Maria van Lieshout
Maria was born in Holland, where she lived until she attended George Washington University studying Communications Design. Before becoming a children’s book author and illustrator full-time, Maria worked as a graphic designer for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and then doing marketing and branding for Coca Cola, first in Holland and then at Headquarters in Atlanta where she finally won the green card lottery! She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. She has written and illustrated twelve children’s books to date, including Hopper and Wilson, Bloom!, and Flight 1-2-3 and has also illustrated several more!
Talk to us about how you went about the process of transitioning to full-time children’s book work and how you kept yourself motivated and progressing through initial failure.
Children’s books are very hard to break into. Publishers literally receive thousands of submissions every week and only a few get published. It’s a little like winning the lottery. My early stories were successful in that they helped me become a better writer and illustrator (and in hindsight, I’m very happy they were never published!). But it took many revisions to arrive at a story that was accepted for publication. What kept me motivated was my love of writing and drawing. I knew that’s what I wanted to do more than anything, and was willing to stick with it even if publishers weren’t ready to give me a contract yet.
I was also fortunate in that there were quite a few very folks along the way who cheered me on. I joined a critique group with other picture book creators who would encourage me after I received a rejection. And there were editors at large publishers who urged me to keep revising and writing. Some of them never published any of my work but were a positive force early in my career.
I have always loved children’s picture books. I guess I never really outgrew them! Even when I had a busy job, I would lose myself reading picture books in my local indie bookstore. The reason I decided to accept a job with a large corporation was driven by my desire to live in America. It was the only way I was able to live and work in the US. So once my green card came through, I was truly able to follow my heart’s desire to become an illustrator of kids books full-time!
My first published book in the US was a little book about a pig who falls in love with a butterfly. It was quite simple. I had just found my agent, Steven Malk of Writer’s House, and he loved the story so much he sent it to his client Lane Smith and his wife Molly Leach. Molly is a super-talented book designer who agreed to design the book for me. The phone call I received from my agent Steve about their response to my work is still the best moment of my publishing career. The book “Stinky Cheese Man”, illustrated by Lane Smith and designed by Molly Leach had been instrumental in my decision to leave the corporate world. To get this news was affirmation that I had made the right decision.
This is a tough question. I think the most important thing is to never forget that we are super lucky that we get to do what we love every day, and to keep doing it for the love of the craft. It’s easy to get distracted by trends in the industry, or to get tempted to try a certain style or thing because it appears to be selling. Ultimately, the books that are timeless and innovative were written and illustrated from someone’s heart, not from a temporary fad.
As a visual person, the idea usually comes to me in images. So I’ll “see” what I want the characters to look like, what style/medium the story needs to be drawn in, etc. I do force myself to sit at my computer and type into a Word doc, because I do like for the story to hold up on its own, but when I feel the story is mostly there, I prefer to start planning out a dummy by sketching each spread, adding text, and literally creating a mini version of the book that I can flip through to see if the page turns are working. Once I’m happy with the dummy, I create a more final version of the art, which may still change once an editor gets hold of it!
It seems my favorite part is always whatever I’m doing right now. I love the idea phase, when anything is still possible and the story can still take off in a completely different direction, but once the parameters are set, I love the meditate flow I get into when working on the final art.
They were actually my agent’s idea! I had a little one at home at that time he pitched his idea, so all the milestones were still fresh in my memory, and Steve felt that it might be a good idea to create a series of books tackling these issues.
I think so. I read lots of Dutch picture books. Whenever I go back, I spend time in bookshops to see what’s new. Holland actually has a very strong and creative picture book market. I’m a big fan of minimalism and try to use lots of white space in my art, which I believe might be a Northern European affliction, LOL.
I love this question! Reading is so important! First, let your kids read whatever they want! If they like comics, give them comics! My son still loves to read picture books at 9 years old, and we have a ton of those, so that’s great. He’s also crazy about sports, so he reads lots of non-fiction books about sports. I will never try to get him to read something because I believe it’s what he should be reading. I’m just glad he reads! Anything…
When my son was born, my work changed. I saw the world through his eyes, and noticed how he responded to things. Backseat ABSee was a direct result of my noticing that Max loved traffic signs: the simple shapes and bright colors. Now that he is a little older, I’m excited again about writing picture books that are narrative-based instead of concept-based.
My husband has always been my biggest cheer leader. He encouraged me to quit my job and pursue children’s books, so I literally couldn’t have done this without him!
Ohhh, that’s tough. I love many books for various reasons. I love BLOOM! And PEEP! because they were the first that I published (and because of the Molly Leach/Lane Smith connection), I love Hopper and Wilson, because I like the characters so much (and it was translated into my native Dutch). I love Backseat ABSee because it has connected with the design community (quite a few art museums have it in their gift shops, and legendary designer Seymour Chwast emailed me about it). But I also love the Big Kid Power books, since Chronicle has done such a great job with the bright, fluorescent colors.
There are quite a few writers I would love to collaborate with… it would be a dream to bring words by Mac Barnett or Philip Stead to life.