Tuesday, April 3, 2012

eeBoo's Drawing Book with Melissa Sweet: Encouraging Success By NOT Defining It

Can't draw for your life but you want to teach a kid how to draw?  You have to get this book. photo: eeBoo

WHAT: Drawing Book with Melissa Sweet by eeBoo
DOES:  a teaching workbook that inspires you to continue working even after you have completed the page; open-ended style leaves less room for disappointment and more room for new ideas
INVEST: $ 6.00 depending on the retailer
TOOLS: Express Yourself, Think Like a Scientist/Engineer (draw with the mind's eye)

I have a very early memory of my mother and I coloring a coloring book with crayons.  Everything was business as usual that day but then she started coloring a girl's hair with a brown crayon and then suddenly, she grabbed a yellow crayon and in one swift stroke... SWISH!  She gave the girl highlights!

My mouth dropped open.  I thought it was the coolest thing ever and after watching her do it, I knew that I could copy that move.    Ever since that day, I would color with friends and show off my technique.  It made me proud.  I made something special.

These days, I have felt the need to foster more learning of art at home.  I go through phases and am currently going through one now.   Number 1 yearns to put his elaborate 3D visions onto 2D paper but he is having a hard time.  Number 2 is finally starting to really doodle and has been showing me some amazing stuff.  I say amazing but I don't mean "gifted."  Rather, I mean amazing because for the longest time, making art on a big piece of blank paper was just too daunting for him.   I suppose you can look at it like fill-in-the-blanks vs. an essay.  Some kids may opt for the small blanks.

But could I teach art to him?  Both kids have great art teachers in school but I find that the art making experience at home is different.  Especially if their "teacher" is me.  I have a great track record of ruining things because I am too rigid.  Inevitably, I need for him to do things MY WAY.  That is not art.  That is pretend photocopying.

The book presents a technique but then cleverly embeds opportunities for more open-ended results.  Other mothers have told me that this allows for more satisfaction on the part of the child.  photo: eeBoo
How Can Art Be "Taught"?  Especially at Home...

I know this is not a smart approach so I sought help in a wonderful new drawing book that I found at the Toy Fair.  What caught my eye was the artwork on the books.  If you like eeBoo products, you may feel a connection because you will recognize the style.   This recognition component should not be underestimated because learning something new can be a little scary but if the "teacher" is someone you've seen during "playtime" (ie. eeBoo games and other products), then learning could possibly become less frightful.

But let's face it, there are certain things that are tough to learn at home, like SAT prep, Taekwondo via DVD, glassblowing through a textbook...  you just can't beat real-life lessons.  But if you see the Drawing Book with Melissa Sweet, you will feel like a teacher is there, guiding you step-by-step.  It's hard to explain what I mean so I sought some help from Petra Pankow.

Petra is an arts educator who teaches in globally-recognized museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim.  I especially sought her advice as she has experience in having developed children's curriculum for the Museum of Art and Design.  I also love picking her brain because she was educated in Europe and so I like seeing her viewpoint about art and education here on the other side of the Atlantic. Even though I love art and am exploring how teaching design is great for children,  I know I need help here so I have asked Petra to help Toys are Tools figure out the best way to use these products.  We started with this simple but very cleverly-designed book that teaches design and allows children to experiment with drawing in 3D, shadows, building, animals. etc.

The word "clever" would come up often when we discussed this book.  Petra's first impression was, "I like how the book created a certain structure without actually limiting things too much.  I think it is still very wide open."  

I love how work spills out of these "workbooks" and my child ends up going through sheet after sheet of blank paper.   It's as if a teacher is hidden between the pages.  This is definitely creating "outside of the box."  Here is Number 2's truck within a truck. 

I was so happy to hear her say that because I need structure to help facilitate this learning process but I really agreed with Petra about how the book encourages a child to create his own work. It's hard to explain but it effectively manages to emit a hidden message of "there is no wrong answer."

Petra warned against other methods that you don't see in eeBoo's Drawing Book that basically tell a child, "Do this and do that." (Oh gosh, that sounds like me!)   "In the end, you know exactly one way to do something but you know you can’t really think outside of the box."

The skill of "thinking outside of the box" is all I need to hear to change my ways of saying, "hey make a face" or "let's make a family,"  which is really my way of saying, "hey, you have to make something that I can recognize."  I know.....  I expect too much.

While Petra is a strong believer of leaving kids alone until they are about 5 or 6 years old (Drawing Book is recommended for 5+), she is a parent herself and works with families in her work as an educator.  She kindly sympathized with my need and the happiness I feel when Number 2 comes home with something I can actually name.   "It’s exciting and there no way to claim that it’s not exciting," Petra shared.  It's nice to know that my need to see recognizable things in a preschooler's artwork is human even if it's a little unfair.  Thanks Petra. 

Here is an example of me moving too fast.  The page prior to this is about drawing letters and even creating "your own alphabet" if you like.  Clearly Number 2 wanted to do letters on this day.  Still, I know he is getting some of this.  The 3D stuff was done by Number 1 and myself.

Step-by-Step to Clearer Self-Expression

Petra helped me notice other important attributes including how the book leads a child through the lessons, very carefully, step-by-step.  "One thing builds on the next, and so almost without noticing, you actually find yourself in the position that you are able to do certain things that you couldn’t do five minutes earlier."

So does that mean you can't skip a page?  Actually no.  She gave me permission to skip some pages that I thought might be too hard for my little guy.  This was a relief.  Luckily Number 2 can help out here and there are plenty of lessons he can do himself. *

"Every-double page** sets a new challenge and a new tone and so I think it’s very easy to skip around even though I think there is a certain gradual development throughout the pages.  So it might be beneficial to go from the front to the back."  

Number 1 practices prisms and cubes.  He's fascinated by them.  Here he is trying to practice envisioning where the lines go so that they can appear to be solid rather than hollow outlines.

Open-Ended Art Vs. Art with Directions

Petra said something to me about her work as an arts educator that I will never forget, "Every time I set an assignment for my students, it’s successful if everybody comes up with a different result."  she told me.   This is what she thinks of when she teaches a class.  I love that.

"I think the book nudges you intensely through certain directions and really keeps you at something," Petra explained but then quickly added, "But at the same time you don’t have to have it like the model in the book."  Petra continued, "You could have it different and you still perfectly fulfilled the assignment."

However, with the last page of the book, I found something that didn't look so open-ended to me at all. It was about completing what I call "half-pictures."  That looked too hard for Number 2 but Petra changed my mind. 

"It really encourages you to look closely and from this close observation, you can try to imitate what is there.  For example when copying the pattern, you really have to investigate them in order to get it right."
This is part of the end of the book where the child is ask to "finish the picture."  Even though we are all about open-ended here, Petra actually thinks it's a good idea to do something as directed as this.  I think it's fitting that this assignment is at the end of the book.

See the World with Your Pencil

"One of the assignments that I do in the museums is sometimes I just let them draw an object before actually talking about it,"  Petra said.  "Because I think drawing is definitely a great way of looking also because if you are trying to copy something, you are forced to automatically analyze how it is put together."

That sounded great to me.  As with the game Palette that was recently reviewed, I do want to encourage my kids to pay attention to detail.  Now I've learned one more way to practice that.  Awesome!
Truth be told, we will take a while to get to those last pages in the book because we are still having a blast with the first few pages.  I think this "workbook" is probably the first workbook I saw where kids finish the page and then grab blank sheets of paper to keep the lesson alive.  That's incredibly impressive and probably is the greatest indicator that this teaching tool is effective in teaching!  And this is all incredibly fun too.  From the most popular review in this website to date, I learned from another museum educator and multimedia artist, David Wells that if the student is continuing to explore more after a lesson.... the teacher's mission, or rather in this case, a teaching book's mission has been perfectly accomplished.

Read more about Melissa Sweet here and in a blog post about her in 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast.

This Drawing Book is one of three separately sold new books by eeBoo.  Reviews will come eventually but here are photos of the other books if you'd like to see the covers.  I haven't seen "Learn to Draw" yet but it might be simpler than the Drawing Book reviewed here.   photo: eeBoo
This book has not been reviewed yet either but it looks like it is definitely harder and the suggested age is 7+.  photo: eeBoo

*prevent future fights...  if you have two kids, just get two books.  They feel great.  The pages are thick!
**all lessons are cleverly presented in a double page format.

Pick up a copy through my Amazon link, click picture:

Disclosure statement: Toys are Tools has not been compensated in any fashion by the manufacturer or retailer of any of the mentioned products for the publication of this post.  The product was given to Toys are Tools and to the expert above to facilitate a review.  Reviews are never promised.   


  1. Sounds pretty interesting, especially considering both of my two older children love to draw and love Art. Very interested in picking one up !

  2. My daughter loves to draw. These books look very different from what I've seen out there. Thanks for sharing.

  3. To extend the experience for your kids, pick up Melissa Sweet's wonderful children's picture books. She's an award winning (including Caldecott Honor) illustrator.

  4. drawing is HUGE in our house right now. We go through reams of recycled paper. I think that the freedom and structure contained in this book would help sharpen our children's skills while providing fun freedom. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. I have to say, I am finally starting to like Facebook. Melissa Sweet dropped by the Facebook page for Toys are Tools to leave some nice words but I was ecstatic to see that she posted Number 2's picture on her Facebook page. I don't know if I'm more happier as a reviewer or as a mom. But to affirm what Melissa Sweet said on her page, yes, the book really works. Here is the link for her Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/MelissaSweetIllustration

    And thank you Cathryn Falwell for your comment. I am so sorry I missed such an important detail. Find out more at: http://melissasweet.net/ And don't forget to play the concentration game (section: Make Stuff)

  6. My son was just asking me about how to draw something's. thanks!