Monday, 14 January 2019

Draw me a hamster with an elephant's body driving a Lamborghini

Garry Parsons describes how he approaches visiting schools to talk about his work as an illustrator, gives some tips on how to do it, and asks two teachers why they feel author and illustrator visits are beneficial to pupils.

One of the surprises of working as an illustrator in children’s publishing was being asked to take part in live events. My first picture book, Billy’s Bucket by Kes Gray, won three awards during the first year of its publication and, as the illustrator, I was expected to speak publicly. Being a fairly private person, this was very daunting at first and, looking back, I’m sure in those first few years my events were probably pretty awful. But experience is a great teacher and I have learnt a lot about speaking in public and adapted my repertoire to hopefully enthuse and inspire children to pick up a pencil or read a book.

This Friday I visited a school in South London, my first of the year, and, with the thought of a busy World Book Week close on the horizon, I was keen to start the season off with a real cracker. 

Tip 1: Arrive in plenty of time.
With my mild anxiety about being late dealt with by arriving at the school half an hour early, I was greeted enthusiastically by the teacher I had been organizing the event with, and led around the school to where my workshops would be taking place during the day, and to the hall for the assembly. 

Tip 2: Set up your wares before the kids arrive.
I like to be drawing as the children are filing into the hall. You can hear the muffled chatter of excitement and murmurs of “Who?” “What?” “How?” and “Wow!” 
Children are gripped by live drawing, so I like to make the most of the flip chart paper.

Tip 3: Get everyone’s attention straight away. 
I like to do this by asking a question immediately. “Does anyone here like to draw?” I ask, and usually around 80% of hands go up.

I go on to tell them that there are three things that an illustrator needs, we quickly work out between us what these might be, and I draw these on the flip chart with fast strokes of a fat marker. Children love to interact with moans and laughter when I inform them that my pencil is in love with someone but it’s not me! 

We go through the importance of PRACTICE by unravelling a long concertina sketchbook, and the abstract notion of using your IMAGINATION by drawing a brave volunteer’s portrait. But I get it ‘wrong’ under the influence of my vivid imagination, which seemingly has a mind of its own and might add an elephant’s trunk, crazy oversized hair or giant ears to the drawing. This brings on peels of laughter.

By this point I usually feel I have the room engaged, but the time has flown by and I need to wrap it up with a five minute Q&A or, if it’s a longer assembly, I might continue with ‘Challenge the Illustrator,’ where I tell the children I can draw anything and they give me three random elements to put together in two minutes, a gorilla on a unicycle in Wembley Stadium. Either way, my intention is to have lit a fuse of enthusiasm that will carry me and the students into a series of workshops for the rest of the day.

In the workshops I explain the process of illustration, from text to final artwork, and how a picture book is made. I use examples of my work to show each of the stages and emphasise how important it is to keep the first stages fluid and not to be concerned about perfection and getting things right. That's where the romance of the pencil and the rubber comes in.

So how did the day in South London go? 
Well, it was a marvellous day with responsive children and enthusiastic and welcoming staff, it felt great and everyone seemed happy. 

This is what they said...

We had a very exciting visit from illustrator Garry Parsons. He amazed the children in an assembly with his illustration skills and quick imagination! His inspirational assembly and workshops had children in awe with a lot of spontaneous clapping.

But how do I know that schools really do get something out of author and illustrator visits? Is it worth schools spending scarce resources this way? 

I asked two experienced teachers from schools in Kent to get an inside point of view on why author and illustrator visits might be of benefit to them and their pupils and how they know a visit may have had an effect.

Mrs Bryant told me:
A visitor to your school can give pupils a fresh engagement with a subject, whether that is reading, writing or drawing, or even something less obvious like bee keeping or gymnastics. It can show children the aspect that gives education a purpose and gives them a reason for going to school. Authors and illustrators can be both inspirational and aspirational for pupils. 
Visits broaden views and often give a purposeful link to a unit of work that the pupils might be studying in class at that time or later, and we can ask questions such as “Would you like to do this as a job?” 

Miss Neech told me:
Meeting an author or illustrator in real life at your school brings in a reality, an actual person that children can directly engage with. And this is a shared experience for everyone in the school, including the teachers, and every school member can be uplifted by an inspiring speaker. When schools are required to focus on the academic, having a creative person, such as an illustrator or a writer, visiting the school is beneficial, because society is about creative thinking and problem solving. Not celebrating creativity would be a mistake!

For me, meeting the children is wonderful and I thoroughly enjoy visiting schools and having the opportunity to enthuse children about drawing and reading and about books. 

This aspect of being an illustrator has become a pleasure I had never considered when I started on the art work for Billy’s Bucket all those years ago. While the benefits of authors and illustrators visiting schools might be hard to measure from my perspective, I am convinced that they have a real impact because of the feedback from teachers, the fun that I can see the children have and, more than anything, the brilliant thank you letters I sometimes receive a few weeks later.

Garry Parsons is a children's book illustrator.

You can see more of my illustration for children's books on my website by clicking here. Get in touch to book Garry to visit your school, library or festival.

Follow me on twitter @icandrawdinos

Monday, 7 January 2019

Learning from Reflecting Realities and Reading the 1% by Chitra Soundar

Based on the children's books published in 2017, CLPE researched and analysed the representation of ethnic minorities in children’s publishing. Their findings are available here

Here in this blog post I wanted to highlight the findings for picture books.

According to their first ever analysis in 2018, only 6% of picture books published in 2017 featured a child from an ethnic minority. As an aunt of mixed-race nephews I was also deeply concerned to find that only 0.2% of all books published in 2017 featured mixed-race children in the narrative.

I looked at this report as a writer and wanted to explore how as writers we could contribute to the growth of this percentage. UK is a multi-cultural society, not now, but from Roman times. Check out this article and furore over Mary Beard suggesting it was.

But whether they were fairy tales or the stories that Victorian Britain published even as an empire was hardly inclusive. But in 2018, if we are still discussing the lack of representation and not just by race, but also by ability, gender, sexual orientation, diverse types of families, then as a writer I think we do play a part in changing this.

Reading through the recommendations of the CLPE Reflecting Realities report (that sentence is weirdly alliterative), here are some of my key lessons for me as a writer, which not only applies to writing inclusively but also generally good writing.

a)                    Avoid the shorthand; Include the Specific: When portraying a child from a minority group, the details we use should be specific and authentic and should not degrade to a stereotypical two-dimensional shorthand. Isn’t that true of all stories and all children? The key to make something more universal is not making it two-dimensional, but highlighting the specific that is so authentic that the underlying truth shines through.
b)                   Well-rounded representation of characters from ethnic backgrounds – research plays a huge part in this. Understanding a culture from the inside is no mean feat – there are subtle clues, vivid details and yet so many places where mistakes can be made. But isn’t that true for all character portrayals? Perhaps it feels easier when we write about things we know intimately. But when we write about something slightly distant from us, whether it is about another race or culture or even a person with a differing ability, should we go beyond the surface?
c)                    Children love having fun. Isn’t that true? So why do children from a different race or ethnic group or even from families that are different from us just talk about their problems and issues? Should my nephews worry all the time about why their mum’s family eats different food to their dad’s side? Or should they just have fun, try different foods and do things their own way? While it’s great to showcase another culture or ethnic group, it’s important not just to portray the difference or their struggles lest the children should grow up thinking fun is for not for them.
d)                   Children identify with characters in stories. Isn’t that why we have so many character led series that are such big hits? By extending that to children from a different race, why shouldn’t they see children they can identify with, as a series lead or as the main character of a picture book? Why do they have to be sidekicks always?
e)                   First do no harm - And finally, while representing all races in important in stories, it’s also the responsibility of creators not to include characters just for the sake of it. A bad representation is worse than no representation. If a nuanced portrayal of a child from another culture or background than you is not possible either due to time or other constraints then as a writer I have to consider if I’m correct in including it anyway.

I’m from India and I often write stories set in India or Indian families. But even when I write about India, I do a lot of research to understand the region or family I’m writing about. Even though my stories would fit into the 1% that’s recorded in the survey, I still think there is a lot to think about when I choose topics to write or characters to portray. My goal is to write stories set in a mixed-race family and write about children just like my nephews, having fun, celebrating birthdays, making friends, going on vacation etc. And this report was helpful in identifying the areas I needed to focus.

CLPE are now re-launching their survey for books published in 2018. As an author or illustrator, if you think your book would qualify, read here and request your publisher to submit your book to the research.

Want to read inclusive books and don’t know where to buy them? Check out Letterbox Library.

Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and internationally published author of children’s books, based in London, England. Chitra writes picture books, poetry and fiction for children and often visits schools, festivals and libraries to tell her stories. Find out more at Chitra also teaches a course in writing picture books. Find out more here. Follow her on Twitter @csoundar.