Writers visit schools rather frequently, but few actually set up shop for four days and get to know their readers in depth. But author and illustrator Tim Miller is doing exactly this at P.S. 144, an elementary school serving grades pre-K–5 in the Forest Hills section of Queens, NY.
This Snohomish, WA native is the artist behind the well-received work in Snappsy The Alligator (Did Not Ask To Be In This Book!) (Julie Falatko, Penguin Young Readers, 2016). He plans to use his decade of experience at the Queens Museum to go beyond the traditional model of a one-time assembly. Over the course of a four-day “residency,” Miller hopes “to engage students in a manner that isn’t just yapping my flap at them about what I do, but instead asking them to be a part of a conversation,” he explains.
Miller says deciding on the ideas for the sessions wasn’t too much of a stretch, because he’d previously run a similar two-week summer camp program at the Queens Museum, formerly the Queens Museum of Art. “It was based on Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck, and participants explored storytelling through words and pictures. The difference with the school residency is that I don’t have that luxury of time, so I really have to be on target.”
P.S. 144’s strong commitment to the arts made a powerful impression on Miller when he was a teaching artist there for the museum a few years back. He wanted to build on that experience somehow. “Not long after Snappsy came out, Lois Olshan, the school’s arts coordinator, invited me to do a school visit and that’s when I suggested the residency idea, which she welcomed with open arms.”
Miller designed the residency as an extended exploration of central themes and ideas that are at the core of Snappsy. “The book is used as an opportunity to take a more critical look at what a narrator and a main character are, as well as how can words and pictures can work together to tell a story,” he notes. During the event, kids learn how to design their own character by fusing different shapes together and then answer and illustrate the following questions: What is your character and what’s his name? Where does his live—and what does he eat? Kids then delve into the hobbies the character might have.
Finally, students will be asked to consider what happens when the main character decides that he or she doesn’t want to be in the story as told by the narrator. They then provide written and illustrated responses to questions related to this conflict and conclude the event by figuring out how the narrator and main character resolve their differences. “The first two sessions were rather easy to run, but I found the third more challenging. I had to step back to find a more concrete way to lay it out for the kids than I had initially anticipated,” admits Miller.
On the whole, however, Miller is thrilled with how the residency, which ends on May 25, is unfolding. “One student knocked me out when he shared his character, ‘Mirror Monster,’ with me,” he recalls. Whenever the character speaks, the words come out backwards and you have to put them up to a mirror so they can be read. “Apparently he’s a fan of Leonardo da Vinci!”
Another moment that struck Miller was when he witnessed a student who was having trouble sitting still suddenly sink into the drawing component and become completely absorbed. “His drawings floored me—they were wild and imaginative and executed with the utmost thought and care. His teacher and paraprofessional were every bit as surprised as I was,” he says. It was the first time the student had been seen drawing; no one knew he had it in him.
Miller hopes this residency will serve as a model that can be replicated at other schools. “I love the idea of taking an immersive journey with students and interacting with them on a more personal level,” he says. He’s currently speaking with several other schools and arts programs about the prospect. In addition, several projects are on the horizon, including Miller’s debut picture book as author and illustrator called Moo Moo in a Tutu, out in early 2017 from Balzer + Bray. He’s also illustrated a middle-grade series by Tom O’Donnell called Hamstersaurus Rex that comes out this fall from HarperCollins and a picture book by Mark Riddle, Margarash, that will be published by Enchanted Lion in fall 2016.
Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a freelance reporter based in Manhattan and the former research editor of Parenting.