Sep. 20—As a fashion design student in her native Italy, Valeria Wicker could never have foreseen her current vocation as an author and illustrator of children's books in Pennsylvania's coal region.
But after years of honing her craft, her detailed, vividly drawn illustrations — created in her home studio in Cressona — have made it onto the pages of popular children's books.
Wicker is the author and illustrator of "The Ugly Doodles," released in 2020, and the illustrator of "The Runaway's Diary," a graphic novel co-written by James Patterson and Emily Raymond. Her illustrations combine realistic details with a whimsical, fantastical art style.
"I do primarily illustrations," Wicker said. "I'm very versatile. I love doing all types of art."
Her books are published by JIMMY Patterson Books, a Little, Brown and Co. imprint.
Wicker, who was born and raised in Rome, has cultivated a lifelong passion for art, working in a variety of disciplines including woodcarving, sculpting, painting, pottery and digital art.
After considering careers in graphic design and fashion design, she ultimately branched out to other mediums. It wasn't until 2014, however, that she got the idea to illustrate children's books.
'The Ugly Doodles'
"My aunt said, 'You should try to do children's illustrations,' and I kind of laughed about it," Wicker said, "because I knew it was going to be very hard. What are the chances (of getting published)?"
Nevertheless, she set to work on what would become "The Ugly Doodles," a book about a young girl, Raven, who aspires to be an artist.
Though she attempts to create masterful works of art, Raven can only produce drawings that she deems "ugly doodles" and, frustrated, tries to discard them. However, over the course of the story, she comes to realize the innate value of her work and finds a way to nurture her talent.
"It's about discovering that your talents are what they are," Wicker said. "And it's inspiring to kids because it helps them appreciate what they make without thinking (about) if something doesn't turn out quite right, and that it's worth keeping, it's worth appreciating."
Wicker said the book pertains to "all aspects" of life.
"It's about perseverance," she said, "and it's about not giving up and completing what you're doing."
In 2018, Wicker began working with a literary agent who saw potential in the "spooky" and supernatural qualities of "The Ugly Doodles." They ultimately landed a two-book deal with JIMMY Patterson Books, the publisher of Patterson's best-selling children's books, and Wicker got the opportunity to illustrate Patterson and Raymond's "The Runaway's Diary," which was released in June.
Wicker's next picture book, "The Knight Snacker," will be released in the fall. The story concerns a picky eater, named Julian, who must overcome his fear of the dark to acquire the snacks he desires.
Fantasy and reality
After earning a fashion design degree at 19, Wicker decided to follow her parents to the United States, where they'd settled a year and a half earlier. Wicker lived in Montgomery and Bucks counties before moving to Cressona in 2017 with her husband, Mike.
"We didn't know anybody here, we had no family here, but we just loved it," she said. "We love the mountains, the scenery. … To us, it was perfect."
When not working on children's books or spending time with her family, Wicker spends much of her downtime on her pottery.
As she is now a full-time author and illustrator, she endeavors to continue producing books in the vein of "The Ugly Doodles" and "The Knight Snacker."
For Wicker, authoring children's books represented a wholly new venture and new challenges. For example, with "The Ugly Doodles," she found it difficult to find an art style that appealed to children.
"I love realism," she said, "and to go from being strictly realistic to being quirky and (drawing) children's characters, it was challenging. But I figured out a way to mix both together."
Wicker uses a variety of software, such as Photoshop and Autodesk SketchBook, to illustrate her creations.
For "The Ugly Doodles," Wicker deliberately offset some of the fantastical elements with more realistic details, such as the fabric of the characters' clothing and Raven's curly hair.
"To me, it's important that people can see some realism in it," she said.
Two years after its release, the book has proven popular with audiences, with reviewers praising its detailed illustrations and inspiring message.
"So far, everybody loves it," Wicker said.
On Oct. 16, Wicker will hold a book-signing and storytime event, featuring "The Ugly Doodles," at the Yuengling Mansion in Pottsville. People of all ages are invited.
To view more of her work, visit valeriawicker.com or instagram.com/valeriawicker.
Contact the writer: hlee@republicanherald.com; 570-628-6085
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