For the week of June 16, Corinna Luyken’s book, “My Heart,” which she describes as a “quiet book,” made some noise nationwide as it slid into the number eight spot on The New York Times Best-Seller List in the Children’s Picture Books category.
Luyken is an author/illustrator of two books, “My Heart” and “The Book of Mistakes” and the illustrator of “Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse.” Though it appears that Luyken may be an overnight success when looking at the past four years of her career, her path has been very much the contrary – as she has worked for 18 years to break into the picture book industry. Aside from the wonderful lessons on emotional intelligence and failing forward that we glean from her books, Luyken’s career path is also a testament to what can happen when you work hard, “trust the process,” and don’t give up.
Luyken did not attend a traditional art school, and instead studied at Middlebury College in Vermont where her coursework was in topics of interest to her like poetry, writing, and print-making. She was interested in art, but wanted to study other things, too. Because of this, she describes her path in becoming a published author/illustrator as “meandering,” but wouldn’t change it. “Early on,” she says, “I don’t know if I would have found the same voice that I have as an illustrator now – had I been just trying to make work that other people liked.”
After college, Luyken was working at a bookstore when her manager introduced her to “The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip,” a long-form children’s picture book written by George Saunders and illustrated by Lane Smith. That book stirred something in Luyken, and was the moment she fully recognized her passion for illustration.
She joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) in the early 2000s, but wasn’t very active in the organization at first. She began to draw and create incessantly – for years – and put together a body of work to submit to publishers. She says the initial rejection letters were “very nice,” and ultimately what Luyken realized, was that her written words were good, but it was her art that needed work. “It was a very, very long time,” she says, “before I realized that anything you love and keep at, and if you’re willing to practice enough – that you’ll get better at it. That for me was a huge turning point in taking myself more seriously as an artist.”
Luyken got serious indeed, and began to devour children’s books by the stack. “First and foremost,” she says, “a large part of my education came from just reading picture books and studying the books that I loved. I read so many books. I was really studying the picture book form and over time fell in love with so many different styles.”
Luyken explained that she felt her style came naturally once she had fallen in love with enough work and had made enough work herself, which included drawing as a regular practice. “The more you draw and don’t worry about style,” she says, “but just sit down and draw as it comes naturally, the more your work starts to take on a shape that is an amalgamation of everything you love and that comes naturally to you.”
Luyken then attended several of the summer conferences hosted by SCBWI. The conferences are held in Los Angeles and New York, and for a small-town dweller like Luyken, were vital networking opportunities. She entered a few of their prestigious competitions and among other awards, in 2015, took Grand Prize in the SCBWI WWA Portfolio Showcase. For Luyken, that was a turning point in her career.
She then wrote and illustrated her debut picture book, “The Book of Mistakes.” It caught the attention of Steven Malk, an agent at Writer’s House, a very well-respected agency. With Malk’s help, Luyken’s book went up for auction with a number of large publishing houses, and she captured her first book deal with publishing giant, Penguin Random House. Through beautiful illustrations and poetic text, “The Book of Mistakes” artfully and lovingly reminds us that making mistakes is part of the creative process.
Asked about the creative and collaborative process when illustrating another author’s written work, Luyken explains that when working on a project, the author and illustrator are kept separate to allow the illustrator the same creative freedom the author had when writing the book. Luyken further details that “the point of a picture book – a good picture book – is that the words and images do not repeat each other.”
“If you respect children as very intelligent readers of both pictures and words,” she says, “you understand that there is this real magic that can happen in picture books and it can’t happen anywhere else. It’s the dance between the words and the pictures and the way that they can sometimes contradict each other to make a joke, or even make you wonder about the truthfulness of the text itself. The words say one thing and the picture clearly shows that that’s not true – there’s so much fun you can have with a picture book because of that.”
And it can also be a lesson in subversiveness. “In this online, commercially saturated and visually oriented world that we live in,” Luyken says, “picture books can teach us all a lot about how to be discerning when it comes to reading not only the words, but the pictures as well. An incredibly important skill for the times we are living in!”
Through her illustrations, her words, and her lack of words in some instances, Luyken is quickly becoming a cherished and timeless book-maker. In the jacket of “My Heart” readers are greeted with the words, “From moments of great joy and exuberance to necessary times of quiet contemplation, your heart is your guide.” In Luyken’s work, that all becomes clear – as you see her heart on every page.
Pick up a copy of Corinna Luyken’s books at Browser’s Bookshop in Olympia. The booksellers there are sure to always have signed copies available. Her books can also be found at Orca Books, Captain Little, and Barnes and Noble, and can be checked out at the Timberland Regional Library.
Luyken now has an incredibly full calendar of future works. Look for her illustrations in “Weird Little Robots” this fall, “Nothing in Common” in the fall of 2020, “Something Good” in fall 2021, and her written words and illustrations in “The Arguers” in spring of 2021.