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.