Living his dream

By on March 26, 2009

Children’s book illustrator challenges students to find their special skill
by Susan O’Neill
Children’s book illustrator Wendell Minor told Kaneland John Shields Elementary School students that he knew he wanted to become an artist by the time he was in fourth grade. Although his art teacher encouraged him, his other teachers and fellow students did not take his desire seriously, he said.

During his presentation at Kaneland John Shields Elementary School March 11, he said he had to work hard and persist in his goals, overcoming the skepticism of others to make his dream a reality.

He encouraged the students to find something they really enjoyed, something they were special at.

“Listen to yourself, if you really enjoy something,” he said. “I liked to daydream and look out the window and paint nature, and I managed to make a whole living out of it. I still love it.”

Minor said he started drawing in kindergarten. Four years later, when his friend Ed looked at a picture of a buffalo he had drawn, Ed thought he had traced it. This is when Minor knew he had something special.

“If someone tells you you’re really good at something, listen to that person,” he said.

Minor began his career doing cover illustrations for all kinds of books, from biographies to cook books. He started doing illustrations for children’s books in the 1980s. He has since completed more than 45 books and won more than 200 awards for his work.

His paintings are featured in the permanent collections of the Norman Rockwell Museum, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and the Library of Congress. He has illustrated books for award-winning authors, including Diane Siebert and Jean Craighead George.

The Kane County Farm Bureau in 2008 picked his book, “Heartland,” for its first annual Spring Program of Reading Outreach to Urban Teachers and Students (SPROUTS). SPROUTS brings agriculture into the classroom through volunteers reading agriculture-related books to third-grade students throughout the county.

SPROUTS’ choice of Minor’s book gave Shields literacy coach Terri Konen the idea to invite him to the school to talk to the students. Minor is from the area, having grown up in Aurora.

Konen obtained a grant from the Kaneland Foundation to fund his visit. Minor arranged his visit to coincide with a children’s literature conference at Northern Illinois University he was attending, which took care of his travel expenses.

Konen worked with teachers at Shields to help ensure that students learned more in addition to his discussion. Students signed up to go to the school library to read his books. In computer classes, they learned how to toggle between Minor’s website and a Word document to create questions for him.

In music classes they put the words of his book, “Cat What is That?” to the melody of the song, “The Erie Canal,” and created their own chants to go between the verses. In literacy classes, they read each page without the pictures and sketched their own ideas of an image to support the words.

During presentations to groups of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, Minor showed slides of his work as he talked about his experiences and the process by which he does his work.

He showed them several initial sketches, which is how he begins paintings. He told them he finds models to pose for him, reaching the final result after several cycles of refining his work.

“I’m never satisfied with what I do,” he said. “It just makes me try harder next time.”

A nature enthusiast, many of Minor’s books are about wildlife and the natural environment. He researches his subjects extensively, often traveling to the places to see for himself what he will commit to paper.

He has traveled to the Grand Canyon to observe wolves and other animals he would draw for his book, “The Wolves are Back.” For another of his books, “The Everglades,” he flew in a helicopter above the Everglades to get a perspective on the scene below, as a bird would see it.

After many years, he began writing and illustrating his own books, including several that he wrote with his wife, Florence. Their book, “If You Were a Penguin,” is Pennsylvania’s 2009 choice for its One Book, Every Young Child Program.

He told the students he was more than 50 years old before he wrote his first book. When he was younger, he had dyslexia and struggled with reading. On his website, he credits his teacher, Mr. Gilkey, with helping him overcome his struggles.

After he developed his reading skills, he found he had many interests. History, science and biology were some of his favorite subjects, and these are the things he writes about and draws today.

He recently contacted astronaut Buzz Aldrin to see if he would be interested in working on a book with him to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first two men to walk on the moon.

The collaboration resulted in the book, “Reaching for the Moon.” He said he had a great time with Aldrin signing copies of the book at the Air and Space Museum. They autographed 1,250 books.

They recently completed another book together called “Look to the Stars” that will be out in May. He told the students that by the time they grow up, they will be able to ride around the back of the moon.

Minor said he learned his work ethic from his grandfather and his father, which still serves him well today. His grandfather was a farmer, and his father worked a factory job.

During a break with the teachers, he told them his first job was at the North Aurora Packing Company at the slaughterhouse.

“Nothing was going to motivate me more than that,” he said. “I looked at that as on-the-job training for what I didn’t want to do.”
Now, he told the students he often works from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., but it doesn’t feel like work.

“If you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he told the students. “Time just flies by. I only hope that for you.”

But he said that they won’t get there without studying and working hard. He told them they had a wonderful librarian and a wonderful library.

“Use it please,” he said. “Books can take you anywhere, even back in time. You can visit dragons, fly to Never-Never Land and go to the moon and back.”

For more information about Wendell Minor and his work, visit

Photo: Illustrator Wendell Minor speaks at Kaneland John Shields Elementary School March 11. He encouraged students to find their “special skill.” Photo by Sarah Rivers