Illustrator Interview – Michelle Nelson-Schmidt

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Nelson_Schmit_whatifSMI confess that i was following the progress of the Whatif Monster even before I really began following Michelle’s career! Michelle exudes not only a tremendous passion for what she does but also simply for life and the great blessings we all enjoy. Her enthusiasm is contagious. I posted the following quote on my FB page on Saturday and I think Michelle epitomizes this for me.

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage enough to live it.” — John Irving

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

[MNS] I am both an author and an illustrator. My mind thinks in pictures and words – so when I begin a book, I work it out with text and images at the same time. I can’t separate the two.

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

[MNS] I grew up in New Jersey, moved to Texas my senior year of high school, then moved to Atlanta, Georgia 5 years after that. I’m going on my 17th year in the south and I love it! I love the warmer temperatures. I hope to move to Florida within the next few years – even warmer!

I am a person that can be happy in any location (I just prefer warmer climates) so what influenced me the most was the move from New Jersey to Texas. It was a crucial year to leave all of my friends. It affected me greatly – and very negatively for the first 6 months. But finally I decided to make the best of it and stop making my own life so miserable with my ‘woe is me’ attitude. That year changed me as a person and made me realize you get out of this life what you put into it. I’m not sure how it affects my work, but it certainly played a role in being able to go after my dream career and make it happen!

[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and as an artist, and especially your journey to the publication of your first picture book

[MNS] Okay, this is a long answer!

I have drawn since I was 4 years old. I found a box of my mom’s professional art supplies in a closet one night. My mother is an incredible artist, though never wanted to do any of it professionally. I saw drawings in the box she had done that were realistic pencil drawings of people. At 4 years old I knew I needed to be able to draw like that. I began practicing that night. I learned how to draw by reproducing photographs in pencil. I drew throughout my entire childhood – every free moment I had I was drawing.

I wanted to go to art school, but I was very good at physics and math as well. My father made a strong argument that if I went to school for science I could be both an artist and a scientist – since I was already an artist. If I went to art school I really couldn’t also be a scientist too. So I went to school and majored in physics and math. That lasted 2.5 years. I did very well, but I just wasn’t passionate about it. I missed art so much. I dropped out of school without telling my parents – a move I DO NOT recommend – and moved home. When I announced I was going to art school they were not happy. I was a little over a year away from completing my physics degree and naturally they wanted me to finish that first. I refused. They told me if I went to art school they would not support me at all financially. (As a parent of a 17 year old now? Oh my, what I put my poor parents through!)

I moved out and had to work three jobs and get loans to pay for art school. It was hard work but I loved every moment. My parents refusing to help was the best thing that could have happened. It made me know how much I wanted it and it made me realize what I was capable of accomplishing by myself. My parents and I are very close, I know how hard that time must have been for them – or maybe I don’t – but they do see I made the right decision for me now.

I was a graphic designer when I was done with school. I freelanced right out of school because I graduated 7 months pregnant – not an ideal candidate to be hired out of school! It wasn’t until my children were 4 and 6 that I began in earnest to try become an author and illustrator.

I painted pet portraits during the time I was really studying the field of publishing and children’s books. It helped with much needed extra money and honed my illustration style. I painted over 800 pet portraits in about 8 years – and I still occasionally do pet portraits for people. I do love doing them!

When I had a book I really thought could be published, I went the agent route first. I started in 2007 and it took a year to get my agent. Then it took 2 years before my first books were bought by Kane Miller – that was in 2010. My first books, Dogs, Dogs! and Cats, Cats! came out summer of 2011 – a VERY good summer! The following year Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster was published. Bob is a Unicorn was published summer of 2013 and Dog and Mouse, my fifth picture book will come out January 2015.

I am including these photos to encourage every artist out there. Five years ago I said the phrase to my husband, “You worry too much! It is like there’s a little monster sitting on your shoulder whispering how everything could go wrong!”

From that sparked the idea of the Whatif Monster. I painted him. Then I made a handmade version of him that I brought with me to my second SCBWI conference in 2012. Judy Blume was a surprise speaker and I practically threw him at her and had my sister take my picture with the monster before she had to go. (She was so sweet to the crazy lady with the crazy green monster, by the way.)

Now, just 2 years later, Jonathan James and the Whatif Monster is on of the top-selling books for my publisher, over 225,000 children all over the country know him and love him and my book and little green dude just made their retail debut at Toy Fair this past week. Dreams DO come true.
Whatif Box Set

Whatif Box Set

[JM] Do you have a preferred medium to work in?

[MNS] Yes, I work in acrylic. I trained in oils and I loved them, but when I began to paint again when my children were young, I was very poor – like the electricity would get shut off because we didn’t have the money kind of poor. Paint, canvas and brushes were a luxury. Acrylics are way cheaper to use. Because I had so little money, I could only afford the very cheap bottles of craft acrylic paint from stores like Michaels and Hobby Lobby. I still use those to this day. Why buy more expensive if a 70 cent bottle works, right? I paint on canvas for clients, but I paint on Bristol paper for my book illustrations.

[JM] Do you have themes or characters you return to in your art?

[MNS] My dog Lucy, a yellow labrador shows up here and there – she is on the cover of my book, “Dogs, Dogs!” and though she is only called ‘Dog’ she is in my next book, “Dog and Mouse” coming out January 2015. She is in another picture book I have written and figures prominently in a chapter book I am working on. I guess you could say she is a great source of inspiration for me.


[JM] What does your workspace look like? 

[MNS] When my husband and I moved house 5 years ago, i convinced him that formal living rooms were a waste and I should make it into my studio. We put French doors on both walkways and voila! A studio just to the right of my front door. It is usually pretty chaotic and messy, but this is a perfect excuse to clean it up and take pictures!




[JM] Can you share a piece or two with us, maybe of a WIP, and the process of creating them?

[MNS] This illustration is from the book I am working on now, “Dog and Mouse.” The art is due in May – I am hoping to get it done earlier, but glad I have until May. This is a book about not being so busy looking for something we want, or going after a goal so single-mindedly that perhaps we miss what is right in front of us in the here and now. Goals and desires are wonderful, but being present and living in the moment is just as important.  I think, particularly in the American culture, we often forget to ‘stop and smell the roses’ from time to time.

Dog and Mouse

Dog and Mouse

[JM] Tell us one or two of the things you enjoy most about being a full-time artist.

[MNS] By far my most favorite is going into the schools to talk to children.  I travel all over the country doing school presentations. I am sort of an inspirational speaker for children. I encourage them to follow their hearts, dreams and passions through hard work and perseverance and in believing in themselves. The children of this country have my heart and soul. I do everything I do for them. They have such a hunger and thirst to hear my message. We don’t realize what our media and what we as adults come home and complain and grouse about do to these children. They absorb it all – they hear it all. Even in elementary school they have decided what they can and can’t do already and that kills me. Children are supposed to live in a world where anything can happen, where magic and dreams are real possibilities, yet they are already deciding it is not realistic. That breaks my heart and I try to give them back the right and ability to dream as big as their imaginations can take them. I feel that is my true calling and my job. At the end of each presentation, we make a Pinkie Promise to each other.

Second favorite? Being in the studio working on a book and getting to paint for 8-10 hours at a time. Sheer joy.

What is the Pinkie Promise?

[MNS] I have talked to over 225,000 kids in the past 2.5 years in 26 states and I have gotten that many Pinkie Promises from children (and any adults in the room that join in!). We make a promise to each other that together, we can and will, create a nation of dream followers. They promise to start listening to what their hearts are telling them – what they are passionate about and pay attention to what they love to do. They promise to go after their dreams – and one day, when they have what I like to refer to as a ‘magical life’ that they will call me up and tell me about it. You can see my Pinkie Promise video here –

[JM] What art do you have hanging in your apartment?

[MNS] I have some of my art, some from illustrators I love, art from my children and art that children give or send me from school visits.

When a child from a school visit sends me some art that I really love, I commission them to do a pet portrait for me. I frame them and hang them in my hallway where I collect dog art. I hope to have a huge collection of art work I commissioned from young and very talented artists eventually!

Bob on Couch

Bob on Couch


Bear Head

Bear Head


Dog Art

Dog Art

[JM] What word best sums you up? Passionate.

[JM] If you could live anywhere for a few months, where would you go? Key West and hopefully be friends with Judy Blume. 😀


[JM] What’s your go-to snack or drink to keep the creative juices flowing? Coffee or green tea. I like wine, but it tends to slow the process down quite a bit. Heh.

[JM] Cats or dogs? DOGS. Lucy, a yellow lab (15 years old), Rufus, a black lab (11 years old) and Otto Von Schmidt, a mini dachshund (3 years in May)We lost our sweet Skylar last October when she was 11 years old and even with three dogs there is a giant hole, a missing spot in the house. I don’t think we will go back to four dogs, but it does feel so wrong without her.





Rufus and Otto

Rufus and Otto



like the most? Oh geez, this is hard. I suppose I would say Hannibal Lecter from Red Dragon. I think it has to do with how highly intelligent he is too. Brilliant people fascinate me – I am in awe of their minds. I also have a strange fascination with serial killers. Which is a bit twisted for what my career is, I suppose. I guess it has to do with trying to understand how the human spirit can go so very wrong when nurturing does not take place at a young age. It shows how fragile we are.

 [JM] Where can we find/follow you and your work?

[MNS] My two websites are and

I also am VERY active on Facebook – Friend me! We’ll have fun, I promise!

I am on instagram, my username is michelleleens

And I am on Twitter, but I am a terrible Twitterer? Tweeter? I talk far too much to be restricted to so few characters. But I try! @michelleleens

[JM] Thank you for sharing your life and art and joy with us today, Michelle. Wishing you continued success so that you may continue to bless thousands of kids with your stories.

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10 Responses to Illustrator Interview – Michelle Nelson-Schmidt

  1. Fun! I think I would be great friends with her! 😀

  2. Love the living room studio! It looks like a fun and happy place to play — I mean write and illustrate. I love that she sees her story visually and with text. Oh, to be able to be an artist and writer. And, I’m excited about her upcoming quiet book. Being present in the moment is the most important thing that we should be teaching kids at an early age — and a book is a great way to start. Will look forward to her special book. Would love to review it.

  3. Love the studio! What a fun, energic lady! Perfect for school visits. Thanks for the introduction, Joanna and Michelle.

  4. Joanna Marple says:

    Yes, wouldn’t you like to be one of the kids on one of Michelle’s school visits?

  5. What a great story on pursuing your passion! They say you never have to work a day in your life if you enjoy what you do. I admire author-illustrators. Makes me wish I could draw. Thanks for the interview joanna.

  6. Rhythm says:

    Ms Nelson Schmidt sounds like my kind of friend! Her workplace looks like a kindergarten room. My favorite kind of place. Why have I not heard of her before?! I am going on a search for her books. Thanks so much for sharing this fun interview!!

  7. I wanna draw!!!!!! *pitches tantrum* You are wonderfully talented and I love the pinky promise. That has got to be the best thing I’ve heard someone talk about lately. Love your workstation! Thanks for having Michelle, Joanna. 🙂

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