I’m delighted to welcome veteran artist and author/illustrator Julie Olson to Greenhouse! Julie and I met in 2012 at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference in Utah (which I highly recommend), where Julie was teaching a class on illustrating picture books. Though I’d worked with picture book authors before, this was my first experience addressing a room full of illustrators. Throughout my talk Julie stood off to the side, and whenever I was a bit uncertain she’d shoot me an encouraging thumbs up. For the rest of the conference Julie was my sometime driver, showing me the sights of beautiful Provo and also ensuring I visited Starbucks at least twice a day. Julie kept me sane, punctual, and caffeinated all week.
So it was a delight to see her this year when I returned to WIFYR. Julie was hosting an author shindig at Salt Lake’s legendary independent bookstore, King’s English. We caught up over stuffed peppers and pigs-in-blankets, and she told me about her latest book, Discover America. We discussed the picture book world, the commercial art world, and I mentioned I thought artists ought to have a dedicated illustration agent, as separate from their commercial artwork representation, as the markets are so different.
Julie considered this, and sipped her sparkling apple cider.
Now, lo, it’s a few months later, and Julie and I are going to be working together, which makes me deliriously happy. Whenever a new client joins the agency, we ask them a few questions about their work, their process, etc. Julie’s answers are fabulous. Check it out:
When and how did you start writing and/or illustrating?
Well apparently my artistic history goes all the way back to my toddler days. Apparently, my mom would often turn around from her task at hand to find me quietly drawing tiny circles in ballpoint pen all along the baseboards of her white walls. Being the patient woman she was, she simply shook her head in amazement at my finger dexterity and provided plenty of paper and art supplies from then on. As I grew older, I checked out “how-to-draw” books from the local library and even set the old VCR to record Bob Ross and other PBS painting shows. I asked Santa for my first set of real artist paints at the age of 11 and from then on I’d get home from school and try copying the PBS masters’ paintings. In the meantime, my love of the written word developed as well. My favorite times were when my busy dad would spend time reading Mark Twain stories in all the voices or when my sister and would stay up late telling each other stories of “Marshmallow Pie Bar Mysteries.”
We loved books in my house so it’s hard to pin down only one book. My siblings and I even set up a neighborhood library for the kids on our street. Complete with card pockets on the inside of every book cover. Mostly we just liked to stamp the card and check out the books to ourselves, but we had a grand time with it. Some of my early favorite books included Lillian Holban’s Frances series, “The Country Bunny and the Little Golden Shoes,” and Nora Smaridge’s “The Big Tidy Up.” I also always loved to read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, Pippy Longstocking and Judy Blume books, along with “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” And of course, a soft spot for Mark Twain (in my dad’s voice).
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I had been illustrating books for about 9 years as well as attending conferences, meeting with writers, and studying the art of writing all along. Finally, I decided to really give it a go. I had just spent the weekend hosting author/illustrator Janet Stevens at a book conference and she and I had had some great discussions. After dropping her off at the airport, I was stuck in traffic and a little idea started. I grabbed the back of my name tag and a ballpoint pen from the dash and scribbled a few words down on the back (don’t worry…traffic was completely at a stand still). The words I wrote were, “Groundhog. Scratch my back. Tickle. Tingle. Twitch. Itch. Porcupine. Alligator. Thistle.” From those few words came my first book, “Tickle, Tickle! Itch, Twitch!” Of course I say that like it was simple, when it wasn’t. But it all began there.
Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?
I actually went out on my own without an agent for the first 9 years of my career. Since I was an illustrator and a mom to young kids, I took the route of finding my own work and managing the flow of it without the worry of disappointing an agent when I needed to turn a job down to spend time with my little ones. However, I finally came to the realization that an agent could actually HELP me spend more time with my family by taking all of the busy work off my plate. Then I could focus on my art. I began with an art rep who illustrator friends of mine used instead of a literary agent because at the time I wasn’t as focused on the writing aspect of picture books. I submitted my work to them and they took me in as one of their own. I was able to work on books but a lot of other interesting projects for various industries as well. However, after 5 more years in the industry and one book authored under my belt, I finally realized that creating an entire book is what I NEEDED to keep doing. My art rep was having a bit of a hard time helping me in that goal since their focus was primarily on the art and not the writing. I was explaining this to a literary agent, who I’d met a year previously at a conference, while we chatted at another event. After our talk that night, I realized that it was time to make a change in my focus and in my career. It was very scary for me to give up my art rep who I got along well with and move to a literary rep, but I knew it was the right thing to do. That literary agent I chatted with and subsequently signed on with was John Cusick, of Greenhouse Literary Agency. I am so excited to work with him and the Greenhouse team and take the leap of faith into my dreams.
As a mom, and an artist, it’s hard for me to keep set hours. I work when the kids sleep. I work when the kids are at school. I work when I’m at the dentist. I work while I’m at the park. I even work while I’m in the car. Whenever I find a free and quiet moment, I think books. I think art. I think stories. However, when I’m on a deadline, I work out some childcare help to get some good solid painting time in. I’m lucky that both of my kids’ grandmothers live close enough to help out when I’m in a pinch. But truthfully, a lot of my work happens with kids in my office painting at their little mini desk, banging on the piano or electric guitars upstairs and downstairs, or not so quietly reminding me they need to be fed. I am lucky to have an art studio in my home so I don’t have to go far. And I think growing up in a big family (9 kids and two parents) allowed me to be able to work amongst noise and craziness when I need to. Honestly, I think these kids are my greatest inspiration…life with them provides all sorts of ideas.
Can you tell us about your next book?
I currently have two books I’m working on. One is silly and the other is completely the opposite, serious and emotional. Both are picture books. I really hope they find a home and get to provide more laughter and love in the world.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers/illustrators who are looking to get published?
The best advice I have is to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE your craft. Go to writing and illustrating workshops and conferences. Learn from professionals in the industry. Network there. READ A LOT OF BOOKS in the genre you are interested in and then lots of books in general. Overall, take the advice, constructive criticism and tips you receive from editors and professionals and put them to use. Let them build your work into something better instead of allowing it to tear you down personally.
Which favorite authors/illustrators would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight (because I would love to witness and learn from their friendship), David Small and Sarah Stewart (because they are one of the sweetest couples I know…true opposites attracting), and Aaron Becker, Dan Santat, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen (to keep the blood young, hip and hilarious) — The whole dinner I would soak up all I could from these amazing artist in word and sight
I wish I’d invented Eloise. Because she’s got such spunk and truly speaks to my own inner sassy know-it-all child. However, I don’t know that I was ever that spoiled (actually I know I wasn’t…there were 9 kids in my family, remember?)
BTW if you yourself are an author/illustrator or illustrator, I highly recommend you check out Julie’s blog for all kinds of great resources.