Posted by: Kathy Temean | October 14, 2019

Two Art Directors in Action: The How and Why Part 1

Two Art Directors in Action: The How and Why Part 1 by Dr. Mira Reisberg and Andrea Miller

Hi I am Dr. Mira Reisberg, fun-loving, children’s book obsessed Editor and Art Director at Clear Fork/ Spork. And I am Andrea Miller, Senior Designer and Art Director at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. We are also both published illustrators who love making art.

Mira: I’ll go first by talking about how the acquisition process works for books that I edit and art direct at Spork. I usually try and work with my own students from the Children’s Book Academy because I know they are well trained and I love them and have a sense of their abilities, aesthetics, and temperament. If I can’t find a good match there, then I’ll look elsewhere on Facebook, Pinterest, or the Internet in general.

After a manuscript is acquired either by me, or my publisher Callie Metler-Smith, I really pay attention to the tone and feel of the story to get a sense of what I think might be the best fit for it. For example, Melissa Stoller’s Scarlet‘s Magic Paintbrush has a quirky, playful feel to it, so I chose Sandie Sonke, who was perfect. Another book that I’m currently working on is Tina Shepardson‘s and Terry Sirrel’s Walkout, which is about anti-school gun violence – and even though it’s softened by being told through the point a view of a little girl who despite being told by the principal that their school would not participate, in an anti-school violence walkout organizes her younger grade into doing exactly that, it’s challenging subject matter.

Terry Sirrell – Walkout. Written by Tina Shepardson

The story focuses on the strain that puts on her friendship with her best friend Stella who is too scared to join the walkout and the steps Maddie takes to organize it. I wanted to further soften some of the heaviness of the subject matter, so I hired Terry who does very cartoony work, and he’s doing a brilliant job. Andrea how do you go about selecting an illustrator?

Andrea: So, when it comes to finding illustrators for a job, I generally run to one of a few places- my giant list of bookmarked artists, social media, agencies, or my collection of materials that I get from artists that I meet at conferences, portfolio reviews, in my mailbox, or from students like those at the Children’s Book Academy. Our process at HMH works in a way where I generally am given a manuscript from the acquiring editor and a direction that they think might work for the style of the book, which then sets my gears in motion looking for folks to pitch. If an artist has a story that they themselves want to tell, then that’s where I would pass on their dummy for an editor to acquire and we would all work together to refine the story and art. In terms of acquisition in general, though, the editor is the champion of the book who gets the concept approved in-house, and as the book’s art director, I lend my support and advice in making that book as strong as possible, especially if it falls to me to marry a story with an artist!

  1. Signing the Illustrator

Mira: After I’ve selected an illustrator, I ask them to make sketches of all the major characters showing a range of movement and different facial expressions. These are called character sketches. I also ask them to do one or 2 half or quarter size sketches showing composition with one in color to get a sense of how they’ll handle that. Sometimes there’ll be some back-and-forth to improve these and make them the best that they can be before I take them to Callie, as I really want her to be on board with this selection as well.

Heather Bell – character sketches for Mac and Cheese and the Personal Space Invader. Written by Jolene Guitérrez

I imagine your process is similar Andrea but would love to hear it.


You’re right about that! I think most art directors are focused on character first, wanting to settle on who the story is about, and then how they exist within their environment. Generally we’ll see character sketches- hopefully a full body sketch of the character and details- whether that be other poses or facial expressions. Once a design is accepted, I like to ask for a color study (if the sketches themselves didn’t already address color). I also find that it’s helpful, and perhaps wise, to iron out the style for how the artist will approach the book’s final art by seeing a single spread of final art, but this is subject to what the schedule allows. The more we can agree upon at the outset, the less surprises or unexpected changes we’ll see later.  Having a settled design is useful for us to supply to copyeditors when we want to check for consistency! There’s generally input from the editor, and the author if there is a separate one, so notes and revisions are sure to happen along the way. I’ve been known to supply my own sketches or images for inspiration in the past too when I want to point an artist down a particular path!

  1. The Contract

Mira: Callie takes care of contracts and money stuff. With Spork it’s usually a small advance with more generous royalties after the advance is paid back. Spork advances are usually paid in threes with the first third on signing the contract, the second on completion of sketches, and the final third on completion of the color art, cover and front and back matter, i.e., the book.


Ahh, contracts. This is, thankfully, out of my hands, and is entirely handled by our brilliant Editorial and Contracts staff at HMH. There are, in my experience, lots of different pay schedules and styles of copyright agreements- many of which Mira just detailed- so just be sure you know which rights you’re signing over and that you’re being compensated fairly for them!  This is something we talk about in our upcoming interactive e-course, the Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books, in the business section.

  1. First Illustrating Steps

Mira: this is where the fun begins. First off, the illustrator makes thumbnails, which are very small sketches of the entire book to get a sense of composition, flow, variety, pacing and page turns plus how synchronous or congruent the images are with the story. These can be really rough or more refined depending on the illustrator’s preference. For example, Saki Tanaka’s thumbnails for author Kourtney LaFavre’s If Sun Could Talk, were incredibly tight and quite dazzling while Adriana Hernadez Bergstrom’s thumbnails for Boomer At Your Service were much looser, tightening up as she went along. There’s usually a little back-and-forth where I might re-draw some of the thumbnails to show how scale can make it so much better or just show variety or I might just make some verbal or written suggestions. Usually I make a video so I can show as well as tell exactly what I mean. The vast majority of illustrators that I’ve worked with have had beautiful open minds and hearts understanding that we both want the same thing, which is to make the book as beautiful, understandable, and magical as possible. Andrea I’d love to hear about your first steps after the signing process.

Saki Tanaka – If Sun Could Speak. Written by Kourtney LaFavre.


Adriana Hernandez Bergstrom – Boomer At Your Service. written by Vanessa Keel.

Andrea: Thumbnails are a bit more rare for me; on the whole, I generally see sketches first, though I encourage artists to do thumbnails as they prepare for the sketching of the book. Seeing the structure of a composition at a fraction of the size of the final page can REALLY show you if something is working or not, and well before you’ve committed too much time to something that might not be a good choice for the book! That said, I’ve been working MUCH MORE on graphic novels lately, and we love thumbnails there in instances where the author’s script isn’t super specific about how a page ought to be laid out. The name of the game, in either case, is pagination and composition- making sure that the flow of the text and images are working together to push the reader through the book comfortably.

  1. Sketches

Mira: Next up are the full or half size sketches. This is where the revised thumbnails are enlarged and refined and the text is added. It’s also where we get a much clearer look at how the book is going to look. Often we see where cool details can be added, whether the characters and environment are consistent, and where the illustrators personal voice can shine by adding things that aren’t necessarily in the text to extend the story and make it even more magical. We look for emotion in the spreads (facing pages) and the element of surprise to make it more engaging. For example, in Sherry Howard‘s manuscript for Rock and Roll Woods Anika A. Wolf added some absolutely lovely details that made it even more fun.

Anika A. Wolff – Rock and Roll Woods. Written by Sherry Howard.

At this point the illustrator or I start thinking about font choices that are very legible and suit the feel of the story. Anika did some wonderful hand lettering for this book. I’m ok with type and often like what the illustrator has chosen, but Andrea is brilliant with it. She also does hand lettering so I’d like to ask her to talk about the typographic process.

Stay tuned for more in Part Two.

Bios: Mira Reisberg and Andrea Miller are two art directors who love stories, art making, nurturing others in their careers, and having fun. They live on opposite sides of the United States with their respective partners and cats. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, once a year they get together to do something wonderful – training very beginning to award-winning illustrators how to make marketable contemporary art and children’s book illustrations for kids. So far, they’ve been very successful. Their 2019 course, the Craft and Business of Illustrating Children’s Books (including board books, picture books, chapter books, illustrated middle grade novels, and graphic novels) starts November 4 for five delicious mentored weeks, plus an extra instant access bonus week. They would love for you to join them: All of the illustrators from Mira’s posts are former illustration students who she has had the honor of continuing to work with. Currently there’s a $100.00 discount (the discounted course cost for a critique with Mira or Andrea) with this case sensitive code 2019ArLove and scholarships are available here:


Talk tomorrow,



  1. Great and well needed subject matters! Excellent! Best regards!👍❤❤❤❤❤


  2. Fascinating! I love seeing the examples! Well done. 🙂


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