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Parenting inspiration from Kazu Kibuishi and other graphic novelists at the MICE expo

"What is the hardest character for you to draw?” my second-grade son, Miles, asked Kazu Kibuishi, author and illustrator of his favorite graphic novels series, Amulet. Kibuishi had just finished an inspiring talk and demonstration for a group of children and adults at MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Exposition) at Lesley University on October 21 and 22, 2017.

“Any new characters,” Kibuishi replied. And then he went on, highlighting again a theme that I noted throughout his talk: to become a great artist takes practice, lots and lots of practice. Writing and drawing are acts of constant revision. “If you want to be good at something, it is really all about the investment you put in. Generally speaking, I have not met an artist who has not worked a long time to be where he is at,” he explained near the end of his talk.

I was hoping the expo would rekindle my son’s inspiration to create his own comics, to refresh an interest and skill that had seemed to peak during kindergarten, and that had recently tapered off. In his highly exploratory kindergarten classroom, he and his classmates spent hours dreaming, creating, and workshopping their own characters, books, and stories, experiencing what I think is the essence of the creative process that drives many professional writers and authors. After kindergarten, such moments of creative flow seemed to be happening less often, as the classroom environment shifted into one shaped more by the curriculum than by the children themselves.

As Kibuishi spoke, I felt he would understand the loss I was mourning. He opened his talk with these surprising directions for the children in the audience: “You don’t even have to listen to me at all… just go ahead and work.” He'd noticed that most of the children, having been handed drawing materials, were drawing intently and not even looking up. His own teachers had “just let him go” to draw, so he knew firsthand the power of free drawing. I watched my son and the children around him as they gripped their pencils, some feverishly, some playfully, some dreamily, others quite seriously, eyes glued to their papers.

Kibuishi's talk centered around his creation process for the Amulet series: “Most of the time was spent planning/thinking about what I’m doing.” Through a demonstration, he showed how his work could start with “a bunch of bubbles” and develop, bit by bit — after rethinking, rewriting, and redrawing — slowly, eventually, into something more like finished product. He clarified, “The book basically changes at every stage...the images change…the characters change.” He also gave examples of times of frustration. He described one instance when he spilled ink all over his work, vented his anger for thirty minutes, then set back down to redo what he had ruined, only to realize that, the second time around, he had enjoyed the process so much more.

As he explained his writing process, he added, “Most of the time it does not read well — so I just do it all over again…walk away…write it again…walk away…write it again.” He admitted that he was more skilled at drawing than writing, and he recognized how those levels of skills reflected the time invested in each.

I was so struck by his humility. He recognized his artistic achievement, but he also had the dignity and insight to speak these three poignant words: “I’m still exploring.”

Kibuishi embodied the kind of mindset that the psychologist Carol Dweck promotes through her extensive research in education, sports, and business (read her book, Growth Mindset). Dweck explains that a person with what she deems a “growth mindset” believes that intelligence and skill grow and develop as a result of practice, strategy, and hard work. In contrast, a person with a “fixed mindset” believes instead that success is due to innate and unchanging raw “talent” and intelligence; one is either smart or not, good at drawing or not. Recent research on the malleability of the brain, however, suggests that the brain can change, and those with growth mindsets believe that they can grow their skills and intelligence. If hard work leads to more learning, a person is empowered to do the work required to learn more. If mistakes are something to learn from rather than something to avoid, one can become more skilled as a result of them. It’s how artists develop.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was that my son came home from the MICE expo with newfound inspiration to spend more time drawing and less time on media. After the expo, we talked through some of the ideas Kibuishi presented, as well as the sage but simple advice from other comic artists, such as Bob Flynn, who told Miles to “Keep drawing. Don’t stop drawing.” Miles seems to have taken this advice to heart.

I’m excited to witness my son's creative process. I'm energized to think about the power that artists and authors have to not only encourage the children who enjoy their books but also to help cultivate growth mindsets. I want to offer a deep and heartfelt thanks to Kibuishi and the other artists at MICE for their inspiration. Through sharing their creative processes, children's book creators help ignite the growth of their readers’ brains. How powerful to meet a favorite author and leave inspired to pursue the hard work that it takes to achieve dreams.
Summer Clark
Summer Clark

Summer Clark is associate professor of literacy education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She teaches courses on literacy, diversity, and education for social justice. Her writing has appeared in The Reading Teacher and The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts (3rd edition).

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