Illustrating A Book About Books

All illustrations © Durga Yael Bernhard. Please do not reproduce!

About a year ago, I accepted a commission to illustrate a book about books.  Make Way for Reading: Great Books for Kindergarten Through Grade 8 (Michaelmas Press, 2012), compiled and edited by Karen Latimer and Pamela J. Fenner, began as two mothers’ search for quality books for their own children, and grew into a compilation of the best children’s literature according to the Waldorf educational model of child development. From picture books to young adult novels; from dragon tales to historic biographies, the collections of titles offered in each category serve every phase a child passes through.

In the book’s introduction, the editors explain their objective: “Just as we choose food to serve children’s nutrition, so what they take into themselves with hungry eyes should be food for the inner soul.”  These are books that impart “effective nourishment” to growing minds – when, and only when, the child is ready. Children are never rushed.  The highest standards of art and literature are applied to selecting books to accompany each phase of development from kindergarten to eighth grade. “Books can have a powerful effect on the changing consciousness of a child, and serve as instruments of initiating him or her into successive stages of life”, reads the book’s foreword by Eugene Schwartz.

Meeting at a restaurant in northeastern Massachusetts, Pam Fenner and I discussed the book’s goals, audience and possible artwork.  It wasn’t long before a cover concept took shape.  Thinking back to the 1941 children’s book classic of similar title, I decided to create a different group of ducklings of varying ages and interests, marching across a bridge of books . . . books as stepping stones in literacy.  Leading the way with her proud waddle is the mother duck who represents the parent and teacher in all of us, nurturing children’s natural love of reading and books.

The interior illustrations relate to a child’s typical interests or a subject in the curriculum. The first chapter, “Picture Books”, shows an illustration of a very small duckling with its mother, looking at a book together. “Grades One to Three” shows a young duckling curiously peering at a page fluttering with tulips and butterflies. “Grades Four and Five” shows a duckling perched atop a book standing up vertically with classical Greek architecture on the cover. “Grades Six to Eight” has a duckling gazing at the pages of a book with a castle on its cover.

The remaining chapters seem to encompass all age categories. One chapter is devoted entirely to biographies, and shows a book with an explorer’s ship on the cover. “Mythology, Legends and Folklore” is the next chapter; here a duckling stands on a book open to a spread that is swimming with fish and a mermaid.  The chapter called “Celebrations, Games, Music, Crafts and Other Activities” (wow!) shows a duckling standing in front of a book open to the image of a violin.  Finally, a duckling standing on an iPad is for the “Appendix” — that section with information especially for adults. We talked about such reading devices, their popularity, and that we really don’t know the long-term impact they may have on a child’s imagination and reading experiences. They cannot replace books. Reading a hand-held book—with or without an adult—is certainly a different experience.

Flipping through the chapters in Make Way for Reading, I can’t help noticing how much the suggested age categories of children overlap. It is as if a child is allowed to pass from one category to the next by dwelling in both, for a time. The editors write: “When is the age of picture books over?  Never, really.”   I couldn’t agree more. While picture books are only part of a child’s literary diet, kids continue to benefit and learn from picture books well after they are able to read chapter books. Fenner and Latimer continue, “Our aim is to offer children’s books that can inspire faith in the future, reveal the human spirit, widen the sense of self, nurture values, illumine history and natural science – and lead to a lifelong love of reading.”

I can’t think of a better aim that than that, when it comes to books for children. I am most honored to have my own picture book AROUND THE WORLD IN ONE SHABBAT (Jewish Lights Publishing, winner of the 2012 Sydney Taylor Honor Award) recommended in Make Way For Reading.  Beyond Waldorf, this book is a valuable resource for parents and teachers of all kinds – home schoolers, public schoolers, private schoolers – anyone who wishes to nourish their children’s literacy.  A great source of ideas for back-to-school projects!

Happy reading to all!


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