Doug Cushman illustrated his first picture book in 1978, but his career began long before that. “I’ve been writing stories and drawing pictures as long as I can remember. Like most book illustrators, I grew up looking at comic strips and comic books. My favorite strip was Pogo written and drawn by the great Walt Kelly.” In junior high school Cushman created comic books, featuring his teachers as zany super heroes battling even zanier super villains, which he sold to his friends for a nickel each.
After graduating from Paier School of Art in Connecticut, Cushman apprenticed with Mercer Mayer for a year and a half painting and designing his mass market books. (Mayer is the author and illustrator of dozens of picture books, most notably the Little Critter books). To date, Cushman has illustrated over 80 children’s books, a dozen of which he also wrote. Ideas come to him in a variety of different ways: from books or music, on walks through the woods, mowing the grass, washing the dishes. “I’m always working on something. I have a million and one sketch books scattered about the house.” When an idea hits, he’s ready.
As an artist, Cushman starts with the visual; he imagines his characters in a scene and then works in the story, adjusting and readjusting one to fit the other. “The picture book format is like no other. The words and pictures must work together, one dependent on the other, not one more important than the other.”
According to Cushman, the greatest misconception about writing for children is it looks so easy. “The Mystery of King Karfu [HarperCollins, 1996] took three years. It looks like it took two weeks, but that’s what you’re after.” King Karfu received the 1996 Reuben Award for Magazine and Book Illustration sponsored by the National Cartoonists Society. The story features Seymour Sleuth investigating a mystery in Egypt, and the book is his detective’s casebook complete with coffee stains, photographs, and notes. Steven Engelfried of School Library Journal cites a “clue-filled plot, plenty of humor, and an innovative presentation,” sure to create a demand for more Seymour Sleuth mysteries.The Mystery of the Monkey’s Maze (HarperCollins, 1999) follows Seymour Sleuth on his next adventure in the rain forests of Borneo.
Cushman says putting together a book is a team effort: author, illustrator, and editor. “My editor will reject some ideas and add others. I’ll do the same. Someone once said that a good editor has her hands all over your manuscript, but you never see her fingerprints.”
Doug Cushman’s books have received glowing reviews from children’s literature critics. Deborah Abbott of Booklist praised Cushman’s illustrations in The ABC Mystery(HarperCollins, 1993) for their “touches of melodrama and humor.” According toPublisher’s Weekly, the book is a “cunning twist on the traditional ABC primer.” Aunt Eater Loves a Mystery (HarperCollins, 1987), the first in his Aunt Eater series, was chosen as a prestigious Reading Rainbow book.
Cushman currently lives in Redding, California, with a yellow lab, named Zack, and one and a half cats. “Conrad is a full time indoor cat, and Midnight is an outdoor cat, but I am the official owner.”
When Doug Cushman isn’t writing or drawing he enjoys bringing his craft to schools all over the United States. His Writing with Pictures seminar features a slide presentation and lively “chalk talk” complete with early illustrations and finished work. He invites students to draw with him and encourages their questions. His most frequently asked question is “How do you make your money?” Sometimes Cushman is the one who ends up learning something after one of his visits. When he accepted an invitation to the Braille Institute in February, he discovered that three of his books are in Braille.
Since 1977, Cushman has been writing and illustrating books for children. Illustrating “is the only job I’ve ever had,” says Cushman. And it’s one he does well.