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October 28, 2010

Book Review: The Work of Pat Cummings

Children’s literature writer and artist Pat Cummings, whose stories and art have made a great impact on the children’s literature world, had her artistic beginnings all over the world.


Her father, Arthur Cummings, was an Army professional and the family was shuttled off from base to base all over the globe. Cummings’ exposure to the art and cultures of many different nations is quite visible in her artwork. Every new school was an invitation for Pat to use her artwork as an ice-breaker and business venture. In fifth grade she, “...did a healthy business selling ballerina drawings during recess.” From that point on she realized that she could become an artist and still make a living. She graduated from Pratt Institute in the mid-seventies and hasn’t stopped working as an artist since. Her early art career was mainly as a graphic artist, working with the Billie Holiday Theater in New York, painting and designing theater posters. She worked on a freelance basis for many other theaters, including Broadway shows, and all types of advertising campaigns.

She is renowned as an illustrator or other authors and a writer of her own stories. She has won the Coretta Scott King, Orbis Pictus and the Boston Globe-Horn Book awards. In addition, Cummings has written and edited four volumes of non-fiction works, Talking With Artists, Volumes I-III and Talking With Adventurers, all four filled with stories and interviews with writers and artists. A majority of her writing work is based on her family and, in particular, on
the exploits of her brother Artie (whose name is changed from story to story in order to “avoid legal action”). As a child, Cummings does not remember ever having a book that starred an African-American child. Although perfectly normal to her at the time, African-American children just were not commonly depicted in children’s literature. It has been her goal to, “insure that children who read her books will find a bit of themselves, their world, and their stories reflected in the pages.” The natural solution to that is the continuing adventures of her brother Artie, under a pack of different names. 

In the work that Cummings has done for other authors, most notably prior to taking on the writing chores herself, she has brought her vast knowledge of advertising and graphic arts. Using unorthodox perspectives and a ultra-realistic color patterns, Cummings displays a remarkable aptitude for fitting the author’s words to her pictures. This is very apparent in Jeannette Caines’ I Need a Lunch Box (1988). Caines’ unnamed boy desperately wishes for a lunch box like his sister Doris, who is starting first grade. Cummings features the characters in mostly background images while the foreground is alive with lunchboxes, shoes, spacemen and other items on the young boy’s wishlist.

All of Cummings’ main characters are African-American, but that does not detract from the universal appeal of her stories. All of her characters are real-life individuals, with real-life problems and quirks. Having a character that every child can identify with is the driving force between Cummings’ art and stories. In Jimmy Lee Did It (1985), her brother Artie’s imaginary friend causes chaos everywhere he goes, especially to Cummings’ younger sister Angel. Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon! (1991) is another example of everyday childhood worries come to life. Harvey Moon (her brother Artie again) has to clean his room on Saturday morning, of all times. He will miss every one of his favorite cartoons.

Cummings’ brings her reality based art to fantasy based projects. As the illustrator for Margaret McDonald’s Pickin’ Peas (1998), she illustrated the adventures of a playful, trickster rabbit running amuck in a little girl’s garden. Likewise, Petey Moroni’s Camp Runamok Diary (1992, is filled with the active imagination of a child, seeing what really isn’t there and writing his diary about his adventures. Cummings’ says her inspirations can come from anywhere. She spends most of her “research” time in museums. When she really needs to charge her batteries, though, she travels. Cummings’ tries to absorb as much of a culture that she can. She finds it especially helpful if she doesn’t understand the language. She finds that her senses are more acute, letting her other senses grow and find more in the country’s atmosphere and surroundings. This also results in the color schemes that she uses throughout each particular piece. Her main influence for Willie’s Not the Hugging Kind, for example, came from right outside her studio window. Not an exotic location, she says, but alive and inspirational. 

Cummings’ has taken a long ride from her fifth grade days of selling pictures of ballerinas to other children. She is now a multiple award winning, best-selling illustrator and author of children’s literature. She is extremely pleased with the reception her work has gotten and attributes it to the basic idea of her writings. Her work, she says, is “...about being an outsider, (a topic) that every child can relate to. It comes down to basic human levels. These books reinforce positive ideas to children.” Cummings is a firm believer in the fact that everyone has a story to tell. She encourages whomever she meets into bringing those ideas out and not to be afraid of letting them go.

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