From Teaching to Writing
TeachingBooks asks each author or illustrator to reflect on their journey from teaching to writing. Enjoy the following from Jeanne Walker Harvey.
“You can’t use picture books to teach 7th graders! They need age-appropriate books,” said a father at Back-to-School Night during my first year of teaching middle school Language Arts. “And they will also each create their own picture book,” I added, trying to sound confident. More sighs from the exasperated father.
No surprise to the experienced teachers reading this – the child of that parent created a compelling heartfelt picture book. (But more on that later.)
The Picture Book Unit was a treat I gave myself as I struggled to keep up with the demands of teaching and reviewing students’ work. I had always loved school, but now I had first-hand experience of being on the other side of the equation as a teacher. And my admiration of teachers was (and continues to be) off the charts—so many balls to juggle! At this point in time, I had been an aspiring picture book author since I was a little girl carrying home stacks of books from the library and wishing my name would be on the cover of a book one day.
“I was so impressed by how they fleshed out and connected with the themes of picture books, such as friendship, courage, belonging, loss, grief, overcoming challenges.
During the picture book unit, I relished talking about what makes a good picture book. I encouraged students’ reflections and connections to these stories. I was so impressed by how they fleshed out and connected with the themes of picture books, such as friendship, courage, belonging, loss, grief, overcoming challenges. I noticed that some of the 7th grade students who hadn’t spoken up during our discussion of “age-appropriate” books were now volunteering their opinions when we talked about picture books.
We began by taking turns reading aloud picture books, sitting on the floor, of course. And I was surprised that my challenges of classroom management disappeared. Suddenly, these sometimes morose, tense, and snippy 7th graders became relaxed, kind, and silly. I loved that when I read some of the classic picture books, the students called out line endings, such as “rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws” from Where the Wild Things Are.
I shared with my students that I had probably gathered enough rejections from picture book manuscript submissions that I could wallpaper a room or two. I admitted I was getting discouraged with my writing, but I would never tire of reading and savoring picture books.
As they wrote their stories, students quickly grasped the idea that although picture book texts may seem “simple”, it’s truly an art to be able to communicate a story in a limited number of words. I emphasized the process of editing, refining, and honing one’s drafts (something I always share at author school visits).
I explained that one of the many reasons I’m drawn to writing picture books is because I love the artwork that illustrators create. I’ve been a long-time volunteer docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art leading school groups. We always include in our tours an opportunity for the children to create their own art right there on the floor of the museum inspired by the artwork in front of them.
I gave my 7th graders the opportunity to illustrate their stories either by drawing, painting, sketching, or cutting out photos. I explained the concept of pacing the story so that each page spread evokes a new image.
The enthusiasm and connections the 7th graders shared with me during the picture book unit inspired me to hone my writing efforts.
With the completed picture books (all wonderful in their own ways), we walked to the nearby elementary school to share them with 1st graders. Again, they sat on the floor. The student whose father objected to the use of picture books as part of the curriculum was the one who didn’t want to leave the 1st graders. I’ll always remember him sitting there, with his bright green mohawk, with a first-grade buddy sitting next to him. His book was touching, humorous and compelling. And he knew it! He was a student who previously didn’t put in much effort on class assignments and doubted his ability to write. After this unit, he was one of my most engaged students.
The enthusiasm and connections the 7th graders shared with me during the picture book unit inspired me to hone my writing efforts. And the next year, my first picture book was accepted for publication.
Working with these students helped me to focus on which themes resonated with me. I’ve realized that I am particularly drawn to the theme of writing nonfiction about creative people overcoming challenges. My forthcoming picture book biography, Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas, features an amazing artist who faced racial injustices. Alma was also a devoted art teacher for over 35 years. Through her teaching and her own art (which she focused on full time after she retired), Alma sought to focus on beauty and joy, particularly inspired by nature and the marvels of space travel (new at the time), to help overcome life’s challenges.
As Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.” I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to teach picture book writing to these 7th graders who relit the spark of my enthusiasm for writing picture books.
Books and Resources
TeachingBooks personalizes connections to books and authors. Enjoy the following on Jeanne Walker Harvey and the books she’s created.
Listen to Jeanne Walker Harvey talking with TeachingBooks about the backstory for writing Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas. You can click the player below or experience the recording on TeachingBooks, where you can read along as you listen, and also translate the text to another language.
- Listen to Jeanne Walker Harvey talk about her name
- Hear an interview with Jeanne Walker Harvey about Ablaze with Color
- Discover Jeanne Walker Harvey’s page and books on TeachingBooks
- Visit Jeanne Walker Harvey on her website, Twitter and Pinterest.
Special thanks to Jeanne Walker Harvey, Blue Slip Media, and HarperCollins for their support of this post. All text and images are courtesy of Jeanne Walker Harvey and HarperCollins, and may not be used without expressed written consent.