— by Sue A. Miles
The following is reprinted, with thanks, from the Buckingham (Virginia) Beacon.
If you were lucky enough to be read to as a child, or if you have experienced the joy of reading to your own children or grandchildren, then you know the importance of the illustrations in children’s books. The soft drawings of Garth Williams’ work in Little House in the Big Woods, Eloise Wilkin’s cherub children in the classical We Help Mommy, or Maurice Sendek’s friendly monsters in Where the Wild Things Are; such illustrations remain in your mind as visual masterpieces.
Add to that list, Buckingham’s own Cris Arbo, who just recently published, along with Florida author Marianne Berkes, What’s in the Garden?—a sweet and informative book about gardens, food, and the natural world, with Arbo’s glorious illustrations bringing alive the sounds, smells, and life of the text. What’s so special about the illustrations is that many of the children in the book are from the local area, all making the book even more unique.
Arbo, who moved to Buckingham County in the 1990’s, has been an illustrator for over 40 years. Living in New Jersey, London, New York, and now Buckingham, Arbo has worked on projects for PBS, illustrated book covers, on magazine and animination projects, and on classic works such as The Hobbit and Beatrice Potter. “A company had me take Potter’s book illustrations, which were very small, and reproduce them in a larger format, so they could sell them on posters and calendars,” she said. “During that time, we didn’t have the technology to blow up a drawing, as it would become distorted.”
Her most recent work, What’s in the Garden?, is a classic example of not only her incredible talent, but also for her love and respect for nature. “I’ve been illustrating for Dawn Publications for several years,” said Arbo. “What attracted me to that company is their commitment to nature awareness books for children. I’m a nature freak.” What’s in the Garden? offers a simple, rhyming format for children about what comes out of a garden. The text provides hints about a possible fruit or vegetable, while Arbo’s illustration shows the plant. The next page pictures a child eating a garden salad or holding a blueberry pie, along with a simple, adult guided, recipe designed to stimulate the child’s appetite for food, as well as for nature. The back of the book has informational sections on the featured fruits and vegetables, how they grow, and a list of other garden books, songs, and websites. All surrounded by Arbo’s vibrant and detailed illustrations.
The process that produces such a visual masterpiece is not a simple one. “The publisher sends you a manuscript with a deadline,” said Arbo. “I then turn in sketches to show them what I plan to do. I do them fast as they are just ideas in my head.” Once given the OK, Arbo then begins the task of collecting photos and material of what she plans to draw; then the drawing board process begins. “This particular book took 15 months to produce,” said Arbo. “There’s no normal when it comes to illustrating. I use an illustration board which has a special surface for water color or acrylic. I make a pencil drawing on the board, fill in colors with transparent water colors, and then work in the details, using acrylic paint, colored pencils for texture, fine point pens and ink for the tiny details.”
Arbo notes that some illustrations take longer than others, because of the fine details. “Because it’s realistic and it’s a teaching tool for children, I have to make sure it’s correct.” Thus, if you see a flower or a bug in a picture, that flower would be blooming during the time that the tomato plant had tomatoes or the blueberries were ripe. “The tomato plant in the book has ladybugs and aphids on it,” said Arbo, “because that’s what a child would likely see if they were looking at the plant in a garden.” If you look at all the drawings, such fine details make the illustrations not only real but also come alive with color and action.
Even more special is that most of the featured children are from the area and the background scenes are local. “I asked one of our area schools to suggest children to use,” said Arbo. “I wanted to make sure I had a variety of children in the book to reflect our society.” That means that salad-eating Ethan Williams is from Buckingham; Mini Wallace, the little girl harvesting carrots, is the daughter of Buckingham’s extension agent; and Albert Yeung, who is eating broccoli, is the son of the China Restaurant owners in Dillwyn. Arbo also incorporated the publisher’s children into the illustration as well as her own youngest daughter and, just for fun, her husband from his elementary school picture.
The background scenes are also local. “The pumpkin plant is from my neighbor’s garden,” she said. “The blackboard in the broccoli picture came from Buckingham Primary and the apple blossoms are from a tree down the street. I had to go to a farm in Appomattox to take a picture of celery growing.” Arbo also has a huge morgue of photos for references, including nature magazines and books.
Mornings are Arbo’s most productive time of the day. “Because of the detail of the work, I can’t draw more than five hours a day. I have to hold very still and get right up on the board. I take a break and do some yoga and then continue in the afternoon. I never draw at night.” Arbo is currently working with Dawn Publications, located in Nevada City, California, on the book’s promotion. “We make contact with every library and school in Virginia, as well as newspapers, magazines, and television stations,” she said. She also does book talks and signings and will be part of the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. She hopes to begin a project with her husband, Joseph Anthony, which will sequel A Dandelion Seed, a children’s book written by Joseph and published several years ago.
Because Arbo has a great respect for the Buckingham County school division, she dedicated the book: “To all the teachers, staff, and students in Buckingham County. You all are great!”