Christian Robinson on the Art of Communicating Through Pictures

Lisa Bullard

Christian Robinson received a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for his art in Last Stop on Market Street (by Matt de la Peña), as well as many other awards and honors for his beautiful picture books. Here, Robinson talks with Lisa Bullard about his newest New York Times bestseller, the restorative power of creativity, and finding the answer to what the world needs.

Sometimes a book comes along that answers a deep need in the world, and the feedback you’ve received for your 2020 picture book You Matter makes it clear that it is one of those titles. Educator Stella Villalba puts it this way when she talks about the book on the “Teachers/Books/Readers” blog: “A lot has happened globally, and in the USA, and it continues to happen. Our students need to know that their lives matter and that we, as educators, are here to support them, to lift them, to make sure they are seen and heard. This book is a gift.”

You created You Matter well before anyone knew what 2020 would bring. What need were you responding to when you first conceived of the book?

I saw a need not only in the world, but in myself, to tell this story. This story came out of a question that I asked myself, which is “What do I most want to say to young readers, to anyone who picks up this book?” The answer was, “You matter.” The reality is that not everyone receives that message or is treated like they or their life matters. I wanted to not only say that it does, but to show that it does through pictures. You matter not for the reasons you might think. Not because of how big or important you are, or how many trophies you win, or how good your grades are. You matter simply because you’re here, because you exist.

“You matter not for the reasons you might think. Not because of how big or important you are, or how many trophies you win, or how good your grades are. You matter simply because you’re here, because you exist.”

Interior spreads from You Matter

What was it like to have You Matter come out in the middle of a pandemic?

Like everyone, I had to adjust to the new normal. Bookstore and school visits were replaced with Zoom and virtual visits. That took some getting used to, but if I’m honest, the introvert in me appreciated the change of pace.

When the book tour for You Matter was canceled, my calendar opened up quite a bit. These kinds of events are a huge part of the work we do as authors/illustrators of books for children, so I found myself with a bit more time than I was used to. I had a little more time to pay attention to the world around me. And I noticed amongst all the pain and suffering I was seeing, there were helpers, there were people helping each other out. As Mr. Rogers said, which has always stuck with me, “Keep an eye out for the helpers.”

I was noticing our health care workers, our doctors, our first responders, nurses, grocery store workers, and teachers. My partner of seven years is a teacher, and seeing firsthand all the work teachers are putting in to adjust to distance learning and provide some sense of normalcy/comfort to students was really powerful and made me ask, “What can I do?”

“Seeing firsthand all the work teachers are putting in to adjust to distance learning and provide some sense of normalcy/comfort to students was really powerful and made me ask, ‘What can I do?’”

It occurred to me that creativity was the thing I had to offer. Creativity is what helped me through hardships, especially as a child, so I wanted to offer something to kids. All of us are feeling the stress of lacking control over our circumstances, but creativity is the one place that we have some control. This led me to create “Making Space,” a video series on my Instagram and YouTube channel in which I offer a creative outlet for families who are stuck at home during quarantine.

You’ve illustrated books by writers ranging from Kelly DiPucchio to Matt de la Peña. Your first solo effort, Another (a wordless picture book), made its way onto at least seven “Best Books of 2019” lists. For You Matter, you changed things up yet again by also creating a written text. How does the process differ for you when it’s a solo work such as Another or You Matter, instead of a text written by another writer?

The biggest difference is that it is much more work to both write and illustrate a book! On the other hand, it can also be a lot more fun and rewarding. I actually didn’t set out to make a wordless book when I created Another. The story did come to me in pictures, which I sketched out figuring I would add words to it later. As I was trying to do that, I realized that the pictures said everything I wanted to say, and that the words would have just been descriptive rather than adding to the story. It took me a while to build up the confidence to write my own stories, especially after working with so many incredible authors. However, I feel like I was able to learn so much about how to write a picture book from each author that I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with.

Interior spread from Another

You Matter has many moments that reward the intense scrutiny of curious kids. For example, one spread features an astronaut staring down at Earth while she clutches a boy’s photo—and the next spread shows us the same boy looking sad and clutching a toy rocket. How do details like that find their way into your work? 

I knew I wanted to have two spreads that dealt with connection and longing. I think I thought of outer space as this very empty vacuum, but also how a busy apartment building or big city can feel lonely, too. Deciding to connect the two spreads with a mother and son actually came to me later. Perhaps I was thinking about my own mother, who I missed a lot growing up, and how all children know that experience of missing a caregiver.

Interior spreads from You Matter

When I look over a collection of your books, including early titles such as Gaston, it strikes me how wonderfully you manage to capture the perspective of a child. How do you find your way inside this child’s-eye view of the world?

When making a book, I think I reconnect with that part of me that feels like the world is this big, sometimes scary, but also curious place. Pictures are a way to communicate, and when I’m creating books for children, I try to be very conscious of who I’m trying to communicate to.

Some kids love to write; others struggle with writing but love to draw. Do you have any advice for teachers about how to engage both the writers and the artists in their classrooms? 

I believe that every person has that creative spark within them. I think teachers can promote the importance of both writing and drawing, and build a classroom culture that celebrates growth and that it’s okay to make mistakes.

What role did art play for you as a young person?

Art and making pictures were huge for me as a kid. Creativity was my way of escaping and processing the world around me and gave me some say in what the world could look like, at least on a piece of paper. Perhaps the reason why creativity appealed to me as a child is because there wasn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer and it allowed me to express my own point of view and ideas.

“Art and making pictures were huge for me as a kid. Creativity was my way of escaping and processing the world around me and gave me some say in what the world could look like, at least on a piece of paper.”

Were you the kind of student who was always drawing in the margins of your notebooks?

Absolutely. While I sometimes got in trouble for doodling, some of my favorite teachers were the ones who allowed me to demonstrate my learning artistically, even if it wasn’t an art class.

Christian Robinson drawing as a child (left) and him with his family (right)

Your readers will be excited to know that your newest pairing with Matt de la Peña comes out in February. What would you like to tell readers about the book? 

It will be released on February 2nd and is called Milo Imagines the World. It’s a story that focuses on a young artist who has an incarcerated parent. This story is deeply personal, as my mother was in and out of prison for most of my childhood. Living in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, there are many families who know this experience, but unfortunately not many picture books that address it. I’m super excited for Milo to be in the world, and grateful for another opportunity to work with Matt.

Where else can readers find you online?

I can be found online at www.theartoffun.com, but I share the most content on my Instagram, @theartoffun. Teachers can also find my Making Space art videos on my YouTube channel, “Making Space with Christian Robinson.”

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