The children who sat cross-legged on the floor were told that they would be drawing a girl.
“Eww,” a little boy, his cheeks flushed with freckles, said with a moan.
“But this girl has worms,” Jeff Nicholas said, grinning.
Oh, well, that was better. The little boy steadied his pencil.
“Not worms like dogs have,” Nicholas said, the remark shooting over the children’s heads, garnering chuckles from parents.
So goes another of the cartooning classes that Nicholas, a retired teacher, takes to Ohio’s libraries and schools. Each program combines step-by-step drawing lessons for characters with original stories that make children and adults laugh out loud.
“I started traveling with my show 23 years ago through the encouragement of teaching colleagues who enjoyed a comic panel I was writing for local newspapers,” said the 57-year-old Wadsworth resident. “I took some of the same methods I used to write the panels and turned them into short stories and poems created with a live audience in mind. I now do approximately 55 shows a year.”
During a recent show at the Wayne County Public Library’s Doylestown branch, Nicholas explained to the more than 70 youngsters that the girl they were drawing loved worms. She wore them in her hair and as shoelaces.
“Who here loves worms?” the entertainer asked.
The little boy who had earlier protested shot his arm in the air. Bending over his paper, he got to work, stopping occasionally to wipe his nose on his T-shirt.
During the program, Nicholas also showed the children how to draw a cartoon groundhog and a bug with human characteristics.
The married father of 15- and 24-year-old sons is on the road nearly every day from June through early August. The rest of the year, he holds workshops on writing and illustrating at schools.
“Every story I present has a lesson, but it’s always a subtle one,” he said. “I never liked children’s stories that pounded lessons home. Kids are pretty sharp. They get the message through the humor and absurdity.”
Ruth Ann Sheppard of Doylestown brought her granddaughters to the library to watch and interact with Nicholas.
“He is awesome. And he’s great with the kids,” Sheppard said, confessing that she can’t draw a straight line without a ruler.
Surprisingly, Nicholas was not an art teacher. For 10 years, he taught eighth-grade literature, which shows in his stories that are so well-written and funny. The remaining 25 years of his teaching career was at Highland School’s Granger Elementary, where he taught fifth-graders reading and social studies.
“I loved my job and the energy it gave me. Now it’s my job to keep that energy alive. Every time I can help a kid learn something, I learn something. It’s very addictive to me,” he said.
While some of the children weren’t all that fond of their creations, Nicholas encouraged them not to destroy their artwork. In fact, using an eraser was a no-no.
“The great thing about drawing cartoons is that a mistake sometimes makes it better,” he said, applauding the children’s work.
“I think it’s such a neat hobby to show the kids what they can do, especially during the summer,” said Kate Goodrich, who brought her children to the program. “Kids learn that each piece of art is different.”
Recently, Nicholas worked with the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students and six adults were shot to death in December.
“For three days, the kids and I shared cartoons and laughs,” he explained. “The teachers at Sandy Hook are beyond belief. What a tremendous atmosphere they’ve provided as they work through the ongoing healing.
“I also performed at the Newtown Library. The whole community was so kind and welcoming. Signs reading ‘We Choose Love’ are posted everywhere you turn in Newtown.”
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or email@example.com.