Exploring the Art of Betsy Lewin

As a primary teacher, I often engage students in author studies during my reading and writing instruction. Actually, playing guitars and reading book are two of my biggest interest in life. Every weekend, I go to the Public Library in Boston to read my favorite books, then wandering at Boston School of Guitar (a very famous guitar shop in Boston) to check the best acoustic guitars there. Come back to our reading & writing class, we always enjoy the language of Denise Fleming. We notice the way Patricia Polacco opens her stories in ways that make us want to turn the page and read on. And we enjoy Doreen Cronin’s interesting diary format as a way to transmit information in a fun and different manner in her stories about spiders, worms, and flies. Students study these books as readers, responding in their journals by making connections, telling what they think and feel, asking questions, and drawing inferences. Students also study these authors as writers, trying to emulate the patterns, words, characters, and format in their own stories, nonfiction pieces, and poetry.

Last fall, we were about to embark on another author study when I decided to shift gears and focus our efforts, instead, on an illustrator. I pored through my books, trying to find an illustrator who could offer students engaging opportunities to respond. I wanted to find an illustrator who would inspire visual, oral, written, and dramatic response. I chose Betsy Lewin.

Beginning the Study

We began with an exploration of sorts. I put several of Lewin’s books in a marked basket and let students pair off to read. They traded books and took notes about what they noticed. After a while we came together, and I announced that we were going to study a famous illustrator, Betsy Lewin.

I asked, “At first glance, what did you think about the pictures in these books?”

Immediately, students responded, “They are funny.”

“What might that tell us about Betsy Lewin?”

Aiden responded, “She has a good sense of humor.”

Anna added, “I think she likes animals too. She draws lots of animals.”

I recorded on a chart the students’ first thoughts about Betsy Lewin. My hope was that we would continue to add to it as we read and studied a few of her books.

Click, Clack, Moo

Immediately students were drawn to Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, written by Doreen Cronin, because of the cover art. They saw the three cows huddled around a typewriter with a hen and a goose looking on. “What do you think of the illustration?” I asked.

“I love that it is really close up,” said Eden.

“It looks like cartoon characters,” added Brian.

cover-art

We began reading, and immediately students noticed how important the illustrations were in telling the story. Lewin’s artwork complements Cronin’s text beautifully, adding to the story in a way authors can only dream about.

There were a few key pages that made students laugh out loud. The first was a close-up picture of the cow’s rear end. The hen is underneath the cow, and Farmer Brown appears very small in the picture as he reads the note left by the cows. This page prompted our first discussion and written response about foreground and background. How does the illustrator make the cow appear to be up close, and how does she make Farmer Brown appear far away? Also, what does Lewin do to make us laugh?

Kaden wrote:

   The book illustrator made the book
   really funny because she did a lot
   of close-ups like when the cow's
   butt was really big and Farmer
   Brown was really small and it was
   funny. The cow's butt was right in
   your face. That made me laugh.
   Farmer Brown was small because
   he was far away. He was in the
   background.

Another page that got a lot of notice from students and prompted much talk and writing was the page in which one of the cow’s notes to Farmer Brown was posted: “Sorry. We’re closed. No milk today.” Lewin does a superb job of showing the note and also showing Farmer Brown’s reaction while reading it. Instead of Farmer Brown blocking the note as he reads it, students see his reaction through his silhouette. Students infer that he is MAD!

Alden wrote:

   I love how she has shown that
   Farmer Brown was furious, in the
   shadow, so we can see the note. And
   I like how she did not show his face,
   but we knew he was mad because
   he had his fist in the air and his hair
   was spiked up!

Later we discussed the colors Lewin uses throughout the book. Avery wrote, “I love the way the illustrator used the colors like when it was nighttime, instead of black, she used green.”

Continued conversation heated up when we came to the page where Cronin writes, “Duck was a neutral party, so he brought the ultimatum to the cows.” Lewin’s illustration is sheer genius. Maddie suggested in her reading journal, “The path that the Duck walked on seemed long. The cows had to wait.” Maddie drew a picture of the duck carrying the note down a winding path with the cow saying, “I’m waiting.” We stopped to contemplate Lewin’s choice to make the path so long.

“Why does she do this, do you think?” I asked.

“Because it makes you wonder what the note is going to say as Duck walks up the long path. I bet the cows were nervous, wondering too,” said Avery.

art-is-amazing

Students also commented on the elements of foreground and background in this picture. Kira wrote, “I learned how to make stuff look FAR AWAY.” She drew her own picture to show the winding path and the barn very small at the top of the page.

As we neared the end of the story, students loved how the text and the illustrations shift. With the cows’ demand granted, now Duck has a request of his own: “Dear Farmer Brown, The pond is quite boring. We’d like a diving board. Sincerely, The Ducks.”

The book ends with an illustration of Duck diving off a diving board into a pond, with no text. Clearly, students were able to infer what happened. Kira responded, “I notice that the ducks got the diving board because I saw a diving board and the duck underwater.”

Furthering the Study

We moved next to reading Giggle, Giggle, Quack, another book written by Doreen Cronin. Kaden immediately started our conversation with, “I like the way Betsy Lewin makes the pictures look cartoony.” We enjoyed the story with lots of laughing, continued inferring, and wonderful responses.

Last, we read Lewin’s So, What’s It Like to Be a Cat? written by one of my favorite authors and poets, Karla Kuskin. Students loved this book! Most children admire cats and can relate to the unique character of each feline. Lewin brings the cats alive with her fanciful illustrations. First we studied Lewin’s cat shapes and became cats ourselves. We were cats curling up for a nap, cats prowling after a mouse, cats jumping, and cats slinking in and out of chair legs. Students felt these shapes as they moved.

Next we studied the colors Lewin uses, as well as her use of shadow. She does not paint with ordinary cat colors. She uses shades of blues and purples. Students noticed there is a dark blue behind a cat that seems like it is hunting and purple and yellow on the page where the cats are dancing. My students painted watercolors of their own cats, looking to Lewin for inspiration.

Students became keenly interested in other books about cats, including poetry and fiction, but mostly nonfiction books. They wanted to learn about cats, and several students carried this over into writing workshop, where they wrote books about cats and poetry too.

Heightening Artistic Awareness

Besides turning to other books on these topics out of heightened interest, students began to notice the elements of art in other books, like the use of shadow and color, as well as foreground and background techniques. Marina quickly came to me during Read to Self time, holding Dragon’s Fat Cat by Dav Pilkey (1995). She was so excited to show how Pilkey uses shadow in his pictures too. We discussed his purpose for using shadow on this particular page. In addition, students came to me with books to show how an artist uses foreground and background techniques in illustrations. One time, months after our Lewin study, Katelyn pointed to the back cover of Shoeless Joe and Black Betsy by Phil Bildner, illustrated by C. F. Payne (2002). She said, “Hey, see how the ball is in the foreground. He made it real big. And the field is in the background. It is kind of small.”

Brian and David were reading Denise Fleming’s books Where Once There Was a Wood (1996) and In the Small, Small Pond (1993). They noticed the change in color as day turns to night and spring turns to winter. “Hey, just like Betsy Lewin used color to show different moods, this author uses color to show it’s going from morning to nighttime and it’s going from spring to winter.”

As I reflect on Lewin’s illustrator study and the two that followed later in the year, it is clear that students learned things they never learned from an author study. They learned elements of art: color and line, the use of shadow and shape, and foreground and background techniques. They learned how the illustrator works with the author to tell the story.

Students were led to other books, titles illustrated by these same artists, as well as books on similar topics and genres. Some students, inspired by Lewin’s humor, were drawn to “funny” books, and we ended up holding a spontaneous weeklong study on humorous books, or “books that make us laugh.” In my 25 years of teaching, I never thought to have students explore our classroom library to find books that make them laugh, then study these books for a week, reading, discussing, and responding through writing and drama. It was one of the most rewarding and fun weeks of my career.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Well, I don’t really think I am an old dog. I am a teacher who likes to do different things each year, pulling from lessons that work and adding fresh ideas to the mix. However, this was something new for me. Yes, over the years I have prompted students to talk about the artwork in books as we read. We have discussed certain elements in the picture books we have shared. But not like this. I never chose an illustrator and took a chunk of time with students to experience the artist’s work and how it helps tell the story in a picture book. Now that I have, I will definitely do it again. After Betsy Lewin … who’s up next?

Sampling Lewin

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. By Doreen Cronin. 2000. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9780689832130). Also available in audio and video editions from Weston Woods. PreS–Gr. 3.

Giggle, Giggle, Quack. By Doreen Cronin. 2002. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $16.99 (9780689845062). Also available in audio and video editions from Weston Woods. PreS–Gr. 3.

So, What’s It Like to Be a Cat? By Karla Kuskin. 2005. 32p. Atheneum, $15.95 (9780689847332); paper, $6.99 (9780689859304). PreS–Gr. 3.

Megan Sloan is a multiage primary teacher in the Snohomish School District in Snohomish, Washington, and the author of Into Writing: The Primary Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop (2009).