working with the illustrators that made that dim lightbulb begin to burn a little brighter. I began taking weekend classes at the American Academy of Art, and a wee little voice inside began to murmur, “Maybe I could do this.”
Eventually, The Child’s World was bought by a larger publisher (what else is new?), and we were all laid off. I spent some time teaching at my mother’s preschool, creating portfolio pieces, and wondering what my next step should be. Then a wonderful opportunity came knocking (or should I say ringing). The original owner of The Child’s World, Jane Buerger, called and said she wasn’t ready to retire after all, and would I be interested in writing some books for her new startup? I said sure, if she’d consider letting me illustrate a couple too.
Jane’s first project with her new company, Wing Park Publishers, was a series that combined phonics and the whole language approach to reading. It was called “Read Around Alphabet Town,” and I illustrated two of the fourteen books I wrote for that series. Around this time, I learned about SCBWI and quickly became a member. It was through a portfolio review at an SCBWI conference in Indiana that I hooked up with the agency Tugeau 2, and they have been representing me ever since.
As you can see, I’ve taken kind of an unusual path to illustration, and I guess that’s why I sometimes still feel like I snuck into the party through the back door, and any minute I’ll be discovered and tossed out onto the lawn. But until that happens, I’m going to keep toiling away in my little studioette, trying to hone my skills and create something that touches someone somewhere.
The thing I love about illustration is that it’s like a quest that never ends. There’s always more to learn, new ways to explore your creativity, new methods for bringing your ideas alive. I’ve learned so much from people like Laura Montenegro, whose “Intuitive Suitcase” class taught me how to make a smart book dummy, and Will Terry, whose online tutorials make me feel like I’ve been given the keys to the kingdom. I’m also regularly inspired by my co-conspirator Terri Murphy and the other illustrators who show up at our network meetings, ready and willing to share their secret tricks of the trade.
Up to now, most of the projects I’ve worked on have been for educational or religious publishers, such as the “Ali Cat” series I illustrated for Zondervan. I’m currently illustrating a story for Highlights High Five. But my dream is to write and illustrate a picture book that grabs kids, pulls them in, and doesn’t let them go until the last page. I want to create the kind of book that makes a room full of kids gathered on the rug for story time stop their wiggling and their poking and their nose picking and sit. Absolutely. Still. Drawn, in spite of themselves, into a 32-page world. In this age of interactive apps and X-Box extremes, that may seem like a tall order. But it still happens. I’ve seen it. A good picture book is timeless. And that is my ultimate goal. (Unless I can get a hold of Sister Bertrille’s flying headgear.)
Janet McDonnell is an author and illustrator living in Arlington Heights with her two amateur comedian sons and her husband, who’s also pretty darn funny. She is the co-coordinator of the Chicago-area SCBWI Illustrators Network. You can see more of her work at http://www.janetmcdonnell.com.