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How to Thrive as a Children’s Book Illustrator: An Interview with Jason Heglund

Creative Market April 12, 2024 · 9 min read

In the design world, there’s an endless list of possibilities for creative minds to find their perfect job that they love and are passionate about. For Jason Heglund, a lover of illustrations and textures, his answer was graphic design but where he ended up was totally unexpected and a stroke of luck. After his work was discovered by an old coworker’s friends, this Creative Market shop owner is now a children’s book illustration who spends his day working on projects that tells wonderful stories. Today, he shares his story with us and tips for others who want to follow in his footsteps.

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your story?

My name is Jason Heglund. I live in Portland, OR with my wife, our 3 year-old daughter, and two cats. I grew up here in rainy Portland and still love this place. In the summers, the weather inspires us to get outside and go hiking while the fall and winter makes me to hunker down inside the office to explore creative ideas.

How did your creative journey start? Is this a path that you always knew was meant for you?

When I was little, I always drew stuff–mostly ninja turtles, batman, and stick figure wars. Because of this, everyone figured that I would be some sort of artist when I got older. I stopped drawing for awhile in my teenage years but rediscovered it after I started on my path towards graphic design. Quite honestly, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Being a graphic designer/illustrator is the only thing that makes sense to me.
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What sparked your interest in design?

Music packaging is what sparked my interest in design. At the time, I listened to a lot of hardcore bands with a sprinkling of rock and punk and absolutely loved how gritty and textural the graphics were. When I saw the art for Training For Utopia’s “Throwing A Wrench Into the American Music Machine,” I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer. From that point on, my focus has been on graphic design and illustration.

When did you first become interested in illustrating children’s books?

I’ve always had an interest in children’s books because of the wonderful art, visuals, and unbound imagination but never really thought about illustrating children’s books until a couple years ago when I got contacted to illustrate a book based on monsters. I immediately loved working on the book and thought it would be so awesome to do more of that kind of work.

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Does your daughter play a part in your creative process?

She doesn’t play a huge part in the process at the moment because she’s too young to really understand what’s going on, but she knows I make lots of art and enjoys seeing it. It’s always fun time to read the Wonderful World of Creatures & Code book with her (the first children’s book I illustrated). We make up stories about the monsters on each page, and her favorite part of the book is the front and back covers. She’ll look at the front cover and say “The monsters are awake!†then turn to the back cover and say “The monsters are sleeping!†It’s super cute and tons of fun. When she gets a little older, she might be able to be more involved with my work and I’ll probably be able to get some pretty solid feedback from her. Right now, if I ask her what she thinks of a drawing that I’m working on, her response is usually “That’s cool, daddy†then immediately wants to draw on the computer.

How did you get your first book illustration gig? Was it something you were on the hunt for, or did the stars just align so to speak?

I think the alignment of the stars, planets and, the space-time continuum all had a big part in it. My previous coworker was moving on to another job, so on her last day, we threw a little party and I drew a quick little portrait of her. She took the portrait home and hung it up on the wall. One day, two of her friends came to visit her and asked who drew the portrait. They ended up finding my work on Instagram and my website then contacted me. At the time, I was doing some fun sketches of monsters and kids, which happened to match their idea for a children’s book perfectly.

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How does the children’s book illustration process differ from other illustration work you’ve done?

For the most part, it follows the same process except it’s longer with much more involvement. The hardest part of illustrating a book is that you can’t really stop until it’s finished. Working on a project weekly that lasts four months or more is challenging because you want to take a break and work on other projects. With a book, you can’t really do that, but when it’s done, it’s far more rewarding than a single illustration project.

In your experience how long does the illustration process take for a children’s book?

A lot of that depends on the book, the illustration style, and the collaboration process. I would say a typical children’s book would take about 3-4 months if it’s your primary project.

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Did you run into any unexpected challenges while during your first children’s book illustration experience?

The hardest part of the first book was keeping to the schedule I set for myself while working full-time as an in-house graphic designer and maintaining a good family life. Aside from that, the process went smoothly because I had a fairly established process for making the illustrations, which is an important part to keep in mind when illustrating a book for someone else. It helps to have a process figured out before you start working, otherwise you will spend a lot of time exploring different techniques and styles to see what works. And if you do that, it will take much longer to complete the book at hand. You also run the risk of having inconsistent style from page to page, so part of the preparation should be dialing the style/process for that particular book. I usually start the books off by illustrating a single page. Once that is approved, I use it as a style guide for the remaining pages.

Are there any trends happening in the children’s book illustration space that you enjoy?

There aren’t any current trends that I have paid attention to regarding children’s books because there’s so many out there. I do follow a lot of illustrators that I admire who have done kid’s books. Dan Santat, who wrote and illustrated “Beekle” puts out really good books. I also love Jared Chapman books. He came out with one called “Vegetables in Underwear” that looks great and is a TON of fun to read to my daughter.
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If an illustrator is interested in getting into illustrating for children’s books, what would you say are the “must haves†experiences/skills for them to have in their toolbox and/or on their resume?

You certainly don’t need a college degree to qualify for illustrating a kid’s book. I think if you have a defined style and a refined process then your book will look good, but it goes beyond specific illustration skills. As it is with most jobs, you need to have a strong work ethic, be flexible, have a collaborative mindset, and and genuinely enjoy what you do because all those things together will make for a well-done book.

Are there any “nice to haves†that could set an illustrator apart from the rest of the crowd in the children’s book illustration world?

Having experience with branding and marketing is extremely helpful because you’ll have more valuable resources tp the author than just illustrated pages. You can offer to make a logo for the book that can translate well into social media and other marketing materials to help that book succeed. You can come up with a marketing plan for the book that uses the illustration elements from the book in a way that isn’t just showing the page.
A lot of authors know how to write the story but don’t know how to talk about the book in a dynamic way. An illustrator with a graphic design background can flex their creative muscles and offer up some creative ideas to create unique images that can be used to build buzz for the book beyond just showing the pages.
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Keep the conversation going!

This chat doesn’t have to end here! Can you relate to Jason’s creative journey or process? Did you learn something new or have any questions?
Chat with Jason in the comment section below.

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