Featured Illustrator

Meet Darren Cools!

Thank you for being our spring 2024 Featured Illustrator! Tell us about the banner you designed for The Mitten.

A long time ago I encountered a photo of some kids with great (and somewhat hilarious) expressions, eating street food under neon signs. As I was contemplating what to draw for The Mitten blog banner I suddenly remembered that photo. I tried to make something in my own style that was true to the original spirit but had a uniquely Michigan flair (pasties!).


You illustrated two picture books and a parent/teacher guide on computer science that are coming out this summer. Congratulations!  I’d love to hear a little more about that process: 

I’m excited about these books and so grateful to their author, Julie Darling, for everything! She's a librarian, published author, and a STEM, makerspace and technology educator and speaker. Be sure to check out her website and follow her on social media (@authorjuliedarling). I have wanted to be an author and illustrator since I was 9 years old, and thanks to Julie, the author and originator of the books I was so privileged to work on, my life-long dream is becoming a reality.

            The journey of making these books has been long but rewarding. Julie crafted a proposal to her publisher, and once it was accepted, grew her original concept of a single board book to two picture books and a guidebook with educational activities. It was a collaborative process between myself, Julie, and the publisher, involving many revisions and adjustments. We are very happy with the outcome!


How did you get chosen as the illustrator for this project? 

Haha, it almost feels like an accident. My friend Julie and I were talking about writing at the pool in the summer of 2022 (we are both working on YA novels), and she told me about the manuscripts she was developing for picture books about computer science concepts for early learners. I thought her ideas were wonderful, and then she said, “Wait, you are an illustrator, right?” Everything fell into place from there.


What were some things you considered while designing the characters?

We discussed Julie’s vision for her characters before I did any sketching. She wanted a distinctly female but gender-inclusive, multi-racial main character—in short, she hoped to create a character that almost everyone could see a little of themselves in. I made four initial test sketches with a variety of unique features. Then we asked for voluntary feedback from Julie’s students. After poring over dozens and dozens of comments from young people ages roughly 4–14, we brought Zuri to life! One happy result of the feedback was Zuri’s rainbow shirt, which the students liked so much we made real t-shirts available for purchase! Check them out here.


What are the differences between planning a picture book compared to planning the parent/teacher guide?

I drew a number of spot illustrations for the guidebook based on specific requests from Julie. For the picture books, the process was entirely different. Julie left it largely up to me to imagine how to visually interpret her manuscript and make it engaging. I spent a lot of time using my imagination and loose sketches to ‘fly’ through the words and concepts, almost as if I was in a video game or short film, figuring out how to move smoothly and cohesively from one idea to the next. It was highly intentional but involved trusting my intuition—and, of course, my writing group’s thoughtful feedback. Finding the right amount of letting go during the process can bring about a strange magic, where the results are somehow more than the sum of the parts.


What kind of feedback did you get? Did the author provide feedback or did it come from an art director/editor?

I shared early concept art, then thumbnails, then rough sketches, then color as each was completed, and Julie (and other friends) commented and provided feedback at every stage. It was a very personal and intimate process to bring this vision to life, and I feel Julie and I each contributed deeply to the finished product.


Was there any feedback that you disagreed with? If so, how did you reconcile your vision with theirs?

Ultimately, I felt Julie’s vision was so clear and solid that I didn’t disagree with anything strongly. We compromised on a few things here and there, but they were minor, and I believe the end result was better than if either of us had insisted on something without remaining flexible. That’s the power of true collaboration. One character that I originally drew as a boy Julie wanted reimagined as a girl. That became an opportunity for us to create a gender-neutral character, which was a big win! 


How does illustrating a picture book compare to other design/illustration work you’ve done in the past?

My professional design work (day job) is mostly pretty prescriptive—I am given a brief, like creating a map or a mailer or branding for a project, and I use design software and a multi-step creative process to get it done on tight timelines. Illustrating a picture book is a much more expansive experience. The ‘brief’ is to spend weeks and months assembling through lines on paper (or digital tablet) how the words of the manuscript make me feel and what they actually mean, then refining, correcting, altering, and redrawing from that raw, wild, intuitive space. It takes a tremendous amount of time, but I love it. It’s very seat of the pants.


What does your workday look like?

Pretty consistent, and packed! I try to get up around 6 a.m. at least a couple days per week to get some writing done before it’s time to get the kids up for school. Then it’s making breakfast, drinking lots of coffee, transporting kids to school, and sometimes a short stop by the gym before heading home to start work. I work remotely as a graphic designer leading a small creative team on the west coast, so I am usually very busy until dinnertime with my day job. After dinner, it’s hanging out with family, then depending on what writing or art project I have going on at the moment, I may work a little before bed. Weekends usually involve a bit of personal or freelance work I didn’t get to during the week, a happy hour out somewhere with my wife, and some quality family time with everyone Sunday evening.


You’re originally from the west coast. When and why did you move to Michigan?

My family and I moved from Portland, Oregon to Southeast Michigan in December 2020. We were one of those pandemic statistics. It’s too much to go into here, but the big picture is that we wanted a quieter, calmer, more values-driven environment for our kids to grow up in than what we were experiencing on the west coast. I grew up in Washington State, so Michigan still feels strange to me, but I love it. It’s a good place to have landed.


What other writing/illustration projects are you working on?

Too many! I have five picture book manuscripts in various stages of completion, one complete novel I am currently querying, two more novels in process, and several short stories I am shopping to literary magazines, as well as a few ongoing illustration efforts. If you want to see more of my work, visit my website and follow me on social media (links in my website footer).


Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

I love working with people to make beautiful, interesting things. Hopefully there will be more opportunities in the future to help bring words and ideas to life through illustration… I’ve always wanted to paint a public mural (hint, hint)!



Previous Featured Illustrators 

January 2024

July 2023
Sara Kendall

April 2023

January 2023

October 2022
Nico Ridge

July 2022

March 2022

January 2022
Kristen Uroda

December 2021

May 2021

January 2021

October 2020

May 2020

Rebecca Howe

March 2020

Nina Goebel

January 2020

Melanie Bryce

October 2019

Makiko Orser

July 2019

Ruth McNally Barshaw

April 2019

Melissa Bailey

January 2019

Nick Adkins

October 2018

July 2018

Darrin Brege

April 2018

Basya Cohen

January 2018

John Bleau

October 2017

Lori Eslick

Lori painted two banners and they both deserve to be shown, here is the other one:

July 2017

Amy Nielander

April 2017

Cathy Gendron

January 2017

Brianne Farley

October 2016

Bradley Cooper

July 2016

Kara Marsee

April 2016

Lori Taylor

January 2016

Dana Atnip

October 2015

Deb Pilutti

July 2015

Jennifer Scott
April 2015

Diana Magnuson

January 2015

September 2014

Heidi Woodward Sheffield



  1. Will there be any market ideas such as new publications or publishing companies included in The Mitten?

    1. Great idea, thanks for the suggestion! We'll explore this as we grow and add more features.

    2. Keep in mind the most up-to-date market research can be found in the members section of the national site, www.scbwi.org
      You can download it for free or have The Book sent to you for just $5 postage. It's an amazing resource.

  2. Brilliant, Heidi. Huge congratulations and also hugs.
    I'm a mentee now, too -- let's storm the castle and hang up our artwork. ;) -- And let's pull the rest of our Michigan illustrators up the steps too.

  3. GREAT JOB! Kritstin and Jodie.

    Heidi, you know I am already a fan, and your work never fails to WOW me!

  4. Heidi, your art is so beautiful! Thanks for your courage in sharing your life challenge with us. I wish you the very best.
    Kristin and Jodie--this is a terrific idea! Looking forward to reading more.
    Lindsey McDivitt

  5. Heidi, Thank you for sharing your work and your hard-won wisdom. The depth from which you speak comes through in the strength and vibrancy of your artwork as well. Blessings and continued healing to you. Most Sincerely, Elizabeth McBride

  6. This is a question for Kristin and Jody but I can't seem to find anywhere else to ask it---will we still be sharing marketing news, Hugs & Hoorahs, etc? I don't see any of those at this time. Thanks!

    1. I emailed Monica, but for anyone else who is reading this, we will definitely have Hugs and Hurrahs - I'm compiling them now for an upcoming post. We'll have to look at market news going forward, but the SCBWI Bulletin and our listserv continue to be good resources for that info.

  7. Wow! Heidi, I can see why you got the mentorship--touching, heartfelt essay. Impressive!

  8. I'm such a neophyte here that I forgot there might be posts (and replies!). I really and truly very touched by the kind words and feedback. Thank you all, a bit late! XO Heidi

  9. Thank you to Jeff and Heidi for their gorgeous artwork! And, Heidi, thank you for your honesty and inspiration, all wrapped up in your beautiful essay. It's a touching reminder of what matters in life--the perfect start to the new year. Happy 2015 to everyone!

  10. Jeff - thanks for a little insight into your creative world, challenges, and motivations. I'm excited to see more of your work! And Heidi,I want that bronco girl! Love her spirit.

  11. Amazing artwork Jeff (and Heidi). Fascinating that Matt Faulkner suggested the 3-D look. The value of SCBWI is our proximity to working writers and illustrators. The sparks that fly when creative minds meet fuels the forge of inspiration.

  12. Love it, Jeff! Your art is fabulous and it's great to see more of it.

  13. Great art work Heidi and hugs all over for you...And Jeff, the cover is so good - just want to reach out and squeeze the other hand of the tree, or two or more! Love clay too!