I’ve been so excited to share this interview with the #writingcommunity! Abi Cushman is an award winning children’s book author and illustrator based in Connecticut. Her debut picture book, Soaked, comes out Summer 2020 from Viking Children’s Books. You can find her on Twitter @AbiCushman or Instagram @Abi.Cushman. Are you ready to gleam some insight from, and share in the journey of, this talented lady? Let’s go!
1. Abi, it’s great having you sit down with us for an interview. You are a very busy author and illustrator with multiple projects going on and of course, Soaked, coming out in 2020. Now, Soaked is your debut picture book. You must be SO excited and thrilled as each day brings that book closer and closer to a reality on the store shelves. Tell us a little about Soaked and what you and your agent, Kendra Marcus with BookStop Literary Agency, are up to in this thrilling pre-release stage.
First off, thank you so much, Rhys, for having me on your blog! You have such a fantastic resource for authors and illustrators, and I’m honored to be a part of it.
It has been thrilling and a bit mind-blowing seeing my first book come together. Soaked is about a bear who is caught out in the rain with some friends – a badger, a bunny and a hula-hooping moose. After several failed attempts to take cover, he resorts to just wallowing on his log. And that’s when something happens that changes his outlook on the gloomy weather.
Right now, my text and sketches have all been approved by my editor, Tracy Gates, and art director, Jim Hoover, and I am working on the final art for the book. Seeing more of the spreads in color has been really exciting because it’s starting to look like a “real” book. But when I first got started on the final pieces, I felt a bit anxious and overwhelmed because it was hitting me that this WAS a real book and that was a big deal! I also wondered if I knew how to draw puddles. I didn’t. Oops! But with the knowledge that I could rely on Jim for feedback and guidance, I just tried to dive into the work – which always makes things better. And so far, the process has been great. I’m really happy with the way the spreads are turning out.
I had signed with Ilse Craane, a junior agent at BookStop in 2016, but she left the business the following year, and Kendra Marcus, the owner of BookStop, kindly offered to take me on after that. So I worked with Kendra on revising Soaked early in 2018 until May when it sold. Afterwards, she then turned her attention to negotiating the terms of the contract. Since then, she’s worked with me on polishing up more dummies. And one of those stories will be published by Viking in 2021!
2. That’s so great to hear and congratulations on that second story too! Can’t wait to hear all about it when the veil of secrecy is lifted! It would be nice to focus single-handedly on waiting for that release date of Soaked, but we know that’s not reality! What other projects are you focusing on?
When we sold Soaked, I’d gotten a two-book deal (thanks, Kendra!). I knew there’d be a lot of downtime waiting for the contract and editorial notes, and I wanted to at least have something else started. I had read that a lot of people have a tough time writing their second book because they kind of get psyched out wondering if it’ll be as good as the first. They are wondering if they’re out of ideas, wondering what other people will think, etc. So I figured I would try to avoid all that by making another story well before the first one got published.
I looked back through my sketchbook and thought I had a great idea for a board book. After some feedback from Kendra, I turned it into a 32-page picture book. I polished up the dummy over the summer, and it made it through acquisitions in September. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about it at this point, but here’s a hint:
Currently, I’m in the middle of revising a nonfiction book dummy, and I’m really enjoying the process. I’ve been wanting to do something like it for years, but I didn’t quite have the tools to do it until now. And of course, I still have my web design clients! So I stay pretty busy.
3. I love how you mentioned getting feedback from your agent, Kendra, regarding what projects you should work on. This partnership attitude is crucial in developing long, successful careers. Many times, the creator (author or illustrator) has numerous ideas for projects and they usually have a decent level of industry savvy too. However, agents are so deeply entrenched with what’s selling, what editors are looking for, what they think the pulse of the industry is, etc., that they can give incredibly insightful focus to a creative’s pursuits.
With all your hard work, it’s no wonder you’re the recipient of so many awards. So far, you have the New England SCBWI Portfolio Showcase Award from 2018, the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award from 2017, and the Tassy Walden New Voices Award from 2017. How has receiving these awards validated or vindicated your passion for writing and drawing? Do you feel a deeper sense of responsibility within the publishing industry after receiving these awards?
I first found out I’d won the Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for my dummy SNOW DAY FOR GOAT AND BADGER in March of 2017, and I was ecstatic. This is an award for unpublished #kidlit writers from all over New England, judged by top-notch authors. (Lois Lowry was on the committee when I won!) Later, in May, I found out I’d won the Tassy Walden New Voices Award for the same story. The Tassy Award is for unpublished authors and illustrators from Connecticut and is judged first by agents who pick out finalists, and then by editors from top publishing houses, who choose the winners. So I felt really validated by both those awards and really optimistic about the chances of GOAT AND BADGER being picked up.
My agent at the time, Ilse, sent the dummy out to a few editors after I’d received these awards, and about a week into submission, we got word from a Big 5 editor that she liked it and was taking it to her team. I was thrilled. And then a few weeks went by and we’d heard nothing. After nudging, we found out that the editor had passed. We came close two more times with GOAT AND BADGER, but ultimately, it didn’t sell. And I was pretty disappointed.
But even though I was feeling discouraged, I had made some goals to add some strong pieces with varying angles and perspectives to my portfolio and to create two more dummies. And so by the time the New England SCBWI Conference rolled around again in 2018, I felt happy with my portfolio and new polished dummy. But I never expected to win the Portfolio Showcase. Especially when they called the two runner-ups, and they were these amazing published illustrators.
When they announced me as the winner and showed my skydiving hippo on the screen, I was in shock. And really, I still can’t believe it. I feel really humbled by this award because it validates all the tough critiques I got, the study of illustrations I admired, the practice, and the time I dedicated to improving my craft.
One bonus about entering contests that I didn’t anticipate is they gave me the opportunity to meet people who were at similar stages in their careers. I gained amazing new #kidlit friends who could relate to the struggles, share tips and encouragement, and celebrate little wins and big victories with. I’m so grateful for that.
4. That’s such an important lesson. We are ALL in the people business and relationships really do make the world go ’round. I think many new authors or illustrators just try to go as fast and as far as they can on their own initiative and find, much later, that strong relationships throughout the industry is really what makes a career in books so worthwhile.
You’re no newbie to social media. In fact, some may not know you’ve been delving behind the scenes in web design for almost 2 decades! With today’s modern technology and current trends behind driving exposure online, how important is it for new (or veteran) creatives to embrace the nuts and bolts of social media and personal branding?
Yes, I’ve been a web designer ever since I graduated from college in 2003! So for me, creating my author / illustrator website was probably the easiest part of launching my career as an author / illustrator. I actually held off on making it for awhile because I felt like I needed to devote more time to the actual craft of writing and illustrating. I didn’t want to get wrapped up in marketing myself when I didn’t have a great product yet.
In terms of social media, I wish I were better at it. I’m still learning when it comes to Twitter and Instagram. I know they’re both really valuable when it comes to getting seen by art directors, editors and agents. And of course, they’re also great tools for connecting with other authors and illustrators, librarians, booksellers, and parents. So, I’m slowly getting the hang of it and enjoying getting to know the wonderful #kidlit community.
5. You’ve made statements elsewhere regarding managing what fonts you use on different mediums to maintain consistency. It’s great you are so mindful and strategic of how others perceive you and your work. What tips or strategies would you say have helped you build your brand that others could consider adopting?
I think consistency is so important in how you present yourself. That includes the fonts you use on your marketing materials, your logo (if you have one), and the colors you use. But in addition to that, I think your voice should also shine through in your writing and in your illustrations. For example, humor is a big part of who I am as an author / illustrator, so I tried to be mindful of that when I was choosing fonts and colors for my brand (playful ones), writing the text of my website (on the more casual side), and selecting pieces to show in my portfolio (funny scenes and expressions).
6. You mention the importance of challenging yourself, whether by drawing in new angles or scene settings (daytime vs. nighttime, etc.). What artistic style do you find the most challenging? Do you stay away from any illustrative styles because they simply don’t work for you? What is your favorite medium to illustrate in?
Yes, I’m still working on doing pieces with interesting angles and scene settings, and figuring out in my dummies if I can use these techniques to further the story. They’re still challenges for me!
In terms of styles, I focus on one style for picture books that I achieve using pencil and Adobe Photoshop. I like this hybrid technique because I feel like I get the both of best worlds – a nice natural line and organic shapes, but the ability to tweak color, textures, and layouts as needed. It also works really well for me for conveying nuanced emotions, which I think is so important for picture books.
I’ve experimented doing more simplified styles using only digital tools, but I haven’t gained as much traction with it for picture books because I’m not able to capture those emotions as well. I’ve also tried using only traditional mediums, and I struggled with that because honestly, I rely a lot on the undo command, which is of course, not available with traditional tools. I think being confident in the medium you’re working in is incredibly important. That confidence comes through in your work. Once I figured out what works for me in my art-making process, I was able to take my art to a higher level.
7. What’s been the most rewarding experience for you as an author / illustrator? What about the scariest?
I think my scariest experiences have turned out to be the most rewarding ones as well.
In 2015, I finished my first dummy and made the decision to join a local critique group for feedback. I was terrified. I had received a really awful portfolio critique when I was just out of college that had completely devastated me. But I knew I had to do this if I wanted to break into the industry.
So, I went. To the wrong building. And interrupted a town zoning board meeting. I then got back into my car and drove around for fifteen minutes until I found the right building. By then, the actual meeting was well underway. The room was packed and the door was locked. After someone let me in, I squeezed in next to the critique group leader, John Himmelman (who is an amazing and very prolific author / illustrator). Then, I realized I’d left my pen in my car and sheepishly asked John if I could borrow his to fill out my name tag. I felt acutely aware that I was making a really terrible first impression, and as the night wore on, I was starting to lose my nerve to share my story.
But at the end of the night, I decided to just go for it. After all, if I didn’t read right then, I’d have to put myself through this agony ANOTHER night. So, I took out my dummy, and John held it up for everyone to see as I read it out loud. To my surprise, I got a few chuckles at my opening joke, and then more as I read on, and when I finished, everyone clapped and cheered. It was such an amazing moment for me – a mix of relief and sheer joy.
8. What a socially terrifying but amazing story of encouragement to join a critique group! Thank you for sharing that. It’s no secret you love animals. You even maintain the Animal Fact Guide website. When did a love for animals begin for you and how did animals become such a focus in your creative expression of story telling?
I have always loved both animals and art, and I wasn’t sure which path I would end up pursuing as a career. In college, I began as a biology major with an eye toward becoming a vet. I took a job one summer at a vet’s office basically cleaning up poop and prepping cats and dogs for spay/neuter surgeries. This entailed plucking the fur off their you know what. The next fall, I changed my major to Art History and Studio Art. I’m very happy now that I get to write about and draw animals, and there’s no actual poop or fur removal involved.
In terms of animals as a focus in my storytelling, it’s pretty simple for me. I don’t experience the same joy when I’m drawing people that I do when I’m drawing animals. Centering a story around a person or a thing doesn’t feel right for me, and I’m okay with that.
9. And that goes back to your earlier point about being confident in your selected medium as an artist…creatives should also be confident in their selected topics and genres. Non-agented authors and illustrators all want to know…what’s it like having an agent? How has your career as an author / illustrator changed since receiving representation?
Signing with BookStop Literary Agency in 2016 didn’t translate to an instant book deal or an instant illustration contract. Signing with an agent really just meant MORE REVISIONS to my dummy! And I didn’t sell a book until two years later. So, if you’re picturing some sort of glamorous new lifestyle after you sign with an agent, I’m probably not the right person to ask.
Plus, there’s also a ton of hustle I still did (and continue to do) on my own after getting literary agent representation: sending out postcards, attending conferences, taking online courses, meeting with my critique groups, and regularly creating new, polished work.
But of course, having an agent definitely increased my chances at getting a good book deal at a major publishing house. This is because Kendra has connections with editors, works on revisions with me until my dummies are highly polished, and knows how to negotiate terms on a book contract.
10. Let’s look ahead 2-3 years. What can we expect to see from you on or off the bookshelves? What’s the best way to stay up to date with your work?
By that time I will have at least TWO books out on shelves! Hooray! Soaked comes out next year in June 2020. And the second one will follow in 2021. I’m also crossing my fingers that I’ll get the chance to illustrate other people’s stories besides my own in that time.
If you’re interested in following along, I share an inside look into my journey to publication, my process, my latest art, and more in my newsletter. You can also find me on Twitter @AbiCushman, Instagram @Abi.Cushman, and my website www.AbiCushman.com.
Thank you, Abi, for sharing your journey as an author / illustrator with us and shedding so much light on the publishing process for children’s book creatives. No doubt, you’ll continue to experience a successful and rewarding career.
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