I didn’t return to New York City until a few weeks later in order to follow-up with several of the editors. I worked on my portfolio, took out pieces that had nothing to do with book illustration, and took the train from 30th Street Station in Philadelphia to Penn Station in New York City—by myself!
Of all the editors and art directors I had met Charlotte Zolotow was the most encouraging. She had me meet with an up-and-coming editor named T—- whom she thought might be a good fit for me and who might be interested in working with me as a writer and illustrator.
T—- was young, sophisticated, and very interested in my work. During my first meeting with her she asked one important question: “Did you know what children’s picture book is considered to be the most perfect picture book?”
I had no clue. I loved quite a few children’s books and had my favorites, but I didn’t know that there was ONE perfect picture book.
“Goodnight, Moon,” she said. “I want you to study this book and see if you can figure out why it is considered to be the perfect picture book.”
T—- and I had many meetings over the next few months. I felt like I had made an entrée into the world of children’s book publishing even though I had not yet been offered any kind of contract.
T—- read several of my manuscripts and had said “I wish I could tell you to concentrate on illustrating alone, but your writing is really good. You’re almost there.”
“Well, tell me what to do to be there and I’ll do it!” I had said, feeling a bit frustrated.
“I can’t,” she said. “It’s something you’re going to have to figure out for yourself and when you do, you’ll be there, and I will want to work with you on a project.”
Believe it or not, this kind of exchange went on from 1979 until 1981. I stopped making appointments with other editors and art directors because I really thought that Harper & Row was going to be MY publisher. Charlotte continued to be interested in my progress but left me in the “capable hands” of T—-.
T—- kept asking me questions like: “Can you draw sheep? Do you think you could do a few dozen sketches of sheep and bring them to me in a couple weeks? I have a manuscript that you might be just right for.”
I frantically drew sheep and went back to see T—-.
“Can you draw fish and whales?”
“Can you draw city scenes?”
“Can you draw….”
Over the course of two years I must have drawn hundreds of things that T—- asked to see. But it never seemed to get me any closer to being offered a contract.
Working all day in an office and staying up most of the night drawing whatever T—- requested me to draw, was starting to take its toll on me. I was exhausted! But most of all, I was frustrated.
This is when Ed came to my rescue.
I told him that I really needed more time to work on my portfolio and that I needed to make appointments and talk to other editors. He agreed. Ed is a talented watercolorist and has always been my toughest critic. We made a deal: I would quit my job and would take a year off to work on my portfolio. I had listened to everything every editor and art director had said to me, especially Charlotte and T—-, and now I knew that I really had to work on a focused manuscript and dummy.
Ed would support me financially for a year. And at the end of the year IF I did not get my break in publishing, I would apply to Wharton, get my MBA, and put all thoughts of being a professional writer and illustrator behind me. I would be one tough, kick ass CEO in a corporation.
From 1981 through most of 1982 I worked on No One Will Come to Dinner. A quirky story about a small Scottish banshee that didn’t quite fit in with her clan. I wrote the best story that I could telling of her the little banshee’s adventures and determination to live on her own away from her clan called the Ravenlocks. The small banshee’s name was Ravena.
I spent a great deal of time in bookstores (back then there actually WERE bookstores that you could visit and look at books for as long as you liked. There were no cafés in the bookstores, only books). One of my favorite illustrators is Trina Schart Hyman. And one of my most favorite books that she illustrated is titled Magic in the Mist written by Margaret Mary Kimmel.
I read and reread that book at least 200 times. I studied every illustration and layout of the book. When I made my first dummy for No One Will Come to Dinner I basically used Trina’s layouts to inspire my own book design layout.
I still have that very first dummy.
In 1979-81 we didn’t have personal computers. The only way to make the words in the dummy look “professional” was to buy sheets of Chartpak rub-on letters. In this dummy every single letter of every single word and punctuation was carefully positioned and rubbed onto the paper in the most painstaking manner you can imagine.
Here’s what a sheet of Chartpak letters looks like:
And here is that very first manuscript!
In the beginning of my career I was a messy writer!
No One Will Come to Dinner was published as Ravena in 1984.
But, I’m getting a little ahead of myself in telling the chronology of my publishing story.
It was 1981, my time was running, money was tight, and I had to start taking temp work as a secretary/administrative assistant. Ed had been patient, but my break hadn’t come yet and it looked like the year that I had given myself was coming to an end and i would have to start filling out the application for Wharton Business School.
I am an honest person. Or, so I like to think I am. Back in those days we didn’t have unlimited long distance calling. Every time I called an editor or publisher in New York City it was a long distance call. And I really couldn’t afford to make many long distance calls.
I was working in an office and had a moment of panic. I only had two weeks left before my time would run out and I would have to honor my promise to Ed and give up my dreams of being a published writer and illustrator.
I did something not very ethical. I used the phone in the office that I was temping in to make a few long distance phone calls to publishers in New York City. I thought if I’m not going to make it at least I’m going to give it one last try so that I could always say: “I tried, but I wasn’t good enough.”
I made appointments with four publishers. I won’t drag this part of the story out but let the record show that when I returned to New York City for my final swan song I was offered SEVEN book contracts by these four publishers!
It was amazing! Ravena was the first book that I worked hardest on, but it was Eddy B, Pigboy that was the first book to be published by Margaret K. McElderry at Atheneum.
It was this little 5″x7″ book that launched my career as both a writer and illustrator.
I signed the seven book contracts in 1982. Eddy B, Pigboy was published in 1983.
At the time I never thought it might be unusual to have been offered so many contracts at one time before I had ever had anything published. But, that’s the way it happened.