A BIG Adventure
Exactly ten years ago this month I began the biggest adventure of my life: moving to Taiwan, or 台灣. This small, democratic island nation consists of Han Chinese and native aboriginal people who are hard-working and compassionate. Vibrant, dense cities sprawl across its east coast, while turquoise mountain-to-sea vistas line its west coast. Mandarin Chinese is the official language, although Taiwanese is a spoken dialect. While there, I taught ESL (English as a Second Language) and studied Mandarin. This chapter of my life significantly influenced my approach to education using illustration and visual storytelling.
In the ESL world, students love rewards (stickers, stamps, games). My version of this was drawing little character vignettes in their workbooks; though, unfortunately I could only choose a few students per class because drawing was so time-intensive. Enter Chinese Calligraphy, where every individual character-word is written out by redrawing a memorized line order. I created a “drawing order” for all Angry Birds characters which shortened my drawing time per character from twenty seconds to five. Now, instead of just a few students, almost every student got a drawing each class. To this day, I apply this approach to drawing my comic book characters, who occasionally show up in classroom settings with cartoon characters behind them.
Whiteboard art quickly became my favorite tool for teaching lessons, rewarding good behavior, and playing gobs of games. Every classroom in our school had a whiteboard, with various colors and sizes of dry-erase markers. I enjoyed experimenting with varying line weights and hatching techniques that offered unique visual styles with which to engage the class. In fact, I’d come to class early just to decorate the board with characters—like Garfield, Spongebob, and especially Angry Birds (or 憤怒鳥). This would also turn out to be great character design practice for later applications as a Kidlit illustrator.
Teaching ESL is all about games; word games, sentence games, and even games like “Whiteboard Jeopardy!” One of my all-time favorite games, however, is “Reverse Pictionary.” The rules are simple. Two students are chosen as the “artists,” who must first leave the classroom.
While they’re outside, I draw some alien-looking creature on the whiteboard.
- The rest of the class “memorizes” the drawing before I cover it up.
- Then the two students are invited back in, having not yet seen the drawing.
- The class is split in half—each half describes the covered-up creature (in English of course!) to their respective pictionary artist.
- After two minutes I uncover my center drawing to see which side was closest to the original.
It is a win-win because no matter the outcome, everyone is laughing—and practicing English! All characters are deliberately alien-like with “Frankenstein” parts, so students can’t easily proclaim, “it’s like an octopus.” That being said, I can also introduce rules for excluding keywords like “octopus,” if applicable. Games like these primed me to later create my own frankenstein-friendly alien family featured in Zygi’s Beans, a children’s picture book I illustrated in 2018 (published by Amazon KDP).
I feel fortunate to have had so much inspiration as an illustrator; however, as a storyteller, I am greatly influenced by graphic novel-inspired supplemental reading books like “Magic Adventures” (published by e-Future Co., Ltd.). These secondary readers follow a loose storyline focused on vocabulary, grammar, and writing skills. Teaching with these books has fostered a newfound passion for expository fiction as a visual teaching tool— not only in language learning but anytopic. I’m partial to science, history, and psychology myself!
Mandarin Chinese, or 中文, is one of the last living pictographic languages—wherein combining Chinese characters to form meaning almost works more like chemistry than spelling. This has permanently altered my approach to visual storytelling for young readers. Similar to Chinese’s “linguistic chemistry,” the predominantly pictorial nature of Kidlit storytelling (as compared to middle grade or YA) offers various visual storytelling components like character design, world-building, and page transitions that also work like elements in chemistry. Over and over again a storyteller has the power to mix and match these components to produce new and unique results every time.
I’m not in a classroom anymore (or 12 time zones away) but I miss that magical moment witnessing the lightbulb turn on in a kid’s head. Truthfully, I never stopped teaching—as now my lessons have moved from a classroom whiteboard into picture books, graphic novels, and storyboards…all the while infusing what I’ve learned as a teacher of one language and a student of another
Demetrios graduated from NC State University with a Bachelor of Graphic Design with a minor in Animation. In 2011 he left advertising to pursue teaching. Over the next 6 years, he lived in East Asia, teaching ESL (to ages 3–18 while studying Mandarin Chinese. Since returning stateside, Demetrios has been freelancing as an illustrator, animator and designer. In 2018 he illustrated and co-published Zygi’s Beans, a picture book for ages 3-8 exploring friendship, courage and adventure in the face of intriguing mysteries in our universe. Demetrios is currently seeking agent representation.
Check out Demetrio’s work on his website, or his SCBWI portfolio gallery. Please follow him on Instagram.