Author-Illustrator Spotlight: Maggie Edkins Willis

© Maggie Edkins Willis

June 10, 2022

We are excited to feature author-illustrator Maggie Edkins Willis and her debut middle grade graphic novel, SMALLER SISTER (Roaring Brook Press), out on June 14! Enter to win a copy.

Tell us about yourself and how you came to write and illustrate for children?


My name is Maggie Edkins Willis, and I live in Princeton, NJ. I’ve always loved both words and art—my sister and I often wrote and drew stories together as kids, and when I was a senior in high school, I even shadowed a local picture book author for a big end-of-year project about future careers—but at some point, I decided I had to choose just one of those two subject areas to love THE MOST (I was wrong! But I’ll get there!). I picked art, and that’s what I studied in college—I thought at points that I might be an architect, or maybe work in advertising. But I still kept coming back to wanting to work books, and when I graduated, I got a job as the assistant to the Creative Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. For the next seven years I worked in-house in design departments, first there and then at Penguin Young Readers. 


© Maggie Edkins Willis

For the first few years of my in-house career, I still thought I had to stay in my design silo—since that was my area of expertise, I just accepted that words and writing couldn’t also be my passion. But in order to design covers, I had to read A LOT. I worked on all different kinds of books and got exposure to a lot of multi-talented authors and illustrators I wasn’t aware of before. I also learned a ton about the publishing process and the technical craft of making books, and I started picking up on a lot of creative methods for combining words and images. And I finally started coming back around to the idea that I could love more than one thing! Outside of my day job, I experimented with illustration techniques and honed my portfolio, and I also started developing some bigger story ideas. Exploring those helped me re-ignite my love of words and build my confidence as a writer. My career as an author / illustrator took off from there. 

© Maggie Edkins Willis


Congrats on your debut MG graphic novel, Smaller Sister! Tell us about it and what inspired you.


© Maggie Edkins Willis

Thank you!! Smaller Sister is a story of two sisters, Lucy and Olivia, who are close as kids but start to drift apart when they get a little older and Olivia develops an eating disorder. The story that follows is one about family, body image, and surrounding yourself with people who value you for who you are. It is not a memoir, but it is based on real life experience. Like Olivia, my older sister dealt with an eating disorder while we were growing up. I struggled with how that illness changed both my relationship with her and my understanding of where I fit into my family, and it all had a big impact on how I saw my own body. In those days, there were a few books that dealt with eating disorders, but most of them understandably focused on the person with the disease—I really wanted something that I could relate to as a sibling trying to make sense of it all, so that’s what I wrote Sister to be. It was also important to me to tell this story responsibly. I found a lot of books on this subject to be instructional on how to have an eating disorder, and that’s the LAST thing I wanted to do. But the sister perspective and the ability to use the graphic novel format to imply details with art rather than to describe with words helped me to tell this story in a safer way. 


Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?


© Maggie Edkins Willis

Somewhere in-between! That first chapter of my career that I spent working in publishing houses was the longer, windier part. The path to publication was a little more straightforward once I really decided to make a go of it with my own book projects, but it was still a journey. I spent a couple years working outside of my day job to improve my illustration portfolio and to flesh my best ideas out into full dummies. Once I got them as good as I could on my own, I sent them out to agents. At the top of my sub list was the fantastic Jennifer Rofé of Andrea Brown Literary, and she signed me as a client. We shopped around a few picture book ideas that almost-but-not-quite made it to acquisition before I had the idea for Smaller Sister. I wrote the script and kinda dropped it on Jen out of the blue. Despite it being totally different from the other projects we’d been working on together, she embraced it and pivoted with me. Smaller Sister went to auction in the fall of 2019, where it was bought by Megan Abbate and Connie Hsu at Roaring Brook, who are the perfect editors for it. After that, the actual editing and art-making process took about two more years. And now here we are!

© Maggie Edkins Willis


You also have a picture book coming out in a couple of years! Tell us about that.


Yes! This is actually a lovely story about social media facilitating some great new working relationships. Last fall, I drew some character sketches of a sweet little ghost trying on different Halloween costumes—I always get an itch to make cozy, spooky illustrations that time of year. I posted it on Instagram, and an art director colleague from my cover design days, Sarah, reshared it. My now-editor, Catherine Laudone of Paula Wiseman Books at S&S, saw it on Sarah’s story and immediately connected with my little ghost guy. She reached out and suggested we come up with a story for him. And that’s how Ghost Makes a Friend was born! I really love working on picture books alongside my middle grade projects—I find it really refreshing to be able to switch gears between them when I need to clear my head. And this project is just a good reminder to keep putting your ideas out into the world, because you never know when something will click.

© Maggie Edkins Willis


Do your words or images come first, for your stories?


I go back and forth! A lot of times a mental image for a character, setting, or scene will come to me first. Then I’ll write a draft, draw some concept art, go back to the story, and repeat that over and over until I get it all right. I don’t start to really dig into the actual pages of art for a graphic novel until the story is as close to done as I can get it, though. Some comic artists work out the story and the art at the same time and I’m amazed by that, because that doesn’t work for me. Graphic novels require too much detailed artwork for me to be making big story changes and drawing at the same time!


What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring author-illustrators?


You don’t have to limit yourself to one thing!!! Having more than one area of interest doesn’t make you unfocused, it makes you multifaceted! 


© Maggie Edkins Willis

And the other thing I would tell aspiring author-illustrators (or aspiring ANYTHINGS) is that doing what you love is not a waste of time. There were so many times when I was younger when I would feel badly about getting lost in something that brought me joy because it wasn’t what someone else told me I should be doing. Keep drawing or playing video games or memorizing sports stats or whatever that thing is for you. Pay attention to that spark and nurture it, because it might take you somewhere awesome.


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


Hm. That I was a cheerleader in college! Not a particularly good one, but I had fun and made a lot of lifelong friends. And that experience miiiiight be a big influence on my next graphic novel…. 🙂


Where can people find you online?



Instagram: @maggie.made.this

Twitter: @maggiemadethis

TikTok: @maggiemadethis



Maggie Edkins Willis was born in St. Louis, Missouri and grew up in southern Maine. She designed and art directed books for children's publishers for seven years before embarking on a career crafting stories of her own. She now lives in Princeton, New Jersey with her husband, their son, and a husky mix named Mozzarella. When she's not writing or drawing, you can usually find her reading, running, or botching muffin recipes. Her debut graphic novel, Smaller Sister, is based on her own experience as the youngest of three sisters.



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  1. Your book is going to help so many readers--I wish I'd had this when I was growing up. Congratulations on your success!

  2. Wonderful illustrations! And I love your message about it being okay to do more than one thing.

  3. This book will help children find their place in their family like this girl in your book. Sometimes it's hard to do when you don't know where you belong. I'm eager to read your middle grade book. Congratulations, Maggie, on the publication of this book.

  4. This book addresses such an important topic for tweens and teens. Definitely needed in my school's collection.

  5. I love your approach to a heavy, important subject, Maggie. Can't wait to read this one!

  6. Sounds great! Congratulations, Maggie! I look forward to reading more. :)


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