Tuesday, April 24, 2007

can you make a living?

It might be because tax season just ended or because I had to buy a new car, but I've been really money-focused lately. So, when a person I just met at an event asked me bluntly, "Can you really make a living doing what you do?" I cringed.

Somehow, the profession of children's books (for all that we practitioners and book lovers spout about its importance) seems to always come down to this question in the general non-book public. I never assume to ask anyone from a waiter to a dentist that question, yet something about children's books seem to arouse a curiousity that cannot be contained.

The truth is when I hear the question, my inferiority complex rears its ugly head. Because, to me, the implication is that the answer is no. And suddenly, I see that our jobs, our careers and our passions are seen as just sweet little hobbies to amuse us while our spouses bring home the real money. Not that I'm knocking spouses that bring home the money (kudos for those that do); it's just that I feel it belittles what we do and what we accomplish.

Because you CAN make a living off of children's books. It's not impossible. I'm proof of it. Maybe it's not in the way they think (school visits are an important factor for me) and maybe it's not a life of luxury (I'm not anywhere near rivaling the Queen of England); but I get by--as do we all(and if not yet, will).

And furthermore, I can honestly say I love what I do. And everyone I know in this industry says that exact same thing. I don't know any other profession that can boast that. That, in itself, has got to be worth many a Christmas bonus.

When I was in art school, I remember specifically one of my teachers saying, "Well, yes, children's illustration is nice. But there's NO WAY you can make a living off of it." Because of that sentence, I tried for years to do work that would be more marketable for editorial or advertising purposes. I kept trying to do work I thought would sell, not work I wanted to do. And you know what? I couldn't scrape by.

It was only when I finally focused on what I loved, children's books, that I was finally able to make a living.

So what did I say to the stranger that asked me the question? Like I said, first I cringed, but then I saw his middle-school aged daughter next to him, waiting for my answer with bated breath. "Yes," I said, and I looked at her, "And you can too."


Barbara O'Connor said...

Love this discussion, Grace. Years ago, when the subject of college tuition reared its ugly head, it was decided (mutually) that I would take on that responsibility in our family. So my challenge: to pay for son's tuition without "going back to work." (i.e., continue writing) That, of course, required adding on lots of stuff I hate doing (marketing stuff...ick) and lots of stuff that takes time away from writing (school visits) and getting out of my jammies and going OUT THERE (conferences, etc.) But by golly, I did it! AND, it's important to add - my son goes to Parsons in New York City. ($$$) I'm with you in that I'm so happy to be doing what I love, mixed in with a little I don't love, but, hey, I did it.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I agree. Don't what you love for a living will happen but you have to suffer a lot before you can get to that place! Authors also have to do stuff they don't want to do. I don't even like signing books!


Meghan McCarthy said...

DOING not "don't."

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this.
I believe I can make a living doing what I love, but doubt seems to be everywhere!

Anonymous said...


Grace Lin,

I read your journal sometimes, and first off, your story and journey with your husband, really touches me. The snowflake project made my eyes get watery.

This post is so true and real. This world is a much happier and livable place because of artists. I don't know what I would do without the arts.

When I was depressed my Senior year of college as an English major, I was exhausted with feeding my depression with books like "Jude the Obscure" and "Anna Karenina." It is my belief that children's books are NOT just for children. If and when they are well written, they are for all ages, and they give so much hope in moments of chaos. I find them soothing to the soul, and when I read one that I delight in, it is such a precious gift. Looking back at old picture books like "Chicken Soup with Rice," I am always amazed that I can always remember the story and how it made me feel even though I don't always remember the name of the author. Messages from old picture books touched me in a way that was deep, and I think that's the magic of this particular art.

Always appreciate the work that you do. Just the fact that even one person might be reading your book today and smiling, is beautiful.

You are an inspiration Grace.

In addition to that, I've read your picture books. I'm twenty two years old and I think they are fabulous!