Thursday, March 6, 2014

“The Anti-Coloring Book” - interview with the creator

When I was a kid, my mom was anti-coloring book. 

She is an artist and a teacher. (It’s been decades since she produced art professionally and she stopped teaching professionally before I was born, but these talents don’t leave you.)

The reason she did not like coloring books was because they put a border—literally—around a child’s creative impulse. She preferred a blank piece of paper, and now, so do I.

I have reminisced about books of my youth here (some of the more obscure titles of my early years), here (influences on my first published book), and here (this one is both recollection and game), and buried among all that nostalgia is a book that was well aligned with my mom’s philosophy.

In fact, it was called—literallyThe Anti-Coloring Book.

The creator of that book, which became a popular series, is Susan Striker. Like my mom, Susan is both artist and teacher and, as it happens, when my daughter was in kindergarten, Susan was her art teacher. I was starstruck.

Susan kindly agreed to an interview. She told me that March is National Youth Art Month. And she is a reminder that part of being smart—literally—is “art.”

in Susan’s living room on her favorite chair; 
directly above her head is a drawing her son made; 
photo by Talisman Photo

When and how did you get the idea for The Anti-Coloring Book?

I had been teaching art for about ten years when I found myself taking an art education course in a university. The professor took me aside and asked me to “ignore” the assignments. Knowing of my experience as an art educator, he wanted me to do something different than the assignments he was giving the other undergraduate students. When I asked what he wanted me to do, all he said was “We’ll see.” Every week I again asked him what my special assignment would be, and “We’ll see” was the best answer I got.

One day he gave a lecture about how stifling coloring books were for children. I raised my hand and mentioned that this information had been documented decades before yet coloring books remained popular. I suggested that it wasn’t art educators who gave children coloring books, but well-meaning parents who had no alternative when they wanted to offer art activities to their children. “Why doesn’t someone do something about it?” I asked. He pointed at me and said “That is your assignment for the term.”

I struggled with the assignment for a while and finally decided to take my best, tried-and-true art lessons and convert them to a coloring book format that would be familiar to parents. I presented it to the class and was shocked when everyone applauded. The professor said that the assignment was so well done that I should consider trying to have it published.

I was very pleased with myself, but took it no further until, at a family gathering, I mentioned it to a relative who was a published author. He offered to show it to his editor. She loved it but was a trade book editor so she sent it to the children’s department. They rejected it. She went to her boss and asked if she could publish it, even though it was not a typical trade book, and he said that if she really believed in the book she should go for it. I think that was good for me, because in those days children’s books did not get the attention from reviewers that trade books did.

Where did the name of the book come from?

I was thrilled to have sold a book to a publisher and was telling a friend about it on the telephone. He couldn’t understand what the book was about and as I struggled to describe it, I heard myself say, “It is kind of an anti-coloring book.”

A light bulb went off in my head and I hung up and immediately called my editor. She advised me that although very descriptive, we couldn’t use that title because “negative titles are not acceptable” in the publishing world. She wanted to call it Just Imagine. This was in 1978 when the world had been “anti-war and anti-nuke” for a decade, [yet] I argued that my title would not turn young parents off. She and I argued back and forth for two days and she finally agreed to let me call the book The Anti-Coloring Book.

How did you get it published? How long did the process take from creation to publication?

In the seventies, it took nine months from submission to publication, just like having a baby. I am now beginning to publish books on my own through Amazon and it takes a week or two from the time I submit it until I receive a proof copy, and another week or two after I approve it for it to be available.

Was it the first thing you published?

The Anti-Coloring Book was my first book.

What was the reaction from the media and the public?

The first book got outstanding reviews and the first printing sold out immediately.

Did you pitch/sell it as a series, or did that come up only after the first one was out?

After the first book was on the market and doing well, my editor called me and said that the first book was so successful, Holt wanted me to do a second book. They had paid me an advance of $1,800 for the first book and offered me a $2,500 advance on the second book. Thrilled though I was, I went looking for an agent. She negotiated an advance of $25,000, ten times the publisher’s offer, which more than made up for the 10% fee I have been paying her for the last 35 years.

How many versions of
The Anti-Coloring Book have been published?

There have been 14 versions of
The Anti-Coloring Book and one I called Young at Art: An Anti-Coloring Book for Preschoolers. I wrote that one after my son was born. Because of my work with him and his friends, I became very interested in the importance of scribbling for young children.

Six are general interest books that [are numbered] and the others are special subject books, which usually reflected what was going on in my life. Build a Better Mousetrap: The Inventor’s Anti-Coloring Book came about because my ex-husband was a patent attorney and often came home with stories of funny inventions clients brought to him.

Artists at Work: An Anti-Coloring Book of Careers in Art was written because I overheard a student tell his friend that the only time he was ever happy in school was the one hour a week that he was in the art room. I stopped dead in my tracks and suggested to him that he could be a professional artist when he grew up and be happy all day long every day. He looked at me like I was crazy. A career in art was certainly not on his family’s radar for his future. My guess is that he is working on Wall Street now. I wrote that book for him, to prove that artists can earn money and don’t have to starve.

Exploring Space on Earth: An Anti-Coloring Book about Architecture was written while I was studying interior design and was in the middle of renovating my home.

Have you been involved in all of them?

I wrote them all and either drew the illustrations or supervised the artists who drew them for me. I own the registered trademark for the name. I have always taught art full time and many of the ideas for the books come out of my experiences teaching.

What licensed editions (like the one with DC Comics characters) did you do and how did those come about? Did the publisher seek out partners? Did you suggest any?

When my son was young, he loved the superheroes and always wore a cape. I encouraged his interest and bought him all the toys, took him to see the movies, etc. One day, when he was four years old, he was very angry at me because I was working at my drafting table instead of taking him to the playground. He stamped his foot and said, “Why are you always working on an Anti-Coloring Book? Why don’t you write a superheroes Anti-Coloring book for me?” I told him that was a brilliant idea!

I immediately telephoned DC Comics and, much to my surprise, was told that they knew of my work and were trying to copy the idea and couldn’t. They invited me to come and talk to them, and the book was published in time to be the party favor at Jason’s fifth birthday party the following year.

DC would not allow me to do the drawings, as they only had their own artists draw their characters. I just made rough sketches and the DC artist did a brilliant job drawing the illustrations. A photo of Jason wearing his Batman pajamas is on the cover of that book. I often took him with me to DC for business meetings and he’d be in heaven. There were superheroes all over the place, including a life-sized Superman figure sitting on a sofa in the waiting room.

By the way,
on his last birthday, Jason was 34 years old.

I submitted proposals for a Smurf Anti-Coloring Book and a Disney Anti-Coloring Book, but neither company was interested. I also was rejected by Nancy Drew, but instead of shelving that idea I turned it into The Mystery Anti-Coloring Book and published it anyway.

Which title has been the most successful?

The first book remains the best seller.

Did you propose any Anti-Coloring Book themes that the publisher rejected?

Holt rejected one of my favorites, Fashionista!: An Anti-Coloring Book for Fashion Designers.

The publisher rejected most of my books that were not Anti-Coloring Book formats. Recently I have become interested in doing these other art books for children, and am working with Amazon and Xlibris to publish them myself.

Did you propose any individual Anti-Coloring Book activities that the publisher rejected?

Not that I can remember, although I always handed in more activities than were needed and we’d select the favorites and put the others on “hold.”

Any funny stories about the Anti-Coloring Books, such as an unusual way a school or class used one?

After my book came out, some school districts banned coloring books and workbooks. I was very gratified—until I discovered that some of those schools couldn’t order my [emphasis MTN] books because they were considered workbooks.

Have you published any other books?

  • M is for Mola Art: A Kuna Indian Alphabet of Quilted Folk Art, for children (Xlibris)
  • Please Touch; how to stimulate your child’s creative development through movement, music, art, and play (Simon & Schuster)
  • Young at Art: Teaching Toddlers Self-Expression, Problem-Solving Skills, and an Appreciation for Art

Recently published:
  • Alphabet of Art (Amazon)
  • McGonegal’s Zoo, an alphabet book of Oaxacan wood carvings

Are you still producing Anti-Coloring Books?

I am working on creating an Anti-Coloring app for iPads and mini iPads. It will include pages from published books that children can work on with iPads instead of crayons.

In the last few years, I have been very excited about working on using my collection of folk art to create books for children.

Every time an Anti-Coloring Book idea pops into my head, I scribble it down and tuck it in a loose leaf book. Who knows if I will ever use the idea again and if so, in what?

What else are you doing these days?

I continue to teach art full time to elementary school students in Greenwich, CT [MTN: Susan was named Elementary Art Educator of the Year] and am working around the clock on the Anti-Coloring app. A few of the original Anti-Coloring Books are going out of print and as the rights revert back to me I publish them through Amazon. It used to be considered a disaster for an author’s books to go out of print, but I much prefer publishing them myself. My students pose for the covers.

When I started teaching in 1964, research and resources in the field of art education were slim. As I learned about sound art projects and developed lessons of my own, I became fanatic about typing and illustrating all of my art lessons. I had hundreds of pages and never really knew why I had taken on this job. I just couldn
t stop.

In the last two years, it has all fallen into place. I reorganized all of my art lessons by subject and created art curricula for teachers. So far, I have put together a curriculum of multicultural art projects and another based on the great master artists. I am now working on a series of workbooks I call Art-Rithmetic ® which includes art projects that teach math concepts. Color and Shape Curriculum are long written and photographed, but still need some finishing touches before I send it off to a printer.

I had a health scare a while back and was in the hospital thinking I couldnt possibly die because I hadnt finished all of my books. It turned out to be a false alarm, but it got me focused and busy. I now realize that the job I didnt know why I was doing will be my legacy for parents and teachers. 

Do you ever hear from people who grew up with the Anti-Coloring Books? If so, do any particularly meaningful comments come to mind?

Yes, I do and I often post their comments on my web site.

I also hear from former students who are now grown and have children of their own drawing in my books.

What do you think the legacy of the Anti-Coloring Books is?

I hope it makes people think about how art should help children think for themselves and solve their own problems rather than coloring in an adult’s drawing.

Anything you’d like to add?

If people have enjoyed my books, I love to ask them to make comments on the Amazon or Barnes & Noble sites.

Cos Cob, CT students posed for the 
new cover of The Fifth Anti-Coloring Book

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