"I shouldn't be here today. I should be in my studio like a good little artist," Floyd Cooper told the third- and fourth-graders gathered on the floor in front of him, as he showed them unfinished illustrations for a book.
But Cooper's light-hearted demonstration of how he illustrates children's books, and the youngsters' enthusiastic and many-questioned responses, belied the need for anyone to be elsewhere Thursday.
"I learned how to draw with an eraser," said Cooper, this year's visiting author-illustrator at St. Paul's Lower School in Brooklandville, where he spent the day with pupils in pre-first through fourth grades.
"Did you ever think of making a picture like that?" he asked, as he applied a kneaded eraser to the light brown oil paint slathered on an illustrator's board.
Working quickly, he erased the paint in one shape and then another, until the children could see the emerging face of an American Indian. Just as quickly, he added -- by subtracting paint -- hair, wrinkles and necklaces to the image, showing how smudging the eraser on the paint could create beads on the jewelry.
"I love getting out, talking to the kids," said Cooper, who lives in Orange, N.J., and did about 90 school presentations last year. "I used to think I had to do it. Now I just like to."
Since 1989, Cooper has used his eraser technique to illustrate more than 30 children's books, including two that he has written and at least one that has strong ties to Baltimore.
Many are biographies -- the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and Nelson Mandela, among them -- but his work also includes fiction and characters of all races and cultures.
"I strive to create books that are a bridge between cultures," he said. "Children's picture books play an important role in counteracting all the violence and other negative images conveyed in the media."
One of the recent books is "One April Morning," the thoughts and recollections of children involved in the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995. "I tried to put soft images with their words," he said.
"Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes" is the first book Cooper wrote and illustrated. His emotional drawings are matched by soft words that sketch the black writer's childhood and his lifelong search for the home:
"But the truth is Langston never had a home like most people," Cooper writes in the book's conclusion. "Home was in him. And it was about his black family that he wrote in words that reached his own people and all kinds of people of different races and different countries, all over the world."
The St. Paul's youngsters were most fascinated by the concrete aspects of Cooper's work -- how long it takes to draw one picture or a book, and how he knows what to draw.
"That's the hardest part of being an artist," Cooper answered. "The words have to come first. I have to read the story to get the pictures in my imagination." One book took him four days, he told them; another, five years.
For the past few weeks, the St. Paul's students have been immersed in Cooper's work, looking at and reading his books and listening to readings, said school librarian Winnie Flattery, who arranged the visit.
First-grader Alex Barton said his favorite Cooper work is a book he illustrated -- "Chita's Christmas Tree," a 1989 story by Elizabeth Howard with Baltimore roots. Howard based the story on childhood adventures of her cousin, Elizabeth "Chita" Shipley, who grew up here as the only child of a black physician early this century.
Howard visited Baltimore, remembered the stories Chita told, and turned them into children's books. In 1995, she wrote "Papa Tells Chita A Story," which Cooper illustrated.
Last year, Howard was the visiting author at St. Paul's.
Pub Date: 1/17/99