How to make a living as a children's book illustrator
We've written a lot about making a living as an author. But what about making a living as an illustrator? Read on, then, and learn about prolific children's book illustrator, Alvin Adhi Mulyono!
In every business, there’s that one person that’s absolutely irreplaceable. Like the walls, really, for a house. But, in this case, even more important. And for Ethicool Books, that person is our gorgeous original illustrator, Alvin Adhi Mulyono.
Alvin was a huge part of bringing Ethicool Books to life, and his beautiful characters and heartwarming scenes have inspired the minds of children worldwide. His signature, doe-eyed characters and joyous animals also grace many parts of our website, and the magic he has created, especially for our sellout title, Remembering Mother Nature, has attracted praise from the industry’s most prestigious reviewers.
But how, exactly, do you come to bring such magic to living rooms and bedrooms worldwide, as well as impress notoriously-hard-to-rouse children’s book reviewers? The more we learnt about Alvin, the more intrigued we became. For Alvin’s talents go far beyond beautiful illustrations… Read on to learn all about the man, the legend, and the enigma that is Alvin Adhi Mulyono.
You’re pretty well known in illustration circles, Alvin! Can you tell me a bit more about you?
Definitely! I’m an illustrator based in Indonesia. I work on a lot of different children’s books, and I also have my own comic book series, Kyuri the Cucumber Girl. I’ve literally drawn since I could hold a pencil, and in a way I’ve always known it was something I would do. When I’m not drawing these days, I also run workshops for children to teach them how to be more creative.
I consider myself a very soulful person who loves nature. As such, I love to draw things I consider to have a soul and complex emotions, such as people, animals and plants.
Many people might think the idea that plants and small animals have complex emotions sounds ridiculous. But I disagree.
I have a collection of plants and tropical fish in my backyard, and I can absolutely tell whether they are feeling joyous, overwhelmed or threatened on any given day.
The river scenes, especially, in Stu French and Alvin Aldhi’s Remembering Mother Nature received high praise from industry reviewers.
I’ve drawn lots of different things throughout my career, but I always keep coming back to children’s books. The reason for this is that in kids’ books, you can very clearly show emotion on the faces of characters. Children are intuitive and intelligent, and they can detect emotions so well, so being able to draw happiness, sadness, a laugh or even a cheeky grin and knowing that a child will respond to that brings me so much joy.
With children, everything is honest, nothing is hidden.
We don’t get this privilege when we grow up, so immortalising it on a page is a true honour for me.
Outside of drawing, I like to spend as much time in nature as possible. I really enjoy gardening, fishing and walking on the beach. Time spent outside really inspires my illustrations.
A lot of illustrators do say that their love of their profession started quite young. Can you tell us a bit more about how it all started for you?
Absolutely, so I was quite young when I started drawing. My mother was very involved and so encouraging of me, even though she wasn’t an artist herself. She also read to me early and often, which eventually led to some extremely worn out picture books (I literally remember my books being torn or drawn on). It made an impact on me, as I remember what we read even now: again and again, she’d read me the fables from Aesop’s tales.
Despite familial support for the hobby of illustration, I could never have expected that art would become my profession.
I came from a modest family with no one in the art world. My father was an employee, and my mum a housewife.
Alvin’s gorgeous illustrations from My Rainforest Classroom have captivated little ones worldwide.
With illustrating, as soon as I started, I couldn’t stop. I would just draw and draw, draw and draw for hours on end. At school, when I was about eight years old, I entered a drawing competition for the first time and I placed second. The recognition made me even more excited to draw, so I continued to do it. Art was always my favourite subject at school, and I won a number of painting competitions.
After I graduated from high school, I went on to study visual communication design at university. It just felt like the natural choice for me as I had long communicated through pictures so I wanted to see where I could take that. There, I got to experiment with lots of different types of design, everything from logos, to posters, to comics and everything in between. I made a lot of creative friends, many of whom have gone on to do photography or film. But for me, I was always attracted to children’s books.
As a children’s book illustrator, my work has mainly grown from word of mouth, which has been nice. The first book I ever illustrated was a cover for a teenage novel written by a fellow student when I was at university. From there, word got around that I was an illustrator and my career has grown from there.
We often hear from illustrators that the path to success can be far from easy. Why do you think this might be?
The whole ‘being a creative is difficult’ argument is one I’m quite pragmatic about.
In my opinion, there are lots of fields in which it can be difficult to succeed.
No job is 100% easy.
But if we love what we do, we’ll forget our failures and keep trying because our hearts are in it.
Comparing right now to years gone by, I actually think that becoming a children’s book illustrator is easier than it used to be. With the advent of the digital age, we’ve all now got access to tools we never had before, for example, the internet and social media, as well as great design programs.
This has, in my opinion, a twofold effect.
Firstly, to use an analogy from one of my favourite Japanese anime movies, the digital age has given us a dokodemo’s door (a door to anywhere). With the rise of social media, now we’re all just a click away from authors and publishers all over the world, and when they do find us, there are no barriers for us to work together.
Secondly, in terms of design programs, I certainly feel like now is a great time to be alive. In years gone by, we might have had to draw all of our work in pencils, paints or pastels, meaning that if an author didn’t like something, we’d have to do it all again. Now, with the help of digital drawing programs, we’re able to more quickly adjust what we’re doing. I think this is advantageous, as we all want to focus on creating as opposed to redoing.
Out of all of the books you’ve illustrated for Ethicool, which is your favourite and why?
That’s a tough question! I love the premise of books with a deeper meaning, and those that help connect meaning with action, so it is a little hard to choose.
I think for me though, my favourites have been Remembering Mother Nature and My Rainforest Classroom. For these titles, I was really able to explore different shapes and colours and draw objects that I’ve never imagined before.
With these stories, I loved the sense of adventure, and the different emotions the stories evoked. There was certainly this sense of my heart fluttering.
I felt calm and in a state of flow when illustrating them.
The serene scenes in Stu French and Alvin Adhi’s, Remembering Mother Nature, have garnered countless five star reviews from all over the world.
Pitching yourself can be one of the hardest parts of being a children’s book illustrator. Can you tell us a bit more about how you pitch your book to new clients?
When I’m pitching, I’m honest in how I represent myself. I show what I can do, and I don’t force what I can’t.
For example, when I first started working with Ethicool, we discussed the prospect of doing some of the illustrations in watercolour. This made me a little nervous as I hadn’t done a book in watercolour before, and I was honest about that. We tried it, but in the end agreed that a digital book with a watercolour effect would be better.
For me, it was important that I was honest and upfront with what I saw as my strengths and experience. Even if that resulted in rejection, I would prefer that than saying I could deliver something I wasn’t confident with, and having the publisher or author feel disappointed.
Stu French’s Remembering Mother Nature is pretty famous now, and your illustrations have been called out so many times as being special. Can you tell us a bit more about the creative process behind that one?
Ultimately, I think the success of that book has been a combination of Stu’s endearing and empowering prose, and the fact that the book lends itself to such gorgeous illustrations. In addition to that, I feel like the fact that I’m a person who is so in touch with nature certainly helped me bring it to life.
I’d heard the term Mother Nature often throughout my life, and I truly believe she exists. In my mind, she’s an elemental spirit that maintains the balance of nature.
When I first received the manuscript from Ethicool, I didn’t have a clear idea of what Mother Nature would look like. But through many conversations with Stu, we developed a deep understanding of who we thought she would be. We talked at length about the fact that she is a kind, old spirit; a guardian of nature and all of the living creatures on earth. She is bold and strong, but also has a soft, maternal side.
One element of Mother Nature that Stu requested that initially confused me was the idea that Mother Nature’s legs would be shaped like roots, reaching deep into the earth.
But the more I thought about this, the more I loved the idea that her tree root legs bound her with nature, grounding her into the source of so much life.
I absolutely fell in love with the concept.
Ethicool Books is a special publisher that promotes understanding of the issues that matter. What issues that Ethicool promotes are important to you and why?
As a nature lover, I’m passionate about most everything behind the Ethicool brand. But outside of the nature focus, one issue I’m particularly passionate about is bullying, which is covered in Simon and the Sad Salad.
There are so many children out there that are oppressed in some way, shape or form, either physically or mentally. They might be bullied because they’re different, or perhaps they’re bullied because they have a disability or their parents can’t afford to give them the life they want. Bullying can have devastating consequences for children, and can even leave them with life-long scars. I’d love to see society take this issue more seriously, and do whatever we can to change it.
What is your favourite type of book to illustrate, and why?
My favourite books to illustrate are exciting, meaningful and emotional stories - so exactly what Ethicool creates!
Every time I illustrate a story, I always imagine that I’m in it.
I get totally lost in every story I illustrate. I try to feel all of the emotions a character would feel.
So illustrating a story is always an adventure for me, and it’s especially lovely when the book has a happy ending!
The bullying element of Teigan Margetts’ and Alvin Adhi’s, Simon and the Sad Salad, as well as the depth of emotions the characters portray, have captivated many young readers.
What advice would you give other illustrators who are just starting out?
Worldwide, there are thousands of illustrators. What this means is that you need to make a name for yourself with your style. If you don’t have a particular style, you won’t be recognised.
So ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’ Are you a particular type of children’s book illustrator? Are you a cartoonist who talks about politics? Are you a mangaka (a person who creates manga cartoons)? Whoever you are and whatever you want to do, be specific and pursue it.
Beyond that, always practice, explore more, and improve your skills. Even if you’re brilliant, there’s always more you can learn.
And remember, if you get stuck or don’t feel inspired, it’s ok to take a break.
Finally, do other things besides drawing! Life outside of your iPad or your pencil or watercolour set will give you a tonne of inspiration.
And finally! Ethicool is all about inspiring the next generation to make the world a better place. Finish this sentence. If I could inspire the next generation to do just one thing, it would be…
To have more empathy.
Empathy is key to so much in life. When you have empathy, you’re able to care for everything, from the small creatures around you, to the earth as a whole.
With empathy, we can all understand the path we need to forge to create a better planet and then go about doing just that.
Alvin’s unique and endearing illustrations have attracted high praise from industry reviewers and little readers worldwide. His titles for Ethicool include: Remembering Mother Nature; My Rainforest Classroom; Uncle Marlow’s Machine; Simon and the Sad Salad; Ella and the Exploding Fish; and Tom’s Tears.