Meet Children's Author & Illustrator Merrill Rainey

 An interview by Gloria G. Adams 

We are thrilled to have illustrator, author, paper engineer, and Master Doodler Merrill Rainey as a guest on our blog this month!

Hi Gloria, Thanks for having me!

Merrill, can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a children’s book and magazine illustrator? Is this something you always wanted to do?

Let’s start with your second question first, as it is a good one and is something I’ve been thinking about over the last year. The simple answer is that I have come to the conclusion that being an author/illustrator is something that chose me. Creating books and products for young people seems to come second nature to me. It’s just something I know how to do. I’ve always been an artsy/crafty person and my childhood was full of moments of creation, and imaginary play. 

These childhood moments are what laid the foundation for the things I am creating today! When asked, I also like to tell people that I enjoy creating for children because I have never lost my inner child! So, I create the things that my inner child would want to see on the shelf.

I started working towards my illustration career while attending Kent State University. I graduated in 2003 with a BA in Visual Communication Design with a background in illustration. At that time, I had interned at the Akron Beacon journal doing editorial illustration and design work and had a few opportunities to even illustrate a few featured sections. It was an amazing internship, and after graduation, working for a large newspaper seemed like where I wanted to be. However, the newspaper industry took a turn for the worse, which left me looking for different work, specifically anything with the description of illustrator in it. I can even remember applying to the Yellow Pages to illustrate and create the ads that showed up in the coupon section.

  For a while, I worked as a Graphic Designer by day and worked on my portfolio at night. In 2007, I signed with the Tugeau 2 agency, working mainly on educational illustration assignments. Then in 2010 when my son Chase was born, I finally got my first big kid’s magazine assignment from Jack and Jill Magazine. This was just the start, and soon after the completion of that first job, new assignments started coming in regularly. At this time, I was still working my full-time job. After working an 8–10-hour day at the office, I would go home, we’d have dinner and put Chase to bed after which I would go back to work on contract work until about 4 or 5 in the morning. Then, I would sleep a few hours and go back to my day job. This went on for a few years. I am not quite sure what the heck was I thinking, or how I managed this for so long, but what it came down to was that I truly wanted to succeed more than anything else! By 2012, I was eventually making enough income to quit my full-time job and start working for myself.

Fast forward a few years to 2017… a lot of things had happened in that time from the loss of a few family members (that’s still a hard one), an addition of a baby girl to our family, to taking over as the Illustrator Coordinator for the Northern Ohio Chapter of SCBWI. It was also when I connected with my current literary agent Teresa Kietlinski of Bookmark Literary. Working with Teresa is where all of the magic started coming together, we refined my portfolio, started pitching ideas to publishers, and now, almost 7 years later we have 6 books together with 2 more on the way.

I will note that through all of this, without organizations like SCBWI and The Highlights Foundation, I would not be where I am today.So many key moments in my career, like meeting mentors and publishers, have happened because these organizations exist, and I will forever be thankful!

 Who are the people who have influenced your work the most?

My kids! They reopened my eyes to remember what it was like to be a child. They helped me to remember what it is like to grow up and to experience pure joy and innocence again. Observing them daily gives me a firm understanding of what it is like to be a kid learning to navigate and find one’s self in the world.


Throughout the last 10 years I’ve been offered a few opportunities to go back to work again for various companies, but I decided not to, mainly because of Chase and Zoey. We may not have everything that all of their friends do, but I want them to see that if you work hard for what you want, you can achieve anything. When they are my age, no matter what they end up being, I hope they follow in my footsteps and know that they can achieve anything by working hard. I want them to realize that some things are more important and more valuable than the latest toy or technology on the shelf.


What exactly is a paper engineer?

Paper engineering is the art of taking flat sheets of paper and turning them into something 3D or 4D. It’s similar to Origami but we paper engineers use scissors and glue. :-) It really is very comparable to architectural, or mechanical engineering. I just use paper to create my final products. When it comes down to it, we engineers (no matter what kind) use the same precision and creative thinking to build products for our end users.

 Some of my favorite paper engineers are Matthew Reinhart and David A. Carter.

I’ve read that one thing you want to do is to show kids how to see things differently. This really resonated with me. Can you tell us how you feel your books accomplish this?

The Color, Cut, Create series was created specifically to get kids to see a sheet of paper and know that by folding and bending it, they can turn it into anything they want. Odd Dot and I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that the kids using these books would have a successful time creating. It was also designed to indirectly educate the user. For example, in the Dinosaur World book, all of the dinosaurs are built the same way. My hope is that once the user has built one or two of them, they will know how to build all of them. Then, when they realize they are missing a particular dinosaur that they want in their world, they will now have the ability to create it themselves!

As I mentioned above, my siblings and I spent a lot of time using our imagination and creating things while growing up, and I want to make sure that today’s generations have the same childhood opportunities I did.

 I’d like to hear more about the “lunchbox doodles.” What a great idea! And why do you call yourself a master doodler?

I have one answer for both questions! The master doodler tagline came from years of creating drawings for my son Chase’s school lunches. I caught wind of this idea from another dad’s blog who put a drawing in his kids lunches for 16 years. I thought that was awesome, so I gave it a try. It not only gave me the opportunity to make Chase’s day, but it also gave me the opportunity to test how fast I could draw something or come up with new characters, as well as try out new pens, markers, etc. 

I had a pretty good run with drawing a doodle every day for almost 6 years (Pre-K–4th grade), until  COVID. COVID got me out of the habit of doing this every morning. Even though it doesn't happen every day anymore, I do still try to get a few doodles drawn now and then during the school year for both of my kids.

For those who want to get better at drawing and become a master doodler, my advice is to draw with a pen or Sharpie. Something that you can’t erase. Doing so will help you to be more confident and precise with your pen strokes.

 How much work/time goes into creating one of your books?

It depends on the book, but on average from start to finish it’s about two years. That timeframe is after the book idea has been acquired from a publishing house. That two years doesn’t include all of the time and prep-work beforehand leading up to the acquisition of the title (which can sometimes take years.) I’ve been working on a few stories for almost five years now and still haven’t completely figured them out. When I present to kids, I talk about and emphasize how trial and error is part of this process and to not give up if your idea doesn’t work out the first time. Reworking projects is just a big part of the whole writing and illustrating process.

How did having your work displayed at the Mazza Museum come about?

For a few years, I was working in cut paper collage work for some of my magazine illustration jobs. After a while, I started to collect physical pieces of artwork from these assignments, and I didn’t know what to do with them. So, I reached out to Ben Sapp at the University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum about donating a few pieces. He graciously accepted and even offered that we could also do a small gallery show of the work. This was definitely a career highlight for me! It also gave me a little piece of mind that some of my cut paper works will be archived for as long as they will last for future generations to see.

 You are currently the Regional Illustrator Coordinator for the Ohio: North Society of Book   Writers and Illustrators. What are some of the things you do in your position with SCBWI? 

I have been the Illustrator Coordinator for seven years now and I have loved every minute! My main goal in this role was to give back to a community and organization that had presented me with so many opportunities that helped me advance my career. When I stepped into this role, I focused on bringing in opportunities for the illustrators in our chapter to be seen by agents, editors, and art directors. I’ve also tried to focus on inspirational or educational experiences for our members. I spent a lot of time trying to build a cohesive look and feel to our local chapter by encouraging a consistent look to all of our events and graphics. It has been a wonderful experience. However, with that all said, at the end of this year I will be stepping away from this role. My time and energy is currently needed elsewhere, but I look forward to bringing in a new spark to help continue building what I have been working on for our region.

You’ve done work for hire for several magazines, been published traditionally through Odd Dot and Harper Collins, and have also published independently. Can you tell us your experiences with each and what you learned from them?

Having published both traditionally and independently, I can say that they both have been a lot of work. No matter which direction you decide to go in your publishing career, it takes your all to do it right! It takes a lot of time and effort to market your books, whether on social media or promoting at public events. It also takes a lot of time to review and edit your own work. You have to be involved in every step along the way…you are on 24/7!

If I had to choose one way to publish, traditionally vs. independently, that would be to publish traditionally. Here is why: per my experiences, publishing traditionally has allowed me to be able to work with a team of experts who know the best way to build my books so that they will be the highest quality, most user friendly, and actually get into the hands of the end user. It has allowed me opportunities to learn how the publishing world works. It doesn’t always work right, or in your favor, but I’ve gained invaluable knowledge on how to navigate situations that might arise with my next project or publishing experiences.

 Are you ever planning on writing a graphic novel? (Or have you already written one?)

I have a few in the works, but nothing finished yet. Some stories just take longer to find their voice. Currently, I am illustrating the new Jack and Jill Protectors of Safe Tomorrows comic found in Jack and Jill Magazine. I am also working on a hybrid picture book/graphic novel with Hippo Park currently titled On The Air With Dr. Doodle Bug.

  What upcoming projects can you tell us about?

I am currently marketing my next illustrated picture book which is a reimagined Florence Parry Heide classic picture book titled Giants Are Very Brave People, set to release on August 1st.

I am also working on two new projects. One is another paper craft book with Odd Dot titled Building Block Books: My First Town. This book is a take on the classic children’s building blocks where young builders will punch out, build, and stack a 3D city of their own. And I am working on, as mentioned above, a hybrid picture book/graphic novel with Hippo Park currently titled On The Air With Dr. Doodle Bug.


What’s your best advice for aspiring illustrators for children’s work?

If you really want it- Stick with it! Know that this career path is not your normal 9-5 job. It’s a constant hustle trying to figure out new projects, while working on current projects, and figuring out ways to market your work. Also, learn how to speak for yourself and your work, and never quit learning new skills or refining your craft.


Short and Sweet

Pantser or Plotter?    Pantser

Guilty Food Pleasure?     French Fries and Cookies

Favorite Hobby?    Urban Sketching or antiquing for the perfect treasure!

 Cat or Dog Person?    Dog

Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)?  My Dad (we lost him when I was 12.)

Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening?  When I first started out, I used to like to work between the hours of midnight and 5 am. Mainly due to the world being complete shutdown so I could just focus on my work. Now, it’s the morning hours, and sometimes late afternoons.



Upcoming events and workshops:

Join Merrill at the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp in Illustration: Highlights Foundation Summer Camp in Illustration

Preorder Giants Are Very Brave People:

 Books by Merrill:

ROAR! I’m a Dinosaur 

OINK! I'm a Pig

 Color, Cut, Create • Dinosaur World


Color, Cut, Create • Horse Ranch

Welcome Keila V. Dawson, this month's guest author!



 Interview by Lana Wayne Koehler

Tell us about yourself, Keila.

Thank you so much for allowing me to be a guest on your blog, Lana!

I am a former educator turned children’s author. I’m originally from New Orleans, but I’ve lived in different states across the U.S. and abroad in the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt. Learning about other cultures and world history has always interested me. I enjoy international travel and genealogical research which also takes me all over the world.

What got you started in writing children’s books?

My journey in writing started when a friend asked about my bucket list and I said I’d always wanted to write a book for kids. I had been a teacher of young children, a picture book collector and then a parent of children, so I’d read a lot of picture books. Writing one is something I had thought about over the years, but I had told no one that before! I believe sharing that dream brought it closer to a reality.

But I didn’t have a story idea, and I knew nothing about writing a book for kids, however saying it out loud made me think of the possibility. And so I questioned why I hadn't tried. 


What was your inspiration for The King Cake Baby and Opening the Road? 

I think allowing myself to think I could write a book opened my mind to ideas about what would make a good story. One day while baking a king cake during the Carnival season, I reached inside my kitchen drawer to get one of a little plastic baby from my a collection that I’ve found in king cakes over the years to hide inside the cake. But I couldn’t find them. And I said something like, “Where’d my babies run off to?” And in that moment, I knew that was the story idea I had been waiting for. That night I wrote my first draft of The King Cake Baby as a runaway tale based on the Gingerbread Man tale, but told Louisiana style!






For Opening the Road, I listened to a BBC radio program about the postal worker who wrote guides for Black Americans used to travel safely during legal segregation and wanted to know more. The research for this book had me learning many things I didn’t learn in school. And it shows the importance of having quality children’s nonfiction trade books available for young readers.



How did you happen to get together with your co-authors/editors on your No World Too Big and No Voice Too Small books?


Lindsay, Jeanette, and I were part of a Facebook group for the Kidlit Women. Jeanette posted about an idea to write a book that featured young activists. I replied, along with others with ideas of who I’d put in such a book. Lindsay had had a similar idea about writing about young changemakers and had started a list, so she contacted Jeanette. They shared the same agent who liked the idea, but she thought it was a big project and advised them to add a third person. And there were a lot of moving parts writing the proposal, finding youth to feature, seeking permissions, and reaching out to poets. Lindsay contacted me and I was thrilled to commit to the project. We chose biographical poems because poetry carries a lot of emotion and is often used as a vehicle for social change. When Karen Boss expressed interest in our proposal, we knew Charlesbridge was the perfect publisher for this book. And we worked so well together that before NO VOICE TOO SMALL released, we were already thinking about a companion title.



We focused NO WORLD TOO BIG on climate change because kids are anxious about their futures. And there are kids all around the world giving them hope because they are taking action and searching for solutions to ease the effects of global warming.



Any new projects in the works?

Yes! In 2024, YUMBO GUMBO will be released with Charlesbridge as part of their Storytelling Math Series. It's an intergenerational story with a side of sibling rivalry about making gumbo and how the main character uses mathematical reasoning to solve the problem. I am excited to share another story about my Louisiana culture. YUMBO!


 Short and Sweet:

 Pantser or Plotter?

 Panster until research forces me to plot and plan!

 Guilty Food Pleasure?

 See’s Candies (And king cake that I only eat during Carnival season!)

 Favorite Hobby?


 Cat or Dog Person?

 Cat. I’ve also had dogs and love that they love unconditionally, but I adore how cats are so unpredictable and independent.

 Who would you like to have dinner with (living or dead)?

 My great-grandparents! I found the ship’s manifest with my great-grandfather, my very pregnant great-grandmother, my 5-year-old grandfather, and his older siblings moving to the U.S from Central America with 3 trunks, 1 Valise of Books, Bedding, and a baby carriage. What books were in that suitcase?

Do you do your best work in the morning, afternoon, or evening?



Keila V. Dawson worked as a community organizer, educator, and advocate for children with disabilities before becoming a children’s book author. She writes fiction and nonfiction picture books. She is coeditor of No World Too Big, Young People Fighting Global Climate Change, and No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History. Dawson is the author of Opening the Road: Victor Hugo Green and His Green Book, The King Cake Baby and the forthcoming Yumbo Gumbo.


Awards and honors for her books include an International Reading Association Children’s Book Award, a NCSS and NCTE Notable, Kirkus Best Book, Chicago Public Library Best Book, New York Public Library Best Book, Bank Street Best Book, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum's Noteworthy Book, a two-time Ohioana finalist, Jane Addams finalist, a 2023 Charlotte Award and 2023-24 Louisiana Readers' Choice Award nominee.


A New Orleans native, Dawson has also lived and worked in different states across the U.S., and abroad in the Philippines, Japan, and Egypt. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. When she isn’t reading, writing, and visiting schools, she’s traveling, playing tennis, or digging in genealogical archives. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or her website.