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Teaching Passion

When the direc­tor of Hollins University’s grad­u­ate pro­gram in children’s lit­er­a­ture asked me to teach a crit­i­cal class on the his­to­ry of children’s book illus­tra­tors, I said no. Even with an MFA in writ­ing for chil­dren from Ver­mont Col­lege, an MA in children’s lit­er­a­ture from Hollins, scores of pub­lished books, and years of teach­ing grad­u­ate-lev­el cre­ative class­es, I still felt like a fraud. Some­day I’d be called out because I nev­er got an under­grad­u­ate degree or under­stood what “dia­log­ic” meant. But the direc­tor insist­ed I was the only one who could teach this course, required for stu­dents in the new MFA Writ­ing and Illus­trat­ing Children’s Books program.

Pub­lish­ers Week­ly cov­er illus­tra­tion by Bill Peet

Maybe … When I was nine­teen, I bought a children’s lit­er­a­ture text­book at a yard sale. That one-dol­lar book became the first in my children’s lit­er­a­ture library, with a heavy con­cen­tra­tion in illus­tra­tors. What I lacked in aca­d­e­m­ic expe­ri­ence, I could make up for in pas­sion. As a kid, I longed to be an illus­tra­tor, switch­ing to ani­ma­tion when I was a teenag­er. Those dreams nev­er tran­spired, but my love for art stayed true.

Once home from that sum­mer of teach­ing, I gath­ered my books on illus­tra­tion. The floor near­ly fell in! I had so much mate­r­i­al, I didn’t need to leave my house. The course would begin with the ear­li­est children’s book illus­tra­tors, up to the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Hollins sum­mer res­i­dence terms are six weeks, two class­es a week, each class three hours.

I would cov­er the ear­ly illus­tra­tors in the first class, then spend the rest of the term high­light­ing tech­nique, print­ing meth­ods, and ground-break­ing artists. My out­line looked dead­ly. I tossed it and any pre­ten­sion I had of being a “real” aca­d­e­m­ic. I’d teach the class the way I wish some­one would have taught me — mov­ing chrono­log­i­cal­ly through time, giv­ing back­grounds of illus­tra­tors, and, most impor­tant, telling sto­ries along with show­ing the art. Stu­dents would get plen­ty of infor­ma­tion, but they would also have a sense of the artists’ lives.

The out­come for the stu­dents? Rather than turn them into walk­ing ency­clo­pe­dias, I want­ed them to fall in love. Fall for one illus­tra­tor, one artist that would change their lives, change the way they made their own art.

I began scan­ning illus­tra­tions for Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tions. My lit­tle flatbed scan­ner hummed day after day until I had 1000 slides. A thou­sand! Even spread out over twelve class­es, a thou­sand slides would send stu­dents fly­ing for the exit. I cut and cut, until I had 500 slides. Well, they’d get their money’s worth.

Mon­strosi­ties of 1825,” by George Cruikshank

On the first day of our class, I told the stu­dents to buck­le up, their first lec­ture would be like a motor­cy­cle ride through the Lou­vre. We cov­ered 150 years of illus­tra­tion, from the 1830s (George Cruik­shank) to the 1930s (E.H. Shep­ard), criss-cross­ing between Eng­land and Amer­i­ca. There were 75 slides, my script was 35 pages. Amaz­ing­ly, they all came back for the next class.

Toad told Rat all his adven­tures”, by Ernest H. Shep­ard, from The Wind in the Willows

Halfway through the term, I added anoth­er facet to the unit on mid-cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tors. Artists who’d start­ed at Dis­ney Stu­dios and gone on to pro­duce children’s books — peo­ple like Bill Peet, the Provensens, and Gyo Fujikawa. Twelve class­es was not enough! So, I cre­at­ed a thir­teenth class, some­thing no one had ever done before. Work­ing around stu­dents’ sched­ules, we met dur­ing lunch. I opened the lec­ture up to every­one in our pro­gram. After that, oth­er fac­ul­ty mem­bers began hold­ing lunchtime lectures.

from The Ani­mal Fair, Alice and Mar­tin Provensen, Gold­en Books

A Child’s Good Night Book, illus­trat­ed by Jean Charlot

Instead of a sin­gle text, stu­dents were required to dis­cuss ten pic­ture books I’d select­ed. Many had nev­er seen Robert Lawson’s tech­ni­cal­ly bril­liant line-work for Fer­di­nand the Bull. They all knew Clement Hurd’s art for Mar­garet Wise Brown’s Good­night Moon but had missed Jean Charlot’s mas­ter­ful pas­tels in A Child’s Good Night Book. Although I’d put togeth­er a zil­lion slides, I stag­gered into each class with more exam­ples of the fea­tured artist’s work. Slides are great, but noth­ing beats pag­ing through actu­al books, most vin­tage or hard-to-find.

We had “spe­cial” days, such as sam­pling every black form of media I could lay my hands on for stu­dents to emu­late Wan­da Gag’s printer’s black. We ate blue­ber­ry Dan­ish dur­ing the Robert McCloskey class. Stu­dents tore pieces of col­ored paper and made Leo Lion­ni-style col­lages as we dis­cussed Lit­tle Blue and Lit­tle Yel­low.

Katy and the Big Snow, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Vir­ginia Lee Burton

Stu­dents began bring­ing in books from mad-dash trips home to share. They showed sketch­es in the style of Vir­ginia Lee Bur­ton or Don­ald Crews. And they did what I hoped — they fell in love.

After my ini­tial run, I repeat­ed the course every oth­er year. Stu­dents pro­claimed it was their very favorite class in the pro­gram. On the last day of the term, we tra­di­tion­al­ly eat Krispy Kreme donuts and I ask the stu­dents who they fell in love with dur­ing the term. Often, it’s more than one illus­tra­tor. Then there are hugs and heart­felt good­byes, even a few tears.

Sum­mer 2018 was the final time I taught that love­ly course. After thir­teen years at Hollins, I need­ed to spend sum­mers home for per­son­al rea­sons. Instead I’ll teach inten­sives at the uni­ver­si­ty, as I have — and will con­tin­ue to do — for oth­er pro­grams and orga­ni­za­tions. As it turned out, my stu­dents changed my life, and teach­ing became my passion.

On the last day of my last illus­tra­tion class, I gath­ered my mate­ri­als one last time, looked around at the emp­ty class­room where’d I’d taught so many years, and turned out the light. The tears were mine.

One Response to Teaching Passion

  1. Avatar
    Cathy Ballou Mealey January 4, 2019 at 11:43 am #

    Oh my, what a trea­sury! Those stu­dents were incred­i­bly lucky to learn from such a pas­sion­ate teacher.

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