Mike Curato, author of the popular children’s book series, Little Elliot, is incredibly talented and creative. Mike was generous enough to let us into his workspace to see where the magic happens of making a children’s book and adored character come to life. His shelves are lined with children’s books that serve as inspiration, artwork illustrated by many of his talented friends, and plush Little Elliots.
Having studied Illustration at Syracuse University, Mike’s passion has taken him all around the country. He worked as a graphic designer in Seattle while simultaneously doing small freelance gigs. Now Mike’s time is dedicated to creating the world of Little Elliot, as well as other creative endeavors. Mike is no stranger to hard work and dedication, acknowledging the fact that sometimes we have to take jobs we don’t want or eat Ramen noodles for months. We are so inspired by Mike’s hustle and for never giving up.
Read on to learn more about the steps Mike took to achieve his lifelong goal of becoming a published author and illustrator of children’s books, where his love of storytelling comes from, and the fantastic list of resources he recommends both personally and professionally. Don’t forget to pick up your copy of the second book in the Little Elliot series, Little Elliot, Big Family.
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
Mike Curato: I’m presently in my mid-thirties, which sounds ancient to a 20-year-old (at least I thought it did at that age). I still consider myself “young,” now that I have a broader perspective, and while I’m not “really old,” I’ve been around long enough to experience a chunk of life. Looking back, I’m amazed at how much work it took to get to where I am, not just professionally, but mentally and spiritually. I think “seizing your youth” means not to waste any time living your life. You’ve got stuff you wanna do, right? Find out what you need to learn in order to make whatever that is possible. Live for quality moments. Find genuine people to hang out with. Don’t be content with the status quo. What can you do right now to make a difference in your life and others? Find out who you are and own it. I used to hear “old people” saying, “it will all go by so fast,” while I was growing up, to which I would roll my eyes and grunt, “uhuh.” Now that I am one of those “old people,” I am telling you, IT’S TRUE!
CJ: You received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration from Syracuse University. Where does your love of illustration come from and why did you choose to study them in a formal setting?
MC: I’ve always wanted to be an artist. Many of my childhood memories involve drawing. It made me feel special as a child, and still does. I went to art school because I was ready for challenges. I knew I had the potential to grow as an artist. I also wanted to be around other artists, both teachers and students, people who I hoped would understand me.
CJ: Where does your love of storytelling come from? What stories have greatly influenced you?
MC: I am the oldest of three, and there’s a considerable age gap. For seven years, I was an only child, and I really had to maintain an active imagination to entertain myself alone at home, making up stories and acting them out. Then, when my sister and brother came along, I liked telling them stories.
Probably the stories that influenced me the most as a child were from a compilation of Golden Books – Tibor Gergely’s Great Big Book of Bedtime Stories. My mother says that when I was little, I made her read me The Little Red Caboose ad nauseam.
CJ: You spent time in Seattle working as a graphic designer. What did you do as a graphic designer and what did you learn from that experience?
MC: I started working in graphic design because it is so hard trying to be an illustrator right out of college. It was a way to pay the bills and still be creative. I started out at the very bottom as an unpaid intern, as I had no design experience even from school. Then, I started doing small freelance gigs for little or nothing while I worked as an office admin at a creative staffing agency. I really got to know the industry working behind the scenes, and eventually, I became one of their hired hands. I contracted at companies like Cranium and Microsoft for several years. Eventually, I became a full-time designer for Geocaching.com, where I eventually became the design manager. From there, I went back to freelance, working for companies like Amazon and Capital Group.
I learned so much being a designer that has influenced the way I make books. I have a strong sense of typography and layout now, which has strengthened my compositional skills. Meanwhile, working in corporate America taught me a lot about how businesses work and how to interact with a team to create a product.
CJ: You were the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Queer Getting Married, a wedding stationery company that provided invitations, save the dates, and more. What were your biggest takeaways from this experience?
MC: The funny thing about our little start-up is that my business partner and I opened QGM as a means to make a living working for ourselves while we tried to get published. However, I got my book deal before we even launched! We just closed our cyber doors several months ago, as both of our lives have changed dramatically since opening. My biggest takeaways are:
- If you’re going to start a business, it really has to be your one and only focus.
- Advertising and marketing are key. We had a great product, and no advertising money. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but without investors, it’s really hard to compete with the big dogs.
- It’s hard to predict what the consumers will want when you’re trying something that hasn’t been done before. We were trying to cater to a niche market, and it turns out that most just wanted the same old invites as everyone else. You can do all the market research you want, but sometimes, you just won’t know how sales will be until it’s out there.
CJ: Your lifelong goal of becoming a published author and illustrator of children’s books was achieved when Henry Holt Books for Young Readers (Macmillan) offered you a 3-book deal featuring the adorable Little Elliot. How incredible! What steps did you take in order to achieve this lifelong goal?
MC: Well, the biggest and hardest step was creating work for myself that I loved. It’s difficult to come home from a full-time job and commit to doing even more work. But, we have this one life, and so you just have to push through it. I booked a show at a local cafe to give myself a deadline, and then set about creating images for an exhibit, which ultimately became my new portfolio. The show was a success. A month later, I attended a conference by the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. Attendees can submit their work into a portfolio showcase there, which is seen by many art directors and editors in the children’s publishing industry. I ended up winning first place, which got me a lot of attention. Elliot appeared multiple times in my portfolio, and everyone wanted to know what his story was. The next day I had emails and voicemails from editors, art directors, and agents. From there, everything eventually fell into place!
CJ: When writing and illustrating books for kids, what things do you take into consideration? How do you approach word usage, language, and visuals?
MC: Well, making a picture book is much like a dance. I usually start with some rough sketches, then write some words, and I go back and forth for months until a story emerges. Though I think picture books are for everyone, they have to be inclusive of early readers, so much of the story is conveyed via the illustrations. The words are there to support wherever the images need help conveying the plot, which is why my texts are usually very sparse. A lot of redundancies are edited out.
CJ: What is your book writing and illustration process? Do you have a routine or a strict schedule?
MC: I do not have a strict schedule per se. Every book is different. Some days I work a lot, some days the magic is just not coming. Meanwhile, deadlines are great motivational tools for me. I try to break a project down into milestones to keep me on track (and also to feel some form of accomplishment on the long road to the finished product).
CJ: Every day in your life must look different depending on your projects and the time of year, but what does a Monday look like for you?
MC: Ha! The days of the week are quite abstract to me. I work when I need to work, and I take off when I need to take off. I actually enjoy working weekends and taking off on a weekday. I guess “Monday” is the day I need to get back to work, which can be challenging. I need to trick myself into getting to work. I set little goals to coax myself back into the groove.
CJ: What should a young adult who wants to be a children’s book author and/or illustrator do now to set him or herself up for success?
MC: Well, most importantly, an aspiring writer/illustrator needs to read as many children’s books as possible. You need to know what’s out there. What are the classics? What is current? What speaks to you?
Then, you have to do your industry homework. One needs to remember, though making books is usually born out of a passion, it is still a business. You wouldn’t show up for an interview at Apple and not know what an iPod is. Look up your regional Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators chapter and try to get to some meetings or a conference. Find out how a book is constructed. Keep tabs on what publishing house the books you like are with, then try to find out who edited them. If you’re an illustrator, start sending out promotional materials to art directors. If you’re a writer, find a writing critique group. If you’re an artist, try to get feedback from an art director (I actually was able to get a lot of feedback as a student from real art directors because I wasn’t looking for work, so take advantage of that generosity while you can).
I would also stress the importance of having an agent in today’s publishing world. It is very hard to get published without an agent, as many houses do not want unsolicited manuscripts. If you don’t know how much you’re worth and how to demand that worth, you need an advocate who will fight for the best deal. Most literary agents take 10-15% commission, but will most likely be able to get you more money than you would on your own. Finding an agent also requires researching an agent to make sure they’re legitimate and a good fit. What authors/illustrators do they represent? What books have they gotten deals for? What houses do they have connections with? How long have they been doing this? Also, do you feel comfortable working with this person? If all goes well, you’ll be together for a very long time.
CJ: What are some books, resources, and websites that have influenced you – either personally or professionally (or both)?
MC: The Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators really is the go-to resource for “pre-published” authors, as they like to say.
Get acquainted with the major publications about children’s publishing:
There are some really great “kidlit” podcasts out there, where you can learn about the industry and hear from working authors and illustrators:
There are tons of blogs dedicated to talking about children’s literature, mostly book reviews and author/illustrator interviews. These are written by librarians, who are perhaps authors & illustrators’ greatest advocates. This list is the tip of the iceberg, but these are some of the best:
CJ: When you’re not working on your next book or other design projects, how do you like to spend your time?
MC: Eating, sleeping, karaokeing, and watching movies – not necessarily in that order, preferably with friends.
CJ: What are you working to improve upon – either personally or professionally – and how are you doing so?
MC: As someone who works at a desk all day, I have been trying to really take care of my body lately. I’ve been going to yoga and pilates several times a week (luckily there’s a studio around the corner from me), and I’m trying to eat healthier. I also work from home, so it’s important to get out of the house at least once a day for a walk.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
MC: It may sound corny, but “don’t give up!” When you’re fresh out of school, survival is usually at the top of one’s list. Sometimes we have to take jobs we don’t want to do. Sometimes we have to eat Ramen noodles for a few months. But I think it’s important to have a dream to motivate you to better yourself. Working towards the dream makes all the crappy jobs and Ramen noodles worth it in the long run.
Cover Image by Mike Curato; Images by Carpe Juvenis