May 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Behind the Poster: Artist Calef Brown Talks with SLJ

Seeking to start conversations about dissent and tolerance, a children’s book illustrator created a stunning poster.


When SLJ subscribers opened up their February issue, they discovered a bonus: A fold-out poster that depicts a group of curious creatures, peaceably marching while carrying signs: “SAY NO TO RACISM;” “LOVE CONQUERS HATE;” “NO ONE IS ILLEGAL,” and so on. Painted in monochromatic tones, these concerned citizen critters convey a positive message of inclusivity and tolerance.

CalefBrownheadshotThe artist behind it is Calef Brown, whose children’s books include Flamingos On the Roof (HMH), Polkabats and Octopus Slacks: 14 Stories (HMH)Boy Wonders (S & S/Atheneum), and Greece! Rome! Monsters! (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Bks). The last was a favorite of my now-11-year-old son when he was five, and it’s still one of my favorites. Brown’s latest work is Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems About Just About Everything (Holt/Christy Ottaviano Bks), which won a Lee Bennett Hopkins honor award.

I recently caught up with Calef to chat about what led him to the creation of this striking and unique poster.

You were one of 110 artists/authors who contributed to Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out (Candlewick). Is there a connection between the spread illustration in that book and the poster?


Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out (Candlewick)

Calef: Yes, definitely. For that book, my assignment was to interpret freedom of speech. To me, the right to peacefully assemble and protest is a crucial aspect of that freedom. When I was a kid I attended what was then the largest anti-war protest in our history, the 1969 National Moratorium March on Washington. My best friend’s father was a Unitarian minister and I traveled from Philadelphia to DC with him and his parents, along with a group from their church, to attend the demonstration. My friend’s mom and dad were very, shall we say, laissez-faire in terms of their parenting style, so they just told us we could be on our own for the day and meet them back at the bus at an agreed-upon time. So we two nine-year olds spent the day wandering through the massive crowd, listening to speakers and musicians, joining in chants and singing and talking to people. It is a vivid and cherished memory. When I created the drawing for Our White House, that experience was a big part of the inspiration. I wanted to render a protest scene, but one populated by my own odd characters and with the playful sensibility of my children’s books. The goal was for it to be serious in intent but whimsical as well. I created a field of people, animals, and anthropomorphized creatures marching in solidarity and playing music, holding a large freedom of speech banner and smaller signs, but without any other particular messages. This was the main inspiration for the poster. Like the freedom of speech drawing, I wanted this one to be fun in terms of style and populated with imaginative characters, but with more specific and particularly relevant text on the signs.

What motivated you to create this new illustration? Do you remember what was going on in the national debate on the day you immersed yourself into this piece?

After the election, I was alternately depressed, shocked, and angry (and still am). Outward expressions of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, hatred towards our Muslim brothers and sisters and the LGBTQ community had been growing and becoming normalized. Hate crimes have been on the rise. The country was and is more divided than ever. In terms of my own creative output specifically related to the state of the country and the election season, I had written and posted some satirical poems that, as the election loomed, I deleted because the snarky tone didn’t measure up to the seriousness of the issues that the country was confronted with. Post-election I did some angry political art and caricatures, but felt that they were subpar. There were so many artists out there much more accomplished and nuanced than me in that realm. So I went back to thinking about what I do best and decided I wanted to create something more in my comfort zone, something that addressed serious issues but in positive way, that both kids and adults might appreciate. I don’t remember a particular event or debate going on then. It was late November, so there was, of course, still a lot of heated discussion about the election, analysis, hindsight, and speculation about what was coming. And a lot of fear.

The art was created spontaneously in about three hours. I didn’t do any sketches or planning, which was the same with the drawing for Our White House. I wanted the group to be a playful representation of diversity. The characters were drawn first, with the signs left blank, in brush and ink.

Calef_poster_processI did spend a bit of time image-searching and looking at protest signage. I made a list of messages I liked for the signs and hand-lettered them. They were then composited into the drawing digitally with a little color tweaking with Photoshop. This is the single sentence that I wrote to go along with the image when I posted it to Facebook: “I wanted to make a protest image that might be good for a school classroom or library.”

What would you like children to take away from this poster when they see it on their school library’s wall?

 First, I hope that children find the poster engaging and visually interesting –worth spending a few minutes looking at and pondering. It would be satisfying to me if it sparks further discussion of the history of dissent and peaceful protest in this country and around the world, and the role it has played in social movements—from Gandhi to the civil rights movement to anti-war protests to Standing Rock. I want kids to see a message of tolerance and unity.

While the poster obviously has a political point of view, it does not explicitly mention political figures or parties, although it does mention hot-button political phrases, such as “illegals” and “walls.” How did you decide where to draw that line? 

I knew I wanted it to be about some of the issues that have risen to the surface and were so divisive in the election, but also include some more universal positive sentiments. It’s always interesting looking at the statements people choose to make with signage (and costumes, props and the like) at marches and protests. The spectrum is as wide as people’s personalities. They can be angry, outrageous, shocking, subtle, sarcastic, or sincere. Some address specific concerns, and then it seems there are always a good amount with messages that are declarative statements of basic human rights. This is the main direction I wanted the poster to go, to have the characters extolling what are thought of as American values: That all people should be treated equally, racism needs to be fought against, and we should aspire to love one another.

I realize that all countries have immigration laws, but the statement here is about characterizing people as “illegals,” which is ugly and dehumanizing. The “Walls Kill Dreams” sign is, of course, a reference to the border wall, but could be also be seen as about metaphoric walls, including the travel ban being fought against now. When I was young, I had terrible anxiety about nuclear war between the US and USSR, and when the Berlin wall came down one of the immediate impacts for me was that I felt an easing of that awful fear. I guess I wanted that sign to be read sort of in the spirit of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Can we conceive of a world that doesn’t need walls between countries?

The owl carries a sign that reads “I Made a Sign.” Where did that idea come from?

I saw a photo of that specific message on a sign online. It seems that there are always folks who are able to come up with brilliant Dada-esque takes on the conventions of protesting, or signage that reflects back on itself. Or are just witty. One wonderful image from a recent demonstration was a toddler on a parent’s shoulders holding a piece of cardboard emblazoned with crayon scribbling. Sometimes the medium is the message. As I said, I created this poster fairly quickly without too much time to reflect on it before putting it out there. In that spirit, there’s a character in the poster holding a candle in one hand and a phone in the other. I guess I was thinking about the crossover between a protest march and a candle-light vigil. It doesn’t exactly make sense—it’s not a night scene—but I thought it apropos to have someone holding a candle referencing the solemnity of a vigil. At the same time, people need to make sure everyone knows what they’re doing via social media, so the character is taking a selfie. As with “I Made a Sign,” it’s a bit of silliness thrown in.

Two publishers generously funded the printing of the poster for SLJ readers: Christy Ottaviano Books (an imprint of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, a part of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group) and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. We are grateful. Is there anything you’d like to add?

I am very appreciative and proud to have this piece of my work published and out in the world, and if school librarians like it, I’m extra proud because they rule! I would like to thank you and School Library Journal, Christy Ottaviano, Lucy Del Priore at MacMillan, as well as Lisa DiSarro and Linda Magram at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I would also like to thank Mary Brigid Barrett and The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance for giving me the opportunity to create the Freedom of Speech artwork for Our White House, and to continue to be involved with that wonderful organization.

Besides this poster, how has the current climate in the United States been influencing your work?

I just want to continue to do what I do, which I hope is valuable, creating books that help inspire kids to love language, art, reading, and writing. I hope to continue to visit elementary schools as much as I can and work with kids directly. The current climate in the country has also influenced me through the powerful work of my students at the Rhode Island School of Design. Their ability to bring conviction and passion to work dealing with social justice issues is very inspiring. If I can continue to introduce messages of positivity and tolerance into my work in overt ways that seem genuine to me, like this poster, I will.

Any children’s books in the works? Inquiring librarians want to know!

Yes, I have two collections of my poetry and art coming out in 2018 and 2019 with Lerner Publishing and Christy Ottaviano Books, and am working on two manuscripts written in prose, something new to me.

If for some unknown reason, you don’t have a copy of SLJ‘s February 2017 issue, Calef Brown offers the “Kindness Poster” as a downloadable file. You can find it here.

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  1. Deanna Evans says:

    The poster is awesome. Where can it be found/bought?

  2. I saw the above-noted poster in the children’s section of my local library and had to make my concerns known. My comments regard only the poster and the messages that it sends.
    My greatest concern is the not so subtle messages in the signs.
    First, let us keep in mind that all people are CREATED equal. What individuals do with the opportunities afforded them in this great country is, in large part, up to them. Second, no-one is illegal? This is a many faceted issue and a blatant statement of “No One is illegal” to a developing mind is far too simplistic. Murderers, rapists, people who come into the country illegally, it could be argued, are in fact illegal. Small minds are not necessarily capable of making the distinction and may result in an inaccurate, liberally biased message. Finally, “Walls Kill Dreams” is unabashedly political and shows a bent that at the very least should be countered with an equal time sign. How about – “We are a country of laws”, or, “Follow the right path to your dreams”? Starting out a relationship with a new country by breaking its laws to get in does not bode well for becoming law abiding citizens over the long term.
    I submit this with all due respect to the creator and all involved, but the very thinly disguised liberal bent being fed to young minds is simply not acceptable. Let’s be balanced in our messages.
    Thank you for your time.
    Respectfully submitted,
    Tom Stokes

  3. Todd Hecht says:

    As a Black Family, with one parent who is a LEGAL Immigrant we find this poster highly offensive.
    My 9 year old saw it in our library . The good people that post these things need to stop bring politics and division into our childrens learning enviroment.

  4. Howard Zimmerman says:

    I discovered this politically motivated poster hung at my children’s school library. Political messages on campus in any form are not appropriate and should be removed. Schools are responsible for providing a safe environment to teach facts not opinions. The author of this poster, Calef Brown, created it out of his admitted depression and anger following the results of the recent presidential election, and likely the POTUS’ stance on immigration and security. Mr. Brown’s message is not inclusive nor tolerant of alternative views. Mr. Brown’s artistic message only serves to further divide us and propagates hate towards anyone he has depicted as a “Racist,” whom opposes his view and believes in the Rule of Law and national security.


    Howard Zimmerman
    Lieutenant Colonel, US Army (Retired)