"Persistence pays off." The adage trips readily off the tongue of author/illustrator Janet Lawson, who shares a spunk and steadfastness with her debut book's character, Audrey. While her young heroine's tenacity pays off in an entertaining adventure to India with her cynical cat, Lawson's has resulted in the publication of her humorous picture book, Audrey and Barbara (Atheneum).
"Writers need cheerleaders who keep saying, 'Do the work, do the work.' It's what you have control over," says Lawson, who finds support among a tightly knit writing group in Minneapolis/St. Paul, which she has been a part of for more than a decade. It was about that long ago when Lawson decided to earnestly pursue her passion for picture books. "I've always loved children's stories and movies, and I'm attracted to the dual audience of adult and child involved in picture books."
Around the same time she joined her writing group, Lawson left her job at an architect's office in order to do freelance architectural illustrations, work that provides a more flexible schedule. She remembers friends suggesting that she should illustrate books for others. "But in my heart," she recalls, "I really wanted to illustrate my own ideas. I was determined to stick with it until I could tell my own stories." She took every writing and illustrating class she could find.
At the time, Lawson already held a double major in fine arts and business from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. "I guess I was one of those people who didn't have the courage to graduate with only a fine arts degree!" she admits with a laugh. But she certainly didn't lack courage when it came to getting her foot in the door at a publishing house.
After sending numerous samples of her work and cold-calling various publishers, she toted her portfolio to New York and Boston for a whirlwind three-day trip in 1999. She visited 13 publishing houses: "I begged. I said, 'Please see me. I'm not a waste of time... really!'" In her portfolio were the beginnings of Audrey and Barbara, which started out as a wordless picture book.
"The first inklings for Audrey and Barbara probably came out of desperation to fill a portfolio for that trip," Lawson confesses. "What I learned, though, is that all the years I'd tried to do it the writing way—words first and then illustrations—didn't work for me. I had to go in through the images and let the text follow."
During that turning-point trip, she hooked up with editor Caitlyn Dlouhy at Atheneum, who showed interest in the characters. So Lawson returned home to flush out the story, and to her amazement, found it wasn't really work at all. Lawson also discovered that her architectural experience informed her art. "In hindsight, all those hours and hours with pen in hand, drawing buildings and trees, was practice, practice, practice." The exactness of architectural drawings, though, gave way to a much freer picture book format. "It was play for me, almost like giggling," she says about creating the book's animated black-line and watercolor illustrations.
Lawson worked with Dlouhy and art director Ann Bobco at Atheneum, but there wasn't much going back and forth on revisions. "I was so surprised," Lawson says. "I think they liked what I did, and they let me do it. All those years of learning had finally gelled." Lawson did not work with an agent, a fact that forced her to learn all she could about the different publishing houses. "And my trip to New York gave me a great sense of where I would and wouldn't fit in."
Lawson is quick to list several authors and illustrators whose books surround her when she works, including Lisbeth Zwerger ("She's my goddess—the way she designs and the colors she uses, she's so fresh"), Stephen Gammell ("I love the whimsical and the wacky, and he inspires me in that direction") and Patricia Polacco ("That's the kind of line I shoot for. The lines are just flowing off her hands").
She also hints that Atheneum is interested in hearing more about the spirited Audrey and her nap-loving cat, Barbara. "My next task is probably the same, but different," she remarks, hoping the characters will keep inspiring her. "That's the magic of the creative process. You can put all this sweat into it, but then there's this spark. I'll keep dipping into the well and trust there's something still down there!" she says, adding, "But it would help if I could get a good night's sleep."
That could be difficult these days for Lawson, whose other passion is being mother to six-month-old James and toddler Ellen. But she is determined to keep at her dream. "It's persistence that pays off. Stick with it, and believe in yourself until you get it right!"
One can imagine Audrey saying the same.