FEATURED ILLUSTRATOR Shelley Ann Jackson & Jeff Crosby

This month to start the year Featured Illustrator showcases the collaborative illustration work of  Shelley Ann Jackson and Jeff Crosby. Successful illustrators in their own right, husband and wife team Shelley and Jeff also combine their skills together for book projects. The family moved from Texas to Cambridge when Shelley was appointed the new head of the MA Children’s Book Illustration course at Anglia Ruskin University here in the UK, both are seasoned volunteers for SCBWI in the US. See more of their work in their Featured Illustrator Gallery.

We initially met in an illustration class at the University of North Texas while studying Communication Design. After college, Jeff won a national art competition for Campbell’s Soup, which included a trip for two to New York City. This allowed us to visit the School of Visual Arts, where we had both applied for grad school, and to meet with the chair, one of our illustration heroes, Marshall Arisman. On the merits of our sketchbooks and youthful enthusiasm, we were accepted into the programme. We had a blast in grad school, getting to know the city through our observational drawing classes, making books, and exploring new themes and media with amazing, inspiring teachers.

Observational scratchboard drawing of 42nd Street in New York City.

After grad school, we stayed in NYC to work as freelance illustrators. We both got commissions from editorial clients like the New York Times, and from book publishers such as Penguin. To improve our craft for illustrating children’s picture books, we turned to SCBWI. Shelley had been a member of SCBWI since college in Texas and Jeff joined in New York. We attended the big winter conferences in NYC to network, learn, be inspired, and show our work. Jeff received a commission for the picture book Brave Cloelia thanks to the editor at Getty Publishing who saw his work displayed in the Portfolio Showcase.

Baron and Millie, the inspiration for our first book together.

Inspired by the differences in our new puppies, a shih tzu and dachshund, we decided to write and illustrate a history of dog breeds children’s book together. After much research and many drafts and sketches, we started sending a dummy book out to publishers. And sending. And sending. We received an SCBWI nonfiction research grant that helped us keep the faith while we were plugging along. Our big break came five years later at an SCBWI illustrators pitch event. Jeff was paired up to an agent who specialized in nonfiction, so it was a no-brainer which book we would pitch. What we didn’t know was that he also happened to own one of the rare breeds featured in our book! He said he would like to shop our project around, and in six weeks found a publisher. Now came the hard part: writing and illustrating the seventy-two page, research-heavy book. And to throw an adorable wrench into the works, just as final sketches were approved, our daughter Harper was born. We created over one-hundred illustrations in the first few months of her life. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep much.

Harper and Baron with one of our finished paintings.

Little Lions, Bull Baiters & Hunting Hounds: A History of Dog Breeds was our first collaborative book. Our process was fairly organic, with a combination of brainstorming and discussions, individual research and writing, and then coming back together for critique and revisions. The structure of the book was really important to us, as the focus is on jobs dogs were originally bred to do, which is not a typical classification. We had this and much of the research and writing complete before we found a publisher, but we had no idea how long the book could be before getting a contract. Once we signed with Tundra, we had to fit the content into 72 pages, revise text, and create art. All of our illustrations were sketched in pencil on paper, then scanned in and adjusted when necessary, enlarged and printed onto fine art paper using a large format printer. Each was then painted with acrylics. We didn’t have a specific plan for dividing the work. We pretty much improvised with some of the art being done sketch to finish by one person, while other illustrations would be sketched by one of us and then painted by the other.

Soon after the book came out, we moved to Colorado to be closer to family. Through the SCBWI Rocky Mountain regional conference we formed our first writing critique group and our monthly meetings inspired us to produce many more book ideas and to write more. Along with other freelance illustration and children’s book projects we created in Colorado, Jeff also started on his first solo picture book project, Wiener Wolf.

Some of the process work for Wiener Wolf: a dummy, a sketch, and a final illustration.

Shortly after, we moved to Texas to pursue teaching opportunities. We had both taught various art classes since undergrad school, both because we enjoy teaching and because freelance illustration can be a financially unsteady career. In Texas, we both taught art classes at The Art School at The Austin Museum of Art (now The Contemporary) and graphic design and illustration at Texas State University.

Austin, Texas has such an active and nurturing children’s literature community, that we both became heavily involved in SCBWI. Over several years, Shelley served as regional advisor, assistant regional advisor, conference volunteer, and illustration committee. Jeff assisted with conferences and led the monthly critique group. A big part of our lives there, and a way we moved forward with our freelance careers while teaching full time was our critique partners; Shelley founded the Girllustrators, an all-female illustration collective, and Jeff started the Armadillustrators, an all-male writing critique group of illustrators. While giving feedback and motivating one another, the Girllustrators grew into so much more: the group works together to send out unique collaborative promotional mailers, has spoken at workshops and conferences, and organized and overseen the illustration room for SCBWI at conferences. The Armadillustrators have eaten lots of barbecue.

The Fraternal Order of Armadillustrators, a critique group.

While in Texas, Jeff and Shelley launched numerous books including Jeff’s latest solo project, The Rockabilly Goats Gruff. Shelley also completed a second masters degree, Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

A maquette of the troll from The Rockabilly Goats Gruff.
Last October, two colleagues sent Shelley a job advertisement on the same day—it was hard not to pay attention. It was for the position of course leader of MA Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University—a dream career opportunity for her and a chance at an adventure for the whole family. Fast forward to the end of January, and we were living in Cambridge!

Since we’ve been here, Jeff has started working with a new agent, Kevin Lewis at Erin Murphy Literary Agency, and is tweaking some projects for submission. Shelley has been learning the ropes of UK education, meeting publishers in the UK and farther afield, and overjoyed to be working with some of the most talented tutors and students in children’s book illustration.


See more of the illustration work of Shelley and Jeff in their Featured Illustrator Gallery

Shelley's personal website is here, also find her on Twitter and Instagram. ​ Jeff's official site is here,
he too can be found on Twitter and Instagram.

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