Posted by: Kathy Temean | July 3, 2010

Illustrator Saturday – Mary Zisk

Mary Zisk is a magazine art director and the author/illustrator of The Best Single Mom in the World: How I Was Adopted. She lives in northern New Jersey with her daughter, three dogs, one cat, and three birds.  

Mary says, “I’m Still a Work-in-Progress.”

As a magazine art director, Mary assigned thousands of illustrations over the years (including one of Lane Smith’s first print assignments after he graduated college). But deep in her heart, she wanted to be the illustrator and make picture books.



Her love of picture books goes way back. She says, “I still have all my Golden Books, treasured by me for their illustrations—my favorites being Garth Williams, Feodor Rojankovsky, and Gustaf Tenggren. When I advanced into chapter books, the illustrations kept me reading, especially those by Robert McClosky, Robert Lawson, and Louis Darling.  

Inspired by these illustrators, she submitted her first picture book dummy (Clyde the Chartreuse Cow) when she was in 8th grade.  When she got back her first rejection letter, she wasn’t discouraged. She took a kiddy lit class in college, and then children’s book classes at the New School/Parsons.

In her late 20s, she submitted her next picture book dummy, Hillary’s Museum.  She says she was a fiend with the crow quill pen. Then she got another rejection letter, but also a request to see her portfolio. Unfortunately, she only had one illustration, so she never followed through.  But Mary can’t help but think, ah, how life might have been different if only I had.

Flash forward 15 years. After she adopted her daughter in 1994, a book began to percolate inside of her.  Then a lucky thing happened—She lost her job. That gave her the time to write her book and to develop a style. She collects Italian pottery for its lively, colorful patterns, so she thinks her decorative gouache technique evolved out of that. In 2001, Albert Whitman published my first book The Best Single Mom in the World: How I Was Adopted.

Mary says, “As writers struggle with voice, we illustrators also struggle with our visual voice. Three years ago, I wrote a simple picture book that I describe as Where’s Waldo? meets HGTV. I have the words, but I’m looking for my illustrator’s voice. The images needed for this book are too complex to use the gouache style I used in my adoption book. So I’ve gone back to a pen and ink/watercolor/colored pencil style, since it reflects my love of detail and pattern.

Mary continues, “I’ve been working on samples, but I don’t feel I’m there yet. I’m also considering changing all the characters to animals. To kick myself into the next gear, I signed up for the Illustrators’ Intensive at the NJSCBWI Annual Conference. Viking Art Director Denise Cronin gave us a choice of manuscripts to read and illustrate one scene. I feel the resulting image is getting me closer to where I want to be.”

And now, just to make her quest a bit more complicated,she’s also writing a middle grade novel and another picture book. Mary says, “More voices to find! But I’m having a great time being a work-in-progress. And hopefully, all my voices will enjoy the creative conversation.”

Hope you enjoyed Mary’s journey.  If you are an illustrator feel free to contact me about being featured in Illustrator Saturday.  If you are a writer, consider writing something for a guest blog spot.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Kathy,

    Since I’m not an artist, I don’t know many illustrators by name. It’s so great to connect the names with the faces this way.



  2. Mary’s work is great — so colorful, lively, and fun! And I’ve read some of work so I know how talented (and sweet) she is because I was in her critique group for the March mentoring workshop. Thanks for sharing — and you go, girl!


    • Hi Connie,

      Thanks for the kind words! The ms you read in March is going through lots of changes based on all the NJSCBWI input. It’s shifting from a Beatles love song to a pre-feminist rant. Ha!



  3. Thanks so much, Kathy. How fun to read about Mary’s journey and how she stuck with her heart’s desire. I love her artwork!
    Pam B


    • Pam,

      I think people have been enjoying the artwork and the illustrator stories. I’m glad I decided to show them off. How have you been doing? Any good things going on?



  4. Kathy, Thanks for the chance to guest blog and thanks for all the info you send us.

    Anita-I’ll see you at the Writers Retreat.

    And thanks Pam for your appreciation.



    • Mary,

      I loved showing you off and I really think the writers are enjoying Illustrator Saturday. Keep adding new stuff, so I can show you off again in a few years.

      See you in the fall,



  5. You are so nice to ask, Kathy. Thank you. Actually, because of your encouragement, I tried my hand at a picture book, but it’s too long: 2200 words. (It’s about a 7-yr-old boy whose father beats him and his mother, and what happens when he learns he has a guardian angel. I guess living in these low-income apartments has ‘knocked at my writing door.’)
    Anyway, I can see the characters in my mind’s eye and wish like the dickens that I was an illustrator! Take care, you busy woman.
    Pam B


  6. Wow, nice work, Mary. It’s illuminating to read about how you search for the right voice when doing your illustrations. I’m off to check out your website.


  7. Mary, I apologize for not posting on this before now, but it’s been unavoidable.

    I know I’ve told you before how adorable your work is, and it was SO enjoyable seeing how your sketches develop through the finished product. Thanks for doing this!


  8. Mary is an excellent illustrator, and writer. I have loved reading and adoring her book about Adoption as a Single Mom. Not only does the story touch my heart dearly since I am a single Mom with an adopted son, it also makes me smile from ear to ear as I enjoy her colorful, active illustrations. The story jumps off the page since her work is so magical and decorative. Agnes


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