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When I was in graduate school at SVA, I was able to choose an advisor during my thesis year. My choice was Pat Cummings. I asked Pat because I had been reading her books and admiring her art since “Just Us Women” appeared on Reading Rainbow in 1984. I went on to fall in love with C.L.O.U.D.S. and fueled my passion for breaking into the field with her “Talking with Artists” series. Not only has Pat been a great role model through her work and life, she has also been an amazing mentor and friend. I sent a few questions her way to host our conversation here on Living the Dream. Initially I hoped to do a video chat and post it to my Youtube channel, so in lieu of that live conversation, I will insert a few footnotes here and there, à la Junot Dìaz. Without further ado, Pat Cummings.
Pat, you have been illustrating books for over 30 years now. My first memory of your work was in the Reading Rainbow Book, Just Us Women. You were one of the only people of color on my radar who made books about children of color that were more whimsical and didn’t solely focus on history. Can you talk to me a bit about how you entered publishing and the motivation behind the books that you have created?
I had been to see a bunch of publishers, not realizing that seeing one editor at a publishing house did not mean you’d really covered the whole house. So it had been hit and miss. There was a newsletter back then (this was the early/mid seventies) published by The Council on Interracial Books for Children. They highlighted an illustrator or photographer on their back page. When they ran my work, an editor at one of the publishing houses I thought I had covered called me and said she had a book for me. I had NO idea how to start but I didn’t want to let on that I was clueless. So I did what seemed reasonable. I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who had once dated Tom Feelings. So I called him up, explained my situation and he took the time to walk me through how he put a book together. He was working on The Middle Passage. It was 1975. That book came out in 1995. He was my hero when it came to deadlines.1 (Be kind, Shadra.)
Has there been any time in your career where you wanted to stop writing and illustrating books? If so, what kept you going?
Nope. There have been times I wanted to stop drawing and just write. But not permanently. I just wanted a change of pace. There are too many stories I’d like to get to so I can’t imagine NOT wanting to tell them.
You work closely with SCBWI, The Highlights Foundation, and The Author’s Guild. How does this work inform your book making?
I was actually someone who was anti-groups when I was in college. It took me a while to realize that others had invented the wheel already. When I had thanked Tom Feelings profusely for helping me, Tom said, ‘Just help someone else when you can.’ I took that to heart. I joined the Graphic Artists Guild and later, SCBWI. I found that anytime I shared something I had learned about the business, I invariably learned more. Every organization I work with, The Authors Guild, SCBWI, The Eric Carle Museum, Highlights, The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation…all of these groups…are immersed in the children’s book business in different ways. So I’ve learned a lot about business, about the craft of making books and I get to constantly see the new work that is coming from puppies like yourself. (Please, Louise puts you about one book away from graduating from Puppy status).
You just published a gorgeous version of “Beauty and the Beast” written by your husband, Chuku Lee. I first met Chuku in C.L.O.U.D.S., how was it working with him as a model to working with him as an author?
Why, thank you ma’am for the kind words. You know how long that book took to finish. Chuku used to be a magazine editor when I met him and he was doing cover interviews with folks like Muhammad Ali and Andrew Young. Aside from being a writer and editor, he had served in the Foreign Service as a junior office in Paris. So, when I found an original French version of Beauty and the Beast I wanted him to translate it and do the retelling. He wrote up the story and sent it in to our editor, Barbara Lalicki at HarperCollins. I warned him that the way it worked in publishing, he would have to crawl across hell over broken glass to get to a final version because editors were very exacting. But Barbara only asked for one minor change and then said, “It’s great.” I think the years of journalism paid off. Writing lean, mean text is the way to go these days and his retelling was elegant and lyrical. He has no idea how unusual his experience was.
As a model, he’s learned to be very patient and accommodating. I’ve had him standing on furniture at 3am so I can get an angled shot. As the author of the book he was a cheerleader and kept me motivated when I thought I’d never finish.2 Because this wasn’t his usual endeavor, he didn’t seem to feel any pressure about seeing the book finished. So he never mentioned that I was taking decades to get it done.
Can you talk a bit about the setting of the book? Why Africa and more specifically, Why Mali culture?
I’ve been fascinated by the Dogon for some time. Their masks and traditional costumes are graphic and richly colored. But, beyond any specific tribe, I’m attracted to the imagery of a host of cultures and West Africa was an ideal inspiration. I remember seeing the opening scene of Coming to America with Eddie Murphy. 3 A mythic African kingdom is depicted, very opulent and very Hollywood and I loved the idea of combining African imagery with a fairy tale theme. When I looked at the architecture of the Dogon, it held elements that I thought would be fitting for a castle where the Prince turned Beast might live. Along with the African inspiration though, I wanted to capture some of the mystery in the Jean Cocteau film version of Beauty and the Beast. I wanted to capture some of the magic in that film, with the watching faces in the architecture and waiting hands that provided whatever Beauty needed.
As a professor, you have mentored many successful illustrators, from David Ezra Stein, to Julian Hector, and myself, to name a few. You also take on a teaching role with SCBWI. How important is the work you do in the classroom? Do you consider teaching as much a part of your legacy as storytelling and being an artist?
You’re a teacher so you must know how satisfying it is to be able to help others bring their stories to fruition. I think some people are genetically encoded to teach others and I recognize that in you. 4 When I told Tom that I would help others, I think I meant it sort of metaphorically. But I found it so satisfying to see projects come together and to see people start their careers that it truly became a large part of what I do now. I LOVE storytelling and I love just about every aspect of this business. So, when I see others who have the same passion for it, it’s pretty easy to encourage and help them connect to publishers. I feel proud of the folks I’ve worked with who have gone on to create wonderful books. But I can only advise. Their successes are all based on their unique talents.
With someone like yourself, and all of you phenoms out of SVA….Taeeun Yoo, Lauren Castillo, Anna Raff, You Byun, Lisa Anchin…the list goes on, I remember having the impression that the future was crystal clear and right around the corner for you. When you start out, the problem with being in the trenches, working like crazy, is that it’s hard to see what’s ahead and it might feel like it could take forever. But to anyone like myself who has been in the business a while, talent glows in the dark. 5 So, I always remember how Tom Feelings helped me and I try to pass that on.
Can you talk a bit about your process? What are some of your favorite tools? What do you love the most about making art for picture books?
Eeeek. My ‘process’ is pretty much a hot mess. I doodle for days. I collect the doodles, compose a slew of layouts, discard half and put together a smorgasbord of images to discuss with my editor. Usually, I feel my way along a dark corridor, downloading images from dreams, things I’ve seen, music, travels….doodling and then, refining the doodles. Eventually, I pick variations, stick them into mini dummies and then blow them up to refine further. I go through about three or four dummies at least. 6 When I have layouts I like, I start final drawings in whatever order appeals. Those final drawings are done by hand but in a photoshop, layer fashion: a hand here, a horse there, a house on yet another piece of trace paper. I assemble all of the scraps on my drawing table where I’ll have drawn an outline of the open book. After I’ve arranged the various elements within that frame, I put a piece of trace paper over everything and make a final ink drawing. That drawing I copy onto Fabriano Artistico hot press paper, the heavy stuff….300 pound I think. I use paper that is forgiving because I tend to abuse it.
With the drawing done in light pencil (usually 3 or 4H), I usually do washes of the background colors or any underpainting first. Then I feel my way along in terms of color. If I’ve put down an olive green, I might feel I need a rust next to it. Even if I’ve done color studies, I tend to just go with my gut once I start painting. It surprises me without fail, that after the book is done I’ll see there was a particular palette specific to the book. Only rarely have I set out with an intentional palette. I use watercolor and gouache pretty interchangeably, go in with color pencil, smooth things out with pastel, hit it with anything that seems called for and then spray the whole thing heavily. I don’t recommend this. What I do know is that I may start a page with every intention of being light and washy and loose and then things get brighter and juicier and tighter and I swear that the next book will be light and loose.7
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign has been a hot topic for a few weeks now. As a maker of diverse books for children and a luminary in the field, what are some of your thoughts on this issue?
The percentages haven’t changed since I’ve been doing books. I came in after a wave that included Tom Feelings and Jerry Pinkney and Walter Dean Myers and Mildred Pitts Walter and others. They were prolific new voices. But back in the day, it seemed like I knew every single illustrator and writer of color and could call them up. The field should not have been that small. Today, there are more creators of color but the percentages of books featuring people of color has apparently diminished despite the wide range of work covering a wide range of topics, being created by a wide range of people of color. The disparity can’t be corrected by people of color. There still exists a mentality that a child will only appreciate a book with someone of his own race on the cover and that is what needs to change.
As a black woman, I think a lot about the lack of black women picture book artists working in our field. Do you have any thoughts on why African American women seemingly aren’t pursuing careers in picturebooks as much as their male counterparts?
We could be at this for days. I have this talk in class every semester. Not just about African American women though…about all women. Here’s my thinking and it is unrefined and preliminary at best: There seem to be a grillion-to-one women-to-men at every children’s book conference and in every class. But the industry is heavily male when it comes to the talent. What I see in class informs my thinking. If you critique a woman she might take your advice, she might reject it. But when challenged or critiqued, some decide it is not working for them, that this may not be the business for them. Men don’t seem to get as easily discouraged. This is a pretty amateur observation based, I think , on one dance I went to in high school where the guys never retreated to a corner or went home if a girl wouldn’t dance. Men seem genetically encoded to pump themselves up and get back in the fray….even if a casual observer would consider them delusional about their gifts. Women need a bit of that chutzpah. What helped me, and the trait I see in the women I know who get published, is a no holds barred passion for the work. I left school with the attitude that this is what I would do. I heard all of the stories about folks who ‘got discovered’. But what I’ve found over time is: male, female, black, white, whatever…you have to throw everything you have at this if you want to do it.8
I could ask many more questions, but I will end with one more. What advice do you have for illustrators working today who are trying to sustain a career as long and successful as yours has been?
It is as huge a cliche as you’ll ever hear: Do what you love. It won’t feel like work. It won’t ever get boring. You won’t ever retire. If, bless you, you one day sell the worldwide film rights to your little picture book and make a grillion dollars, you’ll wake up the next day and still want to tell another story. And it will be fun.
Thank you Pat for all that you do and have done for us puppies!
I certainly would not have made it this far without you and your work.
To see more of Pat Cumming’s work visit her at www.patcummings.com.
You can also find her on facebook.
1. For those of you who want to become book illustrators, a book typically takes six months to a year to illustrate, but as I tell all of my students, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Do your very best work and if that means slowing down a tad to ensure your best work, then by all means, do so. Do be realistic about your working process and let your publisher know well in advance how long it will take you to finish. Tom Feelings’ The Middle Passage is an amazing work of art that transcends the label “picture book” by all accounts. You can see more of his work here. (Fast forward to 31:00 to hear Tom in his own words).
2. I speak to my students often about choosing a partner wisely. Male or female, choosing a partner who respects you and your work is crucial to living a long and artistic life. Being an artist is a long and lonely road for most, and there are times when the going will get tough. You will need people in your life, be it a mate, friend, family member, agent, editor, audience, -heck, even a loyal pet will work, to help build you up and remind you that this is work that needs to be done.
3. YES!!! She’s your queeeeeeen to beeeeee! One of the greatest movies of all time. Eddie Murphy and the Hudlin Brothers made black folk so beautiful in their films.
4. I grew up in a family of educators. My mom was an english teacher before becoming a guidance counselor. I also find it funny that many illustrators and authors that I have met over time were raised by teachers. Oh man, I want to make that a book now.
5. I am so thrilled you saw the talent in me then and helped nurture and support it. I was walking around in the dark back then, reaching for stars that I wouldn’t see. I have students like that now, who are amazing artists and storytellers. I drag many of them into the light, but like you, I can only push so much. At the end of the day, they have to find a way to kick the door in for themselves.
6. Again, marathon, not a sprint.
7. Ha! This is hilarious. There is nothing light and loose about your personality. You are bright and vivid in personality and it shines so clearly in the work that you make. It is stunning work, no matter how you arrived at it. Though, the work you did earlier, was lighter and looser. I bought a copy of My Mama Needs Me a while back and was interested to see how much your work has changed from that book and Just Us Women. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. Your use of color is amazing to me.
8. I have this talk too in all of my classes. I ask my students their thoughts about women in the field, people of color in the field, etc. For African American artists though, I wonder if because there aren’t many historically black universities that offer illustration courses. I am seeing more POC at MICA, where I teach, but the numbers are still pretty low. When I was looking at colleges, I didn’t even consider historically black universities because I didn’t know of any illustrators who were making books that graduated from Howard, Spelman, Florida A&M, etc.. As for women, yes, I see so many more in art school, at SCBWI conferences etc., but I tell my students all the time, they have to stand up and be seen. They have to be persistent, and they have to be super confident. As I said in an interview with Sam Weber earlier this year, “if you don’t know that I’m not awesome, I’m not gon’ tell you I’m not awesome”.Add a Comment
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It’s finally time to resurrect my blog from its long hiatus! I’ve actually missed being on Walking In Public… digging up blog content has always kept me engaged with the publishing/art/design industries, and it motivates me to write and draw regularly. So, I’ll be back on the blog for a long while, with all-new features and updates on my journey to success in the children’s book world!
What have you missed while I’ve been away from the blog? Here are the best things that happened, circa 2011:
1. Illustrated and designed the Little Farmer app.
You may remember that I began a project working on a toddler game app, called Little Farmer, back in May. Well, after months of illustrating, designing and developing, we released it for sale in the iTunes store in October! It has been a really wonderful experience working with a talented developer, Anita Hirth, to create artwork that children can interact with, right there on any iPhone. There’s much more to say about the process of creating an app, and my future in the digital world… but those are subjects for bigger posts!
In the meantime, purchase the app here, or watch the video trailer, above!
2. Joined the Children’s Book Council’s Early Career Committee.
I’ve been attending events for young adults in the publishing industry for awhile, so it was exciting to be asked to represent Penguin Young Readers (and designers everywhere) on the Children’s Book Council’s Early Career Committee. This organization creates opportunities for those in the first 5 years of the children’s book industry to network, learn, and become more involved in their fields… so their mission is right up my alley! Since becoming a part of the team this summer, I’ve had a TON of fun making great friends with 20-somethings in different houses, through planning creative programming. I’m also having a blast designing fliers, making good use of my design time and talents.Add a Comment
The funniest thing I’ve seen in weeks: this Thai CG knock-off of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast – though it should be more aptly titled “Beauty and the Lion King“. For another laugh, check out this poster for their version of The Princess and the Frog.
(Thanks, Clint H.)
Two years ago, at the big Hall H Disney presentation at the San Diego Comic Con – the year Miyazaki was there – John Lasseter presented a clip from the forthcoming Beauty and The Beast 3D conversion. I hadn’t heard about this project, but was strangely intrigued with the idea of 3D conversion of previously flat 2D cartoons. I always loved Disney’s Melody, and Paramount’s Boo Moon and Popeye The Ace of Space are two great examples of what a 3D cartoon can look like if done properly (I am not as impressed with Lantz’ Hypnotic Hick and Warners’ Lumberjack Rabbit). I even enjoyed the 3D aspects of the otherwise awful Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.
I was particularly enthused when Lasseter introduced the clip – but became less so as he discussed the process. Here’s how I recall his introduction, and what I was thinking during it…
Lasseter: “There were 3D cartoons done in the 1950s…”
My Thoughts: “Yes there were. And they looked great – like old Viewmaster slides come to life!”
Lasseter (in a negative way): “…but they were old fashioned and looked like Viewmaster slides…”
My Thoughts: “But… but… that was COOL!”
Lasseter: “Luckily, we figured out a new way to create 3D out of hand drawn cartoons…”
My thoughts: “But… but… it doesn’t need a “new way”. MELODY looked incredible…”
Lasseter: “Instead of flat art, we’ve figured out a way to round the edges…”
My thoughts: “That doesn’t sound good…”
Lasseter: “This isn’t your father’s 3D cartoon…”
My thoughts while watching the clip: “Oh. My. God.”
I don’t have problems watching 3D movies. I don’t get headaches, my eyes don’t tear… but watching this clip gave me a headache and hurt my eyes. Needless to say I was not surprised when the film didn’t open theatrically as originally planned.
Cut to 2011 – and this past week the 3D Beauty and The Beast opened at the El Capitan Theatre sans almost any publicity. I simply had to go see it over the weekend. I was also invited to a screening of the 3D Lion King at the Disney Studio yesterday. Here’s my assessment of how both fare in 3D form.
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Alexandra Flinn, AKA Alex Flinn, has a lot going on in her writing life. Her newest book, A KISS IN TIME, is getting great reviews, and her book BEASTLY is being made into a movie starring Vanessa Hudgens, Alex Pettyfer and Mary Kate Olsen. How cool is that?
I recently read A KISS IN TIME and found that its fascinating premise nestled within the comforting framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale made for a read that kept me intrigued. The premise is: what would happen if Sleeping Beauty was kissed by her true love 300 years later, and that true love turned out to be a teenager from modern-day Florida? How would their two worlds collide? How would it end? After all, according to the fairy tale they’re supposed to marry and live happily ever after. But Jack’s still in high school and not about to be married yet. Now what?
Depends what you mean by “seriously.” I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was five. I wrote plays for the kids in the neighborhood to perform when I was 9 or 10. I started writing a diary and trying to write my novel at 12. I wrote most of a manuscript for a novel (then lost it) at 19. I started writing with a real eye toward publication, researching the market, etc., at 29. My first book was accepted when I was 32.
That is the age I picture myself reading my books.
I love names! It’s one of my favorite parts of writing.
Sometimes, the characters just tell me their names, which is what happened with Jack in A Kiss in Time. Other times, I think about it more. Like with Talia the Sleeping Beauty of A Kiss in Time, I found that Talia was one of the names given to Sleeping Beauty in old stories. She has a whole slew of middle names, which I got from a list of royal names and also, from other names for Sleeping Beauty (Aurora and Rose).
I often consider the meaning of the name. For example, Kyle (the Beast in Beastly) is named Kyle because it means “handsome,” and after he becomes a beast, he changes it to Adrian which means dark. The girl in the story is Linda, which means “pretty.” Kendra, the name of the witch in that story, means magical.
I consider impressions that names give me, and if I know anyone with that name. Charlie Good in my book, Breaking Point, was named Charlie because I knew someone who looked just like him in middle school, and his name was Charlie, and I knew a boy named Alex Good in high school. He used to say his name was spelled, “No E, just plain good,” which I thought was funny. I have a book called Baby Name Personality Survey, which tells me what impressions the name gives other people.
I had a really hard time naming my own kids, so it’s fun to get to name more people.
I can remember REALLY far back, and I remember a lot. I remember standing in my crib, biting the sides, waiting for my mother to come in. But my first vivid memory was from when I was three years old. I remember my mother coming in and telling me we were going to meet the little boy and girl who had moved in next-door. I was wearing a white dress with red polka dots. We went over to their house and sat on their back step. The boy’s name was Peter, and the girl’s name was Wendy (No, I did not make this up after watching Peter Pan), and they were two and five respectively. I never used it in my writing, but I’ve used other stuff.
Not in the night. I usually think up story ideas when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Like, once, I wrote a short story in my head while watching Piglet’s Big Movie with my kids.
Initially, because part of the story wasn’t fleshed out enough for my liking. I wanted to know more about the Beast, or it bothered me that Sleeping Beauty just got plunked down in another century. Now, because kids don’t read fairy tales anymore. They watch the DVD, and if there is no DVD, if Disney hasn’t done it, it’s dead. You have no idea how many emails I get, asking who the bear in Beastly was supposed to be. He’s from Snow White and Rose Red, but none of them have heard of that story. I’m working on a novel now that is all fairy tales that haven’t been done by Disney. Some of them, even I hadn’t heard of until I started researching.
Sleeping Beauty was my favorite as a child. Now, I sort of like adventure stories like The Brave Little Tailor, Lazy Jack, or The Golden Bird, where the hero has to surmount obstacles to gain the hand of the princess.
Nothing. It’s not that I’m so organized (I’m not), or that I don’t have hiding places (I do). That’s just not one of them. And I’m not going to tell you my hiding places because my kids are old enough to go online.
Grey short gown with an embroidered pink kitty-cat on it that says, “It’s all about me-ow.”
Simon. I was a music major in college, and I pretty much agree with everything he says (except when he ridicules the disabled, but I would try to cure him of that).
Well, if they abducted me, they must like my books, right? And they weren’t wearing jammies. In fact, they all looked exactly like Simon Cowell and were wearing black Tee-shirts and jeans.
Um, maybe. Do you want me to? How many other people have you asked to do this?
(Who knows, maybe we’ll have a spate of characters named Shutta soon.)
* Many of Alex Flinn’s books have made the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults lists, as well as Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. They have also received such teen-selected honors as the International Reading Association Young Adult Choices list (Breathing Underwater, Nothing to Lose, and Fade to Black). Flinn’s books seem to appeal to teens who might otherwise prefer not to read, which is the charge of the Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list. Her books have also been nominated for numerous state awards. Breathing Underwater won the Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Award in 2004. Beastly is nominated for the 2009 Lone Star State (Texas) Award. (Wikipedia entry: Alex Flinn.)
(Alex Flinn author Portrait by J.A. Cabrera.)
Image via Wikipedia
Imagine you are taking the whole family along for a day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Once in the park and on Sunset Boulevard, the thrill-seekers in your party wanted to ride either the Rock N’ Roller Coaster or the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, only to be dismayed that they have to sit through the Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage at the Theater of the Stars. You know that they hate that show, thinking it was lame and uncool, but whether your little princess-fanatic nieces or daughters are with you, you think this is pure Disney bliss in its finery. Midway through the piped music-spiked production, after the thrill ride-loving family members have endured the strains of “Belle” and the infectious “Be Our Guest,” something goes horribly wrong as Belle and Adam, in his Beast form, duet in “Something There” - Adam’s pants sags as he roams across the stage and embarrassingly pulls it up as Belle sings the bridge of the Alan Menken song, and he keeps this up until the end of the number. You and your family, even your coaster-lovers who hate the show, laugh and find it so funny.
That predicted moment came true, thanks to a submitter on the famous FailBlog.org, notable and notorious for an obscene inflatable slide and that moment when Victoria Kirkorov scared her son, the Bulgarian-Russian pop stud-muffin Philipp Bedrovich, on stage during “1000 Years.” What is Adam thinking - is he obscenely paying tribute to the late, great Michael Jackson? Do the four theme parks at Walt Disney World enforce a dress code pertaining to sagging pants, a pet peeve most of us modesty-loving conservatives love to hate? I don’t know, but the Beast is trying to hide, er, his “beast” in the show. Besides, the show won’t be just as memorable if the Beast version of Adam uses a belt to keep his tattered blue trousers up. The wardrobe malfunction, milder than that of Janet Jackson’s over 5 years ago, must’ve been a way to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman described the Disney’s Hollywood Studios show based on the 1991 film as a “tale as old as time,” but the incident that made it on FailBlog.org was - indeed - “something there that wasn’t there before.”Add a Comment