I first saw Julie Bayless‘s phenomenal work at the SCBWI Oakland conference last year. She participated in the “Best Portfolio” contest, which I judged along with the other visiting editors and agents, and she was our unanimous choice. In fact, I now use some of Julie’s samples in my conference talks as examples of character, relationships, and story in illustrations. Julie’s debut picture book ROAR! (the beginnings of which were in her Oakland portfolio) is coming from Running Press Kids, Fall 2015.
When and how did you start writing?
I wrote and illustrated alphabet books starting at age eight. “Irving Iguana Icked.” is a line from one of them, and the illustration shows Irving saying “Ick!” to several creatures offering him nasty-looking food. I like to think my writing and illustration has taken on a bit more nuance since then, though I like the sound of the line.
I loved If I Ran the Zoo by Dr. Seuss and How the Rhinoceros Got his Skin from old, politically incorrect Rudyard Kipling. I fondly remember Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina, and Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle, by Winifred and Cecil Lubell. I later got my own box turtle and named her Rosalie.
Tomi Ungerer’s Crictor the Boa Constrictor and The Three Robbers were also favorites. Tomi has some of the most beautiful compositions, which are simple and powerful, and his drawings make me laugh, no matter how many times I look at them.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I remember thinking , “I’ll write a story with just a very few words; that’ll be MUCH easier!” Ha.
When I showed my first storyboards to my husband, I was so pleased with them, and he (who has a fabulous sense of humor) didn’t think they were amusing at all. He thought I was telling a story about a lion cub who has a deeply flawed relationship with her own family. I trust Doug’s taste in a number of things, but I felt the idea of the book, un-formed at that point as it was, was worthy. So I forged ahead. Doug has since come around!
Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?
I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) in 2009. Without that organization, I doubt I’d have an agent today. Attending talks, getting portfolio reviews, and finding critique groups for my stories and illustrations; that, and drawing like a madwoman was how I got better.
I sent postcards of my illustrations to publishers every few months for three years, but never got any response. I decided I needed to win “Best Portfolio” at a conference in order to land an agent to promote my work, and was astonished when it worked! I met John at the 2013 Oakland SCBWI conference, where I did win “Best Portfolio”. He said he’d like to see a book from me, so I came up with an initial draft of Roar! in four months. I got feedback from as many people as I could while I was creating it. When I sent it to John, he offered to represent me, which was only slightly less thrilling than when my husband asked me to marry him.
Describe your day. Where do you look for inspiration?
I spend as much time as possible drawing. I love the iterative process of refining an idea, working out the composition, the characters, the colors. I know I’m going in the right direction when I do a drawing that makes me laugh.
I belong to both a writing critique group and an illustration critique group, and I get a huge amount of support and inspiration from them. Conferences also provide a great deal of information and inspiration, and remind me to keep my portfolio and website updated.
Every week, I go to the library and grab any picture book that has an appealing cover. I steal as many ideas as I can from other authors and illustrators!
Join SCBWI, attend the conferences, familiarize yourself with what other books are being published in your genre, and draw and write as often as you can. Find a group of people you trust who will give you honest feedback. When you tell yourself you suck, don’t listen. Besides, sucking for awhile is the only way to get better! Don’t edit yourself in your first draft, just push forward. Send it out, hope for the best, don’t give up.
Find out which tools make you happy, and try out some new ones from time to time. Be open to accidents, in whatever form they arrive. Art accidents are a great opportunity to surprise yourself.
See more of Julie’s artwork on her website.