So You Want to Be a Great Children’s Illustrator

Question: What is an illustrator’s basic toolkit?

David Small: Hmm. That's a good question. I haven't been asked that one. But relating back to Stitches a little bit, people ask me frequently why I chose to do it in black and white. And that would be my first answer to your question about art materials: that first of all, I think drawing is really the basis of all art, even sculpture, film. The greatest filmmakers have always been able to at least roughly sketch out their ideas in storyboards. And black and white in particular is a good place to start. I stayed with black and white charcoal drawings for years and years and years, maybe—I think I was maybe 38. I started the serious study of art when I was 21. When I was 38 and did my first picture book, I had to start thinking about color. And that's when I found that that whole basis of working in black and white and grays became the basis of my understanding of color, because it's all about tone, it's all about light and dark. If you don't get that, then your color work is going to be a mess. So that's the beginning of the toolkit: drawing and black and white media. In terms of surprises, I'm always surprised by the things that come to me through literature. I think it's really important for any artist to expand themselves in some other area. You know, I've taught—I used to teach on a college level, and I've taught in schools where kids just wanted to be artists, and I used to be furious with them if they didn't read, because they just seemed so—their education seemed so thin if all they could do was pick up a paint-loaded brush and fling it at a canvas. I mean, there was nothing to express there, except maybe their own personal feelings. But if they're not—if they don't have a grounding in the way these things have been expressed by other people down through the centuries, then they're lost. They're pretty much—you know, they're reinventing wheels that don't need to be invented any more. Things come to me through literature and also my study of film that are constantly surprising and enriching for me. So I'm not talking so much about artistic tools as I am about things that come out of the air.

Question: What advice would you give someone writing or drawing for children?

David Small: Do what you feel like, you know, what you think is right. That would be my—I don't have any theories about it, you know. I just—and I actually, even though I have this solid career in picture books, I've not only been thinking about kids—because I don't think that much about children; I'm not a child educator; I'm just a former child. And I know what I would have been enchanted by or interested in as a kid, so even when some art directors early on in my career would say, oh, no, no, no, no, no, you can't draw that way; that's much too loose for kids to understand; well, all that's been proven as bunk, because people like Jules Feiffer are doing things for kids. And you know, Feiffer is the Daumier of our age; his stuff is just so loose and wiggly and, you know, looks like it's out of control although there's perfect control behind it. And kids love that stuff; they eat it up. Or Quentin Blake is another guy that—the guy who illustrates Dahl's stories—Roald Dahl's stories, not doll stories.

I've always been interested in a certain kind of sophistication in children's literature. I loved Roald Dahl; I loved the underlying nastiness of some of his—darkness of his tales. I loved a guy named Tomi Ungerer. You know, early Sendak things. And as a father—you know, that's what kind of got me into making this stuff is that I used to have to read some of this swill to my children 50 times a week, and while the kids actually seemed to be interested in certain books, they were putting me to sleep. But then when I'd get my hands on a Roald Dahl novel, suddenly I was able to invest my reading with some energy and, you know, real interest of my own and come to bedtime with real eagerness. And so there was a sharing between the kids and me. And that was the kind of books that I wanted to write and draw myself, the books that kind of straddled that fence between what would entertain a child and what would entertain parents too. I wrote a book called Imogene's Antlers, which I think is a good example of a book that kids and their parents enjoy. But I realize now that I sort of participated in a history of sophistication that—over-sophistication in children's literature: too much irony, too much sarcasm, too many jokes that the kids got left out of. There was a whole spate of picture books coming out for years and years and years where it was quite evident to me that it was the parents who were buying these books—it wasn't the kids who were choosing them—and that the parents had—they had sort of preempted—is that the word?—co-opted bedtime for themselves instead of—I mean, the worst thing I can think of is making a book where—I have this vision of a dad sitting on a bed with his daughter or his son and laughing his ass off, and the kid's sitting there just totally left out of the joke. And also the parent not being able to explain why it's funny—that's bad. And that's what's—that's what I try to do in my picture books, is to be all-inclusive, but not exclusive, to not exclude the kid and not exclude the parents from the experience. And it's not a very easy task; you can't find stories that work that way too much of the time.

Recorded on November 18, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

You’ll need a serious technical grounding in art, but more importantly, an instinct for avoiding "over-sophistication."

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.