NYT Bestseller List Latest Stop on Alum Kirbi Fagan's Career Journey
Just 10 years after graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD), Kirbi Fagan (’13, BFA Illustration) has reached the pinnacle of publishing success by seeing the children’s novel she illustrated, “A Horse Named Sky,” appear on The New York Times Bestseller list in the Children’s Middle Grade Hardcover category.
Fagan has firmly established herself as one of the leading illustrators working today. She’s created for high profile clients like Marvel Comics, Disney, Simon and Schuster, and Penguin Books. Since winning the nationwide Creative Outlook cover contest for college students in 2012, she’s gone on to win the Illustrator of the Future Award in 2013, the Muddy Color Rising Star Award in 2017, and the Jack Gaughan Award for Best Emerging Artist in 2017.
Despite an impressive résumé, the news about “A Horse Named Sky” still felt surreal. Fagan was on vacation and unplugged at the time, relaxing away the exhaustion of finishing the project.
“I didn’t have data service, so I didn’t know at first. My agent called and told me, ‘You’re a best seller!’” she says. “I could have never dreamed of this.”
Written by Rosanne Parry and published in August 2023, “A Horse Named Sky” is the story of a young, wild horse struggling to reunite with his family after being captured for the Pony Express, told with vivid illustrations depicting the horse’s adventure throughout the Old West. At nearly 300 pages, illustrating the book was an especially demanding challenge.
“I’ve never worked on a project that long with covers,” Fagan says, “but I felt ready, and when you work longer term you really get to know everyone working on the book. When the whole team is working together, that’s where the magic happens.”
(above and below): excerpts from "A Horse Named Sky" (images courtesy of the artist)
The publisher was looking for an illustrator who liked horses, and Fagan had just completed a different personal project about wild horses. Before starting “A Horse Named Sky,” she spent time with the animals to study their movements and facial expressions, capturing much of it in photos and videos she could refer to while illustrating the ways they walk, run, and jump.
“It was really inspiring how subtle their facial expressions are and how horses can take on other people's emotions or feelings from their environment,” Fagan says. “They make it easy because they’re so beautiful and so inspiring.”
(above and below): Fagan's study and extensive sketching of horses helped prepare her for "A Horse Named Sky" (images courtesy of the artist)
Fagan always envisioned herself as an artist. Growing up with Crohn’s disease, she felt isolated by a litany of treatments and surgeries that kept her out of school for long periods of time. Creativity became her way back to the world.
“Art was a lifeline for me,” she says, “Just a total escape from everything I was going through.”
Turning her creative passion into a career came naturally. With her health challenges, Fagan knew she would never be a nine-to-five person. She wanted to make her own path. She soon found herself at KCAD, where she was instantly drawn to the Illustration program and the student work on display.
“When I saw the work on the wall, I said, ‘Wow! What’s that?’ and they explained how illustration tells stories. I just felt like that was the perfect place for me,” she says. “The technical ability I saw really drew me to KCAD because if you have that ability, you can do anything, right?”
Fagan at KCAD's 2013 Commencement ceremony
A visit to campus from award-winning illustrator Greg Manchess early in Fagan’s time at KCAD convinced her that she had made the right decision.
“[Meeting Manchess] was a very inspiring moment,” she recalls. “It showed me that people are out there making a flexible living with their art, and I can build a career out of it.”
Fagan’s conviction—along with a tireless work ethic—has continued to open doors for throughout her career. Post-graduation, she attended every illustration-related event she could, whether they were local or on the other side of the country, looking to connect with and learn from more established professionals.
“If you want that face-to-face interaction with people who are farther along in their career but willing to mentor you and take you under their wing, the only place to meet them is at conventions or workshops,” she says. “I was really focused on going to a lot of them and finding my place in the industry.”
Fagan at London ComicCon (image courtesy of Kirbi Fagan)
The creativity and tenacity Fagan had cultivated throughout her early life also came in handy for promoting herself at these events. In one instance, when she didn’t get a time slot with an art director she was intent on meeting, she showed up anyway and took advantage when another hopeful artist didn’t show.
“I stepped forward and said I didn’t have an appointment, but they said, come on in,” she says. “You could call it luck, and that’s definitely part of it, but you have to be in the room to get lucky.”
Fagan’s career began with covers for middle grade and young adult novels. She then moved on to comic covers for Marvel and Dark Horse Comics, including a coloring book created by “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk. Though it was rewarding work, Fagan ultimately craved the freedom to draw her own stories. She shifted toward children’s books and was chosen to illustrate “The Summer of the Tree Army,” a novel about the Civilian Conservation Corps written by Gloria Whelan and released in 2021.
Fagan receiving the Illustrator of the Future Award in 2013 (image courtesy of Kirbi Fagan)
Fagan describes the collaborative process of creating a children’s book as slower in comparison to other work she’s done, but rich with possibilities.
“When I work with an art director or editor, they give me a pitch of what they're looking for. Sometimes, they will just trust me completely and give me control, and I will present the sketches through an e-mail. But I’ve also presented them over video, and I find that that works well,” she says. “With everyone together, I can take their feedback, adjust, and go back and forth many times.
Once a direction for the final artwork is decided, Fagan can immerse herself completely in her craft.
“That's when I disappear and just go do my thing” she says. “Then they'll review the work again very specifically and we may have to make more adjustments. There’s a lot of stamina required in these projects.”
Fagan has three more picture books coming out in 2025, including her first written and illustrated picture book for upper elementary audiences. The move to author/illustrator is a fresh challenge demanding new ways of thinking and working, but she’s unwavering in her belief that passion and persistence can overcome any obstacle.
To artists aspiring to follow in her footsteps, she says, “if your heart is connected
to the work that you're doing and you truly love what you're making and how you're
making it, there's no way other people won’t connect with it, too.”