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By the time she graduated from Pratt Institute in 1974, Pat Cummings realized that the children’s theatre posters that filled her portfolio might be her entrée into children’s book publishing. But, after a year of showing lizard drawings to editors who wanted pandas, and ballerinas to art directors looking for astronauts, she realized that having a diverse range of clients was more practical. In the years leading up to teaching she was illustrating for clients such as the New York Times, Women’s Wear Magazine, Essence Magazine, and Black Enterprise Magazine. She also once designed sets at the Apollo Theater, created costumes for children’s theatre groups, and was a writer and producer for the Nickolodeon show, Gullah Gullah Island. Eventually, she began writing and illustrating picture books.

The variety of her assignments proved handy: her first teaching position, at Queensborough Community College, was a class that offered students an introduction to a freelance illustration career. In 1989, when Pat and novelist Nicholasa Moore were asked by Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff to take over their graduate creative writing course, she began teaching at Queens College.

As her teaching career blossomed, so did her career in picture books. Pat won the Coretta Scott King Award for her illustrations in My Momma Needs Me written by Mildred Pitts. Upon hearing her acceptance speech, her editor, Barbara Lalicki, encouraged her to write her own stories. Since then, Pat has written and illustrated over 40 books for children. While teaching children’s book illustration at Parsons, it only took one semester of for her to realize that working with students was providing an eye-opening education about creating books. She decided to concentrate fully on doing books herself.

As a coach and mentor, Pat watched projects develop and saw students surprise themselves as their stories took shape. Thanks to the truly collaborative nature of the children’s book business, editors, art directors, agents, published writers and illustrators happily accepted invitations to visit her classes and share their work. Students began to get published…and joined the stream of class visitors as they returned with their books to inform and inspire her new students.

Soon, she began teaching the same course at Pratt. The structure of her classes had evolved into a combination of assignments that prepared students to submit a children’s book project to targeted publishers. Pat’s teaching has spread into many corners of the kidlit community. She sits on the boards of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), The Authors Guild, and The Author’s League Fund. She serves as the Chair of the Founders Award committee for the Society of Illustrator’s annual Original Art Show.  And in 2006 she began teaching a summer Children’s Book Boot Camp from her home to help aspiring authors and illustrators develop their work and pitch it to publishers.

Over the years, she has shepherded many talented students and seen them go on to build impressive careers in the industry – winning notable awards, teaching, and representing other artists. As a mentor, Pat Cummings is a friend, a cheerleader, and a fairy godmother.

This award is not just another bullet point in a very illustrious career, but a confirmation about what all her students know to be true about Pat Cummings: knowing her will change your life.

– Written by Shadra Strickland, award-winning illustrator and Assistant Chair in the Illustration department at MICA.

Photo by Marvin Lee

Beauty & the Beast, retold by H. Chuku Lee HarperCollins, 2014

Ananse & the Lizard, Clarion Books, 2002

Where is Mommy? Holiday House, 2019

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