Gladys Jose ’12 was as surprised as anyone when she was chosen to illustrate the recently-released children’s book inspired by actor Will Smith’s Fresh Prince character.
“Whenever I’m asked how this Fresh Princess thing happened, it’s just, the stars aligned in such a way,” Jose says. “It’s an anomaly. I know this isn’t normal!”
Growing up an only child with a single mom, Jose learned two things early on in her life: how to be independent and how to fill her time doing something she loved — drawing.
Though, yes, this story ends with her being the illustrator for a hit book, she didn’t necessarily think of her childhood hobby as a career possibility. Early in her collegiate life at Valencia College, she selected psychology as a major. It wasn’t until her then-boyfriend-now-husband suggested a design class as a fun elective that she started considering switching majors.
“I sat in the classroom and realized that Design 1 class was a lot more fun than anything else I was taking,” Jose says.
“We need more diverse books and books with kids of color that aren’t just telling the story of African-American history, but stories that are about just normal kids today.” — Gladys Jose ’12
A month prior to graduation, at a portfolio critique with local design-industry professionals, Jose was confident that she’d show off her portfolio and get a job offer. She had a feeling it was her moment.
She scheduled four sit-downs with design firms and decided to slide author/illustrator Ethan Long into her extra spot near the end of the day. Even though she only had two illustrations as part of her design portfolio — which mostly contained her specialty, ads and logo designs — his response to her work convinced her she needed to change course.
“He looks at my portfolio and he’s just kind of like ‘meh’ at it, until he got to the last illustrations and was like, ‘This! This is what you need to be doing! Why don’t you have more of this in here?’” she says.
When she got home that day she Googled “how to be an illustrator.”
In her research, Jose came across the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The international organization offers conferences and portfolio critiques for aspiring illustrators.
At a society event in February 2015, Jose met with The CAT Agency, which is based in Connecticut and represents children’s book illustrators, and was told that her portfolio was ready and that it was clear she understood who she was as an artist but the agency wasn’t ready to sign her just yet.
Over the next three years, Jose continued to do freelance design work with Scholastic Book Fairs in Lake Mary as she tried to get signed to an agency. It tested her resolve, and there was even a three-month period where she stopped drawing, but she never gave up hope.
“I kept getting the feedback that my work was amazing, and they loved it, but they weren’t taking new people,” she says. “It felt like a big wall.”
In January 2018, she had her big breakthrough. She reached out to The CAT Agency once again, explaining that she had been working on her portfolio and attached a manuscript of a book she’d illustrated. Jose signed the email, “I’m still holding on to hope that someday there will be a spot for me.”
The reply was an offer of representation and a contract to sign. The agency blasted their contacts with the news they had new talent. An editor from HarperCollins Children’s Books reached out to ask if Jose had any samples of little girls with flair.
She quickly came up with 10 different girls with 10 completely different looks. There was silence for months.
Last June, word finally came back that she got the project and would need to sign a non-disclosure agreement — because Smith was involved and she’d be illustrating characters inspired by his character on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
“It was like I didn’t have knees anymore, because I just fell to the floor,” Jose says. “It’s like that Will Smith clip that’s a gif. It’s not that stuff like this doesn’t happen to people like me, but I never thought that something like this could happen to me specifically.”
The book, which was written by Denene Millner and was released in April of this year (and can be found on Amazon), centers around a girl with flair named Destiny. Her life gets flipped-turned upside down when her family moves to West Philadelphia.
For Jose, it’s not just the excitement of being hired to do such a big project with such a celebrity, but that Fresh Princess offers the diversity in characters she looked for when she was a child.
“This isn’t just life-changing for me,” Jose says. “We need more diverse books and books with kids of color that aren’t just telling the story of African-American history, but stories that are about just normal kids today. I would look for books with girls who looked like me, but I couldn’t [find any]. So being a part of a project that has a little brown girl, and knowing my daughter gets to grow up with this — Will Smith is just kind of the cherry on the cake.”