On Frosting and Broccoli

As presented to a meeting of Jesuits at “Search for Meaning,” the 2010 Pacific Northwest Spirituality Book Festival, Feb. 13, 2010. Also at College Community Mennonite Brethren Church, Fresno, April 4.

Hi! I’m Ingrid Hess and I teach graphic design at the University of Notre Dame. I’m an illustrator, a professor of design and a writer of kids’ books. I’m not a theologian, and the prospect of presenting to a group of theologians is both daunting and intriguing to me. I’ve decided to talk about what I think is important in creating children’s books. But before I talk about my books specifically, I want to give you a bit of background on myself because my past greatly affects how I think about my work.

My mother grew up Amish and my father grew up conservative Mennonite. I was raised in both a Mennonite family and a tight Mennonite community. While Mennonites are not showy, a definite aesthetic touches much of what they create. This aesthetic embodies what the Arts and Crafts movement sought to resurrect: functional beauty. Old Mennonite quilts are known for their dark colors, consistent geometric designs and exquisite stitching. While these quilts have become collectors’ items for their beauty and high quality, their original intent was warmth. Mennonite toys and furniture also are well crafted and have simple lines and are also made to perform specific functions as well.

Though I was primarily raised in a Mennonite community, I was born in Costa Rica, where I spent four of my childhood years. While there, I was exposed to Costa Rican art. A close childhood friend also exposed me to Haitian art. There are certainly differences in the art of these two cultures, but they share some common features. They both deal with bright colors and flat shapes. Accurate perspective and realism are far less important than whimsy and narrative. It is clear that my art has been very influenced by both the Mennonite aesthetic and Haitian and Costa Rican art.

Time passed, and I found myself at Goshen College, graduating from there in 1990 with a degree in Psychology. After three years of traveling, doing voluntary service and working as a secretary, I decided I needed to regroup and figure out what I really wanted to do.

I decided to pursue an MFA in Graphic Design at Indiana University, Bloomington. While there, I focused on book design and was drawn to non-computer processes like silk-screen, letterpress and hand bookbinding. After graduate school, I moved to Chicago to pursue my career.

In the twelve years I was there two major things occurred. First, I solidified my love of book design. I worked for three years as the head of the book division at Kym Abrams Design. My sole client for those three years was American Girl, a brand I continue to both love and hate. After Kym Abrams Design, I worked at McDougal Littell, a publisher of textbooks, working on Literature, Spanish, Social Studies and Geography programs.

The second major development was that I began to have strong doubts about what I believed. This change was quite unsettling. I had always used my faith as a compass for how to live. When I started experiencing doubt, I wasn’t sure what guidelines to use. The Muslim faith has never felt like my calling, but I did very much admire that their teaching is based on five things one should do, rather than ten things that one shouldn’t.

One day I was listening to NPR. Terri Gross was interviewing an atheist, humanist Rabbi who was a chaplain at Harvard. He told a story about asking people what they believed, and they would answer, “I’m an atheist.” His response was, “I didn’t ask you what you don’t believe in, I asked you what you do believe in.”

While I consider myself to be and intelligent, insightful person, it came as a big sea-change to me that I could believe in things other than God. One of the most comforting things I discovered was that I still believed in many of the teachings of Christ, the beatitudes in particular. I started making mental lists of what I believed in. They read something like this:

• I believe in peace and justice.

• I believe that economic disparity is the cause of much of the strife in the world.

• I believe that with privilege comes responsibility to help those who don’t have privilege.

I also realized that I believed in things that have had a very direct influence on my work.

• I believe that diversity in children’s books is vital. Children must see themselves reflected in books.

• I believe that there are not enough female heroines in children’s books.

• I believe that there is not just one kind of family, and that children’s books should reflect that diversity.

At about this same time I began to have some success with publishing. After 14 years of submitting illustrations to publishers I finally got a bite. Herald Press, a small Mennonite press, sent me a story about a child taking a peace walk and wondered if I wanted to illustrate it. I was thrilled, because I believe that exposing children to values early is key to affecting lifelong choices.

My second book was Sleep in Peace. I wrote the text for this book, as well as illustrated it. Sleep in Peace struck a chord. I heard from many adult readers, saying that they had been looking for a children’s book with a strong emphasis on cultural diversity. It won the Rodda Award, which recognizes a book that has contributed significantly to congregational libraries through promotion of spiritual growth.

A year and a half ago another big change occurred in my life. I was contacted by the Design department at Notre Dame and asked if I wanted to teach their class in Graphic Design. While most people don’t accidentally become professors at Notre Dame, that is what happened to me. I had never intended to teach but I was ready for a change. I had lectured at Notre Dame many times and felt at home on the campus. I decided that such a chance was a great opportunity and should be accepted.

At Notre Dame I have been exposed to a group of faithful people who have an aesthetic quite different from the one I am accustomed to. Mennonites value simplicity, a quality often apparent in their places of worship. Catholics value ornateness, a quality also often apparent in their places of worship.

While it is easy to see differences between these two groups. I find their similarities far more interesting. As I learned more about the Catholic faith, I discovered that Catholic social teachings overlap a lot with the Mennonite values I hold dear.

Although I work on books that contain overt religious language, I am not at all opposed to working on books that don’t. Creating a book with good values can take many forms. Religion is one of them. My current book, to be published this spring, is a children’s book on Fair Trade. I chose this theme because I think that for social movements such as Fair Trade to survive, the youngest generation must be empowered and involved. There is a lack of child-appropriate information on this subject. Because of this void, I decided to tackle this challenge.

Thanks to the generous support of The University of Notre Dame I was able to travel to Ghana, India, Nepal and Vietnam this summer to visit Fair Trade artisans and learn more about how their lives are positively affect by the program. Based in part on what I saw while traveling I was able to write the book, Think Fair Trade First.

This book can be enjoyed by three different groups. Young children will be most interested in the fictional story that follows two kids in search of a birthday gift for their mother. Older children and adults will get more out of the nonfiction sidebars that explain Fair Trade. Finally, on every spread of the book I have hidden a ladybug. While very young children won’t yet understand the fiction or nonfiction parts of this book, they will be able to engage with it by finding the bug.

In attending several children’s book conferences, a common saying I hear is, “Children’s books should be more frosting than broccoli.” I agree. Children’s books should:

• open up creativity

• make a child feel powerful and important

• make a child feel loved

• teach a child to love reading

What better way to do that than through fun, imaginative stories that don’t clobber the child over the head with a moral? Of course, a kids’ book on Fair Trade is hardly Where the Wild Things Are. But the saying is “more frosting than broccoli,” not no broccoli. Read voraciously to the children in your life and intersperse a broccoli book every so often. That does make a difference.

The example I can point to concerns recycling. I’m not sure many children begged to be read books on recycling. But as a society, that is what we did. For the past thirty years we have educated our children about the importance of taking care of the planet. When I was eight, if someone asked me what recycling was, I probably would not have had much of an answer. Now, if I ask a child the same question, I can get quite an earful. These kids will be more committed recyclers as adults than many adults from my generation.

I don’t yet know what my next project will be. I am currently investigating options. What I do know is that I consider it a privilege to be part of the world of children’s books, and I hope to continue contributing to it in years to come.

About the Author

Ingrid Hess

Ingrid Hess, who graduated from Goshen College and earned an MFA degree from Indiana University, teaches graphic design at the University of Notre Dame. Earlier she worked for the commercial publishers Kym Adams Design (1996-99) and McDougal-Littell (1999-2008) in Chicago, illustrating books for children. In 2008 her book Sleep in Peace was given the Rodda Book Award by the Church and Synagogue Library Association for “promotion of spiritual growth” in readers. In 2009 she received a grant from Notre Dame for travel in India, Nepal, Vietnam and Ghana, researching Fair Trade locations for her most recent book for children and their parents, Think Fair Trade First (2010). After submitting final copy for her essays in this issue of the web journal, she left for Kenya to paint a mural on the walls of a children’s hospital.