“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child.”

Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia

Children’s book writing and illustration lies within the murky geography of necessity and the oft held belief that, being for children, it’s a task that any reasonably thoughtful person could accomplish. Its necessity is due to the insistence that children must be entertained, educated, and enlarged in all aspects of their being. Its beguiling simplicity and directness disguise the enormous effort it takes to successfully accomplish.

Here in the Madison area, our two world-renowned children’s authors and illustrators, Kevin Henkes and Renee Graef, have been joined by Courtney Dicmas, returned from her global journeys and international education. Courtney now sits on the faculty of Madison College, where she was recently named Teacher of the Year. She has joined this august company by way of England and, specifically, the Cambridge School of Art at the Anglia Ruskin University.

Courtney grew up in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and chose Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to begin her formal art education, where she graduated in 2006 with a major in fine art painting. Noticing the lack of employment opportunities with her new degree, she applied to teach art and ESL (English as a Second Language) in South Korea through a program affiliated with the University of Wisconsin. While engaged with her teaching, she happened upon children’s books as a way to help instruct her students while continuing to paint and participate in group art exhibitions.

Among the books Courtney found were those by English author/illustrator Alexis Deacon. Courtney was immediately convinced that this was the career direction she must pursue. She was particularly enchanted by the picture book Slow Loris. Her subsequent contact with Alexis resulted in her discovery that he taught in the Cambridge School. He invited her to apply and, struck by his kindness and generosity, she joined the program in children’s book illustration graduate studies.

The course of study at Cambridge is 18 continuous months resulting in an opportunity to meet people in the publishing world with a specific focus on work for children. While there in 2012 and 2013, Courtney shared a flat and kitchen sketching sessions with two other students in the program.

When Courtney began, there was a strong emphasis placed on observational drawing, often built around themes like solitude and companionship. These directives led her to working in subways, coffee shops, bus stops, and other places of public congregation, encouraging her to work quickly and intuitively with immediate resolve. This was followed by courses focused on sequential imagery. Courtney said it was like “pulling back on a bow and arrow while focusing on a remote target.” She developed clarity on issues, such as developing narrative arc, understanding pacing, and optimizing layout.

Courtney began her illustrative efforts using acrylic and ink painted on Mylar® (clear acetate). Another instructor, the very famous David Hughes, encouraged her to simplify her approach and stop laboring her work. Gradually, her personal aesthetic and style began to emerge, evolving into the gouache and color pencil work that became her first book, Harold Finds a Voice. Having experienced the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy halfway through her studies, resulting in desperate moments of crying in the bathroom, Courtney was prepared with her graduate portfolio. She described this event as a “fire hose of publishing,” where art slams into commerce, oftentimes resulting in 10-second reviews. She overcame the “bunny-eats-bunny” climate by recognizing that her strengths were in inserting herself into her stories rather than trying to please people with work tailored to their likes. She found that themes of loneliness and alienation informed her creative output in a fresh and inviting manner.

Harold was accepted at the book fair and became the first of her nearly one dozen titles. In 32 pages, Harold tells the story of a clever, ambitious, and vocally talented parrot living in Paris, France, Europe. Harold can imitate the sound of anything he hears, from the vacuum cleaner to the flush of a toilet, but he cannot find a voice that is uniquely his. His subsequent journey, much like Courtney’s, into the wider world brings him into contact with others who encourage and celebrate his new vocal identity. It’s a charming story of self-discovery and self-confidence that has immediate appeal to any child looking to find their place in the world. The drawings are deceptively simple, consisting of bold patches of broadly painted color with super-imposed line work done in color pencil and ink. As Courtney describes it, “Ink is like an EKG line. That’s where the life is.”

As her work continued, Courtney introduced us to The Great Googly Moogly, a mythical fish with a fearsome reputation that has eluded fishermen for centuries. Intrepid, Stella is driven by dreams of capturing this elusive prey. Her experience results in an unexpected encounter and a dramatic change of intention. The whole story evolves over a beautifully and simply rendered narrative that reveals multitudes about the inner life of an ambitious and determined young girl. As Courtney’s stories evolve, the confidence and certainty of her style does as well.

The economy and forthrightness of Courtney’s drawing and the restraint of her color application echo the very tenets of contemporary art: the notion that simplicity accompanied by grace can be a welcome departure from a surfeit of detail and complexity. Just as Matisse recognized that a certain spareness of description coupled with boldness of execution could evoke a powerful emotional response, Courtney demonstrates that children can recognize authenticity and sincerity with those same attributes.

Courtney develops stories of wanderlust and gratitude in Home Tweet Home, the tale of two nestlings struggling with domestic overcrowding seeking relief in new horizons only to realize the comfort and security of home. A New School for Charlie confronts the anxiety of every child being thrown into challenging circumstances. Charlie, an ebullient and effervescent dog, is being sent to a new and exciting school. Little did he suspect it was composed entirely of cats. Awakening ensues.

In the end, Courtney’s stories send every young reader off with the famous advice A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin gave to Pooh: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.

Photographs by Courtney Dicmas.