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PAL Interview with SCBWI

Interview Questions for PAL Illustrator of the Month July 2019

POLLY ALICE MCCANN, author-illustrator, loves to put a whimsical world of rainbow color in every picture. She graduated with her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Hamline University. Polly is a writing mentor for the Society of Young Inklings as well as managing editor of Flying Ketchup Press. Her art has been published in national magazines and newspapers and several upcoming books. She loves to spend time with her two kids, grow basil in the garden, and explore the unexpected in her free time. Find out more at or visit her studio on second Saturdays at DesignWerx in North Kansas City.

How did you get started in illustration? What is your background?

In middle school, my favorite teacher, Mrs. Steinhauser, pointed out that I loved both art and writing and I’d make a great children's book writer and illustrator. Before that, I loved Rodger Hane-- the first illustrator for the Narnian Chronicles books. He’s still my biggest influence, or I’d like him to be. I took every class in college with that goal of writer-illustrator in mind, and eventually received my MFA from Hamline University in St. Paul in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Since then I’ve spent the last eight years developing my art and illustration as a full-time artist.

What is your preferred medium, method of working?

I prefer painting! I love to add pastel and painting together. Mixed media is my favorite. But sometimes I get crazy and throw in cut paper. Photoshop is my fave way to get everything glowing and working together after time with traditional materials in my studio.

How did your style and technique develop?

I’ve overcome a lot in my studio art. I developed a huge fear of drawing after some really negative critiques and a lot of rejections. And I had always found drawing my least favorite method to convey a story, but it was essential. I was driving down the street one day and saw a life-size Humpty Dumpty statue on a garden wall. I remembered how much joy I found in that story as a kid and how much I had thought about it-- for hours. Then I found the old Humpty-dumpty doll that my mom had made me. It was missing a leg and an eye. I felt like that doll, missing elements I needed to be a writer/ illustrator. Suddenly after talking to my brother about how much we loved that old toy, my idea for a one-legged pirate Humpty Dumpty developed. Once I had something personal I wanted to convey. My mixed media collage style just worked because I was invested. --Also, I needed a painting for an art show at the library, so my first character was born. Then I learned to go back and draw on top of my paintings. Finally, with photoshop to fix up anything I felt was missing, I finally had a model that worked. This discovery took several years.

Can you describe a typical workday for us?

I get up and do email and talk to authors, illustrators because I’m an editor too. I have breakfast and coffee with my mom and she really gives me great advice about my day. We laugh a lot. Then I go to the studio and sometimes I take one of my kids or meet my intern there. I try to get in some studio time or some painting. I might work on designing and coloring some book pages for a client. I send them photos to approve and maybe make a call about a project. Then I might finish up a commission of a painting or ship some art. After lunch, I might teach a student who stops by for an hour. Then I fill up a satchel of work to take home with me. Sometimes I have an online student with the Society of Young Inklings for an hour in the evening. After my kids go to bed, I scan in the work and start my photoshop and illustrator work. I might copy edit or write some prose or poetry. Sometimes I have a picture book client or two and I’ll do developmental editing. I keep a sketchbook and my laptop in a little briefcase with me at all times, It also sometimes has manuscripts in there to read. When I’m sitting and waiting for movie time with kids or karate to finish, I do social media for my artwork and editing. I work two shifts a day-- as a single mom with two businesses that’s what it takes right now.

What do you find the most challenging in your work?

Drawing is my kryptonite. I think when we draw we have to be playful, childlike, and we have to practice self-love and self-acceptance, just like a child does. That is hard. Often I hate what I draw and I have to stop and say, this is how I draw-- get over it. Love it. Accept it. I had to unlearn everything I learned in college about drawing to get back into illustration. I had to stop looking at a lot of reference images and just use my imagination. When I finally accepted my own style of drawing, I could suddenly draw more freely, even hands and toes and funny angles. It all became much easier. Part of that process was other people asking me to do a cover design or artwork for them. I realized I needed to let go of those overly harsh critiques in my memory and just be like a kid. Illustrations help tell the story and they do it in an Everything else is icing. Perfection is not my mantra, being personal is what it’s about.

Do you have a favorite book(s) from your childhood? How about more recently?

A book called “Sugarplum” was my fave. It’s about a doll that is wooden and had painted on clothing. She gets lost in some crazy places and when she is found, her little girl sews her a very real dress. A lot of my art uses the dress image to this day as a symbol for belonging and finding your sense of self and home. I’m doing a series of dress paintings and I was invited to design a real dress for a fashion show of upcycled art to raise money for the homeless.

What would be your dream project? Or what was your favorite project?

I have a book series that really helps promote theater and fine arts for kids with a set of characters I developed. I’d love to get that worked out and bravely begin to illustrate and write it myself.

Any words of advice for folks just starting out in illustration?

What do you wish you would have known sooner in your author/illustrator career?

I wish I would have just let go and been more childlike about illustration sooner. Illustration has been my Mt. Everest and I’m glad I didn’t give up. I know so many people find it fun and easy. To me, it’s hard work, but worth it because it helps me share an inspiring story in the best way possible for young readers. If you are an illustrator, claim it. Do it. Have fun with it. And make art about the ideas that get in your way. You’ll get there!

What’s next for you? Any upcoming book releases we should be on the lookout for?

My book TOMIE Q. BBQ is coming out with Flying Ketchup Press probably at the beginning of next year with illustrations by Mary Hendrix who I met at the last SCBWI KS/MO conference. I just finished illustrating a book called TINKA & THE TOAD by Jena Brigantino McNealy which the author will publish. This is the second year I’ve had the honor of doing the cover art for the annual journal from Society of Young Inklings-- which everyone should buy. I’m the editor for several short story collections coming out soon: TALES FROM THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE illustrated by HAYLEY PATTERSON. I’m the art director for two books: Danielle D. Williams, HITCH A RIDE ON THE COLOR EXPRESS, and WHAT’S THAT SOUND by Leanne Litka. I’m working on several non-fiction projects. It’s an exciting time to be in publishing.

Thank you for participating in this interview! We can’t wait to showcase your work.



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