Picture Books for Art Teachers & Young Artists

815zzVH2rfLAll kids–big and small–love to hear a story read aloud, and picture books can be used in so many ways in the classroom. Our amazing art teacher uses picture books all the time. Here are a few titles I recommended for her this year:

  • What Can You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada, Mae Besom (illustrator)
  • The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt
  • Willow by Denise Brennan-Nelson & Rosemarie Brennan, Cyd Moore (illustrator)

I asked for the titles of some of her favorite classics. She recommended:

  • Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger — for making Star Wars origami
  • Circle Dogs by Kevin Henkes — she likes the shapes of the characters
  • Abstract Alphabet – this book is full of shapes that spell out words (you have to look at the key to see which letter each shape represents in order to read the words). She has her students create their own words using shapes.
I recently ordered the following titles for our library and can’t wait to get my hands on them. I know our art teacher will love them, too:
  • Art2-D2’s Guide to Folding and Doodling by Tom Angleberger
  • Draw! by Raul Cocoon
  • How to Draw a Dragon by Douglas Florian
  • Louise Loves Art by Kelly Light
  • The Imaginary by A F Harrold, Emily Gravett (illustrator)
  • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
  • Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
  • Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, Wendell Minor (illustrator)
  • Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales, Tim O’Meara (photography)

If you have any suggestions for other books to inspire young artists, please send them my way!


El Deafo and the Triumph of Graphic Novels

cover of the novel El Deafo

Every so often, a student will tell me that his (it’s usually a boy) mom has put the kibosh on graphic novels. “I’m not allowed to check out any more comics,” he’ll say, wandering aimlessly off into the chapter book section. *Womp womp* I nod and smile sympathetically, but inside I’m wondering what we are doing to our kids’ love of reading by telling them their choices are a waste of time?

I know graphic novels can be what I call a gateway drug to other books because parents have told me so. In fact, today I approached the mom of a reluctant reader about the two Wimpy Kid books from the school library (ahem) that her son accidentally left in a foreign country. Yeah, I won’t be seeing those books again. But let’s focus on what she told me: once he found the Wimpy Kid series, she didn’t have to nag him to read anymore! He even came to the library today wanting to check out more books–score one for reading! I have heard similar comments from parents about the Big Nate series. I’m not sure everyone considers Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Big Nate to be true graphic novels, but let’s not quibble over details. Kids are reading, people. This is good stuff.

The thing is, graphic novels are not just a way to get kids reading. Just like any genre, there is some great literature being written in this form. In graduate school, I was assigned American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, and this book blew my mind with its interwoven storylines and takedown of prejudice both subtle and obvious. I just finished reading another masterpiece in graphic novel form: El Deafo by Cece Bell. I have no idea why Bell decided to draw her human characters as rabbit-like creatures when the book is basically an autobiography, but it works. We follow Cece as she is diagnosed with meningitis as a small child and survives the disease only to find her hearing permanently damaged.

Young Cece’s experiences resonate because they are familiar in many respects: moving to a new town, bossy friends, unrequited crushes, and a general feeling that you are different and weird. Cece, however, is navigating these waters with the added complication of her disability. At school, she must wear Sonic Ear, a cumbersome sound amplifier, on her chest. Her humiliation at wearing this device is tempered when she realizes she has the superability to hear her teacher’s voice from anywhere in the school (even the restroom–heehee). Much of Cece’s social isolation results from her inability to participate in activities that make lip-reading impossible: watching TV, listening to the radio, and whispered conversations at sleepover parties. To deal with her frustration, Cece creates an alter ego – El Deafo – who has a solution for every awkward, demeaning situation she encounters. Bell stated in an NPR interview that she wanted readers to see the humor in her situation – the misunderstood words and the funny things that happen when you rely on equipment such as the Sonic Ear. Like Greg Heffley, Cece gets to struggle through the joy, pain and absurdity of childhood, the hero of her own story.

I challenge any adult who believes “comics” have no place in our children’s lives to read El Deafo. They will discover one of the most relatable, vulnerable, triumphant main characters in children’s literature. When did we start judging storytelling based on the number of words on the page, anyway?

Reflections on Diversity and Writing Workshops

This weekend I went to a wonderful writing workshop. It was an intensive workshop for people who had a completed manuscript, and I am so grateful to the volunteers who put it together. There was a keynote speaker, critique groups, and two sessions with editors that work for major publishing houses. Surveying the room on Friday evening, my first thought was, “White women sure do like to write books.” Among the crowd of about 30+ writers were three white men. There was one writer who was a person of color, and her name is Judy. She and I got to know each other a little over the weekend. We discovered that I had the pleasure of knowing her good friend, picture book author Kelly Starling Lyons, and we bonded over our desire to see more diversity in children’s literature.

In the last moments of that weekend, when we were walking out to our cars, Judy and I saw a TV screen in the lobby airing a news story. Bold words on the screen shouted at us, Is the t-word the new n-word? Judy said that the t-word must mean “thug.” In my white privileged world, I hadn’t even been able to think of that myself. I don’t have to worry about my son being called a thug, being followed by the police because of his skin color, being shot because he is walking down a dark street at night and someone saw him as a threat. All weekend we had been immersed in our fantasy world of writing and publishing, and here it was, the reality of life in America 2015. We are still coming up with code names to degrade and stereotype other human beings.

A few moments later, the topic of Judy’s presence at the workshop came up. She breathed a sigh of relief when I acknowledged that yes, I noticed she was the only person of color there, and yes, it bothered me, too. Judy said she felt some guilt – were there people of color she could have encouraged to come along to the workshop? She used the description of putting out her hand to lift others up. It made me reflect that noticing the lack of people of color at the conference is not enough. What am I doing to lift other people up? What am I doing to bring forth the voices of those who have been silenced for so long? This is not about white guilt. I know someone will think or say, “But you can’t help that you were born white.” No, I cannot. But I can acknowledge that some things have been given to me because I am white. I did not earn them. I can acknowledge that it is difficult to be the only person of color at a writing workshop. I can invite people of color to come speak to my students about their writing, and I can read their books in the classes that I teach.

The first thing we usually talk about when we discuss the need for diverse books is that children of color need to see themselves in literature. They need to see themselves traveling to magical lands, solving a mystery, falling in love. This is absolutely true. But I contend that white children need diverse books just as badly. The “thug” stereotype will only disappear when it is replaced by a positive image that is more powerful. White children must be required to look through the lens of someone with a different skin color. It doesn’t matter if the book has anything to do with race or prejudice. I believe that white children need to experience being the “other” because it shifts the paradigm in a powerful way.

I hope Judy keeps working on her book and that it gets published and not just because she is a warm, kind, talented person who deserves success. I want that book to be in the bookstore and the library for children to read. We must all hold out a hand and take accountability. Thank you, Judy, for reminding me of that.