New Voices/New Visions: Author-Illustrators Elizabeth Lilly & Shanda McCloskey Share Their Artistic Journeys

Author-illustrators Elizabeth Lilly and Shanda McCloskey

By Traci Sorell

Today we welcome two of my fellow Epic Eighteen creators, Elizabeth Lilly, author-illustrator of Geraldine (Roaring Brook, 2018) and Shanda McCloskey, author-illustrator of Doll-E 1.0 (Little, Brown, May 2018).

Both Shanda and Elizabeth devoted time and effort to developing their skills before landing their first book contracts.

Elizabeth Lilly

Geraldine, from the promotional copy:

No, no, no!

Geraldine is not moving. Not to this new town where she’s the only giraffe. Not to this new school where she has no friends. Not to this new place, where everyone only knows her as That Giraffe Girl.

But soon Geraldine meets Cassie, a girl who is just as much of an outcast as she is, and as time goes by, she realizes that being yourself and making one really good, unusual friend can help someone who literally stands out fit right in.

Together, Geraldine and Cassie play by their own rules.

Elizabeth, What first inspired you to illustrate for young readers? 

Elizabeth: I think making media for children is one of the most important things you can do as an artist. I grew up as a lonely, quiet kid in real life, but my life in the world of books and animation was rich and beautiful.

Even when my family was stressful or I sat alone at the lunch table, Hermione from Harry Potter or Matthias from Redwall were people that I could relate to and hang out with.

I drew a lot growing up and did well in art classes, but at the age of 18 I didn’t think I could hack it as a professional artist, and went to college for architecture. But when I was there, I didn’t feel like there was much meaning for me in designing cool buildings for rich people.

I went back to the characters, animations and stories I’d made as a kid and struck out on my own to become an animator and, later, a children’s book illustrator.

I’m so excited to finally pay forward the joy and comfort those books and shows had given me as a kid.

As an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa? 

Elizabeth: I consider myself a writer who happens to use drawing to express some of my ideas. I have always loved writing, and used to write essays and poems in school that were three times as long as the assignment because I just wouldn’t quit writing.

When the Internet came around in third grade, I spent hours and hours writing intricate emails to my friends. As a super shy kid, it was easier to express myself in writing than out loud.

I started drawing later on, in order to make better birthday cards. I would elaborately letter the “Happy Birthday” and write a touching message inside, but then I wanted to also have something visual to go with the words.

I started drawing little mice that would wear birthday hats and eat cake. That branched into drawing mouse cartoons, and little comics about onion people called “Munions.” I loved showing them to people and getting a laugh!

Later, in middle school, I used to carry around a notebook where I would draw animal characters that each had names and elaborate, funny backstories. I used my characters to connect to friends when I didn’t feel too comfortable just talking.

I got more experimental with my visual storytelling as I got older, storyboarding and producing some animated films in high school.

Later, I decided to take the plunge and go to art school for university to become an animator.

In college I slowly gained more and more confidence in my art and visual storytelling. But writing on its own was a joy that I’d neglected a bit. I had to regain my confidence in my ability to write things I was happy with!

Finally both my art and writing came together to where they were both at the same level of confidence, and both reflected my artistic voice. That voice is what helped me write Geraldine!

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

Elizabeth: This was tough for me. I struggled a lot with confidence in my art. I have loved writing and storytelling for a long time, but all the professional illustrators I admired seemed to have magical skills way beyond my grasp.

How do you render lighting? What is crosshatching? What in God’s name is Photoshop??

Elizabeth’s work space

All my questions and worst self-doubts about myself as an artist came back full force when I went to art school; I wanted to tell stories visually, but my own work felt childish and doodle-y compared to the rendered, textured, digitally masterful works of my new classmates.

The work I loved was quickly becoming a spiral of comparison and insecurity.

A class advisor wisely suggested that I avoid classes in the illustration and animation departments for a while, and try out some purely fine arts classes.

I took drawing and painting, bookbinding and even fabric arts. I became more confident in my technical skills of traditional artmaking, while at the same time I was able to relax a lot when it came to storytelling, since the subjects and content of my new art pieces were almost always up to me.

As a General Fine Arts major, I got my own private studio space with giant white walls to tack up works in progress. With my new freedom, I started to draw narratives that were personal, stories of my mother growing up in Puerto Rico, my dad on a farm in West Virginia. I got to be very confident in my own quirky style of drawing.

I finally took a Children’s Book Illustration class my senior year of school, and by that time my drawing and writing style was very much my own unique voice.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

Elizabeth: The best moment was when my agent, Elena Giovinazzo of Pippin Properties, Skyped me while I was in a hotel room in Vancouver to offer me representation.

I didn’t listen much to Elena explaining the technical terms of the agreement—as soon as I could, I got off the call and ran around the room screaming and jumping on beds, then paid about $100 in international roaming fees calling everyone I knew to tell them the great news.

It felt like all my hard work to get my debut dummy into shape had paid off, and that I had a real career in children’s publishing ahead of me.

The worst moment of my publishing journey was when I got out of the hospital about two months after signing my debut book contract at Roaring Brook. I had suddenly developed a debilitating chronic illness, and I didn’t know how long it would take to be healthy enough to even start working on my book.

My new editor Neal Porter, who I had just met a month before, was depending on me to complete the book his house had just paid a lot of money for. I was not sure I would ever be able to deliver this massively huge project. It was horrible!

But my editor Neal was totally patient and supportive, and just waited for me to recover in my own time.

It took nearly two years from that point to turn in the art, but I always got the incredible feeling that through it all he had faith in me, and that he knew I would deliver amazing work.

Today I’m healthy again, and always so grateful that I have the ability to work and create. I don’t want to waste a minute.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

Elizabeth: I wrote the story of Geraldine understanding very deeply what it’s like to be the odd kid out.

Character sheet sketches by Elizabeth Lilly,
used with permission

In every school I went to, I felt different; my family was conservative, Christian, and Hispanic, but my classmates were always white, liberal and atheist. I was quiet and devoted to books and musicals. I sang to myself a lot in the hallways. I had giant frizzy hair and a giant Latina butt.

It’s been a long, slow and painful process to accept myself in all my differences, and to love myself even in the places where I struggled to feel seen and valued.

It’s very hard as for any artist or writer to stand up and say, “Look at me! I’m special! I deserve to have my work published!”

It is even harder when you were raised in a family culture where no one understands or encourages the pursuit of art as a career. It is even harder when you are more used to being comfortably invisible in your differences.

In my work I think about these struggles all the time, and try to write and draw about them honestly.

Interior spread from Geraldine, illustration by Elizabeth Lilly, used with permission

Shanda McCloskey

Doll-E 1.0 fits in well with the growing number of fictional STEM/STEAM books in children’s literature. It centers on a tech-savvy young girl, Charlotte, whose creativity shines through in lively illustrations of pencil and watercolor. Love her blue hair too!

From the promotional copy:

Charlotte’s world is fully charged! With her dog at her side, she’s always tinkering, coding, clicking, and downloading. She’s got a knack for anything technological–especially gadgets that her parents don’t know how to fix! 

Then, she receives a new toy that is quite a puzzle: a doll! What’s she supposed to do with that? Once she discovers the doll’s hidden battery pack, things start to get interesting…while her faithful canine sidekick wonders if he’ll be overshadowed by the new and improved Doll-E 1.0! 

With a little ingenuity and an open mind, everyone can be friends in this endearing, modern tribute to the creative spirit of play.

Shanda, as an author-illustrator, how did your writing journey inform your artistic journey and vice versa?

Shanda: Character facial expressions is one of my illustrating strengths. In my debut book, DOLL-E 1.0, my art informed my writing because I wanted to showcase my main character’s reactions (on her face) when she receives a gift that she doesn’t understand.

I allow the facial expressions to tell the emotional arc of the story that is not written in the text.

Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time? 

Shanda: I came from a fine art drawing/painting background. It took years to “peel” away the realism that I clung to in my illustrations.

I studied modern picture books for a long time to be able to get my own illustrations to show the essential moments and emotions in a story that allow it to speak to every human, child or adult.

And when I started to truly find beauty in the gestures and simple lines of my art, my work started to get noticed.

I learned over time that my best art tool was a plain, soft pencil. I tried many different ways of coloring my pencil drawings including gouache, acrylic, digital paint, and watercolor. But it was the watercolor that felt the most right as it ran expressively on top of my drawings.

I also participated in a mentorship with E.B. Lewis that was invaluable to my watercolor knowledge.

Illustration by Shanda McCloskey,
used with permission

Ooo, tell me more about the mentorship. 

Shanda: The mentorship with E.B. Lewis came about by word of mouth.

He works with illustrators all the time for $25 per thirty-minute Skype session. It was so worth it!

He would guide you on whatever you wanted help with— be it broad overall portfolio directions or implementing watercolor on a specific illustration, which is how we worked together. Just go to his website to reach out to him.

We met weekly for about three months.

I’m still learning, too!

How did the outside (non-children’s-YA-lit) world react to the news of your sale? 

Shanda: My whole family was ready to celebrate when the news came in! My husband who has worked extra hard while I pursued this, my two girls, my mom and dad, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, in-laws, nieces, nephews, my rad agent, my high school art teacher, my church, my critique group, and many friends – new and old – have cheered me on for so long! It was really nice to finally succeed at getting a book published (the good ol’ fashioned way!)

Cake and cards at a critique group meeting to celebrate Shanda and Bonnie Clark 
on their picture book deals.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

Shanda: If you have a nugget of interest in writing, too, join a writer’s group and give it a go!
Author-illustrators are wanted, and it may open you up to more opportunities (through editors). Not to mention, the act of practicing illustrating a story will teach you mountains!

Cynsational Notes

Elizabeth Lilly is an author-illustrator, animation artist and teacher. ​

She grew up in suburban Maryland, the daughter of brainy engineer parents. Afraid to be a starving artist, she went to college to be an architect. But soon she started to think up stories while badly constructing chipboard staircases, and doodle sheep all over her floor plans.

She transferred to an art school in Baltimore, and thankfully started to make stories full-time.

Today she writes and draws her stories from her home studio in a little old house in the little old city of Baltimore, Maryland.

Shanda McCloskey comes from a whole family of different kinds of artists and entrepreneurs! She studied art in Atlanta and New York City. But before writing and illustrating kids books, she taught art to high school students.

Shanda is the mama of two young girls and the wife of a cute web developer.

She  is currently working on a companion book called, T-Bone The Drone, which is slated for Fall 2019 (Little, Brown).

Traci Sorell covers picture books as well as children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga illustrated by Frané Lessac (Charlesbridge Sept. 4, 2018) is her first nonfiction picture book and a 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection. The story, which has received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, features a panorama of modern-day Cherokee cultural practices and experiences, presented through the four seasons. It conveys a universal spirit of gratitude common in many cultures.

In fall 2019, her first fiction picture book, At the Mountain’s Base, illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre will be published by Penguin Random House’s new imprint, Kokila.

Traci is represented by Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt Literary Agency.