The doodle, (c) Randy Polumbo

How a Doodle Sparked a Book

Once upon a time, not so long ago, my friend Randy texted me a doodle.

It was beautiful, as doodles go, and a lovely surprise of a gift on my phone, but it was also a surprise in a different way. “You draw, too?” I wrote back. Randy, an artist known for his large metal and blown glass LED-lit sculptures,…

Randy Polumbo in his Tunnel of Love exhibit, Chelsea, 2014, (c) Deborah Copaken

…was a new friend back then, so I was not yet aware of his hidden talents as an illustrator and photographer.

I’d just published an essay that had gone viral, an ABC list of advice I’d started composing before my son Jacob, left for college. Each letter was a simple, sustainable concept I wanted him to understand before he spread his wings and flew. Like keeping his A is for anger in check and making his B is for bed every morning and having E is for empathy. Jacob was already in college by the time I published the essay, and my daughter Sasha was waiting to hear back from colleges, and Randy’s daughter Nico was a high school junior contemplating her own future, and there was my nine-year-old, Leo, still at home, who would also graduate one day, and suddenly, staring at that doodle on my phone, I had an epiphany. “Would you want to work with me and illustrate a book together?” I said.

This was a totally presumptuous question on my part. I had neither a book contract nor an agent who was interested in selling such a book nor any understanding of how illustrators are chosen in the illustrated book world. But something about the alchemy of that texted moment and the beauty of Randy’s doodle spoke to me. On a basic level, I wanted us to make this book so we could hand it to our children and so that others could hand it to their graduating children. I’d searched for something similar to give my son when he finished high school and had come up empty handed.

On a secondary level, Randy was the kind of friend with whom I thought it would fun to collaborate.

I started calling around, asking friends of mine what they knew about the illustrated book world. One name kept coming up: Chronicle Books. They were in San Francisco, I heard, and my former literary agent focused on sales of trade fiction and non-fiction to New York publishing houses, so I sent a few emails to my Bay Area friends, asking if any had contacts at Chronicle. Novelist Michael Chabon and I had met years ago in Maine, when our kids were at sleepaway camp together; he and his wife Ayelet Waldman, also an author, had become close friends. Michael knew Chronicles’ Editor in Chief, Christine Carswell, so he kindly engineered an email between us.

I sent Christine the doodle and a link to the viral essay one weekend when I was visiting my son at college. Her response, I remember — because I started jumping up and down for joy in my hotel room when I read it — was swift and encouraging. Now I just needed an agent to broker the deal.

That same month, into my life walked Lisa Leshne. I’d met Lisa, who runs her own agency, the Leshne Agency, at a book party for author Isabel Gillies. I didn’t know she was an agent back then, only that she was friend of Isabel’s via their children, who attended the same elementary school. We subsequently became friends on Facebook. Then, right about the time I was looking for a new agent, my youngest, then 8, wanted to buy a video game I had neither the money nor the inclination to buy for him, so I told him if he really wanted to get it, he’d have to figure out a way to buy it himself. He decided to sell his collection of MagnaTiles on Craigslist, and Lisa, who saw the post on my Facebook wall, offered to buy them for her own children, ages 9 and 11. When I showed up at her apartment with Leo to trade his toys for the cash, she showed me her home office. “Ooh, nice,” I said. “What do you do?”

“I’m a literary agent,” she said. “And I’ve been a fan of yours since Shutterbabe.”

Shutterbabe was my first book, published in 2001, and Lisa pulled her dog-eared copy off the bookshelf to show me. We had a business lunch soon after to discuss working together. Lisa agreed to represent both Randy and me. I can’t remember if it was Christine or Lisa or Randy or me who came up with the idea of making three books — adding the ABCs of Parenthood and the ABCs of Love to the deal — but suddenly there it was, a deal for three books.

Now we just had to make them. I asked Randy to produce his first drawing. He made this fabulous S:

(c) Randy Polumbo

Christine wanted something simpler. The next drawing he did was this L, which took my breath away with its beauty:

(c) Randy Polumbo

Christine loved it, but thought it wasn’t edgy enough for a gift for young graduates. She had an idea. Why not use that L for the ABCs of Love book, but have it appear as a kind of guest star in all three books in some way?

That week, I was walking to work and shooting photos on my iPhone as usual. (I’m a big instagrammer. So is Randy.) Suddenly, once I started looking, letters appeared. Everywhere. I shot a few as examples and sent them to Lisa, Christine and Randy.

We had our plan. Randy, who spends a lot of time in Joshua Tree, CA, where he was building this cool compound out of recycled materials, would shoot whatever letters he saw out there in the desert and also back home in New York, like the drawing of the L on his desk, the knives in his kitchen for the K, and the S which is made out of glass he blew himself atop one of his soft sculptures. I would shoot whatever I saw on the way back and forth to work plus on weekends. We’d upload dozens and dozens of them to a shared gallery, and Christine and her designer, Jennifer Tolo Pierce, would choose the final letters that would go in the book.

As we were working on all of this, texting one another our treasure hunt finds, Christine flew into New York for BEA, and she, Lisa, Randy, and I had dinner.

Randy Polumbo, Deborah Copaken, Lisa Leshne, & Christine Carswell, 2015

The actual book itself arrived at my apartment the day before my fiftieth birthday. I’d had a rough couple of years, dealing with a serious illness, the break-up of a two-decade marriage, and my two older kids leaving for college. The book’s arrival at my doorstep — opening the package, seeing the beautiful job Chronicle had done with it — felt like both the best birthday present ever and an omen of better times to come. I actually cried when I flipped through its pages. The next day, Lisa threw me a 50th birthday lunch for 20 women. That night, Randy took me out on the town to celebrate.

50th birthday, (c) Randy Polumbo

In other words, not only has the ABCs of Adulthood been a joy to work on, it has helped me become good friends with two of the best people I know, and it has ushered me, with optimism and delight, into the next half decade of my own adulthood.

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