As an artist, I’m inspired by other artists. As an art teacher, I’m inspired by other art teachers. After reading Mara Rockliff’s and Melissa Sweet’s new book SIGNS OF HOPE (Abrams Books for Young Readers, April 2024) I became immediately inspired by artist and teacher Sister Corita Kent! I caught up with Mara to learn more:

Me: Congratulations on your inspiring new picture book! I’ll sheepishly admit I’d never heard of Sister Corita, but through your book and further looking, both the artist and art teacher in me are wowed by her art and teachings. What motivated you to write her story as a picture book for kids?

Mara: I was also wowed! There are a lot of picture books on famous artists, but Sister Corita wasn’t just an artist; she was a teacher who had such an impact on her students that even today, sixty years later, you’ll meet art educators who say, not “I studied with Corita” or even “My teacher studied with Corita,” but “My teacher’s teacher studied with Corita, and it changed my life.”

As someone who writes historical picture books, I’m always looking for that magic combination: a subject that is fun for kids but also meaningful to the adults who will be reading it with them. So it might be the story of a gingerbread baker and spy (danger and dessert!), and at the same time, an immigrant who used his language skills to help our country win the Revolutionary War. Or it might be Ben Franklin going head to head with a spooky hypnotist waving a magic wand, but it’s also about using the scientific method to figure out what is and isn’t true. Or, in the case of Signs of Hope, it’s an awesome teacher showing students how to fill their lives with joy and color and make art through play, while for the grownups…it’s an awesome teacher showing students how to fill their lives with joy and color and make art through play.

 

Me: What’s your process of research and writing?

Mara: With Corita, I was lucky that a number of books have been written on her life and work. Once I had that overview, I looked for ways to get closer to her. I watched footage from her classroom, listened to her interviews, and searched for anything I could find in her own words. Those words turned out to be a key part of the illustrations, and also gave me a title for the book. Corita said, “The person who makes things is a sign of hope.” I realize that her stenciled posters were, literally, “signs” of hope, and she and her students were signs of hope, too.

When I’ve done enough research to see how a story might come together, I make drafting notes. My notes for Signs of Hope started like this:

What is the purpose of this book?

  • Introduce the art of Corita Kent (show her style)
  • Teach what she taught—look at ordinary things in a new way, be playful, see beauty
  • Include some of her messages? love, peace, hope, joy, faith, energy, light, justice, equality, optimism, gratitude

After that, I outlined what to write about and in what order:

  1. How she sees: other people see the ordinary, the common, the ugly (billboards, store window ads, street signs) but Corita sees art.
  2. How she collects: taking photos, cutting out words from magazines, etc.
  3. How she designs…

And so on. Surprisingly, the finished book closely follows that outline, though the manuscript went through many drafts.

The biggest challenge in revising was finding a way to make the story feel more immediate. Originally, I’d started it like this:

  • What do you see on this city street?            
  • People in the 1960s passing by see ordinary street signs,
  • ugly billboards, and too many window ads to pay attention to.

My editor suggested that I focus on Corita’s students, and I realized they could tell the story, speaking in a collective voice:

  • Sister Corita teaches us to see
  • what everybody sees
  • but doesn’t see.
  • Ordinary street signs,
  • ugly billboards,
  • posters no one pays attention to.

…so readers, too, become Corita’s students, peering at the world through “finders” to discover something new, then returning to a noisy, messy, and exciting classroom to make art.

 

Me: I love how she tried to get students to really see, and that your book is told from the point of view of her students. Writers also have to be careful observers, but has working on this book changed the way you’ve looked at things visually or in other ways?

Mara: Corita said, “One purpose of art is to alert people to things they might have missed.” She looked at the same things as everybody else, but saw them differently. If she picked up a loaf of Wonder bread, she took the big red WONDER on the bag as an invitation. Then she’d transform it into an eye-catching, unexpected piece of art that made other people wonder, too. She told her students, “Always be ready to see what you haven’t seen before.”

Groundbreaking artists have often rejected high-flown “artistic” themes in favor of the everyday, whether it’s peasants in a field or cans of soup. What interests me is how that changes over time. Corita saw the value in the commonplace, but what was ordinary, even ugly in the 1960s is now old-school cool. If she were alive today, what would she be noticing and turning into art? Sometimes I look around a supermarket parking lot and wonder if our grandchildren will get nostalgic over scenes of shopping cart corrals, sweatpants, and SUVs.

Me: Illustrating books about art and artists can be a particular challenge, but illustrator Melissa Sweet’s interpretation is stunning. I know authors and illustrators are often kept apart, but did you have Melissa in mind when you wrote this? How did your collaboration work?

Mara: When Courtney, our editor at Abrams, wrote to me about finding an illustrator for Signs of Hope, she talked about the tactile, collage-like quality of Corita’s art, her engaging and often surprising use of color, and the way she played with type. Then she pointed out that all those things were also true of two-time Caldecott honoree Melissa Sweet. I certainly didn’t need any convincing. My only thought was, Will she really say yes? My agent said, “Shoot for the moon, why not?” And here we are.

It’s true that authors don’t collaborate with illustrators in the sense of sitting down together or even communicating directly. Anything we want to tell each other goes through the editor and the designer.

At the same time, our work is obviously intertwined. Kids learn that the illustrator makes the pictures and the author writes the words. But I don’t just write the words that appear on the page. I also need to explain what’s happening in the scene, share visual details and photo references, and generally try to give the illustrator what she needs to do her job. And the illustrator, likewise,  can have a big impact on the text. Melissa asked questions, made suggestions, and found ways to let me trim the text by packing more of the story into the art. She also did research of her own, and came up with several of the quotes incorporated in her illustrations.

 

Me: Can you share any other projects you’re working on now?

Mara: I’ve got a very different picture book with Abrams coming out next fall, hilariously illustrated by Gladys Jose. It’s called All at Once Upon a Time, and it’s a goofy fractured fairy tale where stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella are all happening at once—but not exactly as they used to, once upon a time. At every page turn, readers have a chance to guess what’s coming next. (Hint: not what you expect!)

Me: Wow, can’t wait! Thank you so much for chatting. Wishing Signs of Hope much success!

To learn more, please visit: Mara Rockliff | Children’s author | Mara Rockliff, children’s author

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