My advice to all illustrators: find your tribe.

A tribe, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, can be defined as “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.” As illustrators, we are a lonely bunch of people. We wrestle in isolation with our visions, attempting (most of the time in vain) to harness them into reality. We have very personal (sometimes dysfunctional) relationships with our materials, work space and that beast called time. These often dominate our attention more than our family and friends. And while our non-artist family and friends support and care for us, do they really understand our madness?

SCBWI is just that- a tribe. But it is a large tribe, so it is also beneficial to find a tribe within the tribe. Find a group of people to connect with on a regular basis to help propel you towards being the best artist you have the potential to be. And sometimes your tribe will find you, like mine did for me. While attending a regional conference in 2011, I met David Diaz, award-winning illustrator and SCBWI mentor. He invited me and Bonnie Adamson to what is known as “Lost Weekend,” a weekend that he hosts in his home for the SCBWI LA Mentorship Program recipients.

The Mentee Tribe
(Photo by Maple Lam)

From there, the origins of the “Mentee Tribe” was born. This is what the tribe means to me: I’ve been illustrating children’s books professionally now for almost 4 years, and in that time I went from knowing close to nothing about the business of children’s book publishing to walking the streets of Manhattan with some of SCBWI’s finest award-winning illustrators to visit two first-rate publishing houses. And that was what Diaz’s “Mentee Monday” was all about – getting a glimpse behind Oz’s curtain.

The day began with brunch at Balthazar.

Balthazar hosts a scrumptious brunch
check out the hazelnut waffles fellow illo pal Jessica Lanan had!
(Photo by Lessica Lanan)

Before starting the rest of our day, our fearless leader, David Diaz had a little art project for us.

It wouldn’t be New York without a little
live street art, would it?
Mentee Tribe Leader David Diaz works his magic
The final product
Mentee Tribe Was Here.

Then it was off to Books of Wonder where there were indeed books full of wonder, like Rackham’s Cinderella, which of course I snagged for more silhouette inspiration….

Books of Wonder, the city’s leading
specialist in children’s literature
(another note: Books of Wonder is one of
the last remaining independent bookstores)
The mentee gang outside
Books of Wonder
(Photo by David Diaz)
Cinderella, Arthur Rackham
Cinderella, Arthur Rackham

We then sported the subway to head over to Abrams, our first publisher stop, but not before sampling the chili-laced hot chocolate, thick as maple syrup, at City Bakery, where you can also find homemade marshmallows.

City Bakery, home of the richest
hot chocolate you will ever taste
and homemade marshmallows!

At Abrams we were warmly greeted by Editorial Director Tamar Brazis, who introduced us to Creative Director Chad Beckerman and Associate Art Director Maria Middleton. They all spoke about how they find illustrators and what makes them want to work with an illustrator. The team seemed to indicate that all they need to see can be found on a simple postcard. The key however is to have a postcard that moves them to put it up on the bulletin board. Chad’s biggest requirement is an illustration that evokes strong emotion in the viewer. In the end, we all had the privilege of handing our own postcards to each of them in person, with the hopes that they find their way to the bulletin board!

Tamar Brazis and Chad Beckerman of Abrams
discuss what it takes to get noticed by art directors.
(Photo by Jessica Lanan)
The Tribe enjoys a tour at Abrams
(Photo by David Diaz)

Next stop, Penguin Young Readers!

The Penguin Portal
The Mentees offer portfolios at Penguin
The Mentees offer portfolios at Penguin

Upon arrival at Penguin, we drop off our portfolios for Art Directors viewing. We are then escorted by Cecilia Yung, VP and Art Director, to a conference room where we meet representatives from Grosset & Dunlap/Price Stern Sloan, Dial Book for Young Readers, and Philomel Books, which are all additional imprints of Penguin. We quickly get the picture that Penguin is a factory! Each representative describes the types of books they produce and provides examples of artwork appropriate for each imprint. Before we take a tour, we are offered each a current catalogue of new releases by Penguin and its various imprints!

Penguin looks like most large offices, lots of cardboard and lots of cubicles. The only difference here is you find Caldecott award winning art displayed on the walls, and then you remember that you’re not in Kansas anymore! My absolute favorite part of this tour was visiting the color correction room, a small room filled edge to edge with a large slanted table. Above the table sits a panel of specially balanced light (perfect mix of warm and cool tones) carefully installed at the precise angle on the table below. The color correcting stage of book publishing can be a tedious and lengthy back and forth process between illustrator, art director and printer. It was thrilling to discover this is where Cecilia Yung’s passion lies. She informed us that even long after the illustrator is satisfied with color, she will still arrive early in the morning to discuss color with a printer in China. So you can take comfort knowing that your artwork lies in the committed and capable hands like the pros at Penguin!

Before picking up our portfolios, we stop for what is called a “sunset alert.” Well, with windows like these, you can see why…

The “Sunset Alert”, from Penguin Group

Other highlights from the weekend include:

1. Getting to catch up after SEVEN years with my old Beantown pal, Heidi Hendricks (Who is now an SCBWI member! A great addition to the organization, I must say)

with writer Heidi Hendricks

2. Writer/illustrator/fellow Mentee tribe member Debbie Ohi dons her new potato wardrobe designed by Simon & Schuster, in honor of her release I’m Bored

Debbie Ohi as “the potato”

3. Fellow Mentee Tribe member Andrea Offermann wins the portfolio showcase!

Andrea Offermann and her winning portfolio

4. Meeting and talking silhouette art with artist Tomie dePaola!

with Tomie dePaola

In the end, I learned that there’s a place for everyone in this industry. That there’s always more than one way to illustrate a book. That there are no wrong questions. That sometimes illustrating is more about ideas than just good technique. That a tribe is important. That we all wrestle with the same barriers. That we’re all in this together!

Visit the Mentee Tribe member pages and read other recaps about Mentee Monday on these websites:

Bonnie Adamson

Lisa Anchin

Jen Betton

Juliana Brion

Arree Chung

Christina Forshay

Kimberly Gee

Jessica Lanan

Maple Lam

Juana Martinez-Neal

Andrea Offermann

Debbie Ohi

Erin O’Shea

Karyn Raz

Heidi Scheffield

Eliza Wheeler

Brian Won

Andrea Zuill


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