An Evening with Author/Illustrator Pat Cummings

2019 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
It is the first week in October. In Albuquerque, New Mexico that means Balloon Fiesta time. Magical airships fill the skies—600 or so each year—and for almost two weeks the entire city has its head in the clouds. This year during this time, the New Mexico chapter of Society of the Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, SCBWI, enjoyed magical moments of its own with a visit from the incomparable author/illustrator and educator Pat Cummings. Pat is the creator of over thirty books for children, and among other awards, is the recipient of the Horn Book-Boston Globe Award, the Orbis Pictus Award for nonfiction, and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustrators, in 1983 for the illustrations in My Mama Needs Me.

Google Pat’s name and feast your eyes on books that she has illustrated, among them, Angel Baby, Harvey Moon books, Ananse and the Lizard; and her latest, which she wrote and is available now in hardcover and on Kindle, paperback coming out in April, Trace, a story about “a strange apparition of a little, ragged boy[who] leads [the main character, Trace] on a search into the history of the Colored Orphan Asylum fire that took place on the [New York Public Library's] original site, during the Civil War–era draft riots.”

The More You Write, the More You Love It
The above quote is one of the first things Pat told us. Perhaps due to one of the biggest points she made that evening: FEAR STOPS WRITERS. She said, everywhere you go you will hear negative comments about the arts. I took this to mean that these comments go like this: You’ll never make money in the publishing industry. Better find a more substantial career. Are you good enough? It’s too hard to find an agent. Too hard to interest an editor. And so on, and so on.

Pat urged, “Listen to what you’re telling yourself. Your brain is a muscle. Flip the negative.” Here are some of her suggestions to combat these negative forces:
  • Editors have to be in love with your book. Identify those people. How? Keep a list of agents, editors and publishers you have come in contact with at workshops, conferences, retreats; study what they look for, and query them. Remind them where you’d seen or met them and that they said they’d read the work of attendees. Of course, you have to have the goods. Be ready. She stressed that doing this makes a difference.
  • Judgement is important: Illustrators--weed out any illustrations in your portfolio but the best ones. You could be passed over.
  • For all the shy, reserved writers out there, change yourself. Chat someone up. Make yourself into an outgoing person. If you’re having a good time, it will shine through in your work. Also, you need to work on something you’re in love with.
  • Get cards, give cards.
  • Each editor has different tastes. Find one who “gets” you.
  • If you love something, put it in a book. Do your book your own way.
  • Be flexible.
  • Be sure to be in a critique group.
  • When a germ of an idea comes to you, you will get the work done if you simply sit down and work on it. (My two cents: This sounds easy, but it’s amazing what a novel—no pun intended—idea this is!)
  • Get an agent: Pat didn’t have an agent for forty years. Until . . . all five editors turned down one of her books. An agent had been invited to be on a panel at a Highlights Foundation workshop, during one of Pat’s Boot Camp sessions there. Pat asked her to look at her project. She took it and sold it to one of the editors who had rejected her book. Pat says, “It behooves you to shop for an agent.”
  • Above all, remember to stay positive. Your draft isn’t horrible at all if you take it page-by-page.
Apart from being one of the funniest authors I’ve ever heard—Pat's stories never stopped coming and were hilarious—she brought excellent handouts for everyone and gave us a PowerPoint presentation on illustrating and writing gleaned from her experience in publishing. Pat’s wisdom extends far beyond the scope of this article. According to her website, she travels extensively. If she comes to your neighborhood, be sure to go. You will come away smiling, inspired, and ready to give your work your all.
Additional Sources:
Photo courtesy of: Ben Curry @benxcurry

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 150 articles for adults and children, and several short stories for children. She has recently become editor of the New Mexico SCBWI chapter newsletter, and is working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, Great writing tips as usual. It's wonderful that you attend so many SCBWI workshops and share the information with us. I'll keep an eye out on the workshops by me to see if Pat Cummings travels this far east.

Linda Wilson said...

Oh yes, Karen, she appears in many places in NYC! I think she said she lives in Brooklyn. Anyhow, check out her website. Hopefully, she'll be easy to catch for you. It will be worth it. Her stories are hilarious!

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