Once you know illustrator Boris Kulikov's background, all the vintage clothing makes perfect sense. In Lore Segal's Morris the Artist (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Foster), Kulikov's unconventional debut, he dresses his young characters in puffy knickers, sailor suits, huge rust-colored fedoras and long, flowing scarves. It's a pretty daring juxtaposition to Segal's modern "everykid" tale of a boy who yearns to keep the paint set he takes to a birthday party, but it blends seamlessly.

That over-the-top costuming, not too surprisingly, has its roots in the theater. Russian-born and -bred, Kulikov worked as a set and costume designer after graduating from the Institute of Theater, Music and Cinema in St. Petersburg. He good-naturedly explains that, "having a mother, father and wife in the arts, I had no choice but to be an artist." Still, external factors led to his specialization in theater. "In Russia, my parents were set and costume designers too. During the Soviet time, our government didn't pay close attention to theater artists. It was the one artistic profession that was mostly free of ideology. People just saw them as crazy people."

By the time Kulikov graduated in 1992, the chokehold on the arts had dropped away with the Soviet system. "By this time, we had huge freedom—even more than we needed. Of course there was another problem, a huge economic problem." Free to follow his heart, Kulikov began painting, collaborating on two books for teenagers. He then landed a plum assignment—illustrating a new edition of Mary Poppins, a childhood favorite of his. But the publisher folded before publication.

The 50 illustrations he did for that book came in handy, though, after he moved to New York City in 1997. After a stint restoring murals, painting apartments and passing as an electrician ("even though I do not understand anything about electricity"), he shopped his Poppins-filled portfolio around to magazines and newspapers. His big break came when a fellow illustrator sent him to the art director of the New York Times Book Review, Steven Heller. "He was the first art director who gave me a job in America," he recalls gratefully. "He was, I would say, my godfather here."

Then began a steady stream of editorial assignments—which continue to roll in—for such publications as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Still smitten with the idea of children's books, though, Kulikov fruitlessly cold-called the major publishers until Heller referred him to FSG editor Frances Foster ("another great person in my life"). Already a fan of his editorial work, Foster proposed a book on the spot.

Compared to the breakneck pace of editorial illustration, Kulikov finds book publishing "smoother, less pressured," and much more fun. "It is rare when an editor or art director trusts an artist completely. I was very happy," he says of his relationship with Foster, Segal, art director Robbin Gourley and designer Barbara Grzeslo. Changes were generally minor. Their sharp eyes helped him, for example, to keep the same number of buttons on a shirt from page to page. He also concurred with Segal's suggestion to make the gift surreally grow in size, reflecting Morris's increasing possessiveness of it.

Besides giving the characters a lavish wardrobe, Kulikov—who admires illustrators Peter Sís, Sergio Ruzzier and Ray Bartkus—places them in a unique, rustic and Victorian-flavored setting. "I like old times," he explains. "I do not like mass production—contemporary architecture, chairs, tables, etc. That is why often I use things from the past. I especially love the 1930s and '40s, and the Victorian and Renaissance styles." The book's verdant, cypress-spiked landscapes, rendered in pen-and-ink and acrylic wash, feel almost Tuscan—echoing the Italian-like geography of his birthplace on the Crimean peninsula.

Like the book's main character, whose wild paintings delight his fellow partygoers, Kulikov's original style is winning devotees, too. He already has three more books in the pipeline, the first of which is Carnival of the Animals by John Lithgow (Simon & Schuster, spring 2004). Then in 2005 comes The Perfect Friend, written by his wife, Yelena Romanova; and Max's Words by Kate Banks (both FSG/Foster).

That's quite a line-up, considering that Kulikov arrived in America a mere six years ago. "I think I am lucky with the good persons that I have met," he says. "You know, we all meet some good people in our lives." He adds thoughtfully, "And there were some in mine."