Launching your career as a children's book illustrator
Ready to embark on what is surely the coolest career path on earth? Of course you are! Well, then, read on, as Ethicool co-founder, Teigan Margetts sits down with the company's newest children's book illustrator, the wildly cool, Madison Pollard.
The old adage, “a picture paints a thousand words”, has never been truer than when it’s applied to children’s books. While authors are responsible for creating beautiful stories, it’s the pictures that really bring them to life. Many a little one will marvel at the magical scenes that unfold before their eyes, or squeal in delight at the creatures they see. And, let’s be honest, when we reflect on what is perhaps the world’s most famous children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, we can all remember those deliciously cheeky monsters within, even if we can’t quite remember the story!
Given the fun and excitement involved in creating such joy for children, it’s understandable that for any illustrator, drawing for children’s book is an absolute dream job. But given its dreamy status, it can also be one that’s surprisingly difficult to obtain. So recently, we sat down with the insanely talented, Madison (Maddie) Pollard, who is bringing the magic to life for Ethicool’s latest title, The day we went to Away. We delved deep into her creative process, discovered how she secured her dream gig, and got some handy tips for other illustrators wishing to follow in her footsteps!
So, Maddie, you’re now officially a children’s book illustrator! Congrats! Can you tell me a bit more about you?
Sure! As the daughter of two very creative parents, I’ve always been attracted to the arts. But when I finished school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and I did feel a bit of pressure to get a tertiary education. I ended up enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts at Macquarie University. But, pretty soon, I realised it just wasn’t for me.
My parents have always been so supportive of me nurturing my creative side, so after I withdrew from university, I enrolled in a Certificate IV in Design Fundamentals (and then I went on to do a Diploma). This was such a fascinating course! I did subjects such as graphic design, illustration, costume design, set design, and we even did makeup.
I think it was during that course that I fell in love with illustrating. I loved the freedom of expression it gave me and how it made me feel. I definitely started to consider a career in the area from that point.
After finishing my course, I had to move out of home and then pay rent in Sydney, so that gave me quite a reality check. I initially worked in a furniture showroom to sustain myself, but I felt like that sapped my soul quite a bit and I knew I needed a more enriching outlet for my creative side. So I decided to start my own business, Madison Pollard Design, where I work with various clients to help them with all aspects of design.
Illustrating for children is a desire that has been a slow burn for me for a long time! I remembered so fondly how I felt when my parents read to me, and the magical worlds my mind would take me to as a result. When I graduated, I actually did try submitting my portfolio to a number of big publishers but I never heard back.
Outside of work, I love gardening! I have lots of plant babies that I absolutely adore. Being a creative - and this sounds like a cliche - I also love creating. I love little sewing projects or anything I can get my hands on, really. I’m also an avid reader, and I read at any chance I get.
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?
If I look at my family, honestly, it’s basically written into the stars that I’d be “a creative”. My mum is a singer, writer and photographer, and my dad loves filmmaking and is always coming up with creative projects. My younger sister is also an actor and a singer, and my other sister is an artist/scientist. I’ve always been surrounded by creatives!
From as young as I can remember, Mum and I would always scrapbook. There are literally dozens of scrapbooks from when I was a child, and I would fill them with my drawings and stick countless pictures and tidbits in them. I was always encouraged to explore, paint and draw, and I always did.
At school this trend certainly continued! I would often get in trouble for doodling in my notebooks, but I loved it. I felt like I could create friends on a page.
As I grew older, I tried a number of different hobbies. I tried netball and tennis, and I also tried musical instruments. But the one thing that stuck was drawing - I always really loved it. My parents saw that and supported me all the way, always putting me in art classes and art camps.
Wow! It sounds like you’ve always known, in a sense, that illustrating was the path for you and you’ve really been able to make a success of it. We often hear from illustrators that the path to success can be far from easy. Why do you think this might be?
I think there are a few things that any creative needs to be clear on. Firstly, I think that getting into the profession thinking that you’ll make millions and millions of dollars and that you’ll become famous, really is the wrong motivation. Most creatives I know - in fact, probably all - have struggled at times. It’s hard to “make it” in the sense that you’ll have stable, high-paying work all the time. If you choose to have your own business, the “business” side of things can also be a struggle, and I’ve absolutely felt that myself.
Secondly, I think that as a creative, you need to be clear on why you’re creating. I’ve always had a good connection with my creative side and I’m confident in my ability and my style.
Knowing what you offer (and why) is essential when pitching yourself.
And thirdly, I think who you surround yourself with is important as a creative. I’ve travelled a bit and I felt like, in New York for example, the creative scene is supported and celebrated, and there are opportunities abound. Here in Australia, though, I don’t always feel that way.
But, wherever you are, I think the key is to make as many good connections as possible. Ultimately, too, timing and luck play a factor.
But clearly you’re still making an impact here in Australia. Will The day we went to Away be the first ever children’s book you’ve illustrated?
It sure will! I’m so excited.
Pitching yourself can be one of the hardest parts of becoming a children’s book illustrator. Can you tell us a bit more about your pitch to Ethicool?
Pitching to Ethicool was one of the great “timing” moments in my life, where everything just seemed to fall into place. I had had the dream for a while to illustrate a children’s book, but since I’d pitched to the big publishers and hadn’t heard back, I hadn’t followed it up.
I saw Ethicool pop up on Instagram and I immediately liked the idea behind the business, so I started following them. Around that time, I was also talking to my partner and he reminded me of my dream to illustrate for children, and also the fact that I hadn’t followed up. So I thought, “now is clearly the time”!
Before I reached out, though, I did do some research on the business, and also the founders. You only get one chance to make a good first impression. After I’d done my research, I reached out. Putting yourself out there is scary, but you need to do it! After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
Why do you think your pitch was successful? What would you recommend other aspiring illustrators do in the pitching process?
Obviously, different publishers will be looking for different things, so it’s important to really know what kind of books they publish, and whether they already have an illustrator with a style similar to yours. But I think, just try to be honest and genuine. And if you need, there’s no harm in asking questions.
A few years ago when I was studying, I also did quite a bit of modelling, and was even flown to Japan for a modelling contract. When you model, you certainly feel exposed and constantly compare yourself to others. While that can be brutal, the experience of doing it taught me one important lesson, and that was: don’t take things personally! If you’re not selected for a job, you have to remember that it’s not a personal decision towards you, it’s just that the publisher may require a different style for the books they have.
Keep trying, stay humble, and be yourself.
We’d love to learn more about your creative process for The day we went to Away. Can you tell us a bit more about how you’re bringing the story to life?
Sure! So the book explores the idea of throwing things “away”, questioning where they actually go. In the story, we’re taken to the magical land of Away to learn more about what happens to our unwanted things.
In bringing these illustrations to life, I have drawn on a lot of what I’ve been taught in my creative education, and that is that when you’re fulfilling briefs, you need to read more into what is being said in the subtext, rather than simply what’s there on the page for you. With the brief that I received from Stu French for The day we went to Away, I really sat down and thought, “Oh, what would this mean?”, and “What emotions is the author trying to depict here?” When I illustrate something, it isn’t simply about illustrating what something says, but much more about what emotions those words need to evoke.
The job of an illustrator, in the end, is to say much more with their illustrations than what is simply there on the page.
In terms of my process, I find it incredibly useful to write down my initial ideas, and answer the question: “What emotions and images does this story evoke for me?” These ideas, and even some initial sketches, form the basis of my illustrations. They’re what I use to nurture and grow and build the story out.
After that initial drafting and sketching step, I find it useful to put together a mood board or colour guide of sorts. Using specific colours can help evoke certain emotions, so putting this together helps guide what you’ll use. For example, as you move through The day we went to Away, the colours get darker and more foreboding to show, as the story progresses, the darker meaning behind the book.
Another critical part of illustrating, in general, is testing your ideas on other people. With the protagonist in this story, I’ve shown her to a couple of my friends, and they’ve given feedback: for example, “Oh, why is she in a blue dress?” Things like that. Having feedback helps me shape my ideas and notice things I might otherwise not have noticed.
Ethicool Books is a special publisher that promotes understanding of the issues that matter. Are there any issues in The day we went to Away that are of particular importance to you?
I have always been baffled as to why we make single use anything, so the themes in The day we went to Away really resonate with me. I’m also strongly against throwing away things that can be fixed.
Obviously, I’m not perfect in my endeavours to never throw anything away, as many of us aren’t. But I certainly feel guilty about my impact on the planet, and I think we all have the responsibility to do better. We’ve known about things such as plastic pollution and climate change for ages, and now things are getting a little scarier. Realistically, this message is more critical for the next generation than it’s ever been.
The saying goes that the future is in the hands of our children, so, especially now, we have to talk to them about what responsibility looks like. We need to lead by example and raise kids into adults that value the earth and know that this is the only planet we have to live on.
We totally agree! And it sounds like you’re both passionate about the issue that The day we went to Away is supporting, and loving the work itself too! What would your advice be for other illustrators that want to follow in your footsteps?
For anyone wanting to illustrate children’s books, I’d definitely recommend the following:
Whenever you’re dealing with anyone in business, but particularly publishers, they really want you to be clear on your process, what you’re offering, and your price. I think price can be a hard one for illustrators, as a page can take anywhere from a day to weeks, really. But you do need to set yourself parameters, and if you need, there are lots of tools online to help you work out how long something might take.
As illustrators are creative souls at heart, sometimes they can be a bit vague on the business and project side. But to work in partnership with a publisher, you need to clearly specify what you’ll deliver, stick to deadlines, and continuously communicate. Also, to my point earlier, try not to take things personally (or too seriously) if you receive feedback.
As an upcoming illustrator - until you’re really established and experienced - it’s likely that you’ll end up doing jobs for less than perhaps you think you’re worth. But that is all part of the learning experience, and even if a job doesn’t pay the big bucks, you should always do your best work. When you do a rushed job, the client can always tell.
Like an artform, throughout your career you’ll always be improving and adapting, so if you really want to be a children’s illustrator, never give up!
The day we went to Away is available for pre-order NOW.