NYT Bestseller List Latest Stop on KCAD Alum Kirbi Fagan’s Career Journey

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Kirbi Fagan

Kirbi Fagan is a 2013 graduate of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State
University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration. She has firmly established
herself as one of the leading illustrators working today. Fagan 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.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Just 10 years after graduating from Kendall College of Art and
Design of Ferris State University, Kirbi Fagan 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, who graduated in 2013 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration, 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 said. “I could have never dreamed of this.”  

Written by Rosanne Parry and published in Aug. 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 said. “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.”

A Horse Named Sky

Pictured is the cover of “A Horse Named Sky,” written by Rosanne Parry and illustrated
by 2013 Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University alumna Kirbi
Fagan.

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 said. “They
make it easy because they’re so beautiful and so inspiring.”  

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 9-to-5 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
said. “The technical ability I saw really drew me to KCAD because if you have that
ability, you can do anything, right?”

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. She called meeting him,
“a very inspiring moment.”  

“It showed me that people are out there making a flexible living with their art, and
I can build a career out of it,” she said.  

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 said. “I was really focused on going
to a lot of them and finding my place in the industry.”

A Horse Named Sky

Pictured is artwork inside the book “A Horse Named Sky,” written by Rosanne Parry
and illustrated by 2013 Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University
alumna 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 did not show.  

“I stepped forward and said I didn’t have an appointment, but they said, come on in,”
she said. “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 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 said. “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 said, “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.”

“A Horse Named Sky” is available for purchase on Amazon as well as in local bookstores, Target, and Costco. See more of Kirbi Fagan’s creativity
at kirbifagan.com.

This story was reported by Karin Lannon for Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University.

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