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Keeping Imagination Alive
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Keeping Imagination Alive

TEEL Student Publishes Children’s Book in the U.S. & U.K.

By Christian Taske ’07

Billy is a little boy who wears a blue, striped t-shirt, red shorts, green boots, and a paper crown he made at camp. One of his best friends is Griz, a larger-than-life, brown grizzly bear. Together, the unlikely buddies eat peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches, look at the stars and explore the woods where they play hide-and-seek. (Billy always wins because Griz is too big to hide anywhere.) They share secrets and tell jokes as Billy rides on Griz’s back. When it’s time for a nap, Billy sleeps in Griz’s massive paws.

The story of Billy and Griz is one of friendship, adventure and imagination. It is being told and illustrated by Notre Dame College student Suzanne McGinness, 26, in her debut picture book “My Bear Griz,” which was just published by Frances Lincoln Publishers in the U.S. and the U.K. McGinness is a student in Notre Dame’s TEEL program hoping to become a visual arts teacher. She created “My Bear Griz” in 2009 while pursuing her Master of Fine Arts in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England.

My Bear GrizMcGinness’s book starts with an introduction of Billy, his handwriting all over the page as he describes his favorite things in life and proclaims, “My name is Billy and I love bears!” Billy and Griz go on everyday adventures that McGinness colorfully illustrated in a layered technique. She made her original drawings with a ballpoint pen, retraced and water colored them on a separate paper, and layered them in Photoshop. “It’s a drawing and painting combined,” McGinness says. “It gives me a little more freedom to play around with the contrast and size and impact.”

McGinness drew Griz larger than any bear you would find in real life, but in a friendly, cuddly kind of way. She left the backgrounds abstract and used bright colors to hint that Billy and Griz’s adventures are not taking place in the real world. “We don’t really know where they are. But we know that they are in their own world and time,” McGinness says. (Spoiler alert: On the last page, the reader finds out that Griz in fact is a little teddy bear and that his and Billy’s adventures took place in Billy’s imagination.)

McGinness says the idea for the book grew out of her own childhood imagination. “It’s kind of that childhood wish that your stuffed animals are alive. When you’re not there, they’re playing in the room without you,” she says.

To illustrate the contrast between reality and imagination, McGinness needed a stuffed animal that in Billy’s mind can become massive in scale. A teddy turned grizzly bear was the perfect fit, especially since the story was always going to take place in the woods and McGinness wanted a character with a lot of texture.

The book’s themes of friendship and adventure resonate with young children. McGinness read the story to first graders at Kirtland Elementary School, and it was a big hit. “They laughed at the right parts and got excited,” she says. “It was a great experience, because it was my first time sharing it with children.” With few words and colorful illustrations, the 32-page book is for kids ages 2 to 6. Its message is simple: “Keep your imagination alive!”

That message, the book’s storyline and its unique illustrations caught the attention of publishers in 2009. At the time, McGinness was pursuing her M.F.A. in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin University, the first university in the world to offer that degree. The program was developed by Martin Salisbury, an internationally acclaimed author, illustrator and leading researcher in children’s book illustration. Salisbury taught many of McGinness’s courses, during one of which she began working on “Griz.”

McGinness, who wrote her master’s thesis on “The History of the Collage and How It Affects Imaginative Space in Children,” entered her book in a Macmillan Publishers competition where she won honorable mention. For her graduating show, it was displayed in a gallery at Piccadilly Circus. There, Frances and Lincoln approached McGinness expressing interest in “Griz.” The publisher then took the book to the World Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, where it received a lot of attention. Shortly after, McGinness was offered her first book contract. “Griz” was published in the U.S. and the U.K. on Sept. 1. A Dutch version is due in 2012. The book even made it on the cover of Frances and Lincoln’s fall catalog.

“This has been a goal of mine for a very long time,” McGinness says. “I worked so hard while I was in England hoping to get a publishing deal. I was lucky enough to get picked up.”

While “Griz” is her first published book, McGinness created several others during her studies at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts. She is currently working on getting one of them published. Titled “Thomas and Benjamin,” the book is about a boy who lives alone with his dog and becomes friends with a monster that crawls out of his fridge one day. McGinness created the characters and settings out of clay and photographed them in a Tim Burton kind of style.

McGinness, whose favorite children’s book is Eric Carle’s “The Hungry Caterpillar,” hopes “Griz” will open doors for additional book contracts. Besides illustration, her other passion is teaching. So after finishing her master’s in a one-of-a-kind program in England, the Shaker Heights native decided to come back to Ohio to earn her teaching license at one of the State’s leading programs for aspiring teachers. McGinness is now in her third and final semester in Notre Dame’s TEEL program. She is currently student teaching and plans to teach visual arts at the elementary school level.

“Notre Dame had a really good program for me,” she says. “Since I already have my master’s, I didn’t want a long program of study. The College set up a plan for me that I could complete in a year and a half.” 

McGinness says she always wanted to work with children and that her time at Notre Dame confirmed that. She hopes to establish a career as both a teacher and author. “I like to help kids be creative and express themselves,” she says.

McGinness chose NDC’s TEEL program because she wanted to become more familiar with the art of teaching. “I really wanted to go through the program because I didn’t know anything about teaching,” she says. “I’ve learned so much from classroom management to education psychology. The classes here have been so valuable and the teachers have been outstanding.”

“My Bear Griz” is now on sale at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.com for $17.95.

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.