A Cafe Chat with Erica De Chavez, by Heather Stigall

Please note: Since this interview was conducted and due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns for our community, we have moved our Pocono Retreat to an online conference format. Please see our coronavirus updates here.


We are excited to welcome Erica De Chavez to the EasternPennPoints Café today. Erica is a senior designer at HarperCollins and will be joining us in April at our 2020 Pocono Retreat. Heather Stigall had a great discussion with Erica about her role as a children’s book designer and what to expect in her breakout session at the Retreat. Here’s what they had to say:

Heather: Welcome to the Eastern Penn Points Café! We’re so happy you’ll be joining us for our upcoming Pocono Retreat. You have an impressive résumé. Can you tell us a little about the path that led you to children’s publishing?

Sailor MoonErica: I have always loved picture books and being read aloud to. As a kid, my grandmother used to read me picture books right before bed and I would make her continue to read more books to me until I fell asleep. I grew up naturally loving to draw, tracing the art from the Sailor Moon VHS movie cover art. My brother also has a talent for drawing and creating his own comic book characters. He is seven years older than me, so as a younger sister I tried to mimic almost EVERYTHING he did. My interest in drawing and painting was further fostered by my grandmother who picked up acrylic landscape painting in her retirement. I went into art college knowing I wanted to pursue a career in art, but I had no clue what sort of creative industry I wanted to break into. It wasn’t until the spring semester in my third year that I was fortunate to take an elective class that opened my eyes to the world of children’s publishing—Tom Casmer’s Illustrating Picture Books. For my senior thesis project, I wrote and illustrated a picture book dummy about my brother’s dog and my own dog’s adventures getting lost and found. I attended my first SCBWI winter conference the winter after my graduation. I needed money and a job fast, so I applied to dozens of publishing jobs and another dozen odd design jobs before I applied, for a second time, to HarperCollins for a design assistant opening. It was a lucky day when Martha Rago decided to hire me as her assistant at the time. I have her to thank for my break into the industry and I haven’t yet regretted my decision to become a children’s book designer.

Heather: You are now a senior designer at HarperCollins. Can you give us a peek into a typical day (or week) in your position?

desktop with iconsErica: A typical day in the office for me starts by answering e-mails in the morning, prioritizing e-mails that are awaiting my immediate response and e-mails pertaining to very hot book projects due to the printer first. If I have the time, I try to write or at least start an e-mail draft of art notes for an artist before lunch. Art note e-mails truly do take up most of my time. I move onto designing my hottest (closest to its printer dates) book projects: from downloading and placing interior and/or jacket-cover sketches into live InDesign files, to choosing and laying out several different font options for covers and interiors, to preparing presentation slides for jacket-sales meetings. On any given day of the week I could be meeting with editors on sketch passes or final art passes for interiors of picture books, board books, illustrated middle grade chapter books, graphic novels, or early readers; meeting with my art directors on edits or problems that I need to get a second opinion on; or meeting with artists and/or artist agents reviewing illustration samples and dummies. I try to answer my e-mails several times a day (I can get hundreds in a day). I could also be meeting with my production managers to review color proofs and color correcting digital art files they’ve scanned from reflective art.

Heather: What’s your favorite thing about your job?

Erica: My personal favorite, when I have the time, is to meet and talk with artists in person, review their artwork, and get to know why they got into art in the first place, how they broke into the industry, why they make the art they do, and just pick their brains about art in general. I love geeking out with a fellow artist about art supplies they prefer, sharing tips and tricks, tossing around story ideas, and finding out what inspires their art and stories.

Heather: I’m looking forward to the presentation you will be giving at the Pocono Retreat. Can you give us a hint about what we will learn in your session?

Erica: I’ll be talking about some of the key parts of the children’s-book-making process that I, as a designer, get to work on more closely with the illustrators. I will discuss scenarios where I am sampling and considering multiple artists for a book project as well as other scenarios where I work with the artist, editor, and the licensing client to create a line look and main character design. You will get to hear and hopefully learn from my own trials and errors in my journey to being a published author-illustrator (which I am still striving toward in my “free” time). And you’ll get a list of my personal Dos and Don’ts when you work with me as your book designer and art director.

Heather: You will be providing art critiques to Retreat participants who sign up for them. Can you share any tips on how to receive a critique?

experience feedbackErica: Be open minded and understand that my opinions and thoughts are one out of many opinions in this industry. You will find that every editor, every designer, every publisher has different aesthetic tastes in the artwork they like to acquire. Maybe my cup of tea is not your exact style or subject matter, but my colleague or other editors may absolutely love and actively be searching for your exact art style and characters. Do not be afraid to get many people’s different opinions on your work. Take it all in, write notes, and then after you have some time to be away from it all and let it soak in, sit down again and choose the opinions and feedback that truly resound with what you want to do with your own artwork. You can pick and choose which comments you want to work on getting better at and which comments don’t fit with what you want to do. What’s most important is, continue to strive and better your craft in the art style that you truly enjoy producing.

Heather: Okay, now it’s time for some lightning round questions. What is your favorite . . .

Outlet: Bookstore outlet? I don’t particularly play favorites, but I recently fell in love with McNally Jackson Books, an independent bookstore in NYC’s financial district. Their store is so much bigger than it looks from the outside and its interior design is quaint and homey. Gotta love that blue-carpeted staircase!

Indulgence: I shamelessly devour reading Japanese/Korean/Chinese manga. It’s always been something I loved reading, ever since I was a young kid. I used to save all my lunch money for a week just to buy the next volume of Sailor Moon comics.

Chrysanthemum coverChildhood book: Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. I always hated my name growing up, so this book really rang true for me.

Thing you look forward to: My next vacation, my next overseas trip. I love to travel and see different parts of the world.

Recently published picture book: I have three at the moment: Whatever Happened to My Sister? by Simona Ciraolo, Colette’s Lost Pet by Isabelle Arsenault, and A BIG Mooncake for Little Star by Grace Lin.

Piece of kid-lit-related advice: Be nice and pass it forward. The industry is so much smaller than you think. And what makes children’s publishing truly a great industry to work in are the people. Be nice, be professional, and put your ALL into loving the work you put into the books you make.

Heather: And lastly, what is something about you that few people know?

Erica: I love gardening. I have a lush fire escape garden in the spring through fall, and I keep a jungle of small- to medium-sized indoor plants all year long. I’m currently obsessed with breeding spider fern plants as they help to purify the air around them. Who doesn’t like breathing cleaner air?

Heather: Thank you, Erica! I really enjoyed chatting with you, and I look forward to seeing you in April in the Poconos!

Erica De ChavezErica De Chavez is a Filipino-American illustrator and author, and also a full-time designer of picture books, middle grade books, graphic novels, and board books for HarperCollins Publishers. She is the designer of the New York Times bestselling graphic novel series PopularMMOs Presents A Hole New World. She made her illustrator debut with the indie-published The Girls’ Q&A Book on Friendship. Her newest indie-published picture book, Mighty May Won’t Cry Today, is due on sale in late May. Erica enjoys a good cup of tea and playing with her Jack Russell terrier, Maxwell. She lives with her fiancé in Brooklyn, NY. You can visit her online at www.PandaErica.com.


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