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Written & illustrated by a picture book seminar.

Every spring, all of the students in my grades 5-12 independent school participate in an experiential learning adventure called Project Week. Taking place on or off campus, the cornucopia of project options includes day projects, like sports casting or circus arts, and overnight trips, like backpacking or teaching in Cambodia. It is many students' favorite week of the school year, and mine, too.

When I arrived at Overlake and learned I needed to lead a project, I knew exactly what I wanted to try. Many years previously, I had acquired David Meltons Written & Illustrated By--: A Revolutionary Two-Brain Approach for Teaching Students How to Write and Illustrate Amazing Books (Landmark 1985), which laid out a seminar for creating picture books. Project Week gave me the perfect opportunity to try it in our middle school, and I found a wonderful co-leader in eighth-grade English teacher Karen Mihata.

We started by fitting Melton's lessons and work blocks into a five-day schedule and purchasing supplies according to his list. Although the first year went reasonably well, we found we frequently needed to adapt lessons for computers instead of typewriters and tweak times, supplies, and the book assembly process. Each subsequent year brought more tweaks and changes, and although we still tweak every year, ten years and a hundred books later, we have it ticking along like clockwork--and still love every moment of it. The following is a day-by-day description of our activities, interspersed with summaries of some of the students' books.


The key to a successful project is organization. Fortunately, my colleague and I are both detail-oriented, linear thinkers, and our lesson plans include teacher prep, lesson activities, and supplies. We keep a box with files for each lesson and review them each year prior to Project Week.

A major part of prep is gathering and purchasing supplies. These can be consumable--like glue and paper--or permanent-- like carpet needles and sample picture books. We supply everything except each student's individual art supplies, as they choose their own medium. Most consumables we find at office supply stores, art stores, or online, but we must get creative finding the heavyweight 11x17-inch "signature sheets" and even heavier 11x26-inch book jacket paper. Often, we purchase large art tablets and trim them to size or glue shorter sheets together. Binder board also gets trimmed to size.

Two items we added to Melton's list are a poster-sized weekly schedule, to show students the week's structure at a glance, and poster-sized daily checklists, so they (and we) can keep on target for finishing their book. Anything incomplete on the day's checklist is homework. Originally, I created these by hand, but now a copy store blows up a Word file to poster size. We post the checklists behind the library's computer lab windows, facing into the library, and students check themselves off with a dry-erase marker on the glass. They love drawing on the glass (we get lots of temporary graffiti), and it leaves the actual checklists untouched for the following year.

The Legendary, Magical Pie is an exciting story about a man named Harry, who bakes a pie to pass a test. The pie is stolen by Jonald, the king of the kangaroos, so Harry and his two llamas have to go on an adventure to get the pie back.


Writing day! When students arrive, we booktalk picture books in multiple genres and illustration styles, explaining what we like about each. From there, we form a publishing company named by the students. Each student fills out applications (from the Melton book) to be story editors and art editors at the company, and my colleague and I designate these editors for each book.

We request that students not bring a pre-written story. Today they write down their ideas for an illustrated book aimed at children under ten, including no more than eight double-spaced text pages. Although most write fiction, we have also had poetry, recipes, prank guides, travelogues, and graphic novels. Over the course of the day, students write their stories, and either my colleague or I give them first edits. To break up the day, my colleague teaches about the elements of story, and I read passages from middle school fiction books to demonstrate aspects of good writing. These include sensory description, believable dialogue, and types of endings--including the importance of having one!

The Four Seasons is a poetic symphony about exploring the beautiful events of the seasons, bringing warmth to the hearts of all people in the world.


On day two, we discuss the story editor's role, both technical markings and giving constructive comments. Students edit each others stories, and, taking into account both teacher and student edits, revise their texts. Most stories go through several revisions, fitted in between other activities.

Later in the morning, we discuss layout of the book's sixteen inner pages, which must have at least one illustration per double-page spread. Once students have planned how many illustrations they need--minimum of eight--they start drawing. During the day, we also discuss the art editors role and hold up an illustration from each student to get constructive group feedback. "I love how bright the purple is on the dragon!" "Maybe outline the ninja to make him easier to see?"

Illustration creates huge disparities among the books, as some students draw full-page, heavily-detailed illustrations (we have had students stay up until 4 a.m. to draw--we discourage that), and some draw a few simple figures and call it done. We allow most non-smearing mediums, except photographs. While most artists choose colored pencil, over the years we have seen watercolor, markers, collage, computer drawing, and pop-ups.

The Dirty Oil: Sae-10W40 is the top dog in the garage and in the eyes of his user, John. But when Sae makes a career mistake and is replaced by 10W-80, and despised by John, what will he do?


Day three brings a lesson in book jacket art, as we display a variety of published covers and students evaluate their successfulness. Often, students disagree, and the discussion can get lively. "I cant tell if those are dogs or weasels!" "The silver makes it feel mysterious and magical." I always love it when a book I picked as a "bad" cover seems to work just fine for the students.

Students then design their own jackets and begin drawing. As with the interior illustrations, at some point we hold up the jacket-in-progress for constructive comments. "I like the polka dots on the mushroom-tree." "Can you make all the letters in 'Tra-la-la' the same size?"

We also discuss the text on the book jacket flaps. The front is a story teaser, including a description and glowing comments about the book and who will enjoy it. "This exciting story is full of humor and vivid illustrations, which will catch the attention of young readers everywhere." The back lists information about the author, along with a photo.

During the day, students have extensive free time to work on interior illustrations, jacket illustrations, story revisions, and to exchange story and art editing with other students.

French Women Don't Wear Shorts starts off with Kelly's mother talking about moving her family overseas, with some stomach-lurching hilarious stories to follow. Watch this comical family try to fit in with their new surroundings.


On day four, we cover title, half title, and closing page layouts. After showing sample title page spreads, the students design and work on their own. Once again, we hold up their partially completed pages for constructive comments. "It's so funny to see the cat ruler in the bathtub!" "Are you going to draw the caravan crash in the desert?" Next, we discuss and work on the half title page and closing page.

At this point, the students' work is at different stages, so we now teach lessons individually as students are ready. Activities include spraying pencil drawings with fixative (outside, because of the fumes) and trimming illustrations and text to fit their pages. Students also mark book jacket folds and glue on all jacket elements.

Another key activity is comparing the layout sheets with all the finished text and illustrations to check for completeness. Students lay everything out in order and pencil page numbers on the items' backs. Each laid-out book must pass muster with me or my colleague so we know everything is in order and the students have enough illustrations. I cannot tell you how many times students are "absolutely sure!" they have everything, but either they do not or something is out of order or they lost/recycled an illustration, etc.

Before the students glue anything into the interior, they create the book block by sewing together six signature sheets with carpet thread. In Melton's book, the gluing occurs before the sewing, but we found it too difficult to sew already-glued pages.

Petunia's Adventure is a wonderful book about a lost bird traveling the world. Petunia must be brave while being alone without her owner, Hannah. She must face one decision: Will she try to find her way home, or continue to travel?


Once the book is sewn, students interfile illustrations and text blocks, and my colleague or I do a final check before gluing. We use scrapbook glue that dries flat, and it is applied with foam brushes. This is the messiest part of the process and we make sure students put wax paper between all the finished pages. The last part is gluing binder boards onto the outside of the signature sheets, at which point we pile heavy books on top of the student's book and let it dry.

In the meantime, I cover each jacket with plastic library book covers for a professional look. When the first student's book is dry, I tape the jacket on and everyone cheers! The cheering continues with each completion, and those who finish early help those who are behind, usually with gluing. (What to do with early finishers is a problem we have yet to solve, though. We have tried having them write extra stories or do additional projects, but are not completely satisfied with the results--more tweaking is needed.)

Our final activity is an authors' party. After a massive cleanup of bits of paper, colored pencils, food wrappers, abandoned hoodies, etc., we set up for the presentation, and the parents gather. Each student presents his or her book and talks about the plot and shows a favorite illustration. We love seeing the pride students take in their hard work and in being published authors.

Other project book titles: The Princess Gone Wrong, Snuffles' Laundry Adventure, Ant Girl, Birchroom, The Lonely Mushroom Tree, Tommy's Magical Bush, Solaris, The Globe of Knowledge.


One of Melton's key points is that anyone can create a picture book, regardless of their perceived skills. This is true. We get a large variety of students, and every student has created a book to celebrate. Because our project is mostly sit-down, we also often get last-minute students whose injuries prevent them from parkour-ing or building houses in Mississippi. Although not originally excited to create books, they always get excited as the week progresses and take pride in their finished creations. We are more than proud of them.

I have created two books following our process to better understand what the students experience. My admiration for them shot through the roof, because it is not an easy project. It is a complex, work-heavy undertaking that takes a lot of time and focus--and gummy snacks, of course. We love it for how much students learn about writing, illustrating, editing, time management, leadership, and just having lots of fun. In addition, we love its affordability: usually under $40 a student. Buy a copy of Melton's book and give it a try!


Melton, David. Written & Illustrated By--: A Revolutionary Two-Brain Approach for Teaching Students How to Write and Illustrate Amazing Books. Landmark Editions, 1985. 94p. [O.P.] 978-0-93384-900-6.

Rebecca Moore is a long-time middle school librarian and VOYA reviewer, currently working at The Overlake School in Redmond, WA. Her idea of a perfect vacation is going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and seeing six plays in three days.
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Author:Moore, Rebecca
Publication:Voice of Youth Advocates
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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