by Jen Seggio
Acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator, Pat Cummings shared her experiences – and more than a few entertaining stories – about working in different genres.
With a career spanning over forty years, she has written and illustrated board books, chapter books, textbooks, nonfiction, and middle-grade novels. Cummings was born in Chicago but grew up traveling with her military family all over the world. After graduating from Pratt, she went on to do costume design and posters for children’s theater as well as a freelance editorial and advertising illustration.
Her family was a great source of inspiration for her books. Her brother’s antics, in particular, inspired many of her stories. Her younger brother inspired several of her picture books and taught her an important lesson that she shared, “Don’t use your sibling’s real name in a book if you want to avoid legal action.”
Pat branched out into television work as an assistant producer and writer for the first season of Nick Jr.’s preschool show Gullah Gullah Island. Inspired by one of the songs used on the show, she adapted it to illustrate her first board book, My Aunt Came Back.
When her editor, Nina Ignatowitz, encouraged her to illustrate a folktale, Pat looked for one about Ananse, the infamous spider. But story formats vary from culture to culture, and to find one that suited the sensibility of an American picture book, in which tricksters must pay for their mischief by the story’s end, Pat traveled to Ghana to find a wider selection. There, she found the one she retold as Ananse and the Lizard.
Having always wanted to retell a classic fairy tale, Pat teamed up with her husband, Chuku Lee, to reimagine Beauty and the Beast, which he retold from Beauty’s perspective. Then, inspired by imagery from sources as diverse as Jean Cocteau’s black and white film La Belle et la Bête to Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America, Pat created an enchanting fairy-tale world set in a mythical version of a West African kingdom. After showing nearly 30 variations of possible covers for the book, her art director decided the beast was too scary to show. Later, when a librarian noted that a Beast-less cover was more provocative, tempting readers to dive into the story, Pat understood the art director’s marketing instincts.
Talking with Artists, a three-volume non-fiction series came about after a conversation between Pat, her editor, Barbara Lalicki, and author-illustrator, Lois Ehlert about how early children decide they want to be an artist. The series features interviews with over thirty-five celebrated children’s book illustrators discussing their books, their careers, and when they knew they wanted to become artists.
When her editor, Barbara Lalicki moved to National Geographic, Pat and her sister, Linda Cummings Minor, PhD. co-authored Talking with Adventurers, featuring prominent scientists and explorers like Richard Ballard, who found the Titanic, and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.
Her takeaway from the Talking with… books: “Do what you love,” she told the audience, “and you’ll find yourself in the company of other fascinating people following their passion.”
Pat keeps folders of articles and pictures that catch her fancy and suggest story ideas. Her latest book, Trace, was based on two true tragic events that occurred over 150 years apart. Somehow, the story of a car plunging into a river in 2012 and the Draft Riots of 1863 became connected in her imagination and her to write her first middle-grade novel. To her surprise, she told the audience, the internet provided misinformation. Reading that the New York Public Library had been built on the ashes of the Colored Orphan Asylum, burnt to the ground during the riots, Pat began her ghost story. When then children’s librarian Betsy Byrd set her straight, pointing out that the Asylum was located two blocks north of the site, Pat decided that a ghost would hardly want to haunt the Chase Bank on that corner. She kept her ghost haunting the shadowy stacks of the library, leaving the historical ‘facts’ to be detailed in the acknowledgments.
Cummings left the audience with some key points to think about:
- Follow your curiosity and trust your gut instincts.
- This is a communications medium: share your story with others. Writer/illustrator groups provide great feedback and motivation.
- No matter what the genre, become your character and try to listen to their voice, see through their eyes.
- There are so many people who will tell you what you CAN’T do. Don’t be one of them.
Pat in PyeongChang with the Jamaican Bobsled Team 2018
Jen Seggio is a pre-published author and illustrator from Staten Island, New York. You can visit her at www.jenseggio.com