Meet Rising Star
Illustrator Melquea Smith!
Welcome, Melquea! Thanks for joining me for the Rising Stars in KidLit Series and sharing your story. I can’t wait to hear more about your work, your inspiration, and look at your gorgeously vibrant art! AD: Let’s start with a speed round…
- Top three favorite children’s books of all time? Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler, Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, and Thingumajig Book of Manners by Irene and Dick Keller
- Coffee, tea (or neither)? I love the taste of coffee, but tea is where it’s at!
- Where is your safe place? Anywhere if I’m cuddling with my partner and my two cats, Kilala and Bumblebee. But more specifically, in our cozy living room during a nighttime snowstorm with a hot cup of cocoa enveloping our fingers with warmth.
- Dogs, cats, (or neither)? Cats 100%.
- Early bird or night owl? Early Bird! My energy peaks in the morning, even though I’m a grumpy waker most of the time. I usually get what’s most important or least anticipated done first thing. But there have been late nights where I’m brewing up business ideas past 4 A.M.
- Three words to describe what it takes to make it in the kidlit world…Meticulous, innovative, and zealous.
AD: I love your three words-especially zealous! You’ve got to have that energy and enthusiasm to continue chasing the dream! Okay, now down to the serious stuff….please dish us the dirt on who you are and your journey into the fabulous world of children’s books.
MS: I am a quirky, Black, multi-award-winning, published picture book illustrator with an obsession with color, whimsy, and strong storytelling. I am a Black Creators in KidLit member, a SCBWI member, and I have been a paid illustrator for over a decade. I’m looking for agent representation and I’m available for work 😉 When I was a kid, I would watch cartoons, movies, and play video games to escape to otherworldly places. I would don ears and a tail and run on all fours with my cat Princess – who taught me all about sneaking into the kitchen undetected. I had so many influences on my life and art growing up. Because of that, I still enjoy the latest children’s shows and read picture books for endless inspiration!
AD: Did you always know you wanted to be an illustrator? Have you explored other paths or had/have other jobs?
MS: I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I’ve explored other paths such as graphic design, customer service, food service, and I currently work as a Data Specialist. However, making an abundant living off of my artwork has and will always be my calling.
AD: What topics or themes do you tend to focus on in your art? Favorite genres and/or materials/techniques?
MS: Dragons, mythological creatures, and anthropomorphic animals are my peanut-butter and JAM! I work in acrylic, watercolor, and digital paint. For picture books I work in digital media. In the future, I would love to experiment with watercolor.
AD: Yes! I love the unusual and unique worlds and characters you build. Inside your art would be a fun place to be 🙂
AD: Breaking into the publishing industry is not easy! What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far? What have you done to persevere?
MS: The biggest challenge in any creative industry is getting work and having your work seen. To combat that, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities! I “leave crumbs” for people to find me and my work. I’m doing that by competing in competitions, adding valuable resources in groups I’m a part of, working with organizations like Room to Read, studying SEO and marketing, participating in projects, and partnering with amazing interviewers such as yourself!
AD: Awww, thanks, Melquea! Ecstatic to partner with you 🙂 Sounds like you’ve been quite busy! I love all your clever and creative food references by the way-peanut butter and JAM and leaving crumbs. Now I’m hungry, haha!
AD: As creators (and humans), we tend to focus on the flaws of our creations or areas for improvement. This helps us grow and develop, but we need not forget the many things we are doing well. With this in mind, what has been your biggest accomplishment or something you are most proud of thus far on your illustration journey?
MS: I’ve had access to a lot of people in the industry. I’ve connected with fellow illustrators, editors and art directors. Many of them I met through Justin Colon’s PBChat and Black Creators in KidLit. I also illustrated my first picture book!
“Two Homes in Omar’s Heart” – available to read for free here.
AD: Two Homes in Omar’s Heart is such a beautiful and necessary read! It’s amazing you were able to partner with Room to Read for such a special project. Congrats! Connecting with others is huge and helps us stay motivated and enthusiastic when things get tough. We’ve said it before on here but it can’t be said enough…the Kidlit community ROCKS!
AD: In a similar vein, what do you feel are your strengths as an illustrator? What makes your art unique to you?
MS: I think outside the box and I’m very easy to work with. I’ve been called “diplomatic” many times by an art director I’ve worked with! I analyze situations and figure out how to succeed using creative tactics. For example, publishing is a very traditional and risk-averse industry. I’ll often take what other industries are doing, such as Animation, Marketing, and Licencing, and weave that into my publishing career to make something uniquely Melquea.
AD: What inspires your work?
MS: Gosh, so much! From anime, to videogames, to Chillhop music to experiencing life. I also take inspiration from random things like patterns on a marble floor, shapes of clouds, or shades of shadows. I notice how sunsets change colors every evening, to how on rare occasions, snowy days are sepia-toned. Nothing is off limits. Inspiration is everywhere!
AD: Tell us about your creative process and what you do to keep ideas flowing or what you do when feeling stuck?
MS: My creative process flows and evolves as I learn and grow. Each project has distinct challenges that would need to be approached accordingly. For example, when I illustrated a picture book in a month. That… was intense! With illustration ideas, I document them in an idea journal. I shared a sneak peek on how I create illustration ideas on my Youtube channel here.
AD: A picture book in a month!! That’s crazy! Kudos to your for getting it done on such a tight deadline. You must work well under pressure 🙂 How fun that you keep an idea journal and share on your YouTube. I think it’s important for people to see the art-making process and idea building phase. Thanks for sharing some of that process with us below. So cool!
AD: What sorts of things have been most integral in your growth as an illustrator?
MS: Nurturing communities like #BlackCreatorsinKidLit and the Oatley Academy mentorship has been invaluable for my growth. I study with Chris Oatley. With his mentoring, his friendship, and my other coursemate’s support, my skills have been on a steep incline and it’s not stopping any time soon.
AD: What advice do you have for fellow kidlit creatives?
MS: I don’t like the “just be yourself” advice because it’s not easy “just being yourself.” But, I know that if you dig deep, you’ll find there’s something about your background, your interests, your personality and so much more that makes you unique, and therefore, marketable. If you don’t know, ask a friend! We all have blindspots, and good friends know where they are!
AD: Yes! Recognizing our uniqueness and knowing our why is always something to reflect on. Thanks for the wise words, Melquea.
AD: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
MS: If you’re interested in working with me: https://www.prettykittypaintings.com/hire-me
If you’d like to keep in touch, please join my mailing list! I share quarterly behind-the-scenes processes of my art and projects. My primary dedication is to my tribe via email than on social media. It’s a pretty intimate and chill space! Make sure to bring your favorite beverage. ☕