An illustrator explains the art of making pictures speak to children

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, to another look at the joy of opening up literature to new audiences. It’s the latest in our Brief But Spectacular episodes, where we ask interesting people to describe their passions.

Tonight, we hear from illustrator Christian Robinson, so who works to ensure that picture books become more inclusive and empower all children. His new book is school’s first day of school.

CHRISTIAN ROBINSON, “School’s First Day of School”: Growing up, I actually — I didn’t have that close of a relationship with books.

I actually struggled to read. And so I was definitely drawn to books with pictures. I just loved that, you know, so much could be communicated with just an image.

I was raised by my grandmother. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but I at least always had a pencil, paper. I couldn’t control the circumstances around me, but I could at least decide what I wanted on that piece of paper, what sort of world I wanted to create.

Early on, my drawings were sort of influenced by whatever was around me. So, like most kids, I watched “Aladdin” and then I drew Aladdin. I watched “Jurassic Park,” and then I drew a dinosaur eating somebody.

I don’t know so much if I was motivated by people telling me that you’re talented or you’re good at what you do, as much as it was really just like a form of escape and just sort of a passion of mine.

When you look at a picture book, you might think story by the author and illustrations by the illustrator. The story is actually something that happens when the author and the illustrator come together. It’s what happens on the page.

On my books, I like to have written by or words by the author and pictures by the illustrator.

Illustrating an entire book can be overwhelming and scary. So, what I like to do is start small, tiny doodles, which are a storyboard, and I do them on really tiny little Post-it notes. And they sort of just help me figure out how I want to begin to tell the story.

I go on to design and color and figuring out what I want the color — the characters to look like, what I want the backgrounds to look like. It’s important for me to tell stories that reflect the diverse world that we live in.

Children need to see themselves in books. They need to see their gender. They need to see their color, hair texture, their disability, themselves.

Picture books especially are like many children’s first introduction to the world. Seeing yourself is almost like a message. It’s saying, you matter, you are visible, and you’re valuable.

My name is Christian Robinson, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on telling stories with pictures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief/.

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