A Commitment to be a Lifelong Learner: Illustrator Eric Velasquez Visits the Fourth Grade

“I’m asking you to make a promise: to be lifelong learners.”  Before leaving the fourth grade classroom, Eric Velasquez gave the students this challenge.  “Go home tonight,” he continued, “and visualize your future self.  Don’t call up your friend.  Leave the technology alone.  Instead, go to your library and read.  Read about what you want to be.”

Eric Velasquez spent the morning sharing his story and his work as an illustrator and author with the fourth grade students at the Blackstone Innovation School.  His story begins in Spanish Harlem, where he was born to Puerto Rican parents and spent his childhood enjoying Batman and James Bond. He even shared photos of himself dressed in costumes that he would wear year-round!  Eric’s love of the original Avengers, Archie, and Batman comics helped him fall in love with storytelling.  His favorite character of all was T’challa, the Black Panther, a member of the original Avengers.  When Eric explained that T’challa, the King of Wakanda, is richer than Tony Stark (Iron Man), the class let out an audible gasp of surprise.  “The best thing about the Black Panther,” he went on to explain, “is that he looked like me when he took his mask off.”  When he would come across unfamiliar words in his comics, Eric would ask his mother.  Instead of giving him the answer, she would tell him, “Mira en el diccionario” (“Look in the dictionary”).  It was also during this time that Eric’s mother began to foster his love of drawing.  However, reading was a skill that did not come easily to Eric and he described being in Reading Group C during his time in early elementary school.  Yet, he was not discouraged and learned that reading was an important skill that required time.  

In high school, Eric learned that reading was not the only ability that would take time and practice.  He tried to join the school’s comic illustration group, comprised of the best artists in the school, but he was rejected.  Disappointed, but not discouraged, Eric took the advice of one of the group leaders.  In order to become a better artist, he needed to learn how to render form, and in order to do that, he would need to learn to paint.  With that, Eric joined a student painting group that met daily early before school.  After high school, Eric attended the School of Visual Arts and started working as an illustrator right out of college.  

As Eric shared a few of his numerous book covers, the fourth grade teachers excitedly recognized the Encylopedia Brown while the class remained lost on this piece of early 90s nostalgia.  

When asked why he became an illustrator, Eric Velasquez said that he fell in love with storytelling and wanted to do just that.  To share his creative process with the class, Eric told a story of his own.  Grandma’s Records was the first book Eric authored in addition to illustrating. While he shared his story of traveling to his Grandma's apartment on weekends,  Eric played salsa and merengue music and even danced while the students marveled at his story and illustrations.  Eric shared the covers of other books he has illustrated, including stories about Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, and Harry Houdini and well as jazz and the Underground Railroad, among many other stories.  However, the classes were most excited to learn that Eric illustrated two books written by Martin Luther King’s niece!  Finally, Eric described his creative process that produced his new book, Schomburg, The Man who Built a Library.  He shared pictures of the book’s manuscript, the book dummy, even pictures of himself modeling for a picture he used to help paint the book cover!!  As Eric talked about the multiple drafts that are required to create to paintings for the book, the teachers’ ears perked up.  “We are learning about the writing process,” the teacher explained, “and it is great to hear someone else share the importance of making multiple drafts!”

To close out his presentation, Eric showed off his illustration skills!  In each class, a student was selected to model and Eric drew his or her portrait.  While Eric drew, the class was held in captivation.  The students excitedly recognized the guidelines Eric drew to help shape the portrait-- they had learned the same technique in their art class!  While he drew, Eric encouraged the students to ask questions.  Some students were concerned about his level of fame and some asked about his skills.  “Practice, practice, practice.  I draw every day.  Even if I take a few days off, my drawing skills become rusty,” Eric told them.  Finally, Eric spoke to the importance of reading and writing in all careers.  “Reading and writing has made me a better artist,” he explained.  “If I couldn’t write, I would not have been able to write the essays that got me into art school.  If I couldn’t read, I couldn’t research and learn more about the topics that inspire me to make my illustrations.”  Again, the teachers were all delighted by his message!  

Eric Velasquez’s visit to the Blackstone was made possible by Wondermore, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing authors and illustrators into under-resourced schools, and Porter Square Books, whose donation provided each fourth grade student copy of Eric’s book The Sweet Smell of Roses.  Finally, a huge thank you to Eric Velasquez for sharing his time, his stories, and his talents with the fourth grade and for personally signing a book for each student!

By Maureen Burns, Senior Manager of School and Community Partnerships