Illustrator/Author Spotlight: Leeza Hernandez

Illustrator/Author Spotlight: Leeza Hernandez

When I visit schools I’m often asked why I illustrate children’s books.

The short answer would be why not? I love to make art and I’ve always been interested in the process of story telling through art —but there’s more to it than that.

The longer answer is about connection. Looking back at my own childhood it had always been about this but I didn’t figure it out until much later in life and through working with The Author Experience.

When I was around 12 years old, a girl by the name of Jayne Fischer wrote and illustrated a series for Ladybird Books in England called The Garden Gang—a group of fun little backyard fruits and veggies having adventures. I remember the books clearly but it was the fact that Jayne was 12 too, and published that also inspired me. For the duration of that summer I wrote and illustrated books. Although by the time I went back to school in the fall I’d forgotten and moved on.

My career took a different path. I worked as a graphic designer in the magazine and newspaper industry. I was helping tell stories in a different way and thoroughly enjoyed it but with the growth of digital in the early 2000s, print circulation declined and my role changed from being artistic and explorative to just getting the job done. I needed another way to exercise my creativity.

Enter Illustration Friday—a website founded by Penelope Dullaghan that offered artists a creative outlet to help them generate new work through weekly one-word prompts. I participated, checked in each week to see how other artists interpreted the same prompt and one link led to another and another which eventually led me to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI)—a global community of writers and artists working with publishers and sharing stories.

Ping! Flashback of my summer as a tween doodling characters … that’s when something clicked and here began my journey of becoming published, helping deliver fiction and non-fiction books through art.

With each book project and school visit I’ve learned more about myself, my work and most importantly the readers. Being in a classroom has allowed me to see first-hand the impact that books have on youngsters. We share ideas, discuss what stories mean and how we’re inspired to tell our own stories. In return this affects, shapes and informs how and what I create. And no visit has affected me more-so than when I spent a morning at PS007.

I met Juliette*, a 9-year-old 2nd-grader living in East Harlem, two or three years ago. She didn’t make eye contact. No smile. No “hello.” Nothing. She was withdrawn, almost trance-like, seated across the room from her other class mates, who in contrast, were huddled on the story time carpet wriggling, excited to meet me. Juliette stayed back.

I only had an hour and a half with this class. I joined the kids on the carpet gave them a very brief talk about being an illustrator and then pulled a dozen or so sketchbooks out of my bag and splayed them into the circle—all packed with doodles, sketches, drawings, characters, ideas, scenes, colors, shapes and so forth. I smiled at the kids and said “Go ahead, take a look.”

There’s always a funny pause at that moment. Looks of confusion mostly. The kids direct their gaze to the teacher with nervousness, but when she smiles and nods, they dive in. Seated in pairs they each selected a sketchbook and pored over every page. Then they swapped with their neighbors and pored again and again and again. What ensued was a hum of chitter-chatter with “oohs” and “aahs” of excitement and laughter. They were happy. Some kids asked questions. We took turns around the circle to brainstorm characters and shared story ideas. Ones that they’ve matched with a picture found in a sketchbook.

I’d also been watching Juliette. She’d moved closer to me now with a class aid at her side. I smiled and handed her a sketchbook. She worked her way through the pages, then looked at me and with a proud, delicate voice she said “My name’s Juliette. It’s French.”

The class wrapped up with the students working in their new writer’s notebooks they received as part of The Author Experience. Before I left, we took a class selfie and Juliette was right there front and center, cheek to cheek with me and the biggest smile.

These are the connections that fuel why I do what I do. I’ve had the best time visiting schools over the years and met many kids just like Juliette. Difficult backgrounds, disengaged, or despondent about books, but when it’s time for me to leave, its always the same—students bursting to make their own stories: from reading to telling, writing and drawing.

Fostering that enthusiasm with encouragement and support, to help kids be brave, have the courage to share their own stories and creativity through books are the connections that drive what I do and why I do it. It takes me back to my tween years and reminds me how many books had an impact on me back then that I still remember to this day. I’m incredibly lucky and grateful to be working with The Author Experience and always thrilled to be included in the program. Thank you!

*Note: Name have been changed to protect privacy.

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