A Cafe Chat (and Critique Giveaway!) with Award-Winning Illustrator and Agent Shadra Strickland, by Berrie Torgan-Randall

A Cafe Chat with Award-Winning Illustrator and Agent Shadra Strickland, by Berrie Torgan-Randall

Welcome back to the EasternPennPoints Café, our virtual café here in Eastern PA. Today’s café chat features a conversation between award-winning illustrator and agent Shadra Strickland and our Illustrator Coordinator, Berrie Torgan-Randall. We are excited to have Shadra presenting in two upcoming webinars for our region: Writers Who Want to Illustrate (June 7) and Illustrators Who Want to Write (June 10). Registration is open, and critiques are available. Please see below for registration information a critique giveaway!

Berrie: Hi there, Shadra, and welcome to the EasternPennPoints Café. As we settle into our comfy booth, what will you have to drink? Orangina or Genesee Beer? 

Shadra: Coffee, please. 

Berrie: I like to find a connection with the person I am interviewing, and I see from your bio that we both were art majors at Syracuse University. Tell me, do you bleed orange (inside SU grad joke about being totally loyal to SU)?

Shadra: Ha!! Wow, small world. Go Cuse! What a great introduction to illustration and design. I was a design major before switching over to illustration. SU gave a me a lot of tools that I needed to push my art life forward. Maybe we passed each other on the quad!

Berrie: Congratulations on all your awards throughout your career. Are there one or two that have the most meaning to you?

Shadra: They have all meant a lot to me. The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award and the Ezra Jack Keats Award were both pretty special to me. Both of those stand for such high ideals in children’s literature, and winning both really connected me to a strong and loving community of picture book creators and champions of kid lit.

Artwork from Bird written by Zetta Elliott (Lee and Low Books 2008)

Berrie: You are a very busy person—not only are you an illustrator and an author but you also teach college courses at the Maryland Institute College of Art, run an Etsy shop, work as an Agent-at-Large, and own a dog. How do you do it all? 

Shadra: Coffee . . . lots of coffee . . . No husband. No kids. LOL—I’m only half joking.

Well, teaching is seasonal. I do get to take time away and focus on my work through the summers and winters, but it does get challenging through the semester. This last year and a half has especially felt like trial by fire as I stepped into chairing the department during COVID. I’m so looking forward to summer break. 

The Etsy shop has its fits and stops. This past year was an exceptionally strong year for art sales thanks to so many people raising visibility of Black artists. I had to enlist the help of two of my quarantine buddies to come by each weekend for about a month to help fulfill orders and eventually brought in a part-time assistant. It was such a gift to have everyone pitch in. Things have slowed down a bit now, so I am only in the shop for a few hours each week and I’m licensing a couple of my popular prints with Anthropologie and Artfully Walls to give myself a bit of a breather. 

Agenting is a direct extension from what I have been doing as a teacher. Out of the six clients that I have, five are former students. My agent (who is still representing me), Lori Nowicki, critiqued my students’ work each year and began signing some of them. Eventually, she asked me to try repping a few of my own. Because I also have taught professional development for many years now at MICA, I was able to build upon my business know-how by way of teaching. Everything just seems to roll into everything else. It’s a fun life. 

And Lucky, well, he’s my assistant. I wouldn’t be able to get any of this done without his licks of support. 

Berrie: As an agent, what advice would you give an unagented illustrator when submitting their work to Painted Words Represents?

Shadra: That’s a good question. First rule for me is, please show us a wide range of kids. Kids in classrooms, kids at home, kids out in the world. Outside of that, try to show work that is consistent. It’s okay to switch media. Media isn’t style. The way that one thinks, draws, and sees the world is what style is made of, not just if it’s done in ink or pencil. Outside of your portfolio, do keep a sketchbook and share a few pages at the end of your more curated portfolio. I’m interested in seeing what people make when no one’s watching. 

Berrie: Your illustrations are so alive with a mixture of different mediums. What mediums do you prefer and why?

Shadra: Thank you! Each book just feels different. Each one has different needs based on the tone of the writing. The most outside of my “style” has been A Child’s Book of Prayers and Blessings by Delores Jordan. I chose to work in linoleum cuts for that project because I wanted to communicate mostly in color and shape since the intended audience was much younger than those of my other picture books. 

I am working digitally for a project now (it’s killing me) because I want to capture movement in a way that digital painting makes the most sense. My preference, though, is watercolor, gouache, and pencil (or ink). At the end of the day, I paid a lot of money to go to art school and I’m gonna use everything I learned. 😉

Artwork from Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance written by Nikki Grimes (Bloomsbury, January 2020)

Berrie: So, I know you have a webinar coming up on June 7 called Writers Who Want to Illustrate and on June 10 called Illustrators Who Want to Write. Can you tell us a little bit about the webinar and who should think about attending?

Shadra: I have taught Advanced Book Illustration for almost eight years now, and what I enjoy most is showing people how to write from the back door; meaning, I really respect play and have writers write to visual prompts instead of trying so hard to write the thing that sits at the front of the brain. I have found that the best ideas are the ones lurking under a few layers and have to be coaxed out in unexpected ways. So, if you’re a writer who wants to unearth some stories that you may not have known were inside of you, we should have a good time together.

For the writers who want to illustrate, I’d love to share a few exercises to help bring the ideas out of the head and onto the page. Most people think that artists just sit down and draw the thing, and for some lucky artists, that is certainly true. For others, like myself, drawing requires a lot of preparation, research, and trial and error. So for anyone who’d like to learn some of the secrets of how to build an illustration from the ground up, I’d love to have you!

Berrie: It was great sharing a drink with you and getting to know you. It’s always nice to meet a fellow Orangeman (another inside SU joke referring to the SU mascot). 

Shadra: Thanks so much, Berrie. It’s been fun hanging out! Go Cuse!

Shadra Strickland is an award-winning illustrator. She won the Ezra Jack Keats Award and the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent in 2009 for her work in her first picture book, Bird, written by Zetta Elliott. Shadra co-illustrated Our Children Can Soar, winner of a 2010 NAACP Image Award. She studied design, writing, and illustration at Syracuse University and later went on to complete her M.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Shadra travels the country, conducting workshops and sharing her work with children, teachers, and librarians. She currently works and teaches illustration at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Webinar Info

If you’re interested in attending either one or both of Shadra’s June webinars, you can find out more and register here: https://epa.scbwi.org/events/crossover-webinars-writers-who-want-to-illustrate-and-illustrators-who-want-to-write/. Be sure to log in as an SCBWI member to get the discounted member price.


Eastern PA SCBWI is giving away a free written critique with Shadra Stickland for a picture book manuscript/dummy (maximum 5 pages) or illustration portfolio (maximum 6 illustrations) to one lucky Eastern PA SCBWI member! To enter, please comment on this blog post before 9:00 p.m. EST on Monday, May 24, 2021. We will choose the winner at random from those who comment. Must be a current Eastern PA SCBWI member to be eligible. Please include your full name as it appears in your SCBWI membership. If you’d like to comment on this blog post but not be entered to win (e.g., if you are not an Eastern PA SCBWI member or if you are not interested in a critique), simply state that along with your comment.) Materials for the critique are due June 5, 2021. Instructions for submitting materials will be sent to the winner.

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9 Responses to A Cafe Chat (and Critique Giveaway!) with Award-Winning Illustrator and Agent Shadra Strickland, by Berrie Torgan-Randall

  1. Great interview, Berrie and Shadra! I fall in the writer who wants to understand/help her illustrator category (but not kidding myself about being the illustrator).

  2. ydansky says:

    Thank you for the interview. I’d love to become an author/illustrator, and wish I could take a class at MICA with you, Shadra!

    • Thanks for your comment! Please let us know your full name as it appears in your SCBWI membership if you’d like to be included in the chance to win a free critique for Eastern PA SCBWI members!

  3. Erik Ammon says:

    What a great interview! Shadra rocks! Congratulations on all your successes, Shadra. They’re well deserved! I had the opportunity to have her as my mentor at Highlights Summer Camp a few summers ago. If you ever get the chance to take a class with her don’t pass it up! Also, you should check out her Etsy shop- her work is incredible (as you can see above). I fall in the category of stick figures that look like broken sticks 🙂

  4. mel5243 says:

    Really looking forward to the webinars!

  5. Joanne Roberts says:

    Thank you Berrie and Shadra. I took Shadra’s class on BluPrint months ago and it was amazing, so I’m looking forward to more during the webinars. I’m all signed up for the critique and raring to go!

Comments are closed.