We had the good fortune of connecting with Susan Rubin and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Susan, why did you pursue a creative career?
From the time I was a child I wanted to be an artist. I knew I wanted to illustrate children’s books because books meant so much to me at a young age when I was isolated due to illness and couldn’t play with other kids. Over the years I’ve learned that many children’s book artists and writers had a similar experience when they were very young, especially in the days before antibiotics. I started attending the Art Students League in New York, where I grew up, at age 10 and a half and I loved it. Then I went on to the High School of Music & Art, now part of La Guardia High School. But at college my parents urged me to be an English major because I was a very good student. Of course, studying art history would have been just as challenging but I greatly enjoyed my years at Oberlin. As a young married woman, who quickly had two children to raise, then three, I thought I would automatically pursue my dream of illustrating children’s books. It took more work, study, and networking that I had realized. But I continued to have the drive to make art. Along the way my focus shifted to writing — writing about art and conveying that pleasure to young readers with the stories behind great paintings, sculptures, and architecture. I also became deeply involved in writing about social and racial justice. I’m still at it, the mother of six, a grandmother of seven, and a great-grandmother of a baby girl, with more projects under contract. For me, artistic work is the antidote to the pandemic. Coming back full circle, I’m more or less isolated once again as my husband and I shelter at home. But the joy and excitement of researching and developing new books for children about subjects (mostly art) that I’m passionate about take me out of the realm of worry and boredom. I’m grateful to have this career.
I’m especially gratified to have recently published Sing and Shout: The Mighty Voice of Paul Robeson at a time when books are needed to contribute to conversation and education about race and antiracism in our country.”
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
When I was a college student I had it all figured out. I’d get married, have children, and illustrate books at home. It wasn’t as simple as I thought, none of it! I started out as an artist, developed as a painter, and showed my art in galleries when my children were young. Yet I longed to pursue my original dream of illustrating children’s books. I had no training so had to learn as I went along. I started writing little stories to go with my art samples to show that I knew what a book was about and sent this material to editors in New York. It was not easy. Very discouraging. But I’m disciplined and determined and would not give up. It took five years to sell my first book which I illustrated myself. The whole story is too long to tell here. But to help earn a living and for the enjoyment of it, I taught writing for children at the UCLA Extension program for 20 years, and before that, the same course at Cal State Northridge. I loved teaching so much and discussing what makes a good book good and encouraging newcomers, that I would have almost devoted all my time to that career. But the need and drive to make art never went away. My main lesson is perseverance and determination. Never give up!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
Sadly we’re going through a pandemic and sheltering at home. The best time I could give a visiting friend would be providing wine and dinner in my back yard and a walk on the beach nearby. When museums open again it would be a pleasure to take a friend to the LA County Museum of Art.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Many people. I’ll start with my husband Michael who has been supportive despite my meager earnings and long hours happily spent at work. I thank the marvelous SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) based here in L.A. where I discovered there were other people like me who wanted to do this work. My many colleagues and friends, especially our writers’ group “Lunch Bunch” that meets weekly and started up about 40 years ago. Luckily they took me in about 26 years ago. A shoutout to my dear friend, author Sonia Levitin, who evaluated my artwork almost 50 years ago when I wasn’t sure if I had the “right stuff” to pursue my goals, and encouraged me to go to NY immediately and see her editors. And through Sonia I met Eve Bunting, author of about 300 books in print who has been a mentor and best friend. This list could go on and on. But always, a shoutout to my longtime agent, George Nicholson, who guided my reading and career. And now, since his death, his colleagues, Charlotte Sheedy and Kevin O’Connor who work with me. And gratitude to my wonderful editors who skillfully help shape my books. I must mention all my children, but especially my youngest son Andrew who solved computer problems and downloaded images for my nonfiction books despite his own demanding life and career. This sounds like acknowledgments for a book! So I’ll stop here and thank you for asking the question.
Give Us the Vote! Over 200 Years of Fighting for the Ballot (Holiday House) came out in February, and Sing and Shout: The Mighty Voice of Paul Robeson (Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills & Kane) was published in April. Both books have been included on lists of recommended antiracist books for young adults to inspire conversation about fighting racism and education.
Facebook: susan rubin
Michael B. Rubin