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Cathren Housley’s Picture Book 101 Workshops

By Cristina M DiChiera

If you have a child between six and ten years old, be sure to take them one of these upcoming Picture Book 101 Workshops:

October 8 & October 15 at 3:45pm, Weaver Library, East Providence (401-434-2453)
October 9 at 4-6pm, Knight Memorial Library, Providence (401-467-2625)
December 9 at 6:30-7:45pm, Cranston Public Library, Sockanosset branch (401-943-9080)

da2fed358e769d6d5c69aebf96208bd7_1364058887_lWhen given a writing assignment or asked to create a story on a blank page, children and adults alike can find themselves facing that overwhelming hurdle — What do I write about? Where do I start?  “That’s when I get them to stand up and jump up and down to kick their writing into gear,” says award-winning children’s book illustrator Cathren Housley.  Cathren is currently running her third series of Picture Book 101 workshops for children ages 4-8 in public libraries in and around Providence, with the support of grants from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts (RISCA).  Each workshop is 1-2 hours long and Cathren’s boundless energy helps to harness the students’ creativity and ensure their productivity.  Life lessons and tools for problem solving are just a few of the added benefits students gain from Cathren’s workshops.

Workshop materials are simple: one legal size sheet of paper for each book, yarn, hand paper punches, scissors, colored pencils and markers, construction paper, and stickers. Using examples from her own work, Cathren begins by revealing a secret: the most impressive published illustrations began as nothing but blobs and stick figures on scrap paper!  Illustration is a process with specific steps and artists develop and grow their ideas in stages. “One of the most important messages that I always want to get across to the kids is that they should never be afraid of making a mistake,” Cathren explains.  “I tell them about my own working process and reveal how some of my best work came about after I made a big mistake or ruined something and had to figure out how to fix it.”

Students learn to sketch their ideas in pencil first and then add color and life to them.

courtney_graceChildren’s books sometimes developed without any words at all, but every book has a story line. Whether it is a fantasy from medieval times or a pop-up book on panda bears, all children’s books have a beginning, a middle and an end…and problems have solutions. Add in children’s natural talents for creativity, and the stories write themselves.  When the story and the pictures come together in a book, that’s when the magic happens. Cathren shows students how to create drama and excitement on a page.  If a child faces “writer’s block,” a problem that has kept many a person from reaching their full potential, Cathren has tricks up her sleeve to help them tap into the joy of spontaneous story telling.

“One of the most inspiring workshops I led was at Knight Memorial, on a beautiful spring day when only five kids showed up and none of them wanted to work.”  One boy in particular seemed to be resisting; but Cathren, as a past martial arts instructor, considered it a sign of intelligence for a student to test a teacher before following. When the class decided on “dreams” as the theme for their stories, this boy grudgingly mentioned he’d had one about a roller coaster. “I have that dream myself,” Cathren told him, “do you get to a part where it’s going under water and you try to stop it -” “Yes!” he interrupted, excited, “that’s exactly what happens!” “Write about it,” she told him. “I can’t wait to hear what happens.”  “He wrote an incredible story with illustrations ” Cathren remembers, “and he was so proud of it that he went around showing everyone upstairs in the main library.  Later, I found out that he had been suspended from the library the previous month for misconduct. This was the first time he’d shown an interest in anything. I also sensed that this may have been the first time that anyone ever opened up and shared with him rather than disciplining him. I try to give kids a place where it is safe to tell their stories. If I have accomplished nothing else in my workshops, I believe that I helped a lot of children, and their parents, believe that their stories mattered.”

Public libraries in Providence, Central Falls and East Providence have enthusiastically hosted Cathren’s Picture Book 101 workshops and staff members, such as Michelle Novello, program director for the Providence Community Libraries, have gone above and beyond to help advertise and recruit workshop participants.  Between May 2012 and January 2013, Cathren completed 20 workshops.  “I was amazed at the depth of response that I sometimes got from the children”, she says.  “A number of times I had experiences with “problem” kids that made me realize that these workshops were a new way to reach through their defenses. I gave them a simple formula to work with – choose a theme and your main characters, open your story at a place and time, then create a big stinky problem that has to be solved by the end of the book. This gives everyone an easy way to structure a captivating tale and they are free to bring in their own issues and explore their own fantasies and solutions.” Cathren tells of an initially sullen girl who eventually opened up while writing a story about a day that she wished her family away because she was angry at them and then they suddenly disappeared for real.  “One boy wrote a story in which he drew diagrams of alien souls and human souls so that the reader could understand why they reacted to situations differently. Children who cannot yet write can still create powerful stories using pictures. Many kids who initially insist that they have no idea what to write discover that all they have to do is start and the ideas come from places never imagined.”  Cathren tells of one girl who was having a tough time writing a report for her science class at school, only to discover after the picture book workshop that she knew exactly how to start her report and how to develop it. “I am able to give these children a magic key that can open many doors in their lives long after our workshops are over.”

No matter how reluctant students are to write when they enter Cathren’s workshops, they cannot help but be caught up in the momentum of her sessions by the end.  She recalls one workshop at Fox Point Library when an aide came to tell the kids that snacks were being served.  The students just shook their heads impatiently. “Not now,” said one of the girls, “we want to finish our stories!”  She provides students with a work sheet to bring home with them, full of pointers and tricks of the trade and some students continue to work on their stories long after the workshops have ended, sending Cathren pictures over email.

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