Each year I kick off the first day of my summer camp letting the children explore different picture book formats—the traditional hardcover, the less expensive paperback, sturdy board books, and a wide variety of novelty books. Books with flaps, tabs, die-cuts, pop-ups, wheels, textures, sound effects, scratch-n-sniff, acetate layers, rattles, puppets, and even skeletons attached! The kids love this day, so when I read that Scholastic Art Director Jess Tice-Gilbert gives presentations on the topic, I thought HOW MUCH FUN!!! Novelty books are kid-pleasing and eye-catching, help develop important motor skills, and can be great gifts. Furthermore, Jess doesn’t just design novelty books, she is a skilled paper engineer and painter herself. For those illustrators who aren’t so sure novelty books are for them, Jess Tice-Gilbert also art directs . . . well . . . normal books. You know the kind with just pictures. 😁
Virginia: Jess, you describe yourself as a “military brat.” Where did you live, and is this when you became interested in art?
Jess: I was always interested in art. I was pretty much born with a crayon in my hand! My grandma saved some of my very early work, and I’m surprised at the depth perception I had as a four year old! Art was the one constant in my life and a hobby that I could take with me and do just about anywhere in the world. On a plane? I was probably coloring princess dresses. On a train? I was definitely drawing horses. In a car? Nothing—I get car sick! I do feel that since I’ve traveled the world and lived in Europe, the US, and the Caribbean, these places have left an impression on me and my artwork. For example, I know that my color palette is driven by my time in the islands. I absolutely love lush, bright colors. I mean, where else can you paint your house a bright shade of lavender and it doesn’t stand out?
Virginia: How about novelty books? Were you already interested in them before working with Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart?
Jess: This is going to sound crazy, but I don’t think I knew about pop-up books until I took the paper engineering class at Pratt Institute! I had just changed majors from graphic design to illustration and I had a hole in my schedule that I needed to fill. I saw the course “Paper Engineering” and thought to myself, “I like building things and I like math, I think this sounds cool!” (Yes, I know, math is cool? Who is this person??) As a kid, I played with Legos and K’nex a lot, as well as painting and drawing. Looking back, it was clear that I needed to find a path that was not only creative, but one where I built things. Pop-ups found me, and it all came together!
Virginia: It sounds like making pop-up books definitely requires a certain skill set. How about novelty books in general? Is a particular personality type drawn to working in novelty books?
Jess: I haven’t seen any particular personalities drawn to novelty books. But I do think you need to have certain qualities or tendencies. A bit meticulous and a bit crazy . . . okay, maybe a lot crazy. You have to build and rebuild novelties a few times before they’re perfect. And once you start adding in artwork, things change again. (And then you build. And you rebuild. And you change the die lines . . . It goes on!) It can be a lot of tinkering after the initial design. I also think you need to have a basic grasp on math and be able to read die lines, especially if you’re going to illustrate novelties.
Virginia: I loved seeing your paintings on your website! Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration for the Cosmic Musings? Are you working on anything now?
Jess: Thank you! I never intended to make a series of paintings. I don’t know what happened, but I had an idea to paint moon phases, as they kind of happen in the sky, but on one sheet of paper. And once I had finished the first moon painting, I made another, and then another, and then another until I had created 21 moon paintings. Once I stepped back, I realized that my love for the moon and the skies is something that I’ve always made time for—to stop and look at the sky. Because no matter what part of the world you’re in, you have the sky, the moon, and the stars above you. I’m still painting moon paintings, but I’m also exploring sunset/sunrise paintings as well as creating some pop-up cards.
Virginia: After working all day at Scholastic, do you still have energy for your own creative pursuits? Do you have any tricks you can share with our members who often work day jobs and write/illustrate at night?
Jess: This is a great question! I feel like I could do a whole other presentation on just this topic! There are days that I have the energy to come home and work, and there are days that I don’t. And you can’t beat yourself up over that. But I do think the main thing is to have passion. You really need to LOVE what you’re doing. And let me tell you, you won’t love every step of the way, because there are always parts of a project that just suck, BUT you have to love what you’re making. You have to enjoy the full process, even the parts that suck. You have to have the drive to do the work.
Another thing is to take care of yourself. I make sure to work out so that I’m not in pain sitting at a desk all day. I also take walks in the middle of the day so my brain can figure out design issues in the background. You (the general you!) need to figure out what makes you feel whole and recharged. Is it working out? Is it eating well? Is it going on a walk with your dog? Is it eating ice cream? We all have things that help recharge our batteries, you just have to find them.
Third—last one I promise—is a support system. Making sure your family and friends know that when you’re working, they need to leave you be. Or if you’re having a rough time with a project, that you have someone you can reach out to and maybe get a second opinion. Or just have someone cheering you on. Because writing and illustrating can be an isolating experience, and you get in your own head and in your own way. By having a support system, you’ll always have someone in your corner to help get you to the finish line. I have to give a shout-out to my husband, who is my main support system. He’s on the frontlines, cheering me on with every project (he’s actually cheering me on right now!) and making sure I not only finish the project, but that it’s the best that I can make.
Virginia: We can’t wait to see you at the Highlights Foundation! What are you most looking forward to at the Pocono Retreat?
Jess: I’m so excited to just be there and meet everyone! We all grew up with Highlights magazines, and it’s also so exciting to be visiting the Highlights Foundation. Everything is coming full circle!
Register and sign up for a critique with Jess Tice-Gilbert at the 2019 Pocono Retreat here.
Jess Tice-Gilbert is Associate Art Director at Cartwheel and Orchard Books, Scholastic. Jess is many things: an experienced designer, a paper engineer, an innovator, an artist, and a creator of publishing novelties. But, most of all, she considers herself a “military brat” who discovered a lifelong passion for the arts, thanks to her family’s numerous travels during her youth. It was in 2004 that her travels led her to New York, where she began an internship with pop-up book authors Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart. It wasn’t long before she was invited to join their studio full-time and contributed to their best-selling titles. During this time, she also headed up the Museum of Modern Art holiday card line for seven years, earning her studio—and herself—a bevy of prestigious awards. Today, you can find Jess’s work and keen eye for design under Scholastic’s Cartwheel and Orchard Books imprints where she spends her days as a full-time associate art director working on novelty and picture books. Jess lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two very demanding cats. Outside of work, she loves to paint in watercolors, try new recipes and cocktails, and is attempting to learn to surf.