Pat Cummings: Ask Yourself What You Feel Curious About

Posted by: yetheart, January 17, 2019 7:56 pm
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Pat Cummings

Pat Cummings has always loved libraries. They were places where she could follow up on any topic that she was curious about—and after her mother became a librarian, she spent even more time at the library.

In the fifth grade, she checked out Crime and Punishment and The Agony and the Ecstasy. “Those ‘and’ books like War and Peace intrigued me,” she says, admitting she never made it as far as the agony or the punishment, but she did get through Pride and Prejudice. “Libraries have always given me a sense of endless possibilities,” she adds, noting that librarians never once tried to dissuade her from tackling a book. Cummings visited Queens Library this December, giving author talks at Baisley Park and South Jamaica Community Libraries.

Cummings calls books her “drug of choice”: “I need books. If I’m curious about something, I’ll read a book about it. Books inform me, entertain me, relax me, inspire me, and have exposed me to more things, places, and people than I could ever encounter. Audiobooks keep me working at the drawing table and moving on the treadmill; books have seen me through long flights, rainy days, even hospital stays.”

Now, she describes herself as heavily dependent on libraries, to get all of the books she keeps around—by the bed, on her phone, for the treadmill, for the subway, and so on—but also for research. When she wanted to do a tale about Ananse, the spider of African stories, her first stop was the public library to do a search of all the various stories that had already been told about the spider.

Ananse and the Lizard came about when an editor asked her to illustrate a folktale from the Congo. She liked the idea of doing an African story and noticed that, in America, Ananse always gets his comeuppance, while in original West African versions, he got away with some “pretty dastardly tricks.” She wanted a story that “hadn’t been done in the States, that had great visual possibilities, and that didn’t let the spider off the hook despite his bad behavior.” She found the story she was looking for in a library in Accra, Ghana.

Ananse and the Lizard by Pat CummingsCummings is fascinated that the same story themes, even characters, appear around the world in different cultures. “At any age, I think readers appreciate seeing characters who boast and lie get found out by the end. This story reinforces a timeless, and ageless, human need for justice.” She encourages readers to pick up a book “about a culture that is unfamiliar and to read about characters who are different from themselves. They may find more common ground than they anticipate.”

While she says it’s never been easy to publish any book, publishers are now hungry for quality stories with diverse characters. But the underlying attitude that books with diverse characters represent “niche” publishing has only recently begun to change. Cummings says, “I was fortunate to come in on a wave created by Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, Mildred Pitts Walter, and others.” Although she didn’t encounter any resistance to publishing diverse books, an editor told her that having a person of color on the cover of the book would limit its marketability. Today, she says, there’s little excuse for thinking diverse books are difficult to find—they are available in all genres.

Some of the children’s books authors she admires include Jessixa Bagley, Jerdine Nolen, Nina Crews, Walter Dean Myers, Philip Pullman, Stephanie Calmenson, Alan Bradley, and You Byun. She also cites many of her former students such as Shadra Strickland, David Ezra Stein, Julian Hector, Aram Kim, and Lisa Anchin. “All write stories I’ve found to be moving, hilarious, evocative, and/or inspiring,” she states, “Sometimes all of the above.”

In addition to writing and illustrating, Cummings is a teacher. This experience has made her “more aware of why some stories and art seem viable and others need work” because she needs to “analyze what works, what doesn’t, and why. It’s not enough to simply like or dislike a project.”

She’s currently finishing a picture book called Where’s Mommy? to be published by Holiday House, about a little girl who wakes up alone after falling asleep while her mom read to her on the couch. She follows clues to try to figure out where her mom might be.

She also has a middle grade novel forthcoming this spring—her first venture into that genre. Cummings says the book has no relationship to any other book she’s written; “it feels like a whole other set of muscles need to be exercised.” Years ago, while working on a middle grade project with picture book author/illustrator Sheila Hamanaka, Cummings “fell in love with writing longer stories.” Now, in Trace, she fuses together two real events that occurred over a century apart, mixing facts with fantasy. “It’s an eerie ghost story that would never suit a picture book audience.” She says that the book came out of following the advice to write the kind of story she’d want to read. As a young reader, she was always drawn to the fantasy worlds of Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman. As an adult, she finds the same qualities in Haruki Murakami’s work.

The process for writing her middle grade novel was very different than the process of writing her picture books, which is a solitary act. Cummings only consults her editor, whereas with her forthcoming novel she formed a writers’ group for feedback over the long distance project. If you want to write, she says, read.

Not all of us enjoy reading, but Cummings says to read for yourself. “Having to read a book can be a deadening experience…But when you pick up a book just because you’re curious about something, it’s a completely different experience. Pick up a comic, a wordless book, a how-to manual. Read for yourself and you will come to love reading. Ask yourself what you feel curious about. Then find a book about it. Or write one.”

This is just one of the great stories you can read in the January/February 2019 issue of Queens Library Magazine. Other articles you may find interesting: