Claudia McGehee on the Urgency of Connecting Kids to Nature

Author and illustrator Claudia McGehee creates picture books that are deeply rooted in her passion for the natural world. Her most recent publication, Begin with a Bee by Liza Ketchum, Jacqueline Briggs Martin, and Phyllis Root (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), looks closely at the life cycle of one bee, and has been honored with a Riverby Award (an exceptional nature book for young readers), a Green Earth Book Award Honor, and as a selection on Bank Street’s list of the Best Children’s Books of the Year. Her titles, all of which celebrate the interaction between people and nature, also include Creekfinding: A True Story by Jacqueline Briggs Martin (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), My Wilderness: An Alaskan Adventure (Little Bigfoot, 2015), and North Woods Girl by Aimee Bissonette (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015).

Here, McGehee talks with Lisa Bullard about why it’s so critical that we find ways to connect kids to the natural world, how wild places have fed her own creativity, and how to help young people discover nature even in a city setting.

What are some of the ways that nature feeds your own creativity?

Nature has always nourished my creative directions and my own state of being. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where I could see snowcapped Mount Hood from my front yard. My parents enjoyed the outdoors, so we picnicked and hiked a lot. It was an early gift to be shown wonder and curiosity that’s so crucial to creativity.

I have a strong curiosity about the natural world, not only about animals and plants and their habitats, but also how humans react to and interact with nature as well. Taking a walk in Hickory Hill, a park close to where I now live in a tallgrass prairie state, never fails to inspire, refresh, and uplift me. On the trail, I can truly be in the moment, admiring new growth, seeing signs of seasonal change, observing a songbird. It’s pure enjoyment. My mind opens as I walk, and that’s where a random idea for a story or illustration has a chance to germinate and expand. Wherever I travel, I am on the lookout for new nature; the best ambassadors of a place I am visiting come from nature.

Scratching a personal statement! “Vade Mecum” means “go with me” in Latin and refers to a handbook or guide one carries with them. I like this as a book and nature lover’s motto, as it reflects my belief that nature’s gifts carry with you, always.

Can you talk a bit more about how—and why—you make nature the focus of your books?

I look for book projects where nature is a main character. I relish trying to express this visually.

I have a love of the “what comes next” in stories of nature. At this time in our human history, however, I am keenly aware that the “what comes next” is looking more and more like a sad ending for everyone. There is an urgency to connect kids to nature. I make nature picture books in hopes that children get excited and learn about what’s on the pages and out in the world. The more they know about nature, the more they will care, and the more they will want to nurture and maintain our wild places.

The more they [children] know about nature, the more they will care, and the more they will want to nurture and maintain our wild places.”

Has the relationship between the natural world and your creativity shifted over time?

Having our daughter, Lucy, and reading her board books and picture books about nature started me thinking more seriously about turning from general commercial illustration work to picture books. I loved how Lucy absorbed what she saw in a picture book and applied it to what she experienced in real-time nature! I began to rethink my personal art mission, to create art that leads “from page to pathway” as I like to say.

Claudia McGehee finds the best text placement by first spreading the roughs out on the carpet and moving the printed words around.

Many of today’s young readers live in areas that are far removed from wilderness. How can caregivers and educators bring nature to children who may not have easy access to it?

My first suggestion is to read picture books that celebrate our natural world. I’d also suggest that caregivers and educators go out of the way to connect children with every thread of nature you see in everyday city life. Along the way to the store or school, idle at the park where a family of squirrels dwell, spy out the songbirds using neon signage to nest in, or point out the pigeons lined up on the building ledge—all sightings that confirm nature is close at hand. Talk over what you see with excitement. Talking to kids about your own personal nature experiences also gives kids a view of how nature changes due to human activities. Encourage kids to draw or write about what they see in nature, either during a trip to the park or to the natural history museum.

What are some of the other ideas or concepts that you especially hope will become “takeaways” for your readers?

I try and get in as many side lessons as I can with my picture books. For example, the changing of seasons is such a good reminder that we are all animals and live with the same rhythms of nature around us. I also try and get one map into each picture book I work on. Maps let readers place themselves in the story. I get great pleasure when I hear how readers trace with their fingers as they “walk” a map; that’s the ultimate in picture book interaction for me!

We are all animals and live with the same rhythms of nature around us.”

A research field trip to a tall grass prairie site near Grinnell, Iowa (left). Fauve, a studio cat who liked to sit on Claudia McGehee's shoulders while she drew (right).

Your picture books are often about nonfiction topics. What is your research process like? What are some of the challenges in researching the natural world?

I do try and get as factual as I can in my natural details, even in fictional narratives. I am just hardwired to do this (It could be my university training as an archaeologist, a science where accuracy in observation counts!). For the picture books I illustrate but don’t write, I must research as intensely as the authors, which means reading, writing, and most importantly, studying visual details of animals and places. I research until I feel confident enough to draw the very first sketches that turn into my thumbnails, the small-scale versions of the final picture book design. When creating the final art, I often look at photographic reference to get the details down correctly.

Sometimes challenges do come up. Say I want to include a scene that I could not possibly actually see, something from my imagination, like an osprey flying in the sky, but from an aerial view above her. What do her back feathers look like, and what angles does she hold her wings if I were to look straight down at her? That’s when a trip to my local natural history museum comes in handy, where I can ask to see preserved specimens and draw from these close-up examples.

An image collage of all the final scratchboarded pieces for “Begin with a Bee."

Your main illustration medium is called “scratchboard” which creates powerful images that seem to have a built-in kinetic energy. How does that process work?

I discovered scratchboard in art school. I’d been attracted to the strong, bold line of a printmaker’s images and learned scratchboard created a similar look. I tried it out for a class assignment, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Although it is not a print-making medium, scratchboard creates woodcut-like images, rustic and nostalgic looking, with extra lines or “chatter” which makes a subject seem active to me. It seems perfect for rendering the subjects in nature that I love to draw. The sturdy, energetic line quality captures the vibrancy I see in living things.

I begin with a special board, coated with a white clay base, covered with black ink. Then by meticulously scratching with an X-ACTO knife, I remove the black ink, working in reverse, and exposing the white underlayer. Then I scan and print my work onto watercolor paper so I can paint in color. Stark, honest, of nature; these characteristics of scratchboard all fit my work scope well.

Scratching out a bumble bee, using photo reference for guidance (left). Traditionally coloring the black-and-white print of a cardinal using Sennelier Watercolors and Dr. Martin’s watercolor dyes (right).

What’s your approach when it comes to creating an entire book’s worth of illustrations?

A picture book means a lot of planning. With the help of a good editor and guided by the author’s words, I find the visual structure of the book first. How will the story unfold in the page turns? How can I build surprise and excitement in color and lines and shape? Where in my illustrations can I give the reader a quiet place to think, amongst all the information? Heaps of organization goes into it before I even pick up an X-ACTO blade to scratch the final art. With picture book work, I am aware I am working with words as my compass. And I strive to make my illustration work illuminate the meaning of the words. Picture books really are collaborations of many creative souls, even though it’s only me in the studio making the pictures!

And actually, making book art is not as magical a time as some imagine! It is hard physical and mental work. Publishing deadlines are critical, so at times I feel I am a marathon runner, pacing herself through a long race.

Thumbnails for a current project “Counting Winter” by Nancy White Carlstrom (Eerdmans).

With picture book work, I am aware I am working with words as my compass. And I strive to make my illustration work illuminate the meaning of the words.”

What’s your best advice for young people who want to be artists and/or writers?

Read as much as you can. Also, listen to your passions. You have a unique perspective to tell stories about them!

If you’re an illustrator, find styles that attract you and ask yourself why they attract you. Study them. Explore mediums until you find one that sings to you, then develop your own style by sketching as much as you can.

For writers? I’ve kept a private journal since I was in junior high. I think it keeps me connected to my own writing voice in no other way, so I always recommend keeping one.

What forthcoming books do your readers have to look forward to?

I am currently working on a picture book called Counting Winter, written by Nancy White Carlstrom (Eerdmans). Set in a cold snowy clime, the animals are the stars of winter here. Then I’ll start on a picture book of a very lovely poem collection by Molly Beth Griffin called Rings of Heartwood (Minnesota Historical Society Press). The poems speak of change in nature and in young humans, too.

What are the best ways for readers to connect with you or to follow you on social media?

I am primarily active on:
Instagram: claudia.mcgehee
Facebook: Claudia McGehee Illustration
Please connect with me via email as well: cmc@claudia-mcgehee.com
Or visit my Etsy shop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/ClaudiaMcGehee

Connect With Claudia McGehee

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I am thankful every day for the opportunity to unite some great passions in my work life: picture books, writing, illustrating, and nature. There is so much wonder in the world, especially in nature. Picture book making is one way I can share this wonder.

There is so much wonder in the world, especially in nature. Picture book making is one way I can share this wonder.”

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