(photo credit: Than Baardson)
Last November, Elise Parsley, a 2011 graduate from the School of Visual Arts, made a query to a literary agent. He was impressed with her work and, within a day, he signed her up and sent out her work to a number of publishers. By the end of the week, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers made her a contract offer, which she accepted. Her book If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! will be published in 2015.
It was not only Parsley’s exceptional illustration and writing skills that impressed her agent. “I was very impressed by how professionally Elise presented herself,” he commented. “When I talked to her on the phone, she was so sweet and gracious, and it was clear that she already knows that she wants to make picture books for the rest of her life. I knew on the spot that I wanted to represent her.” The editor at Brown Books was impressed with the sophistication of her work: “I assumed the book was created by someone who has studied and illustrated picture books for years,” she said. “It was the perfect formula of hilarity, heart, and expressive art. ”
When Parsley enrolled in the art program at Minnesota State University she knew that she was interested in illustrating children’s books, but she was not certain she had the ability. “I knew I wanted to give it a good try, but first I had to see if I was any good at drawing,” says Parsley. “I really mean it when I say I didn’t know how to draw when I came to MSUM. I started from scratch.” Reflecting on her professors’ contribution to her artistic development, she respectfully comments, “They really went out of their way to push me in terms of sequential and narrative work, and creating art that would speak to children. I owe a great deal to them.”
“Elise was an exceptional student,” says drawing professor Sherry Lee Short. “She was eager to learn, inquisitive, and always responsive to her professors’ critique. I first had Elise as a student as a sophomore in life drawing classes. Her ability to grow from project to project was exciting to see. She had that perfect combination of innate talent and dedication to her work.”
“I always try to draw an image that makes me laugh, and then build a story around it. This time, I drew Magnolia in her classroom, with her teacher standing over her with a scowl on her face and a paper airplane in her hair. The alligator Magnolia brought to school is tattling on her, saying that Magnolia did it. From there, I figured that I’d better have a reason for this alligator being in the classroom in the first place, and I wrote the whole story.
— Elise Parsley
Parsley concurs that learning to critique and think about one’s work was a key element in her growth as an artist. “The ability to thoughtfully critique was one of the best things I gained from my years at MSUM. I learned to collaborate with others, ask questions and offer prompts to spur my fellow writers/artists along,” says Parsley. Indeed, she continues to actively seek out critical feedback on her work. “The give-and-take that a critique group offers, not to mention the community aspect, is crucial to my work now. I thrive on feedback and revision, and meet with other kidlit creators multiple times each month to critique our work. Now I also have the opportunity to receive feedback from my editor and art director at Little, Brown, so I’m in constant dialogue about both my writing and illustrations.” She adds humorously, “If I hadn’t learned how to critique, I know I’d take everything too personally and probably cry a lot. And no one wants to see that.”
Parsley also prepared for her career in illustration by achieving a minor in creative writing. Before she graduated, she also created her website, business cards, letterhead, and other promotional materials in the Professional Practices course.
In addition to her upcoming book, Parsley also has illustrative work coming out in the March/April issue of theSociety of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators Bulletin. She also teaches piano. Parsley’s commitment to children, community, and creativity is evident in all that she does. Says Parsley, “Currently I’m an author/illustrator by day, and a circuit-riding piano teacher by night. I don’t plan to continue teaching forever, but right now it’s a fun, flexible job that allows me to spend time with children.”
But children’s book illustration is where her heart is: “Picture books are a whole genre of art made especially for children and the adults that spend time with them. It’s art that a child can own, understand, and learn from. Children are a great audience, and I knew I wanted to create images for them.”