Lessons from Falling on the Ice
I knew at five years old what I wanted to be when I grew up—a professional ice skater. I decided on my chosen profession after my parents took me to an Ice Capades (Disney on Ice) show. During that show I imagined myself as one of the skaters twirling and leaping effortlessly. I took one skating lesson and left with a sore bottom and a hurt ego. Similarly, when I watched the Nutcracker ballet, I imagined myself as the Snow Queen being lifted effortlessly in the air by a handsome and strong Snow King. Despite numerous years of ballet lessons, I left with good posture but no prima ballerina status. I was always more of a dreamer, much less of a doer, unless it was in art class. I loved everything about art class—the burlap and glue collages, the linoleum prints, and the smell of the tempera paint. In pursuit of this passion, I went to art school where I took all sorts of fine arts classes. Even though I loved art school, my Fine Arts degree left me with no sense of how I was going to make a living as an artist.
Growing up, I loved being in the art room, and there was one other special place where I loved to be—the school library. In the library I would admire the illustrations and read about distant worlds. The books I enjoyed took me along the banks of the Charles River to ride a swan boat and through a magic wardrobe to meet a talking lion named Aslan. After working odd jobs after art school that weren’t very gratifying, I reconsidered my career options and remembered the joy of my time spent in the school library. I went to grad school to become an elementary school librarian.
Being a librarian is my bread and butter; a profession that I love. However, my true passion is illustrating and writing children’s books. Unlike my skating and ballet lessons, I have stuck with this dream even though the experience has left me with bruises. With hope in my heart, I started attending conferences to achieve my dream of illustrating books for children. These conferences became my muse, inspiring me to use my imagination and be creative. When I began, I would shyly present my portfolio. The other illustrators intimidated me. They were published and had beautiful portfolios and websites! The harsh but realistic criticism of the conference presenters reminded me of the difficult years of critiques in art school. Despite my own fears, my family encouraged me to continue, and my husband suggested that I be inspired not intimidated. It took a few conferences to get over the intimidation and the desire to crawl under a rock.
During those early SCBWI conferences, more advanced illustrators offered advice about closed conferences (RUCCL) and acceptance-only classes at the Highlights Foundation. Being accepted into these programs wasn’t as easy as I had imagined. It took three years before I was accepted into a closed conference for writers and illustrators. When my self-addressed envelope came in the mail, I cried out in frustration before I opened the envelope. I imagined another rejection. Ironically, that self-addressed letter was my first acceptance. Other SCBWI and closed conferences followed, and each time I attended a conference, my portfolio matured. Through the critiques and advice, I was able to produce a dummy book, and my confidence grew. I began to get my hopes up that each upcoming conference would be the one where I got my big break and would be offered a contract. My little fire of passion and anticipation would flare up, only to be diminished at the end of the event.
As I continued to work diligently on my portfolio and received constructive criticism during more conferences, I was no longer devastated by each rejection and less shy about presenting my work. Then, at a recent conference, a change in my thinking was more important than a big break. Heidi Stemple and Jane Yolen pointed out that writing for children is about the three Ps (Passion, Perseverance, and Patience). I did a quick self-assessment. I already had the passion and the perseverance. For the sheer love of what I do, I had already written and illustrated several dummy books, created a seasonal three-panel cartoon, and completed other art-related projects. Working without getting a contract or seeing a major publisher’s logo on my project left me psychologically bruised. It’s the third P (Patience) that I work on daily. It’s difficult to be patient and wait for an acceptance letter to a conference, a positive review of my portfolio, or an email with a contract.
As a child I was a dreamer instead of a doer. What I lacked in my physical abilities I made up for with my strong and powerful imagination; I could picture myself in the Ice Capades and the Nutcracker, but I wasn’t willing or able to put in the work to become a star skater or a prima ballerina. Now as an adult and an illustrator, I am a doer. I volunteer for SCBWI. I work hard every day to improve my skills. I have made numerous contacts and spend hours in my studio constantly improving my portfolio. Despite this, I continue to be a dreamer as well. I constantly say to myself, “If I just attend this conference . . . If I just participate in this Instagram challenge . . . If I just attend this class . . . If I just write this article, I can achieve my goals of becoming a published author-illustrator. I know now that you need to fall on the ice more than once in order to skate for the Ice Capades and practice more than pliés to be the prima ballerina, and similarly, I will continue to do what I love (even if I end up with even more bruises) and to practice patience.
Footnote: Soon after I wrote this article, I received my first contract to write a series of graphic early readers to be published by Blue Bronco Books (Fall 2022).
Berrie Torgan-Randall has been passionate about children’s literature since she was a little girl and has fed her desire by becoming a children’s librarian and by pursuing a career as an illustrator and writer of children’s books. Berrie is the Illustrator Coordinator for the Eastern PA region of SCBWI. She is looking forward to making connections with professionals while organizing events for illustrators who are on a similar journey of creating beautiful and meaningful picture books.