Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Deirdre Gill & Jason Chin - Creating Stories that Explore Nature

On Saturday, November 15th, the author-illustrators Jason Chin (Gravity, Redwoods, Island, Coral Reefs) and Deirdre Gill (debut picture book Outside) joined our author series to talk about how they're inspired by nature and in turn translate that inspiration into picture books that encourage young readers to explore the outdoors. 

Deirdre Gill's first picture book, Outside, tells the story of a bored little boy who can't convince his family to pay attention to him and so he goes outside. . . where he creates adventures for himself. Her one-sentence summary "A lonely boy steps outside to play in the snow and finds magic, in the end his brother joins him and the adventures start anew."

She began her book with a memory of how it felt to play outside in the snow when she was a kid. The W.B. Yeats quote in the opening pages, which she kept at her desk while creating the book, captures the spirit of that memory:

The world is full of magic things,
Patiently waiting
For our senses to grow sharper.

Deirdre wanted to communicate the emotions of being outside through her pictures - filling notebooks with over 5,000 sketches as she explored characters, setting, and how that setting transforms in the boy's imagination to a land of snow creatures, dragons, and castles. She used photographs, a clay model of the castle the boy builds, and a lot of just trying out different approaches to create the world of her book.

Actual tree
Actual Tree
Snow Creature Tree
The feedback that Deirdre is getting from teachers, and from educators in our audience Saturday, is that the idea her book captures of kids' free time to go outside and just explore the natural world is essential to overall learning. Sometimes that free outdoors time becomes lost in our daily schedules.

While Deidre began with a familiar place for her wintertime landscape, Jason's books have focused on places far away from his childhood experience, like the redwood forests, Galapagos Islands, and coral reefs. (Technically the gravity in Gravity was part of his childhood experience). That meant he faced the challenge of starting with a topic that interested him but that he didn't necessarily know much about, traveling to that place and learning about it, then translating that back to children who probably have never visited those places themselves.

Jason got the idea for his first book from reading about scientists studying the redwoods. He was reading an article on a NYC subway train - the boy in his book has a similar experience, finding a book about redwoods on the subway. But when the fictional boy steps out of his subway stop, he's been transported to the redwood forest. After Jason got a contract for this book, he and Deirdre traveled west to visit the redwoods. Their campsite flooded and in the morning, after the rains, the forest was filled with mist and felt mysterious and ancient and magical. Jason tried to capture those feelings in the illustrations of the book, alongside descriptions of the science.

When Jason visits a place, he absorbs the details through both taking photographs and drawing observations in his sketch book (a sketch from the Galapagos Islands is featured below). The sketch book isn't a place to create a perfect picture of what he sees - the process of drawing means that he's paying close attention to his environment and developing a rich memory of it.

To communicate these experiences back to his readers, Jason looks for ways to connect to kids' broader experience. So, for example, he used the Statue of Liberty as a visual comparison to the height of a redwood (FYI - the tree is six stories taller). That analogy offers a specific, concrete connection. The framework of  Redwoods - the book within a book - also establishes a connection with any child who reads about a place and imagines they're there. For his book about the Galapagos (Island) Jason built the framework of the island as a character. The book then follows that character through birth, childhood, adulthood and old age. He says he knew he'd succeeded in connecting with his readers through that parallel when one student explained how sad he felt when the Island sank.

The strategies Jason uses to create his books add up to an ability to not only talk about a specific place, but also explain larger theories. The ages of the island, for example, help kids (and adults) conceptualize 6 million years. His newest book, Gravity, tackles a truly abstract scientific idea while it uses pictures of a series of objects falling (or not falling) to tell a visual story. Readers can follow the objects from a starting scene of a child on a beach through the pages (and through outer space) to the final scene of children at a lemonade stand.

Many of the tools that Jason and Deirdre use to create their stories can also translate into activities that anyone can learn from. We pick up that part of the story in Part 2 of this post

Previous articles about this event provide more background information on the work of Jason and Deirdre, and a list of recommended picture books that are inspired by nature.

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