Profile of SCBWI Illustrator Katie Kath

 “I really don’t think,” my professor said as she scratched her signature onto the line marked APPROVALS, “that you have a competent or realistic understanding of the illustration market.” I stood holding the signature sheet after she had gone, feeling as if I’d lost a kidney or something. What if she’s right, I thought. Maybe I’m a failure after all.

For most of the time in graduate school, I struggled with style and figuring out what I wanted to do with a degree in illustration. Although my secret dream was to illustrate children’s books, attempting to get into that market seemed impossible and was considered impractical by many in the department. So, I put the dream on the back burner, concentrating my efforts on styles and markets I thought were popular and trendy.  

There was one problem. As graduation neared, I realized to my horror I hated the art I was making. Consumed with creating work I thought would make other people happy, I felt helpless, desperate, and directionless.

In one of the last classes I took, each student designed his or her own long-term project and executed it under the guidance of a professor. This class, it seemed, was a last shot at doing something I really wanted to do.

I decided to create a children’s book, designed my way. I was never so happy in my life as when I was working on that book. My joy came through in the drawings, and the professor noticed.

“These are simply smashing!” he said one day as he handed me a flyer. “I found this on my desk. It’s a contest for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I think you’d stand a chance at winning if you entered those images! Better get going, the deadline is only a week away.”

With vim and vigor I scanned in the best three images from the book, my mind reeling. Could this be my ticket? Could I really break into the market? Would I achieve my dream after all? Months went by after submission to the contest, and my hope waned.  I realized I might need to face the reality that I would never illustrate for children and should move on with my life. So, I let go of my dream and desperately watched it bubble down into the icy depths of abandoned wishes.

The next week, I got a call from California. When I answered the phone, a friendly voice chirped on the other end of the line, “Hi, Katie! This is Sarah Baker from SCBWI.  I’m happy to tell you that you are one of our Student Illustrator Scholarship winners this summer!”

Since that day, my illustration career has taken off. I have a fantastic agent in New York, have made amazing connections at the Summer Conference, and am currently working on three children’s books with major publishing houses, as well as several children’s editorial projects.

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I never dreamed I would be working with publishers, companies, and people of such high caliber. I owe thanks to those who encouraged me and to SCBWI for graciously giving me this opportunity.

I would like to leave readers with this: I am only one of many SCBWI success stories, and I am convinced that, if you have a passion, success will often come when you are at the end of your rope, paintbrush, or pencil. If any of you is discouraged, I hope my story will encourage and empower you to let your dreams soar.

Katie Kath is a freelance illustrator for children’s books.  Some of her clients include: Highlights HighFive, Dial Books, Penguin/Random House, Knopf 

BFYR, Blue Apple Books, and Grosset and Dunlap. She holds an MFA from Savannah College of Art and Design. Visit www.ktkath.com.