Derek Anderson's career in children's books began one fortuitous afternoon. "Just as I was graduating from college," he recalls, "My mother, a third-grade teacher, returned from a book conference where she'd met all kinds of authors and illustrators. She took armfuls of children's books back with her, which immediately caught my eye." They were books the likes of which he'd never seen before, like The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. "I was blown away by them," he says. "The pictures were works of art."
On the cusp of graduating from Iowa State University, where he majored in drawing and painting, he was looking for an outlet, and once he saw his mother's treasure trove of children's books, he knew he wanted this to be his future.
Anderson's path eventually led him to Simon & Schuster, and the debut of his first picture book, Little Quack, written by Lauren Thompson, which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list this spring. Of course the road to being published wasn't as straight and narrow as he would have liked. "I had been sending my work out to New York for years," he says, "and S&S had been at the top of my list." He had sent a story to Kevin Lewis, executive editor at S&S Books for Young Readers, and associate editor Alyssa Eisner, about four years ago and they showed a lot of interest in it. It went through a round of rewrites but was eventually rejected.
After that, Anderson scheduled appointments with 15 publishing houses, and in May of 2001 made a trip out to New York City from his home in Minneapolis. "It was intimidating to go to the East Coast and sit in front of people who are used to working with the best," says Anderson. At S&S, he saw Lewis and Eisner and showed them all the drawings in his portfolio. "When they saw my true self, all my different styles, they said to me, 'You've been holding out on us!' "
Thompson's manuscript for Little Quack had already been acquired, and S&S was looking for an illustrator for it. Once the duo saw Anderson's full range of work, they knew he was right for the job.
Eisner (who edited the book) gave Anderson a fair amount of freedom, according to the artist. "She reined me in when I needed it, but allowed me to break free with brush strokes," he recalls. "I wanted to give the book an impressionistic feeling and she let me do those things."
Working out a way to give five little ducklings distinct personalities proved to be a bit of a challenge. Anderson painted Mama Duck and Little Quack first, and Eisner loved them, but she reminded him that there were five ducklings and they couldn't all be the same. Anderson says, "We toyed around with a few different ideas like adding clothes or glasses or hats, but thought that wouldn't work because the book was grounded in reality." Then he did a second painting where he played around with their height and weight and different feather styles (i.e., hairstyles)—that worked for everyone.
While books have always been Anderson's first choice, his past experience includes a variety of stints in various creative fields. Shortly after graduating from college, he moved to Minneapolis and worked as a sculptor, with contracts with Disney and Warner Brothers to make figurines. Then he moved into product design, and after that he illustrated greeting cards and designed storyboards for animation. "It was during this time, on evenings and weekends, that I would write and paint and send my stuff off to New York," says Anderson.
He is currently working on three more books with S&S—two more Little Quack books, as well as one that he is writing and illustrating himself—and no longer has time for freelancing. With all the attention his first book has been getting, it's no wonder.