SCBWI Bologna 2008: Art Director-Vice President Interview: Cecilia Yung of Penguin Books for Young Readers US

Cecilia Yung has worked in children’s publishing for more than twenty-five years. She is the Art Director and Vice President at Penguin Books for Young Readers in the U.S. Cecilia has worked with many major artists and award winners, such as David Small, Peggy Rathmann, Emily McCully and Ed Young. Anita Loughrey interviewed her in December 2007, as one of the speakers at the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 (scheduled for March 29 and March 30 in Bologna, Italy).

What made you decide to go into children’s book publishing?

CY: A photography teacher in college suggested that I check out children’s publishing. From day one, I recognized that this is a job that stimulates and satisfies every aspect of my brain.

In your opinion, what makes a good art director?

CY: A good art director understands both the material and the artist and finds a way to get the very best out of them. A good art director knows when and how far to push. A good art director articulates the issues at hand, knows the difference between subjective and objective comments, listens carefully and is open to (good) surprises.

What makes an artist’s illustrations stand out for you?

CY: Something that makes me gasp or laugh or fight my way across a crowded room, and then rewards me when I linger to look at the details.

Do you think a website is a useful tool for illustrators to showcase their work? How often do you look at a portfolio online?

CY: I look at websites regularly (at least a few times a week) to find artists, to keep tabs on the competition, and even to look at other work by artists I am currently working with to find solutions to problems.

What kinds of things can turn you off of a portfolio?

CY: Bad technique, awkward anatomy, unappealing faces, trendy images, and clichéd solutions.

What do you believe is the most important part of your job?

CY: To balance the needs of the publisher (to publish books that are relevant and profitable) with the needs of the artist (to create something unique) and the needs of a child (to read a story that touches and transforms them).

What is your favorite thing about being an art director?

CY: The most exciting thing is to see an idea grow and develop and end up in a place no one could imagine.

Do you make suggestions for revisions to art work? What sort of suggestions have you made, and how in your opinion have they improved the final product?

CY: Yes, that is one of the most important parts of the job. I look at technical issues like anatomy and perspective. I look at legibility of an image to make sure that it is understandable and conveys the content and intent of the story. I look at expressions, body language, and the palette to make sure they express the emotion of the story. I look at how one scene relates to another to create a narrative.

How would you go about matching an illustrator to an author?

CY: I read the story again and again with the illustrator’s work in front of me to match their “voice.” Then I see if the strength and weakness of an artist’s work will complement the strength and weakness of the story.

What are some of your favorite children’s books and why?

CY: My favorite books make me laugh out loud or see something in a new light or nod vigorously in recognition. Spinky Sulks (William Steig), Knufflebunny Too (Mo Willems), Arnie The Doughnut (Laurie Keller), The Art Lesson (Tomie dePaola), Goodnight Gorilla (Peggy Rathmann), to name just a few.

What book(s) are you proudest of having worked on?

CY: So You Want To Be President (Judith St. George and David Small) and The Cod’s Tale (Mark Kurlansky and Steve Schindler) because of the overwhelming role of the illustration in making the books a success and the way they present “dry” information with humor and freshness.

Show Way (Jackie Woodson and Hudson Talbott) and Leonardo’s Horse (Jean Fritz and Hudson Talbott) because of the complex visual strands and the inventive solutions. They have both beauty and brains.

Leaves (David Ezra Stein) because of the warmth, innocence, and effortlessness.

How involved in the marketing of the book(s) are you? What is the average marketing budget for a picture book at your house?

CY: Not at all. As an art director, I represent the creative possibilities and would like to be as removed as possible from the merchandising of a book.

Is there an area on your list that you would like to “grow” at this time?

CY: There is a lot of sameness out there. What I crave is an original voice.

What is the ideal art sample submission?

CY: Strong work with no weak links: a distinct style that makes my head swivel, fresh solutions that suggest a lively brain, and enough samples to convince me that the artist can deliver that every time.

Cynsational Notes

Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.

The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.

To register for the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2008, please visit and click on SCBWI@Bologna. Queries?