Welcome to our interview series with the Europolitan Mentors! The Europolitan Mentorship program pairs qualified, inspirational mentors with aspiring authors and illustrators, who write in English, to help bring them closer to publication, or to publication at a higher level. Each mentor will select one mentee from all applicants.
This six-month online one-on-one program provides mentees the opportunity to work personally with and learn from a successful professional with teaching experience and a proven track record in children’s literature.
I’ve always drawn. In kindergarten, I traded my pictures of ballerinas for ones of dinosaurs and unicorns done by other ‘specialists’ in my class. My ballerinas, often crusted with glitter, went for a nickel or a dime, for M&Ms or Twinkies. I took all currencies. I just never stopped drawing. All through school, I was lucky to have teachers who were encouraging and parents who supported whatever interests I wanted to follow.
While at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY I began doing posters and flyers for a local children’s theatre. With a portfolio full of children’s imagery, it occurred to me that children’s books would be a logical pursuit. When I started, editors would actually sit down with you and review your portfolio so, even before I did my first book, I began to learn about what they thought made a compelling, successful book for children.
I’d been writing stories but had never shown them to anyone. When I won an illustration award and had written an acceptance speech to give at ALA, my editor read it and asked me to try writing a story. I told her I just ‘happened to have’ about five manuscripts. To my surprise, she wanted to publish two of them. It quickly became clear to me that writing my own stories gave me more control over the imagery I wanted to paint. Working with other authors let me illustrate books about topics they had decided to explore, but writing my own stories took the lid off. I could write about anything. And over time, the writing became as exciting and enjoyable as the art for me.
And since illustrating and writing for yourself and publishing are two different beasts, could you share with us how you first became published and what you’ve learned over the years about publishing?
Tall order. I literally went to see as many publishers as I could, portfolio in hand. Then some of my drawings were featured in a newsletter that went out to publishers and an editor called me in to do a book. Not to ‘show a portfolio’. She had a manuscript she wanted me to illustrate. I had seen someone at that publishing house before. And what I realized was that seeing one editor or art director at a house does not mean you’ve seen the right one. You can have a fabulous cat story and send it to an editor who was mauled by a cat as a child who will NEVER want your cat story. It can be that personal. So that made me aware that seeing one person in a publishing house doesn’t mean that you’ve really covered all the bases.
What role did mentors/critique groups/MFA play in your creative career?
With my first book, I tried to appear knowledgeable when talking to the editor. I didn’t want her to think I didn’t know what I was doing and possibly take the book back. But I was clueless. I knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who used to date Tom Feelings, the illustrator. So I called him up cold and asked if he would show me how books are done. Tom was exceptionally kind. He walked me through all sorts of steps, gave me guidance and encouragement and proved to be a mentor in many ways.
When I wanted to thank him, he told me that I should simply help someone else when they needed guidance. His generosity and insights helped me get started in this business and I’ve always remembered his words.
What excites you most about being a mentor for the SCBWI Europolitan Mentor Program?
I like seeing talented new artists get started. When people are serious about their work, when they clearly have a passion for it, that excitement is contagious. Over years of teaching and conducting workshops, I’ve learned that having to articulate what works or doesn’t work during a critique sharpens our ability to self-analyze. Since this is a communications medium, the message we send through our writing and art is only half the story. How the work is received by the child who picks up our books is the other half. When mentoring, I try to see through the eyes of that child, that reader, that viewer. And when work has the ability to surprise or inform or entertain or…hopefully, all of the above…it’s exciting to try to help it become a book.
What else should potential mentees know about you?
I do have a guideline that I believe in strongly when making books: If you’re not excited about the work, you’re not doing it right.
Thank you, Pat! For more information about Pat and her work, visit her website: http://www.patcummings.com