A Visit with Illustrator Steven Henry

h1 October 13th, 2015 by jules

Illustrator Steven Henry (the artist formerly known as Steven D’Amico) is here today to talk about a couple of his brand-new illustrated titles, as well as look back on a few of his earlier ones. Steven, who has also worked as a designer and art director, debuted in picture books a little over ten years ago, and today he shares a bit of his artwork — soft and breezy pen-and-ink (for the most part) artwork on this soft and breezy Autumn Day. (And pictured above is early concept art from Rebecca Colby’s It’s Raining Bats & Frogs, released in August. More on that below.)

Without further ado …

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Steven: With two new books coming out this Fall, I’ve been thinking about how different the production process was for each one.

I began working on A Lucky Author Has A Dog [Arthur A. Levine Books, September 2015] with my editor, Arthur Levine, in April 2013. I loved the subject matter and gentle tone of Mary Lyn Ray’s manuscript, and I also realized pretty quickly that Ms. Ray’s spare language left a lot of space for me to work with as an illustrator. Which was exciting, but a little intimidating at the same time.

After a number of concept sketches and color studies, it was agreed that the pen-and-ink tests I’d done captured the tone of the story. I’d wanted to explore this direction for some time, but this was the first book I’d been invited to do that actually seemed like a great fit for this level of detail. So I was pretty excited to get rolling. However, once the first sketched dummy was completed, Arthur felt we were missing some opportunities to tell another story with the pictures. I agreed. I re-drew the dummy, adding details and a new character not mentioned in the story. The new work expanded on the themes in the text and seemed to add an extra emotional pull, especially on the final page. The new dummy was a definite improvement over the first one, but the time it took to make all of the changes was pushing the production timeline into the next project on my calendar. After some discussion, Arthur graciously agreed to let me pause work on A Lucky Author in order to begin concepting for It’s Raining Bats & Frogs [Feiwel & Friends, August 2015].

The manuscript for It’s Raining Bats & Frogs was sent over to me by Liz Szabla at Feiwel & Friends. Rebecca Colby’s whimsical tale of a witches’ parade gone wrong immediately grabbed me, and the visual ideas came in a rush. Unlike A Lucky Author, this was one of those books where everything seemed to fall into place. I still did a lot of concept sketching and there were a few minor changes along the way, but the vision of the witches in their world came together relatively quickly. As it turned out, Liz and art director Rich Deas were on board with nearly all of my ideas for the story. Drawing from some of the lessons I’d recently learned with Arthur, I paid special attention to things in Delia’s world that might help push the story forward and engage the reader. Mountaintop treehouses, mushroom cottages, Delia’s pet crow, the ghostly marching band: These were some of the things I brought to the table to help expand the story beyond the text.


(Click each to enlarge)

By Spring of 2014, I was ready to deliver the final art for Bats & Frogs and return my attention to A Lucky Author. It took me a day or two to get back into the brownstone neighborhood of the author and her dog, especially after several months in the mountains with parading witches and marching ghosts! But soon I was back on track and in full production. Interior artwork was completed in October of 2014, with the cover and finishing touches following in December.


(Click to enlarge)


Two different books, two very different production experiences. Both ended up being full of details and characters outside of the text, something I hope will give young readers a more immersive experience — and more “re-play value.”

It’s Raining Bats & Frogs and A Lucky Author Has A Dog are visually distinct from each other, but together they represent a departure from my earlier work on books like Ella, The Elegant Elephant [Arthur A. Levine Books, 2004] and Suki, the Very Loud Bunny [Dutton Juvenile, 2008].

That’s not to say I won’t return to a softer, bolder approach in future books. I don’t necessarily consider this particular style to be a progression of growth as an illustrator. As much as I like working in it, it’s not always what a manuscript requires. As much as possible, I try to tailor the style of my illustrations to the feel I get from a story. To find the right look, I work closely with my publishers, often exchanging moodboards and tweaking concept art until we find a style that harmonizes well with the text. The comfort level I have with this kind of collaboration has probably been helped by my background as an agency art director. The idea of being an “artist” has always been less important to me than being an effective visual storyteller — at least when it comes to children’s books. And the best way I’ve found to do that is by striving for creative synergy with my editors and authors.

A few other places I’ve been …

[This is from] Ella Sets The Stage (2006). The Ella books were my first venture into children’s publishing (under my previous name, Steven D’Amico).


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This is from Suki, the Very Loud Bunny (2008). The Suki books continued the soft charcoal stylings of Ella.


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This is from [Erica Silverman’s] The Hanukkah Hop! (2010). The color and geometry of this book was a fun departure from working with charcoal.


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This is from All Kinds Of Kisses, a new book coming from Feiwel & Friends next year.

Last but not least: This is an unpublished study from 2005. It’s an early exercise that shares something in common with the art of A Lucky Author Has A Dog. I’m glad I finally found the right stories to share this style with!


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All images used by permission of Steven Henry.

4 comments to “A Visit with Illustrator Steven Henry”

  1. Oh! These are all new to me titles. Cant’ wait to go and explore!

  2. This post made my day! Each illustration makes me feel so happy. 🙂 And I couldn’t help but pause on the title of the first book – A Lucky Author Has A Dog. It’s time to go bring home a wriggling puppy!

  3. Of all the versatile styles which Steven is capable of producing for professional work, A Lucky Author Has A Dog seems to me like his natural, warm, most personal style. I enjoyed it very much!

  4. Thank you, everyone. It’s so nice to get feedback. Yifat, you may be right… I love working with ink!

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