Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Toni Yuly

© Toni Yuly

Today we feature the superb work of author-illustrator Toni Yuly, whose debut picture book EARLY BIRD is a smashing success. Join us to learn about her journey.

Illustrating for children is not your first career. Tell us about your journey to becoming a children's illustrator. Was this something you always wanted to do?

Oh wow, it was a wild and crazy journey, I definitely did not follow a straight path! I have a background in painting and am self taught with technology. I feel like I am a fine artist who has been given a ticket to the world of illustration and I am having a blast trying to figure out what is going on!  

I have always loved picture books but it wasn’t until I had my son that I realized I really, really loved them. Originally, I tried to break in through the SCBWI door, but after 7 years I only had nibbles. (At this time I wasn’t confident enough to illustrate - I was only writing!) So I gave up on the dream and went back to painting (I have a BFA in painting.) It wasn’t until my son left home for college, and I started designing greeting cards, that I gained confidence as a designer. Designing a line of greeting cards helped me to develop my own style that was totally different from my painting.

© Toni Yuly

I have always been attracted to design, the graphic arts and fashion, but I am also a pretty big goofball and love kids so it makes sense that I am finally making picture books!

© Toni Yuly

What were the one or two key things that were your "big break" into the field?

My first big break was meeting the wonderful author/illustrator Wendy Wahman at the library where I work my day job. She came in to do some research and I was working the reference desk. Wendy encouraged and inspired me. She taught me to throw fireballs!

My second big break was when I sent a random email to the editor Connie Hsu, and by some miracle she opened it and saw my illustration for EARLY BIRD and wrote me back. She didn’t buy the book, but she told me I a needed an agent and she encouraged me. She sent me several names of agents to try...and some months later…eventually she gave me the name of my agent, Lori Kilkelly. After I signed with Lori, she sold my first book in eight days!

Spread from EARLY  BIRD © Toni Yuly
None of these big breaks would have happened if I had not had an intense desire and relentless persistence and been open and brave enough to keep going until I got in.

EARLY BIRD is your debut picture book. Tell us a bit about it. What inspired it? What was one surprising thing you learned about the publication process during the making of this book?

I am a thrift store junkie and at my neighborhood Saint Vincent De Paul I found some vintage Japanese drink coasters that I really loved. They are round and one of them is a pitcher that looks kind of like a bird. It inspired me to try to draw a bird that was as round as I could make it, and that became Early Bird!  I also watch robins hop around in the morning (because I am an early bird)  and I knew that my little birdie would be getting up early and going on an adventure.

© Toni Yuly

One surprising thing I learned was that I could actually do this!  When EARLY BIRD sold, I spent a few weeks in a state of panic but my editor and the kind team of folks at my publishers were so very sweet and supportive that I eventually relaxed and trusted myself.  I am grateful to them for giving me the confidence I needed!
What projects are you working on now? What other books are in the works?

My second book, NIGHT OWL (a companion book to Early Bird) is coming out in January 2015. Also, the board book version of EARLY BIRD is being released in January as well which makes me smile. I am currently working on book 3, CAT NAP, due out in January 2016 and a couple other projects that I hope to share soon.

from NIGHT OWL © Toni Yuly

What is your typical process for illustrating? 

I really believe in the power of letting your mind wander. No restrictions and no “thinking.”After I get an idea, I typically go through a lot of paper! Since I write and illustrate it is a kind of back and forth process... writing and sketching. 

Sketch for EARLY BIRD © Toni Yuly
Part of dummy for EARLY BIRD © Toni Yuly

I almost always hit a wall and feel that I will never get it to click... that is when I just keep working it until it works! I think that it is good to create with one’s heart and edit with the head. By heart, I mean don’t be a critic in the creative phase...just trust your feelings and have no direction.

What advice would you give to aspiring illustrators?

Keep working! Do a ton of work! Work is the key and from a lot of work will come success.  If you make something great it will find its way into the world and people will love it and most likely buy 

© Toni Yuly

What is one thing people don't know about you?

I was captain of my high school swim team.

© Toni Yuly

Where can people find you on the internet?

Please friend me on Facebook if you would like to follow my artistic pursuits…

Toni Yuly was born in Seattle and now lives in Bremerton, Washington, in a small house by the water. She studied painting at the University of Washington, where she worked with the great American painter Jacob Lawrence. in addition to making art, Toni works in the King County Library system.


  1. LOVE this interview with Toni! The importance of 'intense desire' and 'relentless persistence' Toni stresses resonates completely, and I bet having been the captain of the swim team equipped Toni with some major mojo too (which one needs to comb through the thrift stores - I get you, Toni) Sure hope we meet someday!!!

    1. Thank you Julie for reading the interview and for your kind words! Swimming and sports were thrust on me as a child and they did help me to become strong and learn failure at an early age...I always felt like a misfit in the jock world tho...I was the kid with the troll dolls on my starting block. I hope that we will meet one day too Julie! (Sorry - for some reason Google is using my alias, Ripley here and I am not smart enough to know how to change it!)

  2. Thank you so much, Toni! I am a huge fan of your illustrations and my 8 year daughter tries to "copy" your style! Much love!

    1. Thank you for your wonderful comment and support Elaine! It makes me smile...I love that your 8 year old likes the Early Bird cool!

  3. I always love stories of circuitous routes into a writing or illustrating career, and your is no exception, Toni! I love perusing thrift store too, but haven't found anything quite as nifty as vintage Japanese coaster yet. :) I'm so thrilled for you about your success (I hear Lori is a fabulous agent) and wish you all the best in your future endeavors; you're certainly off to an amazing start!

    1. Thank you Teresa! Yes, I am 60 next month and living proof that it is never too late if you really really want to do something. I live in Bremerton, WA and our thrift stores are the best! My agent is FABULOUS! I love Lori and am so very grateful to have her as my agent.

  4. Yay, Toni! Thanks for this great interview, Elaine and Sylvia. I am a huge fan of Toni and her talent!

  5. This is such an original style, it's like a writer's voice, I know it is Toni! Love your work.


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