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“Cute Food Dude”: An Interview with Illustrator Alex Rodgers

August 10, 2018

“Cute Food Dude”: An Interview with Illustrator Alex Rodgers

by Diana Black

“There’s way more integrity in what [kids] create because they tend to dream bigger than adults.”

AJ 2

Akron, Ohio-based illustrator Alex Rodgers has just released his first children’s book, The Pasta Family Goes to Marinara Beach, by Cory and Laureen Tilson (1984 Publishing, 2018). Read on to find out how this greeting card veteran found his way to picture books, learn about his artistic process, and watch a video book review from a young reader.

ML: How did you become an illustrator?

AR: If I go way back, I was always doodling and drawing as a kid. I would actually make my own picture books that my mom would laminate and get spiral bound, so my parents encouraged it from a very young age. I loved art class in elementary school. Once high school and college came around, though, instead of taking a bunch of fine arts courses, I kind of found my niche within illustration and design, so that’s what I pursued. I like the problem-solving aspect of it.

Tell us a little bit about the difference between greeting card work and picture book illustration.

Well, with greeting cards, the audience is always different. One day, I’ll be making a fart card for Father’s Day, and the next, I’ll be doing some fancy hand lettering for a Wedding card. So you have to be versatile in what you can create day to day! With a card, you’re also looking to convey a story or message in the shortest amount of time. A children’s book is pretty much the opposite. This being my first picture book I learned a lot about that process and how to slow down and take my time developing the characters, the pacing, color roughs, and then completing the final artwork. It was a ton of fun to work on and I really enjoyed the process. Plus, my favorite part was that I was able to create most of the book late at night, sitting on my front porch with a bunch of fireflies flashing and crickets chirping all around me, so that was definitely an added bonus for sure.

Where do you derive inspiration for the characters in the book? They all seem so well-defined, even though you’re using a relatively simple design.

It’s a pretty distinctive look, right? I love taking ordinary everyday objects and bringing them to life in my illustrations. Beyond my day job illustrating cards, I own a children’s clothing company called Lil’ Burritos where I illustrate and screen-print onesies with my wife. All of those illustrations I do for Lil’ Burritos have basically that same style. I have cute food characters of tacos, pierogis, avocados, s’mores, etc…. So I guess I’ve become the “Cute Food Dude” now, haha. The authors, Cory and Laureen [LAST NAME] contacted me a little over a year ago for this book because they knew me from Lil’ Burritos and they wanted some cute pasta in that same style.

AJ

What would your advice be to a kid who wants to be an illustrator when they grow up?

Keep drawing. I actually find kids’ art to by my favorite art. There’s way more integrity in what they create because they tend to dream bigger than adults. I always try to aspire to illustrate through the eyes and imagination of myself when I was that age. So just keep drawing and keep that imagination going.

How much does typeface matter in establishing the “feel” of a story? Do you design the font, as well as the pictures?

I think it adds a lot! It was definitely my choice to do both the hand lettering and illustration for The Pasta Family. There were lots of quotes from the characters where I really wanted to emphasize the emotions they were feeling. I do think it depends on the book, for sure. Historically, most children’s books used typefaces out of necessity because the illustrator did one job and then passed it off to a pre-press designer who would lay in a typeface. But I enjoy doing both. So I was happy to have the option of doing the hand lettering because I felt it was the best choice for the book.

How much collaboration occurs between you and the author/s?

Definitely a lot up front! The authors created a character development brief with lots of details and hobbies for each pasta character to help figure out what they’d all look like. For instance, Papa Bowtie loves listening to jazz on vinyl when he’s not working at his bakery. Bet you didn’t know that! Each character had a similar synopsis that gave me everything I needed to know to create the look and feel of each character. After we collaborated on that and the characters were reviewed and approved by the publisher, I kind of hit the ground running and would check in with them all every week or two with new color roughs or spreads for them to review.

Who are your favorite illustrators of books for children?

If I look back to my childhood, I’d have to say Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Chris Van Allsburg, and Richard Scarry. I know those are pretty big names, but I really loved their books. Nowadays, I love the work of Jon Klassen, Chris Haughton, Christian Robinson, Emily Dove, Julia Kuo, Joey Chou, Oliver Jeffers, Tad Carpenter and many, many more.

What was your favorite picture book growing up? Your favorite chapter book?

That’s too hard to answer! As a young kid, it was probably Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World because I could discover something new every single night in the illustrations. But as I got older, my favorite was definitely Sendak’s Nutshell Library books that Carole King sang to. I watched that TV special on VHS all the time. Pierre, One Was Johnny, Chicken Noodle Soup with Rice, all of those classics. I still love that special to this day. My favorite chapter book was probably Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice.

What would you like kids to think about your book?

I hope they think it’s silly, funny, and engaging.  Those were always some of my favorite type of books growing up. I loved working on The Pasta Family because it’s so quirky that kids will really get into it, and they’ll get to learn about all the different types of pasta. But there’s also a great multigenerational aspect and surprise at the end, which adults and families will really love too.

When you read, what really engages you about a book? Tell us what motivates you.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t read mostly to be entertained. I love books by Jack Handey, David Sedaris, Jon Hodgman, etc. I’m a pretty big comedy dork. I love it all. I can usually take any ordinary moment from life and somehow relate it to a Jack Handey quote. Do books from The Onion count also? At American Greetings, I’m on the humor card team, so it’s kind of required for me to stay up to date on the funny stuff.


Want to hear a real kid’s thoughts on Alex’s first book? Watch Mindy, age 7, review The Pasta Family Goes to Marinara Beach here.

You can purchase a copy of The Pasta Family Goes to Marinara Beach at https://amzn.to/2Mt4M9L. Find out more about Alex and his work at https://cargocollective.com/alexrodgers and at www.LilBurritos.com.

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Mia Learns From the Masters: An Update on the Mia Learning Literacy Experts Taskforce

August 3, 2018

Mia Learns From the Masters: An Update on the Mia Learning Literacy Experts Taskforce

We’re nearing completion of a more powerful model for making recommendations and offering coaching to develop motivated and purposeful readers.

by Darren Cambridge 

Over the last six months, I’ve had the honor of collaborating with a group of diverse literacy experts—researchers, teachers, community literacy leaders, and librarians—as part of Mia Learning research and development work funded by the National Science Foundation. Together, this Literacy Experts Taskforce has built a deeper and more nuanced model of Mia’s learning objectives and how best to achieve them in conversation with children, including how she chooses books to recommend and provides reflective coaching. The model reflects both what we know from the latest research in education and psychology and hard-won knowledge of practice from educators currently working with children in classrooms, libraries, and after school programs.

Establishing Objectives and Outcomes

Mia Learning’s overarching goal are to help children have more satisfying reading experiences and to motivate them to read more and more often. The Literacy Expert Taskforce members believe Mia can advance this aim by helping children:

  • Expand their agency and metacognition – Taking ownership and control of their own reading
  • Increase their self-efficacy– Becoming more confident in their capacities and more engaged
  • Improve their book choices– Choosing books that are best suited to their purposes and preferences
  • Widen their interests and experiences – Getting out of a rut and trying books in unfamiliar genres, on new topics, and with characters of diverse backgrounds and experiences

The Literacy Experts Taskforce has specified a set of twenty learning outcomes that align with these four objectives. The outcomes represent reading attitudes, beliefs, skills, and understandings commonly held by motivated and purposeful lifelong readers. For example, such readers believe that they can grow in their interests and abilities. They also understand the range of books available and how those books’ characteristics align with different purposes for reading. Mia helps children develop such understanding through personalized recommendations that model how experts choose books and guided reflection on how well the children’s choices about reading have yielded satisfying reading experiences.

Defining Coaching Patterns

Mia guides reflection by initiating coaching when she identifies certain patterns in a child’s statements and behaviors. The Experts Taskforce is developing an expanded set of patterns that Mia monitors, each linked to a learning outcome. When Mia detects the pattern, she provides the corresponding, research-informed coaching. The Expert Taskforce has mapped out a library of coaching videos and reflective dialogues that the Mia Learning staff are hard at work adding to Mia. Videos often feature Mia’s “Anti-Boredom Squad,” composed of four fictional middle-school-age kids (played by real ones) who are junior secret agents and themselves growing readers.

For example, if a child reports a low level of confidence as a reader and has told Mia they were unsatisfied with two of the last four books about which they’ve talked, Mia might lead the child through a reflective dialogue about resilience. Through showing the child a series of “choose your own adventure”-style videos of Squad members encountering reading difficulties, asking what they ought to do next, and then sharing conclusions to the stories that model resilience and adaptability, Mia helps students see the value of these dispositions to powerful readers.

Mapping Recommendation Factors and Relationships

In addition to how Mia coaches readers, the Experts Taskforce is shaping the next generation of the Mia’s book recommendation system. Members have defined 17 factors—things Mia knows about the reader, the activity, and the books available to choose from at a particular type for a particular purpose—that are grouped in four dimensions:

  • Similarity – Does the book have commonalities with the readers’ interests, preferences, and purpose?
  • Accessibility – Is the likely level of difficulty for this reader in this context appropriate to their purpose? How hard will it be for the child to obtain a copy of the book?
  • Social connectedness – Do similar readers’ experiences with this book suggest this child’s experience will be positive? Does the book have the potential to deepen a relationship with peers or adults?
  • Variety – Will reading this book help the child experience new types of books, on less familiar subjects, from a broadened range of cultures and perspectives?

The Expert group has defined a detailed model of the weight to give each factor and dimension and how they influence one another. Mia takes these complex interactions into account when making recommendations.

For example, one factor that influences accessibility is how well the text complexity of the book matches with a child’s test scores: A strong match suggests the child will be able to read the book without frustration or boredom. More succinctly, how well do the book and the child’s reading levels match? However, the importance of this factor to accessibility is decreased if the child has a high level of interest in the topic (because they are motivated to take on a challenge and likely to have relevant background knowledge) or if they are planning to read the book along with an adult (because the adult can help). The importance of congruence between text difficulty and ability also increases if the child’s purpose for reading is to develop expertise (because that requires a higher level of reading comprehension than does reading for entertainment).

Setting the Stage for Machine Learning

The coaching and recommendation domain models developed by the Literacy Experts Taskforce endow Mia with the latest expert knowledge about reading development. However, that knowledge is just a beginning. Mia will refine the model based on children’s actual experiences as captured through conversations. The recommendation system will refine factor weights and interactions based on observed results, and the coaching system will prioritize reflective dialogues and videos that are proving most effective. Mia will discover new patterns that emerge from children’s collective conversations with Mia and add them to the model.

I think of Mia as being on the verge of completing her college coursework in reading education. She could hardly hope for a better faculty than the members of the Literacy Experts Taskforce! The next step in her training is practicum: Over the coming months, she’ll be challenged to put her newfound expertise to work in classrooms and homes, deepening that knowledge through direct and indispensable experience.

 

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#InternationalFriendshipDay: Stories of Robot BFFs

July 30, 2018

#InternationalFriendshipDay – Stories of Robot BFFs

In celebration of International Friendship Day, we thought it would be especially fun to showcase some great reads that depict friendships between people like you and ‘bots like Mia. Here are some of our favorites:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How Mia Can Level the Playing Field: A Reading Specialist’s Perspective

July 23, 2018

How Mia Can Level the Playing Field: A Reading Specialist’s Perspective

 

By Leigh Ellis Beauchamp, M. Ed., Certified Reading Specialist 

Why might a teacher and certified reading specialist like myself want Mia in their classroom? Here’s what I told the author of a recent blog post centered on why Mia is not in some sort of competition with teachers:

As one teacher in charge of 125 wonderful middle school students per year, I’m afraid I’m just not able give each one the level of individual attention that I’d like. I would love to believe that I am somehow able to answer every question they have, provide frequent on-target book recommendations, consistently suss out their reading issues, and provide meaningful feedback on a daily basis, but, sadly, I’d be kidding myself.

You can understand the frustration of knowing how to help students love and succeed at reading but not having adequate time in the school day to give each of them what’s needed to accomplish that in full. That’s why I want a technology like Mia to supplement what I’m already doing: one of Mia’s great assets is that she is so accessible. Practically any child with an internet connection could utilize this resource, and Mia could provide the unique attention they need to grow and thrive as readers. But I didn’t always know what helps to make students into better readers. That knowledge came later.

The basic college courses teachers pursue to become educators must cover a wide range of topics: classroom management, data-keeping, child psychology, and more. Consequently, many new teachers don’t have the opportunity to dive deeply into reading education during their undergraduate training. Once I became a teacher more than a decade ago, I realized I had little idea how to help my struggling readers, how to motivate my aliterate (those who are able, but unwilling, to read) students, or how to challenge high achievers. Determined to do my job better and help each type of reader, I pursued a Master’s in Reading Education. The district where I teach was only able to pay 1/10th of my tuition, and I was lucky to have parents who were willing to pay the rest.

It took me four years and about $10,000 to earn my graduate degree. Many teachers may not be able to invest that amount of time and money into this type of educational program, or they may choose a different subject to pursue. This means that teachers with deep, specialized knowledge about reading are quite rare.

Mia does not cost thousands of dollars, is not a rarity, and has some of the same knowledge at her disposal that a highly-skilled, trained professional would. This makes her an absolute gold mine.

What excites me most about Mia, I think, is her potential to help level the reading achievement playing field. So many families do not have the resources or privilege to pursue educational needs. Asking a teacher for help sounds so easy to most of the people I grew up with, but that behavior derives from a fundamentally middle-to-upper class mindset. For many families living in poverty, or who are English language learners, even the simple act of walking into a school building can be an incredibly intimidating experience. Getting an email or phone call from a teacher sets many parents’ hearts to pounding. I know, because I can hear the fear in their voices when they answer. Contacting a teacher, meeting up with a librarian, or visiting with a reading specialist is something that many parents simply do not have the time, energy, knowledge, or resources to do.

When we expect these families to conform to our middle class expectations, we ensure that in general, only middle and upper class students have the chance to succeed. This is a sad, alarming, and unjust pattern. Here’s where I envision Mia coming in. Providing affordable, quality tools that can be accessed from home could crack that issue wide open – programs like Mia could help ensure that all children have a shot at succeeding. I can think of nothing that I want more, both as a teacher and as a person.

Mia gets that a love of reading is indivisible from the power of choice. It is absolutely essential that students choose their own books. In one of my graduate seminars, a professor told us a story about a group of adults taking a course who had to read three books. The first two books were assigned to them, while they got to choose the third book from a list. “Guess which one they were the most motivated to read?” my professor asked us. I bet you can guess right.

That’s not to say we can’t use classroom texts or have students read books that we’ve assigned. They just also need to have access to quality literature which they’ve had a hand in choosing. People who feel they exert some control, whose opinions are valued, will always be more engaged than those who don’t. So it is with reading, and children are no different from adults in their desire to take an active role.

I’m also encouraged by Mia’s ability to teach children the skill of selecting books for themselves – and make no mistake, it is a skill. I’ve so often seen students struggle with choosing books that are too difficult or too easy, sticking stubbornly to a single series or author, being overly reliant on reading levels, or defaulting to books that someone they know recommended without considering their own interests. Mia helps kids to broaden their reading, reflect meaningfully on their interests, find the “sweet spot” between too easy and too hard, and to recognize that levels can be useful but are not foolproof.

In my follow-up guest post, I’ll discuss some of the more harmful beliefs and myths about reading and the ways that Mia can help to counter them.

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Mia and “Lunch-Box Dream”

July 19, 2018

Are you impatient to talk to Mia yourself? We have just unearthed a previously classified document from her files with her permission. She encourages you to write her back, as she remains unsure of how to proceed.

Dear Reader,

I just love writing that. I love writing “Dear Reader.” Okay, so you know how I’m always looking for books that think you would like? If you liked one book about a dragon, I look for other books about dragons. If you liked one book about lunch, I look for other books about lunch. Well, I did something that took me out of my own comfort zone: I picked up a book I thought was about lunch, but it wasn’t. In fact, I got a few pages in and I realized I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if it hadn’t been for the title.

I’ve been reading historical fiction, specifically a book called Lunch-Box Dream by Tony Abbott. I’m not going to lie. I picked up this book because I was hungry, but I found out it has very little to do with lunch, let alone lunch boxes. It takes place in summer, 1959, and this kid Bobby is on a trip to visit American Civil War battlefields with his mom, his older brother, and a recently widowed grandmother, and all of this freaked me out because I hate the idea of war, and thinking about death makes me really sad. So these subjects are new to me, and a little scary.

New things can be difficult for me to understand because, well…they’re new. You know what I mean? It’s so much easier for me to think about things like talking bunnies, things that aren’t real, stuff that didn’t actually happen. They don’t feel dangerous to me the same way. True, Lunch-Box Dream is fiction, but it deals with things that did happen, and things that do happen.What’s more, to add to my sense of being thrown off, this story is told differently than other books I’ve read. Bobby is not comfortable around “chocolate colored” people, which I don’t understand, or death, which I kind of do understand, so on this trip he is taking from Ohio to Florida it’s new and difficult for him, which I totally understand.

Now, this is where things get even more new for me. Along with Bobby’s perspective in the book is the story of an African-American family in Georgia. It’s told from a whole bunch of what I call “first-person” viewpoints. To have a better understanding of not just the story, but also the storytelling technique that the author, used, I’ve decided to write a letter to Bobby. Yes, I know Bobby isn’t real, but I think it will help me understand some of these things that make me uncomfortable a little better. I was wondering if you could help me. My letter starts like this:

Dear Bobby,

—Now, what else should I say?

Your friend,

Mia