Posted by: Kathy Temean | June 1, 2019

Illustrator Saturday – Maryann Cocca-Leffler

I’ve been writing and illustrating children’s books for more than 30 years and have published over 60 books. I graduated from Massachusetts College of Art with a BFA in illustration. My Italian childhood has inspired several books. The first book I wrote and illustrated was “Wednesday is Spaghetti Day”. My books “Bus Route to Boston” and “Clams All Year” are family stories which I hold dear to my heart. Recent books include: “Growing Season” and the Janine books; “Janine” and “Janine and the Field Day Finish” which were inspired by my daughter ( My most popular series are the “LET IT” Books; LET IT RAIN & LET IT SHINE, LET IT FALL & LET IT SNOW. Please keep checking my website to learn more about my books, school visits and upcoming projects. I live and work in Maine where I am working on my next new book!

my Blog:


Growing Season was illustrated traditionally; Medium;Gouache and colored pencil, black ink with a bit of collage.

Storyboard sketches. (rough layout of the book, where I break out the text and illustrations)

Sketches in the size of the book, with text in place. (approved by Art Director & Editor)

Once approved, I transfer my sketches to watercolor paper via a light table. I used Arches 140 hot press watercolor paper. I then paint with gouache, which I water down and treat like watercolor paints.
My publisher adds the text based on my sketch layout. I send the originals to my publisher. They do all the scanning. …so no- I do not use photoshop. If I make a Large mistake, I do the piece over. If it is small…like a splatter of paint, my AD takes care of it in production. I work very closely with the AD & editor as I tend to lay out the book and I am involved in design. I did hand draw the title text for Growing Season as well.

How long have you been illustrating?

Professionally- I have been illustrating for almost 38 yrs!

What and when was the first painting or illustration that you did where someone paid you for your artwork?

I signed by very first contract to illustrate a children’s book right before I graduated college. The book, Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’ written by Eileen Spinelli was published in 1982 (B&W & Pre-separated art). It had a long life. I re-illustrated the book in full color in 1992 (HarperCollins) and it was again re-published in 2015!

How did you decide to attend the Massachusetts College of Arts?

Massachusetts College of Art & Design is one of the only state Art colleges in the Country. Being a MA resident at the time, with limited funds…it seemed to be a good option.

Did the school help you find illustration work?

Not really. At the time, the “business side” of art was lacking. I did join the Graphic Artist Guild and learned about contracts and freelancing. This was before the Internet, therefore, I knocked on doors and sent mailings. I took my portfolio around Boston & NYC. Art Directors were open to seeing art and artists. I still believe in-person meetings are the best way to form relationships in publishing.

Do you feel art school influenced your illustrating style?

No. At the time “editorial” illustration was all the rage. My art did not fit that genre. Instead, I realized I needed to find buyers for my style. I started showing my art to; Text Book Publishers, Parenting Magazines, Toy companies, Greeting cards, and Children’s Book Publishing. (I did work for all these industries.)

What type of illustrating did you do right out of school?

I was freelance. I worked for anyone who would hire my art style and me.

Was Ice-Cold Birthday the first book you illustrated in 1992?

No. My very first book was Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’.

How did you get that contract with Penguin?

RE: Ice Cold Birthday, I met Penguin Editor, Jane O’Connor very early in my career at one of my NYC visits. We clicked. Jane was actually the one who encouraged me to try my hand at writing.  She saw a cat character in my portfolio and suggested I write a story about that character…which I did. It became the first book I wrote and illustrated called, Wednesday is Spaghetti Day (Scholastic 1990). Jane continued to encourage me to submit my stories to her and Ice Cold Birthday was the first book we did together. We went on to work on about 10 books together. I am very grateful to Jane and still consider her my mentor.

Did you get any help or guidance from follow writers with your first written book?

Sure. I was part of a Boston critique group. At the time, (late 80’s), we were all newbies…(and most ended up getting published.). Groups are fluid…so people grow apart or grow together. Throughout the years, I have always belonged to a critique group. It is very valuable share work with trusted like-minded peers.

How did you get the contract for your latest book Growing Season? Was this your first published book with Sterling Children’s Books?

I represent myself and have always acted as my own agent. I run my career as I started, connecting with editors, traveling to NYC. Over the years and 50+ books, I have established a network of editors. Meredith Mundy is one editor I submit my work to, so I sent her my dummy for Growing Season. Previous to Growing Season, we worked on a Christmas book together at Sterling.

(Note: Editors move around…Meredith is now at Abrams. We are currently working on a new book together, which publishes in 2020!)

How long have you been making a living from illustrating?

Over 35 yrs.

I Do youhave an agent? If so, how did you connect with them and how long have they been representing you?

I never had an agent. I started in the industry before it was a necessity. I represent myself and enjoy the chase!

Do you ever exhibit your work?

Yes. I have been included in many Children’s book exhibits over the years. Recently at the new Dr Seuss Museum.

Would you illustrate a book for an author who wants to self-publish?

No. I only work with traditional Publishers. (But I would consider illustrating my OWN self published book, though I do think it is extremely diffucult to make any money in self publishing, unless you have time to do a TON of marketing.)

Have you worked with educational publishers? Which ones?

I did a lot of work with educational publishers, though no longer. It is a good way to get published pieces.

Have you done any illustrating for children’s magazines? Which ones?

Yes- Cricket, Highlights….Early on.

Have you ever thought about illustrating a wordless picture book?

Sure…It is not easy.

What do you think is your biggest success?

My books Bus Route To Boston (Boyds Mills Press) and the JANINE books (Albert Whitman) are my biggest personal successes, as they are both based on my family and will always be close to my heart. My LET IT series form Scholastic were my biggest monetary success as they sold over 2 million copies. (Let it Snow, Let it Rain, Let it Shine, Let it Fall)

What is your favorite medium to use?

I change. It really depends on the book: I have used; gouache and color pencils, Collage, acrylics. I am currently working in black ink and watercolor.

Do you own or have you used a Graphic Drawing Tablet when illustrating?

I just bought an Ipad and did use Procreate on an upcoming board book….My first digital art.

What materials and/or tools do you use to create your work?



Do you try to spend a specific amount of time working on your craft?

I work pretty much every day. I write as well.  I just took time off from art to research and write a new nonfiction book. I am now deep into an art deadline due in September. It’s a juggle.

Do you take pictures or research a project before you start?

If needed, yes. In Growing Season I did take pictures of flowers. If I need to draw something I’m not familiar with…recently, a violin or bike…I look at pictures online.


Do you think the Internet has opened doors for you?

Not sure. I think there is TOO Much. Lots of noise. Of course, submissions (sending pdfs) and email communication with editors is a lot easier, but the social media piece is a bit overwhelming to me. Again…I thrive on making personal connections.

Do you have any career dreams that you want to fulfill?

Interesting…I’d like to slow down a bit. I have been illustrating 2 books a year for a long time, and would like to do the art for one book a year.  I have many ideas and I am writing more. I am realizing that sometimes my art may not be the best art for the book. Recently, my life has come full circle with my upcoming book; The Belonging Tree, which I wrote. This book is being illustrated by a talented new illustrator; Kristine Lombardi. (Publishes Spring 2020)  I enjoyed this collaboration.

What are you working on now?

I have been so busy. I have four books coming out;  Same Way Ben, (Albert Whitman Fall 2019), The Belonging Tree (Christy O. Books /Holt 2020),  A board book (yet unnamed) (Sourcebooks 2020) and my current unnamed Picture book with (Appleseed/Abrams Fall 2020), which I am currently working on.

Do you have any material type tips you can share with us? Example: Paint or paper that you love – the best place to buy – a new product that you’ve tried – A how to tip, etc.

My biggest advice is to experiment with different mediums.


Any words of wisdom on how to become a successful writer or illustrator?

Be true to your art and your writing. Rejection is part of the business. Many times I get 5-8 rejections before I find the right Publisher. Enjoy the ride.

Thank you Maryann for sharing your talent and expertise with us. Make sure you share you future successes with us. To see more of Maryann’s work, you can visit her at:

My Blog:

If you have a minute, please leave a comment for Maryann. I am sure she’d love to hear from you and I enjoy reading them, too.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. I have so many of your books in my classroom library! Wonderful blogpost. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Perfectly adorable. I have read some of her books and really enjoyed them. Thanks for the post.


    • Really nice interview from one of my favorite artists.


  3. What can I say, Maryann…I am such a fan of your stories…and feel blessed that I get to see some of them before the rest of the world does. You are an inspiration, a brilliant critique buddy, and such a fabulous role model for Productivity, Passion, Persistence, and Patience…the 4 P’s of Success in Book Publishing!


  4. Great interview! And I love your illustrations. Thank you for sharing your journey Maryann. I find it so encouraging to learn how other author Illustrators work. “Enjoy the chase” YES!!!!


  5. OH, Wednesday is Spaghetti Day has been a long-time favorite! We love that book! The humor and cuteness (and gigantic messes). Glad to connect. Loads of other great books! Congratulations!


  6. Lovely post Maryann. How wonderful that there are so many books in the pipeline to look forward to!


  7. Such cute illustrations! How neat you represent yourself to editors.


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