Ashleigh Corrin Webb never considered that her drawings, doodles and designs would make it to the pages of a children’s book, let alone one that would later win her the 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Illustrator Award.
“This was a bigger opportunity than I had ever dreamed of,” says Webb.
The NoVA-based designer for Custom Ink and an on-the-side freelance artist specializes in everything from playfully designed housewares to company rebrandings, and was discovered back in the summer of 2017 by publisher Enchanted Lion Books and author Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie. (Fun fact: She also used to work at Northern Virginia Magazine a few years ago.)
They were in search of an illustrator who could bring Tallie’s poem to life, and Webb’s artistry fit the mold. Her cheerful and bright designs were a match for the book titled Layla’s Happiness, about a 7-year-old girl growing up in South Carolina, who keeps a happiness book that is both thoughtful and intimate.
As a woman of color herself, along with author Tallie, Webb was inspired to illustrate a children’s story that followed an African American protagonist. She took on the challenge, even though she had never illustrated a book before, let alone one that relied heavily on thoughtfully created art.
“I actually wasn’t comfortable creating it right away because I’m not necessarily a scene illustrator,” says Webb. “I’m a little more simplistic where my work will highlight a specific person or an object. Creating scenes was a challenge for me.”
After working for over a year on the character sketches, storyboards and more, Webb’s pages were finalized and the book was released in November 2019.
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“[The process] was something I loved because I love poetry and I love conceptualizing ideas in a simplistic way,” says Webb. “Words give you an idea of what a scene can look like, but poems can be more conceptual or just an idea, so bringing that to life is really what made the different illustrations in the book unique.”
Shortly after, the book was reviewed by The New York Times, and in early March, the publisher called Webb to let her know the news—she would be receiving the 2020 Ezra Jack Keats Illustrator Award, a gold medal that honors the work of the mid-20th century children’s book author who is cited as breaking the color barrier in children’s publishing with his book, The Snowy Day.
“It’s funny because the night before, [Tallie] called me. We chatted about doing something with Layla in the future that would be different, and we were kind of saying that maybe the hype of this book is over,” says Webb. “And one thing I said to her was, ‘The sky’s the limit,’ and the next day we got the news [that we won] and she texted me and said, ‘You said it, Ashleigh! The sky is the limit!’ So, you just never know what’s possible.”
As a mother of a 5-month-old daughter, she didn’t have the chance to celebrate fully, but she did have a newfound appreciation for her work.
“I found out I was pregnant about halfway through creating the book, so I was actually kind of discouraged, you know, for the first time, doubting if my style was perfect for the book,” says Webb. “But [when I found out] and knew I had the opportunity, it was really motivation because I knew I could read this to her and show her something I had published that she could also achieve if she aspired to.”
As for raising her own daughter as a proud woman of color, Webb can’t wait to see just how much positive impact the book has on current and future generations.
“I am so proud to be able to represent black women and black creative women in this way,” says Webb. “I just hope that young black girls can know that their creative dreams are possible and that this field isn’t out of the realm of possibility for them.”
Webb will be honored by both the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and the de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi on Thursday, April 2 at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival. Find more of her work in design, pattern and illustration through her website at ashleighcorrin.com.
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