What brought you to this career path? Who were your biggest influences as a budding artist?
I began doing posters and flyers for children’s theatre when I was still in college. With a portfolio full of imagery that was directed at children, picture books seemed like the natural direction to take when I left school. My biggest influences in becoming an artist were my parents, who made me believe that whatever I wanted to do was completely accessible and totally my call. Plus, I have been lucky to have had a few teachers along the way who reinforced that belief.
Can you tell us a little about your background and experience in the literary world?
When I started, you could actually make appointments with editors and art directors, sit with them and have them give you feedback on your work. I was VERY fortunate to start my career with some of the best editors and art directors in the business and they helped shape my understanding of what makes a good book. I always followed my editors, so if they moved to another house, I went as well. And although I found there would be one publishing house I considered to be ‘homebase’, I took the advice that Virginia Hamilton gave me once and always tried to have at least three publishers at all times. As a result, I got to meet and even work with many really talented, insightful editors and art directors.
I also met other illustrators and writers, often on the road doing school visits or at conferences, who helped me develop a better understanding of both the business and how to improve my craft.
You’ve got a middle grade novel coming out soon – can you tell us anything about it?
Trace is a story inspired by actual incidents, both historical and recent. It’s about a boy, suddenly transplanted to Brooklyn, who finds himself living with an unconventional aunt…and an unacceptable ghost. It’s due out in April 2019.
You started as an illustrator and eventually came to write, first picture books and now middle grade – how did the transition from illustrator to writer go? Did you write before you started in the children’s book industry, or was it born out of your illustration work?
It actually did grow out of the illustration work. When you want to create picture books, and certain imagery appeals to you, waiting for someone else to write a suitable manuscript just isn’t wise. It occurred to me early on that if I wanted to tell a story visually, I would need to create the narrative as well. So I wrote stories but then, didn’t show them to anyone. Then I won an illustration award and had to write an acceptance speech. When my editor read it, she asked if I had any stories of my own. I handed her some of those unseen stories and that was the beginning. Most of them should probably have been left in a drawer. I had some reallllllly bad manuscripts, one that an editor gingerly pushed back across his desk with the tip of his finger, a pained look on his face. Writing seems like a muscle to me that requires a LOT of working out to develop.
What’s been the most rewarding experience in your career? The most surprising?
One real reward, aside from just getting to DO exactly what I love to do, is receiving letters from children. When I hear from kids who realize that their stories and artwork might be the stuff of a book one day, or who found something funny, or meaningful, or helpful in one of my books, that’s the icing on the cake. And what’s easily most surprising is that, after 40 years of handling everything myself, I’ve been amazed by the wizardry a great agent can work. I realized that moving into middle grade warranted getting an agent who understood that world, but I’ve been floored by the knowledge, oversight, and insight she provides.
You’ve been making children’s books for over 40 years! You must have seen a lot of change in the industry – what was it like weathering those changes?
I’ve always believed that you have to swim in the water the way you find it. I like telling stories and I have never had to change what I wanted to say because of some trend, or politics or societal influences. I’ve been truly lucky. I tend to look for silver linings so, it hasn’t been difficult to find positive aspects of all of the changes that have occurred.
We all have our favorite children’s books, ones that we can read over and over again. I’m an animal nut, so for me, those are books like Animalia, Black Beauty, Watership Down – what books are your favorites and why?
Fantasy. Hands down. I inhaled the entire Narnia series, A Wrinkle in Time, anything with a magical element. And biographies. I loved reading about historical figures caught in the moment that made their stories survive them. Although I did have a moment with the Trixie Belden series that made me want a horse. I can see the appeal of animal books.
Alright, fun question! If you could only draw one thing for the rest of your life, what would that be? (For me it’s unicorns. Definitely unicorns.)
Yikes. That’s a cruel thought. That would be like whatever level of Hell in Dante’s Inferno is for sculptors who can only sculpt perfect statues. But I think I’d go with masks. If this was a psychiatrist’s couch, a direct link to my attraction to fantasy would probably be obvious. There are endless possibilities with masks.
Last but not least, if you could put a book (or books!) in the hands of all the up and coming writers and illustrators in the world for them to read and learn from, what would it be?
Wow. Not fair. So many come to mind that are great examples of what a children’s book can be.
Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa is one. She builds a gentle story about loss and keeps the central secret from the reader till the end. Any reader, any age would be touched by such delicate, deft writing. Another is Orville: A Dog Story written by Haven Kimmel and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. What that book does is to exquisitely capture point of view, even though the protagonist is a dog. It’s a remarkable lesson in voice. And of COURSE, I’d have to recommend my own series, Talking with Artists. There are three volumes in which illustrators like Leo & Diane Dillon, Jerry Pinkney, and Chris Van Allsburg answer questions about their work and talk about how they came to create children’s books.
What a fantastic interview! Thank you, Pat, for sharing your love of writing and illustrating with us. We are looking forward to seeing you in September!