At a conference earlier this year, I had the privilege of meeting Penguin-Random House Senior Art Director Giuseppe Castellano. He delivered an amazing keynote speech about getting past staring at the blank page. The advice he gave was wonderful, but it was the tone in which he delivered the speech that blew me away. Behind the exercises and prompts, which were extremely helpful, there was an openness, a genuineness, that drew me in. As Giuseppe spoke, his title and the publisher where he is employed seemed to fall away and what was left was a man who has learned a lot along his own journey as an artist, but is far from figuring it all out. Like us all, he still has times when he stares at a blank page, gets stuck by self-doubt, but his message gave me confidence that I can break through my own blocks and create amazing things.

That is when I knew I had to have him on the blog. I hope you enjoy!


Middle Grade Mafia: Let’s start off with a little game called Myth vs. Reality. Tell us what people think a Senior Art Director does versus what a typical day looks like.

Giuseppe Castellano: Myth: A senior art director (any art director) unilaterally makes subjective comments on your illustration. Their comments stem from personal taste, or an insatiable need to be in control.

Reality: A senior art director (any art director) objectively reviews your illustration to make sure you a) solved the problem and b) provided a quality piece. The publisher, editor, and others also review your work. Any comment provided by the art director and his team are meant to help you put your best foot forward.

MGM: As with anything, trends come and go with the times. In the children’s book industry, what do you see phasing out and what is gaining traction? Is there anything you would like to see make a comeback?

GC: “Trend” is a word mentioned a lot at conferences, schools, and on blogs. There are authors and illustrators who are in constant pursuit of the “current trend.” They may think, if I can catch the trend, my manuscript or art style will be more marketable. It’s understandable. It’s also wrong.

“Trend” is a word I almost never hear at work. I can’t speak for the editorial group, but I think it’s safe to say that by and large they don’t acquire manuscripts by following trends. As far as I’m concerned, I couldn’t care less about art trends in children’s books. I make mental notes of commonalities, of course. I hear reports from our sales team. And yes, there are stylistic moments. But, as an author or illustrator, I wouldn’t be concerned with “trends”. They come and go. The constant, however, will always be good content. We’re just looking for stories and art with which we make an emotional connection.

That isn’t to say that we’re not aware of the market. You have to be. But it shouldn’t affect what you want to create. So, don’t worry about teenage vampire robot and/or inanimate objects and/or babies in dystopian future pasts writing diaries about quitting or being bossy, while drawn traditionally and/or digitally. Write good stories. Make good art. That’s the trend.

MGM: Publishing is a business and decisions are made based on a book’s marketability and potential profitability. Do you see books or art come across your desk that you fall in love with, but you have to reject?

GC: It doesn’t really work that way. Yes, of course we’re a business; and marketability and profitability are going to be in the equation. But, they’re a part of the equation—not the total sum.

I know I’m splitting hairs here, but I don’t like the word “rejection”—it implies finality. Yes, it could mean “not ever”. But it could also mean “not yet” or “not now.” As an art director, it’s my job to find great art that aligns with the tone of a manuscript. I pass on art that is not well executed; and is lacking in personality.

MGM: How do you decide which artist to use on a specific project?

GC: I’m going to steal your myth/reality formula!

Myth: I only hire artists who:

  • Go to industry cocktail parties.
  • Graduated from a top art school.
  • Live in New York (preferably Brooklyn).
  • Earn a bunch of awards.
  • Have a slew of clients.
  • Spent the most money on mailers.

Reality: It’s all about your art and my need. That’s it. Nothing else really matters. It doesn’t matter (for me) if you’ve illustrated zero children’s books or hundreds of them. I look for artists who I feel have strong grasps on drawing, character design, composition, color theory, and value range. Honestly, in contrast to editors needing to “love” a manuscript, I don’t have to “love” your art. I have to recognize that it is good art, and good for the manuscript.

MGM: When working with a larger publishing house, how much input does an author have in the development of the cover art?

GC: Depending on the house, the imprint, the editor, and the book, an author can have no input; or only consultation but no approval; or full approval. Some authors trust us entirely; while others want to art direct every stage.

Every relationship with an author is different. When you sign on (with any publisher, large or small), have a discussion with your editor about the cover process. The bottom line will always be: we aim to create a cover that works for the book, the market, the editor, the art director, and of course, the author.

MGM: In terms of the visual representation of a book, what advice would you give an author who is considering a smaller indie press? How about self-publishing

GC: Don’t skimp on the design of the cover and interior of a book. Readers deserve well-created books. If you, the author, are in charge of the design of your book, hire a professional designer—someone who will design, art direct, and consult on fonts, illustrations, photography rights, and more.

Did you just say to yourself, that sounds expensive? Self-publishing, when approached professionally, is going to be an investment. It will need to be well-edited, well-copyedited, well designed, and well produced. And what about marketing and distribution?

Did you know that you most likely need to purchase a commercial license for any fonts you use? Free fonts are rife with piracy and below board User Licensing Agreements. I would even check the ULA for the factory fonts on your computer. Chances are, they were licensed for your personal use, only. Font usage is tricky. We at Penguin have a dedicated font administrator who ensures all licenses are cleared for any fonts we use. Terms for printed books and E-books are negotiated—and paid—before we hit the print button.

Be aware of the many integral parts of a book when self-publishing—and respect them all equally.

MGM: What role do you see technology playing in the way children’s books are created, marketed, and consumed?

GC: This is an interesting question. We’re now a few years removed from the “print is dead” declarations; and yet, here we are, enjoying a renaissance in children’s books—led commandingly by print. Technology has certainly helped provide outreach and awareness for our authors, illustrators, and books. And it’s provided a new platform with which to read books. But it’s all in addition to, and not in place of, the physical presence.

Whether your product is an app, an E-book, or a printed book, the story and art still have to be strong.

MGM: Another game… Then, Now, Next. Which artists/illustrators work do you admire?

GC: I get asked this question quite a bit—particularly at conferences. To be honest, I don’t think that way. I don’t think any art director should. Our books, our talented illustrators, are so unique in their own ways that it’s hard to identify favorites.

I like so many different kinds of artists; and the list is constantly changing. At the moment, the work of Bernie Fuchs is resonating with me. I love Henry Moore (sculptor), Tony Viramontes (fashion designer), Beatrix Potter, Giorgio Morandi, and others.

It’s important to look at artists who aren’t in your genre—or even your era; for the same reason you would practice classical or jazz guitar before moving to rock. I think it’s vital to study the masters when trying to find yourself.


Read more from Giuseppe by visiting his popular #arttips blog. You can also follow him on Twitter.