SCBWI Bologna 2008 Art Director Interview: Martha Rago of HarperCollins Children’s Books

Martha Rago is Executive Art Director for HarperCollins Children’s Books. She has worked on such bestselling titles as 10 Little Rubber Ducks by Eric Carle, Runny Babbit by Shel Silverstein, Russell The Sheep by Rob Scotton and Diary Of A Spider, illustrated by Harry Bliss. Martha was interviewed by Anita Loughrey in November 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?

MR: Publishing as a career was not obvious to me at first, although now I cannot imagine anything for which I would be better suited. I was an Italian studies major with a great interest in European culture, language, history and art. I always drew, painted, and made art in some way without much thought about it.

I tried a few fields after college: fashion merchandising, then fashion design, among them, and soon started going to evening school for illustration with children’s books in mind.

After my first course in typography, it was as though a light went on and my calling was clear. I felt passionate about combining my love of art and language with the beauty of type and the order and clarity essential to good design.

Once I realized what I wanted to do, I put all of my efforts into finding a position and began my career then as the assistant to the art director at G.P Putnam’s Sons.

In your opinion, what makes a good art director?

MR: The art director I first worked with often likened her work to that of a midwife. These many years later I see that as an apt description for what is involved in bringing a book to life. The qualities one would seek in a midwife, an artist would probably want in an art director!

One would want someone with solid technical training for guidance and support in the process of creating the work and with a good understanding and a keen eye for what makes the final work successful.

Of course one needs to be organized, able to prioritize and juggle multiple tasks. But more than practical skills, a good art director needs to be sensitive to the nature and dynamic of the relationships involved in the creative process. The art director should have a positive and effective relationship with the artist, gaging when and how much information will be absorbed and useful. The editor has acquired the text for his or her own strong reasons as a viable project for the publisher. Their point of view and vision about the work is key, though not less than the author who may have his or her own feelings about the imagery.

Everyone brings to the work their personal response, even the art director. So the art director needs to have a good understanding of the dynamics of all the relationships involved. This includes a clear sense of the marketplace toward which the work is being directed, to bring out the best, most appropriate work to satisfy all these needs.

The art director’s task is to apply a broader perspective, with consideration of technical, and practical aspects of the work, to mediate and unify all the points of view into harmony.

A good art director is technically savvy, an effective and sensitive communicator, and then, as needed, a counselor, nurturer, cheerleader, task-master, expediter, and even, yes, a trusted midwife.

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

MR: Absolutely, I refer to websites every day!

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

MR: Material that is inappropriate and clearly not for children’s picture books or illustrated books for children such as non-narrative or not character-driven images like still lifes, landscapes, adult-themed pictures.

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

MR: What is important for an art director differs from publisher to publisher.

At HarperCollins, a major part of my job is managing: keeping the design department on track, inspired, and creative; keeping work flowing on schedule; solving any kind of internal problems as they come and go.

I am at heart, however, a designer. To be happy in my work, I need to feed my own creative spark. I do this by designing a few books every year, so I don’t ever lose touch with the designer in me and to stay on top of ever-changing technology.

I need also to keep on top of the trends and changes in the industry, to be well-informed so my guidance of others is meaningful and I have the fuel to generate creative ideas all around. I visit bookstores and attend conferences and events. I assess the competition and mine the illustration world in any way I can for inspiration and ideas.

What is your favorite thing about being an art director?

MR: Being part of the creative process is tremendously satisfying for me. I really enjoy the discovery of different points of view and personalities through the work we do together. Often the discussions are full of humor and positive energy, simply because making art can be such a pleasure! Not every relationship is complex or fraught with problems–very few, really. And some are almost magical in the way they go so smoothly. Even the challenging ones give you a great sense of accomplishment in the end. The struggle often inspires deeper respect and stronger connections with those involved.

And in the end, when you make a book that you feel is well-crafted, that you are proud of, that will affect the readers in a positive way for many years to come, it is very, very pleasing.

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

MR: The nature of my relationship with artists is to be a sounding board and offer feedback when I think my suggestions will be valuable and improve the work or give it the best chance in the marketplace. Sometimes requested changes are minor, sometimes they require rethinking a spread or series of images. Of course, we try to vet the sketches and dummies thoroughly so major changes are not made to final art. My input (and really it is the combined input of myself, the editor, and sometimes the publisher and sales department) is most observable in our work on the jacket, the book’s most important sales tool.

David Weisner recently re-illustrated the jackets for the seven classic titles comprising C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia. In his first sketch for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, David created a beautiful image of the open wardrobe, with the fur coats parted, snowy footsteps leading from the opening into the magical wintery world. It was stunning.

David and I carefully considered the concept further, and we agreed it was static and lacked the energy and the emotion of the story. We wanted something dramatic and that would appeal to both young and old readers, and we needed to follow this direction for six more titles in the collection.

Because of the collaborative nature of the work, I cannot say precisely who came up with what ideas to suggest to him, but when David was presented with the problem, he thought carefully about the solution and came back with his own ideas. He focused on the heart and soul of the story rather than on a symbol and depicted a powerful Aslan with Lucy and Susan at each side nuzzling into his mane. In doing this, he got right to the emotional core of the story in a fresh way. The characters add a sense of tenderness to the grouping, but the focus is on the magnetic gaze and the power and majesty of the lion.

It is appealing to children, but, with its archetypal feel, also works on an adult level. And artistically, the detail and color of the rendering is impeccable. This set a high bar for the rest of the jackets, but it helped make the direction clear and resulted in seven stunning, dramatic and effective jackets, giving a fresh look to these beloved classics.

I never tell an artist what to paint but make observations, present the need for change as a problem to be solved and invite the artists to solve it using their own vocabulary and ideas. I cannot say my suggestions make the jacket work, but it is the artist’s response to my comments that makes the ultimate difference.

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

MR: It is more often an illustrator is matched with an existing text, rather than putting two creative people together and hoping for the right dynamic. But when it works after careful consideration of artist matched to text, such as Jamie Lee Curtis with Laura Cornell, the publisher will want to continue that relationship as long as possible.

After reading the text, I have an immediate visual sense of what it could be as a finished book in terms of artist’s style and often even the feel of the design–it’s a personal, instinctive response. I’ll have in mind a short list of potential artists based on that.

Then I usually frame it within the context of children’s publishing: have I seen this before or is it totally new; what are the comparisons and competitive books available currently; how would this fit into the world in a practical way; what kind of impact could it have? The editor and I discuss our reactions and agree on a direction. Sometimes we spend a lot of time researching and looking at various artists’ work, and other times it’s a clear choice.

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

MR: I love pretty much anything written and illustrated by William Steig, who never wrote down to children or became overly sentimental. He used language beautifully and wrote with humor and tenderness. His use of line and color is unmatched.

Dr. DeSoto still makes me laugh, Brave Irene pulls at your heartstrings, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble will definitely make you cry and laugh at the same time.

Others that I consider classics I couldn’t imagine life without: Ezra Jack KeatsThe Snowy Day, The Trip, Peter’s Chair; Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown; Wanda Gag‘s Millions of Cats; The Story of Ferdinand (Munroe Leaf and Robert Lawson); Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson; Marc Simont’s re-illustrated picture book of George Thurber’s Many Moons.

Why do I love these? Distinctive voices, characters, stories that feel true and/or bring you to a new awareness, and wonderful art.

More contemporary favorites are Paul Zelinsky‘s Swamp Angel (Anne Issacs, author) and Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann–both tall tales in their own way, with great characters and a surprising, engaging storyline.

This is just a smattering of the books I love, and more come to my attention every day!

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

MR: Last fall, we published Not a Box by first time author-illustrator Antoinette Portis, and we are following up with Not a Stick this winter. I am proud of these books because they are solid conceptually, fresh and distinctive in their approach and style and were for me a satisfying collaborative venture between the artist, editor, and myself.

Antoinette approached the editor, Margaret Anastas, with her idea, based on the endless imagination a child uses playing with a simple box. We both agreed we had something special that we could develop successfully: a strong concept, an appealing character, and a clear, distinct voice in both the style of writing and in drawing technique.

From the moment we started working together the three of us shared ideas, batted around large and small changes, experimented with colors and techniques, design approaches and production materials. The collaborative spirit of the work together was exciting, and we were thrilled with the final product. It is especially satisfying, too, that Not a Box won the Theodore Geisel Award this year, went on to the New York Times Best Seller list and was chosen as one of the ten Best Illustrated Books from the Times for 2007.

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

MR: I would love to find more artists-authors who can create strong character-driven stories.

What is the ideal art sample submission?

MR: As I become busier, portfolio reviews can be cumbersome, and I like to cut to the chase. First impressions are significant. I know within the first two pieces if an artist has the level of skill I am looking for and the individual style that will pull them out from the pack.

An artist should try to evaluate the work with this in mind. It’s important to look at one’s own work critically, and pull out weaker pieces. Keep the selection focused on one’s strengths and on the kinds of projects for which one would want to be considered.

I like to see eight-to-12 pieces of art, less if the artist supplies a complete dummy with sketches and text blocked in. In that case, I would want to see two-to-three finished samples of color work related to the dummy and then a few pieces that show the artist’s range–different characters and settings.

The ideal portfolio showcases the artist’s best work. Don’t create a dummy if you don’t have a fresh idea, don’t stretch it out to 12 pieces if four of them are weak. A picture book must have 17-32 terrific images, and I need to see a portfolio that shows me the artist can deliver all the way through.

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

MR: I would not underestimate technical skills, which are very, very important: anatomy, composition, and perspective, good use of color and line, and effective use of materials. But I am always looking for someone who has not just the technical skills but a distinct individual style, a clear voice and images that suggest narrative, through context, emotional tone, and the way they relate sequentially.

I look for work that demonstrates a strong narrative and clear characterizations, more than cartoon-y or exaggerated stylization. I appreciate distinctive characters, whether human or animal, that feel “true.” Placed in a context that tells a story and creates a whole world and works sequentially, the work then has the essentials of a good story: character, place, narrative.

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?