As with many creative industries, getting started in illustrating can be tough. Not all publishers are willing to put time and resources into nurturing and commissioning new talent.
When our CEO Jennie Cashman Wilson began to develop her new book Becoming Brave, her vision was to work with an emerging illustrator. Her publisher, Little Tiger, is committed to creating books which are inclusive and representative, and commissioned first time book illustrator, Tomekah George.
We caught up with Little Tiger’s Art Director Emma Jennings, and editors Isabel Otter and Nicola Edwards to chat about the need to give talented young people from all backgrounds access to careers in the creative industries.
Q: Can you tell us about the mentoring and creative process of working with Tomekah?
Emma: Our main goal when we started this book was not to rush it and to make sure that we were doing this beautiful story justice. As it was Tomekah’s first picture book, it was really important to us to take the time to support her artwork style and development alongside the growth of the narrative. Illustrating a deeply personal and emotional true story could seem intimidating to a lot of people, but Tomekah jumped straight in and took everything in her stride with a maturity and professionalism as if this was her tenth book, not her first.
A lot of the process was very similar to many other picture books. We began with a few rounds of roughs to help crack the layouts so that they provided a variety of perspectives and enabled the story to work as hard as it could. The scene that we took the most time over was the one in which we learn that Abram has passed away. Tomekah and I knew this was an integral part of the book, and we were very aware that it would need to be rendered with the utmost sensitivity and delicacy. What she achieved is one of the most beautiful illustrations of loss I’ve ever seen. We regularly chatted through the book together and discussed things over video call. When illustrators feel comfortable to do so, I love to talk things through in person as it helps to foster a feeling of trust and can make it easier to share ideas. Tomekah and I had a very useful call with Jennie early on too, where she regaled us with some lovely stories about her childhood and how she met Abram.
Throughout the process, there was great communication, collaboration and sharing of ideas between me, Tomekah, Jennie and the editors, Nikki and Isabel. We all had a lot of respect and trust for each other, which I think shines through in the final version of the book. I hope the reader can sense the care and thought that Tomekah, Jennie and the Little Tiger team put into Becoming Brave at every stage. It was such a wonderful story to be a part of and Tomekah amazed me with her incredibly powerful and emotive artwork. She was a true joy to work with and I know that this is just the beginning of a brilliant illustration career.
Q: Why was it important to Little Tiger to develop this book with an ‘unknown’ illustrator and an illustrator from a global majority background?
Emma: The Abram Wilson charity was set up to support minoritised young talent in accessing the music industry, and it felt right to look specifically for an illustrator from a global majority background for Becoming Brave. Abram is such an important character in the story, and we wanted to find someone who would be able to capture his energy and musical spirit. We loved how dynamic and emotive Tomekah’s portfolio was; her style felt so fresh and unique. Tomekah’s illustrations have a musicality which we knew would be perfect for this story and really make it stand out. We wanted the story to have a strong visual identity and knew that the illustration style would be key to creating this. The first scene that Tomekah created in colour was the spread of Abram playing the trumpet on stage. It completely blew us away – the movement and joy she captures transports the reader right there to that moment with Abram. Tomekah’s work had been mainly focused on editorial projects before Becoming Brave, so we were delighted to discover that she was keen to work on a book with us! It’s a privilege to be the publishers of her debut children’s book and we look forward to watching her star continue to rise.
Q: What needs to change in the publishing industry to ensure that authors and illustrators from a global majority background are represented in a sustainable way?
Isabel: In order to make lasting and meaningful change, there is a need for much greater support and investment in grassroots-level action from publishers. There are many different ways to do this. Some creatives from global majority backgrounds may struggle to find their way to publishers through traditional avenues such as agents, so running call-outs for new voices can be a good way to allow greater access. Publishers can work with schools and run workshops and sessions on writing, illustrating and the wider book industry, with the aim of empowering young people to consider a career in a creative industry. There are brilliant non-profits, such as Pop-Up Projects, who need the support of publishers in order to run their workshops and courses. Pop-Up are currently pioneering a two-year programme for emerging children’s book illustrators from underrepresented backgrounds. This programme is supported and delivered by 25 publishing houses and universities.
Q: The Abram Wilson charity is all about inspiring young people to recognise and fulfil their creative potential. What advice would you give teenagers who would like to build a creative career in publishing?
Nicola: My biggest piece of advice would be to go to bookshops, discover what you like and see who’s publishing those books. Follow the authors and illustrators you admire on social media, join the Society of Young Publishers, immerse yourself in the book world in whatever way you can. When I’m looking at applications for jobs in our creative studio, the applicants who show a genuine passion for the kind of books we do are the ones who really stand out. I would encourage all young creatives to ask themselves where they want to be and what perspective they can offer there that is fresh and different. What’s the story you can tell, whether with words or with art, that no one else can?
You can also read all about Tomekah George’s experience of working with Little Tiger on her first book commission in our recent blog.