by Elizabeth Crary, M.S.
Feature Story 2
You may have seen Susan Avishai's drawings in Harvard Magazine, the Harvard Business Review or the Atlantic Monthly, but this award-winning artist believes she's at her best when drawing children. For her, there is nothing more inspiring than a child's poignant expression.
"Children feel so much that often goes unsaid, sometimes because they cannot yet articulate their feelings, sometimes because we adults just don't let them," explains Avishai. "But I hope a child can speak through my drawings."
Besides Parenting Press's new "Kids Can Choose" series about children learning problem-solving skills, Avishai has illustrated dozens of other books and texts. Many of the books show children who are suffering from cancer or facing fearful situations like death, war, homelessness or the imprisonment of a parent.
Although she seldom meets the readers of her books, Avishai said, "I'd like to think that these books have accompanied children through similarly difficult times."
Trained in fine arts at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Avishai has worked as a free-lance illustrator for 20 years. Often she starts by photographing models; for the "Kids Can Choose" series, she spent as much as 90 minutes taking pictures for each 32-page book. Even with her youngest models, Avishai starts by describing the story situation and then letting the model take the lead.
"I often find that a child comes up with a far better expression than I could ever suggest," she notes.
Reviewers agree: "The clear, lovely, light-filled pictures show the tension and closeness when she's scared, the smiling relaxation when she's safe," said Booklist about an earlier Avishai book on a small girl's fear. Said another, about Avishai's work in a book on death, "The pencilled illustrations are superb . . . this book was exceptional, in that it was worth buying just for the first section and Susan Avishai's marvelous illustrations."
Avishai started by using her three children and their friends as her models. As they grew up, she turned to the local schools in Newton, the suburb of Boston where she lives.
For the three "Kids Can Choose" books—Amy's Disappearing Pickle, Heidi's Irresistible Hat and Willy's Noisy Sister—she photographed children who attend Underwood School. Most kids are delighted to be asked to volunteer: some projects require them to dress up in period costumes and all of them are invited to watch Avishai's progress on the sketches. Months later, the children also have the fun of receiving books full of pictures of themselves, both for their families and their school libraries. Sometimes children also receive original drawings of themselves from a book.
These book illustration projects are satisfying for Avishai, too. She has the sense of fulfillment from knowing that her drawings will—somehow, somewhere, for years to come—help children work through difficult situations. Her interest in pencil portraits extends to more than books: recently, for example, it led to a collection of black and white drawings of Newton neighbors—including the mayor and local musicians, firefighters, teachers and shopkeepers—that was shown at the Newton Free Library.
But not all Avishai's work is at the drawing board. Like others whose work is published by Parenting Press, Avishai occasionally visits school classrooms to talk to kids about illustration and the publishing process. Teachers appreciate the artist's emphasis on how illustrators, just like writers, must edit and revise their work before it's ready for publication. Children enjoy Avishai's explanation of the printing process (someone always asks if she draws each picture in every copy of a book) and they are usually surprised to hear she's never met most of the authors whose books she illustrates.
When a book is complete, however, author and illustrator do sometimes have an opportunity to talk.
"There is no higher praise than when an author says that I have truly captured the characters the way she envisioned them," concludes Avishai.
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