In our digital world, we have a natural inclination to be glued to our screens. But there is an amazing publication that fairly recently launched out of Oakland that is giving us plenty of reasons to put our devices aside, and dive into a print magazine. Illustoria was founded by a savvy children’s book editor, Joanne Chen, who has held important posts at Tricycle Press and Lucasfilm, to offer families thoughtful content that is interactive and inspires imaginations to wonder. Come see what Joanne has to say about building a team of talented illustrators and writers, how she wants the publication to bring people together to slow down, and what she dreams for Illustoria to bring to the world…
24 East: What is your background in publishing?
Joanne Chen: I got my feet wet in publishing over ten years ago at a small indie press, Heyday Books, as a sales assistant. I had come from peddling children’s books at Bank Street Bookstore, which is part of the famous college of education in NYC. Heyday was small and intimate enough of a press that the ever-generous publisher, Malcolm Margolin, gave me the reins to start up a children’s imprint when I was still such a newbie. He had a way of believing in people and seeing the potential in everyone, and it was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. From there I began my journey of acquiring and editing kids’ books; learning from amazingly talented authors, illustrators, art directors, and much more seasoned editors than I. Eventually, I moved on to work as a children’s book editor at Tricycle Press (an imprint of Ten Speed Press/Random House) and then at Lucasfilm/Disney Publishing Worldwide.
24E: What inspired you to start Illustoria, and what was the process like of beginning?
JC: I suppose the joy of shaping something, like curating a mini-exhibit, has always been with me. In college, in addition to studying literature I majored in dance and dabbled in choreography. I always knew I wasn’t the best dancer (by far!), but I loved to paint pictures and stories with movement and to say something new. Starting a magazine had something of this appeal to me. I love working with writers and illustrators–they are my heroes, truly–but I felt compelled to create something new in the space of children’s literature and publishing that I felt was missing.
Being a mother of two was also a huge motivation. Illustoria is a print magazine for kids and grownups in a hyper-digital age. It’s an unfortunate reality for parents that we’re all too easily distracted by our devices at all times. Most people don’t just turn off and tune out in the evenings and weekends, certainly I don’t always do so. With Illustoria, I wanted to create a space for kids and grownups to slow down and share experiences together. Reading together allows for that. The printed page has a calming effect—you can visit it, revisit it, there are no noises or motion graphics to speed you along—it’s just you and your imagination and the words and pictures on the page. There’s a lot of freedom for self-discovery there.
The process of beginning was entirely daunting. The best thing I did from the onset was to surround myself with a lot of smart, passionate people whom I could lean on for advice, honest feedback, and guidance. I was amazed by how many friends, former colleagues, and new acquaintances were so generous with their time and so supportive from the start, when the idea was still extremely rough around the edges.
Now that we’ve launched and are working on our fourth issue, I realize that you just have to jump in and go for it, make mistakes and learn from them, and not let all the doubts petrify you from making a move.
24E: How did you assemble such a talented team?
JC: I’m so grateful for the team at Illustoria. The advisory team was the first and easiest to assemble since it’s entirely comprised of very good (and honest!) friends and former colleagues of mine. Then, through talking about Illustoria with my co-founder and husband, Mark Rogero, and spreading the word to our community of friends, a great group of people came forward and were willing to throw themselves into this startup passion project. Everyone has a background in publishing, design, art, or storytelling in some way. Finding Illustoria’s creative director was a real unexpected coup. Elizabeth Haidle started off as an Issue 1 contributor with her DocuComix series, “Literary Giants as Kids.” As the script developed and as she began to submit storyboards and art, I knew her design and illustration sensibility was the perfect match for Illustoria and fortunately she felt the same. In short I guess it was a combination of friendship, working relationships, word of mouth, and intuition for those with similar passions and commitments that brought us together as a team.
24E: What is important for you in determining the editorial and artistic direction of Illustoria?
JC: This is an incredible question and I’m so glad you asked it. We put so much thought behind the stories and illustrations we commission, the comics, our interviews, activities, and our own branding and visual aesthetics. First and foremost, with our stories we ask ourselves: Is this readable by or to a six- to twelve-year old? That’s a wide range, of course, but we aim for everything in the magazine to have appeal across ages—which means adults can thoroughly enjoy it too. Aesthetically, we strive to appeal to the modern kid and grownup—readers just like ourselves and our families who appreciate good design, craftsmanship, diverse points of views, and a sophisticated but playful range of styles. Often it comes down to the questions, “Does it spark joy? Does it engage and inspire one to be curious and creative?” Those answers always point us to the right direction.
24E: What has been the most challenging thing so far?
JC: The most challenging thing I’ve experienced so far is balancing the creative aspects of putting together a beautiful publication with the business aspects of running a viable press. I imagine much of the risks and challenges is similar to what any new startup must face and overcome. So on a more personal and less technical level, the biggest challenge has to be taking that leap and allowing myself to make mistakes, to learn from them and to be willing to be flexible, change course, be stronger for it, and to always focus on what’s possible and meaningful.
24E: What children’s book author would you love to have lunch with, and where would you go?
JC: That’s difficult to answer! My mind went to homemade sushi with Rosemary Wells. That sounds pretty delightful. And I would adore meeting up with local author Mac Barnett and illustrator Christian Robinson at one of my fave local spots like Boot & Shoe Service.
24E: What do you love the most about living in the East Bay?
JC: I love the fact that everyone belongs here. The East Bay embodies a real sense of acceptance, openness, possibility, creativity—all with a good amount of rebelliousness. I love feeling constantly energized and inspired by the diverse community.
24E: What is your hope for the magazine?
JC: My hope for Illustoria is that it inspires kids and grownups to slow down and enjoy stories and art together; that it encourages readers to live creatively and to be curious, open-minded, and expressive. I’d love for Illustoria to add beauty and inspiration to the world.
For more information on Illustoria, go here.