R. Gregory Christie, of Mableton, has illustrated more than 50 books for children and young adults; his most recent illustrated book, Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, won a Caldecott Honor in 2017. Gregory opened Gas-Art Gifts in 2012 in North DeKalb Mall. He talked with Atlanta Parent about why reading and art are so important to children.

Q. How would you describe Gas-Art Gifts to someone who’s never been there?
A. It’s a unique space. It’s an autographed children’s books store, it’s an art school and it’s a gallery. When I got the space, it was very raw, with graffiti on the wall. I made it a more positive space for people to come in and be surrounded by literacy and art.

Q. What’s your favorite of the books you’ve illustrated?
A. That’s hard, like picking a favorite child. I would say I really enjoyed Jazz Baby. It’s a fun beginning reading book. It rhymes and it has things like clap, clap, clap and tap, tap, tap. It’s upbeat for young readers. I love connecting to a book in a way that’s pleasurable and fun. I honestly believe illustrators can connect kids to a book in a way no one else can.

Q. If you feel that illustrations are really important to engage young readers, how do you feel about e-readers and e-books?
A. Well, I say if you put all your faith in that e-book or digital book, you might as well get your child a digital teddy bear. … There are also some issues to consider, maybe censorship is an important thing to think about. You can’t rip a page out of a tangible book – if there are 5,000 copies of a book and they’re all over the United States and beyond, you can’t track down every book. But digital books can be easily altered – if you don’t like a page or a word, you can delete it.  … We don’t know the future but we do know books and we know books are pivotal to the development of a child, the colors, using your hands, holding a book, turning a page is developing his brain and hand-eye coordination. You have to be gentle when you turn the page of a book, and each page opens up a new world. I’m not anti-electronics, but I don’t think we should put our whole faith in them.

Q. Have some of your books been made into e-books?
A. Absolutely. I think the publishers are banking on the idea of e-books. [The positive side is digital books provide other ways to engage children.] You can take the same story and make it different ethnic groups, the future might be that [so the child can see himself in the story and become engaged]. But still … I work in afterschool programs and I can tell you our children are being rewired to want instant gratification. We are in the information age, and information comes at us at lightning speed and it’s great to use art to slow those children down a little bit, in the sense of learning to relax and learning to enjoy the process. … Painting is done in layers, taking the time and really thinking about what’s needed in a particular image. You’re not going to get a painting instantly – you have to take the time to do a few strokes and sit back and look. It’s a counterbalance to the society we have now, where everything is instant.

Q. You’re very passionate about art.

A. Art is one of the few things where the student can redefine the lesson. I can teach you to paint a realistic portrait, but you can take the information I’m giving you and find an innovative way. Art is about communication. Art that ends up in galleries is about innovative communication … somebody decided to recreate that lesson. Children are natural artists, who end up growing out of it. You have to limit children, you don’t throw 100 markers on the table because children will put them all in their hand and draw – they really like experimenting. They’re natural artists and they always inspire me. I have classes from $5 to up to $280. I want the families, I want the cousins to all come in and do a communal experience, just as people always used to sit down and eat together. For $20, you get four people to sit down and do a little project together.

Q. Do you have suggestions for parents on how to get children interested in reading and art?
A. They’re going to have assignments of book reports. There are some studies that show that children remember more [about a book] when they draw it. So instead of only doing a written book report, they could give it a cover or maybe illustrate the book report and it would make a much more interesting report. … Parents often feel like they [or their kids] can’t draw a straight line, and I say, then don’t draw a straight line. Almost everything you look at can be interpreted as the letter “I” or “C.” You break things down that simply … if you know how to write you can draw, and that’s one of the things I teach – you just break things down that simply into shapes … then you can move on to doing contour drawings, you’re just looking at something and drawing the outline of it. That’s one of the ways to begin to do artwork. … It’s a misconception that people feel you have to be born with a talent to do art; if that’s so, then there would be no Little League or piano lessons. Anything can be acquired though you’ll be better at it if you practice. You’ve just got to learn the fundamentals and that’s what this store provides.

– Amanda Miller Allen

Contact Gas-Art Gifts at gas-art.com or call 404-801-4926.

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