Inspiring Stories Series Part 3

An Inquiry into Illustrations and Artwork to Inspire Stories

 The children gathered around the teaching easel for their daily StoryMaking focus lesson, but today there was something new to view and study. The video screen was down and a piece of art was projected at the front of the room. Today, they were all going to study the artwork and illustrations in a book to help them imagine details in the stories they would go off and make. Michelle explained the process of how they were going to study and investigate the illustration. “First, we are going to stop and observe the illustration. Next, we are going to notice and name what we see. Finally, we are going to imagine what details we can use for our own stories.”

Children studied an illustration to imagine details that they could add in their artwork.


The children paused and looked at the first illustration, which was showing a picture of an angry character and expression. As the children were studying the illustration they were prompted to think about what colors, shapes and other details they noticed. They were also given a language prompt, “I see…”, to help them communicate what they noticed with the class.

“I see bright colors.”

“I see orange and red.”

“I see sharp lines.”

“I see pointy eyebrows.”

“I see messy hair.”

“I see fists.”

“I see a frown.”

Children study the art from The Way I Feel by Janan Cain.


 For a few weeks now the children had been exploring playing with loose parts organized by color in their makerspaces and making connections between the color and how they feel. In StoryMaking, the children learn how to both “story” and how to make. They had learned how to think of story ideas by imagining a strong feeling and selecting a colored material that matched that emotion. But today, the goal was to focus on developing the maker and the artist by learning from a mentor and creating vivid illustrations with a new material. Michelle introduced oil pastels to the class and the excitement instantly soared because they wanted to make strong colors just like the ones they had viewed in the illustrations. Michelle modeled a few ways to create lines and color on the paper by the showing the different ways to hold the pastel and rubbing the paper creating different textures, thicknesses and intenseness of color.

Michelle models a few ways to use the new art material, oil pastels.


The children were given time to pause and reflect after the focus lesson so they could imagine the story they wanted to play and make, what emotion they were exploring or what materials they wanted to go and play with during StoryMaking. The children had already been introduced to watercolors, markers and crayons. Therefore, the new oil pastels were added to the art makerspace for them to explore. As they turned and talked with a partner they shared their plan.

“I want to do scary and silly” Laliah said.

“I want to paint with watercolors. I want to paint happy” said Xavier.

The children all went off play with the material they chose and began to imagine, play and make their stories.

Anabel plays with the watercolors to make a time she felt excited. She explained that it would look like the person is happy.


After returning to the illustration that looked like happy and studying the details, Anabel continued to paint and make her story. When she was satisfied with what she made, she asked if she could tell me her story.

“Once upon a time, me and my grandmother were excited to see each other. Then we went to the park to play. And then we went home because we were sweating. Then we ate a snack and it was time to go and I had to say goodbye.”

 Anabel shared that she made her eyes into circles and her smile into a curve to show that she was happy. As she explained these details from her story, I asked where she saw these details before. She selected the illustration from the book and pointed to the face to show how those details from the illustrator had helped her make her details.

Anabel sharing her story and pointing out the details she learned from studying the illustrations.


Cali decided to play and make her story with the new oil pastels. When she was done making her art she asked, Sherlyn, if she could share her story. She explained that she made a happy story, but then something happened that made her sad. Sherlyn then shared her story that her and her mom were being silly. She continued by adding, “and then me and my dad were laughing so hard!” They pointed to their pictures and showed where they made the feelings in the artwork just like they had learned from the illustrator that day.

Cali and Sherlyn share their stories with each other using oil pastels.


The following day Cali chose to continue her story, but wanted to add more details using watercolors. She explained that she forgot to make the sky dark and that it was raining. She also forgot to draw an umbrella inside the house because they had forgotten to bring it and it was raining on her head. Yesterday she had imagined what emotions she wanted to represent in her story, but today with more play and a different material she started to make the details to tie her story idea together.

Cali continues to make her story by using watercolors.


Over the next few days children studied the work of the different pages representing emotions from the same illustrator. To support the study of the artist, Ms. Shannon provided copies of the illustrations in the art makerspace for the children to take with them and study as they were playing and making their artwork. She supported their work during her conferences by asking them to explain what they were making in their art, where they saw the technique applied in a piece of art, and then she even helped children notice specific details in the illustrations for children that needed more support.

Ms. Shannon confers with a student using an illustration to inspire his art.

 If you would like to inspire your own children to make stories in a creative way, try using an illustration or piece of artwork. Here are a few tips to support an inquiry into art prior to children writing a story.

  1. Select a piece of artwork (e.g. painting, illustration from book, collage) and have the children observe the image closely.
  2. If there are a lot of details in the artwork, help them focus and zoom into a specific part using a small cardboard square with the center cut out.
  3. Have children say what they notice in the artwork. Provide a language frame such as “I see…” to children who need support in communicating. You can also have describing word cards with matching pictures (e.g. colors, shapes) to allow children with special needs or children learning the language to fully participate in the inquiry.
  4. Provide one tip modeling a technique that the artist used or showing how to use a new material before children play and make for the day.
  5. Display multiple copies of the artwork in the makerspace so children can refer to easily and use as inspiration for their own making.


Happy StoryMaking!