Category Archives: Art

My Life as an Illustrator (Culminating in Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland)

I started out wanting to be a children’s book illustrator. As a child I was celebrated for my art work, starting in high school I began creating my own illustrations for some of my favorite books and stories, and in college I was an art major, focusing on printmaking. At that time the most scathing criticism was that your work looked  “illustrationy.” And so I did beautiful minimalist engravings and etchings in class and did my illustrations at home, careful to not let anyone in my printmaking world know about them, especially not the instructors — renowned artists themselves — whom I admired tremendously.

From college I went right to Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There I taught and worked as an illustrator for NGOs, creating various educational materials. My biggest project was to create illustrations for a multi-media presentation on bridge and road repair. I learned how to deal with cement, how to fix a hanging bridge, and so much more. I did posters on scabies, on breast feeding, on malaria prevention.  And at home I worked on illustrations for Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child”, inspired by the gorgeous flora and fauna all around me.

When I returned to the US I considered an MFA in printmaking, but the lack of personal encouragement from my former instructors decided me — I’d stop feeling guilty about my illustration work and focus on that. And so I put together a portfolio and made the rounds (while also teaching elementary school— I wasn’t brave enough to go free-lance full-time and, besides, I loved teaching).  I taught the legendary editor Janet Schulman’s daughter and she kindly looked at my portfolio, but we both agreed my work was too austere for her books. At Harpers  they held on to my portfolio for a while, but then suggested I do some things to make my art a little too cute for my taste. There were a couple of agents too, but nothing came of it.

Perhaps because of greater recognition for my teaching, work in early educational computing, and critical writing, I lost interest in illustrating. My final work is from 1998 when I had the idea of creating an edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that would be visually annotated for children.  That is, it would have loads of small Richard-Scarry-like-drawings that would help young readers understand the text, even the more antiquated passages.  And then Roxanne Feldman (aka fairrosa) whom I’d met online came to my school.  A savvy web designer, when I asked her if we could put a few of the kids’ drawings of Alice online she said “sure” and ended up doing the whole book  —  the first two and a half chapters illustrated by me and the rest by my 4th grade students. Sadly, a couple of years ago the school reorganized their servers and it is no longer accessible.

It is rare these days that anyone sees my work (or even knows about it) other than my “Elephant’s Child” illustrations as they are framed and sit over my couch right next to Robert Byrd’s original cover art for Africa is My Home.  Then last night,  thinking about my current book project which involves making Alice accessible to young readers today, I remembered those Alice illustrations of mine.  And while I have no wish to continue that project (my focus is on writing now), I thought it might be fun to make them again available for others to see. Perhaps I will, at some point, put up some of my other old illustrations — I did some for Tolkien, L’Engle, and a whole bunch of folk and fairy tales. Meanwhile, if you want to see my efforts with Alice please go here.




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Filed under Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Art, Lewis Carroll

Joydeb Chitrakar and Gita Wolf’s The Enduring Ark from Tara Books

After seeing many tantalizing mentions of Tara Books over the last few years, I was delighted to receive Joydeb Chitrakar and Gita Wolf’s The Enduring Ark and get a firsthand look at one of their creations.

It is said from time to time, the world is re-made. Ancient stories talk of an age when a huge flood destroyed the earth, leaving nothing behind. … You may have heard it before, but great tales must be retold – and so I will tell it now in my way, as I have heard it said.

So begins Gita Wolf in her version of that old story in The Enduring Ark, but even before we read this text we’ve seen a huge eye seemingly merging into water signaling to us that this will be a retelling like no other. That is because of the unique accordian-style book making and Joydeb Chitrakar’s vivid illustrations done in the West Bengali Patua style of scroll painting. Readers can immerse themselves in Wolf and Chitrakar’s intertwined words and art by conventionally turning the pages or by opening the book to view them all at once. Water flows through the book from that first enormous eye of warning, tinkling through the gentle stream at Noah’s home, on as he collects his creatures, rising with the flood, and ending with the water merging with a rainbow of hope. The Enduring Ark is a spectacularly gorgeous book, one well worth reading again and again.

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And Tara Books is a remarkable publisher, a co-operative founded by writers and designers and committed to feminist and egalitarian principles and gorgeous visual bookmaking. Based in Chennai, South India, many of their books are completely handmade and they are focused on celebrating the range of Indian art. For a fascinating look at how their books are made and more I recommend taking a look at their blog.


Filed under Art, Children's Literature, Picture Books

New York Times Special Section on Children’s Books

This weekend’s New York Times has a completely glorious collection of children’s book reviews and art. There’s a slide show of the already-announced best illustrated picture books of the year (and may I say — I’m delighted with the choices!). Betsy Bird is on hand with reviews of a couple of intriguing NYC mysteries, fellow-NYC-private-school-faculty-member Jennifer Hubert Swan makes her debut with a smashing review of The Scorpio Races, and yay to Lisa Brown also I believe (correct me if I’m wrong, Lisa) debuting with a look at a couple of unconventional animal stories. Down-the-street-from-me Bank Street librarian and blogger Lisa von Drasek is back with a consideration of Lauren Oliver’s Liesel and Po, just-married-and-back-from-an-amazing-sounding-honeymoon Roger Sutton considers some superheroes, and Susan Gregory Thomas contemplates Lauren Snyder’s Bigger than a Bread Box.

But there is more!  NYC-online-friend Marjorie Ingall (whom I hope to meet in person one day) looks at several biographies, the brilliant Leonard S. Marcus examines a new version of The Chronicles of Harris Burdick (placing it in historical context which I love), Walter Dean Myers reviews Kadir Nelson’s impressive Heart and Soul, and Meg Wolitzer looks at Chris Raschka’s first novel, Seriously, Norman.

And still more, too much to possibly mention here so please go check it out yourself. It is fantastic!


Filed under Art, Children's Literature, Picture Books

Children’s Book Illustrators Honor their Own

Psst —wanna see some actual illustrations from this year’s crop of picture books?  If so, get on over to New York City’s Society of Illustrators for “The Original Art: Celebrating the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration.” An annual event started by Dilys Evans thirty years ago, this year’s show features the original art from 129 books selected by a jury of illustrators, art directors, and editors out of a pool of 554 entries. Additionally, a gold medal was awarded to Renata Liwska for her illustrations in The Quiet Book while silver medals were given to Carson Ellis for Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic and Dan Santat for Oh No! (Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World)Eric Carle and Alice and Martin Provensen were honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards and Hyewon Yum received the Founders Award for There Are No Scary Wolves.  A remarkable exhibit, it is well worth a visit by anyone who loves picture books and art.

Also at the Huffington Post with a slide show of some of the honored art.

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Andy Warhol, Children’s Illustrator


253. WARHOL, Andy (1928 – 1987) Best in Children’s Books Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957-1959. Small 8vo. Volumes 5, 15, 27 and 33. Condition: dust jackets lightly worn with some minor chips.
Early in his career, the Pop Art icon Andy Warhol illustrated several volumes of the popular series Best in Children’s Books issued by the Doubleday Book Club between 1957 and 1961. But these light, childlike pictures are generally unknown to admirers of his famous pictures of Campbell’s Soup Cans and Marilyn Monroe. (4)

est. $500 – $600

While I knew Warhol had done commercial work (his shoes are fantastic) I don’t think I knew he’d done anything related to children’s books. So how fun to find this tidbit at that previously mentioned truly phenomenal auction.


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For Those With Means

There’s a pretty impressive auction on December 9th at Bloomsbury Auctions including original work by Sendak, Steig, the Dillons and, (most impressive of all to my mind) Tom Feelings.  In fact, if you’ve got $250000 – $350000 or so in change, you could be the proud owner of this:


The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo. The entire suite of original mixed-media artwork, executed from 1993-1995 and published in the 1995 book. Comprising 58 pieces in 48 frames, mixed-media with tempera, pen and tissue, heightened with white and collage.

Tom Feelings’ masterpiece and the winner of the 1996 Coretta Scott King illustrator award. The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo takes viewers on a harrowing journey that begins on a peaceful morning in an African landscape. Upon the seige of a village by European slave-traders, the nightmarish voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, via the Middle Passage, is presented by Feelings in highly finished drawings and mixed-media collages, that, as is the published book, successfully convey the story of these Africans without text. Truly the masterpiece of Feelings ouvre, The Middle Passage is a tour-de-force of illustration genius. It grabs hold of a painful truth, of what it looked like when an African went from free to enslaved in a matter of hours. The images here incorporate the viewer in several complex ways: the disturbingly individual, images of guns pointed directly at the viewer and the men left to drown among circling sharks, to the incredible panoramas depicting groups of men being betrayed by the bejewelled African tribal leader, the crammed hold of the slave-ship, an attempted revolt, and the arrival of the ship to an awaiting colony. The final images nevertheless offer some signs of solace, visible in the pregnant woman, whose child represents the birth of African-American culture, and the sun that rises in the last picture which recalls the peace of the opening scene. In the words of Tom Feelings, “… If this part of our history could be told in such a way that those chains of the past, those shackles that physically bound us together against our wills could, in the telling, become spiritual links that willingly bind us together now and into the future-then that painful Middle Passage could become, ironically, a positive connecting line to all of us…”

“One night when speaking to a Ghanian friend, he asked, ‘what happened to all of you when you were taken away from here?’ I knew instantly what he meant ‘what happened to all our people who were forcefully taken from Africa, enslaved, and scattered throughout the “New World”?’ He was referring to all those Africans, our ancestors, viciously uprooted from their homes and taken by European slave ships on the hideous sea journey across the Atlantic Ocean. He was referring to this crossing called the Middle Passage.

As he continues to speak, muted images flashed across my mind. Pale white sailing ships like huge white birds of prey, plunging forward into mountainous rising white foaming waves of cold water, surrounding and engulfing everything. Our ancestors, hundreds of them locked in the belly of each of these ships, chained together like animals through the long voyage from Africa toward unknown destinations, millions dying from the awful conditions in the bowels of the filthy slave galleys.”
Tom Feelings

A powerful, exhibition-ready education tool, this collection is paired with 10 framed textual pieces. All of the artwork is achivally held in plexiglass exhibition frames and has been outfitted with custom travelling crates. Also included are three different editions of prints taken directly from the original artwork, two of which are signed limited editions. There are over 1000 retail ready prints in this archive. This collection has been continuously and sucessfully exhibited for over 10 years. It has been installed at the United Nations in New York and the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina. A full exhibition list available on request.

“Storytelling is an ancient African oral tradition through which the values and history of a people are passed on to the young. And essentially I am a storyteller. Illustrated books are a natural extension of this African oral tradition.”


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In the Classroom: Chris Raschka

I’ve been a longtime fan of the children’s book creator, Chris Raschka, and so was completely delighted to see the interview he gave over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. This reminded me of the ways I’ve used his books in our weekly Literary Salons when the children bring in baked treats, I provide juice, and we do something “literary.”  Sometimes it is a bunch of prepared readings from recent books the kids have read.  Sometimes it is choral poetryOr original poetry. Sometimes it is readers’ theater.  Or something Newberyish. And sometimes it is Chris Raschka.

If I think the particular group of kids are right for it I read  Arlene Sardine, arguably his most controversial book.  I love it. Sometimes the kids do and sometimes they don’t get it at all.  Years ago I wrote “Pets and Other Fishy Books”  for Horn Book, mulling over kid responses to it and other unconventional books.  The kids I wrote about in the article didn’t get it, but later groups have.

Then there are the wonderful jazz books.  I’ve used Charlie Parker Played Be Bop, John Coltrane’s Big Steps, and Mysterious Thelonious playing the music before, after, or even during.  I’m afraid, not being musical myself, I can’t do the readings the justice that Chris does, but I try and the kids help me.  Often I conclude this salon with a completely different sort of music book, Simple Gifts.   The kids always participate in that reading.  Lovely.

If you are not familiar with the work of Chris Raschka, do check him out. There are many other wonderful books of his I’ve used elsewhere in the classroom — poetry books, music books, word books, and story books of all sorts.  Absolutely lovely.


Filed under Art, In the Classroom

The Pura Belpré Award Celebration with Yuyi Morales’ Special Treat

I had always heard that the Pura Belpré Award Celebration was wonderful so this year I went and, yes it was!  The room was festively decorated, the presentations and speeches were moving, and it ended with a completely delightful dance performance by a troupe of little girls.

The highlight of the afternoon for me was the vivacious and talented Yuyi Morales who received an honor for the writing and the medal for the illustration of her charming alphabet book, Just in Case.


At the end of her acceptance speech she presented the following video. Enjoy!


Filed under animation, Art, Children's Literature

Jan Pienkowski Interviewed


The remarkable Jan Pienkowski is interviewed at the Guardian.


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Are Aliens Hunting Waldo?

Melanie Coles, a young artist in Vancouver, has come up with a very cool project. Here’s her introduction to it:

For my graduating project at the Emily Carr Institute of Art Design and Media, I am creating a Google Earth Where’s Waldo inspired game. Players will be given the hint that Waldo is hiding somewhere in Vancouver and he can only be seen via Google Earth. In order to do this, a giant Waldo painting is being constructed and placed on a rooftop!

She’s blogging about it here.

Thanks to areallydifferentplace for the tip.

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