Making Art, Turtle Bravery, and Other Adventures: Joy Interviews Lucy Ruth Cummins about TRUMAN

Sometimes you pick up a picture book and you know immediately that this is a book you will be reading to your child over and over -- in fact, you’ll be reading it over and over, even when your kid isn’t in the room! Such is the case with TRUMAN, the sweet, funny, and very heartwarming story of a brave turtle, which releases July 9, written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, who is not only a phenomenal author and illustrator of books for children, but also an art director at Simon and Schuster! I first met Lucy at a children’s writer’s conference a few years ago, and we began a conversation that has continued to this day.  So I was particularly delighted when Lucy agreed to chat with me about TRUMAN and illustrating and children’s books. (She’s also the author/illustrator of such store favorites as STUMPKIN and also A HUNGRY LION, OR A DWINDLING ASSORTMENT OF ANIMALS. Here’s what she had to say!

Joy Preble: Everyone at Brazos fell in total, mushy love with TRUMAN as soon as we read the F&G. Part of that is Jean Reidy’s sweet and adorable story about a turtle who has to be brave when his little girl heads off to school. Part of that is your absolutely winning illustrations. Did you and Jean have any communication during this process? How do you as the illustrator go about bringing a story--this story--to life visually?

Lucy Ruth Cummins: We had literally none! She saw my second round of sketches and then final art, and had a few thoughts or suggestions at that stage. I think that’s actually my favorite way to collaborate—it makes me feel like I’m explicating a poem, to read someone’s words without art notes, and picture what they were conjuring up. Text in the absence of art notes is so interesting to me, as an art director I pair artists with texts all the time, and so when I read them from the perspective of a book I might potentially illustrate, I try to see if the visuals immediately swim up in my head to know if I will be able to connect and do justice to the story. When I read Jean’s draft for “Truman,” I could picture every beat. I just had to see it drawn—and I had to be the one to draw it! It was love at first read. And then it seemed like from Jean’s reaction to my sketches that I’d correctly connected her story dots, and that’s so satisfying.

JP: What a cool process! And clearly a good way to know if your text is doing what it needs to if you can picture everything so well.

Speaking of process, you’re not only an illustrator/author of your own books, you are also the art director at Simon and Schuster. Do those two jobs take completely different skill and mind sets? Has illustrating your own books for publication influenced how your interact with authors as art director? Does your experience as an art director influence you as you draw?

LRC: There are lots of upsides and tons of downsides to also being a picture book art director. One major upside is that I’ve had a lot of training in pacing and breaking text for page turns, just for the simple fact that I’ve been making books and making those choices on behalf of illustrators for 16 years now. So I’m trained up like a marathoner! I’ve done the exercise of visualizing a story from the ground up over and over and over again.

The biggest downside, though, is that because I know the name and work of every talented person in our industry, I read a manuscript and inevitably I imagine a person whose work I’d love to see connected to that text, and it’s not necessarily always me and my art! So there’s a lot of navigating that imposter syndrome that’s well rooted in being a lover of picture books, a long time maker of picture books, and a curator and chooser of artists. And there are SO many talented folks working today there’s no end to people whose work I’m obsessed with!

And the main takeaway I’ve had from being in the illustrator’s chair, when dealing with illustrators as an art director, is to confirm receipt of artwork, immediately upon receipt. When you’ve poured your heart into something and sent it off into the world, waiting to hear if it’s landed successfully with the folks at the publisher can be absolutely brutal.

As far as shaping the way I actually sketch or make art, I’ve learned to stretch a little more than I would have before. I put on my art director’s hat and say to myself “don’t draw just what you’re capable of drawing, comfortably—draw what you would want to see on this page, if you were art directing.” Usually I rise to the occasion when bullied by my alter ego!

JP: Ha! Like that last part.

I know that you’re also a mom. Do your find that your son’s tastes in the books he enjoys affects your tastes both as an artist and an art director?

LRC: My son, who’s now almost 4, and I were at the library a couple of months ago, and out of habit I found my books on the shelf and I said “hey look—do you recognize this book?” and he said “yeah it’s your book” in the most flat, disinterested teenager way possible. He will not fake the funk. I think he assumes most mothers make books.

I bring home a lot of books from work, and we buy a lot of picture books, and his biggest compliment about a book is that he wished I had made it (he recently said this about the illustrations in Anika Denise’s “Monster Trucks,” illustrated by Nathan Wragg).

In general, he is more inclined to stories with characters from movies and tv shows he’s not old enough to watch, so we read a lot of Avengers and Star Wars ready-to-reads. He likes a real range of books, though, and he’s not particular about era, so he’ll happily be read a Pat Hutchinson or Frank Asch title alongside “Creepy Carrots” (by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown).

One way it’s affected how I write and illustrate and art direct is it’s made me a little more literal and details oriented when I’m adapting a text—I know that there’s a child at the other end of the equation who will notice if the text mentions socks, and the character’s socks aren’t in evidence. So it’s a lot in nitpicky things like that that I see the influence he has on my work.

But I am also much more conscious of the balance between text and art—that either one or the other or both need to communicate the story beat that’s trying to come across, that the reader shouldn’t have to make a huge leap that’s not coming through on it’s own. And I’ve also just generally gotten into texts that have a little more meat in them, that do “tell” as much as the art “shows.”

JP: How about your influences in general? What books from your childhood stuck with you, helped define you as an artist? Your own style is often so very sweet, almost nostalgic. What artistic styles appealed to you when you were younger?

LRC:  I was absolutely obsessed with the Frances books by Russell and Lilian Hobin when I was little—I like the tone, I like the realness of Frances as a character. She wasn’t all sweetness and light, and the stories were truly funny and the messages were there, comfortably sitting alongside the fun of the story. That balance has always appealed to me.

I loved the Little Bear books, written by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, too. As a child, I loved the adventurousness of it, and as a mother reading to my son, I love the relationships—that his adventuring is underpinned by his connection to his mother. That things grow out of that foundation of love and security. I like underscoring those relationships.

We always read Madeline too—I love the look of those books the best of all the books I was raised on. There’s an effortless chicness to them, the brushing is so lively and deft without being overwrought. The characters move even when still. It’s very alive! I do gravitate to those palettes—pared down, guided by the printing process of the day, not an endless stream of tints but more a range that could be consistently printed and mass produced. I hope to let that economy guide my choices, to make illustrations that look almost “durable.”

In particular, with the art for "Truman," I had a very specific influence in mind for the palette—I wanted to pick up the hues of the Simpsons. I loved the Simpsons growing up and as an adult, I’ve always been fascinated about which colors can sit right next to each other and hold like they do on that show. You’d never pick them to put them together, but I think maybe when you look at Truman, they’ve almost been grandfathered in as a palette—your brain has already been conditioned to be okay with that much yellow on a page! Or at least I hope so.

JP: We booksellers often say that we’re in a golden age of kid lit, especially in the amazing picture books coming out each week. Are there any current kidlit trends that you’re digging right now? Any that you wish would quietly fade away?                                                                                                                                                              

LRC: There are so many good books right now that my only wish is that production of them would slow down so I didn’t have to end up in the poor house. One thing I’m getting more interested in as a reader and buyer of books, and as a mother, are books with slightly longer texts. Not chapter books per se, but books that have a bit more text, a bit more story—like “Charlie & Mouse” (by Laurel Snyder, with pictures by Emily Hughes). This is a very practical passion of mine­: if there’s a little more story, there’s a little more sitting on the part of my son Nate. And sitting is one of my most favorite things.

And as far as things that I wish would quietly fade away—I’m obligated from a career-perspective to never have a horse in that race!

JP: What else would you like our customers to know about Lucy Ruth Cummins and what’s coming next for her?

LRC: I have one more book coming out this year that I’m totally thrilled about, “The Love Letter,” written by Anika Denise. It’s a lovely story about three animal friends and a love letter of unknown provenance, and it gave me the opportunity to spend a few months painting snow and birch trees, which any illustrator will tell you is absolute heaven. And also that I love garlic bread.

JP: Bravo to the next new book! And garlic bread is also awesome! Thank you for such a wonderful interview, Lucy Ruth Cummins!

Pre-order TRUMAN here. You are going to love it!!

Truman By Jean Reidy, Lucy Ruth Cummins (Illustrator) Cover Image
By Jean Reidy, Lucy Ruth Cummins (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9781534416642
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Atheneum Books for Young Readers - July 9th, 2019

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