Erik Brooks, Author of the Month: Visual Literacy Visits


Visual Literacy: The ability to interpret, negotiate, and make meaning from information presented in the form of an image, extending the meaning of literacy, which commonly signifies interpretation of a written or printed text.

Once upon a time, as a newly certified K–12 art teacher (c. 1995) who in three years of job searching and subbing only ever found a single full-time art teaching application opportunity, I ultimately turned my artistic interests to picture books. I haven’t really looked back, except to say that I always look forward to my teaching opportunities.

I get invited to literacy nights (and days) at schools, and as a picture book writer, I really do relish the opportunity to explore reading and writing with kids in the classroom. As an illustrator and wannabe art teacher however, I’m always even more excited to draw! And to me, visual literacy goes hand in hand with a more traditional idea of reading/writing literacy — and perhaps it sometimes even leads the way.


Kids “read” pictures, and words emerge to match.

Beyond books even, we are surrounded by visual media — and this media generally doesn’t ask you to do a lot of work. It’s passive consumption. Becoming visually literate demands that you analyze these images and try to figure out what you are being asked to learn or read in the process.  And kids should know that they can be active participants — both as consumers and creators. It’s powerful stuff disguised as drawing 🙂

Kids post, they text, they create video etc. And the tools of visual literacy — the choices that one makes about even the simplest things like line or color or composition — all work in tandem to inform the viewer/reader of what you are asking them to see — or what words you want them to conjure to accompany the pictures. And even these most basic tenants of image making help you tell a story. And they also help you read it. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not, but visual literacy is integral to better communication, and making a picture or a picture book is such a great place to introduce this topic to a student audience.

Character, setting, plot, emotion, cliffhangers, hooks, foreshadowing … ALL of these things can be visual or given emphasis by visual cues. Literate art makes for literate readers.

Just a few of the ideas that I’ll demonstrate as tools for visual literacy. So kids are watching this happen while I talk them through it, and then they get to try in on their own.

And so, all of that being said, for the last few years I’ve been doing a LOT of drawing workshops where kids create characters and scenes with an intentional visual impact. Using lines and details to draw attention to certain things in their artwork; using angles or compositions to help a reader follow their picture in a certain logical order; deciding on just the right expression or gesture to represent an emotion; these are fundamental things to communicating an idea or telling a story — and it’s also drawing, and it’s work — but it’s so much fun!

Everyone starts with some guided drawing for a foundation…
…and it’s incredible how many different things will happen when the kids take over and start to add lines, details, emotions, expressions, and setting of their own!
Are we having fun yet? Do expressions help to tell a story?

And of course it’s always incredible when you hear from a school about visual projects  inspired by your books – even when you haven’t had a chance to visit! Great teaching starts with digging just beneath the surface and giving kids an idea of the process that they can put to work in their own fantastic artwork and storytelling 🙂

AMAZING expressions and gestures add to the humor and energy in these speedy tortillas inspired by Eric Kimmel’s THE RUNAWAY TORTILLA.
Inspired by the watercolors in POLAR OPPOSITES, students also emphasized the differences between two main characters using different colored backgrounds.

And finally, for an appropriately visual teaser to keep you on your toes for my next book, here is a sketch from Shelley Gil’s IF I WERE A BEAR (Sasquatch, Little Bigfoot, Spring 2018) to be released simultaneously with IF I WERE A BIRD.

Cover sketches for the next book. LOTS of little thumbnails like this and sometimes I get even a little more detailed then I should for such a small space!

These are both board books in the wake of our February 2017 collaboration on IF I WERE A WHALE.

A favorite spread from IF I WERE A WHALE.

And it’s one day too late for this, but “HAPPY HALLOWEEN!”


Erik Brooks is the author/illustrator of 24+ books for children and their most excellent parents and teachers. Look for his newest picture book, IF I WERE A BEAR!, in Spring 2018.

Erik writes, draws, coaches, and visits schools and libraries from his home in Winthrop, WA. It’s a little off the beaten path, so online visits are the perfect thing — and screen sharing means drawing lesson work as well! To learn more about booking visits with Erik, head to the school visits page of his website at


Good News from the Online Author Visits Team!

Good News from the Online Author Visits Team!

Patrick Jennings‘s new book, Naughty Claudine’s Christmas, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman, will be published by Random House on October 24. Claudine doesn’t approve of Santa’s methods — surveillance, judgment, breaking and entering — so she decides to ward him off with naughtiness.

Naughty Claudine Cover

♥ ♥ ♥

Martha Brockenbrough will be speaking at NCTE in November with Laurie Halse Anderson. Please say hello if you’re there!

♥ ♥ ♥

Dana Sullivan  is happy to report that he completed and sent ALL of his final art for My Red Velvet Cape to Sleeping Bear Press. He’s also ecstatic that MRVC will launch on HIS BIRTHDAY, February 11, 2018!!!

♥ ♥ ♥

Dori Hillestad Butler reports that her middle grade novels Do You Know the Monkey Man and Yes, I Know the Monkey Man are getting new covers!

Do You Know the Monkey Man was originally published in 2003, so Dori also revised and updated the text to go with the new cover. She intends to revise and update Yes, I Know the Monkey Man as well. Both will publish in 2018.

Dori is also publishing a 7th book in her popular Buddy Files series. The multi-talented Dana Sullivan provided art.

buddy 7

In other news, Dori was thrilled to learn that her King & Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats and King & Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code both appear on the 2017 Cybils award nominations list in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. And her Haunted Library appears on the 3rd-grade Source Books list for the Scripps Spelling Bee.

Finally, if you happen to be at AASL in Phoenix this year, Dori is on the Reading on My Own! Beginning Reader Series panel Saturday, November 11, at 10:40 am. Look for her there or visit the Publisher Spotlight (Booth 101) Friday, November 10, from 2:30 until 3:30.

♥ ♥ ♥

Laurie Ann Thompson was honored to learn that both Be a Changemaker and Emmanuel’s Dream have been chosen as Community Book Reads by Bartholomew County Public Library in Columbus, IN! To celebrate, she’ll be doing a Skype visit with them about both books at the end of this month.

Laurie was also thrilled to see that Two Truths And a Lie: It’s Alive! is nominated for a Cybils award in the Elementary/Middle Grade Nonfiction category! Laurie has been a Cybils judge several times in the past, so this is a very special treat.


And, in the “How cool is that?” department, Laurie learned that Emmanuel’s Dream is on the list of sources of words for the 2nd-grade level of the Scripps Spelling Bee!

Janet Lee Carey, Author of the Month: Creative Camaraderie

The myth goes something like this. Writers work alone. They are solitary beings who eschew human company to toil day after day on their craft. Invite them out to lunch, and they decline. Disturb them at their work, and they are fierce!

Admittedly, I Do have this sign on my study door:Dragon at Work sign
I love spending hour upon hour blissfully alone working on my novels. And while my husband says, “My wife sits at home all day plotting and scheming.” The truth is, I do leave my work cave occasionally. You may be shocked to learn many authors and illustrators can be social creatures. You just have to know what (aside from chocolate) lures us away from our desks.

Critique Groups

Peggy's two moon journey party 1 Most of us meet weekly or monthly to share our work, give and receive critique, and help each other reach our writing dreams. We work hard in these groups, reading and marking up our manuscripts. But we go wild when one of us sells to a publisher. Recently, my critique group, the Diviners, celebrated Peggy King Anderson’s sale of her middle-grade novel Two Moon Journey with cheers and pom-poms.

And here’s the coveted Diviner Award we’ve been passing around for years — the Nancy Pearl shushing librarian action figure.

nancy pearl action figure 3

Writer Organizations
We join important organizations like PNWA (Pacific Northwest Writers Association) and SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). This means we attend monthly meetings, crowd to conferences and meet up at retreats.

Book Parties
We go wild for book launch parties.

Janet in polka-dot boots for Kevan Atteberry’s PUDDLES!
The Diviners in costume at Janet’s book party for IN THE TIME OF DRAGON MOON.
OAV Martha's Launch
Celebrating at Martha Brockenbrough’s latest launch.


Office to Office
Sometimes we stop our work to contact each other and talk about . . . well . . . our work. Here’s my recent Creative Conversation with Wendy Wahman.

Creative Groups
We gather together to talk shop, celebrate our successes, ponder our failures, and tinker with the mystery of creativity. (Tinker we must, but it will remain a mystery.)

Sometimes we work in large groups at all-day writing retreats.

OAV mice retreat group 2
Some Mouse House members. How many OAVers can you see in this photo? (I count 4.)

Many mice were present at our recent Mouse House retreat at Dia Calhoun’s house by the river. OAVers Laurie Ann Thompson, Dori Jones Yang, Dana Sullivan, Suzanne Williams, Moi, and more worked silently in the house and outside, breaking for lunch, and later for Happy Hour.

OAV post cc Kit, Laurie and Dori at workOAV cc dana working at desk

OAV post CC Suzanne workingOAV post CC Janet writing

Meeting Readers
Hands down, we all love meeting readers — at book signings, and at schools, libraries, and bookstores here in the US and abroad.

Janet and OAVer Trudi Trueit sign books at Borders.


OAV Patneaude2009-05-218
OAV’s Dave Patneaude talks with students during a school visit.


OAV lois in school 3
Author Lois Brandt visits a classroom.


OAV cc Dori Beijing talk
OAVer Dori Jones Yang gives a book talk in Beijing.


OAV cc janet Japan trip
Janet visits a school in Japan.


Online Author Visits
And if you contact us here at Online Author Visits, I pinkie swear we will answer your call. The best part is, we don’t have to leave the office. You can get past that sign on my door and see where I work. More dragons await within the inner sanctum, but they gobble stories, not readers.

All of us here at OAV would love to meet you in your book group, library, or class. We might even say yes to lunch!

We Need Diverse Books, But Who Gets To Make Them?

diversity-tightropeThis diversity in kid lit is a tough subject and definitely requires walking a tightrope between stereotype and inclusion. I’ve written before about doing a few speaking gigs on diversity even though I’m a white, middle age male.posterboy

My book Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari “drew” me in to the subject because there was no way I could tell a story based on a real school and orphanage in Kenya without using the brown paints in my watercolor set. In the Digger and Daisy early reader series, our heroes are dogs, kaykaycover_smallbut I have worked in some Spanish, a wheelchair and a girl wearing a hijab. Man, this sounds like I’ve got a diversity list I’m checking off, but We Need Diverse Books, right? I’m not sure of the perfect way to go about making that happen, but I would like to do my part.



I wrote a short post last June about my illustration process for a boy, a dragon and a red velvet cape. That illustration led me to a story about a boy named Mateo, his abuela Consuela, dog Alonzo, big sister Luciana and his mama´ and papa´. Mateo’s heroes include luchadores, the masked (and sometimes caped!) Mexican luche libre wrestlers. It’s a darned cute story about all the ways his red velvet cape will help him be powerful, popular and, most important, grown up. Pretty universal theme, right?


My agent, Anna Olswanger, is a smart cookie and told me she loved the story but that it was going to be a hard sell, being that I’m not of the culture I was portraying. I have to admit I was pretty pissed off and gathered a list of books written or illustrated by people not of the culture portrayed in the book. My Exhibit A was the Caldecott and Newbery award-winning book Last Stop On Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Our hero CJ and his nana are black. “Matt de la Peña isn’t black!” I huffed to Anna O. “No, but Christian Robinson is,” she replied and then went down the rest of the list I sent her, polaststoponmarketstinting out that at least one of the team was of the culture being portrayed.

So I wrote to my friend and brilliant author Samantha Vamos, asking her to read my story and to give me her honest take on the subject.

After softening me up by referring to my “adorable book,” she asked, “Do you think it really adds to the story by adding the Latino names and words? I think an editor might find the Latino names to be a distraction.” Okay, I guess I didn’t REALLY want her honest response. But then she wrote, “I find that if I am away from the manuscript long enough, I can let go – and often because getting it published is just far more important to me.” That struck a chord. I really want my story to be published and if naming my hero Mateo will prevent that, then I’ll change his name to Milo and he’ll have a plain old grandma, just like I did.


I revised and re-submitted my story about Milo, grandma, Buster the dog, big sister Maddie and Mom and Dad. But I kept the Spanish in the classroom posters and made the school bathroom gender-neutral. My agent and editor thanked me for the revision.

THEN I had the good fortune to be shuttling both Christian Robinson and Catia Chien to a hotel after an illustrator retreat where they totally rocked. How often would I have two luminaries of the kid lit world trapped in a car so I could interrogate them on white people telling stories of diversity? Their answers, as you can imagine, weren’t simple. Yes, they were tired of white people appropriating other cultures, but they also love good stories and illustrations, no matter who tells them, so long as they are told with authenticity and respect. And they admitted to having to walk the same tightrope I do; being respectful and doing the homework to make sure they are getting it right. And being disappointed when their attempts at inclusion meet resistance. They both spoke about avoiding being pigeon-holed as “diversity illustrators,” and drawing outside their own culture when they can.

christian_catia_educatewhitepeopleThey also stressed that what is really needed are diverse writers, illustrators and editors to make books in which kids of all cultures can see themselves. I’m totally on board with that, but I’m also into eating and making the mortgage enough to want to make those books myself! Sue me for being selfish.

Here’s the funny thing: just days after the election (you know, THAT election), I received an email from my editor saying that she was delighted to be recommending My Red Velvet Cape to her acquisition group and that she will be presenting BOTH versions. (I’m crossing my fingers and will let you know the outcome of that meeting.) I think the ugly campaign rhetoric about immigrants and minorities has put a renewed resolve into publishers to promote inclusion in their books.

Believe me, getting published is my main goal. That’s my dream and my career. But ialonzo_maskf I can help kids see themselves in all their colors and cultures, I will do it. And I’ll work to be as sensitive as I can, but I can’t promise I won’t overstep or offend somebody. Diversity is (and should be) a tough subject. I love both Mateo and Milo, but I really wanna draw Alonzo wearing a luchador mask.

Thanks, Dana

Dana highly recommends taking a look at for resources on diversity in books for young people. And he’s got a list of recommended books on his website at


Around the Web with OAV Authors: November 2016

Welcome to the latest edition of our occasional blog series highlighting random online sightings of a few of our members. You never know what fun stuff a bit of quick Googling will unearth, but our gang always delivers cool peeks into their individual kidlit-creating worlds.

Suzanne Williams as a first-grader
Suzanne Williams as a first-grader

Suzanne Williams presents her bio and answers some FAQs at her website.

Check out Trudi Trueit’s Simon & Schuster author profile to learn her personal motto, favorite fictional hero, and more.

On his author-illustrator site, Dana Sullivan is now posting regular Dead Max Comix strips inspired by his dog.

In a round-robin blog tour, Lisa L. Owens discusses her writing process, including why she writes what she does and how she approaches the work.

Patrick Jennings shares an awesome thank-you card from appreciative young fans.


Here’s a very handy list of Joan Holub’s myriad publication credits.

And finally, Janet Lee Carey hosts Dia Calhoun in a deeply creative conversation called “Minding Your Dreams.”

Hieros Gamos, an original sculpture by Dia Calhoun inspired by her dreams
Hieros Gamos, an original sculpture by Dia Calhoun inspired by her dreams

How Do Illustrators Work?

Dana Sullivan writes: I’m working on some ideas for a story about a little boy, a dragon and a cape. I started with very rough pencil sketches to get my layout right:
I liked my third try because it seemed more cohesive:
I sketched this one onto watercolor paper:
Next, I added color:
I was trying to avoid my usual black sharpie pen and stick with the pencil line. But I wasn’t wild about it, so I broke out the black brush pen and, working larger, inked it out and colored it with watercolor:
I was enjoying myself as I worked, but it’s kind of a mess. So, using the rough sketch, I traced in Adobe Illustrator and then colored in Photoshop:
What I like about the computer is that I can limit myself (and can undo). What I don’t like is that I’m not always as spontaneous as I want to be. But I think I kept the spirit of the original sketch. And I kept it SIMPLE! We’ll see where this story takes me.

Erik Brooks, Author of the Month: “Hello” from the North Cascades!

Sadly, Gator waves goodbye to his good friend Crocodile…

About half way through 1st grade, I moved to a new house and changed schools. After 5th grade I moved to a new state – from Alaska to Colorado – which felt, I will tell you, like moving to a new country! And then I moved again – and then again – after 8th and 9th grade, to Texas and Minnesota respectively.

I didn’t enjoy this, any of it, especially that move to 9th grade during a time when peers and personal friendships had just started to take priority over those with my immediate family. It was hard. It was disruptive. And I felt adrift right at a critical time for developing anchors. Plus, I was powerless to do anything about it — the moving anyway.

That being said, with whatever resolve and optimism that a 15 year old boy can muster, I also eventually realized that I was able to start again. That making new friends was very much up to me, and that through the simplest and most natural of connections, I actually DID have the footing to find my way.

Surprisingly, old friends – the ones I’d left behind and the things we’d done together – those things still mattered in these new places – even if the kids and the setting had changed – because they mattered to me. I began to understand the threads of “self” that could carry over to new places and new experiences – that my previous external friendships were connected just as importantly to my internal needs.


I liked sports and being outside. I liked dogs. I liked ART! Simple things, yes, but touchstones that nonetheless related (and still relate!) to helping me navigate the seemingly scary and more complex dynamics of saying saying ‘hello”. Those “goodbye” relationships and interests, the ones that I was missing so terribly much, might also assist with making new people and situations feel a little more “me” than I’d realized.

As the font endpapers indicate, Gator played ball with Crocodile, read books with Baboon, skateboarded with Mongoose, and built things (like birdhouses) with Buffalo. He misses all of these things of course, but if you stay tuned for the end of the book you’ll get to see all of the NEW things that happen in the end!

OK, so this “awareness” happened in my sophomore year of high school and NOT at the age of your typical picture book audience. But still, this simple realization has trickled down through the years to become the underpinnings of my newest picture book, LATER, GATOR!.

And if I’m perfectly honest, its also great reminder to the everyday adult me of what makes bravery possible for many things – from submitting new stories to editors, to sharing my enthusiasm for drawing with a room full of sixty 2nd graders – or 200 high school students (which happened a few years back in Spokane!) People and experiences, the things we leave behind when we say “good bye” – they matter. They help us communicate. They inform our self expression — whether that’s in the way you kick a soccer ball, write a poem, or draw a picture — and they help you say “hello.”


Thank you to the Online Author Visits community for giving me yet another way to to interact with the world!

Gator_jktDRAFwebPS: I DO like this whole book give away idea. You’ll have to be patient because LATER, GATOR! doesn’t arrive until July 19th, but I would LOVE to draw a name from the comments section and/or from any Skype visit in the remaining 2015-2016 school year and send you a book. Say ‘hello’ below and we’ll make it happen. THE CONTEST ENDS ON MAY 31st! Take care, Polar Bears!

Erik Brooks is the author and/or illustrator of 20+ books for children and their most excellent parents and teachers. Look for his newest picture book, LATER, GATOR! (Sterling Children’s Books) in July 2016.

Erik writes, draws, coaches, and visits schools from his fine little home in Winthrop, WA. It’s in the middle of the mountains, so Skype is an amazing resource for bringing together these far-flung but amazingly interconnected parts of the world! To learn more about booking a Skype visit with Erik, head to the school visits page of his website at:

PPS: Enjoy the book trailer!