September 2002

Giselle Potter

Skipping class with Giselle Potter
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For most students, playing hookie is a sure-fire way to get in trouble with grown-ups, but the situation was just the opposite for Giselle Potter when she was a kid. The first-time author and veteran illustrator spent much of her childhood traveling throughout the world and skipping school with her parents' permission. In The Year I Didn't Go to School, she shares some of her childhood memories and the lessons she learned outside the schoolhouse walls.

From the time she was a tot, Potter performed alongside her parents in their traveling puppeteer act. She and her younger sister dressed up in costumes and masks that their parents created and were often the hit of the show. The family troupe traveled for several years through such amazing places as Switzerland, Italy and France. "We camped in a truck and performed all over Europe," Potter recalls, "but I just thought everybody did that." It wasn't until much later that she realized what she had experienced and how different her childhood had been from that of most kids.

While some children grow up with memories of going to McDonald's with their parents, Potter recalls tasting the amazing chocolates in all the countries she traveled through. And while some kids fondly remember going to the zoo, Potter recalls people-watching in the town squares of numerous European villages. But even though she had a much more bohemian lifestyle than most kids her age, she was much like other children. She and her sister played with paper dolls and built houses out of whatever boxes and blankets they could find although all this took place in the back of the family troupe's traveling truck. Plus, Potter spent many hours drawing and writing in her journal.

In fact, it was in this journal that she first began illustrating. "My parents were always encouraging me to draw," says Potter, whose grandparents were both painters. "It was a normal thing in my family, and something I always did, but nothing I thought of as a career."

Potter honed her skills at the Rhode Island School of Design, did independent study in Italy and spent time researching miniature drawings in Indonesia before moving to New York City, where she was hired almost immediately by The New Yorker. "I thought The New Yorker was going to be the hardest magazine to get published in," she recalls, "but they were surprisingly supportive and published my work every few months." From there, the going was fairly easy, and Potter fell into illustrating children's books. Her illustrations have appeared in several books for young people, including The Brave Little Seamstress and Kate and the Beanstalk, both by Mary Pope Osborne, The Honest-to-Goodness Truth by Patricia C. McKissack, and Gabriella's Song by Candace Fleming.

But branching into the actual writing of a book was a new thing for the artist. "It was important to me that I still had my childhood journal to look at," says Potter. This journal—started when she was 7 years old—is the basis for The Year I Didn't Go to School. In the book, she incorporates several original drawings from her diary as well as some of her own handwriting. And, of course, because she kept such a complete diary, Potter was more easily able to recall many of the things she experienced during her traveling days. "It's great to look at my childhood from this perspective," she says, and "it's so nice to work with material that I created myself way back then."

In addition to the various cultures and people she experienced, Potter spent every evening doing school lessons in the back of the family truck. "I missed a lot of school off and on during those years," she admits, "but the private school I went to was pretty understanding about it."

But perhaps the biggest lesson Potter learned during her travels was this: Whether you're in a suburban schoolroom or in the back of a traveling puppeteer truck, people are pretty much the same everywhere. And, they like to be entertained something Potter does well in this wonderfully written and humorously illustrated book.


Heidi Henneman is a writer living in San Francisco.

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