Cognitive Elements in Picture Books - Book Reviews

Episode 5: ‘A Year in Our New Garden’ (Gerda Muller) and ‘Earnestine’s Milky Way’ (Kerry Madden-Lunsford)

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG:

To encourage parents and teachers to read to children (and to educate picture book writers and illustrators about including cognitive elements in their work). The act of reading out loud is not enough. When reading a picture book, or even a middle grade book, we are given a fantastic opportunity to develop an interactive experience with our children.

What is an interactive experience?

This interactive experience does not require any devices. It does require constant interfacing between the adult and the child/children.

When reading to children, you want to deliver the book in a manner that invites the children to participate as active listeners and engages responses from them that grow their minds.

Passive listening is all very well, but the story is soon over, and an opportunity has been lost to use ‘story time’ as a guided exploration of another world, or some subject. I totally understand how often the bedtime story has to be delivered promptly and that there is no time for discussion. I firmly believe however, when possible, an extended period devoted to reading and delving into the text, benefits the child, and is enjoyed by both the adult and the child.

We will be looking at two picture books in this blog.

The repairs to our home are progressing, so I have been able to retrieve my picture book collection. The two books being reviewed this month, however, are library books. I simply couldn’t resist them.

As an illustrator, the cover illustration draws my attention. If the cover is appealing, then I will peek inside and see what treasure I can uncover between the pages.

So, what are we reading today?

A Year in Our New Garden

Written and Illustrated by Gerda Muller

Published in English by Floris Books in 1988, 2016 (first published in 1988 in German as ‘Ein Garten fur Kinder in der Stadt’.

The illustrations appear to be done in pen and ink and watercolour.

This book will appeal to junior primary-aged children.

The cognitive insights for this book:

  1. Comprehension and memory skills – Prose is an excellent pathway for teaching comprehension skills. Feel free to ask your child questions about what you have read. Not only will the child have to retrieve information (memory skills), but you will also have an opportunity to determine whether your child has really understood the story or information conveyed. You are also able to share additional information or explanation.
  2. Visual perception – Discuss the pictures. Sometimes picture and story books will contain a sub-plot that is only apparent in the illustrations. Although this book doesn’t quite do that, it does show some lovely instances that are not mentioned in the text. For example, the title page displays a sparrow bathing in some rainwater in the drain; or when the children are gardening, Anna has her doll resting in the vegetable garden beside her. Encourage the child to see all the untold story that is shown in the pictures. They will learn to notice/observe and understand and infer through what they see.
  3. Sequencing – The story travels through a year. It explores the sequence of the seasons. See if you child is able to name the seasons in order. If they remember the story, it will make it easier for them to remember the seasons in the right order.
  4. Vocabulary development – Many plants, gardening implements, creatures etc. are discussed in this book. Your child may become interested in learning the names of plants in their own garden. Books like this are great aids in developing general knowledge.
  5. Activity – Reading this book may encourage an interest in nature and/or gardening. It may just foster, in your child, a life-long hobby or a career in botany or zoology.

Additional lessons that can be learned from this story include:

  • Friendship – Benjamin and Anna become friends with their upstairs neighbour, Louis, who is in a wheelchair. At least in Benjamin and Anna’s eyes, Louis is as capable as them.
  • Facts – Although a vast amount of information is delivered throughout the story, the final couple pages are devoted to teaching the facts about pollen, sowing seeds, roots and types of plants suited to growing in very small spaces.

For the illustrators:

  • Dynamic illustrations – there is a mixture of formats, including aerial view, vignettes, plans, diagrams, thumbnails, full-bleeds, with and without background. As a result, the illustrations are attention-grabbing.
  • Colour palette – is consistent throughout the book and tends to more neutral colours. They are realistic and detailed without being cluttered.

For the writers:

Written in prose, this book has more than 32 pages and is more of a story book than a picture book. The word count definitely exceeds 500 words. Though story books are now considered old-fashioned, I believe there is still a place for them, as they present a bridge between average picture books (containing approximately 500 words) and chapter books. Please comment if you know of any publishers who welcome story book submissions.

About the writer-illustrator:

Gerda Muller is a Dutch children’s book author and illustrator. She has illustrated more than 120 books for children and her books have been translated into many languages. She is best known in Britain for her Seasons board books and A Year Around the Great Oak (all published by Floris Books). https://www.florisbooks.co.uk/authors/gerda-muller.php

‘A Year in Our New Garden’ can be purchased:

https://www.booktopia.com.au/a-year-in-our-new-garden-gerda-muller/book/9781782502593.html

https://www.amazon.com/Year-Our-New-Garden/dp/1782502599/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=%27A+Year+in+Our+New+Garden%27&qid=1567066808&s=gateway&sr=8-1

https://www.bookdepository.com/Year-Our-New-Garden-Gerda-Muller/9781782502593?ref=grid-view&qid=1567066827540&sr=1-1

Ernestine’s Milky Way

Written by Kerry Madden-Lunsford and illustrated by Emily Sutton

Published by Schwartz & Wade Books (imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC), New York, 2019

The illustrations were created using ink and watercolour.

Keeping with the theme of gardens, I was very pleasantly surprised by this book.

This story is perfect for young children, aged 3 to 6. It could be a quick read, but I lovely how much can be unpacked from the text, illustrations and general context of the book.

The story summary:

Ernestine and her mother live on a farm. Since her mother is in the late stages of pregnancy, Ernestine volunteers to carry milk to the neighbour’s house, but the journey is fraught with danger.

Lessons to be learnt from this lovely book:

  1. Botany – Like the previous book review, this book offers an enrichment experience. Who wouldn’t be curious about Googling plants named ‘doghobble’ and ‘devil’s walking stick’?
  2. Astronomy – In a charming and informal manner, children can be introduced to learning about constellations, galaxies, etc.
  3. History – This story is set during World War II, in the rural Great Smoky Mountains of the USA. It is a reminder of days past and of a lifestyle few of us can fathom. This book presents a lovely opportunity to discuss the differences between the era in which the book is set, and our own time. Also watch out for the colloquial dialect. If you can mimic the accent, your kids will love it.
  4. Zoology – The majority of children are fascinated by animals. This book mentions creatures that your child may not be familiar with (wolf, skunks, panthers, whistle pigs, mockingbirds, black bear, raccoons). In New Zealand, we have many birds, reptiles, amphibia and insects; but not native animals. How exciting for children to learn about wildlife from other countries!
  5. Vocabulary – I feel it is always a privilege to help expand a child’s vocabulary. This book introduces words like: hollered, springhouse, constellations, shanty, pail, barbed-wire, Venus, lavender, thicket, passel, glistening, pell-mell, straddled, etc,
  6. Emotional and social lessons – Emily Sutton’s folksy illustrations support the text so well. They bring alive a story set in a time when more people lived off their land and had to co-operate with others to exist. So many of us now live an ‘island’ existence – struggling through on our own. This story reiterates that we need to be there for other people, and they will be there for us.
  7. Map – The simplified map gives the child an opportunity to relive the story and recite it back to the adult. The grown-up can then be sure that the child has correctly sequenced the story, and adequately remembered it.
  8. Hobby – the writer provides a recipe for the corn bread mentioned in the story. You might find yourself living with the next Jamie Oliver!
  9. Background – this story is loosely based on the life of the author’s friend. The Author’s Note, at the back of the book, makes interesting reading.

For writers:

  1. Onomatopoeia – Ernestine hears noises as she walks to the Ramsey’s shanty house: snuffa-snuffa-snufflin, grunta-grunta-gruntin, scratch-scratch-scratchin. Onomatopoeia teaches children auditory and phonological discrimination – the ability to understand sound, which is so important when they are reading and spelling.
  2. Increased anticipation is induced when reading about Ernestine’s wariness when hearing the animals around her. First, she said, then called, and then yelled.
  3. Recurring phrase – several times in the book, Ernestine says, ‘I am five years old and a big girl!’. When a phrase is repeated multiple times, children often memorise it, will recite it at the correct moment in the story, and will often make it a catch phrase during play, etc. Memorisation like this helps children to remember other things too; and helps them to pick up and use phrases in their everyday speech.

For illustrators:

  1. Colour Palette – Emily Sutton kept her colour palette very simple: warm brown, reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues and greys. Her palette only deviates slightly for the illustration depicting the early morning, and is painted in cool shades of brown, green, blue and mauve.
  2. Textural illustrations – Instead of heaps of detail, the illustrator has created the illusion of detail by using pencil texture marks. It works extremely well.
  3. Dynamic composition – It is very easy for an illustrator to use just one kind of ‘viewing angle’ for illustrations; for instance, a direct street view. However, Emily Sutton uses different angles and winding curves to create the impression of distance and danger. She also illustrates at an elevated angle (looking down) and gives the idea that she is either following or leading Ernestine in the scenes, a little like a camera man.
  4. Varied illustration formats – The illustrator utilises full page bleeds, vignettes, double page layouts and even a simplified map. Both the composition and format maintain visual interest throughout the book.

Ernestine’s Milky Way’ can be purchased:

https://www.amazon.com/Ernestines-Milky-Way-Kerry-Madden-Lunsford/dp/1524714844/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Ernestine’s+Milky+Way&qid=1567067245&s=gateway&sr=8-1

https://www.bookdepository.com/Ernestines-Milky-Way-Kerry-Madden-Lunsford/9781524714840?ref=grid-view&qid=1567067252451&sr=1-1

https://www.booktopia.com.au/ernestine-s-milky-way-kerry-madden-lunsford/book/9781524714840.html

For those of you who are new to my blog, I write a month blog, alternating between illustration-themed blogs, and picture book reviews with cognitive insights for parents, teachers, picture book writers and illustrators.

Please join me this time next month for another an illustration blog about my current picture book project.

Happy reading!

Illustration

Setting Up a Print on Demand Store

Store header

The last couple of months have been hectic. Unfortunately, in all the chaos, I forgot to blog last month.

Better late than never!

Please note: I am not being paid to review print on demand platforms. All comments are my personal opinion and are formed from my experience.

Stepping Out and Setting Up a Store

I am one of the most risk-averse people on the planet; however, thanks to Nina Rycroft (during her ‘Project Portfolio’) and her guest, Nic Squirrell, I was encouraged to set up my first Print on Demand store.

By setting up a Print on Demand store, I hoped to make, at least a part of, my living. Like many artists and illustrators, it is necessary for us to have multiple sources of income.

How Did I Decide On Which Platform to Use?

I read the FAQs on well over a dozen print on demand (POD) sites, and created a spreadsheet on which I could easily see the similarities and differences of the platforms, then googled reviews on these sites.

I decided to start on one of the smaller platforms, Redbubble.

My First POD Store

Since I was a complete POD newbie, I watched several Youtube videos and read a few blogs before setting up my Redbubble store.

To my technophobic delight, I found Redbubble to be a simple, intuitive site, easy to navigate, and in no time, I was uploading my artwork to my new store.

One of my favourite aspects of Redbubble is that you upload your illustration / design ONCE, enter the design description, and then you either:

  1. De-select the merchandise items your design is not suited to, OR
  2. Manually edit your image to make it appropriate for the merchandise items.

Save, and ‘hey, presto!’, a new design, and many new merchandise options have been added to the store.

What is the Hardest Part of Using Redbubble?

The most challenging and time-consuming aspect of creating POD merchandise doesn’t actually occur on the store platform.

The hard work takes place in the scanning and digital editing (digitising) of the illustrations.

I use GIMP, and am happy to report that this software is not only free, but can do everything that I require for editing illustration images.

I have watched many tutorials about GIMP on Skillshare and Youtube in order to get up to speed, but it has been totally worth it.

I am not a digital artist. I work with watercolour and coloured pencil (and occasionally ink). The next couple of paragraphs are about what I experience when I scan and digitally edit my traditional media pieces for use on POD platforms.

It can sometimes take a couple of hours to get rid of the background paper texture from an intricate, filigree-type illustration, but it is time well spent, when you see how good the images look on the merchandise. This extremely necessary step guarantees brilliant results. If you do not delete the paper backgrounds, the images look grainy and unprofessional as the paper background is printed onto the merchandise.

Be aware that the software cannot always differentiate between the background paper and the colour yellow or other pale shades. To those who use Photoshop, please comment if yellow is a problem for you when cleaning up artwork. I am interested to find out if this is just a GIMP issue or if it is a yellow issue.

I have theorised that my yellow watercolour paints are very transparent, and that other very pale shades are super transparent too, which may be why the software cannot detect a difference between the paper and the painted areas.

Please comment if you have some knowledge about this.

Another word of warning, if you use a cheaper scanner, although the scan will still be clear, you may find that the colour is either weaker, or that certain shades simply do not scan accurately. I love using Bright Opera Pink, and it makes the most gorgeous shades of purple when mixed with different blues (and amazing bright oranges when mixed with lemon yellow); however, my scanner does not read Bright Opera Pink. Any areas painted with this colour show up as an extremely pale, icy pink. I have to digitally touch up any work done with the more luminous shades. My scanner doesn’t even represent Quinadcridone Violet or Magenta accurately.

One day I will invest in a better scanner.

Your merchandise images are only as good as your scanning and editing. In a way, digital artists have the edge over traditional artists when it comes to reproducing work.

What Do I Like About Redbubble?

I have already mentioned why I like the Redbubble system.

I also like the product range, which is smaller than some other platforms; however, all the items are well-priced and, I think, popular.

I like how clean the set-up is and how easy it was to learn to use it. It is very logical, and not technical.

So, Am I Selling Products?

Yes! My store is new, but I have made sales – long may that continue!

My Second POD Store

I am currently setting up a Zazzle store.

Zazzle is a very different beast to Redbubble. It cannot be compared to Redbubble as it is a considerably larger platform in every respect. I will give you the pros. and cons. as I see them.

Pros.

  1. Massive number of merchandise options.
  2. Huge variety of merchandise options – you can specialise, if you choose. For instance, you may decide to only create stationery items, or clothing and dress fabrics, or only household items. Or, like me, put your merchandise on the products you like and believe will sell – eventually! Quite a lot of people selling on Zazzle only sell t-shirts, or coffee mugs, etc. For those designers, Zazzle is a simple and easy tool.
  3. There is a great range of goods at different prices. You can purchase small, cheap items; or large, speciality items that cost a bit more.

Cons.

  1. I found that Zazzle was not as intuitive and simple to use as Redbubble. Redbubble is so easy to use that I initially felt very frustrated with the Zazzle system. Having stuck at it for a while now, I have accepted it for what it is, and am coping with the system and its requirements.
  2. It is not as straight forward as Redbubble if you wish to put your designs on a greater number of items. Although you upload your design once, there is no really quick way to create merchandise. For items that are in the same range, for example, badges, you can upload your design and it will automatically be available on different shaped badges, or badges made from the same material. You can decide whether to turn off this option. If you upload your image to a badge, it will not be available on t-shirts or tea-pots until you upload it to those items.
  3. Zazzle is a much more time-consuming platform to work on. I believe the system is this way because of the necessity to set up SEOs (search engine optimisation) for the products. Apparently, you can create product templates, but I was confused by the information as it did not seem to apply to the kind of work I was doing. As previously mentioned, technology is not one of my strengths, so if any of you know how to help me out with time-saving methods, I would love to hear from you.
  4. Description data is required for every merchandising item you choose. I have a system, and now am pretty efficient as I work; however, it takes many hours to create all the merchandise options that I may wish to use. Redbubble takes about 10 minutes!
  5. Redbubble has more colour options available for merchandise items. Only a selection of default colours is available on Zazzle, whereas, Redbubble has custom colour options for the majority of items.
  6. Because I am not American, it was a NIGHTMARE wrapping my head around the IRS tax form. God bless the New Zealand IRD – their tax forms are so much simpler to fill out!

I have chosen to continue building my Zazzle store because I consider it as time invested in passive income. I won’t need to do this again. I also remind myself constantly: NO PAIN, NO GAIN. Hopefully people will start to see my merchandise and like it enough to buy it. It will be worth the hard work.

I have sold only two items so far, but hopefully sales will increase as I add more items and designs.

Are You Thinking of Setting Up Your Own POD Store?

Nic Squirrell recommended that artists put their illustrations on as many platforms as possible. That is my goal.

After watching other POD artists, the general consensus was:

  1. Keep producing new work – this encourages repeat customers.
  2. Update your stores regularly.
  3. Upload to as many different POD platforms as you can.
  4. Upload your designs to as many merchandising options as you can; however, don’t be tempted to put your designs on all options, as not everything is suited to a particular design. Choose items that suit your work, and delete any merchandise you are not happy with.
  5. Advertise your stores. I try to share my store items 5-6 times per week. Apologies to my Instagram and Facebook followers who feel ad-bombed. I am just trying to catch that one person who is trying to find the perfect birthday gift for someone who has everything.

What is So Great About POD?

One of the best aspects of print on demand platforms, is that the artist does not have the expense of producing merchandise. Instead you upload your work, choose your products, sell them to the public, and receive royalty payments. The platform manages the manufacturing of the goods, shipping to the customer and the payment to you.

The royalties vary between platforms, so take the time to check all of them out.  

So, What Can a Print on Demand Store Mean for the Shopper?

These print on demand platforms are a great place to find gifts. They cater for everyone.

And Now…

For the time being, however, I am content maintaining my Redbubble store, and developing the Zazzle store.

Please Check Out My Stores:

https://www.redbubble.com/people/auntiebetty

https://www.zazzle.co.nz/store/auntie_betty

Even if you are not interested in purchasing anything, please feel free to like the designs and follow my stores. This helps move my store through the ranks, which hopefully will mean some sales.

If you are interested in purchasing any of the merchandise items, please keep an eye out for the sales. There are regular sales on both Redbubble and Zazzle.

If you purchase items, please feel free to email, message, Facebook or Instagram me with a review and a photo. It would be lovely to ‘meet’ my customers.

A Shout-Out:

I have a shout-out two Instafriends, who also sell their amazing artwork on print-on-demand platforms.

Please check out their stores too:

  1. Lise Holt Art: https://www.redbubble.com/people/liseholtart
  2. Squibble Creative Services: https://society6.com/squibble

This is my recent experience of setting up print on demand stores.

I have heard very good things about Society6, so hopefully, one day, I will start a Society6 store too. Some of the other POD platforms are: Threadless, Bucketfeet, Design by Humans, Spreadshoes, Bags of Love, Sunfrog, Café Press, Teerepublic, Spreadshirt, Teefury, Vida, Art of Where, Be Smart, etc.

Please comment if you have a POD store, and if you would like to contribute to any of my thoughts.

Please join me this time next month when I review a couple of lovely picture books. Until next time…

Cognitive Elements in Picture Books - Book Reviews

Episode 4: ‘Two Little Monkeys’ (Mem Fox) and ‘Blue Chameleon’ (Emily Gravett)

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG:

To encourage parents and teachers to read to children (and to educate picture book writers and illustrators about including cognitive elements in their work). The act of reading out loud is not enough. When reading a picture book, or even a middle grade book, we are given a fantastic opportunity to develop an interactive experience with our children.

What is an interactive experience?

This interactive experience does not require any devices. It does require constant interfacing between the adult and the child/children.

When reading to children, you want to deliver the book in a manner that invites the children to participate as active listeners and engages responses from them that grow their minds.

Passive listening is all very well, but the story is soon over, and an opportunity has been lost to use ‘story time’ as a guided exploration of another world, or some subject. I totally understand how often the bedtime story has to be delivered promptly and that there is no time for discussion. I firmly believe however, when possible, an extended period devoted to reading and delving into the text, benefits the child, and is enjoyed by both the adult and the child.

We will be looking at two picture books in this blog.

Since my picture book collection is still in storage, while necessary house repairs take place, I visited our local library.

As an illustrator, the cover illustrations draw my attention. If the cover is appealing, then I will peek inside and see what treasure I can uncover between the pages.

So, what are we reading today?

Two Little Monkeys

Written by Mem Fox

Illustrated by Jill Barton

Published by Puffin Books, Penguin Group, Australia, 2012

The illustrations appear to be done in pencil and watercolour.

This book will appeal to young children (toddlers).

It is a rhyming story, with a strong rhythm, which reminded me a lot of the old nursery rhyme, ‘Two Little Dickie Birds, sitting on a wall, one name Peter, the other name Paul.’

Because of the tight rhythm and neat rhyming, there is a natural cadence when the story is read. Reading picture books, structured in this manner, is fundamental for young brain development. Skills learnt reading books like ‘Two Little Monkeys’ include:

  1. Rhyme recognition and generation – do the words ‘Cheeky’ and ‘Chee’ rhyme? What else rhymes with ‘Cheeky’ and ‘Chee’?
  2. Rhythm development – the ability to clap or tap in time or even to generate new verses in accordance with the rhyming and rhythm patterns laid out in the story.
  3. Memory development – the story is catchy, due to the rhyme and rhythm, and some children will learn the story off by heart.
  4. Sequencing – memorising the story will help children learn to remember the story in order. “What comes after this line if the last word must rhyme with ‘tree’?”
  5. Vocabulary development – marvellous words like ‘prowling’, ‘scramble’, ‘tremble’, and ‘leap’ are used. Most two and three old year children love learning new, ‘big’ or ‘grown-up’ words, and they learn to use these through understanding the context of the story.

Additional lessons that can be learned from this story include:

  • Stranger danger message – Cheeky and Chee realise that there is someone approaching who does not have their best interests at heart, and from whom they flee. This story can be used by parents and teachers as a springboard for a discussion about this very serious subject.
  • Clues – If the children analyse the illustrations, they may find that danger lurks from the very first page. Children need to be made aware that vital information can be concealed on a page, and that they need to look for it.

For the aspiring illustrators, one major lesson stood out:

  • Limited colour palette – Jill Barton kept the colour palette very simple. She did not use every colour available. Cohesion between the illustrations is maintained throughout the entire book. The palette is very neutral, but beautiful, red berries are introduced for the exciting conclusion of the story.

Mem Fox has written many delightful children’s picture books and is Australian. Jill Barton has also illustrated numerous picture books and lives in the United Kingdom.

Blue Chameleon

Written and illustrated by Emily Gravett

Published by Two Hoots, Pan Macmillan, United Kingdom, 2010

The illustrations were created using pencil, watercolour and coloured pencils.

I love chameleons, so I could not pass by this picture book!

This story is perfect for young children. Although a quick read (the word count is only 51 words!), there is so much scope for discussion.

Emily Gravett introduces colour and texture to children in this story, and yet, the book is not about colour and texture. She cleverly utilises them to drive the simple, yet profound, storyline.

In short, Chameleon is lonely. He tries to make friends with a host of other creatures and solitary objects.

As we have all be raised to believe, chameleons change colour to camouflage with their surroundings, and this is what Chameleon does, but still he is lonely, until…DRUMROLL, please…he finally meets another chameleon!

The satisfactory ending in no way negates the need for me to point out that chameleons do not actually change colour to match their surroundings.

Apparently, according to my internet research, chameleons change colour as a response to mood, temperature, health, communication, and light.

Lessons to be learnt from this lovely book:

  1. Colour identification – kids love colour and this book is great way to check that they know their colours.
  2. Pattern and texture discussion – chat about the patterns and textures shown in the illustrations.
  3. Science – explain that chameleons do change colour, and but teach them when they actually do.
  4. Emotional and social lesson – that we are not alone. Even if we do not fit in with everyone else, there is someone out there who we will get along with. We just need to keep our eyes open.

For writers:

  • May this be a lesson to me and other verbose children’s authors, that picture books can be written with just 51 words!

For illustrators:

  • Keep illustrations super simple. Although Emily Gravett utilises props for her protagonist, she did not illustrate the background!

Recently I have been trying to blog twice a month, but time is not on my side, so I am returning to once-monthly blogs. I will be alternating months between illustration-themed blogs, and picture book reviews with cognitive insights. Please join me this time next month for another an illustration blog, where I will be discussing my recent experience opening a Redbubble store, from which my illustrations can be purchased on a wide range of products.

Happy reading!

Illustration

My Favourite Botanical Watercolour Books

Today I endeavour to be more succinct! I know I have a habit of writing very loooooong blogs.

I cannot wait to introduce you to my favourite botanical watercolour books.

“But”, you might say, “I’m not interested in Botanical art!”

However, these books teach bucket loads on technique. So even if you are not interested in Botanical Art, you will still find a colossal amount of value in learning the techniques.

So, which are my favourite Botanical Watercolour Books?

Admission time: I love botanical art and I love botanical art books. Even if I didn’t paint, or wasn’t a keen botanical artist, I would still have bought these books. They are artworks by themselves.

I knew, when I first saw some of Anna Mason’s Youtube videos, that I would have to buy her books at some point.  Then I stumbled on Billy Showell! Needless to say, they are not the only botanical artists whose work makes me drool like a Bull Mastiff.

I knew, from reading reviews, that both Billy and Anna’s books contain a lot of information about technique. That is where my interest lays. Their books also contain step-by-step instructions for replicating their own work, and I know that these projects are very popular with a lot of people.

However, I see a greater value in learning techniques. When an art student learns a technique, they are free to apply it any way they see fit, to any artwork. They can also adapt those techniques, because they only learn the technique. They learn to problem-solve when there are issues, and they become inventive with solutions.

I am not such a huge fan of the step-by-step method, simply because I feel that students do not always learn to think for themselves. Even though capable, they often lack confidence to strike out on their own, and continue painting by number, instead of allowing their cognition and creative thinking to kick in.

Technique

I guess it would be fair to say that even though Billy Showell and Anna Mason are both brilliant photo-realist botanical artists, they approach their work from very different perspectives.

They even use different brushes!

Anna works wet-on-dry and creates vibrant, intensely coloured blooms. Billy is a big proponent of wet-on-wet painting, and produces an illusion of subtle, translucent delicacy. One is not better than the other. They are simply, completely different.

Both artists give useful advice concerning colour and colour mixing, which is always enlightening. They each use their own favourite colours. No artists can own every colour, but you may wish to add additional colours to your palettes once you have read their books.

What did I learn from each artist?

From Anna’s books, I learn how to make the most of bold colours, and not be intimidated by values. I have always been terrified (without reason!) of making my darkest values too dark.

From Billy’s book, I have absorbed so much about technique, especially how to use wet-on-wet techniques, because I am a dry watercolourist and have always been a little intimidated by the unpredictability of wet-on-wet painting.

The verdict

Will I be applying what I have learnt to my work? ABSOLUTELY!

Over the years, I have learnt to analyse my artwork and decide what needs to be done for the betterment of the painting. I no longer feel apprehensive about using techniques, because I am better informed how to use them, and now apply these to illustration work that is not botanically related.

Just because these books focus on painting plants doesn’t mean that the techniques cannot be used for painting costumes, or animals, etc. They can, because I use them for more than painting cosmos or autumn leaves.

Please join me this time next month when I review a couple of lovely picture books.

Until next time…

Cognitive Elements in Picture Books - Book Reviews

Episode 3: ‘How Much Does a Ladybird Weigh?’ (Alison Limentani) and ‘Katie and the Impressionists’ (James Mayhew)

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG:

To encourage parents and teachers to read to children (and to educate picture book writers about including cognitive elements in their work). The act of reading out loud is not enough. When reading a picture book, or even a middle grade book, we are given a fantastic opportunity to develop an interactive experience with our children.

What is an interactive experience?

This interactive experience does not require any devices. It does require constant interfacing between the adult and the child/children.

When reading to children, you want to deliver the book in a manner that invites the children to participate as active listeners and engages responses from them that grow their minds.

Passive listening is all very well, but the story is soon over, and an opportunity has been lost to use ‘story time’ as a guided exploration of another world, or some subject. I totally understand how often the bedtime story has to be delivered promptly and that there is no time for discussion. I firmly believe however, when possible, an extended period devoted to reading and delving into the text, benefits the child, and is enjoyed by both the adult and the child.

Unlike my previous ‘reading picture book’ blogs, where I took you along with me as I ‘read’ to a child, in this blog, and hopefully, more future blogs, I would like to examine picture books and draw the cognitive depth from them.

We will be looking at two picture books in this blog.

Since my picture book collection is in storage, while necessary house repairs take place, I visited our local library.

As an illustrator, the cover illustrations draw my attention. If the cover is appealing, then I will peek inside and see what treasure I can uncover between the pages.

So, what are we reading today?

How Much Does a Ladybird Weigh?

  • Written and illustrated by Alison Limentani
  • Published by Boxer Books, United Kingdom, 2016
  • Alison used lino cuts and litho printing and digital colour to create the illustrations.

This is a counting book. Adults always want counting books for teaching wee ones counting and number concept. This is a counting book with a twist.

(Writers and illustrators note: many publishers will not accept counting or alphabet books, citing an oversupply in the market. If you are able to come up with a book that is not simply about counting, or is delivered in a unique way, there is a market.)

This book uses counting as a springboard for teaching the concept of WEIGHT! This is the first junior picture book that I have found that deals with weight.

Alison compares the weights of different creatures, for example: 10 ants weigh the same as 1 ladybird.

Cool! Very cool! My inner geek is excited. What a clever way to introduce children to comparisons, understanding the impact of size, weight and quantity. Mathematics education at its best.

The illustrations are simple, but detailed and very attractive. Since most 3- and 4-year olds are fascinated by animals, I think this book will be a winner.

It will appeal to boys and girls.

‘How Much Does a Ladybird Weigh’ was Alison’s debut picture book. She is a qualified Veterinary Nurse, Animal Behavourist and Children’s Book Illustrator. She has published two picture books, and has several other animal-themed books in the pipe-line.

Katie and the Impressionists

  • Written and illustrated by James Mayhew
  • Published by Orchard Books, United Kingdom, 1997, 2014

One of several similarly themed books by the same author, ‘Katie and the Impressionists’ is a gentle introduction for young children to fine art.

Katie goes on a rip-roaring adventure. She is a little a like Mary Poppins, diving into pavement chalk paintings. I would have loved this book as a child, and indeed, I do as an adult. Truthfully, I would find some of her adventures a little frightening. She is a plucky kid, jumping from one painting adventure to another!

The illustrations are lovely and Katie is an action-filled adventuress who keeps you turning the pages. I didn’t want the story to end. It is a pity picture books are generally 32 pages long. I wish story books were still popular.

This picture book provides a visual feast. I think this book is ideal for prompting children to describe what they see, and also to inspire them to try different art styles. You never know if you have a budding Impressionist at home. Art is not just a creative outlet. Drawing and painting involve multiple cognitive (brain) functions, so can be a fun way to boost brain development.

James Mayhew included artwork by Monet, Renoir and Degas.

I am certainly no expert, since I do not use these mediums, but I think the illustrations are done in pastel and either colour pencil or conte crayon.

Apart from his numerous other books, in the ‘Make Art an Adventure’ series, James Mayhew has also authored:

  • Katie and the Sunflowers
  • Katie and the British Artists
  • Katie and the Bathers
  • Katie and the Lily Pond
  • Katie and the Spanish Princess
  • Katie’s Picture Show
  • Katie and the Starry Night
  • Katie and the Mona Lisa

Needless to say, I will be on the lookout for some of these books!

Recently I have been trying to blog twice a month, but time is not on my side, so I am returning to once-monthly blogs. I will be alternating months between illustration-themed blogs, and picture book reviews with cognitive insights. Please join me this time next month for another an illustration blog.

Happy reading!

Illustration

Clairefontaine PastelMat

PastelMat pads

How did I come across PastelMat?

As a beginner colour pencil artist, I was confronted by a wide range of colour pencil options. My local art stores stock Prismacolor, Derwent and Faber Castell. I was counselled to buy Derwent, but floundered in choices there too. Eventually I bought a 72- set of Derwent Artist pencils and a 72-set of Derwent Studio pencils. (By the way, I thought that they were complementary sets, but found they feel much the same! My bad!)

I was delighted with the colour range, but on my first project, I was concerned about how hard the pencil cores were, and how difficult it was to layer colour because of the early development of wax bloom. I had worked on cartridge paper, and ‘hit myself over the head’ for using an unsuitable paper and tried a watercolour paper, with even worse results. The pencils are so hard that the tooth was destroyed early on. I work with a very light hand, so the colour looked very ‘wishy-washy’, but pressing hard was out of the question as the tooth was gone and I had a wax bloom. Eventually, in desperation, I bought a set of Prismacolor Premier pencils on sale, despite everyone’s warnings about sharpening issues, etc. I love my Prismacolors and used them for several projects, and for mixed media work.

In frustration, I thrust my two brand new sets of Derwent colour pencils onto the shelf, and moved onto water-soluble pencils, ‘kicking myself’ for spending a small fortune on pencils I could not use.

Fast-forward a few years, and I had increasingly been using watercolour and ink for my illustrations. I would glance guiltily at my colour pencils and try to forget about my disappointing results. Occasionally I would use my water-soluble pencils, and would promise myself to use them more frequently. (I am finally keeping my promise – I have used them quite a bit recently!)

On a slow day, when I wasn’t feeling 100%, and suffering from severe case of Unmotivated Artist Syndrome, I decided to consult Dr Youtube about appeasing my increasing feelings of guilt (due to ongoing neglect of my colour pencils). I tried to find videos of artists using Derwent Artist/Studio pencils, in hopes of finding some tips that would help me resurrect my colour pencil artwork. I found a ‘Claudia Sketches’ video, where Claudia used a product called Clairefontaine PastelMat. I was fascinated to hear that the PastelMat was not a sanded paper (which gobbles pencils, like I do chocolate!), so decided to try and get my sticky paws on some.

At the time, sadly, neither of my local art stores stocked it, but Tasart (Takapuna Art Supplies – https://www.tasart.co.nz/search/pastelmat) in Auckland, sells on-line, and I bought a small pad.

My findings

I was hooked, from the very first pencil mark. I found it has sufficient tooth to take layering very well, even with wax pencils, but was not so rough that my pencils disappeared in front of my eyes (as I feared). I like to blend my colour pencils with Odourless Mineral Spirits (OMS), so that the illustration is very smooth, and can then take more layers if necessary. The PastelMat responded to the OMS so well, and also handles textural marks beautifully.

My pad has tiny (pin-head sized) blemishes, which are hard and smooth and do not disappear under the pencil colour, but they are small enough for me to barely see, and can easily be digitally repaired when the artwork image is uploaded to my portfolio. Through watching Youtubers, other than ‘Claudia Sketches’, I saw that some artists were struggling with bigger blemishes, however, they also stated that Clairefontaine was addressing the issue. I can see that the blemishes might be problematic for fine-art pieces, but the product is such a pleasure to use, that I hope its production continues long into the future. My reasoning is purely selfish, as I can finally use my Derwent Artist/Studio pencils and produce artwork I am pleased with.

Through social media networking with some local artists, I discovered that one of the Christchurch art stores is now stocking PastelMat. Be warned, however, that the product’s popularity among us means that stocks are rapidly bought out! I have now bought several pads and a couple of large sheets. I cannot wait to do some more coloured pencil work.

The results

Here are a couple of examples of my work on Clairefontaine PastelMat (I only had a white pad at this stage, but bought some other colours a couple of weeks ago, and am looking forward to doing some botanical, bird and architectural pieces with these soon).

The important information about PastelMat

PastelMat is 100% cellulose, and is designed for Pastels. It works superbly for colour pencils too. I would love to try Pastel Pencils on it one day, and I believe, some artists even use watercolour on it, except that the PastelMat cannot be stretched and warps with wet media.

Each pad contains 12 sheets of 360gsm/170lb acid-free cardstock/paper, packed between sheets of Glassine. A variety of pad sizes is available (18×24 cm, 24×30 cm and 30×40 cm), as well as loose sheets (50×70 cm and 70×100 cm). My local store does not stock the mountboard option, but I presume that these are available on-line. There are a variety of colours available too, however, the selection is pretty small, and more ‘neutral/natural’ in tone, which I like, but might be limiting for some artists.

The colours are: Anthracite, Brown, Burgundy, Buttercup, Dark Blue, Dark Green, Dark Grey, Light Blue, Light Green, Light Grey, Maize, Sand, Sienna, White.

The verdict

Needless to say, I am super happy to continue using PastelMat. Because of the tooth, it makes layering colour pencil very quick. At least for me, it means that my colour pencils are now being used, and I can produce decent artwork pretty quickly. My next experiment will be trying my Prismacolor premier pencils on the PastelMat. I have used these on watercolour paper with good results, so I am extremely optimistic about how they will work on the Clairefontaine PastelMat.

So what now? HELP!!!!!!!

FYI, if anyone knows of an environmentally-friendly and non-toxic version of Odourless Mineral Spirits, please let me know. I will be experimenting with baby-oil, so that I can teach colour pencil art to my students, however, I would prefer an archival-quality product for my own work.

Please join me this time next month when I review books written by two of my favourite botanical artists. If you are interested in knowing more about the value of picture book for the growing minds of children, please check out my blog in a couple of weeks.

Until next time…

Cognitive Elements in Picture Books - Book Reviews

The Dudgeon is Coming

The Dudgeon is Coming, by Lynley Dodd.
‘The Dudgeon is Coming’, by Kiwi author, Dame Lynley Dodd

THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG:

To encourage parents and teachers to read to children (and to educate picture book writers about including cognitive elements in their work). The act of reading out loud is not enough. When reading a picture book, or even a middle grade book, we are given a fantastic opportunity to develop an interactive experience with our children.

What is an interactive experience?

This interactive experience does not require any devices. It does require constant interfacing between the adult and the child/children.

When reading to children, you want to deliver the book in a manner that invites the children to participate as active listeners and engages responses from them that grow their minds.

Passive listening is all very well, but the story is soon over, and an opportunity has been lost to use ‘story time’ as a guided exploration of another world, or some subject. I totally understand how often the bedtime story has to be delivered promptly and that there is no time for discussion. I firmly believe however, when possible, an extended period devoted to reading and delving into the text, benefits the child, and is enjoyed by both the adult and the child.

Let me take you on a journey with me, as I ‘read’ ‘The Dudgeon is Coming’ to a hypothetical child.

Of all Dame Lynley Dodd’s fabulous picture books, this one is my favourite. The beautiful, jungle-scene illustration on the cover caught my attention, and the title enticed me further. On reading the first page, I knew I was on to a winner.

Rhyme

Yes, it is a rhyming story. Amongst picture book writers, it is common knowledge that publishers are not keen on rhyming books. Too many manuscripts have rhyme and scanning issues. However, children love rhyming stories, and a well-written story trips off the tongue in a delightful fashion.

According to research (http://www.readingrockets.org/article/development-phonological-skills), 80-90% of 5 year olds should be able to recognize rhyming words (Does cat rhyme with mat?); and by the age of 5 ½ , they should be able to generate rhyming words (Which word rhymes with hat?).

When we read rhyming books to children, they instinctively absorb rhyming knowledge. For some children, they will need targeted guidance, for example, using a passage from ‘The Dudgeon is Coming’:

“ ‘Pass on the news,’

said the bombazine bear

to the taffeta cat

who was dressing her hair.”

Adult: ‘Does news rhyme with bear?’

Child: ‘Yup.’

Adult: ‘Listen as I say the words again. B…EAR; N…EWS. Do the ends of the words sound the same? b…EAR; n…EWS’

Child: ‘Nope – they are different.’

Adult: ‘Spot on! Let us try this one. Does bear rhyme with cat?’

Child: ‘B…EAR, C…AT. No, they are not the same at the end.’

Adult: ‘How about bear and hair?’

Child: ‘Yes!’

Adult: ‘They rhyme because they both have the ‘ear/air’ sound at the end of the words. b…EAR, h…AIR.’

Rhyming is all about sound. The graphemes (letters) do not need to match. In fact, they often do not.

Rhyming is a listening skill, not a reading skill; however, once a child understands rhyming, they are quicker to learn to read using Word Families in Phonics.

Suspense

In ‘The Dudgeon is Coming’, Lynley Dodd used a great tool: PAGE TURNS. She knew how to pitch suspense in order to encourage the reader to continue TURNING THE PAGES.

Picture book writers and illustrators know the value of page turns. Your book is a success if a child cannot put it down until it is finished. An even greater gauge of success is if the child begs for the book to be read again, once the last page has been done!

In ‘The Dudgeon is Coming’ the reader knows is that the dudgeon is coming tonight, but nobody knows anything more than that. Trust me, one’s toes curl with curiosity!

Auditory (Hearing) Skills

Do you remember playing ‘Chinese Whispers’ when you were a child? Then you will also remember how convoluted and confused a simple statement became. The tiny piece of information about the coming of the dudgeon is contorted into something resembling a frightening urban myth.

Without posing an obvious moral at the end of the story, children will understand how easy it is to mishear, misinterpret information and misinform others.

This story is an excellent springboard for teaching children listening skills. Ask them to explain how the message changed and what happened because the second character was not listening carefully enough.

It is vital that children develop good listening skills. They will need this skill-set for the rest of their lives.

Be a Voiceover Artist

Some books just need to be read in a clear manner. ‘The Dugeon is Coming’ deserves a voiceover effort.

  • When reading to children, I try to give each character their own unique voice. For instance, I think the Bombazine Bear has a low, quiet voice, while I think the Stickleback Twitch speaks with a squeaky stutter (I think he exudes nervous energy). You may infer that these characters should sound different. How you decide they should sound is up to you. There is no right or wrong way to speak for these characters, but I think both adult and child can really enjoy the moment, if you can get down to the child’s level and bring the character to life.
  • I also vary the volume. In ‘The Dudgeon is Coming’, I sense a growing fear among the creatures, and knowing how shrill children get when they frightened, I tend to get louder with each new character. I strongly suspect Lynley Dodd intended for the Pineapple Pig to shout his warning, as the type is in UPPER CASE! The volume gets cranked right down for the last part of the story when the dudgeon arrives.
  • I also try to vary the speed in which I read. The pace tends to escalate with each new character introduced, however, like the volume, I dial it down several notches at the end.

Visual Discrimination

If we give children time to examine illustrations, their visual discrimination (understanding and discernment of visual information) skills are built. The better a child can evaluate and grasp visual data, the more likely they are to remember it. Intensively studying pictures can help prepare children for learning to read.

In ‘The Dudgeon is Coming’, the illustrations are colourful and full of fascinating imaginative creatures. Guide the child to study colour and textures. Also encourage the child to ‘read’ the characters’ emotion and actions portrayed in the illustrations.  

Vocabulary Development

In multiple areas of the story, Dame Lynley Dodd uses vocabulary children will not be accustomed to. The words  are exciting and children may like the sound of them (and mimic them), but you will need to explain some of the definitions too.

Please join me for another picture book review blog in the middle of March, and an illustration-related blog at the end of February.

Happy reading!