Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Super Star Interviews: Jaime Zollars

Welcome to my monthly interview feature! I’m so excited to be interviewing all the fabulous artists, illustrators and designers I’ve meet over the years (both personally and virtually!) and sharing their artwork and experiences here on Bird Meets Worm. Look for a new interview on the first Tuesday of every month. (Please note that I do know today is actually Wednesday! I'm afraid I'm a day late this month! But what can I say?—it's summer!!!)

I’m pleased as pink lemonade punch to be chatting it up with the rockstar Illustrator, Jaime Zollars! I've been a total fan girl for Jaime's artwork going back many, many years to when we were both living in Los Angeles, unpublished and doing lots of volunteer work with the SCBWI! Jaime holds a BA in photography from UMBC and a BFA in illustration from the Art Center College of Design. She has illustrated children's books, magazines, newspapers and ad campaigns. Her clients include Random House, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic and many more. She is inspired by fairy tales, Flemish painters, forgotten paper and flea market photographs. Jaime currents resides in Charleston, South Carolina with her dashing husband, sarcastic 10-year old son & sunny 5-year old daughter. You can view more of her artwork here!

Jaime with photo bomber cuteness!!

Q: You are the master of mysterious & wonderous middle grade novel book covers and interiors! Give us the scoop on your process—from ideas & sketches to typography & color/BW final art—for approaching the unique needs of this genre as an illustrator.

A: Middle grade covers are my favorite assignments. My process ends up being slightly different every time because every book is different. I see book covers as puzzles to solve, where content, mood, and typography need to be be carefully considered and then seamlessly blended. This is almost always a fun challenge.

From a technical standpoint, I try to read the book first (if the deadline allows for it and I get a full manuscript) and I take a lots of notes. I write down setting information, mood, favorite quotes, favorite moments, important symbols, and anything else I can imagine making its way to the cover. This ends up saving me a ton of time in the long run. Even though these details are my favorite aspects of creating imagery, I understand that a quick and captivating first read is truly what makes a cover stand out. I start making very loose and tiny (1”) thumbnail compositions. I try to vary these as much as possible, and often barely pencil in anything but the major shapes, curves, and proportions of my ideas. I leave space for type and sometimes rough out the type myself. When I get them to an interesting place, I start filling in details. I usually pick 3-5 or so that I like the best, scan them, and print them out a bit larger (3-4”). I then use vellum paper or a light box to refine and add details and submit those to the Art Director.

Process—aka artist brain scan.

From a creative standpoint, I pay specific attention to the mood of the piece. The overall feel of a cover comes first for me and has to match the story so that the illustration not only attracts readers - it hopefully attracts the right readers. As I’m refining my ideas, I keep this in mind and make sure that I’m not simply focusing on my own favorite images. If I get stuck, I sometimes go to the book store and note covers that I like. I then ask myself why I like each one. My aim is not to copy those covers, but to acknowledge what draws me to them. I look at all kinds of covers, not just those in the children’s section. It might be that an image uses silhouettes for a dramatic effect, is monochromatic, employs the use of pattern, or involves a very close up view of something. These observations may drive me to try my hand at similar conventions within the world I’m drawing, resulting in a larger pool of possibilities from which to begin. We often get wrapped up in our own habits, and breaking them can be especially useful when trying to give each author something uniquely theirs.

Once an art director gets my sketches, she will show them to the editor and may come back with a favorite or two to refine, along with notes or suggestions. I’ll then make tighter compositions of the favorites (often with value or color) and those will be shown at a larger meeting until we are happy. Sometimes I will draw the type, and sometimes the publisher will hire a lettering artist or typeset it themselves. Then it is on to final art!
Ooo! Doesn't this look fabulously mysterious?! Lettering by Alyssa Nassner!

Q: What is your most favorite middle novel project that you’ve worked on and why?

A: This is an impossible question at the moment, mostly because it is the variety of these novels that I cherish the most. The overall challenge of bringing something new every time is the real joy in this process for me. While I’ve enjoyed each cover experience for different reasons, I will say that The Greenglass House books by Kate Milford opened my mind to using a flatter, more graphic style, and this opened many possibilities (and jobs!) for me. And I love being a part of the rich world she has created. I am working on book three in the series right now.

Enter a Glossy Web
by McKenna Ruebush will always be near and dear to me. The book has so many surprising and thoughtful details that I was encouraged to include in my tiny pencil renderings for the chapter headings. They are still some of my favorite drawings. 

Carter and Grit by Sarah Jean Horwitz was one of the most fun covers to brainstorm, with its animatronic cats and gritty city details alongside beautiful fairy gardens. The story’s competing worlds allowed me to experiment in mixing graphic elements alongside delicate renderings in the same image.

I suppose my long answer is an attempt to explain that I’m still embracing (and learning from) each cover that comes my way, so it is difficult to pick favorites!

Trio of book cover awesomeness!!!

Q: Your debut picture book as an author-illustrator, The Truth About Dragons, releases in Spring/Summer 2020. Chat with us a bit about transitioning into writing as well as illustrating. How does your process as an author-illustrator differ from that of illustrator-only work?

A: Oh boy, I resisted writing my own stories for years. I resisted because I felt unqualified next to those who have trained in writing and put in the work to make it a career. I resisted because I knew it would be hard and I was afraid that I couldn’t do it. I also preferred the idea of collaborating with a great author. Alas, for years I found that even though I was getting jobs illustrating the books of others, I failed to connect with a majority of the titles. After waiting around (too long) for a perfect storm, I decided it was time to give writing a try. Even though it seems like everyone I’ve ever met is writing a picture book, actually sitting down and making one is difficult. The process is also much longer (at least in my case) as an author-illustrator. I’m lucky to have an amazing agent, Stephen Barr, who was able to look at all of my ideas, pick out the most promising, help in its development, and encourage me along the way. I’m sure I would have quit without his regular prodding and insistence that making my own book was a worthwhile endeavor. Stephen was also able to sell it 18 months later, when I finally had something tangible in hand. I was thrilled to sell my first book at age 40! I only wish I would have had the courage to trust my own ideas much sooner. Even though I felt like I’d already made this book when it sold, the process only begins upon selling a book. I was then introduced to my editor (the amazing Deirdre Jones) who shares (or at least humors) my love for details. We spent several months ironing out all of the kinks and fine-tuning the story. I used to think that having complete control over my book would make things simpler, when in fact it makes the process much more daunting and difficult for me. I have jumped from text to image and back again thousands of times making adjustments. I am responsible for the entire project, which is simultaneously exciting and stressful, but uniquely rewarding! I have also found much more joy in the process of working with my agent and editor through the process than I thought I would. I used to fear revisions and change (the messiness of a book’s moving parts) but I now see these things as a necessary process that will result in a better book. After years of hemming, hawing, and doubting, I’m excited to finally be producing final art for my own title.

Every fantastical middle grade novel needs a wonderous map! Am I right?!

Q: The children’s publishing market is vast and often it can be a challenge for creatives to find where their work is best suited. Dish with us about your journey to find your niche within the children’s publishing world. And what advice would you give fellow illustrators about finding their own niches?

A: I would say that trusting your gut is important. It is very easy to say this now, but I remember not being able to do so years ago. I’ve always had work that felt sophisticated for the younger set, but I still wanted to work in books for young readers. When I graduated from art school, I went to New York and showed my portfolio. Everyone seemed to love it! The only hiccup was that all of the children’s publishers felt I’d do great in the editorial world, and all of the editorial art directors felt I’d be championed in the world of children’s publishing. I subsequently spent years splitting my work between “personal” gallery work, and “commercial” picture book work. Neither was exactly what I had wanted to be doing, but it worked for years at paying the bills. There came a point where my gallery work was being recognized in annual competitions, and at the same time I felt burned out producing what I thought everyone wanted from me in the publishing world. I started teaching and continued raising my kids (now 5 and 10) while regrouping and setting new goals. I noticed that the artists I admired were able to be themselves across multiple illustration markets. I started to pay close attention to what it was that I wanted for myself. My students at MICA were amazing and talented. Their exponential growth and joy in creating reminded me that I still had much to accomplish myself, and gave me the energy and courage to jump back into the freelance world full-time. Four years ago, I spent a year researching agents and channeling what I love about illustration back into my work. I then submitted to and signed with my current literary agent at a time when I felt confident in my work and goals for the first time in years. My work finally represented what I wanted to spend my time doing. I didn’t even fear being rejected (for the first time in forever) because I wasn’t willing to go back to making work with which I felt no connection. Being older and understanding that time is our most important resource helped greatly with that realization. A clear and focused vision alongside an agent who is on the same page has been everything for my career the past few years. Every assignment has been an appropriate and exciting challenge and I now look forward to my work every day!

Q: Throughout your career you’ve worked with both art agents and literary agents. What would you say are the advantages of each? As well as the challenges of each?

A: I have worked with both types of agents and there are pros and cons to each scenario. I won’t speak for everyone here because every agent is different, but can speak to my experience and those of my illustrator pals. Generally, an art agent can find you work in many different markets and categories under the umbrella of illustration. With these agents, you may be able to get jobs illustrating for books, magazines, advertising campaigns, merchandise and whatever else you can imagine. These agents usually take higher fees (25-35%) in exchange for advertising to and keeping up with multiple markets. There are also art agents specific to the children’s market. These agents can find you all types of work under the category of children’s art, which may include children’s products, books and magazines. These agents may also find you educational work. This is artwork for textbooks, reading books, and classroom posters. Educational projects really helped me out when I was beginning my career, allowing me paint and draw for a living in the years before my first trade book deal was signed.

Luminous, lovely and intriguing!

A literary agent will typically charge a lower fee (about 15%) but generally limits his scope to securing book deals alone. While there exist literary agents who will work with illustrators-only, most are interested in helping to develop and debut author-illustrators. Literary agents are often people with excellent editing and writing skills who can be a wonderful help to illustrators beginning to write. Literary agents run the gamut from being relatively hands-off to very editorial with their clients, guiding every step in the process to publication. Their limited scope allows them to focus on one market, which often means they are tuned into the nuances of their territory and adept at helping find an author-illustrator’s niche. Alas, they won’t be calling you for cool wine label illustration jobs or other art opportunities unrelated to publishing.

Which type of agent you should choose really depends on your work and where you fit, whether or not you want to focus on your own stories, and most importantly - where you find your match. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of finding an agent who understands and is excited about YOUR goals. You can have the world’s best agent, but if you are not on the same page about the desired results, you will never achieve them! You must first be honest with yourself about these goals, because your agent cannot help you if she don’t know what you want. Ultimately you must feel like your agent believes in your work and knows how to sell it. If you can find that match, their designation (whether an art agent or literary agent) is not most important. There are many art agents who are also excellent editors, and literary agents who have brokered jobs outside of their wheelhouse. This is another scenario where trusting your gut is sound advice!

Q: Describe your most perfect Sunday.

A: My most perfect Sunday varies in its activity, but not in its company. I love spending the limited time I have outside of work (and driving to and from kid-activities) with my family. We are at that point in life where our son is more than halfway to college. This realization has led to some deliberate and dramatic scheming to spend more time together. We are entertaining buying a camper and hitting National and State Parks with our limited free weekends. This may turn out to be an absurd idea, but I think it would be even more absurd not to follow through!

Thank you so much, Jaime, for chatting it up with us here at Bird Meets Worm! We love your awesome art, and we can't wait for the release of The Truth About Dragons! Congrats!

Super Star Children's Book Review: Can I Touch Your Hair?

Welcome to the monthly children’s book review feature with a focus on diverse books here at Bird Meets Worm! My team of reviewers—Cara ChowJoan CharlesSharon Calle—and I are so excited to be championing books celebrating everything from gender diversity, people of color, the LGBTQ community to ethnic, cultural and religious minorities, people with disabilities and developmental challenges to controversial topics, unique family situations and anything and everything I did not include. It is to say we take a rightfully board view of diversity! We aim to shine a light on books that bring both familiar experiences to those who do not often see themselves represented in books and new experiences to those looking to expand their worldview. Here at Bird Meets Worm we believe in the power of story to build empathy and thus a better world for you and me and everyone. Look for a new review on the second Wednesday of every month.


By Irene Latham & Charles Waters • Illustrated by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
Poetry picture book (ages 6+) • 40 pages
Published by Lerner Publishing Group • 2018
ISBN 978-1-5124-0442-5

One of the very first things children notice while they are growing up is differences between themselves and their peers. Can I Touch Your Hair? stands out from other children’s books that tackle the subject of diversity. Through beautifully illustrated poems, we see the real problems that children are facing when learning that the world is made up of a rainbow of colors, creeds, shapes, sizes, and orientations.

In a key scene, a girl and a boy of different races are paired up to complete a poetry assignment. The children decide to pick topics they can both write about. At first, their poems just reflect their differences. They soon discover they have much more in common than they initially suspected.

“Sometimes we say the wrong thing, sometimes we misunderstand. Now we listen, we ask questions.”

Can I Touch Your Hair? opens very necessary doors to discussion and questions, which ultimately lead to understanding. This unique book inspires tolerance, while guiding young minds toward understanding that despite our differences, we have much more in common than we think.

Buy this book: 

Barnes & Noble 

Independent Bookstores 

Reviewed by: Sharon Calle