Vail Valley story-book aspirations |

Vail Valley story-book aspirations

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Vail Daily/Dawn BeaconDawn Beacon began painting because it was "the only way I knew how to bring my daydreams inside-out," she said.

VAIL VALLEY, Colorado – Really, people aren’t so very different. Deep inside, many harbor the same dream: to write a children’s book.

Ask Dawn Beacon. She’s a children’s book illustrator, and when she tells people what she does for a living, more often than not people share their secret aspiration, going so far as to detail their idea.

“I’ll write it, and maybe you can illustrate it,” they inevitably say.

But it’s not these chance encounters that inspire Dawn’s work. It’s her precocious 6-year-old son, Anthony, that’s proved the ultimate fodder More specifically – his propensity for make believe and his wholly non-self-conscious actions that cause her to rush to a blank page, anxious to sketch the scene before the details drift away.

After playing in some water fountains last summer, Anthony dried off with a towel and then promptly wrapped it around his shoulders like a cape and ran to the nearby playground.

“It was windy that day,” Dawn remembers. “I caught him standing at the top of the slide like a superhero, wind blowing his hair and cape back, up on his tiptoes. He had that invincible look on his face.”

In Dawn’s quick pencil-sketch rendering of the moment, the small boy’s hair blows haphazardly in the wind. Shoulders arched back, he pushes his chest forward, almost certainly imagining himself taking flight or some other feat suited for a first-grade superhero.

It’s those moments Dawn awaits patiently. She knows that when his imagination does take to the sky, there’s gold to be mined.

It’s been nearly two years since Dawn left her job as a graphic and editorial designer at the Vail Daily. For the past year, she’s pursued a dream that danced in the back of her head, just beyond reach, since college: becoming a children’s book illustrator.

“I think my heart wasn’t into it until Anthony arrived,” she says. “He changed the way I look at things, and he softened me some, too. He’s my idea maker.”

When Dawn walks the few blocks to Anthony’s school to pick him up in the afternoon, she catches herself staring at his young classmates. She intently studies how they move, the expressions they make with their faces. How a shy smile plays on a little girl’s lips when she’s embarrassed. Or how a boy balances his body atop a fast-moving skateboard. And then she stores it away in her mind to recall when she has paintbrush in hand.

Dawn works from home, in an upstairs room in her condo that serves as her studio. The room has big windows that face west, letting in plenty of light. It’s here that Dawn brings her characters to life – at least in the pages of a story book.

In painting after painting, the hallmarks of Dawn’s style become clear – rounded faces, button noses, big round eyes and bright colors.

She paints a young, tousled-haired boy with gangly arms and legs. Though the boy wears a skull T-shirt that harkens of teenage angst to come, the spattering of childish freckles on his cheeks belies his age. So does his childish delight: He sits in a sea of yellow dandelions and joyfully blows the weeds’ white seed parachutes toward his dog’s face.

Her animals are alive with human characteristics: A grinning bear holds a happy trout under his arm. It doesn’t matter that a fish can’t survive out of water, and certainly not in the paws of a big brown bear. Really it’s that very implausibility that drew Dawn to illustrating.

“You get to collaborate with the storyteller in making new realities,” she says. “If you want a kid’s arm to turn into a noodle and stretch from here to the next town, you can do that.”

She paints children’s books for kids, of course, but adults can’t help but love her whimsical characters, too. That’s what attracted Dawn’s East Coast agent, Bernadette Szost, to her portfolio.

Getting Bernadette to take notice was a very important milestone in Dawn’s career. The first step in becoming a children’s book illustrator is finding someone willing to represent your work – to sell your particular style, your bright-eyed children, your brand of unorthodox animals.

“I love her work,” Bernadette says. “Dawn’s use of color and contrast enhances her quirky characters and gives them a unique quality and style that is so appealing to children and adults alike.”

Within weeks of signing with Bernadette, Dawn was assigned her first book. Called “Just the Facts,” the book was aimed at teaching fourth-graders how to write research reports. In November, she signed a deal for a similar educational book by the same author, Nancy Loewen. She’s illustrated pages in a handful of other books, compilations with work by different authors and illustrators.

Her dream, though, as she might tell you, is to illustrate the children’s book that’s been brewing in her brother’s head. She’s hopeful he’ll do more than just talk about it, too. His sense of humor, paired with her whimsical, colorful characters, would make for a winning combination, she says – one she hopes no publisher could turn down.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or

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