Kate Berube knew as far back as kindergarten, when her teacher asked her about future career plans, that she wanted to be an artist. “I’m lucky that my parents were supportive of that,” Berube says. She stuck to that goal and went on to get a B.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she did a lot of what she describes as large landscape paintings.
But Berube says she was increasingly “unsatisfied” with the kind of art she was making, and found herself drawn to more narrative paintings. In 2000, she began taking classes in making children’s books, and a diagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2003 cemented her intent “to do work that is meaningful to me.”
Berube eventually settled in Portland, Ore., where she put all her artistic focus on children’s books. “I took classes, went to conferences, and really started trying to draw in a way I thought would work in children’s books,” she says. She also designed greeting cards, created a children’s zine, and worked as a nanny, and, later, as a bookseller at Powell’s Books. One day while nannying, Berube noticed a child’s nervous interaction with a dog after the girl got off the school bus; the incident formed the basis for her first picture book, Hannah and Sugar (Abrams. Mar.).
In the book, Hannah responds with a polite “no, thank you” each time she is asked if she’d like to pet her classmate’s dog, Sugar. When Sugar goes missing, Hannah confronts her fear while developing a concerned empathy for the lost dog.
Berube herself isn’t afraid of dogs—hers is named Sugar, too—but she admits to being a “pretty nervous person.” She says that when she began writing the book around 2011, she was “thinking a lot about being brave, and how being brave is about doing things you’re afraid of doing,” as opposed to “being bold and confident.”
At that point, Berube had been trying to break into children’s books for nearly a decade. “It was a long time of trying different things,” she says, with “lots of submitting to and being rejected by agents.” A class in children’s book illustration taught by Roller Girl creator Victoria Jamieson at the Pacific Northwest College of Art led to Berube’s big break. Jamieson sent some of Berube’s artwork to blogger Julie Danielson for a recurring feature on up-and-coming illustrators on her site, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast; the resulting post in August 2013 led two agents to contact Berube. She signed with Lori Kilkelly of Rodeen Literary Management soon after and had four book deals within a few months of each other, including an auction for Hannah and Sugar, which ultimately went to Tamar Brazis at Abrams.
Berube’s second picture book, The Summer Nick Taught His Cats to Read, written by Curtis Manley, goes on sale this week from Simon & Schuster’s Paula Wiseman Books, and My Little Half-Moon, written by Doug Jennerich, will follow from Putnam in early 2017. She is currently working on writing and illustrating a second picture book for Abrams, in which nervous emotions also come into play. (After Berube and her husband discovered that Hannah and Sugar was listed under “emotions and feelings” in one of Amazon’s ultra-drilled-down bestseller categories, it led to a bit of teasing: “That’s you, Kate, feelings and emotions!”)
Berube is continuing to experiment with and develop her artwork. My Little Half-Moon will incorporate collage, and her first two books were done in waterproof inks and various water-based paints. One of her fears—public speaking—hasn’t been an issue as she’s met with children at schools and bookstores to talk about Hannah and Sugar. “For me, public speaking is an act of bravery,” she says. “But I’m way more comfortable with kids than grownups.” Whatever the future holds for Berube and her art making, there’s one thing she knows for certain: “Books will be part of it for a long time.”