Friday, August 2, 2013

Agy Willson, Children's book illustrator and author

ILLUSTRATOR: Agy Wilson                       
AUTHOR: Agy Wilson
BOOK TITLE: Nana’s Gift
GENRE: picture book

What were you like as a kid?  Did you always like to draw? Yes, from my earliest memories. My father was a paper coating engineer, so I had a closet full of paper stacked high in the living room to draw on. The two things (probably to keep me quiet, lol) my parents encouraged me to do to “look it up!” and to draw.

How did you get started illustrating books? I had always wanted to, but didn’t know if I was “good enough”. When I worked as a maid I surreptitiously watched Reading Rainbow. I’ve had many jobs, some I can apply to this field, but they all informed me in one way or another. Anyhow, I painted eggs and did pysanki for a while, and Open Field School asked me to be a part of their fund raiser. I didn’t know at the time it was started by a famous and respected illustrator, Trina Schart Hyman. When my husband encouraged me to go on the web and pursue this dream, I found open arms in the community via Yahoo groups and what was The Yellowboard, hosted by Jon Bard and Laura Backes. I took an overview course on children’s publishing by Bruce MacMillan. I joined the SCBWI and was encouraged further; they give information and conferences and support systems in a field that doesn’t always have formal training for the creators. The Highlights Foundation is another great resource, I attended their Chautauqua event as well has  picture book course with Eric Rohmann and Lisa Jahn-Clough through SCBWI. I’m currently taking an online course (it’s WONDERFUL) with Will Terry and Jake Parker through their School of Visual Storytelling. I can already see and feel the improvement in my work.

What were the challenges you faced with the first book you illustrated?  I’d stopped illustrating and calligraphing due to eye problems. The way I’d heard of Will Terry (and became an obviously big fan) was through his Photoshop online classes. They were within my budget, but more importantly something I could understand, coming from a painterly, more traditional background. I have wonderful friends who tried to teach me, and I’ve tried to teach myself with books. Until this course, I simply didn’t get it. Nana’s Gift was a personal book to me, with a number of near misses (near hits?). But I knew it wouldn’t get published via the normal routes for a few reasons, it was too quiet, being one. I love the story and the subject matter (my family!) so figured it would be a great project to “learn” on, especially as it’s my first effort. Learning to paint in Photoshop, and how to format and publish for the e-market was the biggest hurdles. I probably should consider marketing it difficult, but it’s been a pleasure, and this is a purely selfish book (though I do give away a recipe!), so selling wasn’t the focus of it.

To what extent do you use a computer in your illustrating process? I’m now completely digital. I’m even trying to figure a way to do calligraphy on the computer. I think if I find any success and am able to purchase the state of the art stuff (everything about me is a bit archaic right now, lol, but I’m used to shoestring and making do), I think that will make a great deal of difference. Right now, I’m learning what I can and cannot do because of computer limitations and the workarounds. It’s still fun, different kind of challenge. I feel there’s  so many levels to this whole business, from the PR end of it, to the creation, I’m forever learning (and showing my ignorance, because it’s the only way if you put yourself out there) new things and pushing past boundaries.

Do you illustrate in different genres, and if so, how does the genre determine your illustration style?  Yes. I do cartoons and caricatures as well as calligraphy. I love the Dillons, and artists that let the work determine the style. It’s the same as writing for me. If you have Voice it has to be at one with your character. Illustration is no different in that regard for me.

Who are your favorite illustrators? Kadir Nelson, Floyd Cooper, John Steptoe, David Weisnewski, Chris Von Allsburg, Paul O. Zelinsky, Maurice Sendak, Patricia Polacco, Ponder Goembel, Maurie Manning, Sarah Brannen, Lita Judge, Kevin Hawkes, Lisa Kopelke, Robert Eberz , Tony Di Terlizzi, the list could go on and on!

What are you working on now? I’m currently taking the class I mentioned and working on my second picture book (I have bunches in the back drawer, waiting on the skillsets to work the ideas) Duke Day for Annie and a midgrade novel Sara LeClere. Duke Day for Annie is about my friend Ann Cummings Searcy who was childhood friends with Duke Ellington. She had an incredible voice and became the first state-certified African American teacher in Maine. It’s set in a seashore town--she grew up in Old Orchard Beach, Maine, around 1935, so it’s thrilling to me on a lot of levels from the historical, visual, and just loving Ann. I tell it in what I call a syncopated rhyme because I wanted to mirror Mr. Ellington’s (what Ann always called him) freedom. It’s a challenge to write something in a cadence, in rhyme that has structure, tells a story and is historically correct. And it’s challenging to design a page that will fit traditional books and ebooks as well and still read well as a story. I think, I hope I’m mostly successful.

Why did you choose to both illustrate and write your book? This was a love letter to my family, how could I not? I loved working on it so much, I would find myself simply smiling and feeling a glow when I was working on it. It was something too, my gram would allow when she’d been shy her entire life. Though the character was written as the Nana (whom I also knew and loved, but not as well), she was the inspiration and all the representations of the fictionalized characters right down to the pets and friends were taken from family members I loved.

What do you do when you’re not writing/editing/illustrating or thinking about writing/editing/illustrating? I used to go camping, now I like to read, play with my grandchild and other kids, go for walks, and hang on the computer or watch the tube.

What are your thoughts about promotion? It’s a necessary evil. I used to detest it, and it doesn’t come natural. I feel like I’m bragging. I was almost forty before I started signing my things, because I didn’t feel it was good enough. Life is too short to not just revel in it, and even if I made shtuff, I feel GOOD, it’s MY shtuff, lol. And if you like shtuff how else would you know about it, if I didn’t share. So if all I did was promote I would hate it. But I love sharing other people’s work with friends, and I’m not loathe to do it now. I also realized I’ve been blessed to know a lot of very interesting people. I kind of look at it, that I’m here to tell the stories I was meant to tell. I’ve felt like this is what I’m supposed to do my entire life, as long as I can remember. I only gave myself permission to do so recently.

What was the toughest criticism given to you about your writing? Your illustrations? What was the biggest compliment about your writing? Your illustrations? Did those change how or what you did in your next book? The toughest criticism was more about my attitude. There was a huge discussion on privilege and racism on the Yellowboard. I have to say, it was life changing, and probably the catalyst for my pursuit. I didn’t like my drawings or writings, at the time, because they all had to be “pretty”. It was my need. That conversation had me dig deeper. I still do pretty, but there has to be depth and thought and feeling there. Some of those things I’m not that good at, so it’s a challenging, frustrating joyous process. The best compliment in my writing I originally took as a slam. I had some writer friends say I was a better writer than illustrator. I’d always thought of myself as an illustrator (my father had encouraged me to write, but I thought it was simply to get more letters out of me, lol). When they said that, I thought they were saying I wasn’t good at anything, and it was a strange feeling, to think of yourself one way. Besides, most people, especially those who don’t draw, usually hold people who do in some kind of regard, so it was painful. When I realized they still liked my illustrations, but thought my writing was stronger, I was thunderstruck. Don’t know what I am now. Sometimes it’s a struggle, sometimes it’s easy, I don’t want to think about it, I just want to do it, and hopefully people will like and respond to what I do.

Do you ever have writer’s block? If so, how do you get through it? Power on through it, whatever it takes. Sometimes, especially on deadline, I will push through anyhow, writing something down, gets the thoughts in order and gives you something to work with. Rewriting and editing is an awful lot of writing. Or I’ll switch gears and draw, research, or something that is on topic to book related. I may do something different, but you can’t accomplish anything or get anywhere without faithfully applying yourself. Don’t let yourself off the hook you put yourself on, just make sure there’s room for others, having people like your work and encourage you, helps to hold you accountable.

What is your marketing plan? I haven’t formalized my marketing plan because I feel like I need to get more of my work out there, first. I take wonderful opportunities like the one you’ve provided me here, Peggy. I keep a blog, because it keeps me at it, it’s a good interface between me and other people (and it’s a great way to chronicle the steps to my path). I take opportunities to go on blogtalkradio, I speak to people who might be interested in my work, in person as well as in the cyberworld. As I have three or four books, I will solidify it more. And remember the libraries and schools are our best friends (all of my books have something that could relate to curricula, I dread that “slight” criticism, as someone who was actually so slight she nearly blew off a mountain as a kid, it’s not a feeling I want again soon!

How can we find you? Please provide your public links: Facebook, Twitter, etc. I have a website: My Facebook fanpage:  Twitter: @agyw13. I have a blog:  and if you like my things you can get products with my images at Zazzle and Redbubble: 


  1. I always admire anyone who can draw! Nice interview!

  2. Great interview. Wonderful illustrations.

  3. Great interview, Agy. Have shared on Google+ :)

  4. You're inspiring Agy. Thanks for sharing with us. So glad you gave yourself permission to sign your work that portrays a great deal of feeling. I wish you great success..

  5. Very enjoyable interview. I'm really looking forward to seeing the new works grow,like "Duke Day For Annie".

  6. Great to see some of awesome Agy Wilson revealed in this fine interview. She has illustrated two young teen covers for me (that's where the "awesome" comes from)and I couldn't be more pleased. Agy is on her way to much more success. . . I feel it in my bones.

    Good on yer, mate!!

    Books for Kids - Manusript Critiques