Pat Cummings’ first drawings, she admits, were more like scribbles than anything resembling art. She would spend entire afternoons coloring them, and then her mother would try to guess what they were. A dinosaur? A duck? Or maybe even her Daddy? Although no one could figure them out, that didn’t stop her mother from bragging them up and proudly posting them on the refrigerator door.
An army brat, Pat moved around quite a bit. She was born in Chicago, but grew up in Germany, Japan, and several states here at home. She and her sister were always the “new kids,” but Pat used her art to make new friends, even selling her ballerina drawings to classmates. While living in Germany, she developed a love of fantasy — castles and princesses, and fire-breathing dragons. Fantasy themes remain strong in her stories today.
Pat is a Coretta Scott King Award winner for the books My Mama Needs Me (Text: Mildred Pitts Walter); Just Us Women ((Honor)Text: Jeannette Caines), Storm in the Night ((Honor) Text: Mary Stolz), and she’s received a slew of other recognitions.
In addition to writing and illustrating, Pat co-hosts Cover 2 Cover, a talk show about children’s books and the people who create them. Past episodes have featured Tomie dePaola, Walter Dean Myers, and Brian Selznick. A two part episode with Leo and Diane Dillon is in the works.
So without further ado, here’s my chat with Pat Cummings:
Don: Tell us about your book, Harvey Moon, Museum Boy.
Pat: Harvey Moon, Museum Boy is about a boy who finds his class field trip to a museum to be considerably less boring than he anticipated. After bringing his pet lizard along as company, he finds they are both stuck in the museum after closing time and things get way too lively. Harvey’s adventure not only lands him in the news but takes him all the way to Hollywood….and to a rude awakening about ‘true events’.
What inspired this story. Where did the Harvey Moon character come from?
Pat: I wrote and illustrated a book called Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon about my younger brother. It was something of an expose so I had to change the name to protect the guilty. Over the years since then, I’ve had ideas for other stories about Harvey, loosely based on my brothers exploits. He never, to my knowledge, took a field trip like the one in the latest book. But I had spent time sketching in the Metropolitan Museum and knew that I wanted to use the Samurai soldiers, the knights and the Egyptian figures in a book one day. Museum Boy grew out of that.
Talk about the process of writing and illustrating your children’s books.
Pat: Usually, the stories that I write begin with imagery I want to draw. I loved looking at clouds and wrote C.L.O.U.D.S. so I could paint the skyscapes I envisioned. After seeing carousels in Europe with all sorts of animals on them, I wrote Carousel, a book for which the images actually came before the text.
I write down snippets of stories, opening lines, sometimes just titles and work on them when and if more of a story comes to me. It can be the same with sketches….I’ll have pieces of paper tucked all over the place with images that might turn into something one day. After I have a manuscript I like, I usually work do thumbnail layouts to show to one of my editors. From there, I make a dummy, filling it with enlargements of my thumbnails. Using trace paper, I draw and redraw over the sketches to develop them into comprehensive line drawings. And once I’ve traced the line drawing onto watercolor paper I can finally start painting.
What is your primary medium and can you discuss your illustration process.
Pat: I tend to work in watercolor, gouache and color pencil. But I’ve worked in pastel, oil, acrylic and even tried a little collage. Usually, I paint the entire spread first, lightly blocking out the color. Then I use color pencils to define the edges and establish the light and dark areas. I work back and forth between the watercolor and gouache and pencil depending on whatever medium strikes me as needed at the moment. It takes me forever to finish a spread because I like to build up layers and layers of color. An art director once accused me of using colors that didn’t exist. But I’m not trying to recreate a photograph or stick to absolute reality when it comes to color so mixing them appeals to me.
What inspires you as a writer and illustrator? Are there certain topics/stories you enjoy more than others?
Pat: I’ve always been drawn to fantasy. But my books tend to come out of very real family anecdotes, stories that friends tell me, dreams that I have….or sometimes I simply base them on imagery I want to draw. The wonderful thing about creating children’s books is that almost anything goes. So I might start with a real incident and then let my imagination take me in the direction of what if…?
What were the biggest challenges in writing and illustrating Harvey Moon, Museum Boy?
Pat: With HMMB I wanted to reference the first Harvey Moon book but not be bound by it. Poor Harvey didn’t age much in twenty years. The style I used was similar but, with twenty years between them, I knew I didn’t have to create a sequel in the traditional sense. The biggest challenge visually was trying to incorporate actual artifacts from the Metropolitan but draw them in a style consistent with the book. I tried to reference actual paintings, sculptures, suits of armor and even rooms, but I adapted everything in hopes that the setting might seem to be any museum in any city. My editor came with me on one visit to photograph the armored horses. It was very interesting to have her input on the spot: not THAT horse…the armor has too much detail, it’ll take you forever to draw!
ALA Booklist says that Harvey Moon, Museum Boy will make readers giggle. Share with us your secret to making kids laugh.
Pat: I grew up in a very funny family. I know life can be terribly serious but, to the extent that I can, I want to write and draw stories that elicit a laugh. Some of the things that got my siblings and me in huge trouble when we were growing up turn out to have the potential to make funny stories. A lot of humor for kids is visual. I don’t like slapstick, where characters look like they might get hurt or embarrassed, but I do like humor that grows out of the surprise all children experience when they find they’ve crossed some line of etiquette.
What brought you to write for children?
Pat: After illustrating several books, I realized that no one was going to write a story that went with the exact images I wanted to paint. One day, my editor Barbara Lalicki told me she thought I should try to write my own stories. So I handed her a stack of manuscripts I had been keeping to myself and she chose two.
I’ve been a big fan of yours for a long time. You are truly a children’s literature trailblazer. Have you noticed any changes in the industry since earlier days?
Pat: Thanks for the kind words. And I’ve been a fan of yours ever since I first saw your illustration samples many moons ago.
When I began, the default setting for characters in picture books was white. I came into the business on the heels of others who had really forged a way for African American illustrators. The number of Black writers and illustrators seemed small to me back then. In one way, that was good: they were easy to identify and approach. I sought out Tom Feelings when I got my first book contract and he helped me enormously. His advice and encouragement were invaluable.
Over the years, I’ve seen a change in how the publishing industry considers imagery of people of color in children’s books. When I began in the late seventies, having black characters in your book put it into a kind of boutique category. I’d visit schools where teachers felt comfortable telling me that they didn’t have many of my books because they had no black students. Yet they’d have a copy of Springtime Bears or C.L.O.U.D.S (in which all the characters are blue), although there wasn’t a bear or a blue student in sight.
In the eighties and early nineties, the buzzword became multiculturalism. Cultural authenticity ruled and what had seemed like a relatively small group of African American writers and illustrators suddenly blossomed. Books featuring people of color increased in number although the equivalent percentage of total books produced may not have changed significantly.
One good thing about the business today is that all books featuring people of color aren’t automatically assumed to be about color. There are more genres and a wider range of races represented now. Reviewers, teachers, librarians and parents understand that a book about the first day of school or dealing with a new baby are situations that concern every child and now they’re more likely to focus on the story than on the color of the protagonist. It’s the norm now for stories featuring more than a couple of characters to include one or more children of color. It seems natural and logical in 2009 but when I first started doing picture books, showing diverse groups of children was quite unusual.
Writing comes easy for some. Not so easy for others. What is the most challenging part of writing a book for you?
Pat: It’s all challenging. The beginning, the middle, the end. Finding the right voice, the perfect word or establishing a certain cadence in the text are all challenging. Rhyming is a challenge, editing is a challenge, finding a fitting title is a challenge. Fortunately, writing is immensely satisfying so it’s an enjoyable challenge.
What were some of your favorite books as a child and how did your childhood reading affect your work today?
Pat: I was always drawn to fantasy. My favorites were the CS Lewis books, starting with The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and books like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Entering an alternate reality caught my imagination as a child and never let go.
I grew up in a military family and a chunk of my childhood was spent overseas in Germany and then Okinawa. In Germany, my mother would read to us from a book of fairytales and then we’d take weekend trips along the Rhine valley. Walking through the ruins of old stone castles made the stories of endangered princesses, fire-breathing dragons and heroic princes come to life.
When we lived in Okinawa, my friends and I would explore neighboring villages where we’d run into characters right out of Grimm. There were black-clad old women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and long-bearded old men I was sure were wizards. The front page of the local newspaper often recounted sightings of the Nago ghost who haunted taxi drivers along the main highway (she was very specific). So the line between reality and fantasy was pretty blurry for me. I’ve always been attracted to that blurry line and doing books allows me to indulge in it.
Who are some of your favorite children’s book authors and illustrators today? And why?
Pat: I love the work of Leo & Diane Dillon. They are consummate artists and good friends so I get to see the work up close and in various stages. The variety of styles and techniques in their books is breathtaking. Their color sense, use of patterns and imaginative layouts are inspirational. I think any artist would feel the need to ramp up their game when they see such work.
There are a lot of illustrators whose work I follow and admire and I’ve included many of them in my series Talking with Artists. Lane Smith, Elise Primavera, Kadir Nelson, Chris van Allsburg, Denise Fleming, Anna Rich, Peter Sis, Sheila Hamanaka, Kevin Henkes, John Rocco, Sean Tan, Paul Zelinsky….the list goes on and on. For different reasons, at different times, I study how others handle color or line or perspective. A painting I see by Jerry Pinkney might fire some jet in my brain and make me want to pick up watercolors. When I first met Tom Feelings, he was working on The Middle Passage, his masterpiece. There were only two choice I thought. I could fold up my tent and go home in the face of such exquisite work, or I could try to let beautiful work by others inspire me and challenge me to work harder on my own. I’ve just tried to keep the tent up ever since.
What are you doing when you are not writing and illustrating for children?
Pat: EVERYTHING I do outside of writing and illustrating seems to be about writing and illustrating. I live under a pile of paperwork. Because I teach Children’s Book Illustration at Parsons and Pratt, I have a lot of student work to review and assignments to plan. I speak at conferences, schools and libraries around the country and even overseas, and occasionally hold my own Children’s Book Boot Camp for aspiring writers and illustrators. After my husband, Chuku Lee, turned himself into a producer last year, we sometimes work on a show called Cover to Cover: A Talkshow About Children’s Books and the People Who Create Them that airs periodically on Brooklyn Cable Access Television. Everything seems to be related to children’s books but I do try to make time to read, travel, swim and hang out with friends.
Who are your cheerleaders, those who cheer loudest for you along the way?
Pat: My family members have always been my biggest supporters. My parents raised my sisters and brother and I to believe we could do whatever we put our minds to and that gave me an enormous amount of protection against all of the naysayers I met who said it was impossible to break into the children’s book business. When I wanted to move away from freelance illustrating, which had been lucrative, to focus on doing books, which was financially uncertain, my husband convinced me to think of the transition as an investment in myself. At the time, it seemed a very iffy proposition, so having his strong support really helped me to commit to this career.
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers and illustrators of children’s books.
Pat: Anyone entering this business now needs to be ready. Unique, attractive art and wonderful stories are only the admission tickets. It’s important to understand that this is a business and, aside from blind luck, you need to arm yourself with research and a professional work ethic to enter and flourish in this field. Studying popular, successful books will help you to acquire a sense of what works and why. Take courses, haunt bookstores, polish your work. When you have the best possible portfolio or the best possible manuscript then you’re ready to show your work to a publisher. But researching that publisher would be wise. There’s no need to show up with a retelling of Tom Thumb at a company that just published a recent version of the story. Get catalogues, make lists, target publishers who are doing the types of books you admire. The professionalism you show can make the difference between getting published and getting discouraged.
What can your fans look forward to reading from you in the future?
Pat: I’ve been working on some middle grade stories and really enjoying it. I’m still illustrating, but writing older stories has become very appealing to me. The picture book on my desk is a funny folktale called Ananse and the Monster but I have NO idea when I’ll finish or when it will come out. I am VERY slow. And next on my schedule is a classic fairytale which my husband has translated from the original French and retold….but I’m not telling which one.