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.
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?
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: https://littlerainey.com/events
Join Merrill at the Highlights Foundation Summer Camp in Illustration: Highlights Foundation Summer Camp in Illustrationhttps://gatheringvolumes.com/item/FtG3jpk3T0QnEpiV1yFSiw
Books by Merrill:
ROAR! I’m a Dinosaur https://gatheringvolumes.com/item/MEgaIBq6_d8BsF3VDGIFqQ