Saturday, July 28, 2012

"Each One Teach One" Interview: Illustrator/Author Bonnie Adamson

This week’s interview features the SCBWI Assistant Regional Advisor for the Carolinas, BonnieAdamson! Bonnie is an Illustrator/Author – with 5 illustrated books out through Raven tree press, plus many other published illustrations. Her first written-and-illustrated project, a graphic-novel about Robots in the old west, is currently being shopped by her agent, Marietta Zacker, of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency.  As an Illustrator/Author and SCBWI ARA Bonnie has worked hard to bring more opportunities, trainings, and conference speakers focused on “illustration” to the Carolinas Region.
Welcome Bonnie, I’m so thrilled to have you! Will you tell us who was an illustrator, author or other publishing professional who taught you something important about the profession when you first starting out?  Who mentored you? 
You ask about mentors. There have been so many! The generosity of the illustrating and writing community is amazing. And there have been countless epiphanies brought on by fellow writers and illustrators online, many of them anonymous, sharing wisdom through blog posts, comments and tweets.

But I can point to one defining moment, and one person who, without knowing it, I’m sure, kept the dream alive for me for nearly twenty years. Way back—WAY back—in the early 80s, my husband’s aunt invited me to attend a luncheon organized by a regional teachers’ group in Knoxville, TN.

The featured speaker at the luncheon was Ava Weiss, creative director and co-founder of Greenwillow Books, at that time an imprint of William H. Morrow. My husband’s aunt knew I was interested in writing and illustrating stories for children, so she had arranged not only for me to attend, but to meet Ava afterwards and show her my portfolio.
Now, you have to remember that this was the dark ages before the internet. Even I knew of Greenwillow and its legendary editor Susan Hirschman, but knew nothing about the publishing industry. Although I was pleased at the opportunity to meet with Ms. Weiss, I had no idea how huge an opportunity it was. If I had, I would never have presumed to show her my art school portfolio, full of life class sketches and company logos (I was a graphic design major). There was little in it remotely connected to children’s books. One piece that came close was a class assignment to create “trading cards for kids who are not interested in sports.” I had chosen to feature True Crime, and had designed cards for Blackbeard, Jack the Ripper, etc. (This is where one of those emoticons with the horrified face would be appropriate, right?)

It would make a great ending to say that she signed me up on the spot, in spite of my pitiful portfolio, but I was obviously not ready for a career in children’s publishing. So she did the next best thing: she was kind. She managed to convince me that she “saw something” in my work—which is saying something because, believe me, it would have been hard to see anything that day. The only space available for an impromptu meeting was the bar of the hotel where the luncheon had been held, and hotel bars in the 80s were dark, cave-like places with sticky tables much too small to support my oversized art school portfolio. But Ms. Weiss kept her promise to review my work, squinting gamely at the charcoal figure studies and nodding at my packaging designs and letterheads. She took the time to talk to me about my interest in illustrating. She remarked, regretfully, on how difficult it would be for me to pursue my goals, as far out of the mainstream as I was in South Carolina. And as the interview drew to a close, she said, “I think we’ll be hearing from you.”
That was all it took. A big-time New York art director had implied that I might someday have the wherewithal to be a part of her world. I started a folder of story ideas; I volunteered to do the publicity for my daughters’ ballet company, thinking it would be a great way to beef up my portfolio with printed work more suited to children’s publishing. I was still in South Carolina, still without any meaningful contact with the industry, but Ava Weiss had validated the dream.

Years later the internet happened, a Google search for “children’s writers” led me to SCBWI, and my introductory membership packet included the Market Survey with—gasp!—Ava Weiss’s address at Greenwillow. She was still there! I wrote and re-wrote I don’t know how many drafts of a “You won’t remember me, but . . .” letter, which I had finally gotten up the nerve to send, when I saw a notice in the Bulletin that she had retired the month before.
Bonnie, that’s a wonderful story!  You got me a little teary-eyed at the end, I must admit.  It certainly IS amazing, and can be so life-changing, when someone with clout or lots of experience in the profession encourages your dream.    And that’s so much what SCBWI, and even this group of interviews are about; encouraging the dreams of others and helping them grow.

So what were the lessons you learned from this experience?

1) It never hurts to be kind. I think of how fragile the notion of illustrating for children was for me at the time. I had already embarked on a freelance design career, after a stint at a national business magazine. I had a young daughter, more local clients than I could handle, and no desire to leave South Carolina. One off-handed comment would have squashed my ambitions for good.

2) Never give up. Tenacity is as desirable as talent in this business. So what if it takes 20 years for someone to invent the internet? If you refuse to let go of a dream, you will find a way.

3) Remove the nudes from the portfolio. Also the murderer trading cards. And if your book of samples fits comfortably on a tiny bar table, so much the better.

Ha ha ha, Bonnie.  J That’s last piece especially seems like very important advice! 

Do you have any more suggestions for illustrators and writers, based on what you learned from Ava Weiss?


1.) Take every opportunity to pay it forward. That’s what I love about my job as Assistant Regional Advisor (ARA) for the Carolinas region. Ava Weiss may have ignited the spark, but SCBWI (with a little help from the internet) made it happen. I got my first illustration contract as a direct result of an item in the SCBWI Bulletin. I found my critique partners through a listing on the message boards at the SCBWI website, and last fall I signed with an agent as a direct result of a paid critique at the regional conference. I can’t possibly repay the debt I owe to the organization that first took me seriously as a writer and illustrator of children’s books.

2) Get in the habit of saying “yes.” You can’t always be in control of your career, but you can be prepared to sprint through every open door. A group of writers in my home town organized a coffee event, which is where I met Samantha Bell, then the editor of the Pen & Paletter, which is how my name came up when they were looking for someone to replace the (irreplaceable) Karen Lee when she stepped down as illustration editor. Getting to know Karen led to her suggestion that I also take over as Illustrator Coordinator. I wasn’t sure just what that meant, but I said yes. And so I was in the right place when the equally irreplaceable Jo Hackl stepped down as ARA and RA Teresa Fannin decided to bring illustrators more closely into the administration of the region.

“Say Yes!” (Even of things you’ve never done before that may be a real challenge but also an opportunity for growth.)   That’s some of the best advice for writers/illustrators – and indeed for all people living – that I’ve ever heard, Bonnie. Thanks for reminding us of that!

I know you’ve made it your mission to help bring more opportunities for Illustrators into SCBWI Carolinas events and publications.  Can you tell us briefly why that goal is so close to your heart?

Certainly.  One of the best things about collaborating with Teresa Fannin on events is working out the balance so that everyone feels equally at home. We spend a lot of time making sure that each group within the Carolinas community can find something of value: picture book writers; chapter book, midgrade and YA novelists; illustrators; PAL members, newcomers. It’s really exciting to see a magical mix come together. We got thrown a couple of curves this year as we’ve planned the conference, but I believe the lineup of presenters we have now is even stronger than we had originally planned.

My year and a half on the SCBWI ARA job has been such a joy. Teresa and I both believe that writers and illustrators have a lot to teach each other. Each group approaches projects from a different perspective, but with the same goal in mind: to tell a story that will delight a child.

Knowing how difficult it is to find just the right 350 words (or less!) for a picture book makes me even more conscious of my responsibility to support and expand on the text. And I hope that understanding what I as an illustrator can do with my particular bag of tricks frees a writer to take a few more chances with the text—to leave some open spaces and feel confident that in the end the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s so great to hear an illustrator’s perspective, Bonnie.  I know that writers who wish to write picture books have a lot of questions about how to write a complete story with so few words, and of course, that’s where the wonderful skills and imagination of the illustrators come in!  What a wonderful collaboration!    I know there’s also a lot of excitement about the SCBWI Carolinas Conference this year!

                                      Here's Bonnie signing her books at the BEA conference.  

Ok one last fun Question:  How did you actually become an Illustrator/Author?

I was obsessed with creating books at an early age—it wasn’t enough to read them, I laboriously copied the text of favorite books onto notebook paper, re-drew the illustrations, and stapled the pages together. That makes no sense to me now—why didn’t I write my own stories? Later, I did write and illustrate stories about sad-eyed puppies (I could draw cocker spaniels really well). When our first daughter was born, I wrote a story for her titled “The Little Horse Who Couldn’t Wake Up in the Morning”—which  was probably more about sleep deprivation than I realized at the time.

As a graphic designer, I had done spot illustrations for years, but I’d never called myself an illustrator until a friend and I visited a new art supply store in town. To celebrate their grand opening, they were holding a drawing for door prizes. There was a space on the little slip of paper to write your name, and under that, it said, “Profession.” I had been trying to take the leap to children’s books for some time (now that I had the internet!). I remember thinking—okay, this is a sign. I wrote, “Illustrator”—I swear my hand was actually shaking.  I then lay awake that night feeling humiliated. What was I thinking? I wasn’t a REAL illustrator! People would find out! People would laugh. The things we do to ourselves . . .

As far as published work goes, I have five picture books with Raven Tree Press, plus a Raven Tree series for which I did (uncredited) spot illustrations. I also did the cover and interior black-and-whites for a book club edition of The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, pen and ink drawing for a kid’s self help book about therapy for Magination Press, and illustrations for several magazine articles for kids.
That's a lot of publications, Bonnie!  Thanks so much for taking time out to chat with me today, and to make SCBWI Carolinas a great place for Illustrators and Authors alike!
Next week we'll have a brand new "Shooting Star" Author (Megan Shepherd - author of soon-to-be 6 fabulous YA novels) sharing her amazing journey with us.  Don't miss it!


Carol Baldwin said...

Nice interview thanks Bonnie and janelle I agree. Try to say yes whenever u can!

Jo said...

Great interview, Bonnie. You set the standard for "paying it forward" and SCBWI Carolinas members are fortunate indeed that you do!


Janelle said...

SO True!

Anonymous said...

Glad to see an illustrator sharing here as well! Great interview, Bonnie!