Former preschool art teacher produces series of children’s books on artists

Judy Lee, author and illustrator of “Monet and the Waterlily Friends”

By Earn Saenmuk

When Judy Lee, a 28-year-old freelance graphic designer in Urbana, got a job offer to become a preschool art teacher, she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified — she wasn’t sure if she could actually work with children or not. She planned to reject the offer; however, all her friends encouraged her to take the job.

“Every year I thought, ‘This is temporary,’ but all my friends kept telling me it’s going to be worth it,” Lee said. “That’s how I stayed for three years.”

When she started, there was no teaching material or curriculum at all. She took advice from parents and other teachers and created her own materials on fine artists. She used puppets and pictures to tell the children stories about famous artists. Her students had fun and, after a while, started to recognize the work of famous artists in the world, which she feels is a great accomplishment.

“I had a two-year-old bring in an art book and she couldn’t talk yet,” Lee said. “Her mom put a note that says, ‘Ella wants to show this to you.’”

After visiting “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” an exhibition at the New York Public Library, she was inspired to come up with an affordable book people and schools can use to learn about artists. She wanted to use this book to express her idea of art education for preschool students. She thinks art is very flexible, not restricted to just learning how to draw objects or learning the meaning of each color.

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She chose to profile Claude Monet, a French impressionist painter, for her first book, “Monet and the Waterlily Friends.“

“Monet is my favorite,” Lee said. “I think I like him because he was so different, and he made this significant contribution to the visual art world.”

The book is meant to be an art lesson guidebook for parents and teachers. It consists of three parts: a graphic novel without words, a short story for children to read with their parents or teacher and an activities section children can do along with the story.

She started the project small. Publishing children’s books is very competitive, so she put the project on to garner recognition. The project has received positive feedback, and although her initial fundraising goal of $5,000 has been met, she’s still receiving more funds for her possible “stretch goals.” These additional goals will allow her to upgrade the book, its cover, create supplementary videos and begin work on other potential books in the series.

She originally planned to market toward families with small children, but many of her friends were eager to help fund the book.

“It’s amazing how many people have shown interest in the project,” Lee said. “Many of my friends have helped me reach the goal.”

She thinks children should be allowed to think creatively and expressively as children can do amazing things with art. In art, she said, it is OK to be different. Children shouldn’t feel limited by their drawing abilities as there are many other tools and methods now available to express their ideas.

“After three years of teaching and talking to people, my conclusion was that creative thinking is the most important,” Lee said. “It’s not about the product, but it’s getting the kids to think flexibly.”

Following this project’s completion, she plans to make books about other artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock. She also has plans for other media in addition to the books as well. The book is expected to be published in September.

Earn can be reached at [email protected].