The Insider: Sarah Hokanson, Art Director at Random House

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illustration by Lorena Alvarez

In this edition of The Insider, we interviewed Sarah Hokanson, Art Director at Random House Children’s Books. On Saturday, September 9th, Sarah appeared alongside our very own James Burns at the annual Eastern PA SCBWI Illustrator Day event at the Free Library of Philadelphia, where they gave a presentation to emerging illustrators on how to take their portfolios to the next level. 

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James and Sarah at the East Philadelphia SCBWI Illustrators Day


The children’s book industry can be wildly competitive, especially at the entry level. What do you consider your “big break” into publishing, and how was your career evolved since? 

After graduating from art school with a degree in graphic design, I knew I wanted to get a job as a designer that works with a lot of illustration. My father, a freelance illustrator for over thirty years, advised me to pursue a job in the publishing industry. He also gave me his “contact” list of hundreds of names of art directors and editors. This was before the internet and google so I sent out handwritten letters to fifty art directors on the list. My big break came when three different art directors called me in response to my letter. After a few interviews one of those art directors hired me as a junior designer. We have been working together ever since!

I think three things contributed to my big break: I was lucky to have a supportive parent who knew the industry, I graduated art school with a design portfolio that was geared towards the design of illustration and typography together, and I knew very early on in my design career that I specifically wanted to work in children’s books. I have been designing and art directing children’s books for over twenty years now! A lot has changed over the years, but at the end of every day I still go home knowing I’ve worked on a book that is going to spark a child’s imagination.

Books in the Sammy Keyes series, which Sarah designed

What qualities do you look for in a children’s book illustrator as you’re searching for the right art for a text? 

When I am searching for illustrators it is usually for a specific project or manuscript. But in general, I am looking for an artist who is going to bring a story to life with
either humor or heart.

I am usually drawn to art that has a great sense of color and design. If a portfolio has fun characters I usually always hold onto those samples or bookmark their website. I am also drawn to illustration that can evoke emotion with line quality that is simple and
not too heavy handed.

What do you believe are the benefits of SCBWI membership for artists?

There are so many wonderful things about The SCBWI but, I think the best part of joining is all the brilliant and caring people you get to meet! You are not only meeting an abundance of amazing professionals in the Children’s Book industry but, also writers and artists who are also looking to learn and support each other in their publishing endeavors. It’s such an amazing support system for artists!

Illustration by Stephanie Laberis, a Random House Children's Books favorite

Illustration by Stephanie Laberis, a Random House Children’s Books favorite

The children’s book market seems to be evolving faster than ever. How do your tastes shift alongside the market and how do you make sure your projects are fresh and relevant?

I have never been good at chasing the latest trends in design or illustration, but I do believe that the best designs and illustrations can stand the test of time and current trends. I feel that if the style of illustration is appropriate for what it is illustrating and it is designed well what is “on trend” or fresh doesn’t matter.

In your experience from the publishing side of the industry, what makes a good illustration agent? A good art Director? 

All great agents and art directors are also really good communicators. Which means they get back to you in a timely manner, they are clear and thoughtful with advice and direction, and they are also not afraid to tell the truth if it’s needed to be told!

Sarah has designed a number of picture books with Random House, including the Sammy Keyes series, Panda Pants by Jacqueline Davis and illustrated by Sydney Hanson, I Want That Nut by Madeline Valentine, and If You Had a Jetpack by Lisl Detlefsen and illustrated by Linzie Hunter, which comes out Spring 2018.

Sarah has designed a number of picture books with Random House, including the Sammy Keyes series, Panda Pants by Jacqueline Davis and illustrated by Sydney Hanson, I Want That Nut by Madeline Valentine, and If You Had a Jetpack by Lisl Detlefsen and illustrated by Linzie Hunter, which comes out Spring 2018.


We are delighted to share sneak peek artwork from two upcoming books that #BrightArtists illustrated and collaborated on with Sarah…


Julianna From My First Day at Mermaid School, illustrated by Julianna Swaney | pub Feb 2018
Sarah GreenFrom Brave Clara Barton, illustration by Sarah Green | pub March 2018