BULLETIN: With the cutoff for voting coming up tomorrow night, Silindile Ntuli is currently leading the adult poets with Lisa Martino following in second place. Among the young poets, Emily Rigby continues to lead the group by a wide margin. On Sunday I will announce the Hall of Fame winners as well as the Word of the Month poets. I’ve begun to receive the judges’ votes.
Yesterday you read Robin’s bio. Today you meet the real thing. I’m delighted to present my Featured Guest, Robin Koontz.
Thanks David, for inviting me talk about me on your blog. I don’t often tell my story, but if it might encourage an aspiring children’s book writer or illustrator out there who is having a bit of a hard time with all the lousy news about the industry these days, I’m happy to share.
So, more about me. After being determined all my life to become an artist someday, I left art school in 1974 with just one year and two weeks of formal art education. Let’s just say that I didn’t have a good career plan and I didn’t think the curriculum cared much about artists making a living. Whether that was true or not, I was broke and discouraged.
I eventually landed a job at a small newspaper with 0 experience other than I could type a little. They were happy to publish cartoons that I donated but otherwise I was a production grunt: doing typesetting, layout, paste-up, camera-work and whatever else was needed to produce a few weekly newspapers and ad circulars. It was tough work with ridiculous hours, but valuable in the long run.
After moving to Oregon, I went to work for a small printing company and started self-publishing greeting cards and gift tags featuring my cartoon animal characters. I marketed them myself, which was also valuable in the long run. Being shy or sensitive to criticism was not helpful if you peddled your own art.
I met a children’s book librarian who suggested that I look into illustrating children’s books. At the time, the early 1980s, it was a booming business! In 1985 I spent a few months creating a portfolio of what I figured were appropriate images and carted it to New York City. I pre-arranged 17 interviews and panicked at the thought of following through with the appointments. I was brave thanks to those early marketing efforts, but admittedly more than a wee bit intimidated by that city and those scary editors and art directors I had pictured in my head.
While it turned out that all the people I met with were kind and very encouraging, my big break was meeting Joe Ann Daly, the children’s book editorial director for Dodd, Mead and Co. She was brutal and kind at the same time. “I love your cats and your humor,” she said. “Do a funny book about cats, and we’ll probably buy it. Now, go!”
I came up with a collection of Mother Goose Rhymes about cats, and my first picture book was soon published. Pussycat Ate the Dumplings was well received, thanks mostly to the personal attention my editors, Joe Ann Daly and Rosanne Lauer, gave it. They bought my next three picture books including my interpretation of This Old Man, published three collaborative efforts including one with that children’s book librarian, and later published a series of early readers called Chicago and the Cat.
This Old Man, published in 1988
I also illustrated dozens of activity books and related products for School Zone Publishing and other educational companies. I had hustled hard to make these valuable connections and life was good. I was making a decent living at something I loved to do. It seemed I that had a real career going.
Did I keep feelers out for other jobs? Nope. I was too busy to take on anything else and was comfortable and confident working with my book editors and with my art director at School Zone. But the late 1990s hit hard. Dodd, Mead had already been swallowed up by Putnam, then Putnam joined Viking, more big fish gobbled up the small imprints, and my early reader series went ka-putt. School Zone also decided to just start re-using the art they had bought over the years and the work dried up there at about the same time. The other educational companies I had worked for went out of business or just stopped hiring illustrators, turning instead to stock illustration.
Oops. Note to self too late: do not put all your eggs into one or two baskets.
Luckily, there was inspiration around me. My husband and I live in the Coast Range Mountains of Oregon and share our space with a lot of nature. Marvin built dozens of bird boxes and bat houses and we grew a garden that also attracted a lot of fauna, such as deer, elk, and squirrels. In spite of the frustrations of sharing the garden space with natural invaders, I was inspired (and had time) to write my first nonfiction book, called Going Wild! I eventually sold it to McGraw Hill and it was subsequently titled The Complete Backyard Nature Activity Book for Kids, admittedly a better title for teachers, parents and librarians. I created the watercolor illustrations for the 1998 title, in a bit more of a realistic style, and my production art skills came in handy as I delivered the entire book camera ready. I learned how to use Quark and later, InDesign, for projects such as this one.
As for illustrating picture books, my old “cartoony” style was well-received back when Pussycat was published, but that changed as trends changed. I was advised by editor Emma Dryden that my style was more suited to early concept books (ABC, Alphabet, Shapes, etc.). She introduced me to her colleague, Erin Molta, who at the time was an editor at Little Simon. I created two pop-up books for her using Adobe Illustrator. I enjoyed computer art: while it was tough to learn, it was much easier to make changes!
I also began submitting manuscripts without illustration samples. I was hired by several publishers to write nonfiction books and early readers. I enjoyed seeing what other illustrators came up with and was amazed at how much talent was out there. A recent title, What’s the Difference Between a Butterfly and a Moth? is a 2010 IRA Teacher’s Choice (Picture Window). I think the illustrations are what earned the award. They’re not mine.
Meanwhile I peddled a new early reader series and eventually sold it to Abdo Publishing. They were delighted that I would also provide the illustrations for The Furlock and Muttson Mysteries which were released in spring 2010. For these books, I created watercolor and ink paintings much like my old style, but this time using a computer program and tablet. The real watercolor paints had dried up in a case under my desk. But I was once again working as both an illustrator and writer!
So it wasn’t a happy day last spring when another illustrator was chosen to create the spot illustrations for Amazing Animal Skills, my upcoming series about cool things animals do to survive in the world (Cavendish/Benchmark). I thought this time my style would work and had submitted lots of samples, but someone else got the job! That was a wake-up call: I was missing out on some fun, and money. It was time to do something to get back into the illustration business.
The problem was, no matter how hard I tried, my paintings looked like the same old style that almost nobody wanted. So, I decided to try collage, something I hadn’t done since 2nd grade, and a method what would not allow me to get into the same rut, I hoped.
I watched Eric Carle’s online tutorials about how he creates his art, studied Lois Ehlert’s amazing books, and got to work. I found some paints that hadn’t dried up and started coloring scraps of drafting vellum. I solicited scraps of craft paper from a fellow paper-artist and poured through the box of goodies she sent. I cut out shapes based on loose designs from some concept book ideas I had. I hung a clothesline in my writing studio for the painted papers to dry, set up a work table, and made a heck of a mess. It honestly felt like I was home again.
While I continue to write, now I have my art to turn to again, away from the computer for the most part. As I play with real paints and paper, messing with colors, shapes and textures, I recall how my mom was always trying different creative endeavors for as long as she lived. I think trying new things and staying busy and inspired is what kept her young. The need to be productive is probably inherent in all of us. Staying inspired is the tough part.
I have a lot of nonfiction projects making the rounds, as well as these and other concept books and picture books in various stages of progress. I watch the market, pay attention to the buzz, and continue to be proactive in trying to stay published as well as inspired. I have one adult book project that I might self-publish, I’m not sure yet. I’m sort of looking for an agent, maybe after 23 years, it’s time. I’m learning about book apps. I’m designing book covers for friends who are self-publishing. And I’ve been a longtime active volunteer for the SCBWI Oregon as newsletter editor, events coordinator, webmaster and since 1994, the Regional Advisor. I enjoy networking with aspiring writers and illustrators in every stage of their careers in children’s book publishing. We encourage, commiserate and celebrate. I highly recommend joining the SCBWI and getting involved with your region.
So, in closing, what I’ve learned in a little over twenty years and a lot of changes in the industry is that we all have to keep on keepin’ on no matter what the doom-sayers say. We’re all in the same boat, so why not enjoy the ride? As long as we stay excited, are encouraged by each other and are inspired to grow and learn, all the other stuff doesn’t matter so much.