SCBWI Bologna 2006 Author-Illustrator Interview: Doug Cushman

From SCBWI Bologna 2006:

Doug Cushman will be speaking at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 conference in Bologna, Italy, March 25-26, 2006. Other speakers include: Authors and illustrators Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Justine Larbalestier (author interview), illustrator Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview). Editors: Victoria Arms/Bloomsbury, Judy Zylstra/Eerdmans, Anne McNeil of Hodder UK, Mary Rodgers/Lerner. Agents: Rosemary Canter/PFD, Barry Goldblatt/Barry Goldblatt Literary, Rosemary Stimola (agent interview), and others. See registration information.

Doug Cushman is an author-illustrator with more than 100 books to his name. He is the winner of the 2004 Christopher Award for Never, Ever Shout in a Zoo, written by Karma Wilson (Little Brown, 2004). The annual Original Art Exhibit in New York City selected one of his illustrations from Mystery at the Club Sandwich (Clarion, 2004) for the 2004 show. Mystery at the Club Sandwich echoes his love of film noir and hard-boiled detective stories. Doug is best known for his I Can Read beginning series with characters such as Aunt Eater and Inspector Hopper. His investigative reporter easy-reader character, Dirk Bones, shows up on the scene this fall in Dirk Bones and the The Mystery of the Haunted House (HarperCollins, 2006). Doug joins Sara Rojo Pérez (illustrator interview) in presenting the workshop, “Draw Me the Same! Creating a Consistent Character for Illustrators,” at the SCBWI Bologna 2006 Conference. He was interviewed by Lawrence Schimel in February 2006.

Lawrence Schimel: How and why did you begin illustrating for kids?

Doug Cushman: I’ve always drawn pictures ever since I can remember, so it’s a natural part of me like breathing and eating ice cream. Like most illustrators, I grew up copying comics from the newspaper (Pogo Possum especially) and TV cartoons (Mighty Mouse was my special hero) and then began to create my own comics. During high school I “published” (with a typewriter and four sheets of carbon paper) comic books for my friends based on my teachers. Almost got thrown out of school for a day for it!

LS: Not having kids of your own, what do you do to find or recreate an authentic child’s point of view in your illustrations?

DC: To use the old cliché, I draw for the child I was. I’ve always believed that there is no drawing, no art, especially geared for children. It’s all either good art or bad art. I think it was Sendak who said “You cannot write for children…you can only write books that will interest them.”

LS: Name one book you wish you had illustrated.

DC: Impossible question as, if I had illustrated it, it would be a very different book and, perhaps, a better or worse book. Either way it wouldn’t be the same. The marriage between the text and art of a good picture book are so intertwined that to separate them would be to have the whole book fall apart, like taking the keystone from an archway. Can you imagine anyone else illustrating In the Night Kitchen or Good Night Moon or Charlotte’s Web?

LS: What is a favorite book from your own childhood?

DC: I grew up with a lot of the old Golden Books. I read the classics like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, etc. Of course my biggest influences were the newspaper comics and comic books.

LS: As an adult now, what is your favorite children’s book (as a reader)?

DC: I’m still a fan of Sendak of course. My heroes are Arnold Lobel and James Marshall to name a couple others. I love Gerald McDermott’s work, and Peter Sis is a great favorite too.

LS: What non-children’s book influences do you draw on for your work?

DC: Music, music, music and food with some travel and the occasional art gallery and museum visit thrown in. And sometimes music.

LS: Any advice for new illustrators?

DC: Patience! And never be afraid to utterly fail; one can learn more from one failure than a string of successes.

LS: Any advice for more-experienced illustrators?
DC: Don’t be afraid to try something new.

LS: Something you wish you hadn’t done?

DC: Drank all those margaritas last night…

LS: You’ve been living in Paris for the past few years. Do you draw differently depending on where in the world you are?

DC: I’ve had the chance to stretch myself and try some new ways of “putting marks on paper” as someone once told me. I’ve illustrated two books with a new way of working, for me at least, that I like. And of course, there’s the inspiration of a wonderful city. A ten-minute Metro ride to the Louvre or Orsay to look at all that wonderful art is fantastic.

LS: What are some of the differences in children’s publishing, and/or being a writer, in Europe as opposed to the US?

DC: Can’t say I’m any expert on that other than children’s books in Europe seem a little edger than American ones.

LS: What is your relationship with the writers you work with?

DC: None really, I rarely meet any of the writers I illustrate. Of course, one of the writers is my girlfriend so that’s different naturally. I’ll have a book out with Jack Prelutsky in July; I’ve known him for 20-plus years. But as a rule, I never meet any of the writers.

LS: Do you prefer illustrating your own manuscripts, or working in collaboration with another’s text?

DC: It’s all different. Another writer’s words will make me stretch my art a little more, which is good. I love to illustrate my own work, but I tend to write the same kind of book, as most authors do, so I tend to paint the same kind of pictures.

LS: What do you have up on the walls of your studio?

DC: A couple African masks I bought here in Paris, my cell phone number, and the conjugations of the verbs être and pouvoir.

LS: Any other thoughts you’d like to share?

DC: Why is it so hard to play barre chords on the guitar?

Cynsational Note

Though the interview doesn’t specify, I believe the book with Jack Prelutsky that Doug mentions is What A Day It Was at School! (Greenwillow, 2006).

Cynsational News & Links

NFforKids: a Yahoo group. “This list is for the discussion of the craft, marketing and publishing of Nonfiction for Children. No manuscripts may be posted on the list, but members are free to request off-list critiques or set up off-list critique groups.” Note: I’m not a member of the list, but I’ve seen it recommended on other listservs and it does seem to be quite active.