By Joe Lugara

Coloring Book Arch Rival Shakes Up Old Notions


Susan Striker wouldn't exactly be overjoyed if your kid came into her home and started scribbling across her walls with a crayon or marker, but it wouldn't necessarily cause her to have a cortical blowout either. As the creator of the Anti-Coloring Book, the noted arts educator understands that scribbling is significant, representing as it does a nascent stage in the learning process. Striker, who founded the Young at Art school in Manhattan two decades ago, and was an Upper West Side resident for years, now lives in Easton Conn., and teaches art at the Cos Cob School in Greenwich. In September, she reopened her school in Fairfield. "The approach to children's art is very much misunderstood," says Striker, whose Anti-Coloring Books, considered revolutionary when they were first published a quarter-century ago, are still shaking up old-established notions. "We look at art by children as if it's adult art, asking questions like 'Is it pretty?' That's not the issue; when children engage in art activities, they're engaging in critical thinking." Scribbling, in Striker's view, is a precursor to reading and writing. Any alphabet, she claims, consists of about 20 shapes, which children will inevitably make during the process of drawing. "That's how we become literate human beings: we learn how to differentiate between the lines and shapes we make, and that leads to decoding them. A parent who pushes a 3-year-old to read is making a bad mistake. We need to recognize that children have this very deliberate five years' worth of scribbling they have to go through. When a child picks up a crayon and makes a mark, that's generally the beginning of literacy." Dot-to-dot drawings, turkey-hand tracings (or any kind of tracing), and, of course, traditional coloring books, are anathema to Striker — counter-productive in the sense that they work against a child's self-esteem. A peek at a single page of any one of her Anti-Coloring Books makes the point quite clear: there's no such thing as a certainty. The books are as open-ended, as rife with possibilities, as life. They pose questions, and provide plenty of space to sketch in ideas rather than answers. There are no wrongs, only respect for imaginative musings and the potential for learning. "The cliché of 'Mom, I'd rather do it myself' is, I think, very true," Striker states. "As parents and teachers we feel we have to spoon feed our children answers. I'm against the ‘How to Draw a Horse’ kind of book — obviously, there's more than just one way to draw a horse. Children have a strong need to be independent, to be creative, to do things for themselves. Giving them a drawing project like dot-to-dots is unhealthy, like giving them unhealthy food. You don't want to give them a formula for a turkey drawing project they don't understand." Some of the human heads that appear in the Anti-Coloring Books are faceless ("What do people do with their faces to show how they are feeling?" the books ask). A page illustrated with six flying geese asks, "Where are these birds flying to?" An empty funhouse mirror poses the question, "What would you look like in a funhouse mirror?" Intended for ages 6 and up — the age at which, Striker believes, a young person's drawing begins to become more realistic — it's quite apparent that these books function as an intervention or antidote against dictatorial art teachers or parents, the ones who are inclined to say, "Draw a happy face," rather than ask, "What do you see?" They also give parents the opportunity to know their kids better. Striker believes that a truly conscious parent can recognize their child through their drawing or scribble, that the resulting image, even if it's not representational, tells much. As she says, "I believe that when kids make scribbles, they're expressing their feelings. I don't think a child making a scribble is trying to draw their house or dog, but maybe they're thinking of their house or dog. You can learn so much about your child by looking at their drawings. But unfortunately, most adults don't." What many adults do, however, is tell their children what their art should look like — an irony as far as Striker is concerned, "since we don't know ourselves." And controlling youthful creativity is the grown-up fear of having to break out the Formula 409. "I think parents are worried that if they let their child make art, it'll be a messy experience, but if a child experiments with a number of materials, they'll learn how to handle those materials," she states. Although the fear of spoiling the credenza is almost always present, Striker feels there is a distinct need on the part of every individual to, if not actually fingerpaint, then at least manipulate some kind of material to make lines and shapes. The idea is not the exaggeration it might sound; anyone who can maneuver a pen or pencil has doodled at some point, and will again. Beyond the Anti-Coloring Books, for which she is perhaps best noted, Striker has also authored Please Touch. Written for parents who want to supercharge their child's development through visual art, music, movement and play, the book outlines specific projects in each of these four key areas, along with suggestions on using aspects of the everyday world as creative learning experiences. Another work, Young At Art, puts forth Striker's educational theories of preschool-age children. The book also outlines the curriculum, used in the school of the same name, which Striker founded in 1984. Striker's goal with her Young At Art school is not necessarily to develop artists ("Although," as she says, "that certainly wouldn't be a bad thing"). Her purpose is to get kids to learn and to solve problems by thinking for themselves. A philosophy that seems to have worked well for her son, Jason, now 24, who she describes as "incredibly creative and independent." For more information, go to