Ever wonder what inspired the character names in Bill Watterson’s iconic cartoon strip Calvin and Hobbes? The answer is philosophy.
Watterson knew that while philosophy might not be for everyone, studying it can develop one’s ability to ask meaningful and sometimes hard questions about life. And that, he believed, WAS for everyone. He called this discerning ability ‘the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools’ and encouraged hundreds of graduating seniors to give it a try during a commencement speech in 1990 at Kenyon College. It’s a great pep talk. You might want to squirrel it away for the next time you feel low, or beaten by rejections, or just like giving up on your art. Not that any of us ever feel that way…
For Watterson, it took some tough questions, years of rejections, and hard decisions about life before he found Calvin and Hobbes—who, by the way, were named after philosophers John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes. Now that’s a thing you know. 😉
For the full speech see the hotlink above. For highlights and excerpts, read this blog post from Better Humans by Charles Chu. Enjoy!
After finishing my first young adult manuscript, like many writers, I set out to see it published. At that time, I hadn’t yet made the wise decision to join SCBWI—I didn’t even know other writers! But I’d always been goal oriented, so I started by making a list of goals for my writing career. I soon realized the only way to accomplish those lofty goals was with a literary agent on my side. The first time I fired off a query letter, I was full of hope, so sure the agent would connect with the work, offer me representation, and sell my book in a career-making deal. I know I’m not alone in beginning the query process with those feelings, and I’m also not alone in the disappointment that followed.
By my third novel, I was discouraged but still hopeful, and a few months into querying that book, I received that exciting I’d-like-to-schedule-a-phone-call email. I was literally jumping up and down, and for a long time, I regarded the day I signed with my agent as the happiest day of my writing career. Even though that agent sold one of my books, it soon became obvious that our union wasn’t working.
Writers love to discuss signing with agents, but what they don’t often talk about is when that relationship isn’t working, when that agent you’ve signed with isn’t the agent for you. In reality, most writers have more than one agent over the course of their career, and that means many of us go through the disheartening experience of saying goodbye to an agent. As I’ve watched my friends go down this road, I’ve seen many of them consider compromising their goals. There’s nothing wrong with publishing without an agent, but in my case, I had promised myself I would stick to my original plan.
In September of 2015, I jumped back into the query trenches and did a lot more research on who would be a great match for me. This time, I selected only ten agents. A couple weeks later, I had an offer of representation from a fabulous agent. At this point, I hadn’t heard back from the other agents, so I emailed everyone to let them know I had an offer. My next offer came from Melissa Sarver White at Folio Literary Management. While she wanted the most extensive revisions, her ideas strongly resonated with me and my vision for the book; I knew she was the agent for me. A few months later, Melissa sold my contemporary YA, A Map for Lost Girls, in a fabulous two-book deal she negotiated with Dial/Penguin. By staying true to my plan, and by acknowledging the fact that my first agent and I were not a good match, I’d met many of my goals. Now I couldn’t be more excited to bring A Map for Lost Girls into the world with Melissa by my side.
Jessica is also the author of Wandering Wild (Sky Pony Press).
Sixteen-year-old Tal is a Wanderer—a grifter whose life is built around the sound of wheels on the road, the customs of her camp, and the artful scams that keep her fed. Then in a sleepy Southern town, the queen of cons meets Spencer Sway—the clean-cut Socially Secured boy who ends up hustling her instead of the other way around. As her obligations to the camp begin to feel like a prison sentence, the pull to leave tradition behind has never been so strong. But the Wanderers live by signs, and all signs say that Tal and Spencer will end in heartache and disaster. Is a chance at freedom worth almost certain destruction?
Jessica adores sleepy southern settings, unrequited love, and characters who sneak out late at night. After graduating from law school, she realized she’d rather write her own stories than read dusty law books. She lives in Northern California with a sweet-yet-spoiled dog and several teetering towers of books. Visit her online at jessicataylorwrites.com or on Twitter @JessicaTaylorYA.
If youhave an agent and would like to share how all that wonderfulness happened, please send your story (300-600 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I got my agent because she got me. This sounds incredibly simple and easy yet, as many of you have experienced, finding an agent is anything but. You should also know everyone’s Agent Quest is different. But here, in a nutshell, is mine: SCBWI.
The longer version:
Step 1: My first picture book, GOLDIE LOCKS HAS CHICKEN POX (Atheneum/S & S), was a slush pile success story. After my second book, LITTLE BO PEEP CAN’T GET TO SLEEP was acquired, I asked my editor, the fabulous Caitlyn Dlouhy, for some agent recommendations. List in hand, I researched each one, certain my publishing success would soon be skyrocketing.
The good news: I had two published picture books and a list of magazine articles on my resume.
One problem: Each of the agents concentrated on a specific genre, while my project ideas and manuscripts ranged from board books to YA.
Step 2: Several very sage #kidlit articles—though their advice varied—agreed on one thing: Finding an agent is like a marriage. While this is absolutely true and key to your Agent Quest, unlike dating, there’s no gym/social group/singles bar where all the hot agents hang out. Except for SCBWI events. Upcoming conferences in my area featured a few stellar agents on their faculty, but I wanted more options. And I wanted an agent NOW. In retrospect, it was almost like my #kidlit clock was ticking—definitely NOT a great way to approach marriage or your Agent Quest, by the way. So I took a different plunge, attending the annual SCBWI Winter Conference in NYC.
The good news: I could scout an entire panel of agents (Think The Dating Game.) and find my perfect match.
One problem: Although said agents were knowledgeable and highly successful, the more they talked about their clients and their wish-lists, I knew they weren’t for me.
Step 3: I rebounded. I mean, who needs an agent anyway? I’d heard about authors who were published after they’d submitted manuscripts for SCBWI conference critiques. I followed suit at several regional conferences—submitting directly to editors and eager for that magic book deal.
The good news: I got some extremely helpful feedback and my manuscripts truly improved.
One Problem: No magic book deals.
Step 4: Maybe I’d paid enough Agent Quest dues, or maybe I’d gotten over the off-putting I-NEED-AN-AGENT-NOW pheromones, but I relaxed. I wrote wherever there was an opportunity—books for reading companies, work for hire. I joined a critique group. I focused on making my NEXT manuscripts the absolute BEST they could be—instead of assuming someone would want me because of past successes.
The good news: Conferences were fun. I learned from editors and agents and fellow SCBWI members and enjoyed the journey. My writing improved.
Even better: At an SCBWI SF/South’s Golden Gate Conference in Asilomar, I met Deborah Warren of East/West Literary Agency and we hit it off. She reps everything from board books to YA, including manuscripts in rhyme. She GOT me.
Step 5: I signed with East/West Lit. We submitted my best manuscripts. Huzzah!
One problem: In the decade of downsizing at publishing houses, editors were saddled with manuscripts left by editors who were let go, leaving no time nor room for new acquisitions.
The good news: Deborah continued to believe in my work and I in her, like a marriage, in good times and not-so-good. I volunteered with SCBWI; kept busy with author visits and writing. DECK THE WALLS was published.
Even better: I have FIVE new picture books under contract COMING SOON!
ERIN DEALEY (@ErinDealey—Twitter~Instagram~Pinterest) writes in many genres, from board books to YA, including DECK THE WALLS (Sleeping Bear Press) a kids’-eye view of the holidays. Among her five forthcoming picture books are BABIES COME FROM AIRPORTS (Kane Miller/ 2017), and PETER EASTER FROG (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/ Atheneum, 2018). Her first picture books with Atheneum, GOLDIE LOCKS HAS CHICKEN POX, and LITTLE BO PEEP CAN’T GET TO SLEEP have taken her to school visits as far south as Brazil and as far north as Tok, Alaska. Dealey is an experienced K-12 Language Arts/ theater teacher, actor, former Co-RA of CA North/Central, frequent conference presenter, 12×12 faculty, and the social media/ PR Coordinator for East West Literary. She lives in northern California and lasted one full day as an employee at a Pineapple Factory in Hawaii. If you’re still reading this bio (thanks!), check out her FB page WRITE NOW! An Occasional Day in the life of author Erin Dealey and her youtube Writer’s Rap at Writers – Erin Dealey
If youhave an agent and would like to share how all that wonderfulness happened, please send your story (300-600 words) to email@example.com.
More congratulations are in order for author, member, 2016 nonfiction Golden Kite winner, and Young People’s Poet Laureate for the Poetry Foundation Margarita Engle for her latest books: Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics, illustrated by Rafael López and published with a simultaneous Spanish edition by Godwin Books, an imprint of Holt/Macmillan (3/17/17), and Morning Star Horse, published with simultaneous bilingual and Spanish editions by HBE Publishing (1/30/17).
Way to go, Margarita!
Bravo is a collection of biographical poems about Latinos—both famous and forgotten—who accomplished amazing things in many fields.
Morning Star Horse is historical magic realism about the Raja Yoga Cuban Kids, Spanish-American war orphans who were sent to an unusual school in San Diego.
Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Her other books have received multiple Pura Belpré, Américas, and Jane Addams Awards and Honors, as well as a Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and International Reading Association Award. Her most recent picture book, Drum Dream Girl, received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.
Margarita’s newest historical verse novel is Lion Island, Cuba’s Warrior of Words. Margarita lives in central California, where she enjoys helping her husband train his wilderness search and rescue dog. Visit her at margaritaengle.com.
Some of you may remember Scholastic senior editor Matt Ringler as one of the great faculty members from the 2016 summer conference in LA. Recently, SCBWI caught up with Matt for an Insight Exclusive. In case you missed the interview, here it is!
Matt Ringler is a senior editor at Scholastic specializing in chapter book, middle grade, and
YA fiction. He is the editor of the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine, the Game Changers series by Mike Lupica, the STAT series by Amar’e Stoudemire, and the Little Rhino series by Ryan Howard. His YA list includes the New York Times Bestseller Kill the Boy Band by Goldy Moldavsky and It’s Not Me, It’s You by Stephanie Kate Strohm.
What elements does a manuscript need to get your attention and make you want to acquire it?
I want a manuscript to make me feel everything. If it’s funny, I want to laugh so loudly that people stare at me. If it’s heartbreaking, I want to have tears coming down my cheeks. I want to be turning pages tensely while my knuckles turn white. I want to miss my subway stop. I want to come home and not turn on the television because I need to know how the book ends. And I want the face of at least one other person who I know would love this experience to pop into my head without having to think about it all.
How do you know something is right for a series?
Most of the series that I’ve worked on have come in as multiple books from the get-go. But once in a while, you get to take a standalone and make it into a series. If a story does its job properly then you care about the characters even after the story ends. Because you should want to know what happens next (or in the case of prequels, what happened before). Giving readers more of a world they already love—that’s how you know you something is right for a series.
What is the acquisitions process at Scholastic?
The Acquisitions process is one of the most exciting parts of this job. A manuscript comes in and you love it—and you really do need to love it because you’re about to dedicate a large portion of your time and energy on doing this. The manuscript is shared with the acquisitions team, which is made up of other departments like sales, marketing, publicity, manufacturing, the publishers, and other editors. And hopefully, everyone agrees that they want to move ahead. You don’t always get every manuscript you want, there is sometimes disappointment. But when you do, it makes it all worthwhile.
Between the time you acquire a book or series and the pub date, what is your role with your authors?
Hopefully, if an author is choosing you as their editor then they have some level of trust for you already there. But it is important for that relationship to continue to grow. In my opinion, that’s the most important part of the editorial process. Trusting each other, and being able to have open and honest conversations about what is and isn’t working. The process of editing the manuscript and putting together a publishing plan all falls into place once that relationship is solidified. There are a lot of moving pieces that have to come together before anything is printed. Cover and interior design. The marketing and publicity plans. Sales materials. Putting a book out into the world is an exciting experience. It can also be nerve wracking and intimidating—sometimes all at once. So making sure my authors feels comfortable and have the tools that they need to succeed are a major part of it. Also, phone calls. Lots and lots of phone calls.
WOW. Just wow. Member and multiple award-winning author Margarita Engle has been offered the position of national Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. Spoiler alert: she accepted.
The title, and its $25,000 prize, is given biennially in recognition of outstanding poetry for young children. In an interview after her win, Engle recently told Publisher’s Weekly, “I want to choose the theme of peace, or paz. It’s a bilingual theme, and maybe if I can draw in other poets it will become multilingual.”
Despite her new responsibilities and added work, Margarita agreed to share a bit about her journey and her love of poetry. Thanks again, and congratulations from the region!
Poetry is an Adventure
No one can prepare to become the national Young People’s Poet Laureate. There is no career map, alchemist’s recipe or scientific formula. One morning I was living in solitude, simply enjoying the process of writing. By afternoon, I had received a dreamlike phone call, and nothing seemed real anymore. The impossible had become possible through some mysterious pathway beyond my understanding or control. I was offered an honor, but it is also an opportunity, and in a certain sense, a responsibility. Now I need to figure out how to carry gifts of poetry to places where authors don’t usually go—children who live at the end of a rural road, and city teens whose schools can’t afford an honorarium.
I started writing poetry as a small child whose life alternated between urban northeast Los Angeles and a farm at the end of a muddy dirt road in a remote corner of Cuba. As an adult, I studied agronomy and botany, then changed directions after taking a creative writing seminar from Tomás Rivera. At first, I was dizzy with joy every time one of my haiku was accepted by an obscure literary journal, or one of my opinion columns was published by Hispanic Link News Service. When I wrote novels for grownups, one reviewer accused my fiction of being too poetic. It was intended as criticism, but it felt like praise. Writing is an adventure. I needed to explore. I returned to my poetic roots, eventually discovering young adult verse novels.
After writing The Poet Slave of Cuba, I never returned to prose. In fact, at this point in my life, I only veer away from poetry when I’m asked to do a guest blog or interview, and even then, I find myself wishing I could answer prose questions in verse.
Why? Because poetry makes me happy. I could say that I choose verse in order to offer a welcoming expanse of white space to reluctant readers, and that would be true. I could add the fact that verse novels allow me to distill complex historical situations down to their emotional essence, and that would also be true. Some people might want to know about various awards, a Newbery Honor, multiple Pura Belpré Medals, Américas Awards, a Golden Kite, the Charlotte Zolotow Medal. Yes, it’s true, all those highlights of my writing life were received by verse novels, a verse memoir, and a poetic picture book, and as much as I treasure them, they are not my reason for devoting my life to poetry. I choose verse because no matter how much rage and resistance is encompassed by my stories of social justice, I feel peaceful whenever I have
a chance to communicate with young readers in rhythmic language, trying to offer them the beauty and hope they deserve, because they are adventurers, eager to explore.
Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award recipient. Her verse memoir, Enchanted Air, received the Pura Belpré Award, Golden Kite Award, Walter Dean Myers Honor, and Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award, among others. Drum Dream Girl received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text.
Margarita was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives. She lives in central California with her husband, and continues to visit Cuba as often as she can. Her newest verse novel about the island is Forest World. Visit Margarita at her website.
Sitting by the phone, my nerves running wild, I double check the prepared list. I’ve checked it at least a hundred times. Maybe not a hundred but it feels that way.
Make sure dogs are in another room (no barking)—check
Glass of water in case throat goes dry—check
Notepad and pencil—check
Ask family not to interrupt—check
The phone rings and my heart does a flip.
Now, let me back up a bit. When I first started to explore writing for children, I didn’t even know I needed an agent. Thankfully, I followed the advice of my children and got on the computer. I typed “writing for children” in the search bar. Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators came up. Sometimes it pays to listen to your children. An SCBWI conference was being held not too far from where I lived. I admit I was kind of scared to go, but my desire to be a children’s book author was stronger. Conference registration in hand, off I went.
At the conference there were so many people wanting to write for children, writing for children, illustrating for children, publishing books for children, and agents representing children’s book authors and Illustrators. Besides being a mother, my profession as owner/operator of a Child Care Facility carried with it a great love for children. These people loved children, too. I was right at home. However, was I good enough? After all there were so many good authors already. Self-doubt tried to sneak in.
I signed up for critiques, attended more conferences and workshops. Getting to know and appreciate the creativeness and willingness of SCBWI members to help newbies (like me) was a wonderful experience.
It was at one such conference that I met Suzy Williams, the RA for Reno, NV. There were no critique groups in my area, so she steered me to local author Linda Joy Singleton, who in turn introduced me to Danna Smith. They became my critique group plus so much more. By then I had learned the etiquette of looking for an agent from a conference speaker.
Be polite and do your research.
Don’t take it personally when rejected.
Don’t post angry feelings on social media about the agent who rejected you.
Don’t ask your friends to recommend you to their agent.
I learned to take rejection as a learning experience and not a career stopper. Because I followed what I’d learned, when one of my writer friends, Linda Joy Singleton, ran into agent Karen Grencik at a conference, she recommended Karen contact me as she thought we would be a good fit. Within a few days Karen had emailed me asking for two Picture Book manuscripts of my work. Linda Joy informed me of her recommendation to Karen and after researching and contacting some of Karen’s clients, I agreed.
There is a lot of good advice out there for finding an agent. You have put in the work—and eventually the right connection is made. No one likes rejection and some of the best things we can do are hone our craft, take advice, learn from speakers, and always take some time to relax. We need to let our creative side flow and not be hindered by the business side of writing.
I believe if you don’t turn away from your love of writing and keep trying to find the right agent you will be able to announce your book sale, like I was with the sale of Little Red Rolls Away.
It may take longer, like it did for me, or might happen sooner, but either way I do believe it will happen.
And so that brings us back to the beginning.
“Hello, this is Karen Grencik. May I please speak with Linda?”
All the right answers and several minutes later, I had an agent. Yay!
Linda will be a featured author at the Great Valley Bookfest in Manteca on October 14, and has two book launch signings coming up, details listed below.
When Little Red Barn wakes one morning he finds his animal friends have gone. He’s empty and alone. And then big noisy machines lift him up and put him on truck. As Little Red is transported across the countryside, down a major river, and through city streets, he feels anxious and a little afraid. Where is he going? Who will be there when he reaches his destination?
When Little Red does finally reach his new home in a surprising location, he finds things are even better than before. The story of the little red barn’s relocation and adjustment to a new place will reassure and comfort young readers facing changes in their own lives.
Linda Whalen lives with her husband on a plot of land in Northern California. Born a city kid, she married a farm boy from the midwest and fell in love with country life. Surrounded by family, pets, and bunches of wild creatures, life is never dull. After working in and owning her own childcare facility, Linda now pursues her passion of writing for children. She also enjoys time spent with her art supplies. Visit her at lindawhalenauthor.com.
Congratulations to member Jed Alexander! Jed’s new book, Red, was acquired by Amy Novesky at Cameron + Company and will be published in the spring of 2018. Red is a twist on Little Red Riding Hood and is the first in a series of wordless retellings of classic fairy tales for young children. The deal was made by Jed’s agent, Abigail Samoun at Red Fox Literary. I first learned of Jed’s new success when I read the announcement in the 11/17/16 Publisher’s Weekly Children’s Bookshelf. Way to go, Jed!
I asked Jed to share his inspiration for the new book and a bit about his journey to publication for this manuscript/series:
I’ve always been interested in the universality of wordless narrative—the idea that anybody can pick up the book and connect with it. This was the inspiration for my first book, funded through Kickstarter, (Mostly) Wordless.
Red, though, started as a mailer. A short, condensed, wordless version of Little Red Riding
Hood in a two-color trifold mailer. In the story, Little Red Riding Hood is confronted by a very menacing looking wolf. Later we find that the wolf is stalling Little Red, while grandma and the other animals in the forest are preparing a birthday party for her. My agent, Abigail Samoun, liked the mailer so much she suggested I turn it into a book.
So, unconventionally, I decided to draw the whole book instead of a dummy. I’d submitted book dummy after book dummy, and it was time. It was the same with (Mostly) Wordless, which was eventually picked up by the publisher, Alternative Comics. I’m in this to make books, not book proposals, and so that’s what I did. And I very much recommend it.
We’re told over and over, “That’s not how it works, don’t send the publisher a completed project, they won’t be interested.” But my background in small press comics informed me otherwise. When I was doing small press comics, people made books. You submitted a completed project, or you published it yourself, and in small press comics, self-publishing had no stigma attached to it. Whether is was photocopied or conventionally printed, if it looked good, people bought it. You might not have had many readers, but you had readers. And this is often still how it’s done. This is how Raina Telgemeier started. Before Smile she was doing photocopied ‘zines. That’s how she got the attention of Scholastic and was commissioned to do the Babysitter’s Club series.
I’m not saying I’ve given up on the conventional submission process. I’m just saying there’s only so long I’m willing to wait. And if you want to make a book, nothing’s stopping you.
So I finished the book, which I called “Red,” along with covers for two other prospective books in the series, “Yellow” and “Blue,” all based on fairy tales and designed for a two-color format. Abi took it to New York. Nobody was interested. Wordless books weren’t selling. Or that was one of the reasons they sited. I try not to think too hard about why a book is rejected. All I can do is do the best work I can. The fact is nobody knows what sells or why it sells. Not editors or publishers. If they had that magic formula, every book they published would be a bestseller and there would be no midlist books or failures.
My agent and I had already established a relationship with Cameron + Company, and Amy Novesky had shown interest in expanding one of the short pieces in (Mostly) Wordless into a full-length picture book. I’d put together a dummy, but ultimately they passed. Still, Amy really liked my work, and asked, “Do you have anything else, particularly with animals?” And I said, “Of course I do.” I sent her Red. She got back the same day. She said she loved it, and asked if I had any ideas for a “Green.”
Eventually, Amy and the rest of the fine folks at Cameron + Company asked me to expand my little 24-page square book to a more conventional 32-page 7×10 format. This required me to redraw most of the book, but I’m glad for the opportunity to improve it. It’s going to look great!
What I particularly like about the concept of Red is that even the title is universal. The whole series is designed for very young children. I’d love to have them say, “I want the red one,” or “I want the yellow one,” and that could be “red” or “yellow” in any language. The story is all told in pantomime. This too comes from my background in comics, in which so much of the story has to be communicated with attitude and body language. Other influences are turn of the century books by Wilhelm Busch, and Rodolfe Topffer, which also rely very much on pantomime.
I think more than ever, right now we have to ask ourselves as artists—what is the value of what we’re doing? What am I adding here? And that’s why I think wordless books are so important, because any kid can connect with any other kid through a book like this, or see themselves in it. And in a culture where we have so many other barriers beyond just language, we need as much common ground as we can get.
After working for over ten years in the editorial field for such publications as LA Weekly, The Sacramento News and Review and The Santa Cruz Metro, Jed returned to his first love, children’s literature. With this new focus, Jed debuted his portfolio at The 2009 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators North/Central California conference where he won Best in Show. He has since contributed to Nickelodeon Magazine, Spongebob Comics, and Cricket Magazine as both an author and illustrator. Find out more about Jed at jedalexander.com.
I recently read the following quote: “Insecurity breeds quality.” Is that true? And no, not the kind of insecurity where you worry that your nostrils are bigger than everybody else’s (for example). The quote in question comes from Don Robinson, the editor of a small WWII infantry division newspaper, for whom “insecurity” meant the constant fear of the paper being shut down, which in turn pushed his work to the highest standard of quality. It really got me thinking. What is it that motivates us as illustrators to create and achieve great things with our art? There are undoubtedly countless causes for motivation—probably as many as there are illustrators. But I am one illustrator, and I can think of a few.
One good motivator is having a goal, a brass ring to reach for. My wife would very much
like to win the lottery. Which would be really great for me. I could finally put that animatronic jungle cruise in the backyard, and she could finally build those schools in Africa or whatever. But if I really think about it, a winning lottery ticket for me would look a bit different. For me, it would be walking into my local independent bookstore, and seeing a book I made, wrapped in a shiny, beautifully designed dust jacket, spread across the lap of mom and child as they lose themselves in the magic of storytelling. Eventually they buy 24 copies and pass them out to friends, family, grocery clerks, mail carriers and random motorists waiting at red lights. What does your winning lottery ticket look like? What is your brass ring?
Competition motivates. I look at art by Marla Frazee and Adam Rex and I see a level of intention and excellence that is so inspiring. So inspiring that it makes me want to run straight to my studio, close the door, tear my current work into confetti-sized pieces, toss it into the air and let it rain over me in a shower of ordinary. But just before I go in for such dramatics, I remember that if I want to make great art, my competition is the place to look for inspiration. There are vast amounts of talent among the throbbing mob of hopeful illustrators just waiting to be tested, dying to be published. And we can learn so much from each other. Though, I find it very motivating to turn to the illustrators at the top of the heap as well. These are the artists who are making amazing books, and theirs is the level of excellence I strive for in my art.
Closely tied to that sense of competition is the desire to improve, which is also a strong motivator. How many times have you completed a work of illustration and compared it to that first vision you had in our mind? How many times has that initial vision eluded you? When you realize that the only way to improve is to keep working, you can turn that into a kind of purpose. A working mantra.
Another catalyst for improvement is critique. I have found that the most valuable critiques come from the professionals in the industry. SCBWI conferences are obviously a great place to sit down with an art director, agent, or professional illustrator and say “Please look at the very embodiment of my naked soul which I have delivered onto page from the absolute furthest reaches of my ability and do please indicate in the most precise language possible, just how I have fallen short.” I have also come by great critiques by following Penguin Random House Executive Art Director, Giuseppe Castellano on twitter (@pinocastellano). Giusseppe will periodically offer twitter crits in 140 characters or less. I was happy for the benefit of his expertise on one particular piece I was working on. He pointed out to me that it could certainly use a splash or two of color throughout. I took his advice and I think the illustration is better for it.
Finally, it seems to me that there is one motivator that ensures all others—the need to create. We would not even be discussing these subtler instruments of motivation were it not for the very need we feel deep in our bones to make art! This is the same need that, when neglected, can make us feel cranky and out of sorts, kind of like skipping breakfast—only imagine breakfast contains all the essential soul-sustaining minerals and life-affirming vitamins a healthy body requires.
Whatever it is that motivates you to create, be it a brass ring, or simply an innate need, keep letting it push you to achieve greatness with your art. It may even lead to a winning lottery ticket—whatever that might look like to you.
Josh is 50% eraser shavings, 50% animal cookies and 50% Café Americano. Josh is also horrible at math but he loves to draw. Josh has been drawing professionally since 2004 and has done so for the nice folks at Scholastic, Hooked on Phonics, and singer-song writer Kenny Loggins. When he isn’t drawing he can be found enjoying beautiful Northern California with his wife and dog, traveling to a rainy European city, reading a book or doing any number of activities that don’t require math. He may also be busy writing his own stories, querying agents, or working on a new board book for Beacon Publishing.