My Adventure into MG Sci Fi: The Making of an Illustration

© Kathryn Ault Noble
This amazing image is created by Kathryn Ault Noble and represents a scene from my middle grade manuscript. I love it so much and want to share the story of its creation. This post is Part 1, about my end of the process. In the future, I'll post an interview with Kathryn for more insight on her creative process.

The Story

For the last year, I've been on a wild creative ride, writing a middle grade science fiction story that hits my 12-year old geeky sweet spot. After many years working on children's illustration, writing picture books, and a couple of novels, everything clicked and I drafted and revised this manuscript. I got an amazing mentorship with MG author Tae Keller (go buy her book, THE SCIENCE OF BREAKABLE THINGS, immediately) through the Author Mentor Match program, did several major revisions and umpteen minor ones and completed it.

A Fortuitous Confluence of Interests

In June, while working on my revisions, my friend and talented illustrator Kathryn Ault Noble posted some super cool sci-fi work on Instagram. Images like these:

© Kathryn Ault Noble

Kathryn and I have become online friends through various kid lit groups. I've seen her work over the years and always loved how she constantly explores new styles and never rests on her many laurels. She's helped me with my portfolio, we featured her on Kidlit411, and we've generally commiserated over current events.

Something about these images prompted me to reach out to Kathryn and ask if she'd be interested in doing a commissioned illustration of a scene from my novel. I wanted to see how she would apply her skills and this cool aesthetic to my story.

Luckily for me, she was in a creative head space where she was exploring her 12-year old geeky sci-fi self too. We agreed to work together.

The Adventure

I call myself an illustrator, but working with Kathryn was a master class in illustration and the creative process. We spent a lot of time sharing images and styles we liked. Our shared Dropbox folder is a visual feast of sci-fi settings, concept art, middle grade covers, and art. We both were drawn to a retro sci-fi look, probably because we both grew up reading classic sci-fi novels. She read several chapters of my book to get a feel for the story.

She sent me hundreds of images of her work (sketches, styles, etc) so we could pick a direction. After an exploratory process, she sent me some quick ideas and I sent her some crude sketches back. She spent many hours researching whether my visual ideas had any basis in engineering and physics (for example, curved maglev tracks and futuristic cities). We discussed the news of the day (the immigrant children separated from their families) in between discussions of color palettes.

I had a specific idea for the sky and cloud treatment and found one of Kathryn's old pieces that had the feel I wanted. Coincidentally (or cosmically, maybe), I went for a walk on the beach and came across this scene:

summer sunset in Virginia Beach

As we agreed on a direction, we each went back to our respective creative caves. The end result was the fabulous illustration above. A closer view of a slightly earlier version, cropped:

© Kathryn Ault Noble
And a closer look at City Center:

© Kathryn Ault Noble

My Takeaway

Sharing ideas and conversation with Kathryn as she worked on the illustration showed me the magic that happens in an ideal creative collaboration. While I provided the initial vision and some input along the way, the key thing I learned was to trust my instinct that Kathryn was the right person to bring my story to visual life and trust that her vast experience and skill set would do it justice.

What I love about the creative collaborative process is that an alchemy happens, where new things come into being that wouldn't have if we'd worked on our own. I also loved how we both approached this from a purely creative angle. We weren't looking to create an image that was going to sell (though Kathryn is very cognizant of the current trends in MG art and her art is totally fresh). We wanted to please our inner 12-year old geeks.

We Don't Live in a Vacuum

Because we did this project with the backdrop of some of the most disturbing news in a year and a half of disturbing news and researching the setting yielded heartbreaking real life images of children in garbage dumps, we agreed to donate our efforts (her time, my payment). Kathryn decided to make this her annual pro bono illustration and chose the ACLU as the recipient.

I couldn't be happier with the end result and our creative journey.

May 2022 Update

Fast-forward to May 2022. My book , Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation, will be published on June 21, 2022! As part of the pre-order campaign, Kathryn reworked the illustration to make it brighter for print purposes and to be more in line with the vibe of the current cover (art by Fiona Hsieh/ design by Jessica Jenkins). Here is the updated illustration that will be a prize for the pre-order giveaway: