MEET ILLUSTRATOR JOSH CLELAND AND STARRY FOREST BOOKS–PLUS AN ILLUSTRATION PORTFOLIO REVIEW GIVEAWAY!

Today at Sub It Club, we are happy to welcome illustrator Josh Cleland and Starry Forest Books! 

Starry Forest Books is an independent children’s publisher passionate about making something beautiful. It takes just one look at their upcoming picture book, THE END, written by John Bray and illustrated by our guest today, to know that they have accomplished their goal. Not only is THE END beautiful, but it’s also thought-provoking, high-energy fun from BEGINNING to END! We’re so glad Josh is here today to share about his journey to publication, and how he came to illustrate this delightful book. 

Enjoy our interview with Josh Cleland! And, be sure to stick around until THE END, because we have a giveaway! One lucky illustrator will win a portfolio review from Robert Agis, President of Starry Forest Books!

Hi Josh! Welcome to Sub It Club! Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started as an illustrator? What drew you to children’s books specifically?
Like most artists, I started drawing in early childhood. One day at about 10 years old, I was sitting in church doodling Bart Simpson and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all over the church program and notes sections. My dad looked over, quietly took my pencil and wrote down, “why don’t you start drawing your own characters?” I’ve been doing that ever since. When I was about 12, I decided I wanted to be a cartoonist and have the next great American comic strip in the papers–like Calvin & Hobbes, or Peanuts. I think deep down I was attracted to the storytelling aspect of comics, which naturally morphed into children’s books. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started thinking about a career in children’s books. 

What picture books were your favorites as a child? Do you think those childhood favorites have influenced your own style of illustration?
I loved Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. These are absolute classics in both storytelling, and art form. I was also heavily influenced by the many Christmas books my parents read to me in my childhood. Every December, my mom would put out a huge stack of classic Christmas books as part of decorating. I don’t recall any specific book, but I do remember how they all impacted me as a whole. Perhaps this is why I love illustrating Christmas stuff now, and why my work sometimes has a “mid-century retro feel”.

I think the books that actually influenced me the most visually were the Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts anthologies I read as a teenager. The quirkiness and economy of line and shape is something I see in my work today.

How long did you submit your work before you got a contract? What types of things did you do to get your work out there?
My path to children’s book illustration wasn’t as straightforward as most. After graduating from college in 2002 I had mostly given up on children’s book illustration—thinking it wasn’t a viable career path financially and realistically. I graduated with a BFA in graphic design and quickly started working in that field. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would insert illustrations into my designs for clients, and, over time, my illustration portfolio grew. In 2009 I went out on my own as a full-time freelance designer. Even though I had given up on children’s book illustration, it didn’t give up on me. I continued drawing on the side–building my portfolio and website, and continued getting corporate illustration gigs. Around 2015, I started drawing Portland, Oregon posters as a side project (my hometown region). Soon after posting these prints, a couple of publishers reached out to see if I would be interested in illustrating books about Portland, and Oregon. In 2016 and 2017 my first two books were published: I WANT A REAL BIKE IN OREGON by Eric Kimmel, and PORTLAND BABY by Barbara Kerley.

I don’t ever recall actually submitting my work to publishers, but I did work hard building my illustration portfolio and skills, and posting work online. Eventually the publishers found me, which is kind of backward I suppose. 


Your upcoming book, THE END, is one that explores conclusions—what feels like the end of something, just might be the beginning of something new. What inspired you to want to work on this story?
Many times when I read a manuscript, I immediately think of images to help tell the story. When I first read John Bray’s THE END, I drew a blank. It was such a unique concept that I had no knee-jerk pictures in my head. Yet, I loved the concept! It was a creative challenge I couldn’t resist. And, the more I read it, the more I could relate to the concept. As a kid, I struggled with transitions and endings—ending of summer, ending of the Christmas season (and having to put away those amazing Christmas books), and even the ends of weekends (Sunday nights—yuck!). But I also knew that endings often brought the beginnings of great things: ending of summer quickly brought about Halloween, and then Christmas–and Christmas books! You may even meet a new friend.

What is your favorite spread in THE END?

I think my favorite spread is the Dino Cave Enter fort illustration spread. Who wouldn’t want a big fort like that as a kid! It’s fun illustrating scenes from kids’ points of view. A simple blanket fort can turn into a massive, endless cave full of wonders. 

 If you had one piece of advice to give aspiring illustrators, what would it be?
Think about how your illustrations fit into the market. What value do your illustrations bring? Do they make people laugh, cry, think, get mad? Do they simplify complex problems? Start cataloging specific compliments to look for patterns. Do people comment on how your drawings make them feel? Early on, I noticed people telling me that my illustrations make them “smile”, or make them happy or laugh. This is something I’ve leaned into over the years, and I believe it’s one of my selling points.

Thank you so much, Josh! If you want to know more about Josh Cleland, you can find him at joshcleland.com or on Instagram @joshcleland. THE END releases in August 2022, but is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Bookshop.org and Barnes and Noble!

AND if you want to know more about Starry Forest Books, we have a great opportunity for you! Robert Agis, President of Starry Forest Books, is giving away an illustration portfolio review for one lucky illustrator! You can enter through the Rafflecopter link below by following Starry Forest Books on Twitter and Instagram. This giveaway will run through May 17th and the winner will be contacted soon after. Writers who are interested in submitting to Starry Forest Books can find their submission guidelines here.

The illustration portfolio giveaway is now over and we have a winner! Congratulations Narges F! We will send you an email soon. 🙂

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? We want to hear them!

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