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My art life

My early work

I threw away most of my art because I was a perfectionist and it wasn't good enough. 

Big mistake. Don't do that.

This is my big family. I'm the middle top kid.

I won a poster contest when I was 8. 

The prize was a month of Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors ice cream cones. 

(My younger sister and brother also won!)

My first journal

My first real journal came from a beloved teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth McCarthy. Before that I had sketchpads and memo pads and diaries, but they were constraining or they fell apart. 

This was the first one that I cherished. And it started me on a lifetime of keeping a journal.

My teen journals

I was a normal, angsty teen and I recorded it all in my illustrated journals.

Two years in a row I won Gold Keys in the Detroit News Scholastic Writing Awards when I entered specially-created journals about high school. My prizes: Two big dictionaries with my name engraved in gold on the covers.

I worked all through college

I started working as a professional illustrator and designer in the first month of fall term, freshman year at Michigan State University.
This is a mug with my art, and if you bought a drink at a football or basketball game in the early 1980s, it probably was served in one of my cups or mugs. I love MSU.
(That's my little family with the balloon)

I drew my children ALL the time

I still do, though they're grown up now.
This is Katie at about age 4.

I drew my kids' friends, too

I went on as many field trips as I could, and drew the students for the teachers.

Meanwhile I was still freelancing

I drew a gazillion clown coloring pages. Ridiculously low pay because some guy in another state was doing them for cheap. 

I understood -- the clowns were underpaid, too. 

And I was a Girl Scout leader

We had a big troop. I was overwhelmed. 

But I kept drawing.

I drew a few recipe books

I don't especially love to cook but I have illustrated a few cookbooks -- for Michigan State University, for Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, and for the Capital Area Girl Scout Council.

I won a bunch of essay contests

I won grand prize in 5 national essay contests. I am Kudos Working Mother of the Year, 

Suave Family Manager of the Year, and

 America's Most Harried Home Cook. 

I won one statewide contest -- I am Robitussin's Dr. Mom for Michigan. I should have known this meant I should draw books for children. But I didn't connect the dots between illustrated essay books and published books.

Drew homemade books as gifts

And STILL didn't have the courage to do real art for real books and send it to a publisher.

I met the brilliant Richard Peck at a special luncheon for student authors (with my 10 year old daughter). He looked at my sketches and gave me his editor's contact information.

I had bought two books on how to write a book proposal and they seemed too intimidating. I didn't write to his editor.

That was in 1993, I think.

And then I heard of a contest

It was a book contest and I was SURE I would win. I worked hard from the minute I found out about it, right before Halloween, 2002. The deadline was December 31. 

I sent in my entry... and did not win.

I was hooked! I made more books

I started working on new books as soon as I sent the contest entry out to the publisher. My second effort was about a girl and music. It was rejected, but I still kept making books.

ALL of my early efforts failed

All six of my early books were rejected. I kept trying. I dissected 53 picture books in an effort to understand why they worked, how they worked. I took writing classes.

Still, six books. Six rejections. 

I was getting desperate.

Meawhile I kept doing comics

I thought maybe comics was where I was supposed to make my mark in the world. I'd had a daily comic (circulation 55,000) for three years in college. I had a couple very close calls with real syndicates. Ultimately I was rejected.

And then I met Tomie dePaola

Tomie looked at my art and considered my rejections and said, "Come to New York, to the big SCBWI conference, and I bet you'll learn what you need to get published."
I said, "Okay! I will!" But we were broke.

Should I go?

A trip to New York seemed 100% selfish.


It was a dark time. 

Going to NY might make it much worse.


I took a leap of faith.

I went to NY

I kept a sketchbook of everything I learned. 

I came home discouraged.

Nobody "discovered" me. 

I vowed to work harder on my art. 

And I put every bit of my 180-page NYC sketchbook on my website.

It went VIRAL: 1000 emails from strangers.

 Some said to do a book in that journal style. 

And Ellie McDoodle was born

Just two weeks after returning home from NYC in February 2005, I had 100 pages of illustrated manuscript for my new book idea which was an illustrated novel, and I had interest from an agent. 

My friends and relatives cheered me on. 

Ellie McDoodle changed my life

I signed with Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

The book sold quickly to Bloomsbury. 

It became a 6 book series.

It's found in 8 languages around the world.

I get fan letters in Portuguese!!

My life was now a Cinderella story, and the happily-ever-after part just keeps going.

I still get rejections

Rejections can be painful. 

I work very hard at my craft. 

I take art lessons. I study poetry.

I want my work to be excellent.

But I am deliriously happy right where I am:

a children's book author and illustrator.

I drew this picture of me right after meeting my first editor in NYC 2006.

How my family nurtured my creativity

They bought creative toys

 <--- That's 10-year-old me holding my new Christmas gift, Mini Dragons, from the makers of Creepy Crawlers. You know, Plastigoop, a little immersion oven called the Thingmaker, tongs, and a set of metal molds. This might be my most favorite gift EVER. Mini Dragons and Creepy Crawlers were dangerous "toys" -- easy to burn a few fingers off. And Vac-u-form, which my brothers had, was another scary toy, now that I think of it. But they sure were fun and creative. 

Not all our toys were dangerous. We always had Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and plastic bricks.

Mom says she never bought coloring books

She gave us plain paper -- colored and white -- and told us to draw our own images to color.

We always had pens and markers and crayons and scissors and glue.

When we did dioramas or posters or other creative work for schools or contests she was available with suggestions but didn't try to run it. We created our own work.

When I won art and writing contests they celebrated with me

And they didn't make so big a deal out of winning -- or losing -- that I felt I had to win.
Creative people usually put LOTS of pressure on themselves. 

Family members don't need to add more.

They demonstrated creativity themselves

Boy, did they ever!
Mom MADE our living room couch. The entire thing. And it was a sectional!
We grew up seeing her oil paintings around the house.

She won lots of blue ribbons at the Michigan State Fair for her desserts and art.

My favorite of her State Fair blue ribbon entries was a gigantic Christmas stocking wtih lots of cool things embroidered and appliqued onto it.
She made a lot of our outfits. My favorite was a white sleeveless shift with big bright flowers colored in embroidery paint.
Our pillowcases had her art on them, in embroidery paint. I still have two of mine -- they have my name on, and one has Pebbles Flintstone on it and the other has roses.

Dad made things from wood -- all kinds of cool stuff for camp.

Mom took photos of Dad's inventions and wrote about them and her articles appeared in camping magazines.  

She wrote articles often for Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies' Home Journal. 

She was a professional photographer. 

She created the most exquisite decorated cakes for our birthdays.

She was a great cook, too.

She made many of our Christmas tree decorations and the elves that hung around the house.

When Dad ran for judge we silkscreened his lawn signs in our basement. (He won.)

Our photo album was (is) a giant 2 foot by 2 foot homemade book with rows and rows of photos taken by Mom. It's really cool. Much better than a mass-produced album.

We made our own Halloween costumes every year. It start with Mom making them, and as we got older we made our own. They usually won prizes at the city Halloween party.

Our Easter eggs were always extra creative. I don't just mean the colored eggs. She also made giant sugar eggs with little scenes inside them. And we always had a decorated Easter tree inside and another outside.

Even in my awful angsty teen years, I don't remember my mother ever saying a negative thing about my art.


Aside to Mom: Thank you. <3 

They taught us to love museums

Not an easy task with 7 kids.
I can't count how many times I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts before I was 12.

Same with Greenfield Village.

And the Detroit Zoo.

And the Detroit Historical Museum, where they had the coolest exhibit, The Streets of Old Detroit. 


(Just writing this makes me ache to see it again. The Streets of Old Detroit was recently updated --
https://detroithistorical.org/detroit-historical-museum/plan-your-visit/general-information)

They demonstrated resilience

This creative life seems to summon people who are especially sensitive and unconfident. That can be a problem when it comes to managing rejection of manuscripts and art and negative reviews.

My parents both endured unbelievably difficult trauma in their lives, but they were resilient.

They made the best of the bad things life threw at them.

When my dad died at 40, leaving a young widow with 7 kids, Mom was determined to keep going. She remarried, giving us two more wonderful little sisters, and she went to college and earned a 4 year degree. She is the very embodiment of tenacity and strength.

I learned not to rest on laurels and not to allow rejection to hold me back. 

There were times when it felt like it was me against the world, but still, deep inside, I firmly believed the world was wrong about me and someday I was going to be successful with my art. 

I don't know how I had confidence to believe that. I think it came from my parents.

Me, happy to be a children's book author

This is me right after meeting my editor Melanie at Bloomsbury, 2006