Illustrator Interviews – #Kidlitwomen AM Studios: Women Supporting Each Other

It’s Women’s History Month and the children’s literature community is celebrating with 31 days of essays seeking to address gender and social inequalities in our industry. Join the conversation at KidlitWomen on Facebook and by searching #KidlitWomen on Twitter. Today I am hosting a guest post/interview with a women’s illustrator cooperative.

“For the past 30+ years I have been part of an illustrator’s cooperative called AM Studios. We organized AM Studios in order to address challenges we faced as professional illustrators who were also mothers. We are sharing our story to invite dialogue, in hopes that many minds together will come up with new ways to think about working families.

Our situations varied; some of us contributed a fraction of our family’s income, some contributed equally, others provided our family’s main income. Some husbands had flexible work that allowed them to share caregiving on an equal basis, others worked more traditional hours and shared house responsibilities when they could. These were conscious, thoughtful decisions, which was the main thing.” 
                                                                                                                Mary Newell DePalma

[JM] How did AM Studios Form?

KV: I had moved from NYC where I had been illustrating. I found Boston a very difficult place to get to know people so I joined the Graphic Artist’s Guild (GAG) and started to go to the meetings, which were often at members’ homes or studios.  Most meetings were largely men. At one meeting, in Elizabeth’s attic studio, we were talking about issues outside of illustration. I specifically remember thinking no one ever talked about what it was like for women, especially moms, who were juggling far more. I was pregnant, scared, and for the first time at one of these meetings I felt like an outsider. A few women talked after the meeting about our concerns and needs, and it grew from there.

MC: I was on the GAG Board, and was freelancing as an illustrator. I was at that meeting, and remember Kathleen very eloquently describing women’s and mothers’ challenges as freelance illustrators–a whole different experience from men. 

JLL: Diane put an ad in the GAG newsletter asking if there were any parents interested in forming a support group. My heart leapt when I saw the ad! I had an almost 2 year old and I felt like I was losing my vocabulary. I was in the studio when my daughter was sleeping and at night, but at that time I had maybe 2 friends with children. I knew no one who was trying to do this creative magic who had kids.

SW: We saw it in the newsletter. I was freelancing as a graphic designer and (my husband) Toby was a freelance illustrator. We were juggling 2 freelance careers and an infant. I really needed to connect with others who were in a similar situation. Everyone in the group was an illustrator except for me, and everyone was a woman except Toby. Toby and I shared childcare equally so my situation was a little different.

EWS: In 1984 I was thrilled to find the GAG as a huge support to me as a new illustrator and found a lot of connection and friendship there. I was a very active member and joined the Board. When I was pregnant someone approached me to ask if I would like to join a group of women illustrators and designers who were mothers. They were warm and welcoming and provided a very appealing respite from the isolation of freelance work and the isolation of being a new mother. The social contact was really important to me, but the professional connection was also. Several of these women had much more experience than I and I had a lot to learn from them.

GL: I joined AM Studios because artwork is such a solitary endeavor. I really wanted to have a relationship with other artists who were dealing with raising children. I had a studio in downtown Boston, and my colleagues there were all single. Most of their business was done after hours at parties and bars while I was helping with homework or changing diapers or cleaning or cooking or trying to get caught up on sleep.

MND: It was fascinating that Diane advertised for ‘parents’ and got a dozen women and one man. And we all had infants or toddlers. You were all strangers to me at the first meeting, but we became a very tight knit, supportive group of colleagues and friends.


[JM] What contributed to the need for this group?

MND: I remember sitting at a GAG meeting where an Ad Agency Exec was giving a talk about marketing. I was very interested; we all did direct mail to Ad Agencies back then. At some point, he held up a large envelope and said “THIS promotional piece really caught my eye, I gave them a job immediately!” And in the envelope was a bra. Lots of people in the room laughed, but I was really disgusted. We had to contend with this.

MC: At one point, a much older female illustrator warned me never to let a client know that I was pregnant or a mother or I would lose that client. She was right. I did lose a regular client who glimpsed my pregnant belly.

MND: I got the same advice! But I was super defiant about it. I had regular clients who I worked with–a textbook company and a company that produced pharmaceutical sales training manuals–and after my daughter was born I always brought her with me when I went in to pick up/drop off work. Fortunately they were mostly all women writers and designers so I never encountered any problems:-)

EWS: I was not aware of any men staying home to mind any babies. We, on the other hand, had babies to gestate and bear, nurse, change, feed, toddlers to chase, in addition to (our business) phone calls, negotiations, meetings, deadlines…Like all working mothers, we were working 2 jobs. We worked around nap times, after bedtimes, after our spouses got home. Some of us got sitters, some used day care, some just powered through. I did feel lucky to be at home with my children, but life got considerably easier when they finally went to school.

MC: It was lonely being an illustrator, requiring many long hours alone in one’s studio. In addition, we were all juggling, trying as illustrators and moms to keep all the balls in the air. Collaborating and sharing on several different levels created a synergy that expanded beyond our individual lives.

YZB: This was the pre-internet age, and the only way to promote yourself was to ‘pound the pavement’ with your portfolio. This was almost impossible for someone who was home taking care of babies. I remember the first meeting of the GAG when we all finally spoke to each other. I was listening to male illustrators talking about how they went out with their portfolios and met with art directors regularly and I was thinking how I couldn’t do that because of my family situation. Even if those men had families it didn’t prevent them from being networked and visible. It was much harder for us women with families because we were the primary caretakers. Without this group I would have become discouraged and stopped trying to work as an illustrator. When you’re plugging away in isolation, it’s hard to stay networked, to feel successful, and to have a realistic assessment of your talent and your possibilities.

MND: Suzette was included in the show at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library ‘Women Illustrators of New England’ and I went to the opening or some event where Jane Dwyer and Trina Schart Hyman spoke. They each spoke about their children and their families and how they worked with and around them. I remember how refreshing that was! No male illustrator I had ever heard up to that point talked about his family when giving a professional presentation. Trina also spoke very frankly about how she wasn’t being paid as much as male illustrators. I think our aim is to create a culture where there is room for families, and fathers and mothers both benefit from some flexibility–and everyone talks about their children in their presentations!


[JM] How did AM Studios operate? 

MND: We met weekly for many years. I remember that because (my husband) Alphonse had a weekly basketball night, and I had an AM Studios night.

EWS: We often spent meetings sharing and critiquing each other’s work and arranging each other’s portfolios. We shared professional contacts, did joint mailings now and then, and bought ads together in trade books. Once we had an exhibit of our work at the Cambridge Multicultural Center. Our pieces were about the emotional issues we faced as mothers and freelance artists. Those issues can include guilt, frustration, impatience, and anger, even though they are underscored by the deepest love.

GL: The specific activities that were most helpful to me were the conversations we had about time management, the art business, making art, and publicity. Publicity is very difficult to do by yourself and it’s extremely helpful to have a group of people involved. Just knowing people and spreading your knowledge around always helps a career. It’s all about networking. the group made it possible for me to try things I would not have otherwise tried, and  Diane’s hospitality made it possible to offer workshops in locations I couldn’t otherwise afford. I’m very grateful to AM Studios.

JLL: I loved the meetings, with and without kids. It was incredible to have so many women, and always Toby, in one room talking about our work, sharing recent stuff, talking about the challenges of being an artist with young children. I found the portfolio prepping especially helpful. The advertising as a group was powerful. It made us a force to be reckoned with.  I still talk about how we would refer each other for jobs if a specific illustration assignment wasn’t the right fit. I remember sitting at a GAG event for art directors and buyers when a male colleague asked me why and how anyone would do that. Why would we share contacts, jobs, mailing lists with each other? Were we crazy? Little did he know that we empowered each other.

MC: The field was very competitive, and male-dominated–a zero-sum game: if you won an assignment, I lost.

MND: We really looked at it from a very different perspective. Our cooperation made us more competitive.

KV: We focused on business, such as sharing information about vendors for promo cards and scans, etc. We researched and shared our contact lists. I remember several of us working many days on the computer at our house one summer typing in all the data and then turning it into mailing labels. We shared our experiences with various publications and referred each other to art directors when we couldn’t do the job or weren’t the right person. We put together a group portfolio and took part in the See Party (trade show) as AM Studios. It was a way of consolidating our energy and getting the work seen by more art directors or agencies. We were in a way our own agency.

MC: Marketing was always a challenge for me. It was very expensive and very difficult to learn how to go about it. Pooling our knowledge, updating and sharing mailing lists, and buying shared promotional pages in trade publications was a great help. The creation of the AM Studios name and logo was a great idea. It was also very enlightening to visit each other’s studios and learn about each other’s particular media and art-making process.

SW: I earned a lot from the group about promoting my business. I remember doing the Boston See Party (trade show) together as a group and that was fun. I enjoyed working with some of the members on projects for clients and always appreciated the referrals.

MND: I remember sharing my super simple bookkeeping system–and being surprised that others found it helpful. The peer critiques were fabulous–they improved my illustration, and I learned how to give clear, constructive, and tactful critiques.

DJ: I was very insecure about sharing my work with the group but enjoyed looking at and hearing others talk about their work. The group mailings pushed us to make postcards of our work. Ultimately, AM Studios helped me to become more visible and more confident in my work, some of which has turned up in elementary schools where I’ve worked!

EWS: One thing I’d like to mention is our name, AM Studios. When we began, we called ourselves, informally, Art Moms. (Toby was very patient with that). Some of us worried that we might not be taken as seriously if we had ‘moms’ in our name. So before one of our group mailings, we had a discussion and came up with AM Studios, and a wonderful logo by Toby and Susi. It was a plump retro-looking toaster, the A and M representing toast popping out. It was perfect, with energy, a whiff of domesticity, and indicated that we were a collective. I remember that did give us a little cachet, and drew a bit of attention. It was a good decision.

MND: We also shared sketchbooks–we circulated one and each contributed to it.  I’ll have to dig those up…


[JM] What were other ways you supported each other?

DJ: Sometimes we shared childcare, like when someone had to go see a client or supported one another in other ways. When my mother died, Joni and Kathleen were right at my side helping me make difficult decisions which I appreciate to this day.

KV: At one point we had a system of reciprocal babysitting coupons! A sick kid or traveling husband could be a nightmare when you had a tight deadline.

SW: I loved the mother’s showers we threw for each other, complete with presents for the Mom-to-be, our handmade baby pins, and all of the frozen food we provided. Being showered when my son came along was so wonderful. I loved reading the recipes taped to the top of each dish and all the notes of support.

YZB: I was the only one who already had my two kids when we started the tradition of home-cooked dinners and mom gifts when a new baby was due. One evening we were having a regular meeting and it turned out to be a surprise shower for me–you were making up for the fact that I had never had one of these special occasions. What a thoughtful and wonderful surprise!

JT: I remember crying from happiness when I received homemade dinners from members of the group after the birth of my twins. Not even my mother did that for me!

EWS: Most notably, I believe the AMs helped me to keep from going insane, with 2 children a year and a half apart. I don’t remember that we discussed motherhood stuff like disposable diapers vs. cloth, breastfeeding vs. formula, or things like that. We really respected each other’s choices in those areas and did not comment or offer advice unless asked. Our relationship was really based on the commonality of our experience both as working mothers and as women illustrators.

MND: I loved seeing everyone’s houses and studios! That was incredibly inspiring to me. And I did learn a lot about cloth diapers and breastfeeding from the group. I was new to Boston, and working at home so I hadn’t met anyone. These were my friends and my professional resources. I was so lucky to have been able to work at home with that kind of support when my children were small. I do think that Facebook, professional websites, and skype have changed the landscape for home-based freelancers for the better.

SW: I loved our tradition of trading small squares of art at our holiday brunch. I have such a wonderful collection from everyone that I have always wanted to frame. One square created by Kathleen is framed and has been on my desk for many years.


[JM] Final thoughts?

EWS: I have a huge respect for these people who are a talented, smart, resilient, persistent, intelligent, strong, funny, warm, gregarious, and BEAUTIFUL group! They helped me see the value of my work, to clarify my thinking, and helped me to define my creative voice by listening to me, asking questions and helping me to plot my course.

JLL:  There is no question that being part of this powerful group of women helped my career–at minimum, helping me believe that it was possible to be a working mom and a free-lancing illustrator. I think the structure and support of AM Studios still helps me in my creative life. Our children connect in various ways–my daughter started a book group when she moved to CA and Mary’s daughter was one of the first to join. Susi and Toby’s daughter was my design support when I was creating invitations to my daughter’s wedding. I loved, and still love, what AM Studios stands for.

KV: With constant input from others, my art grew better faster. It’s great when artists have the opportunity to play ideas off one another. As our children grew up and our lives changed we helped each other create new directions for ourselves. Many changed careers, some have moved or divorced. Through all of it, the support was like nothing else I have ever experienced. I relied so much on the wisdom and love of these women.

SW: Looking back, I know I truly found strength from sharing the details of our daily lives–learning to be good parents. dealing with rough patches in our marriages, finding the daily energy to grow our businesses and build our lives. I could have done it without the group but it was so much better to have that network of strong and creative women in my life. Each one of them inspires me.

JT: AM Studios advanced my career in that I felt galvanized by being around other artists and illustrators and making a go of it. I am not sure the millions poured in from our commercial efforts but the sense of support and shared purpose was invaluable. AM Studios is/was a group of smart, gutsy women who went on to make their mark in art and life in many diverse ways. I am proud to be a part of it.

AM Studios:


Posted in children's books, Children's literature, Illustrators, Interview | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth – Perfect Picture Book Friday

Title: An Extraordinary, Ordinary Moth

Author: Karlin Gray

Illustrator: Steliyana Doneva

Publisher: Sleeping Bear Press, 2018

Ages: 4-8

Themes: moths, camouflage, insects, being special, scales, antenna, 

Genre: nonfiction


I’m an ordinary moth,
as you can plainly see.
A dusty, grayish, dull insect—
nothing special—me.


Feeling quite ordinary, a plain gray moth sadly compares itself to its more exotic kin, such as the Luna Moth, the Spider Moth, and the Hummingbird Moth. And the little moth feels even worse when a young girl sees it and says “Eww!” But things change when her brother explains that this particular type of moth is his favorite kind of insect. Maybe an ordinary moth is really extraordinary after all. 

Why I like this book:

This nonfiction book is told in simple rhyme and is a sonnet to the specialness of every living creature (including children, of course.) I enjoy how he author introduces a bunch of moths to the reader by comparison. And how true the disdain with which most of us hold the lowly brown moth, and how often it just takes someone with some passion willing to share their knowledge of something less known to us for us to begin to share in the enthusiasm. It’s a simple message but shared with a child’s enthusiasm for bugs and discovering the beauty in the everyday. The illustrations are bright full color spreads, and the little dull moth twinkles across the pages. 


The back matter, 10 EXTRAORDINARY Facts About Moths, includes fascinating moth facts and their sources, and a special activity for constructing a Moth Observation Box. 

This story fits well into a STEM unit and is perfect for the many children who like creepy-crawlies. 

Butterfly and Moth facts at Easy Science For Kids.

Moth Facts at Study.Com.

Don’t miss my interview with the illustrator this week. And an interview with the author on Maria Marshall’s blog. 


Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

Posted in nonfiction, Perfect Picture Book Friday, picture book | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Steliyana Doneva – Illustrator Interview

Steliana Doneva

[JM] Illustrator or author/illustrator?  If the latter, do you begin with words or pictures?    

I am an illustrator, but I have always considered  the images as words.

[JM] Where are you from/have you lived and how has that influenced your work?

My name is Steliyana Doneva and I am from Bulgaria. A small country in Eastern Europe. I spent my childhood in Silistra, an ancient city by the The Danube– a river which crosses entire Europe. I lived right on the riverside. The beautiful sunrises and sunsets have always been my inspiration.     

 [JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.

I have been drawing since I was a child. My parents took me to art classes and there I found my world. Later on I was admitted to high-school for applied arts with profile “Children toys” in Sofia. It is a wonderful school which synchronises my affinity for the amazing children’s world. 

[JM] What is your preferred medium to work in?

In the beginning I draw with pencil then I finish them digitally.

[JM] Can you share a piece or two for us, maybe from recently released An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth, and the process of creating them?    


[JM] What is your favorite spread from An Extraordinary Ordinary Moth and why?

First of all I want to thank Sleeping Bear Press for the opportunity to work on this book. The text of Karlin Gray is vivid and dynamic. That inspired me and made my work a pleasure. My favorite spread is the one with the boy who is looking with love and respect of the miracle of the Creation in the face of one ordinary moth.

[JM] Which book do you remember buying with your own money as a kid/teen?

As a student I received a small amount of scholarship money which I immediately used to buy a collection of books by Tove Jansson and Astrid Lindgren.


[JM] I adore all Tove Jansson’s books! Do you have themes or characters that you keep returning to?

I try to portray the world through the little child’s point of view as well as animals which looks fun. Everything that is based in love and friendship.

[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your home? 

Five Fun Ones to Finish?
[JM] What’s your favorite park (state/urban..) in the world? 

I love the high mountain peaks. One of the places I always love to go back to is the Seven Lakes in Rila Mountain as well as Pirin Mountain, where the earth has eyes and the lakes have the reflection of the sky.

[JM] I was so fortunate to go hiking for two weeks in 2009 in the Rila and Pirin Mountains.
Cats or dogs?

This is a topical issue in our family and we reached a consensus – a British shorthair cat that my children are looking forward to hug in our new home.

[JM] Please recommend a coffee shop or restaurant for me to visit in your city!

Cafe-reading room “Peroto.”  You can have a cup of warm tea while you are reading new books.

[JM] What was your first paid job out of high school?

I used to make fun dolls that I sold in the summertime.

[JM] Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?

A nice italian coffee.

I love a good ristretto too! If I ever make it to Sofia again, I would love to meet for a coffee. Thanks for sharing with us today.

Posted in #kidlitwomen, Illustrators, Interview | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment