As an art director for Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers for the past 12 years, Lucy Ruth Cummins has helped transform many authors’ and illustrators’ work into finished books. In spring 2016 Cummins will join the ranks of published authors, when Atheneum publishes her debut solo picture book, A Hungry Lion: Or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals. The story introduces a ravenous lion and a colorful assortment of critters who mysteriously disappear one by one, after which – well, anything might happen – but a surprise birthday party and a cake just may be in the mix.

Cummins, an inveterate doodler who has amassed a fan base by posting her art on Twitter and Instagram, drew her inspiration for A Hungry Lion from two disparate sources. The first was Maurice Sendak’s Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue, in which an ornery boy won’t relent even when confronted by a hungry lion. The second was an ill-fated surprise party she threw as a 12-year-old for her sister’s 16th birthday.

Ironically, Sendak’s darkish tale, one of Cummins’s favorites as a child (“I always liked that there were no clear stakes in the story – no sugar-coating – and the lesson was delivered as promised from page one”) may have been a cheerier inspiration than her sister’s (not-so) Sweet 16th. “I wanted to make her birthday special, so I invited four girls she once – but as it turned out no longer was – friends with to a surprise party,” she said. “She showed up with her super-cool boyfriend, immediately burst into tears, and locked herself in her bedroom for the rest of the night. That experience lodged in my mind as a prime example of misunderstanding people’s expectations – and as a major error on my part!”

Perhaps it was an error at the time, but that disastrous party fed the creation of a story that had instant appeal to Emily van Beek, senior v-p and literary agent at Folio Literary Management, who was familiar with Cummins’s online art postings and with her art directing talents. Back in August, author Jenny Han, one of van Beek’s clients, mentioned that Cummins had a book project of her own and was looking for representation. “I reached out to Lucy immediately,” van Beek said. “I was a fan of her art, as well as the arresting book jackets she has designed, some for my clients. Lucy brings a hat trick of talents to her original work – as author, illustrator, and art director. When these three strengths converge as they do here, the result is a totally irresistible, full-color, fully designed picture book dummy.”

Finding a Home Close to Home

That dummy scored a hit with Justin Chanda, v-p and publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, who acquired A Hungry Lion in September. A longtime admirer of Cummins’ skills as art director, jacket designer, and doodler at staff meetings, Chanda was very impressed with the submission. “Rarely do you see an idea so fully realized in a dummy, but Lucy’s was nearly perfect in terms of the pacing and the page turns,” he said. “It’s a tricky thing to figure out – but Lucy nailed it brilliantly from the get-go.”

Though Chanda estimated that he personally edits only 15 of the 300 books he publishes annually, he noted that “It never crossed my mind to give Lucy’s book to another editor.” The publisher then had some fun when he presented A Hungry Lion to staffers at a meeting – without revealing the author. “Everyone fell in love with the book and was speculating on who wrote it,” he said. “One person thought it must be a European, another that it was a guy. When I said it was Lucy, the room went crazy! All the designers were clamoring to work on it – even before they knew who the author was.” The book design honors went to art director Sonia Chaghatzbanian.

Asked if other book projects will follow A Hungry Lion, Cummins is cautiously optimistic – and characteristically humble: “I hope there will be others. As an art director, I’ve worked with so many authors and illustrators more talented than I that the thought of creating my own book was massively intimidating. I had to get over that mental hurdle to be comfortable making my own book. But having unlocked this little story has given me the confidence to want to tell other stories. I’m even learning to accept rather than deflect compliments! If my work makes people happy, that makes me happy, too.”