Rachael Cole On The Art And Design Of Children’s Books

Originally Posted: Nov 25, 2009

by Melissa Guion

Ah, January in New York. The cold. The eternal dark. The F train that smells like a combination sheep shearing and fish fry. What could possibly lure a book artist out the door on such a night? How about free coffee, the friendly companionship of your colleagues and the chance to linger over the picture book dummies of a fellow illustrator? Gotcha!

On January 13th, Schwartz & Wade Senior Designer Rachael Cole arrived for the SCBWI New York Metro Tuesday Professionals Series with an armload of book material and enough good cheer to fill the Anthroposophical Society. Cole’s tone was disarming as she described her path to the prestigious imprint: “Most of my colleagues graduated, knew they wanted to go into freelance editorial or children’s illustration, and went into it. I had no idea what I wanted to do!”

Cole trained as an artist, receiving her MFA in Illustration from The School of Visual Arts. An internship at the New York Times Op-Ed page and a succession of freelance illustration and graphic design jobs gradually taught her about the types of environment and collaboration she did – and didn’t – enjoy. Cole modestly credited the vision of industry veterans Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade, who hired Cole despite her inexperience in children’s publishing when they founded their imprint four years ago.

It turns out the role is an excellent fit for Cole’s talents and interests. In fact, Cole’s “non-traditional” career path may have been ideal preparation for Schwartz & Wade, where it seems no two books come to life the same way. With a staff of five, an annual list of 20 titles and contracted artists working “in all media, all over the world,” Cole handles whatever comes along, whether it’s digital files or paper collages “delivered in bits and pieces and put together with help from me!”

To illustrate the collaborative process in more depth, Cole shared material from a recent project – Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek: A Tall, Thin Tale (Introducing His Forgotten Frontier Friend), written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by John Hendrix (Schwartz & Wade, Fall 2008). Cole had long wanted Hendrix — her former SVA classmate and a successful editorial illustrator — for the Schwartz and Wade list. After a positive portfolio meeting, there was only one unresolved matter: when, if ever, might the perfect manuscript show up?

Fortunately for Hendrix (and Cole), Anne Schwartz doesn’t wait for such questions to answer themselves. Schwartz contacted Deborah Hopkinson, a top author of picture book biographies and, like Hendrix, an American history buff. Hopkinson delivered a manuscript tailored to his style and interests and Hendrix got to work.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the evening was the chance to see first-hand how Hendrix grew the book, from early character sketches through a series of increasingly polished dummies. Cole pointed out that after each dummy is turned in, it’s her job to synthesize feedback from Schwartz and Wade staff and communicate back to the artist, who continues the revision process. Getting artwork right can take many months, especially in a project with the narrative complexity of Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek. During the process, Cole acts as both referee and protector. “Everyone just wants [the final book] to be as perfect as it can be,” says Cole. “The illustrator has to keep going. I have the utmost admiration for that, because it’s not as if you get paid more for making it more perfect.”

Hendrix was tireless in arriving at the right way to complement Hopkinson’s tongue-in-cheek but heartfelt text. Cole pointed out that when the artwork for a book is complete, there’s still plenty to do – final copyediting, jacket and endpaper design, color correction, printing and binding and final review of the printed book, which occasionally engenders last minute changes (though these are “strongly discouraged”).

And then, said Cole, “it gets pubbed and hopefully it does well.” If this last step sounds like an afterthought, maybe it’s because Cole enjoys the creative process as much as the public reception. In a night filled with useful information, an offhand comment by Cole captured her fundamental approach to making books: “it’s fun!” An enthusiastic audience member responded, “Schwartz & Wade are lucky to have you.”

And for one night, so were we.

Melissa Guion is working on her first picture book. Her illustrations can be seen at http://www.melissaguion.com and on the new Writers House portfolio site. She is the recipient of a 2009 artist’s grant from the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.

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