In last month’s marvelous Group Critique of children’s illustration by Caldecott Honor author-illustrator Denise Fleming and the popular writing teacher Jodell Sadler, we heard something – I can’t think of a better adjective for it now – disruptive.

As she relaxed toward the end of the generous two-plus hour critique, Denise talked about the joy and the imperative, really of learning to work with new materials and hands-on crafts. Nothing digital, but all kinds of different, physical art materials. You can catch these comments in the below clip:

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Fleming’s colorful picture books for very young children are a staple in children’s libraries and elementary school libraries across the country. She received the Caldecott Honor for her children’s illustration for In the Small, Small Pond (Henry Holt and Company.) Other famous titles include the Buster series, a rip-roaring All Hallows Eve poem Pumpkin Eye, her latest Go Shapes Go!, Barnyard Banter, Lunch, maybe the gold standard in children’s alphabet picture books, Alphabet Under Construction.

So popular with librarians, educators, parents and kids, her concept books celebrate great language above all. She uses rhyme, repetition/refrain, alliteration, and strong action verbs that convey sights and sounds, movement and flavors. But while they fairly burst with wordplay and word music they also exemplify the glories of visual abstraction in children’s illustration.

A Denise Fleming book is immediately identifiable by its bold, ragged shapes, surprising textures, bright color and “loud, over the top really, style” as she herself once described the look.

Her images are convention-smashing, especially for illustrators who restrict themselves to the conventional mediums of brush, pen & ink and (yes) digital.

Painting With Pulp

You’ll see for yourself in this YouTube video by publisher Macmillan, as Denise creates a double page spread via a process she invented after taking a paper- making class.

Using stencils and squeeze bottles, she ‘paints’ with the soupy wet cotton fibers that will become her final art. You can read more about papermaking on her website.

Denise says she’s moving in new directions these days, exploring new methods and mediums. Future books may not look this way. They’ll feature other processes, and the results, probably will be just as rambunctious, confident and beautiful.

Children's book illustration and writing workshops available at KidLit College

Author and children’s literary agent Jodell Sadler directs KidLit College, which offers online mini-conferences, classes and workshops in children’s writing and children’s illustration.

KidLit College topics have ranged from musical language, comic timing and exciting pacing for picture books to crafting agent-worthy Middle Grade and YA fiction and nonfiction manuscripts.

Jodell invited Denise to join our Marks & Splashes December Critique. They came with notes.

Sometimes they drew over or tinkered with copies of submissions to make a composition better. They suggested elements or details to add to scenes to create more reader anticipation and compel ‘page turns.’ They talked about the need to show more character interaction and ‘more story’ in the pictures.

Jodell event visited the websites of some of the submitting artists and made helpful observations about them.

They encouraged the artists. They pulled no punches. It was a fun, instructive night. For me the knocked-over-the-head moment was what you see in the top video: Denise’s call to arms to get down with the paste and clay, the paint and hot glass, cotton fabric and wire, to find new ways to make art and by extension, visceral illustration.

How to access the full replay of their session

Nearly 20 years ago, Denise stepped off the beaten path with her PB illustrations. And she’s off the path, still. She relies on ‘standard’ picture book format and adheres to classic time honored elements of design (like shape, size, line, color and texture.) But she uses materials and a process that no one else thinks of to create her story pictures.

Can you think of other examples of convention-smashing children’s illustration?

Upcoming writing and children’s illustration classes by Jodell and Denise

Denise is set to team-teach with illustrator Ashley Wolfe the 2016 version of their popular Color, Light, Line and Texture Hands-On Workshop — again for the Highlights Foundation, March 30 through April 3 in Honesdale, PA.

She’s also scheduled to join author-illustrator Pat Cummings, Coretta Scott King Award winning illustrator Floyd Cooper and illustrator Steve Light, along with with special guests Scholastic Inc. Executive Art Director Patti Ann Harris and Dial Books for Young Readers (Penguin Random House) Editorial Director Namrata Tripathi for Highlight’s Super Children’s Book Boot Camp 2016, July 7 though July 10 in Honesdale, PA.

The campus that Denise mentions in the top video, where she and her husband took summer classes for 17 years to learn a variety of art-making mediums is The Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

KidLit College meanwhile kicks off the New Year with a flurry of exciting online workshops, classes and webinars, including:

Jan. 9th – Unlocking the Mysteries of Writing CB and MG Series with Eve Adler, Senior Editor, Penguin, with opportunity to sign up for a critique with her.

Jan. 11th – Pacing Picture Books to WOW, Part 1 – The 10 Ps and 5 Tools of Pacing with Jodell Sadler. Jodell will share the Ten Ps and first 5 of 20 tools of pacing to lift your writing and offers the opportunity to sign up for a critique with Ben Rosenthal, editor with Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins.)

Jan. 13th – From Prose to Pictures to Published, Part 1 – Making the Picture Book Form Your Own. Sibert Medalist Candy Fleming and Caldecott Medalist Eric Rohmann offer writers and illustrators the opportunity to really delve into do more with their picture book making skills by considering the form of the picture book. Come explore scenes and summaries within the picture book category. Plus, you may sign up for a critique.

Jan. 23rd – Nonfiction Picture Books Today: What do Editors Look For? with Emily Feinberg at Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan with the option to sign up for a critique with her. And so many more offerings that you can see here on the KidLit College blog. You can also keep up KidLit College news and events by liking the Facebook page, Picture Book Lunch.

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