Deborah Melmon (California) is the illustrator of all 20 Mouse Math titles by Kane Press, and is thus arguably the world's most prolific mathematics story illustrator!
To learn more about the Mouse Math series, and find out where you can purchase them, simply click on the covers below.
We hope you enjoy reading Deborah sharing her experience of working on the Mouse Math series with you!
First thing first, can you tell us three interesting/weird facts about you :-)
How would you describe your relationship with mathematics (and mathematics learning) when you were younger? And now?
As a child, I tested high in math and was placed in an advanced program in the sixth grade. It was an experimental program, and I remember a lot of frustration. However, as I progressed through my education, I did well. I finally stopped taking math classes in my senior year in high school. Before I entered art school I got a degree in technical illustration where I used quite a bit of math and measurements, drawing exploding views of machinery and architectural floor plans and renderings. But nowadays, as a children's book illustrator, I tend to rely on the the calculator on my iPhone.
Could you tell us how you became involved the 'Mouse Math' project?
I got an email from Juliana Hanford at Kane Press in 2011. She had seen my portfolio online and was interested in my work because of my sense of humor and ability to capture expressions. It really was a perfect fit for me as the stories were charming and so well written. I learned so much creating the relationship between the older sister, Wanda, and her younger brother Albert.
What was your first reaction when you knew you were going to illustrate a picturebook with an explicit mathematical focus?
I remember the publisher, Joanne Kane, telling me that she wanted math books with a picture book feel which really excited me! And I was thrilled to be working on a series. I had no clue what I was getting into with regards to how long I would end up working on these books, but I had a good feeling that it was going to be a great experience. And it was for sure!
What were some of the key stages that you went through in illustrating ‘Mouse Math’ titles?
Character development was a big part of these books and was where I started. As each book progressed, more and more characters were added. (At one point I created a family tree to keep track of them all.) Lots of time was spent making each mouse look distinct and recognizable in each book. Sketching the layouts, first roughly, and then more refined was the next stage. I was given very specific notes to follow so there was no guessing on my part on what needed to be included on each page. After the sketches were approved, I created the final art. Most of the work was digitally painted in Photoshop.
Which of these stages did you find most difficult, and why?
I would say designing and painting all the mice was probably the most difficult part of these books. Some of the stories had 10 different mouse characters and they all appeared on each page. In 'Where's Albert?', I painted hundreds of mice in their Scout uniforms. It was very fun to create but took some patience to paint them all!
On average, how long did it take you to illustrate each 'Mouse Math' title?
On average it probably took six weeks for each book, although that does not include the time for the publisher to review the sketches. We created four books per year for five years.
Did you find your experience illustrating a mathematical picturebook very different from illustrating a non-mathematical picturebook?
There definitely was a difference. The illustrations had to be very literal and pretty much mimic what the text was describing. There were also a lot of thought bubbles used to enhance what Albert was thinking. Objects that were important to the math concept ran across the bottom of pages as small icons. Sort of a summary of what was going on in the story with regards to the math so the reader did not get confused.
When you planned for page illustrations (particularly those that are mathematical in nature), what did you have to consider?
Mostly I tried to stay very close to the direction that the editors gave me and to make sure that actions that related to the math concepts were creatively integrated into the picture but also very clear to the reader. Fun expressions and poses, a variety of points of view, and bright colors were key.
How much autonomy did you have in coming up with the settings and characters?
I was given a tremendous amount of freedom, which is why these books were such a joy to work on. Although everything was reviewed, there were very few changes to my original ideas. Some books required more research than others with regards to environments, but I was given lots of freedom to create my own little worlds for the mice. They had their own town, county fair, and explored the people house and backyard.
Some maths story authors/illustrators prefer to have a context and setting as close to children’s real-world experience as much as possible. Some prefer fantasy. In the context of mathematical stories, what is your preference, and why?
Well, I think I got the best of both worlds with these books. The mice were pure fantasy in that they were anthropomorphized characters, but their living space and day-to-day life were children's real-world experiences. Albert starts school, they have their own scout troop, Albert and Wanda have friends and parents and grandparents. It was definitely more fun and somewhat easier to have their settings be more realistic.
On reflection of your experience illustrating ‘Mouse Math’ titles, how would you comment on the diversity of the story’s’ characters?
Kane Press and the authors did a great job with the diversity. Wanda, Albert's older sister, was a strong female character. She had enormous patience with her younger brother who had a lot of not-so-well-thought-out ideas. There were mice of all shapes and sizes and ages. And, of course, there were brown, black, gray, white and spotted mice...and a very fierce yellow cat named Groucho...!
What do you think are some of the key benefits of helping children to develop their mathematical understanding by reading maths picturebooks?
The picture books give kids an earlier start on learning math concepts. Fun characters and stories keep them interested and wanting more. Learning math when I was a kid was frustrating and tedious. Picture books are a creative way to supplement the learning process and make it much less intimidating.
"Trying to create something on your own speeds up the learning process and stimulates thinking. Kids will retain more information if they have tried to create something on their own."
What do you think are some of the key benefits of helping children to develop their mathematical understanding by authoring/illustrating their own maths picturebooks?
Trying to create something on your own speeds up the learning process and stimulates thinking. Kids will retain more information if they have tried to create something on their own. Using your imagination is always a good thing and creating a picture book requires problem solving and is just really fun!
For teachers and parents who want to encourage their children to create their own maths picturebooks at school or at home, but not sure how to guide them through the illustrating process, what would be your advice?
First, create a fun character. Have them draw it in several different poses. Decide on a math problem or concept and create a simple story around that idea. Before you start drawing the art, place the story's text on each page. That will help decide what you draw. Keep it simple.
For teachers and parents who want to become professional illustrators, what would your advice be?
"The MathThroughStories.org website is a wonderful resource for parents and teachers. The database research and recommendations are particularly useful to help find picture books that relate to specific math concepts."
What do you think of the research that we do and the resources that we provide to teachers and parents on our MathsThroughStories.org website?
The MathThroughStories.org website is a wonderful resource for parents and teachers. The database research and recommendations are particularly useful to help find picture books that relate to specific math concepts. Takes the work out of searching for books and offers up suggestions that parents or teachers might not initially consider. It's great to see a listing of so many picture books that relate to math. I never realized there were so many.
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Deborah Melmon from Albert Helps Out by Eleanor May. Kane Press. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Deborah Melmon from Bravo, Albert! by Lori Haskins Houran. Kane Press. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Deborah Melmon from Where's Albert? by Eleanor May. Kane Press. All Rights Reserved.