One day, while still a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, Elizabeth Lilly found herself in the cafeteria with a cup of water and a straw “three times the height of the cup.” The mismatch of sizes inspired her: she doodled a giraffe making a hairpin turn with its neck in order to sip its chocolate milk. Once home, she pinned the drawing to her studio wall. “It struck me as funny.”

Later that semester, in need of an idea for an assignment to create cover art in her book illustration class, Lilly remembered her giraffe and sketched a title character almost too tall to fit within the confines of a dust jacket. “The idea was that this giraffe was too big for the human world, and the story would be about how she could become comfortable.” She titled it Geraldine (Roaring Brook/Porter), the name of a giraffe who has very reluctantly moved to a new town and a new school and is having a lot of trouble, literally, fitting in.

The teacher, Shadra Strickland, loved it. “You have to make a book out of this,” she told Lilly. “If you don’t use it, I will.”

Lilly didn’t need to be told twice. After graduating in 2014, she headed to New York, where she had made appointments with art directors, editors, and agents—“anyone willing to take five minutes to look at my portfolio,” which included an early dummy of Geraldine. Though she received a lot of encouragement, she didn’t receive any offers.

One of her last meetings was with Pippin Properties’ Elena Giovinazzo, who praised Lilly’s artwork. “So do you want to represent me?” Lilly asked. “Whoa,” she recalls Giovinazzo replying. “That’s not how it works.” The agent promised to send editorial notes, and strongly suggested Lilly turn the text from rhyme to prose, advice she says she heard more than once.

Lilly left New York feeling like she “had no text and no theme” but with a newfound determination to get the story right. After receiving Giovinazzo’s notes, she rewrote and revised and rewrote some more.

“I was freaking out,” Lilly says. “I pretty much showed [the manuscript] to anybody I knew who had any writing experience at all.” Finally, she showed it to her sister, who thought the story had too much going on.

“I had Geraldine in the school play, and there was this convoluted thing she had to resolve,” Lilly says. “My sister said, ‘Make it simpler. How about she makes one friend? Maybe that’s the hardest thing about being in a new place.’ ”

Sisters know best. “I knew that I had the heart of the story then,” Lilly says. She sent a revision to Giovinazzo, who promised to get back to her within a month. Two days later, Giovinazzo called with an offer of representation. Lilly says the agent told her it was the “best revision she’d ever seen.”

Multiple publishers made offers. Lilly chose Neal Porter, who offered a two-book deal. (The second book will be published by Holiday House, where Porter moved his imprint in 2017.) Geraldine has received three starred reviews.

Between college graduation and the publication of her first book, Lilly supported herself by working as a nanny in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, a job that inadvertently provided a lot of useful experience. “The kids were not allowed to watch television, so books were the TV,” she says. “I read so many books aloud to them that I feel like I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in a picture book.”

With that knowledge under her belt, Lilly has now returned to her native Baltimore, where she plans to finish the second book for Porter and work on an MFA so she can pursue a career in teaching, following in the footsteps of her favorite professor, Strickland, one of the people to whom Geraldine is dedicated.

And, by the way, that create-a-book-cover assignment? Lilly reports she got an A.