Professional Series

Genre Jumping: Let Your Story Lead the Way with Pat Cummings

PAt Cummings

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. 

beauty and the beast cover

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.

PyeongChang 2018  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

How to Catch (and Keep) an Art Director’s Attention! With Marikka Tamura

        Portrait of Tamura  ©Daniel Rieley     Photo   by ©Jacob Pritchard

Review by Sharee Miller

Marikka Tamura, Art Director at Penguin Random House, began her presentation by answering a question her mother often asks, “What does an Art Director do anyway?” 

“An Art Director is like an editor for pictures.” answered Tamura. She thinks of illustrators as problem solvers. The problem is how to tell a story in a fresh and engaging way with art that fits or adds to the text. Tamura shared what Art Directors consider when selecting an illustrator for a text. Some things considered are mood of the story, subject matter, and age range. An illustrator portfolio is like a resume that lets the Art Director know you are qualified for the job.

A strong portfolio should show range in technique, subject matter, mood, consistency, body language, engaging characters, and your personal point of view. Illustrators should create work that is meaningful to them, work they are willing to spend time with for at least 32 pages (plus revisions). Tamura urges us to fall in love with our work but not be married to it. Being able to look at your work critically is what separates a novice illustrator from a professional one. 

Tamura referenced illustrators such as Mike Lowery, Tomie DePaola, Ana Aranda, and Brianne Farley as illustrators with a distinct style, point of view, and color sense.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Build a portfolio filled with the type of art you wouldn’t mind working on for years.
  • Make sure your online presence also reflects the work you want to attract.
  • If it doesn’t make sense in your portfolio – get rid of it!
  • Use social media to show your process. Art Directors do look!
  • Show engaging characters that are consistent and have personality.
  • Promotional and/or art sample postcards are always welcome.

-My name is Sharee Miller, author and illustrator of Don’t Touch My Hair and Princess Hair. I am currently working on my third book Michelle’s Garden: How the First Lady Planted Seeds of Change. You can find my work at

Using Psychological Principles to Plot Your Characters

by Brooke McIntyre

Author Jessica Bayliss worked as a psychologist for years before beginning to write in her spare time. As her writing projects grew into novels, she discovered that the same principles she used as a therapist helped her more deeply understand her characters. At the May Professional Series, Bayliss explained the core model she uses as a psychologist, and how writers can use that model to write more believable characters.

Our stories include both an action plot–what is happening in the character’s external world– and an emotional plot–what is happening to the character internally. The Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) model relates the two. In the CBT model, a character has thoughts about their particular situation. Their thoughts generate emotions. Their emotions, in turn, drive behavior.


Spring into Magazine Writing for Children

by Leah Heilman Schanke

In the April 2018 Professional Series presentation, participants learned that writing for magazines is a good way to break into children’s publishing because:

  1. It’s a repeat market – magazines need nonfiction, fiction, recipes, etc. every month.
  2. It’s often overlooked.
  3. It’s more open to new writers – publishers are often not open to unagented and never published talent.


What Writers Need to Know to Survive with Quressa Robinson

by Brooke McIntyre

Literary agent Quressa Robinson emphasized grit and endurance as top skills needed by writers throughout their careers, as she gave the Professional Series lecture for January. Robinson came to agenting after five years as an editor at Macmillan, where she acquired adult fiction titles. Now at Nelson Literary Agency, she represents authors of young adult and adult fiction. Working with writers as both editor and agent has taught Robinson that “publishing is 99 percent rejection.”

Agents’ Panel 2017

The November 2017 Agents Panel, an annual event sponsored jointly by SCBWI-Metro NY and The New School’s creative writing department, featured three literary agents responding to questions about the author-agent relationship.

Panelists Molly O’Neill of Root Literary, Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency, and Brooks Sherman of Janklow & Nesbit discussed how writers can, as Sherman put it, “negotiate their transformation from artist into small-business owner.” The panel was moderated by SCBWI-Metro NY volunteer Adria Quinones.

Nick Bruel: How Did the Dog Find Out?

Nick_Bruel_WPby Judy Shemtob

Nick Bruel, author and illustrator of the Bad Kitty picture book series, advised SCBWI-Westchester attendees to be curious, compassionate, and brave at his Nov. 4th workshop, “The Three Things Necessary to Write a Story.” He treated participants to a Saturday afternoon of creating their own characters, cartoons, and stories as he brought out everyone’s creative self.


Truffles, Tardigrades, Meteorites and Museums: Nonfiction with Jessie Hartland

by Annie Ruygt

Author and illustrator Jessie Hartland, the October speaker in the Metro NY Professional Lecture Series, often writes about icons: Steve Jobs: A Graphic Biography and Bon Appétít: The Delicious Life of Julia Child are two of her recent titles. Her bright, playful illustrations have a following that transcends the normal age bracket for picture books. What people don’t see is the months, sometimes years, of research Hartland pours into each book.


Be the Hero of Your Writing Process with Kendra Levin

by Leah Heilman Schanke

Kendra Levin, Executive Editor at Viking Children’s Books, author of The Hero Is You, and the September speaker in the SCBWI-Metro NY Professional lecture series, shared how writers can use the hero’s journey model to create a “holistic, healthy, creative writing process.” Many writers struggle with process and experience dark moments where they wonder, “Why am I writing this?” Levin said. “Writers need to find ways to work organically and be their best selves.”