Sam Ricks on Being A Children’s Illustrator

By Michael Strickland

“I’ve always loved whimsical, funny things … And at the same time, I’d constantly hole up in whatever library I could and read children’s books and look at art from illustrators I admired.” – Sam Ricks

My years in children’s books have been as an author, not an illustrator. That’s why it always fascinates me to hear about the creative process from artists. They allow me to experience the craft of children’s book creation from a different angle.

One of those fascinating illustrators presented at BYU Books for Young Readers Conference. Sam Ricks is the illustrator of the Geisel Award-winning Mo series, along with the popular Eerie Elementary series, and The Best of Iggy, a new series by New York Times bestselling author, Annie Barrows. He is a founding member and VP of Creative/Design at Cotopaxi – Gear for Good; An ethical outdoor apparel company.

Ricks is responsible for their iconic logo of a llama and brand system, and has led their creative team for 7+ years. Their mission is to create sustainable clothing and provide non-profits with grants to help eradicate poverty. Through their grant program, they’ve awarded 42 grants to organizations like The International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Utah Refugee Services, and more.

At this Books for Young Readers Symposium, Ricks presented to teachers, librarians, authors and students, speaking and showing drawings documenting his journey through art and how he became an illustrator.

“So animation and storytelling, children’s picture books; all of those things have been an influence on me for a really long time… and this is about the time I started to realize that people who made picture books made money making picture books, and that I could be an illustrator. That I could tell stories just like they did,” Ricks said.

Ricks told the story of how he signed with an agent; a large stepping stone for both authors and illustrators. Around the time he was almost done with grad school was when he decided it was time for him to find an agent. He grabbed a book that had a number of different agents,  sent off many illustration pieces he’d made through grad school. Over the next several months after sending them, the rejection letters started trickling in. He was finishing school was from 2008-2009, so the recession was going strong, and companies weren’t taking on new clients.

“Rejection after rejection after rejection,” he said. “Nice rejections, but a no nonetheless.” It would take about a year and a half before he’d get a response that wasn’t him being turned away. Finally, he was contacted by an agent named Minju Chang. She said that she’d been trying to get a hold of him for six months. He later found her previous emails in his spam folder. She said, “I love your work, and we’d like to represent you.” And he was over the moon. Now, there was still a lot to do to get him publishing company ready, but this was a huge start.

Art is a beautiful thing. It’s always wonderful to visit with those who can take a blank canvas and bring it to life. Experiening his journey and his unique methods inspires me to keep “painting pictures” with words.

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