Illustration West 58 Judges’ Interviews: First up is Whitney Leader-Picone

Interview by Chuck and Wendy Grieb

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself or how you got started?

It sounds cliché, but I knew I wanted to work in children’s books in some capacity since I was in high school. In high school I thought I would write children’s books. Then in college I studied children’s books at Oxford University, and thought I would probably edit children’s books. But while I was studying for my Masters in children’s literature at Simmons University the art director, Susan Sherman, from Charlesbridge Publishing came in to present, and that was the moment I realized I wanted to design children’s books. I asked if I could get an internship at Charlesbridge, and I turned that into a permanent position as a design assistant. I’ve never looked back. Susan was an amazing mentor for me. I learned entirely on the job. Unlike many designers I did not go to art school to study design, but my literature background has been invaluable for me because I approach books both as a reader and a designer.

I have been designing children’s books for over 11 years now and still love it. I now have a two-year-old daughter and her likes and dislikes and how she interacts with books informs my work and is helping me continues to grow as a designer.

Who or what inspires you?

I am a lover of children’s books and design. I get inspired by the books I read, and the books I loved as a child. I also look at the history of design for inspiration. Sarah Wyman Wittman, who was the first female art director at Houghton Mifflin in the late 1800s created gorgeous designs, even within the limited printing technology of the time. Victorian design elements are becoming increasingly popular in cover designs, and I have looked to her work often for inspiration. Trina Schart Hymen is also a big inspiration for me. She was both a brilliant illustrator and designer.

What are some favorite projects that you’ve had the opportunity to work on?

All the books I work on are my babies, of course, but I do have some projects I am particularly proud of.

Recently I got to work on The Giver Graphic Novel. Not only was it amazing to work with P. Craig Russell and see this classic book come to life as a graphic novel, but I had a bit of an epiphany moment when designing the cover and think I really nailed it. To have both Lois Lowry and P. Craig Russell be so complimentary of my design was amazing!

When I was at Charlesbridge I worked on a couple of picture books that are very close to my heart. My first picture book design that I art directed from start to finish is particularly special to me. War Dogs is about Winston Churchill and World War II as told through the eyes of his real-life poodle, Rufus. I did a lot of research for the project and worked hard to make the design match the era. I am a WWII, buff, so it was a great first picture book for me. I still think it is a gorgeous book.

Another special picture book for me is called Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons about a Rabbi who gets the gift of a handmade vest from his congregation. As he over indulges through-out the year, buttons start popping off the vest, until the congregation gives him a new vest. It’s really a book about community. I loved working with Jennifer Reinhardt on the illustrations and design. I had been admiring her work for a while and proposing her for various projects. I was excited to finally see her in action and she didn’t disappoint. I ended up purchasing one of her paintings from the book and it hangs in my dining room.

I have a love for non-fiction books, and love working on the Superpower Field Guide Series by Rachel Poliquin, illustrated by Nicholas J. Frith. The first book in the series, Beavers, came out in December to rave reviews and won a best in category for the design at the New England Book Show.

I also really enjoy working with Don Brown on his non-fiction graphic novels for teens. His most recent book, The Unwanted, about the Syrian refugee crisis has won multiple awards. It was one of my most rewarding and though-provoking projects.

Lastly, it has been an honor to design books for the newly launched Versify imprint from Kwame Alexander. The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles is not only a funny and exciting supernatural adventure story, but is also an essential addition to the genre. There are too few books that feature black boys on the cover, and it was so important to me to help bring one into the world. Dapo Adeola, who is a real up and comer from the UK, was brilliant to work with and really brought these boys to life.

What advice do you have for illustrators, beginning and pro?

This is really practical advice, but make sure your website is up-to-date, easy to navigate, quick loading, and only contains work that you love. Don’t include any styles that you don’t like working in, because I guarantee that will be the style someone will want to hire you for, and you won’t be happy about it.

What do you love about your job and what do you find challenging about your profession?

I love working with talented illustrators and seeing how they creatively solve problems and create art. Almost always an illustrator will take an idea and make it better than I could ever imagine.

The most challenging part of my job is working within the constraints of the publishing industry. We would all love to create without limits, but it is the limits set by my job that ultimately make me more creative.

As you look to the future, what are you excited to explore, create, etc.?

I always love learning new things, and I cannot wait to see how technology continues to advance and change how I design. I wouldn’t have imagined the technology that would make hand-lettering a title so easy. What comes next and how will it make my job different and better?

What question do you wish people would ask when you get interviewed?

I am usually asked surface questions about my favorite books or artists. I would love someone to ask me more about my process, how I come up with my designs and develop them over the course of a book’s life.

Please provide a link(s) to the site(s) you wish us to include.

I might be the only designer without a website, but with a toddler at home, I’m not looking to freelance, so I haven’t made one. Shocking, I know!