The Insider: Jim Hoover, Art Director at Viking Books for Young Readers

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Illustration by Leire Martin

In this edition of The Insider, we interviewed Jim Hoover, Art Director at Viking Books for Young Readers. With nearly 20 years of experience in the Kid Lit world, Jim is a font of knowledge for experienced and budding illustrators alike. 

What was your big break into the world of Children’s Book Publishing and how has your career progressed since?

I have been working in children’s publishing since autumn of 1999. My college roommate and best bud, Giuseppe Castellano (Executive AD at Grosset), had started work as a design assistant at Simon & Schuster. He called me up towards the end of the summer to let me know a job with another imprint was available. I knew exactly nothing about design or publishing, but I somehow got the job.

My work experience there was frustrating and often bittersweet, but I liked working with the files and quickly learned to respect just how many fonts existed in the world, and most importantly, remembered how much I loved children’s books. I started working at Penguin a year later, and Viking two years after that and have been here ever since.

G and J RISD
Giuseppe and Jim rocking out at RISD

What types of artwork do you commission?

I commission everything from picture book illustrators to middle grade to YA (I love getting away with an illustrated YA cover). I love the amount of stylistic diversity out there and factoring in how different artists would bring a different set of experiences to a book.

What qualities do you look for in a children’s illustrator — both in their portfolio and their professional demeanor – as your searching for the right art for a text?

This is a question I get asked so often, and I you would think I would have found a way to answer it better by now. But the truth is, there is never any certain quality or characteristic that I am looking for in a general way. Beyond being drawn to someone’s art, I look for consistency. I try to imagine, based on a small body of work, what this person might be like to collaborate with for six months to a year (or more). I also have come to know certain agents and agencies that I like working with and trust. Having more than one style or visual voice is not a problem—but it is crucial that an illustrator communicates that they can move back and forth from one to the next and understand the difference and what their client wants.

Last Kids on Earth
The Last Kids on Earth series, which Jim art directed 

How do you make sure the artwork you acquire is fresh and relevant given the ever-evolving children’s book market?

I’ve been working in this industry long enough to see trends come and go. I think where relevancy comes from—lasting relevancy—is how the text and art ultimately connect with a reader. You have to address the forest before you can focus on the trees. You start out with that chunk of marble. That giant, daunting, blank canvas. It is a puzzle. A riddle. You are a rag-tag team of sleuths unraveling the crime. Every book we sign up has something that resonates, and if that gets lost along the way during the process, we try our best to course-correct. I love that about making a picture book. I don’t look for fresh, I look for compelling. And I never think about relevancy during the course of a project. It only gets in the way. I just go to Barnes & Noble and eat my heart out from time to time instead. :o)

Among the many great projects you’ve art directed, one was a ground-breaking Middle Grade memoir called Ugly, written by Robert Hoge about life growing up with severe physical deformities, which Bright Artist Keith Robinson illustrated. What drew you to Keith for this important project that relies so heavily on visual imagination and advocates for diversity in the Kid Lit world?

 Ugly was such a unique and amazing project. I had actually inherited the project after Keith Robinson was already signed up, but started working with him before the first round of sketches came in. He really immersed himself in the subject matter and it was apparent that it was vitally important to him that he get the material right.

The author, Robert Hoge, was born with a tumor in his head that left him scarred and deformed. His memoir not only told his story growing up, but showed kids that it is okay to be different (Spoiler alert: humor goes a long way in life). Robert was really knocked out by Keith’s work. And Keith was a dream to art direct: a consummate professional. We adjusted a few details in the sketches as we went for accuracy of subject, and discussed hard borders vs. something more organic and meandering (went with the latter). The final book came out so well.

ugly cover
From Ugly by Robert Hoge, illustrations by Keith Robinson 

What projects are you looking forward to this season?  

Viking is doing a ton of exciting stuff in the next few months. Last Kids on Earth 3 just came out, as well as Xu Bing’s Look! What Do You See? illustrated by Becca Stadtlander. In Spring, Elizabeth Partridge’s next non-fiction masterpiece Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam comes out. Very different from that, but also debuting in spring is Mac Barnett and Greg Pizzoli’s Hi, Jack! series. Very funny early reader books that parents will love, too. Also on our spring list is James Yang’s Bus! Stop!, which I already anticipate will be a season favorite.


Look! What Do You See? illustrated by Becca Stadtlander goes on sale Nov. 7th

Thanks so much to Jim for contributing to this post! You can follow him on Twitter @JimHoover17.

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Jim Hoover