But there was something I didn’t anticipate: These children’s books would expose cultural barriers, and the stories would feel utterly foreign to the kids.And so, I decided they needed a new storybook, one that felt familiar.
And soon I was staying late in the office to take advantage of the relatively consistent electricity. I’d sit there tracing photographs I’d uploaded to my computer. With little squiggles of the mouse and liberal use of the ‘flood-fill’ function, I tried to emulate the local artistic style. Bold colors. Strong, dark figures.
And so, the pictures begot the words and turned themselves into a story. It became a portrait of daily life in a village in Mali, told from the perspective of a little girl being carried on her mother’s back.
There was no grand life lesson for the local kids, except that the written word and the printed illustrations could reflect their world.
About a year later and half a world away, I sat in a dimly lit pub down a narrow street in Philadelphia. E.B. Lewis sat across from me.
Lewis has won numerous awards for his children’s book illustrations, including a Caldecott Medal. Almost as soon as I scooted into the booth, he told me there was one theme that connected all the books he illustrates, “and it’s emotion.”
He talked about “writing” the images. He said he spends time thinking about the punctuation in his paintings.
Also, “you can never compete with a child’s imagination,” Lewis said. “Their imagination is going to be far greater than anything you can ever paint.” This often means not depicting the most fundamental parts of a story.
As I listened to Lewis, I started to realize that we were both tiptoeing along a balance beam, trying to figure out just how much to give kids in order to inspire their own confidence. Confidence to trust their imagination. Confidence to see the written word as theirs to own.