Stacey Dressen-McQueen admits that she wasn't very brave when it first came to mailing out her artwork for people to see. "Just getting the nerve up to send stuff to people is hard," she says. She started sending some of her illustrations to children's publications and publishing houses in the late 1990s.
About a year later, a few of them were printed in Ladybug magazine, where artist agent Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges spotted them, and contacted the artist about representing her. A couple of years after that, Goodwin-Sturges met with Melanie Kroupa, who brought on Dressen-McQueen as the illustrator for the picture book Boxes for Katje, written by Candace Fleming (FSG).
The book, set just after World War II, tells the story of Katje, a girl living in the town of Olst, Holland. Katje, who receives boxes of gifts from a girl in America, shares them with her family and community to help them through the long, cold winter.
To research the book, Dressen-McQueen contacted a librarian in Olst, who sent her some photos from rural areas of Holland. "I had found lots of pictures of Amsterdam on my own," she says, "but I needed to see how areas outside the city looked." She was able to use her own family photos as inspiration for many of the villagers because her paternal grandmother was of Dutch heritage. She also had family quilts of her own to refer to for the clothing designs. "Many of the patterns throughout the book were inspired by two small patchwork quilts my grandmother had given me, which were made with material from the '30s and '40s," she says.
The author also has a familial connection to the book. Her mother had sent a box to Europe in 1945, where it reached a girl named Katje. The true-life story unfolded almost exactly as it does in the book, with food, clothing and tulip bulbs being shared.
The artist says she has always wanted to illustrate a children's book. She received a certificate in art from the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Ore.; "I've been drawing and painting since I can remember. My mom always supplied me with all sorts of material to be creative." Maira Kalman and Giselle Potter were influential to her in terms of style, Dressen-McQueen says, as well as Vivienne Flesher: "I love her use of color."
In describing her own style, the illustrator says she draws from "a naïve perspective." She loves drawing faces: "I like having a face with a lot of emotion because you can tell a lot of the story that way."
As for her experience with Kroupa, the illustrator says, "I loved working with Melanie. She's very supportive and helped direct me on how to make sure everything made sense on the page." She says that working with designer Jennifer Browne was also a treat. "She was very involved and hugely helpful in making the book what it is."
Dressen-McQueen says that the publication of the book has meant a lot to her. "After dreaming of being able to illustrate a children's book for so long, it has been so satisfying to be part of this creative process," she says. "I love doing a narrative and following a character through a whole story."
Not only a debut picture book illustrator, but also a first-time mother (with a seven-month-old baby at home in Portland), the artist sounds as if she's taking it all in stride. She has already finished illustrating a second picture book, titled The Biggest Soap, due out in September of next year, and is currently at work on a third, Little Mama Forgets by Robin Cruise, both with Kroupa at FSG.