Artist Spotlight: Julianna Swaney


Joanna’s new children’s book, The World Needs Who You Were Made To Be, is now available! We hope that as you read this story to your kids, it inspires and spurs them on to know and love who they are for all of the beautiful and unique and magical gifts they have to offer to the world.

As Told To Alisha Sommer, Photography courtesy of Julianna Swaney

During the years we’ve spent raising our kids, children’s books have been a part of our daily rhythm. There is something extraordinary about the way books that are meant for kids offer all of us something valuable to learn. It takes a special artist to bring those ideas to life on every page—and that’s exactly the kind of artist Julianna is. When the kids and I started dreaming about writing our own children’s books, Ella came across Julianna’s illustrations, and we all loved them so much we couldn’t wait to watch her bring our own stories to life. I think you’ ll enjoy learning about her work—and her passion for it—as much as we have.

My head is overflowing with visions of wildflowers and little bunnies tucked away in the tall grass.

I’m dreaming up images of children tumbling in fields and making daisy crowns, losing themselves in play as the day melts away. I always thought there would come a time when I would need to leave my make-believe worlds behind. Yet, here I am, sitting at a desk littered with eraser crumbs, with a pencil in my hand, sketching new storybook worlds.

I grew up in Michigan, home of towering white pines and American robins. As a homeschooled child, I had plenty of freedom to roam and explore my own interests. I favored art and history—subjects that, to me, always seemed so rich with story. My mother’s encouragement to follow my own curiosity, coupled with having a bird-watcher for a father, meant that I spent a lot of time outside studying plants and animals, learning the names of the flowers, birds, and insects. If you needed to find me, I was most likely nestled against a tree trunk, perfectly content with my imagination.

But then I got older, and suddenly I lost all the wonder and daydreams. I got it into my head that it was time to set aside art and choose something more practical. Yes! I would become a biologist. I thought with biology, I could stay close to what I loved while growing into the kind of adult the world told me I should be. But I found that the language of science ate away at my imagination. Long gone were the fanciful worlds from a childhood full of the flora and fauna I had grown to love. I knew then that I needed to take a different path: I needed to get back to what brought me joy.

I headed to Maine College of Art to study printmaking. After all, if I was going to be a real artist, then I was going to be the kind of artist who showed her work in galleries. But after trying (and trying) my hand at the collaborative studio environment of printmaking, I found myself craving that same feeling of freedom in my art that I felt back when I was a little girl. I wanted to get lost in my work, just as I did when I was a child nestled amongst the trees.

So I returned to Michigan and to my sketchbook. I looked back at the children’s books I loved so many years ago. Books like The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes and the Angelina Ballerina series were my favorites. I loved the sweetness of their illustrations, the delicate use of color, and the way they managed to use little details to tell a big story. I wanted to create work that was dreamy and quiet, a little like me.

Some of my drawings started to sell on Etsy—mostly for logo designs and wedding invitations. It was a long way from being a gallery artist, but that didn’t matter to me anymore. This new work drew me back to myself, right back to that childhood joy. As my work gained in popularity, people told me to consider illustrating children’s books. Yet I pushed those suggestions to the back of my mind. After all, I had not even studied illustration in art school. Even though children’s books had gifted me the inspiration to create, I still felt insecure and unsure. But a serendipitous encounter with an agent pushed me to explore it more seriously.

I am much older, but I still have my pencil in hand, and that childhood wonder remains.

There was one book then another—each an opportunity to create a new world for kids to play in. To this day, I still marvel at the fact that this is my life now. I am no longer in Michigan but in the green and lush Pacific Northwest, a part of the country known for its unique natural beauty. My work space is in a small room that was once the porch but is now enclosed. Two large windows let in the soft winter light, and I can see the birds come and go, watch the winter rain, and daydream about the day when the roses will bloom again. I am much older, but I still have my pencil in hand, and that childhood wonder remains. My hope is that I never lose it, and that it can always be seen in the worlds I create on page after page.

A Closer Look: These working sketches were the very beginnings of the characters and story Julianna helped bring to life in The World Needs Who You Were Made to Be.

Books with Joanna: Julianna Swaney has illustrated both of Joanna’s children’s books. We Are the Gardeners chronicles the adventures of a young family starting a garden. The newest book, The World Needs Who You Were Made to Be, follows a group of children as they each build their very own hot-air balloon, learning the values of authenticity, teamwork, and inclusiveness along the way.

This story was adapted for digital from the winter issue of Magnolia Journal.

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