from Pocono Record


Robert Bender faced them.


A sea of fifth-grade faces stared at him in anticipation. Seated on the gleaming gym floor and armed with writing boards and crayons, the kids waited to hear about the books they've been reading. The bulletin boards outside the gym were covered with the students' artwork based on Bender's books.

Bender, 35, was unintimidated. He was there to tell his young readers what they wanted to know.

An author and illustrator of children's books, Bender recently visited the DeFranco Elementary School in Bangor. He presented five session for the 810 students in grades four through six.

"My job here today is to inspire you," Bender said. Bender, dressed in black pants, a white shirt and a burgundy vest with black musical notes dotting the fabric, told the youngsters how he got started.

"I never had an artist or writer come to my school. I didn't know it was an option," Bender said. When planning for college, he took his mother's advice to take the college catalogs and cross out all the majors he didn't want to pursue. That usually left "Art" uncrossed.

Bender, who was born in the Bronx and then moved to Cherry Hill, NJ, left his parents' home to attend Syracuse University. The illustration student graduated with honors in 1984.

He moved to New York City and worked as an illustrator of magazines and newspapers for six years. He also kept experimenting with new techniques to keep his work fresh.

His then girlfriend, Christina, who later became his wife, suggested that he illustrate a children's story that she wrote. "I never got that story published, but I realized how much fun it was," Bender said.

After meeting wtih different editors and working on a few potential projects, Bender landed his first book A Little Witch Magic in 1992. Bender has had eight books published. His next book, Chizzywink and the Alamagoozlum, will be published next spring by Holiday House.

To help the kids understand the process of illustration, Bender showed slides of the book The Most Unusual Lunch. Krista DeEsch, 10, of Bangor and Bobby Bush, 10, of Bangor were then chosen to draw along with him on makeshift easels of six-foot tables turned on end. The kids in the audience drew along too.

Bender also showed slides of his life in drawings from a sketch of him drawing pictures in his mother's womb, to living in Hell's Kitchen in New York, to his cats and dogs at his home in Stillwater.

One of the slides included a drawing that Bender did as a seventh-grader of a man mowing the lawn. "The only difference between me and you is I continued to draw. I have 25 years experience on you," Bender said.

The kids were then treated to seeing a painting in progress from The Beastly Jamboree. Each session of students had helped Bender paint this scene, which would be left for the school.

Jacquelyn Setzer, 10, and Brian Chiusano, 10, both of Bangor; and Tela Bender,10, of Johnsonville learned the stipple technique of painting as the other students watched. Bender paints on clear acetate, which is coupled with black paper to make the colors vivid and appear to jump off the page.

Bender also showed the youngsters how an illustration progresses from an idea in a dummy book, to a storyboard, to an art work, to a press sheet and the folding and gathering stage of assembling the book.

After the presentation, Bender talked about life as an artist.

Bender said that he could never envision himself as a 9-to-5 kind of guy. "I would need some form of expression such as art, writing or music," Bender said. "I follow my heart to do what I love to do. Most parents pressure their kids to find jobs with lots of money."

Having no money is often a way of life for a struggling artist. Bender was a waiter and would do work for advertising agencies.

After his first book was published, Bender started speaking to school groups. "I was really scared. That was not in my normal bounds of what is comfortable," he said. "Once I got over the fear, I found it was exhilarating."

He equated the speaking with performing "where I'm feeling like a stand-up comedian in an educational way."

The talks are not just for fun. "I want to show kids and demystify the process and show how much fun it is," Bender said. "Everyone can draw just as they can write, but at different levels."

—Helen George