Children's Book Illustration MA
2 December 2019
I’ve always loved to draw and paint and tell stories. By my early twenties, while finishing my BFA in communication design in North Texas, I knew illustration was what I really wanted to do and that it was children’s books that excited me most.
I started spending my time at book stores, reading and analysing picture books. My next big step was joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) to learn about the business.
Later, I earned Master of Fine Arts degrees in illustration from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and writing for children from Vermont College of Fine Art. I’ve worked as an illustrator, author and designer, and taught all three subjects at Master’s level, so I approach children’s books from a holistic perspective. My time volunteering at SCBWI gave me an added insight into the publishing world and helped build connections with professionals. I discovered how important community is to me and how rewarding it is to support others on their creative journeys.
My first published picture book (Little Lions, Bull Baiters & Hunting Hounds: A History of Dog Breeds, published by Tundra Books) is still my favourite and feels like my biggest triumph. It took five years from the first dummy book to finding an agent, but I refused to give up because I believed so strongly in the project.
Little Lions focuses on the connection between why a dog breed was created and the features children can see in the breed as a pet today. I would have loved it as a kid. I wrote, illustrated and designed the book, in collaboration with my husband. We got approval for the sketches when my daughter was born, so we spent the first three months of her life completing over 100 illustrations—forever linking the book with this magical time in our lives. Little Lions won several awards, including an SCBWI Nonfiction Research Grant and ForeWord Magazine’s Juvenile Nonfiction Book of the Year, and was a CCBC Choice (Cooperative Children's Book Center) recommended book. It was endorsed in several books about children’s literature, blogged about by kids and we were asked to appear (with our dogs) on television to talk about it.
My family and I moved to the UK from Texas so I could lead the MA here. There are very few courses specifically devoted to Children’s Book Illustration so the opportunity to immerse myself in the subject, alongside students and teachers who are equally as passionate about it, was one I couldn’t pass up. Getting to live in Cambridge with its amazing history and explore Europe with my family was the icing on the cake.
It often takes quite a while to find the stories that you want to tell and the best way to tell them. Students need to understand that a lot of creative input is important in this process, not just looking at the work of other illustrators, but also finding inspiration from fine art, sculpture, photography, design, typography. And looking outside of the visual arts: travelling and learning about other cultures, listening to music, taking a cooking class - life experiences feed your imagination. It’s the building of new connections between life and art that make children’s books truly innovative. Equally as important to becoming a children’s book illustrator is tenacity. Failure, setbacks, and criticism are part of the job description. Despite that, you’ve got to be able to move forward and keep creating.
Images on this page show details of Shelley's work in progress on her book Little Lions - featuring a page on the Sennenhund and a sketch for the Irish Wolfhound.
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