Children's Authors on Campus

March 4, 2020
Angela Leeper leads UR's semi-annual tradition of hosting a children's author or illustrator

By Julia Straka, ’21

Last year, the University of Richmond has hosted two celebrated children’s authors on campus. In February, two-time Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator Sophie Blackall spoke to students and local Richmond educators about writing that has inspired her. In October, Virginia-based author Maria Gianferrari spoke to a similar crowd about her fun-loving approach to writing. And this year, children’s poet Janet Wong will speak on campus in April.

Bringing two authors to campus a year 

These events are part of the SPCS Graduate Education Speaker Series and are organized by Curriculum Materials Center director Angela Leeper. Leeper has been inviting children's book authors to speak at the university each semester since 2011. 

Once the Graduate Education Speaker Series was established, Leeper fused her semi-annual event with the series. When asked why she invites children's book authors specifically, Leeper spoke of their importance to childhood education and development: picture books are the “foundation of reading development,” she said, “and the foundation of all education is literacy.”

After Blackall’s event on campus, I chatted with Blackall and Leeper to learn more about what motivates authors to write, and Leeper to bring authors to campus.

After taking a group of education students to an event featuring children’s author Mem Fox at the Children’s Museum of Richmond, Leeper decided to invite the next author to speak at the university instead. That way, more students and school faculty would be able to attend the talk. That was 16 authors (and counting) ago.

Author talks provide continuous professional development in education students, a value that is encouraged across all SPCS programs. The school hopes students continue to engage in events, like that hosted by Blackall, throughout their professional lives. The beauty of Leeper’s events is in their simplicity for the students. They don’t have to worry about arranging for substitutes, financing the event themselves or requesting funds from their employer as students, but still get to hear and meet honored, top-notch authors and illustrators. 

Leeper believes it is important for education students to learn about the process of creating children’s books firsthand. It’s not as easy as it looks: “A lot of people have preconceptions that children’s literature is easy to write, and it takes a short amount of time to do, and anyone can do it,” she said. However, there is a lot of time and thought that goes into it; though she juggled other projects simultaneously, Blackall undertook more than two years of research, painting, writing and revisions in writing Hello Lighthouse

Misconceptions about writing children’s literature

Much has to be taken into account when making a children’s book: the playfulness of the language, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, accuracy, and the relationship between the illustrations and the text. Leeper believes the quality of a children’s book depends heavily on whether its illustrations and text blend seamlessly. On top of all of these considerations, the books should also be accessible to young children.

Not only do many people assume children’s books are easy to write, many also assume they are easier to read than they are. Leeper explains that “picture books are deceiving because they’re short and concise,” but when evaluated using tools like the Lexile Reading Framework, some of them are written at a 10th or 11th grade reading level. This indicates that they are meant to be read to young children. And this is where Blackall believes the value of children’s books lies: the connection they create between the person reading them aloud and the child. 

Experiences authors bring to writing children’s literature

The authors and illustrators that Leeper invites have varying career paths: a previous guest had years of classroom teaching experience before becoming an author and illustrator, while “others come to it through the arts or their love of stories,” Leeper said.

For example, Blackall has a technical degree in design, but she has also worked with school children across the world. She came equipped with a slideshow of her international adventures; there were pictures of African schoolchildren who take off their shoes before entering the classroom as a sign of respect, as well as artwork that some students in Brooklyn made under her instruction.

Blackall’s experience with children also informs her work. When asked about her artistic inspirations, Blackall referred to 18th century drawings. Because the artists of these illustrations try to detail things they have never seen before, they are not as concerned with anatomy or light. They just describe. She relates these historical illustrations to the art children make. Kids are also less worried about accuracy, and they don't hesitate or fear mistakes as much. Blackall believes adults lose this freedom of expression with age as they try to fix and avoid mistakes. She tries to channel this freedom into her own illustrations by embracing her limitations, and her inner child. 

Making community connections

Leeper also tries to bridge the gap between the University of Richmond’s education department and the greater Richmond education community with her events. She is pleased that Richmond community educators attended Blackall’s talk and ties the importance of connecting the two communities with the importance of education itself: “We never do anything in a vacuum and I think of all disciplines, education as a discipline makes an impact on everything we do,” she said.