Heather Cahoon never outgrew her love for children's books. Instead, she decided to forge a career as a children's book illustrator. And now she gets to see her 19-month-old daughter, Madigan, share in her passion for both reading and art.
Cahoon, 27, illustrated her fourth book, "Good Night, Sweet Butterfly," with her daughter sitting on her lap. And although she's too young to know her mom illustrated it, the book has become one of Madigan's favorites, right up there with "Curious George."
"It really paid off when I saw the lights in her eyes," Cahoon said in a recent chat at her childhood home at the Whiteley Creek Inn in Brainerd. "And when she says, 'Da,' meaning she wants to draw, that's the ultimate for a mom who does children's book illustrations."
"Good Night, Sweet Butterfly" recently reached the top of the New York Times and Target Sales best seller charts. She has two projects in the pipeline: "Math Fables," slated for the fall, and the "Butterfly" sequel, "Buzz, Buzz, Busy Bees," scheduled for spring 2004.
But despite Cahoon's success, her life and personality haven't changed much. She now lives with her daughter and husband, Patrick Murphy, in Montgomery, N.Y., which she describes as a slightly hillier version of her hometown. And she still has the delicate touch she acquired growing up in her picturesque home in the woods, surrounded by her mother's chalk and oil pastels, and the unlimited supply of scrap paper that her father brought home from his manufacturing job.
When the editor of her third book, "Rock It, Sock It, Number Line" (2001), saw Cahoon's sketches, she immediately knew the work came from someone who grew up in a relaxed, country environment.
Cahoon attended Brainerd High School through 1993, but when she moved with her family to Florida for one year -- her senior year of high school -- she discovered the only school in the area was an art school.
A chain reaction happened: From her art teacher, she learned about the Cooper Union School for the Advancement of Art in New York City, where she enrolled the following year. One of her instructors there gave her a list of children's book editors.
Cahoon completed her art design studies at Cooper in 1998 and went to work as a freelance designer, creating logos for wine, bottled water and shampoo companies.
But she never lost sight of her true passion.
"Graphic design was something to make a living at," Cahoon said. "But I always thought, 'I'd like to have a book published.'"
She took her first crack at publishing in fourth grade, when she entered a children's book-making contest where the winner got his or her book published. She didn't take first place, but she did learn a lot about the craft -- how to fit the story into 32 pages and how to sew the binding.
Cahoon's childhood joys -- flowers, spiders, tadpoles -- are still featured heavily in her paintings. And the expressions on the bugs' and animals' faces reflect her own attitude.
"My husband calls them the 'happy, smiley faces,' and says I have too many of them," Cahoon said with a laugh.
Cahoon said people can create great artwork wherever they live. But there's no place she'd rather be than in the country.
"I'm doing my best work now, because I'm happy," she said.
Today, Cahoon finds the process of making a book a bit different than in fourth grade. For one thing, she doesn't have to sew the books together herself. For another, she uses Adobe InDesign. Her first book, "Word Play ABC" (1999), was done with watercolors, but the last three -- "Ten Friends" (2001), "Rock It, Sock It" and "Butterflies" -- have used the computer program.
Cahoon starts with rough sketches, which she turns in to her editor for feedback. Then she scans them into her computer, traces over them, and begins the coloring process, which is the real boon of InDesign. If she doesn't like a color, she simply moves the color bar over a bit. Gone are the days of starting from scratch.
On the books where she collaborates with writers ("Word Play ABC" is the only one she wrote herself), she gets a completed manuscript from her publisher and then decides what to draw for each of the 32 pages.
"I don't meet the writer, I don't talk on the phone," Cahoon said. "It's interesting to wonder, 'When the author sees the finished book, is it what he had in mind?'"
Cahoon maintains a folder packed with story ideas, so if editors stop calling on her illustrating services, she has a back-up plan to be a writer. She has a simple piece of advice for aspiring artists and writers: Keep drawing and keep reading.
"It's fun," Cahoon said of her career. "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.