Lea Lyon is one of the most interesting people that I know. I met her a few years ago at a conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an organization for professionals and aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books. For several years now, Lea has been organizing Illustrators Day once a year in San Francisco, where professional and aspiring illustrators can get together to socialize and show their art and to listen to publishers, editors and award-winning children’s book illustrators. Lea has been interested in art since she was a child, learning to paint in oil when she was 11 years old. After raising a family, running a small doll and puppet business, and working in the corporate world, Lea concentrated on her life long dream of becoming a children’s book illustrator. She is a portrait painter, painting teacher, and award winning children’s book illustrator, with her illustration portfolios won awards twice at SCBWI National Conferences. Among her illustrated books are The Miracle Jar by Audrey Penn, Keep Your Ear On The Ball by Genevieve Petrillo, Playing War by Kathy Beckwith, Say Something by Peggy Moss, and Operation Marriage by Cynthia Chin-Lee.
In your website, you mention that you took your earliest art lessons from a kindly grey haired lady who converted her garage into an art studio. Tell us about that experience. Did that lead you to want to become an artist?
I remember Mrs. Abby so fondly and learned so much. I took her class from age 10– 13. It was a real studio and we were real artists. And, fortunately, my mother kept all of the paintings I did those years in a big portfolio that I now have. We went from painting like children with tempera paints to painting like artists in oils (well, still like children, but we felt like artists.) I would not be an artist today without these classes because I found school art classes discouraging and uninspiring.
Early in your adulthood, you ran a doll and puppet shop. How was that experience? Did that help you with imagining scenes for your illustrations?
I ran a cottage industry manufacturing dolls and puppets which I sold through retail gift shops. I first created these under the name “Lea’s Loveables” and, later, I produced Chef display dolls and soft-sculpture mannequins under the company name “Mannekids.” It started when I made a Muppet like puppet from a magazine article for my daughter. For some reason I took it to a store to see if they would be interested in selling them. This was before Sesame Street had licensed its characters and created their own puppets for sale. And, before I knew about copyright issues. The store owner asked if I could make an Oscar the Grouch puppet, so I went home and designed one. I still remember waiting with my daughter, who was three at the time, for Sesame Street to come on that day so we could make sure what Oscar looked like. I bought some fake fur and created a monster puppet. It wasn’t green and didn’t really look like Oscar, but was a rather elegant furry monster with a leather mouth. I sold many through stores for several years. Then I made fabric puppets and then dolls. The dolls were customized to match a specific person, with their names appliquéd onto the T shirts and the color of hair and eyes that were ordered.
You spent a significant amount of time in the corporate world. What led you to give that up and pursue your dream of being a children’s book illustrator?
I went back to school some years after college and graduated with an MBA. Then, while working in the corporate world as a high tech product manager, I saw a class on illustrating children’s books in the UC Berkeley Extension catalog. This reminded me of my childhood dream and I decided to take the class. I started pursuing this career while still working in business, joined SCBWI, took several more classes and learned as much as I could about the field of illustrating children’s books. Then in 2001, when the tech bubble burst, I was laid off from a start up and, after an unfruitful job search for a while, decided to take a break from looking for a job to spend more time on my new pursuit of illustrating children’s books. Within a short time I got my first picture book contract and, almost simultaneously, an illustrator rep. I have not gone back to the corporate world since.
You have a wonderful loose watercolor style. Who are your artistic influences? Are there any artists or illustrators that you especially draw influence from?
I love the Impressionists and such artists as Marc Chagall and Gauguin. As an illustrator, I have been drawn to the work of E.B. Lewis and Ted Lewin, who paint realistic paintings but with a rather loose watercolor style. I wanted to learn more about these artists, so invited each of them to speak at SCBWI conferences. I also arranged for Mr. Lewis to teach several watercolor workshops in the San Francisco area. I have learned so very much from him, including finding my own voice in my work.
Describe to the readers how you go about doing an illustration. What are the steps that you usually take?
I like to paint from real people and animals. My models are mostly children, who act out scenes for me while I take many digital photos. From these I do drawings and put together compositions. Then I transfer the drawings to watercolor paper and paint the images. Lately I have been scanning my drawings into Photo Shop and use that to perfect the composition and
layout of the painting. But I always paint with a real brush and real paint.
One of the things that I admire about the books that you have illustrated is the social conscience in many of your books. “Keep Your Ear On the Ball” for instance, teaches about
blind children being incorporated to play with other children. “Playing War” teaches children about the human impact of war. “Operation Marriage” deals with gay marriage from the perspective of children. “Say Something” deals with the issue of bullying. Do you seek out illustration assignments that touch upon important social issues? How do you judge what
manuscripts to accept and what manuscripts to pass?
I was extremely fortunate to be hired by a small publisher in Maine called Tilbury House, which only does social issue children’s books. The first one I illustrated for them was “Say Something,” which, I am happy to say, has sold very well and won several awards. This was the first book I ever illustrated so I was off to a good start. I did two more books for them, “Playing War” and “Keep Your Ear on the Ball.” Last year a wonderful organization called Reach and Teach, “a peace and social justice learning company,” contacted me to illustrate “Operation Marriage.” They knew me from “Playing War,” and were thrilled when I agreed to illustrate their book. And I was thrilled that they wanted me too.
Is there a particular social issue that you feel very strongly about?
I am interested in all sorts of social issues and liberal causes. I purposely put children of various races and ethnicities in my illustrations, whenever possible, and living in the Bay Area I have no shortage of models. I am currently working on illustrating and co-writing a book about the Holocaust. This book is for fifth grade and up and has been an incredible experience. We have an agent who is submitting the project to publishers now.
Of the books that you’ve done so far, which book has been the favorite of yours to illustrate? Why is that one your favorite?
I’m not sure I have a favorite. For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of illustrating books is the interaction with the children when we are doing our “photo shoot.” For two of the books I used entire classrooms full of children at schools, for the others a small group of kids. They so enjoy being part of a book and I so enjoy working and playing with them. So each book has had its own charm as I worked with these different aged kids and their families.
Your website states that you do school visits. How has it been to interact with the children who have read your books?
It is delightful. I just wish I had more school visit gigs. I am rather flexible, and can modify my presentation about how picture books are made to be appropriate for each grade level, and for the specific group of kids. Sometimes the children’s personalities take a visit into a different direction than planned, and we go there if I feel it will be interesting. I have done all day school visits where I paint a picture throughout the day, while answering the questions from the children, and by the end of the day it is finished and I give it to the school for their library. The kids seem to love this. Once I was talking to a third grade class. I read “Say Something” to them, though they had heard it several times before. At the end of the book the protagonist, having realized that it is not enough just not to be a bully, sits next to a girl on the bus who always sits alone. One of the kids in the class said “But what about the other kids she saw being teased?” I said “It’s only one morning. Give her some time.” Another boy said. “I know, that can be your next book. You can call it ‘Say Something Else.’
As a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, you have met Caldecott award winning illustrators and esteemed editors and writers. You’ve also organized the Illustrators Day in San Francisco for the past couple of years. What has your experience been like with SCBWI? What advice would you give to aspiring children’s book illustrators?
I have learned so very much through SCBWI workshops and conferences. Being involved with the organization as the Illustrator Coordinator has allowed me to personally meet award winning and inspiring authors and illustrators and editors and agents. My advice to aspiring children’s book illustrators, and authors, is to join SCBWI and go to regional, local events such as the Illustrator Day this September 29 (register at www.scbwisf.org. As illustrators you can submit samples to art directors without an agent, but many publishers will not accept manuscripts without an agent – unless you attend an SCBWI conference where they are speaking. Then you get a window of opportunity to send them your work without an agent.
I would advise illustrators to get involved in SCBWI as a volunteer, as I did. You meet so many wonderful people and feel a part of a great organization and industry. Painting and writing can be lonely, and this way you are not alone.
With the coming of Kindle and the E-reader, the publishing world is going through some momentous changes. Borders just went out of business and Barnes and Noble is struggling to survive. More and more books are coming out as apps for ipads and other such devices. What do you see as the future of children’s books? How will this affect illustrators and writers?
I have heard numerous talks about this subject and I find that I’m not that worried. I don’t think the hard cover book is going away any time soon. Just as the advent of television made people worry about the fate of the movie industry, people are now concerned that books will go away. I’ve heard some good ideas about how the new electronic media can enhance the reading experience, rather than substitute one medium for another. Of course, I am not an expert, by any means, but I feel excited about all the changes.
Are you working on any painting or illustration project right now?
As I mentioned, I am working on this Holocaust book for which I am trying to find a publisher. I am also writing and illustrating several picture books which need a home. For the past year I’ve been going back and forth from WWII to giraffes. That helps keep me sane.
And, I’m painting away to improve my craft and explore.
Here are more interviews that I did for Everyday Citizen
An Interview With Democrat Nancy Hirstein Smith
An Interview With Cartoonist Ann Cleaves
An Interview With Muslim American Activist Zahra Billoo
An Interview With Peace Activist and Lay Pastor Jim Ramelis
An Interview With Cartoonist Monte Wolverton
An Interview With Cartoonist Adam Zyglis
An Interview With Reverand Gerald Britt
An Interview With Cartoonist Tjeerd Royaards
An Interview With Poet, Activist, and Teacher Diane Wahto
An Interview With Cartoonist Jesse Springer
An Interview With Cartoonist Steve Greenberg
An Interview With Eric Wilks
An Interview With Cartoonist Greg Beda
An Interview With Poet Melissa Tuckey
An Interview With Cartoonist Andy Singer
An Interview With Author Robert Balmanno
An Interview With Cartoonist J.P. Jasper
An Interview With Cartoonist David Cohen
An Interview that Everyday blogger Diane Wahto kindly did of me
Youtube videos of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators