Friday, August 29, 2014

Fun Times With Peter Brown

Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator Peter Brown came, saw and conquered a crowd of kids and adults last night at my library, the Takoma Park Maryland Library. Peter read us his first-ever book (created at the age of six): The Adventures of Me and My Dog "Buffy". He told us how he's loved creating art since he can remember, and how he also loves to write -- a perfect combination for a picture book creator. He got us all to quack together (more about that later in this post). And he talked about the real-life inspiration behind his newest book, My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not).

Photo by Jeff MacMillan
"When I was a kid, I was a pretty sensitive little guy.... With my big imagination and the fact that I was a kind of sensitive little person, I had the feeling sometimes that some of my teachers were actually monsters disguised as people," Peter said. But it turns out, Peter added, that one of those "monster teachers" helped set him on the road to becoming an artist when she praised one of his drawings one day.

"She said to me, 'Peter, that is an excellent drawing," he said, adding that he was surprised but obviously pleased by her praise for his picture. The teacher was particularly taken by the fact that Peter had drawn in "one-point perspective," showing a road going off in a "vanishing point." It's a pretty complex artistic concept for a young artist, but Peter said that "I was doing it without even thinking about it."

Basking in the teacher's praise, Peter then was jolted when she told him that "this drawing is so good, I need to show it to the principal." As Peter noted last night, he was momentarily worried that he was going to be in trouble. Instead, once the principal saw the drawing, he agreed with the teacher that Peter should immediately be put in advanced art classes, jumpstarting his career as an artist. Added Peter: "Maybe that wouldn't have happened without my grumpy teacher."

Putting those two things together -- the fact that he saw some teachers as monsters and that one of them actually was nice and helped him get his start in art -- Brown was inspired to write My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not). The book begins with a young boy named Bobby attracting the ire of his teacher, Mrs. Kirby, for throwing a paper airplane. Bobby thinks of Mrs. Kirby as a monster because she "stomped" and she "roared" and she says: "No recess for children who throw paper airplanes in class."

So Bobby is aghast one day to find Mrs. Kirby sitting on a bench in his favorite park. As Brown writes: "Bobby wanted to run! He wanted to hide! But he knew that would only make things worse." So he sits down on the bench next to Mrs. Kirby. It's awkward for both of them at first -- one of my favorite moments is when Bobby raises his hand to talk to Mrs. Kirby, who tells "Robert, you don't need to raise your hand out here." But the ice is broken when a gust of wind blows Mrs. Kirby's prized hat off her head and Bobby is able to rescue it.

From that point on, the two become more at home with each other. Mrs. Kirby tells Bobby about how fun it is to quack along with the ducks in park's pond (that's when Brown led us all in quacking last night -- a highlight for the kids). Bobby, meanwhile, leads Mrs. Kirby up to his special spot high in the park's the hills. Their out-of-school friendship seems secure, but at school, they are still teacher and student, as Brown shows in the book's hilarious finale.

Clearly, the story is one that will particularly resonate with kids, as it did when Brown read it -- via the big screen -- at last night's program. And the kids got it right away, as Brown's illustrations, which initially show Mrs. Kirby as a green hippo-sized monster, soften into showing her in a more human shape as the connection grows between her and Bobby. As one young participant eagerly shouted: "She's not a monster anymore!"

Photo by Jeff MacMillan
The audience particularly loved the book's conclusion, where Bobby is once again in trouble with Mrs. Kirby for -- you guessed it -- throwing a paper airplane in class. As Brown said: "I love stories where the hero doesn't learn lessons. To be fair, though, Bobby learned a lot in this story. But he still can't sit still sometimes and just has to throw paper airplanes."

Brown's illustrations for the book were done in India ink, watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, then digitally composited and colored. Some pages show two-page spreads, while others show numerous smaller illustrations where Brown uses speech bubbles, as in comics. It's a great combination of approaches that works just perfectly for the book, as does the fact that Brown leaves lots of white space, which further highlights the changing relationship between Bobby and Mrs. Kirby.

After reading the book, Brown then headed over to an easel, where he showed everyone how he drew Mrs. Kirby. Everyone was fascinated to see how Brown took some simple shapes (and a few not so simple ones) and put them together to create a truly memorable character.

Overall, Brown's presentation was a huge hit. As folks lined up to have him sign their books, one adult told me, "That was awesome!" And so it was.

A perk of my job is introducing talented folks like Peter Brown.
 Note: Big thanks to Politics & Prose Bookstore for arranging Brown's program. Thanks also to Lisa Moraleda of Little, Brown, for sending lots of goodies for last night's crowd, including My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) buttons and stickers. (For more fun with the book, head to this activity kit on Peter's beautiful website, where you can also find out more about Peter, including interviews that he's done).

Thanks to my friend, neighbor and professional photographer, Jeff MacMillan, who came to see Peter, a fellow alumus of the Art Center College of Design, and took the wonderful photos you see on this blog. Finally, thanks to Peter for such an inspiring and entertaining evening!

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