[Interview] Joe Cepeda, iIllustrator of "Cub's Big World" and guest at the San Antonio Book Festival

Joe Cepeda, illustrator - San Antonio Book Festival 2014 | San Antonio Charter Moms

Artist Joe Cepeda is the illustrator of many children’s books, including Cub’s Big World, and will be a guest at the San Antonio Book Festival on April 5, 2014. From 1:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m., Cepeda will be in the Children’s Reading Tent on the Library Plaza, just outside the Central Library. For more information, see the festival schedule and author lineup, and this earlier post.

Cepeda spoke to me by phone from his studio in California. He is looking forward to visiting San Antonio again. At the Book Festival, he is planning to set up an easel so he can draw and sketch with the kids. He enjoys sharing drawing techniques and talking about the craft of children’s book illustration. And, kids are often amazed when they get to meet a real person behind the name on the cover of a book.

I asked Cepeda to share his thoughts on how to build kids’ reading skills. He made a strong case for the importance of picture books, not just any written words, in developing discerning readers.

A few years ago, the New York Times claimed that picture books were in decline because parents were pushing their kids to read chapter books instead. “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children”, Julie Bosman, New York Times, October 7, 2010. (Chapter books tend to have more words and less illustrations, to have a short and predictable length, and to use a limited vocabulary of easy words.)

The power of picture books is what happens inside a young reader’s mind. As an example, let’s talk about when F.T. and I sat down with Cub’s Big World. The story begins with Cub and Mom in their den; then, they venture outside, and Cub loses sight of Mom. He looks for Mom’s black nose, but finds other little bits of black—an ermine’s tail, for example—instead. (Spoiler alert: Mom is not far away.)

As F.T. read each page out loud, his voice got more and more dramatic. He wanted to know if Cub would find Mom on the next page, or if Cub would just find another spot of black that was not her nose. The magic of a picture book is in the way F.T.’s mind was imagining and inventing all the things that happened in between the static images on the pages. He was reading with an active mind, “not just a reactive reader, but a proactive one,” in Cepeda’s words.

Cepeda believes that active reading is part of the search for truth and validity: “Keeping someone as an active reader keeps them as a discerning reader.” In Cepeda’s view, a discerning reader can take in all kinds of information—static, digital, visual, etc.—and evaluate it for quality and truthfulness. But, he adds, “having a critical eye depends on being an experienced reader.” And the key to becoming an experienced reader is having an early life in reading. “Parents are where it begins,” he says.

In addition to thinking about how children become great readers, Cepeda also gives advice to young writers and illustrators. The goal is to keep a young reader like F.T. actively imagining the action between the pages. So, be conscious of the “page turn”: build up the anticipation, the desire to learn what happens next.

For children, picture books are an important introduction to visual information. For artists, Cepeda recommends that they practice until they become “comfortable with the blank page,” and not overly reliant on digital tools.

Finally, I asked Cepeda about the palette of Cub’s Big World. The story is set in the Arctic, but Cepeda said it was impossible for him to make the book all white. “I’ve you’ve seen my work, you know I use every color and the kitchen sink.” Cepeda used many pale shades, from icy turquoise to woolly ivory, to capture the polar bears’ world. Deeper colors lurk underneath, like the marine blue ocean under sheets of ice, or pop out, like the touches of black that Cub mistakes for Mom’s nose.

Has this interview piqued your curiosity about Cub’s Big World, Cepeda’s bookshelf, and the San Antonio Book Festival? I hope so. See you there!

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