By Elisabeth Norton
for SCBWI Bologna 2016
and Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations
Laurent Linn, art director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, began his career as a puppet designer/builder in Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop, creating characters for various productions, including the “Muppet Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island” films.
With Henson for over a decade, he worked primarily on Sesame Street, becoming the creative director for the Sesame Street Muppets, winning an Emmy Award.
Currently, at Simon & Schuster, Laurent art directs picture books, middle-grade, and teen novels, working with illustrators and authors such as Tomie dePaola, Patricia Polacco, Bryan Collier, E. B. Lewis, Raúl Colón, Debbie Ohi, and Taeeun Yoo.
Laurent is on the board of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and is the artistic advisor for the annual original art exhibit at the Society of Illustrators in New York.
He is also an author: His debut illustrated teen novel, Draw the Line (Simon & Schuster), comes out in May. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and facebook.
Laurent, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions about the world of illustration in children’s publishing, and about the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery (BIG).
As art director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, what is the importance of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair to you and other publishing professionals?
The Bologna Fair has so much to offer everyone, and for a publisher like us, it serves more than one role. It’s a fantastic event to see what books are being published in other countries that we may want to acquire rights for to publish here in the U.S.
Also, we share certain books that we are publishing in the hopes international publishers will want to acquire, too.
In addition, we’re always on the look-out to discover illustrators from other countries that we’re not yet aware of — there is so much talent on display there!
What makes an Illustration Gallery such as the BIG at the SCBWI booth in Bologna interesting to publishing professionals?
In the U.S. and around the world, children’s book publishers know that SCBWI members are serious about their careers. So it’s understood that the illustrators on display at the SCBWI booth are both knowledgeable and professional — something very important to us when we consider hiring an illustrator who is new to us.
When an art director or publisher views an illustration showcase such SCBWI’s BIG, is s/he looking primarily for illustrators for picture books, or are they also scouting talent for other illustration opportunities within the industry?
Speaking for myself, I always consider the strengths of each illustrator individually based on their work. For example, when I see someone whose strength is art that would be best suited for picture books, I may potentially keep them in mind for a future picture book. The same would be true of someone whose style is best for middle grade, etc.
Of course, many illustrators have different styles, which may be right for all types and genres of books, and I’d think about that as well.
Overall, I imagine that each art director and editor look for what he or she is publishing. Having said this, I do think the majority of art directors and editors at Bologna are looking at picture book illustration.
What makes an illustration stand out to you when you are serving as a judge for a showcase like BIG?
A few factors. Talent and skill as an artist is extremely important, of course. But I’m also looking for strong visual storytelling — children’s book illustration is all about a narrative. If a piece is more of a portrait or composed scene lacking story, that doesn’t show how an illustrator could visualize a key moment of a narrative.
Also, I’m always looking to see if an illustration has an emotional connection — readers need to be emotionally invested in a book’s characters.
I think many illustrators, when thinking of a career in children’s publishing, think primarily of illustrating picture books. Yet there seem to be more and more illustrated middle grade series, graphic novels are very popular, and your own illustrated young adult novel, Draw the Line, is scheduled for release in the summer of 2016. Do you see a trend in the industry towards more illustration in books for older readers?
It’s such an exciting time for illustration in children’s literature! Picture books are being published with art using all kinds of media and in varied styles. More and more middle grade uses interior black-and-white illustrations within the pages, for all ages from young to pre-teen. And more and more art is even being used YA (young adult) fiction.
As you mention, my own debut YA novel, Draw the Line, has illustrations — 90 pages of art, in fact! It’s not a graphic novel at all, but is a traditional text novel that also has illustrations in it.
In my book’s case, the art is “drawn by” the main character, Adrian, but is of course really drawn by me. It’s a way to tell the story on a visual level to enhance the storytelling in the text. My YA is unusual in the amount of art in it, but we’re seeing more boundaries being broken down.
We have talented author–illustrators like Brian Selznick to thank in many ways. His illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) really broke ground.
And then, of course, there are true graphic novels for all ages. A graphic novel differs from an illustrated YA or middle grade in that the format is like a comic book: The entire story is told through art panels with speech balloons and narrative text boxes.
However, now we’re seeing hybrid books that are mixing up all preconceptions, so who knows what comes next?
I love the idea of the illustrations in Draw the Line being “drawn by” the character! I look forward to seeing it when it releases. How important do you think it is for an illustrator to be an author as well?
Every creative person is unique — many illustrators have no interest in writing or are not good writers, and many are extremely talented writers with a passion for it.
If you look at the most successful top illustrators in children’s literature, you’ll find those that also write their books as well as those who only illustrate books written by others.
For me and my colleagues, whether an artist is also a writer or not has no bearing on if we will work with them or not.
What qualities do you think are important for an artist to have in order to be successful as an illustrator in the children’s publishing industry?
Certainly those creative elements I mention above: alent, a unique style and vision, good visual storytelling skills, and ability to bring an emotional connection to the art. But you must also be professional — children’s literature is a collaborative process.
In addition to being realistic and professional about deadlines, you have to keep in mind that art direction and editing are not personal judgments, but useful and necessary ways of communication.
Everyone in the process has her or his expertise, and we all want your book to be the best book possible. It’s a balance of creating a work of art yet being sure it sells and gets into the hands of readers who want and need it.
Another part of being a professional is making connections, getting your work out into the world to be seen, and being engaged in the children’s book world. For example, showing your art in the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery!
Is there something that you think every illustrator should know, that I haven’t asked?
This may seem obvious, but it can be easy to lose sight of: always be yourself! Don’t imitate others or create art that you may think art directors “want to see.” There certainly are artistic rules to follow, but within those parameters, find your own vision and dazzle us with it. Yes, use influences and inspirations in your work, but only as tools to enhance your singular style and vision.
Elisabeth Norton grew up in Alaska, lived for many years and Texas, and after a brief sojourn in England, now lives with her family between the Alps and the Jura in Switzerland.
She writes for middle grade readers and serves as the regional advisor for the Swiss chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
When not writing, she can be found walking the dogs, playing board games, and spending time with family and friends. Find her on Twitter @fictionforge.
The Bologna 2016 Interview series is coordinated by Angela Cerrito, SCBWI’s Assistant International Advisor and a Cynsational Reporter in Europe and beyond.
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