“The illustrations in picture books are the first paintings most children see, and because of that, they are incredibly important. What we see and share at that age stays with us for life.” – Anthony Browne
Over the past few weeks, my fifth and sixth grade art classes have been reimagining book covers for their favorite books. We started by creating lists of up to ten books that had secured a place in our memories either through the story told, the images on the pages, or both. We then shared our lists and engaged in conversation with each other about the books. This activity will go down as one of my favorite moments this school year. I enjoyed the lively conversations, the reminiscing about early childhood stories, about memories derived from time spent being read to and learning to read at home and at school.
As book chatter filled the classroom, I couldn’t stop my own nostalgia for read aloud moments as a child and later as a parent and teacher. My mother had been a first grade teacher before she started her our family and relished read alouds. Many of my seven siblings and I would gather together around my mother on the couch or floor to listen to a story.
I especially remember these moments happening when one of us was sick and the house was more quiet than usual. Our books of choice were usually selected from our many Golden Books, which were both inexpensive and fairly predictable in content. Affordability was key with a large family in the 1960s.
My two sisters and I had one particular favorite, Three Little Horses by Piet Worm, 1958, which we read over and over together and acted out with our farm animals, Barbie (and Scooter and Ken) dolls, and our brothers’ Tonka trucks.
We took turns “being” the different horses, identified by color *, although I remember being Blackie most often. Oddly enough, all these years later, we have three alpacas in the same array of color on our little farm. And I’m the one who chose them from hundreds of alpacas when I purchased them for my husband for Christmas several years ago. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was probably not a coincidence. Here they are in our photo from this year’s holiday card:
As a former regular education teacher in third then fourth grade, I know kids love books and I’m always amazed by the effect a good story has on them. Read alouds unite and sometimes divide, leading to thoughtful and passionate discussion, ihich is what happened when my students made their lists of favored books and then shared them at their table. Such rich discussion!
Reimagined Book Covers
The next step was to choose one of the books and try to rethink the illustrations (if there were illustrations). Students who chose chapter books had a chance to fully invent the drawings. Students who chose picture books had to first remember the illustrations enough to change them completely. Imagine the Cat in the Hat without his tall red & white striped hat! As one child in class said, “He could be wearing a fedora!” Indeed.
After preliminary drawings and some demonstrations by me on block lettering and margins (yes, a little math integration) once students’ planning drawings were approved, they took a sheet of 11 x 17 chipboard and began ruling it up for the book cover. I find my students have little exposure to learning typography, yet they attempt it regularly on posters for their other subjects.
The next demonstration was on painting with this medium. We used tempera cakes for the paint and Sharpie as an outliner where needed. Rather than mixing colors on a palette, the challenge was to create new colors by layering different colors. For instance, blue plus orange and a little white = sand color.
The covers took a while to create (about 6 classes), but I think you’ll agree that the time spent was worthwhile.
Here are just twenty-four of the book covers, which are on display in the school lobby. The artist of each Reimagined Book Cover is identified in the lower right hand corner. Click on the first photo to see them all in a slideshow. Fabulous!
All the rest of the Reimagined Book Covers are on display at Artsonia here. Please stop by the Miscoe Hill lobby and the virtual gallery to see all the work!
Digital Reimagined Book Covers
Many students were able to translate this project digitally using their choice of either Canva or Vanilla Pen for the graphic design component. They then did some “appsmashing” by creating drawings in Autodesk Sketchbook to import to the graphic design layout. This extension brought the creativity to a new level.
These fantastic digital artworks can be viewed on Artsonia here.
I’m so glad we did this project for so many reasons. As I mentioned before, I loved the conversation about books the project generated. I loved that every student could arrive at a favorite book without resistance or hesitation. I enjoyed integrating literature into the art curriculum in a meaningful way. Lastly, the personalization of this project that builds on the interests of the child makes it an empowering platform for self-expression.
Admittedly, sustained work like this can be a challenge for fifth and sixth grade art students who are typically accustomed to one or two class directed projects. Aside from the required use of typography, margins, and the skill set of mixing color by layering, the only other creative constraint was the 11 x 17 chipboard. Students were able to choose the orientation for their book cover and 99% chose portrait orientation. The ruling up of the board was also challenging, with many students possessing only rudimentary ruler skills. I did a lot of ruler holding while the kids traced and also reminded them to measure from the end of the ruler (zero), not the one inch mark.
In a sustained project like this, success skills abound, including perseverance, design thinking, taking time to plan, problem solving, ideating, reimagination, and critical thinking. Technology skills include learning to photograph artwork in a rectangular form (not a trapezoid), editing, and uploading. Students also wrote reflective Artist Statements on Artsonia.
On personal level, I had read many of the books as a third and fourth grade classroom teacher, but certainly not all of them. Thanks to this project, I’ve added to my reading list.
* Three Little Horses was written in 1958. Had it been written today, the names “Blackie, Brownie, and Whitey” would not be acceptable due to keen and justified attention to racism. Please know that when my sisters and I enjoyed the book in our childhood, the horses names were simply the colors of their coats.