What I Learned From Illustrating Songs of Empowerment for Children

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Always books. Never boring.

This is a guest post from Rachel Moss. Rachel is an illustrator that has a love for the bright colours and vibrant energy of the Caribbean. She was born in Jamaica and studied Animation in England at UCA. She now lives in Jamaica where she spends her days illustrating children’s books.

Some songs are so well known that you only have to hear someone say a few of the words and immediately the lyrics and harmony echo through your brain. That’s how it is for me with the songs “Respect,” lyrics written by Otis Redding and made popular by Aretha Franklin, and “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” lyrics written by Lee Hazlewood and sung by Nancy Sinatra.

I was thrilled when Akashic Books asked me to illustrate these two books for the LyricPop series —which features song lyrics by well-known artists. I had just finished working with them to illustrate the song lyrics of “African,” written by Peter Tosh, and it was a process that I thoroughly enjoyed. Coming up with visuals for lyrics to a song can be challenging at first as I try to conceptualize images. But once I settle on a theme, having the artistic freedom to experiment with my style of illustration is exciting.

The first step in my illustrating process is to internalize the lyrics and come up with a concept that takes an “adult” song and transforms it into a picture book that children can relate to. If you are familiar with the song lyrics of “Respect,” I think you will agree that seeing those lyrics in a children’s book isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The task was slightly daunting.

After tossing around a few ideas with the Akashic Books team, an integral part of the process, I found myself staring into space thinking about the message that I wanted this picture book to portray. I knew I wanted the message to be positive, but I did not at this point know exactly what the subject matter would be. My mind was blank when my 7-year-old daughter broke the silence.

“Mummy look at Me! I’m a …!”

To be honest, I cannot remember what she said she was, but what I saw was a 7-year-old dressed up in my shoes and clothes parading in front of the full-length mirror on the wall and seeing herself as who she wanted to be when she was older. In that moment I knew that if given the support, she could be anything that she put her mind to.

It was then the light bulb went off in my head, and I saw young girls dreaming of being astronauts, soldiers, teachers, lawyers, even stay-at-home moms…empowering our children was the message in Respect that I wanted to make sure got across to children and adults! To nourish their dreams and give them the respect that they need to succeed at whatever they choose in life. I put pencil to paper and ran with that idea. The beautiful story then evolved to include the family unit supporting the lead character to achieve her dream. I believe if we can get behind our children, we can become their superheroes and help them to see their value, worth, and contributions in this world.

As I worked on Respect I started the illustration process for These Boots Are Made for Walkin‘. Like Respect, These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ also has a similar theme—a call for self-empowerment and not settling for less. Again, the conundrum of how to turn these lyrics into a kid-appropriate book hit me.

I played the song a lot in my home, and my kids absolutely loved it. The song had a playful vibe and I knew we wanted to go in that direction. After a few brainstorming sessions again with the team, we decided to use a cat as the main character and have the story revolve around the cat’s love for her owner. I really wanted to bring some humor into the story so I decided there would be no better way than to introduce a puppy that immediately attracts the affection of the cat’s owner, a boy who falls in love with his new dog.

Similar to Respect, I wanted this book to have a meaningful message and for the story to reach a positive conclusion. I then decided to introduce a girl who becomes the apple of the boy’s eye, which makes the dog and cat long for their owner’s attention. This common struggle to get the boy to notice them forces the pets into a friendship, which eventually evolves into the love of a caring family unit.

These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ is a lighthearted, humorous book about how our enemies can become our friends. How we all long for that love and attention. How we go through seasons of change, but most importantly, whether it’s a new sibling introduced into a family or some other circumstance, what remains important is the family unit, and the love we give each other.

I illustrated both books over the course of a year. I learned a lot about my own children and my own family. I encourage parents, grandparents and caregivers to read these two books with the little ones in their lives and enjoy the power and playfulness of the lyrics—but also talk about the themes, the importance of supporting and loving each other and other people we encounter in the world. Parents can talk about how jealousy can ruin a relationship, and that when we have a cause in common, how that can bring us together in a powerful even more meaningful way.