Claire Counihan

Director of Art & Design Holiday House

What is your professional background and how did you end up as Director of Art & Design at Holiday House?

I have a BFA cum laude in Book Design from Pratt Institute. I went to Pratt thinking I would be a painter, but had such an affinity for graphic design that I switched majors. Aware of needing a job when I got out of school, I looked at the help wanted ads in the New York Times. When I saw there was a profession called book design, I knew that was the life for me. I really love to read and I love typography, and it’s an excellent way to get a lot of free books.

Initially I worked designing scientific and college books for 6 years. My first job in children’s book was at E. P. Dutton, working for the brilliant art director Riki Levinson. After 4 years there I left to be the art director at Dodd, Mead.

I’ve been designing books for 33 years. When I began, I specified metal type. Now I’m the typesetter in Quark or InDesign. I do love my Mac, called Topsie, in honor of William Morris, and my glorious Xerox Phaser 7750 color printer, since it’s always nice to get an idea of how the book will look printed beforehand.
Could you outline a typical day as Director of Art & Design at Holiday House?

Since I am the Director of Art & Design and the entire art department of the 14 employees at Holiday House, my day begins wondering what to do next.

In the course of the day I will be working on picture books, novels and possibly a nonfiction book, designing or making the many, many corrections that occur in documents before they go off to the color house or printer, using either Quark or InDesign software programs. I might go over sketches for a jacket or text sketches for an upcoming picture book. Or I might be cloning bleed into high resolution Photoshop files. Calls or emails will be made to freelance designers or jacket artists to see when they will be done with their projects. If I have book jackets to be assigned, I will be going through my files of samples to find an artist and I’ve also bookmarked childrensillustrators.com – It’s a full day.

On average, how many children’s books does Holiday House produce a year?

Between 55 and 60

Tell us about 3 recent projects you have enjoyed working on and why?

We did a book of poetry with Walter Dean Myers called HERE IN HARLEM. Walter has a large collection of old photographs which we used as art for the book. He also had taken a lovely poignant picture that I used to illustrate his saddest poem . When I asked him how he’d like it to look, he said “elegant.” So I used the most elegant typography, cream stock, a rough front, and printed endpapers showing an old map of Harlem. It was a book almost as beautiful as his poetry.

The gifted author, Russell Freedman, wrote a book called FREEDOM WALKERS, The Story of The Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of those nonfiction books he does so well. I enjoyed designing it, using typography reminiscent of the Civil War, and laying it out, getting each photo to appear on the same page as the text reference.

MERLIN AND THE MAKING OF THE KING was a lovely picture book project because Trina Schart Hyman did such wonderful art. Margaret Hodges wrote a simple and lucid text. I hired a calligrapher to do 14th century style lettering for all the display, and it was Holiday House’s first book to use a 5th color gold metallic ink, to give an illuminated manuscript feel.

How many illustrators do you typically work with per year?

We use about 50, between novel jacket art and picture books.

What can we expect from Holiday House in 2007?

Will Hillenbrand has illustrated a poem by Myra Cohn Livingston called CALENDAR, a picture book for Spring. In the Fall Gail Gibbons is doing a lushly illustrated nonfiction book on CORAL REEFS, and a first time picture book illustrated by Greg Spalenka, written by Teresa Bateman called EYES OF THE UNICORN will be a beauty.

Within the last couple of years, which children’s book has been the most successful for Holiday House and what do you attribute to its success?

PUNCTUATION TAKES A VACATION, because very few books are cool and entertaining about punctuation.¬†THERE’S A FROG IN MY THROAT a wonderfully imaginative illustrated book about idioms, and BLUES JOURNEY, because it was illustrated by Christopher Myers and written by Walter Dean Myers, who are a pair of brilliant men.

How much influence do the Sales / Marketing departments have over your work?

Barbara Walsh has helped me come up with some good jackets for Gail Gibbons, whom she also edits. Otherwise, in a company as small as this, not much influence.

Do you work with many illustrators from outside the U.S?


Do you have a personal favourite picture book?

I’ve always identified with Winnie the Pooh. I often feel elevenish.

Aside from their obvious talent, what personal qualities do you look for when choosing an illustrator to work with?

I like them to leave space for type and to give me enough bleed on final art.

This interview has been syndicated courtesy of Childrensillustrators.com