Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 30, 2012

Illustrator Saturday – Leeza Hernandez

Leeza Hernandez’ debut book hit the bookstores the week of June 10th.  That Friday night we celebrated in NYC with Leeza at her book party.  It was so much fun getting to see Leeza shine.  The picture on the left is Leeza and Connie Colon.  Notice the necklace that Leeza is wearing?  The ornanment on the chain is a dog bone – so cute!  She even had rice crispy treats made up in the shape of dog bones.  And the dress she wore was a knock out.  The whole thing should have made the society page or the book section of the New York Times.  Anyway, I thought I would show off Leeza a little on Illustrator Saturday to help you get to know the next New Jersey SCBWI Regional Advisor a little better.

I asked Leeza to share the journey to getting Dog Gone Published.  Here’s Leeza:

Dog Gone! has been in the making for almost three and  half years, so it’s wonderful to see it out in the world now. Early in 2009, I was invited to the Putnam office at Penguin to meet with art director Cecilia Yung, publisher Nancy Paulsen and editor Nicole Kasprzak. The meeting was a result of winning the Tomie de Paola portfolio award at the New York SCWI winter Conference that same year. I remember being so excited but crazy nervous, too! 

I shared my portfolio and we talked about ideas that I had for picture books. Cecilia pointed out a dog sample in the portfolio and asked if there was a story to go with it.

It just so happened I had with me what I call an ‘ideas’ book. It’s like a small portfolio but filled with loose sketches, notes and random papers. Luckily, there was a copy of the story tucked in the back. Nancy, Cecilia and Nicole read it. I sat quietly for what felt like hours and then Nancy said “Let’s take it.” It was that pinch-me moment when a good poker face can come in really handy. I gave a silly, goofy grin and managed to suppress the girlie squeals, but inside I was running round the office as if I just scored a hat trick at the World Cup! 

Writing a story wasn’t the plan, but thanks to an art director who requested a dog sample from me a year prior (there were only cats in my portfolio at the time), an idea germinated from simple word play on dog terms—“Hot Dog” became “Top Dog” which led to “Doggone it” then a-ha,“Dog Gone!” a story idea appeared about a puppy who runs away.

While working on the book, I have made a number of revisions, mostly to the illustrations; had the book release pushed back twice; saw a change in publisher and switched to a new editor. All par for the course apparently, although at the time I had no idea what to expect throughout the process, especially when a publication date gets changed. That’s hard to take when you are so excited and have to wait another six months or maybe a year before you get to see the book in hand.

Working with Susan and Cecilia has been great. Marikka Tamura was the designer on the book and nailed the type design to suit the illustrations perfectly. Everyone helped shape the book into what it is now and I could not have done it without them, for sure. You learn to appreciate very quickly that making children’s books is a collaborative team effort.

 Some other things I learned during the creation of this book:

Communication is key. Anything and everything is as simple as a conversation, so don’t be afraid to speak up, it is more appreciated than staying silent. Always be patient and willing to make changes. Put a dog sample in your portfolio (and a cat), carry an ideas book with one or two manuscripts nicely tucked in the back, and get a good poker face!

THE WALL: When I work on sketches, I make copies and hang them on the studio wall. First thing in the morning, a coffee and a long pause staring at the wall helps me psych myself up for work. It’s good to step back and see the pages from afar – with this round of sketches, I had two or three consecutive layouts with similar compositions. That’s something I didn’t catch when just working flat at the art table.

The opening spread started like this with many spots of the dog, and then introducing the dog and boy together as a single right page.

The revision shows the focus is on both main characters and setting up what is to come in the story with the dog trying to play with one of the boy’s toys as opposed to one of his own.

Final sketch has been approved and here is the color. Consistency is fundamental with color. The stripes on the boy’s tee shirt appeared orange later in the book. My bad! Thankfully, the editorial team caught it.

Here is the final spread with text laid out.

Here we see dog running away in a hurry but eventually slowing down having discovered he has gone way beyond his home territory and soon about to become lost.
Along his way, some new characters appear – friend or foe, the reader does not yet know.

The revision focusses on the white fence on the left that doesn’t show enough of a landscape change, as well as the focus on the dog in the single page on the right. A chainlink fence suggests a more urban neighborhood. The dramatic shadow suggests dog’s wandering into an unknown street.

The revised piece in color. Notice the great dane has been removed, saving him for a later page.

The finished piece with final type design.

Sometimes, when working on illustration ideas, I might offer more than one option for a spread. I had this idea to spotlight the two main characters and the newly-repaired toy in a closing scene, by isolating the trio in an amoebic oval shape.

The second option pulls back and shows a fuller scene. Dog and boy snuggled up for the night with a the repaired toy – but also brings back the little kitten character from earlier in the book – a new friend perhaps? 

The second option was chosen to go to color.

This is the final layout with type design.

First, what made you want to take over the New Jersey SCBWI Chapter?

When you asked me if I would be interested my heart and gut said “yes” without hesitation. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing in children’s books if it wasn’t for SCBWI and the New Jersey chapter, and you too Kathy! The support over the years has been incredible. I am indebted to this organization, and if I am able to help even just one person the way you helped me then it will be worth it. It’s an opportunity to hopefully give back. Hope I do a good job – I am a bit nervous!

How and when did you get interested in illustrating children’s book?

When I was about 12 years old, I was heavily into Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake books, so I was inspired to make up stories and draw characters. Drawing was everything to me. As I grew up, my career path took a different direction into publication design. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I rediscovered my childhood passion for books and illustration.


What was the first piece of art you got paid for?

That’s a toughie. I was asked to paint a huge logo on a hairdresser’s shop window in my early teens. It was awful! She felt bad for me so she paid me anyway then promptly removed the logo. I had no experience or business painting anything on a giant store window – what was I thinking!?!

Is there one thing you feel was the catalyst to you getting noticed and your career going in the children’s industry?

That’s a no-brainer. SCBWI without a doubt. If it wasn’t for this organization and getting involved with the New Jersey chapter I would still be stumbling around clueless. I still stumble, but at least I have a little savvy and friends to support me along the way.

How did you find your agent?

Rachel Orr, my agent contacted me after friend and mentor Pat Cummings recommended me to her with a list of other illustrators.

Picture left: DOG GONE editor, Susan Kochan from Putnam, Leeza Hernandez (middle), agent Rachel Orr (right).

Were you represented when you illustrated Playing It Their Way: An Innovative Approach to Teaching Piano to Individuals with Physical or Mental Disabilities by Karen Z. Kowalski?

No, I wasn’t represented at the time. This project came about when I designed books for independent and self-publishers. I ended up illustrating the cover because we couldn’t find a good photographic solution that worked.

Image of Play it Their Way cover


How did you end up getting the contract to illustrate Bored Bella Learns About Fiction and Nonfiction by Sandy Bridget Donovan?

I’m not sure how they found me, but the publisher reached out to Rachel to see if I was available.

Image of Bored Bella Cover

It was published by Picture Window Books.  Can you share some information about them? 

The project was a work-for-hire/flat fee. They had specific ideas about what the illustrations needed to show, so that made life a little easier for me. I simply had to execute their concepts and given the 12-week timeframe from start to finish, I was okay with that. It was just the experience I needed to segue into my next project Eat Your Math Homework.

How did you get the contract for illustrating Eat Your Math Homework, written by Ann McCallum?

Back in 2007, I met the editor Emily Mitchell from Charlesbridge at the Rutgers One-on-One conference and gave her my postcard, although I didn’t think she liked my work. I signed with Rachel late spring of 2008 and she sent out a promo mailer to publishers, which included Charlesbridge. The designer contacted Rachel to see if I was available for a non-fiction project and I later found out that Emily had taken my postcard back to her office and said I was someone she wanted to work with. Hurrah!




Have you seen your advances increase with each additional book?

No. Each project and publisher is different. It doesn’t work like that, not for me anyway.

Did you have plans for another book written and illustrated by you?

I have a handful of ideas I am noodling with, which includes an illustrated young MG novel. I am totally intimidated by the novel!


Do you have any words of wisdom to share with the writers and illustrators looking to launch a successful career?

Gosh, that is way too much pressure! Not sure if it’s words of wisdom, I can only share my own experience and I know it is different for everyone, but here goes. Work hard. Write and/or draw every day. Read every day and don’t let fear hold you back. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. Research and be aware of the industry and all that is around you. Always be gracious and forever grateful. There are plenty of downs as well as ups, but don’t give up if this is where you truly want to be. Embrace rejection—and revision. Let go, be willing and open to everything. Smile. And when your heart sings, be sure to listen.

Photo of Leeza with Cecilia Yung, art director/VP at G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Thank you Leeza for sharing your journey and art process.  Don’t be nervous about taking over as Regional Advisor at the end of July.  No one bites and I am sure you will do a good job.  Leeza was featured on Illustrator Saturday in 2010: If you would like to see more of Leeza’s work, you can visit her website at:

Leave Leeza a comment if you have a minute.  I’m sure she would like to hear from you.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Congratulations Leeza on your book and new position at NJ SCBWI! At the conference I looked through a lot of books and bought Bored Bella because the art looked so unique and interesting. I (honestly!) didn’t notice you were the illustrator until we were in the truck to leave – and I thought, of course, that girl’s art will always draw attention because it’s unique, animated, a special circle of colors, and beautiful! Can you tell I’m one of your biggest fans?!


  2. Great post! Congrats Leeza! Thank you Kathy!


  3. This was a lot of fun to read and look at! Leeza, I’ve always said you have an unbelievably distinct style and the emotion (usually humorous) comes through on every page. It’s great stuff!

    I heard the party was quite an event itself! Congrats on all of it!


  4. Kathy, what a wonderful interview!
    Leeza, thank you for sharing the process for your lovely book Dog Gone. Your work is so expresive! Thank you for sharing your road to becoming a published author-illustrator. I wish you much success and happiness!


  5. Another wonderful interview! “Dog Gone” looks like a really fun book. Great style, great work!


  6. Thanks everyone for such kind kind words – you are all too awesome. Thanks, too, to Kathy for your wondrous friendship and guidance. You rock! Enjoy your weekend all. 🙂


  7. Hooray for Leeza! She is one hard-working, talented chick that I’m *doggone* glad to know! She has put so much back into the NJ-SCBWI chapter and we’re very thankful to have her!


  8. Ah, I meant to also comment on her great advice–working beyond your comfort zone. Picture books are my comfort zone and my poor MG novel has sat for so long, untouched, out of fear. Time to EMBRACE THE FEAR!


  9. Love you, Leeza — and love Dog Gone — and loved the party — and loved this post, Kathy — and love you, too, Kathy!!! Gush, gush, gush — I just love NJSCBWI and all my lovable creative friends!


  10. I am an old college friend of Leeza’s and would dearly love to get back in touch! Please pass on my email to her and ask her to contact me! Regards Sasha Pinkard


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