“This person has no business being in children’s books.”
Read that again.
Imagine it being said in front of a crowd of over a hundred of your peers and various industry editors and art directors… at the NY SCBWI conference.
Your work is up in front of a big auditorium on a video screen with a panel with loud microphones when these words are spoken…
Imagine that person that it was said about was YOU.
DON”T WORRY! It wasn’t.
It was ME.
Yes. An art director declared me as a person who has NO BUSINESS being in children’s books … in front of the entire world of children’s books.
It felt worse than the worst college art critique I could have ever imagined. I was a grown woman. I had already had a hot career as a hot shot in cartoon merchandise. I shrunk in my seat. I wanted to run out of the room. My heart pounded.
I went home that night on the train back to Long Island… and cried. Crying on The Long Island Rail Road is like visiting Dante’s bonus level of hell. Those words echoing in my head…
The Art Director who said it—we shall call: “The A.D. WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED”—but that name was burned into my mind. Branded onto my frontal lobe. I went home to google the crap out of this person. Bleary and blood-shot-eyed hours later…I knew everything they had ever worked on. I was sure some day… I’d encounter this A.D…
Now, I wasn’t automatically like Scarlet O’Hara shaking my fist in the air against the sunset vowing that “Tomorrow is another day!” No… I hit rock bottom. I questioned it all. Why? Why children’s books? Was I nuts to think I was good enough? Was I certifiably insane to think that I had the talent and ideas and stories to share with kids?
I went down, down, down into a pit of self doubt. I spent the good part of the next six months doing nothing. Hanging on to those words for a good long while…. but…
You just can’t keep a good pencil down… so eventually, I found myself, drawing myself out of that hole. I drew for myself. I made all kinds of silly art. Whatever I wanted to draw and paint, I made. I allowed myself to indulge in my imaginative whims. Whatever floated my boat, floated out of my pencil. This was new. The feeling of having nothing to lose, so why not? I was no longer thinking about what I thought the publishing industry wanted to see. I was drawing what I wanted to see for myself. I told myself stories as I drew. I wrote them down in messy notebooks.
Funny thing about this… I liked what I was drawing. So, I put it into my portfolio.
Then I had two important people enter my life. One a successful illustrator, who told me I WAS good. The other, my first agent. Who—obviously thought I was good enough to sign. That was the first time I thought of The A.D. Who Must Not be Named… and thought “…one day…you are gonna eat your words…!”
A year went by. I showed my portfolio a lot. The more I showed it—the better I got at reading the reviewer’s body language and interpreting the feedback. I listened at critiques but I chewed up the feedback and spit out what did not taste right.
I started to trust my own vision. The vision of what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be as an illustrator and maybe just maybe, a writer too.
I got my first books as an illustrator. One was a novelty book and some early readers. They were for small publishers and I found the work to be not what I wanted for myself. I wanted a picture book with a big publisher.
I went back to the 2011 SCBWI NY Winter Conference. I entered a piece in the art showcase and won an honor award. I got up on the same stage where “A.D. Gate “ went down and got hugs and recognition. Talk about a weird moment. I thought of that Art Director then… and those words. This time—those words felt like a dare.
“Oh yeah, A.D. Who Must Not be Named? I have no business in children’s books? You just watch me…” I was hoping that person would be there. I found out who was on the jury for the show. (The Art Director Who Must Not Be Named was not one of them.) I decided to find each one of the judges and meet them.
I did that for the next six months. I was like a bounty hunter. I crossed each one of the judges of a list as I met them. I made some amazing connections. I got my all of my work and myself in front of the eyes that already had a good feeling about what I do.
Some time went by. I did a lot of work on story ideas and characters. Still no bites from big publishers… so I did something way out of my comfort zone. I applied to give a character design workshop at the NE SCBWI Spring 2012 conference. While I was there… I got my first offer.
Donna Mark, Art Director at Bloomsbury wanted me to illustrate a middle grade chapter book called “The Quirks – Welcome to Normal”.
Take that Art Director Who Must Not Be Named.
Then I got a call from Alison Donalty, Art Director at Balzer and Bray, an imprint at Harper Collins. Another middle grade chapter book.
Those words from The A.D. Who Must Not Be Named were barely audible any longer. Now I HAD business in children’s books!
Next—an un-ending amount of calls about a character on a postcard that I mailed out… all from art directors and agents from all of the major publishing houses…
My first picture book as author/illustrator will be from Balzer and Bray as well , “Louise Loves Art”.
Those words in my head? Silenced.
“Who were you again? Oh, an art director? Oh yeah… that one who said something cruel…I think I remember your name… wait… I may have to google you…”
TWO more picture books with Harper Collins.
You, A.D. Who Must Not Be Named, have been (almost entirely) wiped from my memory.
You see, it’s kind of fabulous to have revenge—validation—someone to point to as a huge road block that I decided to drive through. I defied his label of me because only I can define myself. Don’t tell me I can’t—cause I will show you—not just that I can- but I will—and I will do it big.
Maybe… just maybe… I should be a tad grateful. That person forced me to grow. They could have been a hell of a lot more tactful in their choice of words in front of all of those people!!!! BUT—they don’t call these things “growing pains” for nothing….
I want everyone to take away from this, REJECTION is not a done deal. Critiques are not the end of the world. Public humiliation is tough—but if you know yourself—you can shed it. IF you hold on to who you are and what you do that is uniquely you and do it to the best of your ability. Do not stop! Keep getting better through the work. Follow your own heart—your own head—the beat of your own drum. Show those people in publishing—YOU are here.
These days, I am contacted, happily, by many art directors.
Last week, The A.D. Who Must Not Be Named contacted me. “Just wanted to drop a line to say that I love your work.”
One day—I will shake that hand and be gracious—cause that is what professionals do, but in my head… I will hear… BAZINGA!!!!
Kelly Light’s pencil is sharpened and she’s not afraid to use it.. She is currently working hard on her first three books. All due out Spring 2014: ,THE QUIRKS – WELCOME TO NORMAL, written by Erin Soderberg (Bloomsbury), ELVIS AND THE UNDERDOGS, written by Jenny Lee (Balzer and Bray), LOUISE LOVES ART, by Kelly Light (Balzer and Bray). Spring 2015 brings LOLA KNOWS A LOT, by Jenna McCarthy (Harper Collins).
Kelly lives in Long Island and currently has power!! She is, right now, drawing in her attic studio surrounded by old radios, books, cartoon collectibles and is usually singing very loudly. Head over to Kelly’s website and read her blog all the way back to 2009 and maybe you can figure out who The Art Director Who Must Not Be Named is! Sketch along with her on Twitter @kellylight.
I love Kelly’s art, and Louise loves art period, and now you can love both Kelly *and* Louise because you can win a Louise sketch by Kelly! Just comment on this post to enter (one comment per person). A winner will be randomly selected one week from today. Good luck!