By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
Her books helped revolutionize the way young children create art in the classroom. And now she’s going to help new young authors do the same.
For more than 30 years, MaryAnn F. Kohl of Ferndale published award-winning activity books for children through her own company, Bright Ring Publishing. In July, she sold the rights to those books to Chicago Review Press.
But she won’t be leaving the industry. She’ll focus on her second career as a literary agent to help new authors realize their own ideas.
Through her books and workshops, classes and speaking events, Kohl helped pioneer a new philosophy of teaching children to make art, called “process art,” where the emphasis is on the process of creating, as opposed to the finished product.
It guides children through a particular process, but doesn’t dictate what the finished product should look like, and allows them to use their imaginations.
“You may even call it just an invitation to make art,” she said. “You put things out on the table but you don’t tell them what to make.”
Her latest book is called “Action Art,” and each project incorporates some sort of activity in the process of creating a work of art. The cover shows a child riding a tricycle through paint on a big piece of paper on the ground.
“The outcomes are always just part of the process of exploration,” she said. “It’s almost like science, experimenting, discovering, exploring.”
When Kohl started teaching, children didn’t get this kind of encouragement. In fact, they didn’t get education in art at all. Instead, they did what Kohl refers to as crafts.
“Crafts are pre-designed by an adult, and the kids are asked to follow steps to copy what the adult has already made,” she said. “That has its value, but it’s not art.”
Kathy Lee Eggers watched this transition, from crafts to process art, take place first hand. Eggers is a child development specialist; she has written curriculum, and provides resources for early learning through her company The Homegrown Preschooler.
Giving children the power to create their own art can have a big impact on their development, she said.
“When children are given permission to do that at a young age it allows them to be creative,” she said. “It allows them to be inventors. It allows them to be true artists.”
When she was first studying child development, Eggers said there wasn’t as much talk about this approach to children’s art. Instead, activities were all about following directions, copying an example. Eggers has talked to parents who remember their own childhood art activities as having a “right” and a “wrong” answer.
“MaryAnn went there and said, ‘Let’s leave this open ended,’” Eggers said. “I do think she revolutionized early childhood classrooms and how we teach young students about art.”
She met Kohl at a business conference years ago, and they’ve since become friends. Eggers uses some of Kohl’s work in the curriculum she writes.
“MaryAnn’s stuff inspires children to be who they want to be as an artist,” Eggers said. “It’s valuable for their self-esteem. It’s valuable for their development. It’s valuable for their imagination.”
A new phase in her career
This summer, Kohl sold the publishing rights of her self-published books to Chicago Review Press, to give herself more time to work with new authors as their literary agent.
She specializes in working with authors who are writing non-fiction books, either for children or for adults who work with children. She’s been working as an agent for two years now, and she has about half a dozen clients.
“It’s really cool and really exciting,” she said. “It’s my new passion.”
She’s able to use her contacts and knowledge that she’s developed over the course of 30 years in the industry.
“I have to really know a lot of different publishers to go to and have a good relationship,” she said. “You have to do a good job for them, too.”
Eggers said Kohl’s vast experience will help her help her clients.
“She has the knowledge behind her as an author and as a publisher,” Eggers said. She too is excited about this new stage in Kohl’s career.
“I think we’re going to see MaryAnn carry on as she’s helping these young authors,” she said. “I think we’re going to see bits and pieces of her in every one of these books.”
Kohl sees her work as an agent as a continuation of what she has always done — bringing quality education to children.
“I’ve done my thing. Now I’m going to help other people do theirs,” she said. “As part of that I had to unburden myself from all the work of publishing.”
Chicago Review Press is the parent company of Independent Publishers Group, which had been Kohl’s distributor, and that company was her first choice when it came time to sell her books.
“I got to know that publisher really well over the years,” Kohl said. “I have tremendous respect for them.” The company already has big plans for her work.
“The company is taking all of my books and upgrading them to more contemporary looks,” she said. “And so their plan is really to bring the books another 15 years.”
The company will be eager to publish any of her new activity books, Kohl said, if she wants to write more.
“I’m kind of enjoying this transition now of having less stress,” Kohl said. “But it won’t take me long, and then I’ll miss it and then I’ll do another book.”
Kohl is now free to explore other genres of writing, as well. She’s working on a middle-grade novel, based on her own childhood.
“Everything is so open for me right now,” she said. “I’m kind of discovering my own interests again.”
A start in the classroom
Kohl began her career in the classroom. She first realized the value of art as a young elementary school teacher in Ferndale.
“I found that when kids were doing art they were focused, quiet, content,” she said. She started incorporating art projects to teach math, science and other academic subjects.
“It also brought in kids that weren’t interested in traditional learning,” she said. “When they were doing art they were with me a hundred percent.”
She gathered together all the activity ideas she got in the classroom, and decided to self-publish a book.
“I didn’t really have the patience to send my stuff out to other people,” she said.
Her first book was called “Scribble Art.”
“There was a lot of time in that beginning book where I had to do things that were really difficult for me, like call a book distributor on the telephone,” she said. “I would be so scared but I would just do it.”
Her book came out, and three months later she had made back all of the money she had put into getting it published.
“So I was encouraged,” she said. “Hey, I might be good at this.”
Over the years she has wrote or co-wrote 24 children’s activity books, some through her own publishing company, Bright Ring Publishing, and some through Gryphon House.
On average, activity books like Kohl’s stay in print for about 15 years. Her first book is now 30 years old, and still popular, as are her other books. Over the years her books have received numerous awards, including being listed on the American Library Association’s Best of the Best Books and Media for Children, Benjamin Franklin Gold and Silver awards for excellence in independent publishing, and an art award from the mayor of Bellingham in 2001 in the education and support division.
For each book, she comes up with the activities, then has children, sometimes from a Whatcom County classroom, try them out.
“The testing part with kids was super important,” she said. “What sounds good doesn’t always work.”
Often, she’s changed or scrapped activities based on how the kids complete the activity. She also uses their finished artwork in her book.
One of her books teaches children about famous artists, and invites them to create a work using each artist’s techniques. Kohl wanted to include photos of each artist, but couldn’t afford the rights to some of the photos, so she invited local children to draw a picture of each artist.
“They’re almost caricatures. Some of the artists wrote back, saying they never looked better,” she said. “So the kids got a lot out of it, not only did they become illustrators, but they had famous artists writing letters.”
She’s noticed several trends in book publishing and children’s education over the years. The rise of e-books hasn’t impacted the world of children’s activity books as much as it has other genres, Kohl said. Although, now thanks to e-books people all over the world can buy her books, even in countries where her prints copies aren’t sold.
Over the years, her books have gotten more popular with parents, home school teachers and childcare workers, but less common in public classrooms, as art time keeps getting cut.
“What’s the first thing schools get rid of when they have budget cuts? Art,” she said.
It’s a problem, Kohl believes, because art education, especially process art education, can play a critical role in who kids grow up to be.
“I really believe that a kid learning to think for them self is going to make a better citizen as an adult,” she said. “Somebody who can solve problems, come up with new ways to to do things, rather than just standing there waiting to be told what to do.”
Kohl said that in her ideal classroom, academics, physical activity and creative activity would all be in balance.
“Equal parts,” she said. “And that would give you a whole child that could change the world.”