Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Interview with Giuseppe Castellano: Art Director Penguin Young Readers Group

I met Giuseppe at the SCBWI North and East Bay Conference. We struck up a conversation at dinner about illustrators and writers, and I learned so much that I asked him for an interview. He graciously agreed. And, not only did he do that, he answered my questions with much detail. 

With all that he had going on; work, the perfect storm, and trying to get things done at home, since the office was shut down...and with twins running around. I'm surprised he got to my interview, let alone answered so greatly. 

Thank you Giuseppe! You rock!!

Below are the questions I asked him: 

1.     What's the best thing about your job? The worst?

   •    There are so many great aspects of my job. Too numerous to write. I will say that above all else, the best thing about my job is that through making books we help children learn—and then love—to read. An unfortunate aspect of my job is the disappointment that comes when a project you believed in isn't as successful as you had hoped.

2.     Why did you choose to be an art director?

   •    I wasn't planning on it early on. I was an illustration major at RISD (BFA Illus., '99). To help support that goal, I started looking at design assistant positions. One thing led to another and I was hired as a design assistant at Simon & Schuster in May of 1999. Fast forward thirteen years and here we are. 

3.     What time do you get up, and what do you eat for breakfast?

   •    When one of my children starts chanting "MAMA! BABBO! (daddy in Italian)". My breakfast consists of whatever my children don't eat. Recently, it's been toast with peanut butter or cream cheese, cheerios, and fruit.

4.     You are an award-winning illustrator. What's your favorite medium? And, do you still get enough time to draw and paint for yourself?

   •    My medium of choice depends on the situation. If I'm doodling, it's with a pen. I love the permanency of it. I can't erase what I do so it forces me to stay alert and be sure of my decisions. Happily, for my "Mister Doodle" series that won in the New York Book Show I was able to use my favorite collection of pens and gray markers. 

    •    If/when I have the time, my true love is oil painting. Having three children under the age of five, it's impossible for me to pull out the easel, zinc white, cadmium red, and other lovely and toxic colors to paint with. I will one day—when I'm not worried that my children would drink the linseed oil.

5.     Complete this sentence: If I see one more submitted (blank) drawing, I will jump off the nearest bridge.

   •    Well, it's unfair to go that far. The artists don't know that I'm receiving 10-15 postcards a day with (blank) on them. What is disappointing is when the postcard or email doesn't put the artist's best foot forward. 

They should remember that postcards should be as big as possible with their most compelling image on the front—and that's it. All the information can be relegated to the back of the card. Too often, an illustrator will use up very valuable postcard space on the front showing their info in 19 point type, while the art itself is tiny. 

In emails, remember to keep it short, provide a link, and be professional.

6.     Where's the best place to get a cup of Joe or tea in your hometown?

   •    My hometown is Baltimore, Maryland. When I have coffee there, it's at my mom's. And it's some really good espresso. In New York, it has to be the street vendor coffee. It's cheap, good, and quick. After two visits they typically know what you want and start talking to you about the weather and families.

7.     What do you think about the publishing world today? Is it easier or harder to find great new talent now that everyone is self-publishing?

   •    I think it's an exciting time. There is some incredible work being done both in terms of writing and art. And, children’s books are selling beautifully across the board. More kids are reading. It's hard not to be excited about that. The positive sales direction certainly has a lot to do with the continuing growth of e-books. As I'm seeing it, there's a place in the market for traditional and digital publishing and I'm proud to be part of a company, Penguin, that embraces both.

8.     What changes has Penguin done that will help make your clients more competitive in this ever-changing publishing world?

   •    Penguin possesses the world's most prestigious list of bestselling, award-winning authors. It is home to Eric Carle, Tomie dePaola, Beatrix Potter, Jan Brett, and so many more. It's my view that we excel at identifying and growing the best talent. That is what keeps Penguin at the top of the industry.

9.     What is your number one role?

   •    I think it's the role of a director in any field to provide two things: support and information. As it relates to me, that manifests in myriad ways: working with the publisher and editors to establish a visual identity to a list; helping designers with schedules and artist searches; reviewing mechanicals and proofs; establishing and maintaining our budget; etc.

10. What's the most interesting part about designing a book cover? The most difficult?

   •    Many contributing factors go into designing a successful book cover. It's much more than just finding art and putting a title on it. I'd say an interesting part is seeing all of these factors come together to form a strong package. Conversely, it can be the most difficult part. 

11. What words of advice do you have for a newbie illustrator and/or writer?

   •    It's important to push yourself to evolve and grow. Early on in your career, there will probably be some misses (I don't like the word rejection—it has a finite implication). However, it's vital to stay with it and to focus on what you can control: set up a website; give yourself assignments for you portfolio; network through social media, SCBWI, etc. It is a trade. And like any trade, you need to work on it constantly. I think doing all of this gives you a higher chance of success.

12. Why do you attend SCBWI events?

   •    It's an opportunity to meet the great people in our industry and to talk about children's books. What's better than that? I attend SCBWI events as often as I can (which isn't often, but I'm potentially doing three next year). I did an Oakland conference this Fall which was a complete joy. I was given the opportunity to speak at length about my art department and the relationship between us and the illustrator. It's also an opportunity to help in any way I can which I am grateful for.

13. What other associations do you belong or attend? Why?

   •    I work with CBIG (Children's Book Illustrators Group) doing portfolio reviews and talks. I'm a frequent visitor of my alma mater, RISD, speaking to the young illustrators there. All of these things are done in an attempt to meet new people in the industry and to maintain a relationship with the publishing community.

14. Who is your biggest cheerleader?

   •    My wife, no question. If a cheerleader is an enthusiastic supporter, she is all of that and more.

15. What one word best describes you?

   •    I say "tired." My wife says, "thoughtful". Let's go with that.

16. Who are you reading right now?

   •    W. Somerset Maugham's "Moon and Sixpence". It's my favorite book and I try to read it once a year for my birthday in May. I'm a little late this year. It's a story of man who leaves a seemingly good life to pursue his desire to become an artist. It's said to be loosely based on Gauguin's life. We're also reading Puffin's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" to my son.

17. What one thing would you tell a newbie illustrator NOT to do when submitting work?

   •    Here is something I would tell them TO do: Tailor your submission to what the imprints have done and are doing. Let them see that your style is in line with the type 
of books that the imprint produces.

18. What's the funniest thing your kids have asked you about your job?

   •    My job has a lot to do with art. My son has been saying lately, "I want to be a Space Explorer Artist. I fly around and draw planets. If I run into trouble, I'll have to stop drawing and pull out my sword."

19. When searching for that new talent, what 5 things do you look for? What's the whole package in your opinion?

   •    I don't have a checklist. When I look for artists it's usually for a specific project. In that case, I ask myself, "What feeling are we trying to convey, and which artist would help convey it?" We look for artists who will also bring more to the table than their ability to draw. They need to be able to work on a deadline; communicate their thoughts and ideas; and above all: problem solve.

 20. How can my blog readers help you to become an even bigger success?

   •    I think your blog readers should focus on honing their craft. And hopefully one day we'll be able to work together on some exciting projects.

21. Do you get a sense that "this new idea" is going to be big? Or, is it hard to predict the works that will take off, and become the next big thing?

   •    We plan for all of our books to be successful. A great deal of thought and planning goes into that. However, there are times when the writing, editing, art direction, and illustration all come together so beautifully, you get a sense that it could be bigger than what you had earlier envisioned.

22. Who would you like to work with? Writer? Illustrator? Why?

   •    Do you have a time machine? Beatrix Potter. I just saw the Beatrix Potter exhibit at the Morgan Library here in New York, and it was inspiring. If your readers have a chance to see it, they should.

23. Any big news?

 •    My three kids are starting to sing in Italian. Nothing cuter than that.