Rice students master the art of writing children’s literature

A group of 13 freshman students at Rice were tasked with tapping their inner child this fall to explore and bring to life in words and pictures one of the world’s most popular literary genres: children’s literature. The students created original picture books that are now on display in the hallway that traverses Fondren Library’s ground floor.

Brooke Bohlen, a Sid Richardson college freshman, wrote her book about "Christine the Violinist," a lamb who dreams of and successfully auditions to become a violinist for the Sydney Opera House Orchestra. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Their works are part of Associate Professor of French Studies Julie Fette’s “First-Year Writing Intensive Seminar” (FWIS) on “Reading and Writing Children’s Literature.”

One of the picture books exhibited, “Recess Dreams,” tells the story of Theodore the Bear, who instead of playing in the sandbox with his fellow animal preschool students prefers to sit on the swing and dream about his future as an astronaut, firefighter or doctor. The book was written and illustrated by Crystal Lyn, a Duncan College freshman who enjoyed the challenge of crafting a story that was both educational and entertaining and required a careful eye for word choice and visuals. “This project is interesting because you don’t realize how much work goes into creating a picture book,” Lyn said. “Every word has to be thought through. To fit your entire plot and have some sort of character development and conflict and resolution in 500 words is not easy.”

Fette said the exhibition demonstrates the students’ mastery of literary devices and willingness to leap through disciplinary and creative boundaries. “Our goal was to have them pull together all of the elements that they’ve been studying about what a makes a memorable or a classic picture book,” Fette said. “They were first asked to look in their hearts and decide on a topic or a theme that mattered to them. Any picture book that is flat or forgettable is probably coming from an author that isn’t speaking from the heart.”

The students explored various themes that permeate childhood and children’s consciousness. Haley Escamilla, a Hanszen College freshman, wrote about Carrie, a young Tyrannosaurus rex who finds herself left out and lonely on her first day of school. The other animals fear her. With the help of a caring teacher, the animals soon learn their fear is unfounded and Carrie is integrated and makes friends. “I made my main character a girl because the majority of children’s picture books have the main characters as boys and I wanted to go against that,” Escamilla said.

Jennifer Shade Wilson, director of Rice’s Center for Written, Oral and Visual Communication (CWOVC), gave a guest lecture to Fette’s class on how to pitch their picture books as proposals to publishers. She said Fette’s class teaches a key component of effective communication: audience analysis. “I think one of the interesting aspects of Julie’s course is this idea of learning to analyze a genre,” Wilson said. The students are applying analytical skills to this particular genre; they’re thinking about audience; they’re thinking about purpose; they’re thinking about crafting their thoughts into words that reach that particular audience.”

"I needed to be equally devoted to each page," Bohlen said of the drawing process.

Fette’s class was one of 39 courses offered this fall as part of Rice’s new Program in Writing and Communications, which has the mission of integrating the practice of analytical writing and oral and visual communication into the Rice curriculum.

“No children’s book can, of course, communicate any philosophy of life in 20 pages of visuals and short text, but this was students’ chance to apply their knowledge of literary device and analysis to their own creative work,” Fette said. She said that in addition to creating an original picture book and a feminist fairy tale, students in the course also learn about how children’s literature is defined as a genre, how national and cultural notions of childhood influence its production and how it manages amusement and didactic objectives.

The students’ books will remain on display in Fondren through the end of the semester.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.