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

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