To hear Amy Walrod tell it, her "flying start" as a children's illustrator has been a long time coming. "I had a difficult couple of years there," says the 1995 Rhode Island School of Design graduate, whose quirky paint-and-paper collages animate James Howe's Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores (Atheneum).

Nevertheless, Walrod didn't have to wait too long by starving-artist standards. While still an illustration student at RISD, she attracted the attention of mentor-cum-agent Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges. "I had done some posters for the RISD admissions office," she explains. "Judy Sue saw my work and gave me a call."

Goodwin-Sturges enclosed some of Walrod's pieces in a multi-artist portfolio, then made the rounds at publishing houses. Months passed, with Walrod making ends meet by working at a toy store ("too corporate"), at a shoe store ("I like shoes"), and as a sometime dog-sitter in her home city of Cambridge, Mass.

Meanwhile, author James Howe and his editor Jonathan Lanman, editorial director of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, were in search of an artist for Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores, Howe's story of a tomboyish mouse. Goodwin-Sturges showed them Walrod's work, which Howe considered an excellent complement to his manuscript. The match was made, and soon Walrod was planning a series of spreads for Horace and Morris, incorporating cut paper, paint and such allusions to packaging as cutout letters and masking tape.

During the illustration process, Walrod received editorial input from art director Ann Bobco and designer Angela Carlino. Since Horace & Morris opposes an all-boy "Mega-Mice" club and an all-girl "Cheese Puffs" organization, the rival groups' clubhouses had to support conventional wisdom about sex roles. Walrod ultimately gave the Mega-Mice a forbidding, boarded-up-and-nailed-together clubhouse and the Cheese Puffs a cloyingly pink-and-lavender cottage.

In addition, Walrod mentions that the visual depiction of the heroine (and her male friends) was of major concern for Howe, who regularly checked in with Atheneum's art department. "We discussed that we wanted to keep Dolores as not necessarily a boy or a girl character," Walrod recalls. She dressed the nontraditional "girl mouse" in purple sneakers, brick-red overalls and a striped T-shirt. Dolores's only nod to femininity is a daisy, discreetly tucked in the crook of her right ear.

In part, the character of Dolores grew out of Walrod's imagination, but she also came from Walrod's summer experiences as an art instructor for 8-to-15-year-olds. "I've taught bookmaking and illustration at the same camp since I graduated from high school back in 1991," Walrod says. "Sometimes I have kids who don't really have gender--I mean, they do, but they're sort of androgynous." She can sympathize with the outsider's feeling that "your hair isn't cut the right way" or "you don't wear the right clothes," and she draws on this awareness in her illustrations for children.

Walrod tries to keep her images playful rather than preachy, and she expresses a dislike for children's illustrations that are "too sappy or sugary sweet." Her favorite author-illustrators display a similarly unsentimental, rigorous aesthetic; Walrod professes admiration for the fluid and folksy style of Alice and Martin Provensen, and for the bold and witty work of Lane Smith.

Like those picture-book professionals, Walrod soon will have several titles to her credit. In September, Dutton will publish The Little Red Hen Makes a Pizza, a collaboration between Walrod and Philemon Sturges (Judy Sue Goodwin-Sturges's husband). For this contemporization of the "Little Red Hen" tale, Walrod opted for cut-paper illustration ("there's no paint involved"). For her third book, a mathematics tale that's still in sketch form, she'll return to Atheneum.

For all this success, Walrod modestly recognizes that "I'm pretty much starting out." She notes that her style is still changing and that she recently has begun learning Web-site design, with an eye toward creating computer-illustrated texts in the vein of J.otto Seibold and Vivian Walsh's Mr. Lunch series. In any case, for Walrod, the rewards of picture-book illustration require the sacrifices of a freelance lifestyle. "If you're in it for money, don't bother." she states pragmatically." "But if you're passionate about your work, go ahead."