“Yesterday I drove all the way from New York City to be here with you,” book illustrator Chris Soentpiet (Soon-peet) told Batesville Intermediate School third-graders Sept. 9 after they had plopped on the cafeteria floor.
Over the past 20 years, the award-winning artist has illustrated 17 children’s books by other authors and both written and illustrated four, including three with his wife of 18 years, Yin.
A screen containing covers of his works flashed on. One student whispered, “‘Saturdays and Teacakes’ is the best one.”
After he graduated from Pratt Institute in NYC, Soentpiet began teaching kindergarten there and created his first picture book, “Around Town,” published in 1992. “Just like my favorite illustrator, Norman Rockwell, used to do,” the watercolorist chose one of his students and her mother to pose for photos that ended up on the book’s pages and even its cover. He showed a hot summer day painting of fire hydrants opened for water play. Pointing at characters delighted by the spray, he said, “These are my old neighborhood friends .... I put a lot of small messages in the book just for fun.” One subway sign says 1370. He explained, “These numbers are my birthday.” His niece’s name, Katie, is sprinkled throughout the book. “I promised her. She really likes that.”
Preparations for his books are time consuming. The artist made a dragon out of clay to help him paint “The Last Dragon,” his second book about the Chinese New Year beast.
According to the Korean, “Once I start a book, I will go to my local elementary school” to find models. “They must be able to act, follow directions and cooperate. Of couse, I’m going to be paying you, so you have to cooperate!”
When Soentpiet collaborated on “Saturdays and Teacakes” with author Lester Laminack, who was a visiting artist here in March 2008, he drove to Laminack’s hometown in the South and took lots of photos of a boy who spends his Saturdays making cakes with his grandmother.