Cartoonist's book helps children learn to take risks
Cartoonist Mark Pett noticed that many children turned reluctant in workshops when he tried to teach them drawing.
It didn't matter where the workshops were, whether in Philadelphia, Prague, Cambridge, Mass., the Mississippi Delta or in his native Salt Lake City.
"They didn't think they could draw or grew frustrated when they didn't draw an object or figure correctly for the first time," said the 41-year-old Pett.
The reaction distressed him slightly but also turned his thoughts to student days studying philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. William James, a famous proponent of pragmatism, suggested that useful ideas were best acquired through experimentation and risk. Without risk, people rarely progressed into maturity.
Drawing upon that first-hand knowledge, Pett worked with New York City-based writer and mathematics teacher Gary Rubinstein to create Beatrice Bottomwell, the central character of their new children's book, The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.
The book has launched a budding career as children's author and illustrator for Pett, currently touring the nation to read and sign his book and offer art demonstrations to children.
Pett drew political cartoons that were published in the Deseret News, The Salt Lake Tribune and City Weekly during the late 1990s. From 2001 to 2008, two of his cartoon strip creations reached national syndication. One of his strips, "Mr. Lowe," was based on his years teaching school in the Mississippi Delta.
His first children's book also draws on a personal element. It's the story of a girl who can't tolerate errors but learns to laugh at herself after a talent show number goes horribly wrong. The book aims to teach children to manage and even greet mistakes as part of life, not live in fear of them. "There's more than a little of Beatrice Bottomwell in me," Pett said. "I'm something of a recovering perfectionist myself."
Illustrating panels for the book's pages reminded him of that at almost every turn. Working with temperamental watercolors, he learned to concede a certain amount of control to fate.
Pett met his collaborator 10 years ago during a Teach for America reunion. Rubinstein said he had a more relaxed working style, mimicked by Beatrice's little brother Carl in the book.
"[Pett] wanted to read through the text several more times to make sure it was right," Rubinstein said. "I kept assuring him it was as near perfect as it could be."
A sentiment of panic and placidity is rendered to near perfection in perhaps the book's central panel. In it, Humbert the hamster, Beatrice's pet and accomplice in her first mistake, strikes a look of both solace and panic as he's about to puncture a balloon that will douse Beatrice with water.
"To some degree, he's at peace with what's about to happen, even if he's not happy with it," Pett said.
Pett and Rubinstein's book arrives just as educators are discovering the importance of trial-and-error in the learning process. Children who learn to cope with error, studies show, often turn out more successful than those who cannot, or avoid risk altogether.
While watercolors have taught him the value of risk and "letting go," the prospect of publishing another children's book, this time solo, has also taught him the value of his bachelor's degree in philosophy.
"It never occurred to me that a philosophy degree would help me with any kind of job," Pett said. "Ultimately, though, it's helpful in life."
Mark Pett reading
Pett is the author of the children's book The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes.
When • Saturday, Oct. 22, 11 a.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
When • Wednesday, Oct. 25, 7 p.m.
Where • Barnes and Noble, 7157 Plaza Center, West Jordan
Info • Free. Call 801-484-9100 or visit http://www.kingsenglish.com for more information. For Barnes and Noble event, call 801-282-1324.