Name: Sarah Nagel, '10
Major: Studio Art
Academics: Bonner Scholar (Senior Intern for Bonner Scholars Program)
Activities: Resident Assistant
Member of Leadership Team for InterVarsity
ESL Teacher for Refugee and Immigration Services
Summer Internships in Quito, Ecuador and Moneta, Virginia

Describe your research project.

I am researching children’s book illustration. I spend time learning about artists and writers, bookbinding and creative writing in order to write, illustrate, and bind a book of my own.

How’d you get involved in the project? 

Well, I love to read, I love working with kids, and I am studying studio art, so this project is a perfect fit. Last summer, I interned in Moneta, Virginia with a non-profit called the Smith Mountain Lake (SML) Good Neighbors, which organizes community resources to provide a variety of services for children living in low-income, rural areas. The other interns and I designed the curriculum for a summer day camp held at the nearby elementary schools. The founders envisioned a camp that would feed the campers healthy meals, provide them with role models, teach them about cultural and personal differences and how to peacefully resolve conflicts, and raise the literacy rate in the surrounding communities, since many of the children read below their age level.

Each camper got a “reading buddy” and a book each week that they could call their own. Throughout the program I started to see many of the kids develop a love for reading. Being a part of that transformation quickly made it evident to me that I wanted to give even more to the process—I wanted to write and illustrate a story that inspired kids to use their imagination, to think about other cultures and other places, and to enjoy the adventure. I believe that the ability to imagine other places and different worlds, through reading as a child, leads to having a more open mind as an adult.

What prepared you for this opportunity? 

The service work I have been doing throughout college—teaching English to children in Ecuador and working with the SML Neighbors program—as well as growing up with parents who instilled in me a love for reading. I've also spoken with two of my sisters, both of whom teach children who read below their age level. It saddens me when kids don’t have the opportunity to see all the places they can go and people they can meet simply by opening a book. This process has made me aware of how challenging illustrating and writing is, and, though I may never get to the level of some of my favorite writers and illustrators, it has given me a taste of what a career in this field would be like.

Academically, one of the most important courses I have taken has been Dr. Della Fenster’s “Life, Literature, and Art,” which is part of a Living and Learning community in Lakeview Hall. The class explored the connections between life and literature—how centuries of human emotion and experience form a huge map and with a book, you have a ticket to go to any place, and time, with whomever happens to be there.  When you get there, you will meet new people; be exposed to new ways of thinking; fall in love; feel sadness, joy and jealousy; and experience betrayal and death. You feel not just the emotions that the author has so richly laid before you, but you are connected to every single person who has read this book before. I find it all incredible!

What were some of your favorite books and authors/illustrators when you were young?

It's funny, so many of the books that I loved as a child are the same books that I return to now as an adult. I guess that’s what makes them so good—the words are not any different but since I’ve changed, the experience of reading each book changes with me. I always loved books by Roald Dahl like Danny Champion of the World and Matilda, especially because they were illustrated by Quentin Blake. Gail Carson Levine has some good ones, as well as E.L. Konigsburg, E.B. White, C.S. Lewis, and Shel Silverstein.

Which illustrators inspire you now?

I’m inspired by the works of Lauren Child, Edward Gorey, Melissa Sweet, Emily Gravett, Lotte Klaver, Edward Lear's little limericks and Norman Rockwell. What draws me into many of these authors' and illustrators' books is the sense of humor and amusement that both kids and adults can enjoy.

When reading children’s books now, I take note of the small decisions that the illustrators and writers made, and relate to them when I am working on my book. I get a huge kick out of going to the library and just taking out a gigantic stack of children's books, sitting in one of the tiny table sets, and just giggling at the characters and the illustrations. I just discovered the Eloise books by Kay Thompson (I can't believe I didn't read these as a kid) and am enamored with Hilary Knight’s illustrations.

Tell me about the actual process of putting together this book.

Writing and illustrating a children's book is a huge endeavor. From the start, I felt overwhelmed by the writing, editing, layout, design, illustration, and binding. I had to learn to use new materials and software while thinking of the far-off-in-the-future possibility "huh, that would be cool if this was actually published..." 

It’s still very much a work in progress and I’ll continue working on it into the fall semester. The book will end up being around 25 pages long.

What is the book about?

It's about a girl who gets a bicycle and begins imagining all the far off places she could go, peddling around the world on her lavender bike. She travels to a few places—Egypt, India, Paris, South Africa, Ecuador, Italy, and Australia—and collects one thing from each place. She puts these things in her bicycle basket, of course, and she has her trusty French companion Toulouse (who is actually based off of my own very pesky cat named Toulouse) by her side. Additionally, as the story progresses, the reader will learn one word, A through Z, which is highlighted and defined through context clues. Some of the words are in different languages like Swahili and Spanish, and others are words unique to certain cultures like "gondola" and "hieroglyphics."

How do you see this project contributing to your collegiate success during the rest of your time at Richmond?

The most important thing this research has taught me is how to work independently and consistently. In my art classes, we call that finding good “studio habits.”  It has prepared me for this coming fall semester, when I will be working rather independently on my senior thesis.

You’ve got a crystal ball. What’s in store for you after graduation? 

The dreaded question! Well, since I love sharing good books, music, and food with the people around me, I have thought about combining all my interests and opening a café that uses locally grown ingredients and supports the work of local artists as well as hosts community events like book discussions and wine tastings. It would also have an upstairs facility used for children’s cooking classes. That would be ideal. 

Probably, I’ll go back home to Ohio for a while and continue to design wedding invitations. Then, when I can afford it, my petite French cat Toulouse and I will be headed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina for who-knows-what. We will see!

What book is on your bedside table?

I just finished The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and it is now on my list of favorite books—it was that good. Now I am reading a rather haunting book called The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards.

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Always an artist, but for a while I forced my little sister to be the one and only customer at my restaurant (that really only served grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, or macaroni and cheese) and then afterward, because I was strictly the cook/waitress/menu designer, she had to clean up and wash dishes.

What has a liberal arts education at the University of Richmond meant to you?

To me, my liberal arts education doesn’t stop at classes -- though, the discussions there have, without a doubt, challenged my way of thinking and made me a more well-rounded, engaged citizen. But between experiences like Brown Bag lunches and book discussions, guest artists and writers, Modlin’s concerts and performances and just living on the outskirts of a rich city with an incredible past, you can’t come to the University of Richmond wanting to learn and leave disappointed. There are too many opportunities throughout the four years to grow and change!