As an Army brat, Pat found the line between fantasy and reality to be seriously fuzzy as she climbed through castles along the Rhine and dodged witches in Okinawan villages. Her more than 35 books include board books, a nonfiction series called Talking with Artists, and even a teen novel. But her taste for picture book fantasies is clear in her newest title, Beauty and the Beast, translated from the original French and retold by her husband, H. Chuku Lee.
For what age audience do you write?
Primarily, I write and illustrate picture books for the 4-8 year old reader. I lean towards fantasy and humor… but I love a good story or topic in any genre.
Henry: Fantasy and humor. I knew I liked you for a reason.
Tell us about your latest book.
Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite fairy tales. My husband and I were both enchanted by Jean Cocteau’s film version. His vision of the beast as elegant, haunted and mysterious made me feel sympathy for what should have been the antagonist. And when Chuku retold the story, he did it from Beauty’s point of view, which was a fresh take. I found that trying to capture the emotions of these two characters made the story come to life for me. I knew that I wanted my Beauty to be black and the Beast to carry the scarifications that an African prince might. So I let memories from my travels in West Africa mix with images from Cocteau, then tossed in fairy tale elements I’ve always found appealing…like bestial topiary and hidden faces.
Henry: And really, who doesn’t like scarifications and bestial topiary?
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I hope they’ll escape into a dreamlike world and feel the value in the courage and integrity Beauty exhibits. As Chuku wrote in the intro: it’s about the power of a promise. Being true to one’s word seems like a timeless theme worth retelling.
Henry: We need to keep retelling until people get it!
What aspect of writing or illustrating do you find most challenging?
Finishing. I have stacks of ideas, pages of sketches and drawings and projects in different stages of development. The challenge is always getting to the finish line with one, and not allowing other projects to tease me away.
Henry: *checks Wikipedia definition of ADD*
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer/illustrator?
It is SUCH a cliche but that’s because it is blindingly true: do what you LOVE. That’s the only way to stay excited and engaged with a book, which can take quite a while to complete.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer/illustrator?
Wow. I’ve never been asked that before! The best thing ever is meeting and hearing from young readers. If I weren’t a writer/illustrator, I wouldn’t get letters like the one I did recently from a little boy who wrote: “Yor buk is osm.”
Henry: Well, you are an osm lady, after all.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Read. Observe plot and character and pacing as you do. And then persevere. Nike said it: Just do it. Oh, do it and then send it off to someone. Just writing won’t be enough. You have to submit it.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
I hand this out to my students every semester because the bottom line with this business is that you have to perform: “Every morning in Africa the gazelle wakes up and knows he will have to run faster than the lion if he is not to be killed. Every morning in Africa the lion wakes up and knows he will have to run faster than the gazelle if he is not to die of hunger. When the sun rises, it doesn’t matter if you’re a gazelle or a lion, you’d better start running.
Henry: Or the gazelle at least needs to avoid being the slowest in the herd…
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write/illustrate?
Not really strange at all. I just need gallons of tea, a book on tape (or an old b/w movie) while painting and, ideally, dead silence while writing.
Henry: Clearly you don’t have young kids at home.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Flying. Definitely. I’ve had sensational flying dreams and the freedom of soaring, not to mention the glorious aerial viewpoints, is fabulous. It’s always disappointing to wake up and find I can’t lift off.
Henry: There’s always hang gliding. Or SCUBA, which is a lot like flying underwater.
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Ha! I’ve met some authors whose work I LOVE but I wouldn’t want to have them over for dinner. For some reason, the work rarely makes me curious about the person, with the exception of maybe Haruki Murakami. I love getting pulled into the curious world of his adult fairy tales. But even him I’d prefer to meet over coffee. For dinner, I’d invite writers whose company I know I like to see if they enjoy each other… maybe Walter Dean Myers, Peter Straub and Stephanie Calmenson.
Henry: Wikipedia helpfully elaborates:
“Walter Dean Myers was an American writer of children’s books best known for young adult literature. He has written over one hundred books including picture books and nonfiction. He has won the Coretta Scott King Award for African-American authors five times. His 1988 novel Fallen Angels is one of the books most frequently challenged in the U.S. because of its adult language and its realistic depiction of the Vietnam War.
Peter Straub is an American author and poet. His horror fiction has received numerous literary honors such as the Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, and International Horror Guild Award.”
Stephanie Calmenson is the author of children’s books, including Dinner at the Panda Palace, No Dogs Allowed, Teacher’s Pets, and There Are No Moose On This Island.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
I’m fond of shapeshifters whenever they appear. It’s so appealing to be able to assume another form…as needed. I can think of all sorts of practical uses for that ability.
Henry: Ah, another fan of Mystique from X-Men.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing/illustrating?
Read, travel, see family and friends;
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Yikes. Maybe, “On to the next chapter…”
Where can readers find your work?
Hopefully in bookstores and libraries. Most of my books are listed on my very crusty website www.patcummings.com
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner