Guest Post by Author/Illustrator
As a child, I loved Lois Lenski books — Cotton in my Sack, Strawberry Girl, Blue Ridge Billy and others. In her books I met children who lived lives very different from my own. Children who didn’t look like me. Children who helped their parents bring a crop in, stood up for justice and equality, and did serious chores. I didn’t know any kids like them, but I wished I did. Reading about their world made my world feel bigger.
Years later, when I became a mother and my daughters attended Jackson Magnet in St. Paul, Minnesota, I found the very children I had hoped to meet when I was kid. Many were Hmong: from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Their daily lives often involved struggle. They were brave and smart and funny. Many of them spoke a different language at home. They were like youthful representatives to a mini-United Nations. Although I knew I wanted to write about them and Jackson Magnet, I wasn’t sure how.
So I sat down in my thinking chair. I sketched and I wrote. Soon three characters appeared– Pa Lia, Howie and Calliope. Not much later, Stinky Stern, showed up. As my understanding of them broadened, I knew each deserved their own story. Eventually, I wrote a series of four books: Pa Lia’s First Day, The Talent Show (about Howie), Zero Grandparents (about Calliope) and Stinky Stern Forever.
In my school visits, I like to detail how the first Jackson Friends book, Pa Lia’s First Day matured from an idea – to write about the kids at Jackson Magnet — to a book. Using a Power Point loaded with images, I walk students through the many steps, and mis-steps I took creating my character and finding her story.
Explaining my story development starts with a simple question, “What if?”. Using this prompt helped me to brainstorm, shake out some possibilities. What if Pa Lia was a new kid on the first day of school? Yes! Making Pa Lia a new kid would allow the readers to see everything at the same time she does, perfect for the first book of the Jackson Friends series. Next I had to explore what happened to Pa Lia that day. I would take some wrong turns. My editor would weigh in and critique what I wrote, guiding me to make the story stronger. Receiving critical feedback is an important part of the writing process.
Because I illustrated and designed Pa Lia’s First Day, I discuss how the visual side of a book is shaped. How does an illustrator choose their media? What guides their choices? How can works of art, from children’s drawings, primitive art, abstract paintings, and classical etchings, poke and stretch an illustrator. How can illustrator “borrow” ideas from these works? By introducing art and design concepts and considerations like line, shape, space, I lead students through the illustration process, from sketches to finishes.
I hope my Jackson Friends books open up a corner of the world to the readers who find them. Just as the books of Lois Lenksi did for me. I also hope that when I finish a school visit, after taking students through my process of writing and illustrating a book like Pa Lia’s First Day, they are moved to linger longer with other books, deepening their reading experiences, and providing them insight into other processes elsewhere, maybe even their math homework.
About Michelle Edwards
Michelle Edwards is an author/illustrator of many award-winning children’s books including Chicken Man and Stinky Stern Forever, and Max Makes a Cake as well as an adult title, A Knitters Home Companion. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys talking about stories, pictures and process in schools throughout the US and beyond. Her newest book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman: A Story of Love and Knitting (Schwartz and Wade) will be available Fall 2016. To keep in touch with Michelle, visit her website,www.michelledwards.com. “Like” her on Facebook . Follow her blog and sign up for her newsletter.
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