Top Ten Illustration Mentors by Shawna Coppola

For the past year I have been obsessed with visual language and, in particular, illustration. My living room at home is littered with my favorite picture books as well as such titles as The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown, Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd, and The Best American Infographics 2013 by Gareth Cook. The catalyst for this obsession was Katie Wood Ray’s phenomenal book In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study, which turned me on to the notion that the process of composing visual text (e.g., illustration) is not much different from the process of composing written text. This realization was furthered by my experience helping to plan, launch, and implement illustration studies in the K-6 school in which I work, as well as by sketching out my own picture book (under Katie’s own tutelage during a five-day summer course).

Now mind you, despite this year-long immersion into illustration, I still can’t draw a horse–or even an apple that doesn’t more closely resemble a tomato– to save my life. But as Katie would tell you, illustration study is not about the art. Rather, illustration study is about exploring the composing decisions that these artists make in their work: the colors they choose to use (or not use); the perspective from which they compose a scene; the physical details of characters that they craft. And helping students notice these decisions, while simultaneously encouraging them to “try them out” in their own work, can open new and exciting worlds for them that “writing” alone cannot.

With that said, here is my personal selection of the Top Ten Illustration Mentors you will want to explore with your students:

1. Marla Frazee

With all due respect to the remaining illustrators on my list, one could only study Marla’s work and develop a year’s worth of curriculum for an illustration study. Give your students the opportunity to examine Boot and Shoe alone, and your students are bound to make note of Marla’s decisions in regard to color, movement, emotion, perspective, and much, much more.

2. Erin Stead

Erin is a Caldecott winner for her work in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, and it’s easy to see why. Study her breathtaking illustrations, and your students are bound to notice her knack for setting a mood, using color to make something stand out, and her spare, yet thoughtful, style.

From Race You To Bed by Bob Shea

3. Bob Shea

After exploring Bob’s work, I observed students using “short double lines” (to show a character’s movement) and whimsical backgrounds in their books for weeks. And the colors! Those COLORS!

4. Jon Klassen

Jon’s talent for conveying characters’ emotions with a (seemingly simple) pupil placement is nothing short of phenomenal. That, in addition to his use of shapes to create gorgeous landscapes, is likely what earned him a Caldecott in 2013.


5. Steve Jenkins

For those students interested in nonfiction illustration and design, Steve is the main man. While most readers know him for his more well-known titles such as What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? and Actual Size, to me the best “noticing” work can be done using his 2002 book The Top of the World: Climbing Mount Everest.


6. Lucy Knisley

I fell in love with her graphic novel Relish at first glance and devoured it in one sitting. She is a renaissance woman whose graphic representations of her life and her work are simply delectable–and joyously undertaken by aspiring writers and illustrators.


7. Oliver Jeffers

Students are sure to notice how Oliver “grounds” his characters and objects as well as how he uses gorgeously-illustrated thought bubbles to convey dialogue (see This Moose Belongs to Me and Heart and the Bottle for prime examples of this technique).

8. Tom Lichtenheld

The fact that Tom often partners with author Amy Krouse Rosenthal should be enough to warrant a look. If you need more evidence, check out Cloudette and marvel at his incredible page design and talent for conveying the emotion/personality of a CLOUD (for cryin’ out loud!).

9. Patrick McDonnell

Patrick’s go-to text is, hands down, The Monster’s Monster, where students will notice his use of exclamation points and other symbols to convey feelings in characters–and delightful vignettes to show multiple characters engaged in a variety of activities.

10. Daniel Salmieri

Daniel is king of the “spread,” a term that refers to the double-page illustration many of us have seen but rarely noticed. His illustrations of Old Man Fookwire in Those Darn Squirrels will also spark much discussion among you and your students about the power of perspective.

Shawna currently works in her dream job as a literacy specialist in the most adorable K-6 school in the Northern hemisphere. In her spare time, she is an author/illustrator groupie-slash-fangirl. You can find her on Twitter at @shawnacoppola or via her blog: