Ever wonder what it’s like to be a children’s book author and illustrator? Or maybe you’re more interested in the editorial side of children’s book publishing? Either way, we’ve got you covered, because we’re kicking off Children’s Book Week with an interview with Lucy Ruth Cummins, children’s book illustrator, art director, and author of A Hungry Lion, or A Dwindling Assortment of Animals. Here Cummins gives us an insider’s view of both her process of writing and illustrating books for children and what it’s like to work with other authors on their books.
Bookish: Not only are you the art director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and Paula Wiseman books, you’re also an author and illustrator yourself. What has the experience of bringing your own books into the world taught you about working with authors?
Lucy Ruth Cummins: The most illuminating thing about publishing my own book was finding out just how much effort is in the hands of the author or illustrator when it comes to promoting a book. That’s everything from doing story times, doing interviews, communicating with readers on Twitter, etc. Basically I’ve discovered through publishing my own book, that the book is being sold every day for as long as you’re willing to put your shoulder into it, that it doesn’t just release and that’s that.
When I’m working on someone else’s project as an art director, my efforts are focused on getting the tightest, most appealing book ready for that first on sale day and then it’s sort of out of my hands. (Although I do find myself hand-selling books that I have loved, and reshelving to eye-level the titles I’ve worked on that I cherish!) So I have a huge amount of respect for that hustle that happens after publication that I sort of hadn’t been privy to before I made my own book.
And on the flip side, being an art director who writes and illustrates my own book means that my process and my expectations are pretty highly tuned in to what I know is possible from a production standpoint—I know what the good paper is, I know to a degree what amount of flexibility there probably is in a schedule, and I know what’s on shelves and what’s not yet, from firsthand experience. But this can also be stifling—it’s clear to me how much good work is out there, and so it will always require a bit of a personal pep talk to stave off the imposter syndrome which could be inevitable given all the beautiful, smart books that are out there.
Bookish: Your career in the children’s book industry must have a fascinating impact on how you raise your son. Which books do you frequently read to him? Which books did you want to make sure he had in his personal library?
LRC: The biggest shocker to me was to find out what actually “works” for a young reader (or listener, in his case, as an 18-month old). So I had a shelf full of expectations all set up before he was born, all my favorite picture books that I coveted and enjoyed as an adult reader of picture books… and those books didn’t really land. And it’s not necessarily about length of text, either—he’ll sit through a relative long story like Corduroy with rapt attention.
The things that never really grabbed me as an adult reader of picture books, like a rhyming text, work exquisitely well for him—he loves the song-like quality and the rhythm of the words. So the difference to me now is that I’m picking up books that I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up before, and to great success from his perspective. I have to hang up my sensitive art snob hat for a little bit (although he likes some snobby ones).
A few of his favorite books right now (and this seems to change month to month) are We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury; Some Bugs by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel; It’s Only Stanley written and illustrated by Jon Agee; and Elmo Loves You by Sarah Albee and illustrated by Maggie Swanson (which has a really fun rhyming text). Those are all vastly different in length and format, but they all get the same response—we finish, and he wants to page back to the beginning and go again. A fun thing with Bear Hunt is that it seems to be the first “thriller” he has in book form, so the excitement and fear builds and then drains in a way he seems to enjoy.
The books I look forward to aging up to that are shelved and ready are Martha Speaks, by Susan Meddaugh; the Frances series, by Russell and Lillian Hoban; and The Lizard in the Park written and illustrated by Mark Pett, which is a favorite of mine that I had the pleasure of art directing.
Bookish: Which books (illustrated or not) from your own childhood shaped you into the art director and the author/illustrator you are today?
LRC: I’d say that the most shaping picture books for me, taste-wise, humor-wise, aesthetic-wise, would definitely be the Frances titles. The character of Frances, this little badger girl, was so believable in the range of her emotions and needs—she had a warmth but also a selfishness that she had to overcome from time to time that always felt very real to me as a child. And that coupled with the distinctive look of the sweet pencil drawings. I’m always thinking about how that pairing worked so perfectly.
I grew up on the Madeline books, too, and I think the aesthetics and freedom of those drawings is always sort of hanging out in the back of my head, influencing how I make my own work—I love that frenetic line and that joyful looseness. And Madeline herself is such a great character at the heart of it all.
Bookish: There’s an underlying sweetness to your own illustrations that reveals a very tender heart. Do you recall when you found your vision as an artist? Did you have a muse?
LRC: This will sound so silly but my doodling kicked into high gear when my husband and I got our first dog, Peanut. I had been a lifelong drawer, and studied illustration in college, but when we got Peanut—I had my muse. He was an adorable fat pomeranian dog, with a constant smile and sparkly little black eyes and I found I couldn’t help but draw him constantly. And as I distilled his essence down into drawings that got freer and cuter, I cut lines here and there, loosened up, and started bringing that eye to other subjects. So I thank him greatly for being such a silly inspiration for all the years he was with us (he passed away in 2013).
Bookish: Tell us about art direction, particularly in terms of children’s books. How does the process start for you? Do you work closely with the author?
LRC: Editors at a publishing house share the manuscripts they’re considering for acquisition with the whole design staff every other week, and we comment and talk about our interest in a text, thoughts about direction for illustration at that time. Then it’s up to the editor to get publisher approval to buy the book.
When the text is acquired, the editor usually has some sort of vision for the look of the artwork, but sometimes they’re wide open. It’s up to the art director to make a few informed suggestions at that stage about who might best tackle the illustrations, so I usually present between one and three options of artists I think are suited to the task. We’d usually loop the author in with our selection to make sure it suits their vision, too. From that point on, I’m the point man for all things art.
Art direction with regard to picture books is a bit more empowered editorially than it would be in other formats. We don’t hesitate to make thoughtful suggestions about text changes, or page breaks in text, if we think it will enhance the readability of the book. But those suggestions and thoughts always come through the editor to the author if they see them as worthwhile—I’m rarely in touch with the authors directly.
Bookish: What is your favorite part of art direction?
LRC: My absolute favorite part of art direction is honing the sketches—I like working in a nice volley with an illustrator to really tighten into the best rhythm for the pages, and the best solutions for the imagery and storytelling. Sketches are where everything just starts to hum, and it’s where I feel I can be the most helpful and bring my insight from previous projects to bear to make the best book I’ll have worked on to date. It really does feel cumulative!
Bookish: And your least favorite?
LRC: My least favorite part about art direction is hounding people for work. It’s a creative job, and so I’m aware that the spark to make the work is either there or it isn’t, but on some projects, I can spend months absolutely pleading with someone to finish illustrations, and patting their backs constantly and reassuring them to get them to complete the work. Those can be some of the most beautiful books you’ll ever see, but the process will be fresh in my mind every time I see the book, and it’s sort of like knowing how the sausage got made in a way.
Bookish: What is exciting to you in terms of art direction and illustration right now? Is there anything in terms of technology or new themes you are noticing?
LRC: I’m going to be the millionth person to say so, but it really does feel like a second golden age of picture book storytelling right now. The books available right now are some of the sharpest, most gorgeous, most exciting things I’ve ever laid eyes on. It’s exhilarating!
It’s funny—questions about technology in regards to book-making feels like an easy lead up to answer about digital editions of picture books, but to me, how technology is positively factoring for us is very different. To me, it’s about how we’ve completely removed all the barriers to discovering new talent in storytelling and picture making, that the internet has shrunk the world down into a manageable size that means the talented people I’ll discover and work with could be absolutely anywhere in the country or the world. (Not to mention we’ve found digital picture books to be really inessential—parents and kids don’t seem to want that format.)
Bookish: What projects are you currently working on personally and professionally?
LRC: I have one of the coolest lists of picture books and young adult titles now that I’ve had in a while, so day to day, I’m working on a lot of really fun exciting stuff. The only frustrating thing about publishing, however, is the long lead times—most of the books I’m slobbering over now won’t be out for another year. But I will tell you that one due out in spring 2018 is from a fantastically talented author-illustrator and it features a vegetable butt.
I just finished illustrating This is Not a Valentine, written by Carter Higgins, which is due out from Chronicle Books this coming winter, in time for Valentine’s Day 2018. The text is so fun and it was really neat to be able to use my art to illuminate someone else’s words.
And from my own pen (and brush markers) I’ve just finished a writing and sketching a new picture book dummy about a forlorn, unlovable pumpkin.
Lucy Ruth Cummins is a writer and an illustrator and also a full time art director of children’s books. She loves watching television, reading really long books about US Presidents, and Pomeranian dogs. She was born in Canada, raised in upstate New York, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her favorite food is the french fry.