I fell in love with Mike Malbrough's cat book Marigold Bakes a Cake. It was clever and cute and I was drawn to the illustrations. It was his debut book and I thought it would be neat to find out how he got there. So, Mike, it's all yours!
Have you ever heard of Tabata?
Tabata is a popular form of HIIT (high-intensity interval training where you basically exercise as hard as you possibly can for 30 seconds and then rest for 10. Then you repeat that a bunch of times.
I've tried it and you would never guess that 30 seconds could seem like such a torturously long time. I'm not a fitness geek, but there is apparently research that argues the benefits of this form of intense bursts of activity, with rest in between, when compared to something like jogging at a steady pace over the course of an hour.
Maybe in fitness, but not, in my experience, when it comes to breaking into the world of children's literature.
If I could jump through a black hole and go back in time like Matthew McConaughey did in the underappreciated film Interstellar,
I would tell myself to take it easy. I wasn't going to SCBWI Conferences back then, but I was going to a ton of Comic-Cons trying to be the next Batman penciller, and every experience was marked by a mad dash of frenzied and desperate preparation about a week out from the convention date. My work was never ready, my spirit never settled and my confidence never high, and yet I would go into the fray of the show floor and come away defeated.
The hunger and courage were to be commended, but I learned so little because I wasn't prepared. Not only had I not put the proper time into my work, but I wasn't ready to receive feedback and talk about my work, let alone talk to others about theirs. So I would come home dejected and not touch a pencil for weeks. Then after a rest I would start the next interval.
Breaking in as an Author or Illustrator is a haul. It takes time. Mainly because it is about relationships. You have to meet face to face and build rapport. The most wonderful aspect of the kid lit industry is that the professionals who make up the industry are, with very, very few exceptions, remarkably warm, giving, and supportive. Every chance that you get to shake someone's hand
or have a conversation is an opportunity to get someone in your corner as a fan or someone who wants to see you grow and succeed, personally, artistically, and professionally. It can be hard when you want to break in so badly, to take your time, breathe and be in the moment with every hurdle, every not-so-good critique or round table session.
Here are a couple of practical ways to do this:
Plan out a year of work. Pick a conference, class, or workshop that you are going to attend and use that as the start date.
That's where you begin. Even if it's months away. Then plan out what a year of working will look like with that same event NEXT YEAR as the finish line. The first conference is about collecting information, starting a relationship, finding inspiration, analyzing, etc.
Create right after failure. This is really hard to do. But worth it. Plan to make something the day after a conference or critique. Notice I'm not saying get back to your dummy or manuscript. The key is getting back to why we all are drawn to this life. Make something that wasn't there before. Play the piano. Bake a cake, or go for a walk and imagine.
Be patient with relationships. Finding an agent or publisher is like dating. There is definitely some magic involved and everyone has a unique experience, but most matches take time and a delicate hand. When wanting to display genuine interest, don't be pushy, but follow up and ask questions. Show gratitude and be polite. Most importantly, take your time.
Best wishes and happy strolling!
Mike came to the world of children's picture books from a twenty-year career in comic books, graphic design, performing, and teaching. He lives in Orange, New Jersey with his wife, and two adventurous sons. He is presently illustrating a chapter book series for Viking called Warren and Dragon by Ariel Bernstein, which will be out next summer. He is working on a sequel to Marigold in which Marigold has a little trick up his sleeve.