LOOK UP! Dapo Adeola – Insights into Children’s Publishing


‘New kid on the block’ Dapo Adeola is making waves in the community as a champion of the importance of equal representation in the publishing industry and wider arts. As an illustrator with two years in the industry – Dapo is outspoken in the call for more movement to support and include all illustrators and authors, particularly British BAME creators.

This year Dapo launched a group from a twitter thread called #blackbritishillustrators, who have regular meet-ups, and he also joined the PopUp Pathways Scheme as a professional mentor. (In case you missed it, you can read our introduction to the pathway scheme including 5 mentees to watch, here!)

Here Dapo shares wisdom for new book illustrators, and talks about diversity within the industry. We learn more about his most recent book ‘Look Up’ (published by Penguin) – with the awesome load character Rocket, and hear about his unique creative relationship with author Nathan Bryon.

We love Rocket as a strong leading character. How did you draw up her image?

Rocket’s image was based on one of my nieces. I was given a simple brief from Nathan in the beginning (black girl, big hair, glasses… obsessed with space!) but it was important that her personality came through in her design first and foremost, so to make sure that was the case, I tried to capture the energy and attitude of my niece in my drawings.

I’m an older brother myself and although I wasn’t raised with my youngest sister, our dynamic is still one of big bro, baby sis. So, I tapped into some of that for this book. Whenever we go out I’m always thinking about work and the stresses of adulting, while she’s still enjoying her early 20’s lol, so the “seriousness” of adult life has yet to hit.

How did the partnership with (Co-author) Nathan Bryon appear, and can you give some insight into the experience of working collaboratively?

Nathan and I have known each other since we started working together in 2010. Back then, I designed two characters for an animated pitch. We remained in contact ever since, keeping in touch as our respective careers blossomed. He then approached me again five years later asking if I’d like to be involved in a book idea he had, and I said yes!

At that stage we had no text or story, just the idea of Rocket. As I drew the character the story started to develop with each drawing, making this a genuine collaboration as opposed to me just simply being a ‘hired pencil’. Usually an author has the idea and the illustrator is brought in when the text is finished. But this worked as a collaborative effort from the start.

Now we’re wrapping out book number two (of the three books we have coming) featuring Rocket and Jamal. We’ve also been optioned for an animated series so with any luck there’ll be plenty more adventures for Rocket and Jamal over the coming years!

What would you like young readers to think or feel when reading ‘Look Up’?

Corny as it might sound, most of all I’d like children to feel “seen” on some level after reading our book.

How are you finding this experience? What tips would you give to others managing deadlines?

This is my second year on the job and I still feel like I’m treading water in the middle of the ocean. While this isn’t the most pleasant feeling, it’s a relief to know that it’s not exclusive to me alone. Even veteran illustrators still experience this feeling so with that in mind it’s easier to keep going. I’ve seen my work grow a lot and I’ve learned a bunch about how things work – 

The best advice I’d give to other illustrators is to find others who do what you do and join groups where you can so you can share the load of your stresses and get help solving problems from others like yourself.

I’m right in the middle of 4 deadlines and I’m waaaaaaay behind on all of them so I’m probably not the best person to talk to about coping strategies lol. Best advice would be to make meeting deadlines early a top priority, and to be realistic with yourself about how efficient you really are. Honesty with yourself about what you can handle will serve you well. Push yourself, but do so incrementally with the understanding that this is a marathon not a sprint, and your endurance should be built steadily!

You champion the importance of representation in the publishing industry online, in schools and in the media. What advice would you give to other young black British illustrators looking to be published? 

I’d advise any Black British illustrator wanting to get work in the industry to research more about the process of what’s required to make a book from idea to publication. There are many more steps involved than people outside the industry are aware of.

I wish I’d know how things function production wise in the industry. Having gone through my 1st book launch/promo I now know how rapidly things move. It would have been nice to have had some kind of soft intro to this. With this in mind I’m now offering shadowing opportunities to aspiring POC (People of Colour) illustrators so they can see how demanding all this activity actually is.

As I’m self-taught, I didn’t study illustration at any establishment or school but I bought and studied picture books almost religiously. This is massively important. Join a library if you have to, and study picture books. Learn your craft and be brutally honest with where your skill set currently is and find out what you can do to improve and then do it.

There are many resources available on and offline that are free or affordable, find them and use them. Find your community as well. I’ve started a small group on Facebook to help Black British illustrators’ network with each other. And I’m also doing small open evening type events with small publishing houses for members of the group, so they gain access to the inner workings of a publisher and get some insight into how the books are made as well as some advice on their own portfolio.

Similarly, what would you want publishers to take into consideration when approaching diversity in their projects?

There’s a lot of big schemes and initiatives that are currently running which I don’t think will have a genuine lasting effect on the industry, there is a lot of work to do on a micro level to make a lasting change. With luck the people who are really trying to make a lasting change will stick it out and see it through.

They need to either amend or do away with BAME awards and competitions altogether as all they do is reinforce the narrative that there’s only room for a small amount of diversity a year. It’s a long road ahead for publishing before it sees the change it needs to see to become a more inclusive environment. I intend to be around for a while so I’ll definitely do my bit to make things more level!

Also, more transparency is needed from publishers about how things really work. That’s not just relevant to diversity, but to anyone starting out in publishing. I myself wasn’t ready for how gruelling and demanding the deadlines are and I’ve found myself working near enough every day for two years to make up for this lack of knowledge. While I’ve learned a whole lot, it’s come at a cost to my wellbeing. And this is the sole reason why I made it my side quest to be very vocal about the realities of the industry and my role within it.


Thanks to Dapo for taking the time out of deadlines to answer our questions – we’re excited to see the next book and what he gets up to next – if you’d like to see more you can visit his website, Twitter and Instagram!

2nd December 2019

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