Listen to Emily Arnold McCully interview: THE ILLUSTRATION DEPARTMENT PODCAST
How I Became an Author
…by reading and drawing, a lot.
By practicing, which is what many of my stories are about.
I was born in Galesburg Illinois. My family moved when I was five to Long Island, outside of New York City. By that time, I was definitely lefthanded. Nobody tried to make me use my right hand, as they used to do in earlier times. But my mother did remind me over and over to hold my hand under my work, not over it. I still smudged things, however. I started to draw about the same time my mother taught me to read- at three to four years of age.
I loved to read and began thinking of the world in terms of stories. I also loved to explore. I was a dare-devil. My sister was only 16 months younger and a great playmate and coconspirator. Our neighborhood had a few overgrown vacant lots, one of them with a big fallen tree. We cut saplings and brush to make forts.
I built a stick village in the dirt, kept a nature notebook and wrote and drew in it all day long as I wandered around, examining the environment. John Muir was my hero and I decided to be a naturalist when I grew up.
My sister Becky and I also had many chores and worked hard at them. We often listened to the radio while working (or while drawing). I began illustrating the programs and my favorite books or stories I made up myself.
At college I helped write a musical comedy and acted in lots of plays. A play is very much like a picture book: you select a cast, create costumes and set, then arrange the scenes, building to a climax. I was preparing for my later career without knowing it. After college, I worked at an advertising agency in New York for a while. The work I was given to do was tedious and I had time on my hands so I used it to write graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in art history. It’s been helpful to have a background in fine art and history as I turn more and more to subjects that require research and an authentic look from the past.
Academic life was not for me- I never considered becoming a teacher or a curator. Instead, I made a portfolio of drawings and designs that I could submit to art directors at magazines, book publishers and advertising agencies. Little by little, small jobs came my way. I was asked to make a series of posters for subway advertisements for a radio station. The subject assigned to me was “children at play”. The first poster placed in subway cars caught the eye of a children’s book editor. She tracked me down and asked if I would illustrate a book called Sea Beach Express by George Panetta. It was an incredible stroke of luck. It led to another assignment, then another. I learned, as I went along, how to further a narrative with pictures.
In the years since, I’ve continued to learn from creating illustrations for other peoples’ stories and my own. I’ve done a little more acting, published novels and stories for adults and become a painter, no longer relying on a pen line to give form to a picture. I love drawing funny animals (and people), stories about brave girls, and historical subjects that shed a new light on the past. I never dreamed that I would be a children’s book author when I was young – but it turns out that I was preparing myself to be just that all along.
photo: Susan B Anthony
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