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The Art of Writing Children’s Books

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 3, 2013

Children’s books are full of fantasy and charm and they often require the reader to suspend a belief in the known for the unknown. It is a land where anything wonderful can happen and there is always a moral to teach and a code to live by.

Writing and/or illustrating a children’s book is not an easy way to make a living, nor is it a quick process. To be a successful children’s book artist or author, one must have an unusual mixture of creativity, talent, and luck.

Just ask Denise Ortakales of Laconia. The Lakes Region resident is a well-known children’s book illustrator and author and she has worked hard at her craft to reach the successes she has realized in the field.

“I have illustrated five children’s books and authored one children’s book,” she said.

It is almost certain those who shop in bookstores or visit local libraries have seen her work; her popular book, The Legend of the Old Man of the Mountain, was published soon after the Old Man fell and made national news. (She also has illustrated the children’s books Carrot in My Pocket; Good Morning Garden; How Does Your Salad Grow?; Planets: All Aboard Reading; and Sex and Babies: First Facts.

With a solid background in the arts (she graduated from Springfield Community College with an associate’s degree in Graphic Design and a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Art Institute of Boston), Ortakales has both the education and the experience to illustrate children’s books. But even with a lot of talent, how would an artist get noticed by a publishing company?

“I sent out postcards with my illustration on them,” Ortakales said. Indeed, the postcards went to all major publishing companies and Denise credits a stroke of luck, as well as perseverance, as the keys to her success.

“The path I took to get started in children’s illustration is a long story. Basically, one of my art teachers helped me realize that I what I really wanted to be was an illustrator. I had been buying beautifully illustrated children’s picture books for years and I thought I was buying them for my children. My teacher made me realize I was really buying them for myself,” she recalls.

That observation made Ortakales admit she was very interested in the art of children’s books, as well as the craft of writing stories for young people. She began to wonder if she could put her training and skills as an artist to work as a children’s book illustrator. Thus, she sent out postcards to publishing houses.

“You have to promote yourself. When an editor comes across a manuscript for a children’s book, they might recall your artwork and realize your art style matches a particular manuscript. The publisher that contacted me to illustrate the first book I did, called Planets, was Grosset & Dunlap. The book was written by Jennifer Dussling.”

After Ortakales got the coveted call that the company wanted her to illustrate the Planets book, she was very excited. Then reality hit. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, what have I gotten myself into?’”

Ortakales soon realized that she did have the creativity and drive to illustrate Planets. The book is done with cut-paper illustrations, for which Ortakales has become a master artist. Her paper work is skillful and three-dimensional and her use of colors is vivid and pleasing.

The entire process of illustrating a children’s book takes Ortakales from six to nine months. “First, the publisher sends you the manuscript. Depending upon if it is a picture book or an early reader, they might send you a layout. In a picture book, the illustrator might have greater say in where the illustrations would be placed within the pages. The publisher will send the layout and where the blank spots are that need illustrations. Then I come up with rough sketches and submit them. Once the sketches are approved, I do the finished art.”

It is a back-and-forth process that takes time and an ability by the artist to stand up to criticism and sometimes to the frustration of reworking. But for Ortakales, it is part of the process and one she has become accustomed to.

When asked how, out of the thousands of illustrators who submit work to publishers, Ortakales thinks her work stood out, she is quick to say it was a bit of luck but also the fact that her work is three-dimensional and done with cut paper. The unusual look of her work may have made it stand out a bit more.

“My style of artwork is called sculpted paper, which is three-dimensional layers of paper. I think I work this way because I have always liked to cut and paste paper. My mother recalls that I loved paper dolls when I was a girl. The three-dimensional paper just speaks to me more. That isn’t to say that I couldn’t illustrate if chose to because I am trained as an illustrator. I have been doing cut paper for 14 years, and now I am just itching to do some two-dimensional artwork.”

For the past few years, Ortakales has been working on a historical young adult novel, which she recently finished. She is currently looking for an agent for the book. She probably will choose not to illustrate the book because her style relies heavily on plants and animals versus people, and her novel focuses more on people.

One would imagine that a children’s book illustrator would work closely with the author, but Ortakales says it is usually not the case. The illustrator and author usually have limited communication. This is so that the illustrator has freer reign to use his or her imagination to make the best possible images for the book. “I am usually kept separate from the author; it’s usually up to the editor how much communication I have with the author, but I have done it both ways.”

The manner in which Ortakales wrote the Old Man book was unusual. “It started as an assignment when I was in college to take an old folk tale and rewrite it to make it my own. After I graduated, I stuck the finished assignment in a drawer and forgot about it. Then the Old Man fell. That is when I dusted off the manuscript and sent it out. I found a publisher immediately, probably because the story and subject matter was timely and fit into their publishing agenda.”

The book has been a success and brought Ortakales an advance, then royalties off the book’s sales. The first print run was 5,000 and the Old Man book is now in its second printing.

Ortakales works a part-time job and stresses that most children’s book illustrators and authors never get wealthy off their creative work.

Because she lives in the Lakes Region, Ortakales has constant inspiration from the plants and the lakes and the mountains around her. “Indeed, the local landscapes sometimes end up in my illustrations,” she says.

Today, Ortakales’ sons are ages 16 and 24. They have grown up around their mother’s artwork and take living with an artist in their stride. When her sons were in elementary school, Ortakales was asked to read to their classes from books she illustrated and she was happy to do so. Visiting elementary schools is something she still enjoys doing today.

Often, Ortakales retreats to her studio, which is above her garage. It gives her the space and privacy to spread out her paper and illustration materials and “make a mess” as she says. The act of illustrating children’s books is a juggling act, according to Ortakales. She must be creative yet a businessperson, a marketer of her artwork to publishers, and she must at times think like a child in order to make the charming pieces of artwork that youngsters so adore.

“There is no doubt that writing and illustrating children’s books is a competitive business, and it really doesn’t matter how many successful books you have under your belt. You have to keep your name and your work out there to continue to be successful,” she reflects.

Like all artists, Ortakales has dreams and future plans. She hopes to get her historical book published and she adds, “Someday I want to write and illustrate the same story. That is the Holy Grail for artists. I want to create more books of all kinds. That would be fun.”

To see the artwork of Denise Ortakales, visit www. 

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