Shaping the Future With Stories

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Illustration by Eda Kaban.

There’s not an adult who doesn’t remember a children’s book that vividly captured their imagination as a child and connected them to literature. A book whose illustrations brought that story to life. This is the role of a children’s book illustrator and this year, four connected to Academy of Art University’s School of Illustration (ILL) were honored for their excellence in the impactful art of visual storytelling. 

“Children’s books shape the future of every young reader,” said Chuck Pyle, ILL director. “Our artists are very driven, smart and passionate storytellers whose work is being recognized as the best of the best.”

Between Lexington and Park Avenues in New York City hangs the illustrations of instructors for ILL’s Julie Downing and Eda Kaban, along with alumnae Rebecca Huang and Ana Aranda. They were accepted into the Society of Illustrators’ exhibition, The Original Art, which celebrates the fine art of children’s book illustration. The exhibition opened on Nov. 2. 

The annual exhibition has been showcasing the industry’s cream of the crop since 1980. Artists are chosen for their style, strength in storytelling, consistency and creativity. Over the years, the exhibition has grown in numbers and continues to be a marker in what is happening in the ever-changing world of children’s book illustration. 

As for the artists, it was truly a moment of great accomplishment, recognition and also just really exciting. 

For Downing, a veteran illustrator, this is her third time being accepted into the Society, but for her, it is just as rewarding as the first time in 1985.

“It is still exciting,” said Downing, who has illustrated more than 50 published books. “I’m really, really honored to be included.”

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Illustration by Julie Downing.

Downing was accepted this year for her work in Lotus and Feather, a touching story about a young girl who lost her voice and a crane with an injured wing. The pair become inseparable. 

The story is beautifully illuminated by Downing’s delicate, fanciful illustrations. Snowflakes elegantly envelop the winter scenes with the black and white crane and the dark-haired little girl. 

She explained that her acceptance was especially gratifying this year because she used a technique she’d never used before. Although many artists today still illustrate using traditional methods, there is a large portion who partially, or fully, use digital techniques. 

Lotus and Feather was a mix of both and the book’s success she said is a sign of the times.

“I played around working traditionally while combining digital technique which gave it flexibility and made it stronger,” Downing said. “It was the first time I’d done a book like that, and it made me feel like I am headed in the right direction.”

Throughout the years, Downing has experienced the ebb and flow of the illustration industry. She said the introduction of digital has allowed artists to break out of the stereotype of what a children’s book can be and squeezes even more creativity from the artists. 

Although her work has been recognized many times by the Society, she’s never actually attended the opening in New York City. She did attend this year, and for some company, she brought fellow Academy illustration instructor Kaban.

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Illustration by Ana Aranda.

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Illustration by Rebecca Huang.

It was Kaban’s first time in the show, although she’s known about it since she was an Academy student back in 2010. Seeing her illustrations from We Are Brothers, We Are Friends on the exhibit walls was really a moment she could say to herself, “I made it.”

Stunned might be a good word to describe her initial reaction.

“When I first heard I was like, ‘I really got in?’” she said. “There are so many artists that you look up to there and then you kind of realize you are part of the gang. It feels surreal that I am one of those people.” 

Both instructors described the opening night as “surreal.” Downing shared that there was a line out the door and around the block to get in and barely space to move around inside; a symbol of the exhibition’s growth in popularity and significance. It was also an important moment for the Academy with more artists accepted this year than any year before. 

Each of the artists spoke about how the Academy influenced their success in some way, whether from education or teaching. Huang, another inductee of the exhibition, is a former student of Downing’s. 

Her work in the show, Bobo and the New Baby, a more graphic style illustration, originally began as her thesis project.

“The Academy really helped direct my work,” Huang said. “I was able to explore different mediums and create images that fit my style. The feedback I got from my instructors and classmates really improved my work.”

Huang is also a private illustration teacher at her home in Sunnyvale, California. As for the other instructors, every day at the Academy is an opportunity to help foster another great children’s book illustrator. 

“Everyone here in a strange way can take a small bow because they helped further the excellence of these alumni,” said Pyle. “They can reflect in the glory of what these illustrators have achieved and will continue to achieve.”


The colorful illustrations of all four artists will be on display until the end of December in New York City at the Society of Illustrators Gallery.