I’m delighted to introduce Sylvia L. Walker on the blog today. Sylvia is the kind of person who shows up and speaks up, if you know what I mean. She’s always putting in the work. We’re grateful when she shares her insights during workshops. As you’re about to find out, she’s speaking from years of experience.
Q: What is your background? Your profession?
A: A BFA in Illustration from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles—now it’s California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). Sadly, my alma mater is no more. Fashion Illustration was my first job (department stores, boutiques and designers.) Realizing I had a talent for drawing children, I got a job drawing for Simplicity and McCall’s pattern companies. While working for these companies, I had to learn to draw different ages of children and babies. A four-year-old and a six-year-old could not look the same. A teen was different from a pre-teen. If four kids were on a page, only one could be a person of color, so my illustration pages always featured diverse children.
Q: What motivated you to start writing and illustrating picture books?
A: When my children were small, I couldn’t find picture books with images that looked like them, so I made books about them. I illustrated their activities from morning until they went to bed at night. (Hmmmm, that was my first dummy.) My son took his to school. The teachers kept it and passed it around from class to class. I finally had to go the school and retrieve it. Actually that was my first school visit because I ended up reading it to his class and answering questions.
Q: How long have you been illustrating?
A: At least twenty-five years. My son and daughter still have their personal books. Now my grandkids read them.
Q: Have there been any writing or illustrating communities (or people angels) who’ve helped you along your path?
A: When I lived in Philadelphia, I visited a local library (before Internet) to find out if there were any books on children’s picture book illustration. The librarian suggested a SCBWI book. The New York conference was coming up, so I registered and updated my portfolio, including my son and daughter’s personal picture books. Then I took the train to NY. That’s where I found my first agent. Sadly, she’s no longer in the business. An art rep who found me at an exhibit loved my work. He showed my portfolio to various companies to license my work (greeting cards, tapestries, plates, cups, bookmarks, and magnets), and it took off. Another artist I met at a gallery showing suggested Dover Publications, which led to paper doll mini books and a few coloring books.
Q: How many books have you illustrated? Could you tell us about them?
A: Fifteen picture books, eight coloring books and six paper doll books.
The first book I illustrated was an early reader for Scholastic, WE PLAY ON A RAINY DAY. It was a delight to illustrate because there was only two or three words on a page. The art director let me use my imagination with the text. Scholastic also had me illustrate AMAZING GRACE and THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE. Western Publishing Golden Books published NO DIAPERS FOR BABY and BABY’S BEDTIME. Then I illustrated PRETTY BALLERINA for Penguin Random House and LAND OF THE FOUR WINDS for Just Us Books.
Q: That’s a lot of books! When and why did you take Arree Chung’s Making Picture Book Stories and Dummies?
A: I met Arree at the 2017 SCBWI LA Conference. I was at the illustrators social. We were all standing around drinking wine, and a fellow attendee introduced us. Right away he told me about Storyteller Academy. He was so kind and welcoming. It sounded like something I’d like to try.
Q: How did taking Arree’s class change the way you approach picture books?
A: Wow! Where do I begin? Introduction of the character. What’s the character’s problem? How does it relate to kids? Then there’s the escalating incident, the page turns, and the story arc. Does the character solve the problem? Writing a manuscript is an amazing, exhausting, challenging adventure. I definitely have a newfound respect for picture book authors! I’ve learned so much, and it’s super helpful to be on this adventure with other creatives who are going through the same experience.
Q: I’M A BIG SISTER NOW was recently named as a finalist for an award. Could you tell us about the award and why you think the book was selected?
A: Yes, The IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) presents The Benjamin Franklin Award for excellence in picture books to small independent book publishers. I believe it was selected because it’s a story that all children can identify with, whether or not they have siblings. It’s a universal human experience, and of course the illustrations highlight that.
Q: Do you have any advice that might help our blog readers find satisfaction or joy in writing picture books?
A: Yes, take a chance and join a writing course. Storyteller Academy is one of the best choices I’ve made so far, except for meeting my new husband of course. Ha Ha!
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Submitting, writing and illustrating more books. I also want to return to painting with acrylics on canvas.
Q: Where can we find you on the Internet?
One important note I want to add:
The reason I am an illustrator is because of my mom, who was an amazing artist. One of my earliest memories is of her spreading huge sheets of white paper, pencils, crayons, and colored chalk on the kitchen floor and letting me have at it. She saw my drawing talent at an early age, and she encouraged me to have fun with it.
She didn’t get the chance to continue her art education. After graduating high school, she won a scholarship to attend an art institute. On the first day of school, she was turned away because, “We don’t accept Negroes.” Hurt and disappointed, she continued to paint on her own. While raising four children, she took art classes at a local community college. In her seventies, she continued her art and exhibited in local art festivals and galleries until the age of ninety-six.
While I was a student at Chouinard, I asked one of my fashion illustration instructors if it would be okay for her to sit in on a class for the day. Her reply was “of course.” It turned out she was able to participate in my class for a week. One of my fondest memories is my Mom at her easel beside me finally getting an opportunity showcase her talent at an art institute.
Thank you for sharing that, Sylvia!
We're going to give away a copy of Sylvia's I'M A BIG SISTER NOW. This book giveaway is open to international participants. To enter, just comment on this post. For additional entries, you can share the post on social media and post a link to where you’ve shared in the comments (preferably as a comment to your original comment so that all of your entries are grouped together).
I’ll close the contest at midnight PST on April 10 and announce a winner in the comments on April 11. Thank you for reading and sharing!