Chris Van Allsburg

Winner of two Caldecott medals for The Polar Express and Jumanji, Chris Van Allsburg has written and illustrated many picture books, including Zathura, his first book in seven years. A sculptor by training, he presents fantasy as reality and vice versa, bringing readers into unresolved stories they feel compelled to finish themselves.

 
Instructor: How do you start a story?
Chris Van Allsburg: I lie in bed on my back, without a pen or paper, and use my imagination to find out where a character or a story might go.
 
Instructor: What advice would you give beginning writers?
CVA: To write about things in their own lives. When kids are just developing their writing skills they create the most interesting stories, because they use their own imaginations rather than something they´ve seen on television or in the banal realm of mass entertainment. Though their experiences may be well-cloaked in their own kind of fantasy, they still have a kind of authenticity that makes for good writing.
 
Instructor: How do you get from the idea stage to a book with text and pictures?
CVA: Once I´ve gotten off my back and out of bed, I sit down and start writing little notes. I try to make an outline. I always have a very clear idea of what the story beats are-the general shape of the story. So I start doing some sketching, and then I go back and work on the text a little bit. For a while, they´re affecting each other.
 
Instructor: Why do you leave your stories open-ended?
CVA: A story with some ambiguity has a vitality and life that a completely resolved story lacks. If I resolve a story at the end, it´s like turning the light out. That´s it. I like the idea that there´s still a little light flickering, even though the book is closed.
 
What You Can Do With Your Class
Use Van Allsburg´s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick to evoke imaginative storytelling. Ask students to write stories based on the book´s mysterious drawings and text, or to follow the author´s style by creating their own provocative trios of illustration, title, and caption.

 

Brian Pinkney

When he began his career in illustration, Brian Pinkney was still in school. He worked in pencil and watercolor until one of his art teachers insisted he experiment with media he'd never tried before. The scratchboard technique he mastered has since become his signature style. Perhaps best known for his illustrations of other authors' words, including his wife Andrea Pinkney's Bill Pickett: Rodeo-Ridin' Cowboy, Pinkney is also a picture book author himself.
 
Instructor: How do you start a story?
Brian Pinkney: When a new story starts creeping into my other work, I say to myself, “Hold on, let me write this down and sketch this out.” I use whatever is around. Because I'm a visual person first, I start with images of what I want to write about. I'll begin with thumbnail sketches, and I'll start writing to fit those.
 
Instructor: So you actually start the book before you have it all figured out?
BP: Yes, the book unfolds for me through the drawing and writing. I do both in tandem until I get to a point where I have all these fragments, then I sit down and write an outline to organize it, to give some structure to the story. When I start, I don't know where I'm going-and I let myself be in that space.
 
Instructor: You illustrate a lot of other authors' work besides your own. What's the difference between illustrating your own words and illustrating somebody else's?
BP: When I illustrate someone else's work, I can't go back and change the story. When I write and illustrate my own work, I can go back and forth. Writing my own stories is like working with Play-Doh, I can turn an elephant into a dog or a dog into a pig. What I get in the end is very different from what I started with.
 
What You Can Do With Your Class
Challenge students to compose a tale with a storyboard. Draw four squares with a simple sketch in each, and compose a very short narrative to go with it. Invite them to expand the story with more details and, as a class, revise the drawings.

 

Debra Frasier

How many authors' first books sell over half a million copies, inspire symphonies, and are made into videos? Debra Frasier's did. On the Day You Were Born introduced her collage art, and it's going strong.
 
Instructor: How do you get your ideas?
Debra Frasier: Stories arrive like pieces of driftwood washed up on shore at high tide. I wish I knew how to find a piece of driftwood on every walk, but I don't. So I walk beside the ocean often-and I collect images nearly every day.
 
Instructor: Do you keep a scrapbook?
DF: I have journals organized by different long-term interests. For example, “Water” is a journal I kept for ten years. It gave me the book I just finished, The Incredible Water Show. Miss Alaineus: A Vocabulary Disaster, started when I recorded my daughter's misunderstanding of the word “miscellaneous.” From there, I kept a visual journal about how the story might reflect fifth-grade life.
 
Instructor: Why do you collect pictures?
DF: Visual notetaking is essential to my work. It helps me make leaps and links that my linear writing mind could never accomplish. This might sound mysterious, but I know from experience that, like walking the beach, collecting pictures gives me clues to where a story is hiding.
 
Instructor: Do you only start with sketches?
DF: I sometimes start with photos, so I always carry a camera. I photograph journeys, events (such as birthday presents on a sunlit table), and people for my “Characters” journal. I prepare to write by laying out all the photos and letting them take me back to the details of the experience.
 
What You Can Do With Your Class
Plan a walk or field trip. Have students bring a sketchbook and draw pictures of 10 things they see on the way. Ask them to look at the big picture and at details. Back in class, have students arrange their images as a visual outline, then write about the links between them.

 

Kevin Henkes

Kevin Henkes's picture books prove that he has masterfully combined his dreams and his experience. He grew up desperately wanting to be an artist. And as the fourth of five children, he needed a sense of humor to survive. His books convince children that he still knows what it's like to be little, and how important it is to laugh.
 
Instructor: Does your art influence what you write?
Kevin Henkes: For me, it works the other way around. I always craft my words to the point where I think and hope they're perfect before I ever begin sketching.
 
Instructor: So you have pictures in your mind before you sit down to write?
KH: When I'm writing, I'm creating the story and its character with words. I'm thinking about what the pictures will be like, but I never begin to sketch. The pictures are all in my head.
 
Instructor: When you come up with an idea for a story, do you work on it right away?
KH: What often happens is that I get inspired, but I'll sit down to begin writing, and it will go nowhere. I might have two sentences that I absolutely love, so I'll put those away in a file (which is always “growing”)! Years might pass before any of the words in my file become books. I had the first little paragraph, the words that are on the first page of my book, Owen, for two years before I went back and then finished it.
 
Instructor: When kids are writing stories, getting started can be the hardest part. What advice would you give them?
KH: Everyone has something interesting to say. When I was young, I assumed that authors must have traveled the world or done exotic things in order to tell great stories. Now I know that's not true, and it's important kids know this, too!

 

Marissa Moss

By any measure, Amelia is a superstar. She won the Parent's Guide to Children's Media Award in 2001, and over 700,000 girls follow her exploits in American Girl magazine. Her creator, Marissa Moss, has revived the market for black-and-white journals.
 
Instructor: Where did you get the idea of shaping a picture book around Amelia's notebook?
MM: Notebooks allow for all kinds of record-keeping, and I kept one myself as a kid. I was attracted to mixing up words and pictures freely, since that's how I think. It seems like a natural way for a lot of kids to work, especially boys.
 
Instructor: You write different kinds of books. How do you approach different projects?
MM: When I'm working on historical books, I'm much more organized. I usually read about 100 books to get the depth of knowledge I need. As I read, I think about the kind of story I want to write and keep copious notes on index cards.
 
Instructor: What do you hope kids will learn from Amelia?
MM: I hope that Amelia shows them how easy it is to keep a journal. They can take anything in their lives and turn it into a story, just like she does. Amelia shows that it's not what happens in life that counts, but rather how you frame it, how you talk about it. Every kid has a story to tell!


Lynne T. Burke is a syndicated children's book reviewer and writer based in Minneapolis, MN. This article was originally published in the January/February 2004 issue of Instructor.