Being an Illustrator on Both Sides of the Fence

Mike Curato

Mike Curato

I am an illustrator and an author. I have created books wearing both hats, and some solely as the illustrator. The processes are quite different.

Little Elliot, Big City came about from several personal pieces I created featuring a small polka-dotted elephant. Though I did not create these images with a story in mind, there was definitely a strong narrative quality to the work. They were pictures that kept resurfacing in my mind frequently enough that I had to commit them to paper. This page from Big City started out as a sketch six years ago. Where did it come from? Freud is not around to tell me. Why did I want this small elephant looking into a bakery? Maybe it’s because I have a sweet tooth. Maybe because I have a penchant for old New York storefronts. The important thing is that it conveys emotion. It reflects how I was feeling at the time. In the process of making the image, I decided that the bakery should be called Speranza, which means “hope” in Italian. This was about being on the outside looking in. Did I know at the time that it would become part of a larger story? No. But when I started writing Big City, all the emotions were there: hope , desire, struggle, loneliness, and feelings of insignificance.


The words started to come when I asked myself questions about the piece. How did he end up there? What is it he wants? How is he going to get it? The story finally started taking shape once I recalled a past experience. When I was a child, I was sent to the deli on an errand, and I was too short to be seen over the counter. I felt unnoticed, insignificant, and hopeless, until someone helped me. I had my crux. Then the process became a dance between images and words. Both were edited up until the end because one influences the other and vice versa. It’s been noted that my text is very spare, and that’s because I’ve edited out anything that I felt was already being communicated via the imagery. Since picture books are made specifically for people who are usually beginning readers, I feel the images should do the heavy lifting, and the text steps in only when the image needs help completing the full story. That is my perspective in any case.

Meanwhile, when I illustrate the work of others, it’s much simpler. The text is set. It’s not mine, so I cannot make changes. It is limiting, but limitations can be quite liberating. The emotions and plot should already be there. It’s up to me to amplify the emotion and help enrich the plot in a way that the text is not already doing. For example, I can add depth to a character through his or her appearance, expressions and gestures. I can alter mood through the use of color. I can create drama through the use of scale and proportion. I do this when I illustrate any book, but when I receive someone else’s manuscript, I am able to be much more objective with my approach. That being said, I’ve also only worked with manuscripts that I felt I connected with emotionally on some level (since I am dedicating a good chunk of my life to working on it!).

One other note about character: I had drawn Elliot for a decade before the idea of Big City existed, so I knew who he was before I sat down to write it. The Little Elliot books have been easier in terms of character development. I’m writing and drawing and writing and drawing, but everything I do goes back to the character I already know. Would Elliot do this? How would he react in this situation? How would he feel? When I work on someone else’s story, the first thing I need to do is get to know these new characters. So in this case, I read and draw and read and draw in order to find a visual interpretation that I feel accurately reflects the character that has already been written.

This brings up my final point: drawing is my thinking process. So, no matter what the project is, the bulk of the work happens in the disaster zone that is my sketchbook. Should you ever see it (and I promise you never will), you will see the ugliest thumbnail sketches, incoherent scribbles, and an occasional word with a question mark. To the outside viewer, it’s nonsense. But to me, those absurd lines are the foundation of everything I do.

LittleElliot_BigFamily_coverMike Curato wrote and illustrated Little Elliot, Big City and its follow-up story, Little Elliot, Big Family with Henry Holt Books for Young Readers (available October 6th!). He also illustrated a self-published book, Mabel McNabb and the Most Boring Day Ever by Amy Jones, and an upcoming title, Worm Loves Worm by JJ Austrian with Balzer + Bray (available January 5th!). You can see his work at



  • This giveaway is for a copy of Little Elliot, Big City. Many thanks to MacMillan for donating a copy for one reader.
  • For a chance to win this copy of Little Elliot, Big City, please leave a comment about this post by Wednesday, June 24th at 11:59 p.m. EDT. I’ll use a random number generator to pick the winners, whose names I will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, June 26th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at MacMillan will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – Little Elliot. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.

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Thank you to everyone who left a comment on this post.  I used a random number generator and drew mbhmaine’s commenter number.  She’ll win a copy of Little Elliot.  Here’s what she wrote:

This has been on my TBR pile for ages and now I’m even more interested in reading it. I enjoyed reading about the illustrating process from both perspectives. If we had a few more days of school I would share some of Mike Curato’s words with my students — “everything I do goes back to the character I already know. Would Elliot do this? How would he react in this situation? How would he feel?” Perfect words for first graders creating characters in realistic fiction. Thanks for sharing!