Artist Journey: Mechal Roe
last updated 13 March 2019
Illustrator Mechal Roe joined Bright in the summer of 2018, which is almost hard to believe considering all that she has accomplished in her short time with the agency. She teamed up with Senator (and Presidential candidate!) Kamala Harris for Superheroes Are Everywhere, a big-hearted picture book about the importance of community and kindness (Philomel Books, January 2019). She is also publishing two author-illustrated books with Doubleday Books for Young Readers: Happy Hair and Cool Cuts, both focused on self-esteem, particularly for children of color.
We talked to Mechal about working with a Presidential candidate, what inspired her to become an illustrator, and Happy Hair’s journey from inspirational Instagram account to published books!
The cover of Happy Hair.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an illustrator?
I first knew I wanted to be an illustrator at age 6. I would watch my mom create portraits of friends and neighbors and was inspired to draw by observing her. I grew up in the city of St. Louis with a concrete backyard that was shared with a local tavern. Needless to say, I escaped this world by “drawing my way” out of it.
You gained a following for your artwork with your Instagram, Happy Hair Girls, which promotes self-esteem for children. Happy Hair (and its follow-up, Cool Cuts) are now set to be published with Doubleday Children’s Books as a series. What was it like to collaborate with editor Frances Gilbert and the rest of the Doubleday team to create author-illustrated stories from your concept?
Wow! I pinch myself daily becuase I didn’t follow the traditional route of publishing! I jumped head first into a world I assumed would be easy. Ha! I laugh at that now! I wrote Happy Hair and Cool Cuts in 2013 & 2015, respectively, and saw firsthand how difficult is was to get a self-published book into brick and mortar stores. When I stumbled across The Bright Agency and met my agent, James, who ultimately put me in contact with Frances, my heart swelled with joy! I cried nonstop for three days. Frances acted so fast and without hesitation in aquiring Happy Hair; I knew that she and the rest of the Doubleday team were the right choice. Their dedication and care to keeping the authenticity of the books confirmed this.
What was your inspiration for creating Happy Hair and Cool Cuts? What is the most exciting part of your stories getting a larger audience?
The inspiration for creating Happy Hair and Cool Cuts was seeing a need in my community. I am the middle of three girls with all different hair types and skin tones. Being raised like this, I became acutely aware of how people would treat my lighter sister differently than myself. The more favorable comments on hair and skin were always directed to my lighter sister.
I had all but forgotten about this until I was an adult working as a childrenswear designer during the beginning of the natural hair movement. In 2013, I was creating art and designing clothes for kids that didn’t look like me, and seeing my melinated friends’ children beg their parents for “straight” hair, I decided I should use my skills to uplift underrepresented kids. Thus, Happy Hair was born. I would later discover that writing these books would be a part of my own healing. Fast forward to now, I am so excited that MORE children will get to read Happy Hair. I want the books to be a part of a child’s journey towards self love, and for children without curly hair, I want it to be a window into a world they may not have known about before.
Happy Hair dolls designed and made by Mechal.
You’ve had a remarkable start to your time here at Bright; you also illustrated Senator Kamala Harris’ picture book, Superheroes Are Everywhere, which published at the beginning of this month with Philomel Books. What was your reaction when you found out that you would be working on this project?
Again, I cried like a baby! This was so unexpected and just at the right time. I was on the verge of being forced to move back home and shut down Happy Hair officially. When my agent James called me with the news, I was eatting ramen noodles! I screamed so loudly that I scared everyone in my office. I had resigned to doing art just to make myself happy, even if no one cared. Having someone I admire want to work with me on my first traditionally published book was out of this world! Im so grateful to James, The Bright Agency,the Philomel team,and Kamala Harris for believing in me. Kamala’s words of encouragement have motivated me to expand my work, as well.
Early picture book ‘dummy’ for Superheroes Are Everywhere.
Senator Harris announced her presidential run just after the publication of Superheroes Are Everywhere. How did you approach illustrating a book for someone who is very much in the public eye?
I suspected that she might run after the book became official. My reaction went in this order: a full day of crying with gratitude, then exclaiming with joy, then realizing that I could not tell a soul. I gathered myself and got ready to kick butt! It was definitely a baptism by fire because I had to work quickly to fit the Senator’s timeline.
A spread from Superheroes Are Everywhere.
Mechal and Senator Harris take a selfie.
How did your agent, James Burns, help in making these projects come together?
James ensured that I had everything I needed to produce the artwork for Superheroes. He told me how the process went and very much put my mind at ease. I knew that this was a big deal, but made sure not to overthink it. I envisioned the book already being finished and being well received. Thinking this way helped me work through any doubts that I had. If you want anyone in your corner, it would be James and the Bright team. I had been doing art for years, but each new level requires a new version of yourself and James cheers you on in that process. He is like a calming den mother in the best way possible.
Can you describe your work process? What is your workspace like?
I like to sketch on paper, and then scan it into the computer. But after working with the Senator with the shortest timeline Ive ever worked with, I realized that I should immediately get more comfortable drawing directly using the computer. It may not work all of the time, but it can be really helpful in getting feedback in a timely manner.
Mechal’s happy place, a.k.a. her workspace.
What advice do you have for other illustrators trying to break into publishing?
Practice, Practice, Practice. Even though I have had a job in the arts since college, these skills still require growth and training. Every client is different and trusting yourself, your skills, and giving the client what they want is ultimately what matters. I have recently upgraded my equipment to handle the fast-paced projects that may come my way.
Click here to see Mechal’s full portfolio.
To get in touch with Mechal’s agent, James Burns, send him an email.