When I moved to Toronto three years ago with all my worldly goods and a dream of being a children’s writer/editor, I had a couple strange months before starting Publishing School. I knew very few people, had very little furniture, and was jittery about things like subway transfers. (There was also a garbage strike on, so the city was abnormally stinky!) But that summer, I realized that I happened to live just down the street from the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, also known as CANSCAIP, who’ve been around for the past thirty-five years and who get together once a month above the library.
I’ve been to meetings semi-regularly ever since (am trying especially hard not to miss them now that I’ve become a freelancer, aka a hermit), and last night’s led by the illustrator Debbie Ohi was a wonderfully fun and thought-provoking one.
Debbie took us through her story of becoming a children’s book illustrator, balancing creative work with “real world” work, continuing to put herself out there despite the rejections, and — what was very interesting to me — being an introvert. You wouldn’t think Debbie was introverted to meet her, she’s so easygoing, personable and enthusiastic. I wouldn’t immediately think it about myself, either; I grew up in the performing arts and loved them, and continue to love to sing and dance and be a general ham. But she is one, and I am one, and I suspect a lot of writers and artists and people who “craft” things are.
Debbie also talked about how, these days, it is very, very rare to get your creative work plucked from obscurity, no matter how vividly you might daydream about it…
Especially when you’re trying to get into writing or illustrating for young people, you can’t disappear into your introverted world, come out clutching your manuscript and say, “Done! Publish me, please!” Educating yourself about the children’s book community and getting to know people there is important, and it’s how new work tends to get “discovered.”
Then, if you’re lucky enough to find your name on the cover of a book, engaging with the reading community can help your book grow. There are just so many books out there, and kids’ book publishers never have enough marketing dollars nowadays. Word-of-mouth begins with you, the creator.
These are things that might not come naturally to people who like to spend a lot of time by themselves, making stuff up. But Debbie just works through it, drawing comics about her experiences as she goes along. And she’s always generous with her advice for those who feel nervous or embarrassed or shy. To paraphrase,
Be brave — introduce yourself! If they like children’s books, chances are they’re very nice. If they’re fellow writers/illustrators, chances are they too are nervous and embarrassed and shy.
Know how to describe your own work.
Have realistic expectations (he he).
And from there, you never know.
Congrats, Debbie, on the launch of your and Michael Ian Black’s first children’s book, I’m Bored (Simon & Schuster)!