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not your average colouring book

The Boy Who Paints, a hardcover children
The Boy Who Paints, a hardcover children's book by artist Richard Cole and author Jane Watt was shortlisted for a national book award this spring
— image credit: submitted image

An artist and an author, both from Fort Langley, had a brush with Canada-wide acclaim this spring, when they found themselves on the short list for a national book award.

The Boy Who Paints, by author Jane Watt and painter Richard Cole was considered by some pretty uncompromising judges for the top prize in the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award competition— a jury made up of a group of eight- and nine-year-old readers.

Watt and Cole were nominated for the award — which offers a $6,000 prize — to recognize artistic excellence in writing and illustration in English-language Canadian children’s literature for their collaborative effort.

The imaginative hardcover volume was one of five books nominated — it went up against two entries from Ontario and two from Quebec. The winning book, which is  selected by a jury of Ontario school children in Grades 3 and 4, is scheduled to be formally announced today (May 20).

Shortly before The Times went to press,  however, Watt and Cole learned they had not been successful in winning the prize.

Their book tells — in words and pictures — the story of a boy who, upon deciding to become an artist, begins producing literal interpretations of the objects he sees around him — in short, houses.

He fills canvases with houses and more houses, painted in dull shades of brown and grey.

Quickly growing tired of the monotony, the budding young artist comes to realize that there is, in fact, vibrant colour all around him — in everyday objects — which he can use to inspire his artwork.

Soon he is painting a bright yellow field inspired by, of all things, a garbage truck, a deep green forest called to mind by a recycling bin and a fiery red sky influenced by a stop sign.

In keeping with the boy’s artistic journey, Cole’s early images are painted in muted tones not often found in a children’s book, but quickly grow bolder as the young artist finds his inspiration.

Even more unusual, the main character is not painted in detail, but is instead depicted as a cut-out figure, made of paper trimmed from the pages of a dictionary.

The featureless face is quite deliberate, the author explains.

“We wanted the boy to be a kind of ‘every kid’ character, someone that readers could identify with, could see themselves as,” said Watt.

“He is made of dictionary pages that reflect his thinking and add a layer of vocabulary about art and art processes.”

The book is illustrated in a variety of media — watercolour illustrations with pen and ink, collage of art papers and cutouts.

“But the backbone of the book is Richard’s landscapes — which in real life are giant oil on canvas paintings,” Watts said.

Although scenery paintings have formed the bulk of Cole’s work in recent years, the opportunity to collaborate on a children’s book allowed the artist to revisit old styles and mediums.

“For the last decade, I have made my living as a landscape painter, but I find myself returning to figurative work as well,” he said.

After entering the contest, the author and artist were informed that their work had been selected by a team of librarians and booksellers from across Canada, to be judged by the elementary school students.

“The jury is given the shortlist created by ‘professionals,’” Watt noted. “It makes complete sense that the final selection is done by potential readers. The (young) jury takes its job very seriously.”

Although The Boy Who Paints, marks the first time either Watt or Cole has worked on a book specifically geared toward a younger audience, the project was a natural fit.

“Richard’s oldest son and my youngest son are the same age and we began talking about our work outside the kindergarten classroom,” said Watts.

Originally the two had discussed collaborating on a coffee-table-style art book, focusing on Cole’s landscape images.

“But he revealed that what he’d always wanted to do was to write a kids’ book. We began meeting for an hour a week to write the story — and then we’d go away with homework to do for the next week.

Often, said Watt, writers submit work to publishing houses and the text is sent from there to an illustrator — the writer and illustrator never meet.

This, by contrast, was truly a team effort, she said. “We were fortunate to collaborate the whole way — and we were able to come up with something far beyond our individual abilities.

“We wanted the book to be a treat for kids and for parents, too.” said Watt.

“We wanted it to continue to reveal itself over time, with people seeing new things in it each time they read it.  Having the confidence to try something new is the central message of the book, but we tried to get that across in many different ways — both in terms of the layered visual quality of the art and in terms of the text.

The story concludes with a brief lesson on primary and secondary colours.

“We wanted the book to be really useful to teachers — and it is. There are many extensions that can be made beyond its pages  — into art and colour theory, into issues of identity and self esteem, into determination, and into writing instruction,” explained Watt.

The Boy Who Paints was published by Fenton Street Publishing House in Fort Langley. It can be purchased online at

amazon.ca as well as at the Langley Chapters store and Wendel’s bookstore.

Meanwhile, authors are now being registered for the Fort Langley Festival of the Book to be held on July 1, 2014 at the Fort Langley Community Hall.

The free family event where, Watts and Cole will release their second book, The Girl Who Writes will run from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The pair’s second story “considers what it takes to be a writer, and tackles some of the same issues of determination and passion for the arts,” Watts said.

“We have workshopped it heavily with a panel of teachers so that it will be profoundly useful in the classroom in the same way as The Boy Who Paints.”

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