Ross School - Senior Project 2007-08
Mentor: Mark Foard
Title: Experimental Stories for the Modern Child
Description: For my project I wrote and illustrated a series of children’s stories exploring the themes of isolation, adventure and difficulty. I believe that the stories that we read as children stay with us for the rest of our lives and that the messages that are communicated through those stories influence the people that we become. Although I dealt with familiar themes, I explored them in an unconventional manner. I wrote and illustrated two stories, and illustrated three songs. I studied experimental children’s literature and the genre in general.
Illustration: Pen and Ink, “Devil Town”
Illustration: Pen and Ink, “Juice”
Illustration: Pen and Ink, “Traveling Story”
My name is Cary Potter and for my senior project I wrote and illustrated two children’s stories and illustrated three songs by the singer/song writer Daniel Johnston. I initially chose my project because I have always loved children’s books. I think that the way that they can communicate an important story or message through such a short amount of words and images is interesting.
My first idea was to write a children’s book about a girl who escapes into a utopian world through an optical illusion. This story was to be entitled “Blind spot.” One day I was looking at children’s books in the middle school library and I found that unfortunately, this book had already been written. This experience showed me that though my idea may have been a good one, I also had to think of something else to write about.
After letting go of the “Blind spot” idea I began to think about what children’s authors I really liked and why. I found myself focusing on such authors as Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey. As a child I remembered reading books by these authors and finding them somewhat terrifying but also liking reading these authors more then anything else I read.
My mentor and I discussed these books and decided that I should try to write a series of pieces called “Safe Advice for Utterly Forgettable Living.” The first and only piece I wrote from this series was about Eddie Akaui, a Hawaiian hero. The piece ended up being a cartoon in the school newspaper. I chose not to include the piece in my project because I felt that I was emulating my influences voices rather then discovering my own voice as a children’s author.
During those weeks I was listening to Daniel Johnston a lot. Johnston is a singer/songwriter whose songs usually have strange themes combined with a directness that is almost childlike. He has been in and out of mental hospitals and was diagnosed as bipolar. At this point in my project I didn’t know what direction I was going in, but I found Johnston’s music and especially his lyrics very inspiring.
I was looking at a book of cartoons by R. Crumb and I found illustrations of the Jimmy Hendrix song “Purple Haze.” I decided to try illustrating Johnston’s songs so that a young person could understand them. I chose three songs, “Walking the Cow,” “Devil Town,” and “Good Morning You.” I feel that while I was exploring Johnston’s music I discovered the overall theme of my project, which is the concept of being an outsider.
In “Devil Town” the main character of the story dresses up as a pumpkin on Halloween, all of the other kids in his town dress as vampires and make fun of his costume. In the end of the story it turns out that the character was actually a real vampire himself. I have found during my life that the people who aren’t accepted by society or who are kind of strange are often the most interesting. I wanted to communicate that idea through “Devil Town.”
It was while I was working on the “Daniel Johnston” pieces that I developed the style that I used for my project. All the illustrations are in black, white and shades of grey with some red accents. I wanted the illustrations to be simple but also powerful and to complement and enhance the words of the story. I have always been interested in art and especially drawing, but I had no real experience with illustrating. I didn’t plan on illustrating my stories in a certain way, the style I ended up using developed as I worked. I used a similar style in all of my books as a way to tie them together.
After finishing the Daniel Johnston pieces I began work on “Juice.” I continued using lyrics as an inspiration, this time the song “Jack Gets Up” by Leo Kottke. I was inspired by the rhythm of his lyrics and as well as a childhood memory. Once when I was little I found a bug in my juice while I was having a snack outside. The idea of drinking a bug horrified me and the experience obviously stayed with me. While working on “Juice” I struggled with marrying the words and illustrations together in a manner which moved the story forward. Reading books like “Writing with Pictures” and talking to my outside consultant Emma Walton helped me with this problem. “Juice” was an important step in the evolution of my project, the story worked in a way that the pieces I had previously written did not. “Juice” tells the story of a boy whose mother won’t give him what he wants, until he really needs it.
After finishing “Juice” I was unsure of what to do next. I started thinking about imagination and the trips children take when they imagine things. I wanted the next story I wrote to be about a journey, whether it be real or imaginary. I decided to write about a child running away from home. I remembered reading a young adults book called “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E.L. Konigsburg, in this book a brother and sister run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. When I was younger this book gave me the feeling that I could do anything and go anywhere even if my idea seemed improbable. I wanted the readers of my book to have the same feeling.
Jonah, the main character of my story, leaves home in January and travels to a different place every month. In January he goes to Jamaica, in February Finland, March Morocco et cetera. I wanted my reader to learn about the months as well as different places in the world. I tried to choose places that a child might not hear in his day to day life. For instance I chose Finland rather then France. I think that this made the story more interesting and hopefully inspires the reader to learn more about all the amazing places in the world. “The Year I Ran Away From Home” gave me the opportunity to be really creative with my illustrations and with the design of the book. While I was working on this piece I found it to be the most difficult and time consuming, at the end of my project I liked it the least. I was very surprised on exhibition night when many people told me that it was their favorite piece out of the three.
“The Year I Ran Away From Home” is probably the most traditional children’s book out of the three I created. In hopes of preventing the book from getting boring or familiar I chose strange places for Jonah to travel to. When Jonah went to New York City I didn’t want him to visit the Empire State Building. Instead he went to “Totonno’s Pizzeria” on Coney Island. Jonah discovers places that are often hidden and unheard of or brushed to the side because of larger, brighter attractions. In this way “The Year I Ran Away From Home” continues the theme of my project by demonstrating the importance of these smaller, lesser known places.
Senior Project has given me the opportunity to create something that I would not have been able to create at almost any other high school in the world. Last spring when we had to give our first proposals, the end of senior project seemed like it was years away. Though this has been a long and sometimes nerve wracking experience I am very glad and grateful to have been given the opportunity to have it. I will be more confident going into college knowing that I am able to complete a project this large.
After I finished writing and illustrating the three books, I was faced with an issue I had not thought about when I had began my project. Learning to use the technology I needed to use to publish the book was one of the more difficult and unexpected parts of the senior project experience for me. Another challenge I faced was accepting the evolution of my project over time. At the beginning of senior project I planned on writing one longer story rather then the series of stories I have now. I have learned from this project that change can be good and that it can lead you to better and more interesting places.
While I was reflecting on the senior project experience, I realized that the themes of my books weren’t something that I completely understood before I started the senior project process. Through out the project I have been aware that my books are kind of weird and quirky. I was not planning on writing “experimental” children’s literature, but I found that my best work, the work that I felt truly represented myself would be considered “experimental.” I feel that these stories are about “outsiders” and in many ways they are outsiders themselves. People have told me that they are kind of disturbing, and at first that was difficult for me to hear, but I have learned the lesson that I try to teach in my books, that being an outsider and being different is not necessarily a bad thing.
Bolton, Lesley. The Everything Guide to Writing Children's Books. Avon, Massachusetts: Adams Media Corperation, 2003.
-Used for technical information on writing children’s books.
Gorey, Edward. Amphigorey Again. Orlando: Harcourt Inc., 2004.
-Was very inspirational during the early phases of my project.
Hoffmann, Heinrich. Struwwelpeter Fearful Stories and Vile Pictures to Instruct
Good Little Folks. Hon Kong: Feral House, 1999.
-Was inspirational for the “Devil Town” stories and also for the Eddie Akaui cartoon.
Kohl, Herbert. Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories. New York: The New P, 2007.
-Was influential in creating the meaning behind my project.
Shulevitz, Uri. Writing with Pictures. New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 1997.
-Was incredibly helpful with information about how to illustrate, and the basic rules of illustration.
Silvey, Anita, ed. The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
-Gave good background information on the genre in general.
Snicket, Lemony. A Series of Unfortunate Events the Bad Beginning. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
-Was inspirational and allowed me to feel comfortable being experimental with my books.
Sutherland, Zena. Children & Books. 9th ed. United States: Longman, 1997. 5-650.
-Gave good background information that was important for me when I began my project.
Community Member (Details)
My outside consultant was Emma Walton who is a children’s book author and editor. She has co-authored seventeen children’s books with her mother, Julie Andrews. I met her for the first time in person at Bay Street theater where she works, and later I emailed her samples of the text from my story online. A few weeks after our meeting I emailed her the text from my story “Juice” and she responded with a series of questions about the story.