ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Say it with Pictures! The Greeting Card Market

Cards and stationery present an additional form of business for children's illustrators.
 John Shelley talks to creatives who work both in the world of books and of greetings. 

The greeting card industry and children's publishing have many parallels. Many illustrators produce cards to support and promote their portfolio work, some go the next step of publishing and selling their own card ranges for the retail market. Some children's illustrators work on commission with galleries and card producers, I well remember sharing studio space with a well known illustrator who began as a card-producer until her children's book career took off, she still designs cards to this day. Sometimes themes and ideas for books find their nascence in work created for the card market. Additionally there is a market too for 'art cards', sub-licensing the use of artwork from existing children's books for the greetings market.

So, parallels between children's books and stationery are many! I talked to two SCBWI illustrators, Jeff Crosby and Alison Lingley, whose work spans both publishing and the card industry, on how their output for books and cards compliment each other. Jeff has received many commissions in the US from greeting card and stationery companies, whilst Alison has experience producing and selling her own cards as an illustrator-entrepreneur.

First, some background...

Jeff Crosby: I have worked with Peaceable Kingdom for almost twenty years now. They are a greeting card company that works exclusively with children's book illustrators, creating cards and novelty items for kids. They were bought by Mindware a year ago and, sadly, all of the art directors and designers I had worked with were let go. I thought it was the end for me too, but I recently got hired by Mindware to illustrate a couple more birthday cards.

Alison Lingley: I initially produced cartoons for magazines and also designed cards for dog clubs/charities. This lasted for a couple of years before launching my own offering of 12 designs back in 2004. These went well and I was soon approached by an agent – after that the business grew rapidly. I always wanted to work on books, so was delighted to be approached by Random House to illustrate a book on phonetics. The author liked the cards and suggested me as her preferred artist. Fortunately Random House were open to that and I got the commission. 

I’ve since been approached many times by people who find me through the cards. As the card business keeps me very busy, I’ve had to choose carefully which books to take on, but I feel very lucky to have the opportunities. 
Alison at her desk
Alison's books and cards

How has your work in children's books and for the card industry complimented each other? Have you had marketing opportunities open up for your books thanks to greeting card sales, or vice versa? Any re-licensing of book illustrations as cards?

Jeff: The first picture books I illustrated were about dragons, knights, and castles. Peaceable Kingdom saw that work in my portfolio at a SCBWI conference and hired me to illustrate a series of cards with similar themes. Although I haven't re-used any of my card art for picture books or vice versa, the illustrations I have done for Peaceable Kingdom have been a great addition to my portfolio. Thanks to them, I have dinosaurs, dragons, monsters, wildlife, pirates, and knights (all things that I love to paint!) to show to art directors, in the hopes of getting similar work. Peaceable Kingdom has also given me the opportunity to illustrate posters, temporary tattoos, stickers, novelty kits and 3D art.
Jeff's picture book dragons

Alison: As the cards are sold nationwide, they’ve become a perfect shopfront for my work and allowed me to reach far more people than I thought possible. The other big advantage is the fans of my work share my interests – all my cards are animal and countryside related, so naturally the books they’re writing follow the same themes.

Since the first educational book, I’ve only worked for self published authors. This is a mixed blessing, but overall I’ve found it a good experience. It takes a lot longer as I’m acting as guide, editor and artist all rolled into one. The big plus is I’ve learned such a lot, including to be realistic about the time a book will take. Thankfully, the authors have been very patient and forgiving when a book has taken twice as long as I’d originally quoted ...! 
Alison's story - cards with

I also spoke with Julian from stationery publisher Two Bad Mice, who's worked with illustrators such as Anita Jeram on card series. I asked him what he felt are the key things children's book illustrators need to consider when adapting their style for greeting card companies?

Julian: What makes a good illustration in a book is different from what makes a good illustration for a card. A card is chosen for somebody on a specific occasion and we have to consider the message on the card is likely to be taken very personally by the receiver. So a joke about being lonely to an insecure person can be taken as an offensive comment. A clever title that flatters the receiver with a simple image that is immediately understood is going to sell well.

We do not have guidelines. We look at everything and then start working with the artists we think show promise.
Anita Jeram designs for Two Bad Mice

I asked Jeff and Alison how their work has developed from their experience in the parallel industries. What is similar, what are the important differences, and lessons learned?
Jeff: I think greeting card art is more like chapter book cover art than it is picture book art. They both have to be WOW images that jump off the shelf. There can be some narrative content included, but the illustration's first goal is to grab buyers' attention and work as stand-alone art. Another similarity is that the text and image on the cover of a card may need to be integrated just like on the cover of a book. For example, the illustrator may have to fit 'Happy Birthday' in with a fire-breathing dragon so that the two work together. It is also important to keep in mind who the target audience is for the card. Is it a Valentine card for tweens or a birthday card for five year olds? Typically, the art director is hiring you because your style is what they are looking for in the first place, so they aren't really wanting you to change the way you work.
Alison: I’ve found the books make me think a lot harder about my illustrations – backgrounds need to be better and I have to be mindful of continuity and mood. In contrast, greeting cards have to get the message over in one 'frame' so to speak. I’d like to think the books have made me work harder and have improved my painting.

The other big difference is a card design is my own idea which I draw, put out into the world and hope it works, whilst the books I’ve done so far have been collaborations. It’s nice to work with other people for a change, even if it can be a bit frustrating sometimes ('but I think the picture should be like this ...!') And, of course, I’m getting paid regardless while the authors are taking all the risks.

This will change for my next book which I’m also writing, and, if I’m being completely honest, I’m experiencing all the same self doubts and am even more guilty of constantly re-writing it. 

So far, the books haven’t directly crossed over to the card business – apart from the development of my style – but, of course, the big hope is that a book character will become popular in its own right and inspire a card range. This isn’t something I can force. I’ve learnt from experience that the best selling card designs are rarely the ones I’d expected. Much better to draw what pleases me, and hope it speaks to someone else too. I’m carrying that philosophy into my own books. 

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For more information on the Greeting Card business check the Greeting Card Association (GCA)
website, which has guidance on producing, setting up and marketing your own cards as a business.

Progressive Greetings PG Buzz is the industry magazine (subscription required).

Many thanks to Jeff, Alison and Julian for your feedback!

Jeff's website is
Alison's website is with her card and gift publishing site at  
Two Bad Mice can be found at

Header image © John Shelley


John Shelley is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures and the illustrator of over 50 books for children, most recently A Purse Full of Tales, a book of Korean Folk stories, for Hesperus Press. He's twice been nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, in 2018, and again in 2019.

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