7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #372: Featuring Toni Yuly

h1 March 9th, 2014 by jules

“through the flowerbed …”
— From
Early Bird

Good morning, dear kickers. Today, we are visited by debut author/illustrator (and librarian!) Toni Yuly, who proves, as you can read below, that it’s never too late to get your start in children’s literature.

I’m going to get right to Toni, since she talks here about her work and how she got into picture books. But first let me say that her debut picture book is called Early Bird. It was released by Feiwel and Friends in January. The illustrations for this story for very young readers were rendered in pen and ink and digital media; Yuly uses thick lines and bright colors, and the text is well-suited to beginning readers. In their starred review, Booklist writes, “it’s unusual for a book this straightforward to accomplish several things, but this succeeds,” describing this as a book that makes learning fun.

In this post today, Toni shares some images from Early Bird; her greeting card collection, Kokoro; and her current project and next book, called Night Owl.

Toni: I am 59 years old, and Early Bird is my first picture book. Being a bit older and a late bloomer in general, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate finally breaking in to this wonderful world and business of picture books.

How did I get here? A few things stand out in my mind. First of all, hard work. Which sounds cliché, but really, it is the baseline for finally getting “serious.” Slowly but steadily, I have been ramping up more and more time that I spend working on my art. Which is hard, because I still have a day job, am married, and have a grown son who is in college.

But the journey has been a long and windy one.

As a kid, I was cautiously wild and all over the place. I had a huge postcard collection and have always loved nature, fashion, music, writing, photography, junkyards, thrift stores …

I am grateful to my parents for ignoring me most of the time. I was free to explore and goof around a lot as a kid, but on the down side, they didn’t encourage or support my artistic bent and hoped I would be a cheerleader in high school and maybe a stewardess after I graduated. Instead, I went to Japan for a year as an exchange student. This experience changed my life and opened me up to Eastern sensibilities that have stayed a strong influence in my life to this day. After my year in Japan, I went to college; drifted around, not knowing what to do; and eventually ended up in the art department. My boyfriend suggested that, since I spent most of my time drawing, it seemed like a good idea. Thus began my life of art.

“She stands as tall as she can.”

“… and then Early Bird gets going!”

In college, I was lucky enough to have met and studied with Jacob Lawrence. He seemed different from the other teachers, mostly because he worked in a lot of different mediums. He had a little studio, instead of an office, and besides painting, he illustrated books, made sculptures, designed murals, and taught me the power of composition and color. Under his influence, I started making abstract wall sculptures and gained confidence as a total, creative artist.

“… around the corner …”

After graduating, I took a job at the local library but always kept making art. I made sculptures and collages out of cardboard and found objects. At the time, big paintings and big art were popular, but I could never afford the space or materials for big, so I decided to focus on small works. Jacob Lawrence also taught me that you don’t have to have a fancy studio to make art. “You can work anywhere,” he said, and I did. I spent many years painting tiny watercolors of big landscapes in the corner of my bedroom and showed them around the Seattle area. I was making art for myself, and it was fun but frustrating, because I could never call it anything more than a hobby. It barely paid for itself, and I found the world of fine art pretty cold and overly serious for a goofball like me.

While raising my son, I fell in love with picture books all over again. I started to write stories but did not have the confidence to illustrate. I joined my local SCBWI and spent seven years trying to break in. I got really, really close, but in the end, gave up and turned back to painting. After my son left home, I became interested in doing something more practical (and fun) than painting in the corner of my bedroom. I wanted to start making things for other people in a practical but fun way. I have always loved small things, and greeting cards seemed perfect. It was something that I could control and make happen right away, unlike getting a picture book published. So, I started to design cards. I slowly started to sell my cards around town and was surprisingly successful.


Designing cards was a powerful activity. I was starting to develop a style, and for the first time I was starting to develop characters. Designing cards gave me the confidence to go back to picture books again. A character I created, named Kokoro, kept talking to me. She had stories to tell, and I spent a lot of my time writing her stories. I was tapping into a well inside myself and things were bubbling out. I am a creative plodder, which means that things do not come easy to me. I have to work on things over and over again. It is the process that brings results for me. This way of working is the opposite of the “prodigy artist,” who can nail things more quickly. I have learned that for me, it is okay to throw away most of my work to eventually reach the gems that are hiding down deep. I cannot whip out beautiful sketches or cute drawings on demand, but given some time, I can create an image that is really alive.

I thought that Kokoro would be my first picture book, and I worked on her story for years. But one day I found an interesting vintage coaster from Japan in the local thrift store that I love. The images were round, and one of them was a pitcher that looked like a bird. It inspired me to design a bird that was almost completely round. Early Bird was born! I love robins and like to watch them out my window, hopping around the garden and pulling up worms. Hmmm, the story was starting to form. The other great thing about working in libraries are children’s librarians! I have haunted the “J desk” for years and picked the brains of many a kids’ librarian. They are a gold mine of ideas and books. They beamed support for my first draft of Early Bird, and I knew I had something.

Without the support of people, I would never be here today, writing in this amazing blog. My mentor, Shannon Martin, was a key source of wisdom and practical advice when I started my card business. I met her through a friend. My mentor, Wendy Wahman, was key in helping to encourage me to never give up. I met her working at the library reference desk, when she walked up and asked a question. Connie Hsu (Little, Brown) was key in helping me find my agent. I met Connie through contacts at SCBWI. She introduced me to my agent, Lori Kilkelly (Rodeen Literary Management). Lori was key to selling my first book and helping me become a professional.

Night Owl

From the time I started designing cards to finding my agent was almost five years. (Remember that I had spent seven years trying to break into the business earlier.) From the time I met Wendy to meeting my agent was about one year. From the time that I met my agent to selling my first book, Early Bird was a couple of months. And from the time she submitted the manuscript to selling it was eight days. We sold two more books the same year, so that makes three books in one year!

Night Owl

Lastly, I want to mention that I work from a feeling — always. Technique can be taught, but feelings need to be nurtured. Georges Braque, the famous artist, said: “There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.” Slow down and trust your self. Relax. It is okay to throw a lot away. Turn your mind off when you are working, and turn it back on later, when you are sipping some tea and standing back, looking at what your heart did. I believe in the power of doing a lot of work, and I am grateful to my gut for speaking loudly to me. Sitting and digging in the dirt helps a lot, too!

Early Bird, Night Owl, and Cat Nap are three companion books that I am lucky enough to be publishing with Feiwel & Friends (Macmillan). I love my editor, Liz Szabla, for her enthusiasm and amazing ability to help shape my work into something stronger than it was before.

I have promised my agent that I will have a website up soon!

EARLY BIRD. Copyright © 2014 by Toni Yuly. Published by Feiwel and Friends, New York. All images here reproduced by permission of Toni Yuly.

* * * * * * *

Note for any new readers: 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks is a weekly meeting ground for taking some time to reflect on Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things from the past week, whether book-related or not, that happened to you. New kickers are always welcome.

* * * Jules’ Kicks * * *

1) My oldest turns ten this week. TEN!

2) I can’t wait to celebrate with her.

3) When we were told this week the amount of money we owe (gulp) for her upcoming surgery (just to have adenoids removed — nothing serious), my first thought was one of gratitude that my children are generally healthy. I feel for those people who have never-ending medical bills.

4) This Tiny Desk Concert from Lowland Hum is superb. I love the second song in particular. I ordered the CD right after listening to this.

5) My girls and I finished the last of Christopher Healy’s Hero’s Guide books this week, The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw. They were sad to see the series end. They are such fun books and wonderful read-alouds. (We read an ARC. This last book comes out in either April or May.)

6) Playing bunco for the first time.

7) Hurray for the Riff Raff. A kick last week. Still one this week. I love this cover:

My Sweet Lord by Hurray For The Riff Raff on Grooveshark

What are YOUR kicks this week?

22 comments to “7-Imp’s 7 Kicks #372: Featuring Toni Yuly”

  1. Thank you for such an inspiring and encouraging introduction to Toni and her work and simply: working and trusting. It IS a “long and windy” winding road!
    I thought it inspired that she showed her manuscripts and sketches to librarians to get their feedback. Brava!

    Off the top of my head:
    1. Some snow actually melted yesterday and I repotted some houseplants: dirt!
    2. the uninhibited karaoke singing of my youngest daughter’s high school friends late into last night.
    3. thanks for a mural project (East Hampton CHildren’s Library) finally completed —I think!
    4. tax preparation: if nothing else, I get to see the past year from a slightly higher vantage point and appreciate the blessings of health, options and keeping the dream alive.
    4. I get to teach Kindergartners about Jackson Pollack today: the art room will never be the same!

  2. Such an amazing journey, Early Bird looks like something we will have to check out.

    Also, I have to say I am very jealous of your ARC! We love the first two books, my daughter and her cousins (okay, and me and my sister-in-law) go around quoting the first two and discussing which of the characters we are most like.

    Kicky things, finding time for exercise all week, finishing the hat I made my daughter, inspiration on a new project, spending time hanging out with friends.

  3. I’m so proud and excited for my very first client to be discussing her craft on one of my favorite blogs. Yay, Toni! And thanks to Jules for helping illustrators promote their work in such a wonderful format.
    Kicks: Reading this post this morning! Having 500+ plastic bins in various sizes all over my family room for a major organizing fest. The gorgeous homemade baked breakfast empanadas (think: bacon and cheese inside with an egg on top) from La Sirena Clandestina down the street from my house. Happy Sunday everyone!

  4. You all, Little Willow left this but at an older post. I think it’s intended to be here:

    “Fly-by posting! Filmed all day today, will be filming all day tomorrow, so will not be online. I am bursting with happiness because this week was filled with kicks, and I hope you can all claim the same. Happy March, y’all. We’re making it awesome.”

    And I (Jules) will be back soon …

  5. Wow!i love Toni’s style! I would love one of her prints. And I can’t wait to see her books.
    Jules, happy birthday to oldest and good luck with her surgery.
    Rob, yay for finding dirt….signs of spring.
    Ailikate, time with friends is always a kick.
    Lori, you have a winner with Toni. Good luck with the organizing.
    My kicks:
    1. Family Library Night was a success for “Cat in the Hat” night. We honor Dr. Seuss.
    2. Lunch w/ eleven students and our author, Susan Blackaby.
    3. Daffodils blooming.
    4. Receiving a copy of the new Poetry Anthology for Science from Susan.
    5. Poetry Postcard Project. The poems are wonderful this year. Have you signed up?
    6. Started The Hangman’s Daughter last night. Stayed up beyond bedtime.
    7. Watched Doubt. We are having a Phillip Seymour Hoffman film fest.
    Have a great week.

  6. Every time I read a ‘Toni Yuly,’ I am thrilled to my toes with happiness, respect and satisfaction that she is finally riding on the shoulders of the crowd. I knew immediately, when I saw Toni’s work, that she has genius. I knew, immediately, we would be friends.
    Jules, your format is generous and rich, and your taste, as usual, exquisite. (re: Ferrante, too 😉
    Kick 1, reading this beautiful post on my favorite blog.
    2. Taking my standard poodle boy, Jody, to the Seattle Dog Show where he’ll be playing ‘poodle ambassador,’ at meet the breeds.
    3. Eating popcorn
    4. Working on a new story

  7. Just to say, I think this is worth at least seven kicks in one: I read the Horn Book illustrating issue. What a treasure trove. Thanks for your provocative and thoughtful piece, Jules. Loved following the changes in your impressions and attitudes.

  8. What a wonderful and inspiring post with beautiful images to boot. Thank you Toni for sharing your work and your journey. I am so happy for you!
    Jules – Double digits! I love my ten year old. Still my baby but challenges me too.
    Rob – My birthday and tax-prep are usually around the same time. It’s a good way to see where I’ve been and where I’m going. Have fun splattering paint.
    alikate – Sounds like you had a kicky week.
    Lori – What a gem you’ve found in Toni. Good luck to you both.
    LW – Yay! Cue “I’m So Happy” song.
    Jone – We all gathered around in awe at the tiny daffodil buds peeking out of the ground after our little thaw this weekend.
    Wendy – I have a great visual from “poodle ambassador”.
    Tricia -I’ll have to get my hands on that from my library buddies.


    1. Tax prep is done!!
    2. Signs of Spring including baseball tryouts (indoors). My son is on the Pirates. He looks good in black. I told him that I am going to dress like a Pirate including eyepatch and parrot at his games. He didn’t think that was funny.
    3. Went out to fancy dinner with my husband. Yum!
    4. I loved Jules’ article about digital vs. traditional. http://www.hbook.com/2014/02/choosing-books/horn-book-magazine/just-enjoy-pictures-hand-crafted-versus-digital-art/
    I have been working in digital for years now and as an experiment based on a conversation I had with Jen Hill on this topic, I decided to do some pen and ink drawings and I’m loving it.
    5. I still like working digitally and I am so glad I took the time to become proficient at it, but I am really enjoying this change of pace.
    6. So much good news for my kidlit friends this week. I’m bursting with pride for being their friend.
    7. My daughter is such an inspiration for setting goals and achieving them even when she is afraid or the skill doesn’t come naturally.

    Have a great week all!

  9. Love this success story! Thank you Toni Yuly for sharing your art and your story, very inspiring. And thank you for the Georges Braque quote too.

    Jules – Ten!! Wow! Have fun celebrating. And sending early well-wishes for a speedy surgery recovery.

    Rob – digging in the dirt is awesome, as is karaoke singing. Have fun with that kindergarten class today!

    ailikate – hooray for hanging out with friends and time to exercise, that’s a good week.

    Lori – I am in awe of your organizational fest. Hooray for your client, thanks for sharing her!

    Jone – your Family Library NIght has me envisioning delightful chaos with your Cat in the Hat theme. I need to sign up for my postcard!

    Wendy – have fun with Jody at the dog show! That sounds really fun.

    Moira – congrats on getting tax prep done, and on your new Pirate!

    This past week was a full one for me:
    1) Celebrating a work anniversary with a huge success story for a client.
    2) I am a nerd, but watching oral argument at the Court of Appeals this past week was super exciting.
    3) Happy! The song and the video at 24hoursofhappy.com – I play it over and over and it never fails to put me in a good mood and make me smile.
    4) Time for a 4 mile run yesterday.
    5) Mucking about in my garden in the rain – rainboots are awesome for PNW gardening. Wound up covered in mud, but the weeds are gone and more tulips and hyacinths have been planted.
    6) Mandatory vacation time on Friday, which led to a haircut and home improvement projects and plans to get organized for spring.
    7) A spa treatment yesterday evening – steam room, massage, foot soak = total relaxation.

    Have a wonderful week everyone!

  10. LOVE this post.
    Toni, thank you for sharing your story and how you got to where you are today. It inspires me to keep going and to accept that each step leads to the next.
    Look forward to seeing the books!

  11. So many lovely things here, from the interview with Toni Yuly (who reminds me of my husband in terms of her growing-up experience), to the kicks shared by folks. I am enjoying the link to the Riff Raff’s cover of “My Sweet Lord.” (George is my favorite Beatle, FYI.) I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted, and I am hoping to be better about checking in.

    My kicks:
    1. A friend of mine have launched a culinary adventure blog (with music and sailing!) at Borage and Basil Dot Com. We are writing under pen names just so that our names don’t come up in casual searches. I’ve always wanted to co-write a blog with a friend, and this came about organically.

    2. Next Sunday, friends (including my husband) and I are going to a Joan Jett concert. She was my hero and beacon as a teen, and it will be fun to see her again. I’m sure there will be some poignancy. One of my friends was a lonely “Jett-head” as a teen, too, and as it turned out, we went to the same concerts. Ah, this was the day before the internet. I am sure we would have been friends then, had we but known the other existed.

    3. Mandolin!

    4. Aebelskiver. I make them sweet, I make them savory.

    5. My father is getting his banjos fixed, and will give one to my husband, who is teaching himself to play. Banjos!

    6. Good friends.

    7. No lice in the house. Truly. That is a kick. I had no idea.

    Happy week, everyone!

  12. Oh my goodness, those colors … That sleeping kitty… The red bird! I think this art is one of my kicks this week. 🙂

    Jules, my youngest turned 10 this year and I’m thoroughly enjoying this age. She’s such a fun little inbetweener!

    Rob- karaoke. So much fun to get to share with your high schooler.

    Ailikate- yay for new projects!

    Lori- yummy sounding empanadas! My Argentinian friend keeps trying to teach me how to make them but alas I can’t ever match her.

    Jone- love love author visits!

    Wendy- poodles and popcorn!

    Tricia- I totally agree

    Moira- your pirate gear sounds awesome

    Rachel- must watch that video and yay for spa visits!

    Saints- congrats on no lice – I totally understand that being a kick!!

    My kicks:
    1) this art makes me so happy
    2) my son got invited to another sleepover and won a YuGiOh match. Small steps to him feeling better about himself.
    3) watching and listening to him perform at his middle school band concert. He’s learned so much!
    4) seeing my baby girl handle a major disappointment. While it was hard I was so proud of her maturity.
    5) we finished our Latino children’s lit project and are rest to present tomorrow. Shwew!
    6) the amazing writing and art of yuyi morales that I get to book talk tomorrow
    7) the incredible words of meg medina that I’m excited share with the class (remember that panel video that you shared with us, Jules?)

    In other words, y’all wish me luck on my big presentation tomorrow!

  13. I’ll be back in the morning (er, later), you all! The day got away from me. More soon.

  14. (And I say “later,” because it’s after midnight now.)

  15. Love this whole posting. I love the art and the book!!!!! and SO appreciate the thoughtful, detailed, honest writing about her experiences. Congrats.
    GREAT kicks too. I’ve been offline for a bit. Nice to catch up with regulars and meet some new folks.
    My Kicks:
    1. our Tiny turned 1 in February and at last we had her party (had to be rescheduled twice). Having a baby makes the slowest year race by.
    2. Seeing above mentioned Tiny fall in love with musical intruments/noise makers, especially an elephant maraka/shaker.
    3. Convinced our volunteer library committee at my older son’s wonderful school that we should donate this year’s Caldecott and Newbery books to our fundraiser/auction. So excited to see this year’s books get good press in our big event.
    4. Getting back here for a visit.

    Happy Art, Happy Week!

  16. Rob, I hope the kindergartners were fun, and that’s a mighty fine way to look at taxes. As painful as they often are, it’s a good way to see it all.

    ailikate: You will LOVE the third book. “When life gives you lemons, throw them at Duncan.” That’s all I’ll say. Hee. Also, good luck with your new project.

    Lori: The reason I didn’t make it to these comments yesterday was because we Danielsons were organizing in the house, too. It was PAINFUL, but we got one room cleared of lots of unnecessary clutter.

    LITTLE WILLOW, that sounds like an especially, extra-kicky week. WOO HOO!

    Jone: I need to sign up. Where do we do so again? … Enjoy your filmfest. Doubt has such good acting. I heard him talk about it on Fresh Air, and it was fascinating how he talked about his character’s motivations.

    Wendy: Poodle ambassador. Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing, but that’s neat.

    Tricia, thanks! And, yes, it’s such a great issue.

    Moira: I’ve seen your pen-and-inks on FB, and they are GORGEOUS! Good luck to your son’s team this season, and I’m glad Spring is around the bend.

    Rachel, dang. What a good week in every way, mind, body, and soul. And here’s to nerds. … I’ll have to explore this happy song.

    Hi, Kara!

    Farida, isn’t that cover great? I am obsessed with their music right now. I love the lead singer’s voice. Saw them live a few weeks ago, and they were fabulous. I’ve always loved the melody of Harrison’s song. … I can’t wait to hear about the concert. Also, take THAT, lice. Yiggedy.

    Shannon, GOOD LUCK! You will do great, I know this. I wish I could hear the presentation. … Great news about your son (and daughter, too). And, yes, I’m excited about age ten. I love who my daughter is becoming.

    Allison, what good kicks — happy birthday to the wee one, and I LOVE the Caldecott donation!

    Have a good week, everyone!

  17. I have to join in and thank everyone for such lovely comments, plus I loved reading all of the kicks! Thank you, Rob, Ailikate, Moira, Rachel, Allison, Jone – (I would be happy to send you a print! just email me, ok?) Kara – I am glad that my story inspires you! Yes, keep going and trust yourself! Shannon, Jules and of course my super agent Lori and amazing friend, Wendy! A few of my kicks were: Having Indian lunch with my husband and son yesterday, Sitting in the dirt and pulling weeds on a gorgeous, warm day on Friday and getting to meet tons of new neighbors (lots of wee ones) at a local book launch for EARLY BIRD, talking to Jules about dorks, and seeing my work on the wonderful 7-imp!!!

  18. Congratulations, Toni! Love your little red bird and the rich colors. 3 companion books to come – phenomenal! Exited to see them all. I’ve been admiring your work via Wendy (wonderful person, artist, and friend) so I am really happy to read your interview at 7 Imp.
    My kicks:
    Sending surprises to three people (I smile, anticipating their reactions).
    Watched “House of Cards” and grateful it’s over because I couldn’t tear myself away.
    Listening to my son talk about “The Mysterious Benedict Society” in his attempt to get me to read the novel.
    Finally had time to read “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.” (Hero’s Guide series on my long list, too!)
    Playing lacrosse yesterday on a warm, dry Seattle afternoon with my husband and son.
    A rare date night with my husband and excited about another to come.
    Sharing memories of my mom with a friend.
    Grateful for my father’s birthday.
    Braces coming off in 2 days!
    Jules- congrats on the birthday and good luck with the surgery.

  19. Toni: Dorks rule. And thanks for visiting.

    Samantha: Happy birthday to your father! It sounds like you had a really good week.

    Thanks for the surgery well-wishes, everyone. My daughter is mostly excited she’ll get TWO DAYS OFF from school.

  20. Oh I loved this interview – Toni Yuly is so articulate writing about her hard work and “stick,” and her images look charming!
    And as a new discoverer of 7imps, I have to put that discovery in each of the seven slots- seven kicks! (at least) Thank you for this amazing site.

  21. […] Toni Yuly, Lori’s first client, is featured on Seven Impossible Things HERE. […]

  22. I love seeing Toni here! And I appreciate her reminders to slow down and trust the feelings. Nothing goes to waste. Good words to start my day. Thank you both!

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