Smithfield Herald

Children’s author visits Johnston Community College

Children’s author Denise Fleming gave a lecture at Johnston Community College last week.
Children’s author Denise Fleming gave a lecture at Johnston Community College last week. lfinaldi@newsobserver.com

Denise Fleming thinks children are way more fun than adults.

She loves how kids tend to say exactly what they’re thinking, because they haven’t yet learned to filter themselves. She thinks it’s awesome that kids express themselves so freely. And she thinks it’s funny that sometimes you can tell exactly what kind of person a child is going to be when he or she grows up.

Given the choice between hanging out with adults or reading a book to a group of kids, Fleming would take kids any day.

Fleming, an Ohio-based author, is a recipient of the Caldecott Medal, which is awarded to distinguished artists who create picture books for children. She came to Johnston Community College last week to give a lecture.

In front of about 40 children, adults and college students in a classroom on the Smithfield campus, Fleming spoke about her books, artistic process and what inspires her.

Fleming said nature, animals and her own fascinations often play a role in her books.

For example, she is interested in tadpoles and caterpillars, two creatures that make frequent appearances in her work. She said she likes that both of the bugs are born looking one way but eventually grow into something that looks completely different.

“How weird would it be if you came into this life in one shape and completely transformed?” she asked. “You’d call your friend Louise and you’d say, ‘Louise, you don’t have to pick me up. I can walk now. I grew legs.’ ”

Her own pets often inspire her too. Her late dog was the inspiration for Buster, a dog who stars in two of her books. In his first appearance, Buster’s owner, “Brown Shoes,” brings home a kitten named Betty, who Buster doesn’t like at first.

Fleming said the same thing happened to her dog when her family adopted a mother cat who gave birth to three kittens on their property. (The family of cats also inspired a book.)

In Buster’s second appearance, he went to Cowboy Camp for a few days while Brown Shoes went on vacation. (Betty stayed with a woman who liked cats but not dogs).

Cowboy Camp was inspired by Fleming’s own childhood desire to be a cowboy. One year, she got a cowgirl outfit for Christmas and was disappointed. She wanted to be a cowboy, not a cowgirl.

Fleming illustrates her books herself, using a technique called pulp painting. This involves squeezing colorful cotton rag fiber onto a screen, using homemade stencils to create the desired shapes. Once she’s done, she flips over the base and presses the back of it with a damp sponge, so the fibers stick together. That’s how she has illustrated all of her books.

In her illustrations, Fleming said she likes to make sure things are to scale. It’s important, she said, for children to understand how big things are in relation to one another.

When she was little, she saw a television show in which there was a termite problem in someone’s house, but the termites were huge – the size of small dogs.

“I thought, why do you have to hire someone to come into your house to see the termites? Wouldn’t you know (they were there)?” she said.

On the writing side, Fleming said she is a fan of repetition, rhyme, rhythm, refrain, alliterations, onomatopoeia and verbs. A word like “lunch,” she said, can tell you two things: that someone is eating, and what time of day it is.

She also said she thinks verbs can sometimes act doubly as adjectives. For example, if you say a woodchuck “shuffled,” then that gives you an insight into its personality.

Ultimately, she said, she loves what she does, and she likes being part of the children’s author community.

“We’re all highly immature,” she said. “Humor never goes beyond fourth-grade humor. Ever.”

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