UA Art Students Illustrate Books for Statewide Reading Initiative

A cartoon of a child swinging in a swing.
Charlie Cruz, “I can go up the swing.” illustration for “Playing at the Park.”

Nine student illustrators are helping bring original reading books to life for students in grades 1-3 across the state.

In partnership with businesses, civic groups, and higher education institutions, a statewide literacy program, Reading Allies, will train community volunteers to work through individually designed lessons with striving readers. Each lesson consists of multiple books, and some of those books will be illustrated by UA department of art and art history majors.

Reading Allies is a forward-thinking University of Alabama System statewide initiative to help students from first grade through third grade improve their reading skills. The original proposal was written by UA System Chancellor emeritus Dr. Robert Witt, Dr. Elizabeth Wilson, senior associate dean in the College of Education, and Vicki Holt, Coordinator of Educational Outreach for the Honors College. Begun in Tuscaloosa through a collaborative effort among The University of Alabama Honors College, the Tuscaloosa Rotary Club, and the Tuscaloosa City Schools, the program became the model for statewide expansion. Reading Allies, which was launched in September, was awarded the $75,000 McMahon-Pleiad Prize by the UA System Board of Trustees, which will provide initial financial support for the program.

cartoon of a boy standing by a sporty red convertible.
Cover illustration by Jacob Gore for the book “My Car” by Vicki Holt.

The initiative, which will put 220+ reading books in each designated school they work with, determined the need for more books at the foundational reading level. The Reading Allies team, including Holt, who serves as director of Reading Allies, Claire Stebbins, assistant director, and Markie Morrison, development associate, decided to write their own and ask student artists to illustrate them.

“While Vicki was writing the books, Markie put a general call out to students in both the art department and Honors College for volunteer illustrators,” explained Claire Stebbins. Seven of the nine students who volunteered are studio art majors in the department of art and art history. They met with the Reading Allies team to find out about their assignments and how they should approach the illustrations. “The books are geared towards beginning readers, so they need to be easily understood, kid-friendly images,” said Stebbins.

cartoon of a dog lying down in a doghouse.
Emily Bookmiller, “Here is Dot in the doghouse.” illustration for “Dot”

The student illustrators used a variety of media, from watercolor or colored pencil to digital media software like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. The books themselves are about 8.5 x 6.5 inches and will be printed and bound in February for the first phase of distribution.

Stebbins explained that the team gave the artists their story assignments and some initial instructions. “Periodically, students sent drafts of their work to see if they were on the right track and we sent edits and recommendations as needed.

“Their work has been fantastic and we have only suggested minor edits here and there,” Stebbins said. “There has been a lot that has gone into this entire initiative, and it truly could not work without the help of students.”

Annie Immel, a junior majoring in studio art and advertising, used Adobe Illustrator to create her illustrations. “I knew I needed to keep things playful and simple. I went with bright colors for a simpler look,” Immel said.

“I was looking for a way to give back to my community and was able to use my talents…After reading about Reading Allies, I knew it was the perfect thing for me to do. I have had so much fun illustrating three books and helping the stories come to life.”

BFA major in graphic design Allie McGilberry also used Adobe Illustrator and said this was her first time illustrating a book. “I wanted to keep in mind all of the kids that don’t get to see themselves in movies and books – the little black girls who only have one Disney princess that looks like them. I want every kid to feel included in any way I can.”

The student illustrators

Drawing of a girl sliding down a slide.
Mary Eliza Beaumont, “Mom comes down the slide,” illustration for “The Slide.”

Mary Eliza Beaumont (freshman general business major from Birmingham); Emily Bookmiller (sophomore BFA major in digital media, with a double minor in BUI and advertising, from Lancaster, NY); Savannah Bullard (senior journalism major from Huntsville); Charlie Cruz (BA senior double major in studio art and psychology, from Northport); Amber Daum (senior BFA major in sculpture and double major in anthropology, from Ozark); Jacob Gore (junior BFA major in drawing, from Tuscaloosa); Annie Beth Immel (junior double major in advertising and studio art, from Mobile); Allie McGilberry (sophomore BFA major with a minor in general business, from Nashville); Anna Sella (senior BFA major in digital media and drawing, from Tuscaloosa); and Sarah Thomas (senior microbiology major from Chattanooga).

For more information about the programs in the UA Department of Art and Art History, go to this page or contact the department at (205) 348-5967.