Drawing Up Creativity

Author and illustrator Tony DiTerlizzi credits his 30 years of success to his mentor.
By Tony DiTerlizzi
artwork showing dragon
Artwork from DiTerlizzi’s 2017 traveling exhibition, Never Abandon Imagination, shows Grahame the dragon, from the book Kenny & the Dragon.

Tony DiTerlizzi is the author and illustrator of The Search for WondLa and cocreator of the series The Spiderwick Chronicles. He has been doing this work for more than 30 years. He considers himself lucky to do what he loves every day, and he credits his fifth-grade teacher with inspiring his career.

DiTerlizzi met with students at a Your Hot Job career event. Here’s what he had to say.

I started my career working for Dungeons and Dragons. How cool is that? I’ve even had the opportunity to work for Lucasfilm on a Star Wars picture book. I’m going to tell you right off the bat, my hot job is awesome. I love being creative and using my imagination to come up with stories for young readers. 


Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people say to me, “You're lucky that you have a talent and can draw, and do this job that you love.” And I’ve thought about that. I realized in some ways that they’re right. I am a lucky guy.

I grew up in South Florida. I liked to draw in class, probably more than I should have been doing. My teacher would be in the front of the class talking, and I’d be in the back of the classroom drawing. I drew Star Wars, dragons, and bugs. I loved drawing the insects I found in my yard. I would copy artists all the time. That’s primarily how I learned to become an artist, by copying the art I loved.


My fifth-grade teacher was Mr. Strassberger. He knew I loved drawing. I had to do an oral book report on Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcycle. I was dreading it. The Mouse and the Motorcycle has some amazing illustrations, but it doesn’t have a lot of them. There were a lot of pages with no art. I struggled with this book report, and did terribly. Mr. Strassberger made a deal with me. He said, “Listen, I want you to read The Mouse and the Motorcycle, but I want you to come up with your own, original illustrations.” So with pencil in hand, I went back and reread The Mouse and the Motorcycle. It was almost like it wasn’t a story anymore, but instructions on what scene to draw. After that, I was super excited to share my report with the class. I felt a confidence and validation I had never experienced before. 

This changed so much in me. I ended up going on to read all kinds of books. I loved reading. I would sit in my room and do drawings of the characters from the books. I would do my own versions of these characters. I drew Smaug the dragon from The Hobbit, which I loved reading, and Milo from The Phantom Tollbooth. My room was papered with these drawings.

I realized how lucky I was. Not because I was talented when it came to drawing. I was lucky because I had an adult in my life who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Now I have an awesome job doing what I love. Every day, I get to do the same thing I did when I was 10 years old. I was fortunate to have had someone like this amazing teacher in my life mentoring me. When I think back on my career, I realize what a pivotal moment this was in my life. I do have a very amazing and successful job. And I’m very fortunate. But I had mentors, and people like Mr. Strassburger in my life who helped me get here.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.