Priscilla Burris lives life on the look-out for ways to give back to her community and her readers. She recalls two instances where excellent teachers set the bar high as role models. The first was Miss Yoshida, a third grade teacher who, when Burris was hospitalized with double pneumonia, asked the class to write letters. Miss Yoshida bound the messages into a booklet. At the time Burris experienced the pleasure those letters brought her, but looking back she recognizes and appreciates the thoughtfulness of the gesture.
Similarly, Burris remembers sometimes struggling to learn at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, portrayed in the 1987 movie Stand and Deliver. “I experienced the high and lows of high school,” Burris says. “I have lots of great memories.” But she also recalls the chaos of particular classes. Fortunately, her “thoughtful and kind-hearted” typing teacher, Mr. Scobie, took Burris and two of her friends under his wing. According to Burris, he took the “time to listen, [to] share his wisdom, and to get us involved [in] areas [where] we could make positive contributions to our school environment…He showed us it was possible to touch our hearts by treating us with respect and giving us hope and encouragement. I will always be so very grateful for Mr. Scobie.”
As a young twenty-something, Burris moonlighted during vacations from her job as an office assistant at a brokerage firm to teach preschool where she loved reading and drawing with her students. She simultaneously took classes in early childhood education. One memorable assignment required Burris to write and illustrate a children’s book. “A lightbulb went on,” she says. Drawing had occupied a lot of Burris’ free time—characters with kid-appeal seemed to appear out of nowhere in her sketch pad, as if “they wanted to be there.” In spite of her interest in art, she says, “I didn’t know being an illustrator for children’ books was even possible!” She embraced her new-found path.
An editor who had seen Burris’s business card on the bulletin board at an art supply store called with Burris’s first illustration job. “There was an image [on the card] of a little girl happily drawing,” she says. “The editor connected with that little girl. It reminded her of herself at that age.” A series of educational projects followed before Burris broke into the picture book and illustrated chapter book market.
Up to this point in Burris’s career as an artist for children’s books, she has most often illustrated the manuscripts of other authors. But she is poised to release a new book which she both authored and illustrated.
Burris strives to keep her drawings loose and unpredictable. She finds that too many revisions sap the energy from a piece. Additionally, as a preschool teacher she witnessed how the “cute” kids receive most of the teacher’s positive attention, so she embraces imperfection: the snaggle-toothed, glasses-wearing kid in mismatched socks for example. Burris sees each of her characters as a personality on the page. “All parts of that character—the hair, the clothing, the movements—are there to show off that personality,” she says.
When a new character appears in her sketchbook, Burris studies his personality and tries to figure out his back story. Perhaps the character bubbles like a kid she saw on a television commercial, or perhaps the character is quiet and reflective like the boy from her elementary school lunchroom who sat at a nearby table with a few sliced chilies—the kind served as a garnish. “That was all he had and that was normal for him,” Burris recalls. “I didn’t know how to process it then. I was left with a deep sense of wanting.” Now, she recognizes the feeling as empathy for the inequality of that boy’s situation and uses her art to help today’s kids build a bridge to understanding.
The theme of giving back pervades Burris’s illustrations for kids. “We give back with our books,” she says of herself and her author-illustrator colleagues. “[Creating books] is a universal feeling of giving back to others.”
Burris’s theme also extends to fellow illustrators. Since 1998, she has planned high-quality instructional and mentor sessions as the National Illustrator Coordinator & Advisor for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org).
“I care deeply about others and what they have to deal with,” Burris says. “I want to create joy and convey a sense of lightheartedness for my readers. I want them to know that they matter.”