A Q&A with Children’s Book Illustrator Dapo Adeola

The author and illustrator of Hey You! and illustrator of Look Up! shares his insights on children’s publishing ahead of his upcoming talk.

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We talked to Dapo Adeola ahead of his talk at our Industry Insights professional development day.

How did you get started in illustration?

I got started in illustration proper back in 2009 when I decided to go part time at my place of work and become a receptionist so I could free myself up to pursue a freelance career in illustration.

I took a massive pay cut so I could have the flexibility to be able to learn and practice illustration in my own time. It took ages as I had to cobble together an education in the craft on my own, but it was worth it as it taught me a lot about breaking convention.

Were there any particular authors/illustrators who inspired you?

I’m inspired by a whole lot of artists from different areas of the craft. Way too many to mention, but the biggest influences on me have been Jamie Hewlett, Quentin Blake, Ronald Searle, Leo Espinosa and Marc Boutavant. These artists in particular have had an impact on my work at different stages of my journey so far.

What surprised you the most about the children’s book industry when you were working on your debut picture book Look Up!?

I’ve said this many times, but the lack of Black kidlit illustrators in commercial publishing was a big surprise to me. I was also surprised by the rigidity of the industry when it came to trusting the judgement of the same diverse voices it claims to want.

What are the essential elements of a great picture book?

This is a bit subjective to some extent, but to me the essential elements of a great picture book are a perfect harmony between words and pictures. Everything should have an intentional purpose to the point where not a single bit of text or canvas is wasted.

The words are chosen in a manner that gives the pictures a chance to do what they’re supposed to do, but the text is also catchy and rolls off the tongue nicely on its own so that it’s an enjoyable read.

What part of making books do you find most enjoyable? And most challenging?

My favourite part of making books is the conceptual stage at the very beginning when we’re coming up with ideas and exploring the visual aesthetics of the world we’re creating. I love the freedom this gives you to play around, especially when it comes to characters.

My least favourite part is the deadlines for obvious reasons! It’s a challenge juggling multiple books with close and overlapping deadlines.

What do you think is missing from the picture books that are available to children today?

I think there’s more variety available now than at any other time in memory when it comes to picture books. There are books out now and coming out soon that cover a wide array of things, so to be honest I don’t there’s much missing in terms of content right now.

I do feel the integrity of some of the stories being pushed out from publishers to meet their diversity quotas could do with a bit of scrutiny – they often feel rushed and gimmicky. But I also think they might get better over time if given a chance. We’ll just have to see I guess.

How can illustrators and other people working in publishing make books better for readers?

I think we all have an obligation to readers to make sure we’re creating books from the most truthful places within us, and this goes for publishers too. Not everything should be about making money or capitalising on trends.

Illustrators have an obligation to do their research properly, especially when telling stories about things they haven’t experienced and about backgrounds they don’t come from.

Publishers have a duty of care to all the talent they work, not just the most commercially successful, and it needs to go beyond offering them book deals. I see a lot of new diverse authors, illustrators, agents and publishing professionals coming into the industry and then just being left to figure things out on their own. Nurture and guidance can make a significant difference to their careers and to the industry as a whole.

There needs to be a larger level of transparency industry-wide that gives new and aspiring artists a proper glimpse behind the door at what goes on so they come prepared and don’t fall into the “one book and done” trap.

I’ve only got as far as I have by asking an almost relentless amount of questions, but I realise not everyone is built like that. Most people are so grateful to be employed as an artist or author that they don’t want to rock the boat, and I think the industry thrives on that a bit. It’s kept things from progressing as quickly as they should have over the decades.

Want to learn more about children's publishing with Dapo Adeola? Book on to our Industry Insights professional development day.