The illustrious life of Nicole Tadgell ’91

Nicole Tadgell ’91Thank goodness for 90-degree days in Texas.

That’s where Nicole Lee Tadgell lived for several years as a child. It was so hot most days that she and her sister Sandy (Sandra Lee Foster ’90) had to find things to do that didn’t involve running around and playing outside in the sun.

So, they sat.

And they drew.

And they colored.

“We would go through coloring books like water,” says Tadgell. “We would draw on the backs of junk mail. We invented our own books and stories. We did kingdoms and paper dolls…. Because we could create whole worlds on paper, Sandy and I were both fascinated with storytelling and sequential art.”

That fascination has continued throughout Tadgell’s life and has led her to a career as an award-winning illustrator of children’s books and assistant art director at a Worcester, Mass., advertising agency.

The first book that she illustrated, Fatuma’s New Cloth by Leslie Bulion (Moon Mountain Publishing), was published in 2002. In 2003, the book won the Children’s Africana Book Award. Since then Tadgell, who majored in studio art at Wheaton, has illustrated 16 children’s books. One of them won the 2004 Atlanta Daily World Atlanta Choice Award. The newest book featuring her illustrations, In the Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby (Albert Whitman & Co.), is scheduled to be published this fall.

When her first book arrived in the mail, Tadgell cried, and there has been joy ever since, as she has balanced a career as an illustrator and as a full-time graphic designer at Davis Advertising.

Sitting in the quiet of a conference room during an interview this spring, the soft-spoken Tadgell takes special pride in the fact that she has added to the genre of children’s books that feature people of color.

“As I came of age I realized that of all the children’s picture books that I loved and had as a child, very few of them had people of color,” she says.

Nicole Tadgell ’91

“We grew up in mostly white neighborhoods and schools, so it was a bit of a challenge to develop a black identity. So it took me a while to get comfortable with that. But I realized I could draw positive images of black kids that didn’t necessarily have to do with race or racism or historical context or anything like that. Like A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. It’s just about a kid enjoying the snow…. When you’re a kid, sometimes you just want to play in the snow. It doesn’t matter what color you are. So I really want to do books like that.”

And she has. For example, Just for You! A Day with Daddy by Nikki Grimes (Scholastic Books, 2004) is about a boy having fun with his dad. No Mush Today by Sally Derby (Lee & Low Books, 2008) addresses a young girl’s resistance to the new baby in the family.

Reviews of books illustrated by Tadgell have described her loose and lively style as luminous. “Using watercolors, Tadgell creates a soft dreamlike world filled with details,” a Kirkus review said of No Mush Today. “The rich illustrations add emotional depth to this engaging story,” noted a review by the Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children.

Her style hasn’t changed much since college, although her medium has—from oil paint to watercolor, which she fell in love with while at Wheaton.

“Watercolor is very hard. It’s like chasing something that you can’t catch,” she says, slightly tossing back her head of soft curls as she laughs. “It does something different every time. It is very unpredictable, and I like that.”

When Tadgell arrived at Wheaton she knew she wanted to do something with art, but there seemed to be few careers in that field at the time. She decided she would minor in education so that she could at least teach art, if she couldn’t sell her work. But when the teacher she was observing in a classroom suggested that she take over one of the lessons, the artist discovered teaching wasn’t right for her.

“I was terrified seeing a roomful of kids looking at me expecting me to tell them what to do,” said the admittedly shy Tadgell. But she excelled in her studio art classes, Professor of Art Tim Cunard notes.

“Nicole was one of the hardest-working students that I have encountered since arriving at Wheaton in ’86,” he said. “She was always open to suggestions—learning—and always clearly planned and crafted her projects. She was and is thoughtful and a very positive person to be around.”

Tadgell enjoyed the challenges that Cunard presented that helped her grow as an artist and person.

“He was very much into things that I wasn’t into. He liked modern art. I didn’t. I think it is because modern art is about making you think and making you uncomfortable and changing your space. My space had been changed so much when I was a child, and it was a constant struggle to feel comfortable. I did not want to be made to feel uncomfortable,” said Tadgell, whose family moved around a lot.

She learned to work through artistic challenges, which has come in handy in both of her careers—especially when her artistic vision doesn’t match the publisher’s, and all involved need to find ways to work through it toward a mutual happily ever after.

The ease of Tadgell’s journey into book illustration sounds like a publishing fairy tale. After joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international group that helps put authors and artists on the right path to getting published, she attended the organization’s conference in 1999 for the first time. An art director from a publishing house critiqued her work and later contacted her about working on her first book.

Almost every year since, she has been working on a book. Some of them take a year to complete—16 works of art on two-page spreads totaling 32 pages.
So how does she balance two careers? She gets up as early as 5 a.m. to work on illustrations, then heads to the full-time graphic design job she has held for 17 years.

For many people getting up that early would seem like torture. For Tadgell, it’s glorious. She loves beginnings—at home and at work.

“I really like concepting, coming up with new ideas—the beginning stage. It’s exciting. It feels like there are endless possibilities, it can go in any direction,” she says. “It’s before you have had any feedback from the client. They haven’t shot it down yet. It’s interesting. I see a parallel with my own artwork because that’s the stage I enjoy most when I’m doing artwork—the beginning. Anything is possible. The book can go in any direction.”

This year, Tadgell was on campus to share her enthusiasm with students. Her talk was part of the Filene Center’s “Major Connections” program in which alums discuss how their majors led to their careers.

The advice she gave them? “Be smart, persevere, don’t give up, do your best—all the time.”

Seems to work for her.

Check out Nicole Lee Tadgell’s blog at