Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

Spotlight Interview with Art Director Whitney Leader-Picone

Whitney Leader-Picone

In anticipation of Wisconsin's SCBWI Fall Conference, we've put together an interview series as a way to meet the people behind this year's presentations & breakout sessions.

Today, the spotlight is on Whitney Leader-Picone, senior designer at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. She has been designing books for children for eight years, and works on everything from board books through young adult. Before moving to HMH, Whitney was both a designer and a digital publishing specialist at Charlesbridge Publishing.

Whitney has graciously answered a few questions for us as we eagerly await her presentations at the upcoming conference.

What was your career path to becoming the Senior Designer at HMH?

"I didn’t take the typical path to designing books. I did not go to art school, and have only taken the odd book building and drawing classes. My path started out academic. I was in grad school at Simmons College in Boston, doing a Masters in Children’s Literature taking a class about children’s publishing with noted author and former Publisher at Houghton Mifflin, Anita Silvey. She had a number of guests come speak to the class to give us an idea of the many different roles involved in publishing a book. One of those speakers was Susan Sherman, Art Director at Charlesbridge Publishing. She gave a talk about how a children’s book is designed. I remember thinking during her talk that the way I thought about books was very design oriented. I went up to her at the end of the class and asked her about typefaces, which I was interested in, and then promptly asked her if she did internships.

I started as an design intern at Charlesbridge shortly after that and fell in love book design. I am a fairly anal person, so I love all the exactness that goes into book design. At the end of the semester I finished my degree and started looking for jobs. I applied to a lot of low level book design positions, but it never really went anywhere. Everyone seemed put out with my lack of art experience. Towards the end of the summer Susan contacted me asking if I was interested in doing some freelance work for Charlesbridge, since I already knew their procedures. I jumped at the chance.

My freelancing was coming to a close and I thought about how at home I felt working at Charlesbridge, so I wrote Susan a letter explaining why they needed a design assistant at Charlesbridge, and why that person should be me. She completely agreed with my assessment, and they created a design assistant position for me. I worked my way from assistant to designer at Charlesbridge over 7 years under the expert tutelage of Susan. She is a brilliant mentor and friend.

In January of this year, I was at a monthly meeting of The Society of Printers, a not-so-secret society of book designers, publishers, printers, artists, and type designers based in Boston. A friend of mine, Cara Llewellyn, a senior designer at HMH, mentioned that a Senior Designer position was open in her department. I wanted experience at another publishing company and HMH publishes amazing books."


What are some of your favorite book titles that you've been personally responsible for and why?

"While at Charlesbridge I worked on a number of really amazing books. Some of my favorites are:

War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus written and illustrated by Kathryn Selbert – This is a picture book biography of Winston Churchill during WWII as told through his friendship with his poodle Rufus. I am a bit of a Churchill and WWII aficionado, so it was really fun to do the research for the book. I got to look at propaganda posters, war time documentaries, and I even researched such minutia as what typewriter Churchill preferred.

Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons by Alice McGinty, illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt – This book was a joy to work on. I love working with Jennifer Reinhardt, the illustrator, she was thoughtful about the characters and gave them all such wonderful and quirky personalities. As a jewish woman, I was particularly invested in the details for the holidays and community feeling right, and Jennifer and I worked hard to make it work. I also loved how thoughtful Jennifer was about all the details of the book including barcode treatment and endpapers. It’s a beautiful and uplifting package. I even ended up purchasing one of the paintings from the book because it meant so much to me.

I’m New Here written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien – This was a special project that evolved over a few years. Annie, Julie, the editor, and I met a number of times to try and refine the look and feel of this book. We wanted it to feel simple, but deep and emotional, which can be a tall order. Annie also wanted to try a new style of art for her, doing black and gray watercolor outlines and then scanning and painting digitally. Annie lived with me for 3 days so that she could come into the office for photoshop tutorials. In the end, we were able to create a book that is incredibly emotionally poignant and relevant to the immigrant experience with simple art and beautiful text.

The Inventor’s Secret written by Suzanne Slade and illustrated by Jennifer Black Reinhardt – I’ll be talking about The Inventor’s Secret in my talk at the conference, so I won’t go into too much detail. This was another book with Jennifer Reinhardt that ended up having a lot of wonderful and subtle design details that helped to enhance the story. A lot of work and research went into every aspect of the book.

Never Insult a Killer Zucchini written by Elana Azose and Brandon Amancio, illustrated by David Clark (coming spring 2016) – This book won’t come out until the spring, but it was one of the most fun books I’ve worked on. The entire story of the book is told in the illustrations with the only text being in speech bubbles. It really allowed Dave Clark’s imagination to run wild. Every time I got a sketch of piece of art I was laughing out loud at the humor and details that he added to the book. A fun little detail is that all of the spreads line up to make one long sequential scene.

Now You See Them, Now You Don’t by David Harrison, illustrated by Giles LaRoche (coming spring 2016)
Another one that won’t be out until the spring, this book was fun to work on because of the style of the art. Giles created amazingly 3D cut paper illustrations made up on thousands of pieces of paper. It was a joy to see him develop each illustration and use the concept of animal camouflage to inform how he created the art. In some pieces, the animals are really amazingly camouflaged.

None of the books I’ve worked on a HMH are out yet, but I’m excited for my first novel at HMH called Tru & Nelle by G. Neri which will be coming out in March, 2016. Tru & Nelle is a fictionalized novel about the real-life friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Not only was I interested in their friendship before being assigned the book, but I love a mystery. This book has it all. It’s also my first novel to come out from HMH, so it will be a nice milestone to how well I have adapted to a new company and a new way of designing novels."

Can you describe a recent project you've been working on and take us through the main stages?

"Since picture books are a little more interesting to develop than novels I will take you through some of the stages for a Spring 2017 picture book called How It Feels to Be a Boat, written and illustrated by James Kwan.

As a author-illustrated picture book I was given a sketch dummy for the book that I then went through and commented on. In the sketch dummy James had created these panels for the text to sit on top of, so that the art and text weren’t integrated. For me this felt a little old-fashioned a lot unnecessary. So I created a fresh set of layouts to show James how great the book would look with text on top of the art. James and I had a couple of long phone conversations to discuss his vision and to make arguments for the design decisions we each wanted implemented. Eventually, James acquiesced to my way of thinking, especially once I was able to show him how he could integrate the text and art together without compromising his art.

Next, James did a few sketch revisions for me to refine a few of the pieces of art to make a little more sense and help clarify the story. He also sent in a cover sketch which the editor, and I brought to a jacket committee meeting for feedback and approval.

James is now painting. In early October, he will send me 3 pieces of art to get test proofs for, so we can see how his art looks printed with the right ink and paper. It will also give us the opportunity to choose what paper and coatings we want.

James’ final art won’t be due until early next year."

What are some of your go-to ways of finding new talent?

"I have a lot of ways to look for new talent. One of them is coming to SCBWI conferences. I like the opportunity to meet illustrators in person and learn about their processes and how they got interested in children’s book illustration. I’ve also done portfolio reviews at art schools like the Rhode Island School of Design, Maine College of Art, and Mass Art.

Day to day I visit agent websites, look at postcards that have been send to the office, and even find great new talent on Pinterest and Deviant Art.

In my intensive I will be talking about how an illustrator can successfully market themselves to a publisher and will go into a lot more detail there about postcard mailings, and setting up a website."

What are the top three things pre-published illustrators can do to increase their chances of getting work?

"1. Go to SCBWI conferences and sign up for portfolio reviews. I have found a number of great illustrators at SCBWI conferences.

2. This is related to #1. Take critiques seriously. If a designer or editor asks you to improve on a skill, take the note and improve your abilities. Every illustrator has areas they can improve upon, and the more someone is willing to adapt and revise, the more likely they are to get noticed and hired.

3. Try and get an agent. Agents can be a pain in the butt for publishers, but they are great for illustrators. They get you exposure, they advocate for you, and they know who to send your work to. Targeting the correct designer or editor can mean the difference between getting hired and not. Agents know the tastes of different publishing houses, editors, and art directors."

Thank you, Whitney!


Whitney will present two sessions at the Wisconsin SCBWI Fall Conference.

Designing Picture Books: Creating a Marriage of Words and Pictures
Saturday, October 17th
Whitney will show the design process of one recently published picture book from start to finish. The talk will include information on how and why design decisions are made as well as selection of illustrator, typesetting, layouts, the art director-illustrator relationship, and sketches and final art comments.

How to Stake a Claim in an Art Director's Brain: Establishing Your Presence in the Children's Illustration Market
Illustrator Breakout
Saturday, October 17th
Every illustrator appreciates the power of visual communications. But sometimes the attempt to appeal across a wide spectrum can quash the sense of a unique visual sensibility that is so vital to standing out from the crowd. Whitney discusses how to showcase your professional skills while keeping a tight focus on your personal flair for style.


P.S. It's not too late to sign-up for the Wisconsin SCBWI Fall Conference! Click here, to download the conference packet.


Andrea Skyberg


Andrea Skyberg is the author and illustrator of the award-winning picture books Snickeyfritz, Squircle & CommuniTree. Shimmerling coming Fall '15! Find her at and on Twitter.