SCBWI Bologna 2010 Art Director Interview: Martha Rago of HarperCollins

Interview by Rachelle Meyer for SCBWI Bologna 2010

Beyond being exposed to new talent and books, what does participation in SCBWI events provide for you? What benefits do you see for illustrators?

First and foremost its fun! Participating in SCBWI reminds me of the things I love about my work and keeps my passion kindled. The participants are equally enthusiastic about this field and the work they do, whether they have made it or not. That’s catchy.

Analyzing the industry and its rapid changes and trends is also great way to stay sharp and keep my work focused and effective. We are so busy, and there are so many distractions day to day, to stop and evaluate what and how you work best and what is important to you can be very clarifying and energizing.

For artists, I hope it gives them a realistic and practical perspective on the field, so they get a good sense of how to best to use their skills, develop contacts and be resourceful, whether just breaking in or trying to invigorate their careers.

Do you see a difference in the portfolios or personalities of illustrators who are active in communities like SCBWI or SOI [Society of Illustrators]?

In SCBWI, the level of talent varies quite a bit, from students and novices to established artists. That helps make it a great community for sharing information, experience, and mutual encouragement. I find their attitudes and camaraderie very upbeat and positive.

In SOI exhibitions, the artists are published and the shows are juried, so this is a select group and consistently shows very high caliber work. The artists also really believe in what they are doing and are respectful and generous with each other, which is great to see

Do you have some new discoveries you’d like to share: artists, books, resources?

I enjoy reading about individual artist’s experiences and their process of bookmaking.

Dilys Evans, who created the Original Art Show to celebrate Children’s Illustration more than 25 years ago, recently wrote a wonderful book, called Show & Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Illustration (Chronicle, 2008), which I highly recommend.

At Harper, I am working on some really special projects and am excited to see them publish this summer.

Mo Willems created a new character in his book, Cat the Cat, Who Is That? and Let’s Say Hi To Friends Who Fly!, which we published this winter. He has added two more books to the series: What’s Your Sound, Hound the Hound? and Time to Sleep, Sheep the Sheep for our summer 2010 list.

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know this artist and have learned so much from him in the process. Mo Willems has amazing instincts about what children will respond to and endless ideas to bring to the table.

There is also a great new book from Antoinette Portis (Not A Box (2006)) called Kindergarten Diary, showcasing an inventive new style, and that really captures the experience of early days in kindergarten through the eyes of one charming child.

It’s been a lot of fun to be involved in these projects, and I am happy to be able to share in my enthusiasm by mentioning them to you!

What are some of the benefits of developing long-term relationships with an illustrator? Do you develop a working shorthand, or can you still be surprised by a familiar artist’s creative solutions?

In a longstanding relationship, the artist trusts me, knows what to expect from me and is generally more comfortable sharing rough ideas or with experimentation. It frees both of us up. We don’t have to sweat the small stuff and can spend time honing an idea, refining a concept.

And yes, even an artist I know well will continue to surprise me, as they are often always developing, refining a style or trying out new approaches.

On a practical level–and art directors do need to be practical-minded–I can better anticipate the ways I will be involved with an artist I know well and can plan my time and the schedules accordingly. Some stages I know will progress very quickly. Others will be more slow-paced. Some will require a very deep kind of involvement; others less.

With a new artist, you never know what to expect—will first sketches nail the direction and characters or will it need lots of reworking? Will the editor and I need to supply ideas and direction, or will they bring their own to the table right away? How much direction do they need on fundamentals like how to page out a 32-page book, leaving space for type and keeping images out of the gutter?

As a designer, a hat many art directors also wear, it’s also helpful to know how much an artist will trust you to make decisions about layout details and overall design.

Most artists appreciate and are grateful for the designer’s role, but each one responds differently. Some co-design with you, some have strong opinions that need to be considered; still others put it entirely in your hands.

How much freedom and influence you have to affect the presentation versus how much you have to prove yourself to earn that influence is also part of the process and can be a big and often very positive part of the relationship of artist to art director.

In this respect, a comfortable and proven working relationship is certainly a boon.

Can you give an example of a recent release and the creative process? What did the illustrator approach you with, and how did you contribute to shaping it?

At an SCBWI conference in Paris, I met a young illustrator, Daniel Jannewein, who struck me as very talented and very fresh in his approach. He caught my eye again at the SCBWI Bologna symposium two years ago.

It so happened that shortly after I came back I was shown a picture book text that really seemed right for him. (Those are the sorts of moments that make my day)

So I got in touch, and fairly quickly we got him working on the book: Is your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? [written by Audrey Vernick].

Daniel has great instincts, and I knew he had the right sensibility for this funny, quirky book, Is your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?, coming out this summer.

My initial guidance was mainly to focus him in on the style I thought best suited for the story—his portfolio showed a number of approaches—and create a sample piece that would sell the editor and the acquisition group on his ability to do the job.

It would also be his guide stylistically for the whole book assuming he got the gig, which happily, he did.

Then we focused on character studies to get the cast just right: a teacher and a classroom of kindergarteners and of course a buffalo! We went through maybe two rounds of sketching for the whole book, but Daniel had great ideas right from the start that really augmented the text just as I hoped it would. He took suggestions very well too, so it was a very smooth process.

I can’t think of just a single thing that I asked him to do or change, but in a general way, we encouraged him to push the humor, develop the individual characterizations more fully, adjust the pacing to add drama where possible.

This is a good example of how key it is to get the right match of artist and author and to be clear in your goals and expectations for the project.

I didn’t have to push and pull to get things to work–only a little nudge here and there–because Daniel was just the right fit. It was his first book, but it progressed very effectively.

How have the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, or Jacketflap affected your job and your relationships with artists?

The Internet has been extremely useful, and become essential to my everyday work. I look up artist’s websites all day long. I check Barnes & Noble or Amazon for competitive or comparative titles. I check in on blogs, discussion boards, and design sites for trends in style and imagery for novel jackets.

I am less interested in the social networking sites and have to be careful about spending too much time and coming away with nothing to show for it, but Facebook is an interesting sort of bulletin board on which to see what artists are up to and useful for networking.

All of this ease of access accelerates the response to any idea or finished project that is put out there, so I, in turn, can react more quickly and apply those insights to whatever is in development.

Can you isolate some elements that tend to appear in a really good picture book?

A good picture book must begin with a good story, no matter how creative and talented the artist may be. But like an author, artists have a voice, a unique vision that comes through in their work. If their style is the right complement to the text, the visuals give the story additional interest and resonance.

I look for artists that will add another dimension to the text in that way. The images need to be narrative, tell a story and work sequentially.

Next credible, believable characters are essential. They have to engage and win the reader over.

And of course, the artist must have skill in their medium, to render the images well and with appeal.

(For an example, look at Dr. De Soto by William Steig (FSG); note the charming way the characters are rendered, and the clever, humorous details that define them as individuals such as the way the tiny mouse dentist reaches a donkey’s mouth with the aid of a pulley!)

There are many nuances and sub-categories of these elements. But to put it simply, I find there are five essentials: story, style, narrative quality, character, and good technique that always come into play.

I’ve noticed a lot of good illustrators once held positions as art directors before going freelance. Which skills do good art directors and illustrators share in common? And what talents are unique to each profession?

I think there is a lot of overlap in our skills and would not want to make too many generalizations on that subject. Artists and art directors are both imaginative and need to rely on the combination of our instincts and our creative vision to communicate our ideas well.

But an illustrator brings a personal response to their work, and uses technical skill to turn it into imagery that is meaningful to the viewer. It’s their unique vision and skill in their craft that only they can bring to a project.

A good art director brings a subjective response to the work as well, but understands how to channel that into the design or into guidance for the artist.

Generally, the art director has to be able to encourage the artist’s creativity but keep the project on track and within the bounds of viability. We have to mediate and balance many things—the realities of budget, schedule, editor and publisher’s goals and market expectation, and at the same time, allow the artist to feel free and supported in their vision. Having said that, many artists are also realistic, practical and organized, so the answer is not black and white.

What’s an example of a perfect workday for you?

Any day at the Bologna Book Fair!

I read a previous interview with you by Anita Loughrey for the SCBWI Bologna Conference 2008 where you compared your role as an art director to being a midwife. Do you feel as though a book is partially your creative “baby”? Or do you see your role mostly as an advisor and coach?

I do get attached to the projects I am involved in. While I am in the process they often feel as much like mine as the artists. But I am just helping them stay focused and comfortable so they can deliver!

I am happy to hand over a healthy bouncing baby to its rightful creator. It’s the artist’s work and their legacy.

You majored in Italian studies in college. You must love coming to Bologna! What are some of your favorite things to do in Bologna and around Italy when you’re not attending the book fair?

I can’t think of a better way to combine my passions: being around children’s books and the wonderful, talented people who make them, and being in a country when the language, art, and simple act of living are all about beauty and enjoyment.

I take long walks when I can find the time, and try to get lost. Then I find a café, order a prosecco and take in whatever is around me. Sometimes I skip the walk part.

Cynsational Notes

Martha Rago is the Associate Creative Director for HarperCollins Children’s Books. Martha oversees the development and design of HarperCollins picture books, including those in the Rayo and Katherine Tegen imprints, the estate programs of C.S. Lewis and Shel Silverstein, and the Blazer & Bray imprint. Prior to her position at HarperCollins, which Martha has held for seven years, she was the Creative Director at Henry Holt.

Rachelle Meyer is an illustrator whose recent books include My Favourite Children’s Songs and Mijn Grote Sprookjesboek (Kid’s Marketeers). She also writes her own picture books and has an interest in expanding into graphic novels for adults and children. She moved to Amsterdam in 2006 after living in New York City for eight years, and originally hails from the fine city of Austin, Texas. She volunteers as the Illustrator Coordinator for The Netherlands chapter of SCBWI.

The SCBWI Bologna 2010 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations. To register, visit the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference 2010. Note: Special thanks to Angela Cerrito for coordinating this series with SCBWI Bologna and Cynsations.