In Aaron Becker’s wordless adventure, Journey (Candlewick, Aug.), the power of imagination and a red marker lead a lonely girl into a series of magical realms. The picture book charmed reviewers when it appeared this past summer, and it landed on many year-end Best Of lists, too. Better yet was the news that President Obama had purchased a copy during a recent bookstore visit.

Fans who fell in love with the walled city of Pallonezia and its steampunk airships might be surprised to learn that Becker felt ill-prepared to illustrate a children’s book when he first considered the idea, just after graduating from college. “I bought a lot of children’s books,” Becker says. “I joined SCBWI, I went to conferences, I met a nice editor at one of them. But I didn’t know how to draw. I didn’t have any fundamentals at all.”

He decided he’d better get serious, and at 27 he enrolled in Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. “It’s a commercially oriented program,” he says. “They teach you technical skills. I was trying to figure out how to make a living.” And he succeeded; he spent the next 10 years designing concept artwork for animated films like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. Discouraged by the daunting Bay Area real estate market, he and his wife decided to move back East, to a town outside Amherst, Mass., where he continued to freelance. When the studio he was working for folded, he decided it was time to see if he could create the book he’d been thinking about. “It was a continuation of something I’d been doing since I was a kid,” he explains. “I lived in the basement of our house. I made every little pocket of space have its own theme. I was really interested in Japan, so there was a Japanese corner, with Japanese lanterns and Japanese hangings. I loved Lego, so there was a Lego corner. I wanted to be a marine biologist, so there were these inflatable sharks. When I started to work on Journey, it was going to be a story of a boy or girl going through these great environments.”

The artwork for Journey took Becker two years to create. The Amherst area’s vibrant community of children’s book artists offered support and suggestions. “I had a draft of the book and there was no boy and no bird,” he says, “and [author-illustrator] David Hyde Costello asked a question: ‘What if there’s some other kid who drew the bird?’ When I heard that,” says Becker, “I knew it was the right way to go.”

YA author Laurel Snyder, a friend from Becker’s high school days, introduced him to an editor, who worked with Becker to develop the story. When the publishing house was bought and the editor went elsewhere, Becker decided he needed an agent. His film portfolio impressed Linda Pratt [then with the Sheldon Fogelman Agency, now at Wernick & Pratt], and she sent the dummy of Journey to five houses. Several editors expressed interest. One name sounded oddly familiar—Candlewick’s Mary Lee Donovan. She was, Becker realized, the very editor he had met at a SCBWI conference 15 years before. “It was just the universe at work,” Becker says.

Candlewick, much to Becker’s delight, agreed to a trilogy. The second book, Quest, is in production, and he’s working on the third. He agrees that deciding to write a children’s book and then going to art school in order to fulfill that dream shows a remarkable ability to focus on the long goal. “What comes along with that, though,” he says, “is intensity and perfectionism. That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself. You have to be super-driven.”