Today at the virtual EasternPennPoints Café, Berrie Torgan-Randall had a chat with Andrea Miller, who is a senior designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. Andrea is one of our faculty presenters for Illustrator Day. Here’s what they had to say.
Berrie: Hi, Andrea. Welcome to the EPA’s Café Chat. Would you like tea or coffee or perhaps a scoop of ice cream?
Andrea: Thanks for having me, Berrie! Great to be joining you. Yes please to tea! Perhaps a cup of Yunnan Gold. Alas, I love making a good cup of pour-over coffee for my spouse, but I never drink it. And I will never ever ever turn down ice cream.
Berrie: I see in your bio that you worked at Franklin Fountain in Center City Philadelphia while you were a student at the University of the Arts. What was the best and worst part about this summer job?
Andrea: Working at the Franklin Fountain was amazing, albeit exhausting. As a soda jerk, I found myself mixing up handmade sodas and phosphates, and I worked hard to get the perfect head of foam on my egg creams. The artistry and the history of the job were made all the sweeter by getting to teach our customers all about it. I did some part-time work in their office as well, doing hand-painted signs, design work, and helping with the archives of historical Ice Cream Ephemera—some of which was almost 200 years old! The worst part was, hands-down, the heat. We dressed in period clothing and there was no AC at the time. The freezers are cold inside but give off a LOT of heat, so always tip your ice cream scoopers!
Berrie: I had a great time coming up with ideas and creating illustrations for your Art Director assignment. For my project I chose to focus on a seasonal vignette of a Prairie family (as a child I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder Books). What do you think illustrators should think about when completing their Art Director assignment?
Andrea: I think you captured it perfectly—the seasons are a great theme to riff on. My main hope is that our illustrators find a character or topic that they’re excited to draw multiple times. Keeping that enjoyment up is key to making sure you don’t burn out or lose interest, whether you’re doing this assignment or working on a 32-page book!
Berrie: I’ve found that when I go into a critique session with questions and goals for the session, I have success with my critique. Would you agree, and do you have any other helpful hints before a critique?
Andrea: Having questions and goals is SO valuable. When I begin crits, I like to ask the person I’m working with if they have anything specific they’d like to focus on. I often say, “This is your time, and I want to make sure you get the absolute most out of it.” I’ve been in crits where people focus on things in my work that I either already have plans to change or that I don’t have strong concerns about and it’s so frustrating to have a conversation not benefit you, or worse, to dishearten you! Definitely don’t be bashful about asking for specific feedback.
Berrie: Should illustrators still send postcards during the time of Covid? Are there hashtags that you follow on Instagram or Twitter to find illustrators?
Andrea: While I’m only speaking for myself here, I’d unequivocally say: No! While I encourage you all to support the USPS, any postcards that are sent are likely going to be sitting on empty desks. I haven’t been back to our Manhattan office since the first week of March and I have no idea when I’ll feel comfortable going back to NYC. Better to take this time to invest in digital promotions, whether newsletters, email blasts, or social media. I am on Twitter ALL THE TIME, and I really find the hashtag events useful. #VisibleWomen, #DrawingWhileBlack, #ArtistsofSEA, and #ArtMubarak all come to mind as successful tags in recent memory where I found a LOT of new illustrators to follow, especially from marginalized groups who maybe historically had a harder time promoting their work. In addition, tags like #AnimalArtistsUnite or #FaceYourLineArt specifically tap into art with a specific subject matter or a focus on style. Anything to help narrow the field to lead someone to your work is helpful!
Berrie: One of the books that you designed, Mira Forecasts the Future, was written by one or our own EPA SCBWI members, Kell Andrews. Can you talk about the process of finding the illustrator, Lissy Marlin?
Andrea: This particular book was special—I always pitch a range of artists to my editor by sending them slides that feature relevant samples from each artist (if they don’t already have someone attached, of course!). I was thrilled when the team decided to go with Lissy. A little backstory: Lissy and I went to the same school, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and even were in two classes together when she was a Junior and I was a Senior. (Notably, both classes were focused on children’s book illustration.) So, I was very familiar with Lissy’s style and process and knew she’d been doing some amazing work post-graduation. She went above and beyond with Mira, providing character style sheets, setting sketches, vision boards with historical visual reference—it was a lovely experience, and the end result is a book that I’m still in love with and proud of years later.
Berrie: Okay, fangirl question time! I see that you directed and designed John Oliver’s A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo. Did you get to meet him and talk with him?
Andrea: I WISH! Unfortunately, going to a taping just never happened, despite me living in New York at the time. I still watch the show weekly, though. That book was an adventure with tight turnarounds happening during December. I worked really closely with our project manager and editor, Alli Brydon, and E.G. Keller, the illustrator, to make it all come together in a matter of weeks! A picture book normally takes months or even years, so this was a really speedy schedule.
Berrie: After working all day at HMHkids, how do you still have energy for your own creative pursuits, including your hand lettering and comic creation? Do you have any tricks you can share with our members who often work day jobs and write/illustrate at night?
Andrea: As I get older, I have less and less energy, admittedly. I remember staying up drawing until 3:00 a.m. when I was 23 and needed no sleep. Six years later, that’s just not gonna fly anymore! That said, I truly love the stories that I want to tell and leaving them untouched physically hurts, so I do my best to fit in drawing when I can, after dinner, on weekends, or while watching a movie. I’ve been known to even shirk other things (like laundry—oops!) to make the time for it. That said, I’ve tried to remember that taking care of myself is key to not burning out, and getting nervous or upset when I don’t draw for a while only makes me stall more. Better to stay loose, not be too harsh on myself, and try to keep creativity flowing in a way that isn’t forced. Setting goals and deadlines can also be helpful, so long as you’re good about sticking to them!
Berrie: Thank you for joining me for this time together. One of these days I’ll treat you to a coffee—or an ice cream sundae, if you prefer.
Andrea: It’s been great! I’ll happily make a special sundae for us; it’s a hobby of mine!
Andrea Miller is a senior designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, working diligently from a folding table in her Philadelphia apartment. Her work ranges from picture books and nonfiction to middle grade and YA novels. In addition, she has a special focus on graphic novels, helping to start HMH’s new imprint, Etch. She has a background in illustration, and enjoys working on her own comics with her partner when she isn’t otherwise preoccupied with their cat.