This past week, I marked the anniversary of a major turning point in my career. I consider December 10th the anniversary of when I "made it". Ten years ago, on December 10th, I walked into the offices of Knopf Books for Young Readers at Random House Children's Books for the first time.
I had previously illustrated a few readers for an educational publisher in January and March of 1999, but those were books that I didn't write and I'm sure that you didn't see them. It's doubtful that you will find them—my name was misspelled (and differently) on both books. It wasn't exactly a very creative process, most things were dictated to me. I was thrilled to have the professional experience, though, and the books themselves proved that I could illustrate characters consistently throughout a story.
In September of that year, I finished what was my fourth summer working at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and moved to Somerville, MA. It was my first year out of college and I was ready to conquer the world. I already had a good amount of rejection letters under my belt. Thinking that I could get the storied rejections out of the way while still a student, I began submitting to publishers during my junior year. Some of the rejection letters were nice (although it would take me some time to fully understand that) and some were generic (one rejection came on just a half sheet of paper!) So I figured that now that I was a college graduate, these rejection letters would be a thing of the past.
I produced a batch of postcards featuring my latest illustrations and sent them out to a flurry of art directors. I sat back and waited for the phone to ring. It of course, didn't. I submitted my books to more publishers and still—no interest. I joined the SCBWI and read every piece of literature they gave me. I tinkered on my portfolio website, even though I was told that art directors simply weren't looking at art on the web. I sent out more postcards, I submitted more manuscripts and book dummies. Still nothing. Time went by and I still had nothing but rejection letters to show for my efforts. My grandfather, who had just invested a significant amount of money in my college education, would call and ask, "So . . . do you have a job yet?" I would reply with, "I do, I write and illustrate children's books." My grandfather would follow with, "Who pays you for that?" He had me there. Nobody did.
I continued to create. I wrote new stories, painted new illustrations. I remained connected with former RISD classmates that were perusing similar goals. Through them I met more alumnae that were also working in the field of children's picture books. We emailed, got together and shared work and our own personal stories.
I had the opportunity to bring my portfolio into a few publishers, but nothing came from any of those meetings. I began to get bold. I picked up the phone and called some of the art directors to see if they had received my postcards. The majority of the people I spoke with were nice. Yet, the conversation that I can replay in my mind, with crystal clear clarity, wasn't quite that. "It would be a waste of my time to meet with you," said the voice on the other end of the phone.
I was teaching at a few art centers and working at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp's fall weekend reunions, but it was becoming obvious to me. I needed to make a living at something. And it was beginning to look as though writing and illustrating children's books would not be that. In November of that year, I wrote two new stories, one of them being Good Night, Monkey Boy. I reached out to one of my new alumnae friends, whose first book had just been published and who happened to live just down the street from me. It was Grace Lin. We met for coffee at the Someday Cafe in Davis Sq and she gave me a key piece of advice. "You should send your postcards to the editors," she suggested.
It was a Monday at the end of November 1999 that I took a batch of postcards to the mailbox. I was sending, this time, to editors. As melodramatic as this sounds, I really thought to myself that should nothing come from this mailing, I was going to have to find another line of work. I had, at that point, been submitting my work to publishers for nearly two years. This is the illustration that I featured on that postcard:
On Thursday of that week, I checked my email and could not believe what I saw. There was an email from someone who had @randomhouse.com as their email address and the subject line read, "nice work". An editor was writing me! With a subject line that read "nice work"! Here is an excerpt from that email:
"Hi Jarrett,Just got your card in the mail and visited your website portfolio. I like your sense of color and quirky characters . . . So keep me on your mailing list and if you're in NYC, come show me your portfolio."
Wanting to seem cool about it, I waited a day to call. "I'm going to be in New York next week!" I claimed. I of course, was being generous with my geography. I had plans on being in CT that next weekend. We set up a meeting for that next Friday. Not knowing what would come of the meeting with Random House, I hung up the phone and called a second publisher. Now that I had the clout of being invited in by a publisher, that second publisher set time aside to meet with me. As did the third and fourth publisher that I called.
I lugged my portfolio into New York City and the first publisher that I met with gave me a contract then and there. I couldn't believe it. I ran to a pay phone and called my grandfather at work and my grandmother at home to share the good news. I remember that moment so vividly—the cold New York City air, the joy in my grandparents' voices. Unfortunately, that book contract and my relationship with that publisher didn't bare any fruit. The editor and I couldn't find a meeting point for the story and the book was never published.
My meeting at Knopf had a much different outcome. They took copies of a few of my book dummies and emailed me that next Monday to say that they wanted to publish Good Night, Monkey Boy. I couldn't believe my good fortune. I still can't.
Good Night, Monkey Boy was published on June 12, 2001 and I have been busy ever since. I have had the privilege to work with a magnificent team at Knopf who continues to support my work. I get to live in my imagination, dream up characters and places. Over the years, I've made the most incredible friends—authors, artists, teachers, librarians, book store owners and employees, you name it! I have traveled the country, seeing places I never thought I'd see. I've received letters and pictures from kids that have both inspired me and assured me that I was creating something of interest to their young imaginations. And by my estimation, I have screamed, "Eee I, eee I, oh!" about six-thousand times.
So thank you. Because if you are reading this post, you care somewhat about what I do. Thank you for reading my books, for supporting my work, for helping to create an atmosphere in which I can continue to pursue my childhood dreams.
And as you have been reading all of this, you may be wondering, "How do you remember that December 10th was the day that you took that meeting?" Because the security guard at the Random House building gave me a sticker to wear on that visit. And at the end of the day, I took the sticker and slapped it into my sketchbook.