Sunday, November 3, 2013

Where Gail Gibbons Gets her Picture Book Ideas

Gail Gibbons has written 169 picture books, and she's got no shortage of ideas for the next hundred either. While they aren't all about farming (her topics range from gorillas to sky scrapers), many of them are, and she came in to talk about her books as part of the Bear Pond Books author-educator discussion ahead of Agricultural Literacy Week (November 18th - 22nd).

Gail's first farm-related book was The Milk Makers, which became a Reading Rainbow book. She chose that topic because her normal driving routes went past many Vermont farms, and one day her young daughter asked why she hadn't done a book about cows. So, she did a book about cows.

Traveling around the state and country, talking with her young students, Gail quickly realized how much information about basic things like where milk comes from is missing from what children learn. "Kids in cities don't know where milk comes from, it comes from cartons, that's all they know. . . that's what really grabbed me," Gail said.

Even in Vermont, where most kids live near farms, there's a lack of understanding about where food comes from. One teacher shared a story of taking students out to dig sweet potatoes from the school garden. Students had a hard time guessing what the dug potatoes were. "Some of them guessed tomatoes!"

Gail's picture books can help fill those gaps. She starts with the basics and builds from there. Potatoes, for example, grow in the ground, tomatoes do not. So what are the vegetables we dig up from under ground? Gail gave other examples of basic ideas everyone should know, but many people don't. These are the ideas that find their way into her books. For example, there's the question of how to grow flowers (what grows from a seed? what grows from a bulb?) or the difference between corn, which you harvest then replant the next year, and apples, which you harvest then care for the same trees year after year.      
Once Gail chooses a topic, she reads up on it, with "piles of books". Then, she checks with experts in the field. She's surprised at how many books pass along bad information - one book can make an error, and it's found replicated in other books later. Field trips and conversations with people who work every day on the topics she writes about are important ways to double check the reading material. On these trips, her husband will also help by taking pictures that Gail uses to make accurate illustrations later.

Students can follow a similar path of inquiry. It starts with looking at the food around them and asking, where does that come from? Then tracing that food back to the beginning, through reading about it in books, talking to the people who prepare the food, maybe even visiting the farms where it's grown or trying to grow some things for themselves! There's a lot to learn and Gail's books can be a great starting point.

For more resource ideas to support learning about agriculture, see Part 2 of this post with Abbie Nelson from VT Food Education Every Day.

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