Riverview teacher Stephanie Booth has a special tradition for her first-graders each Christmas season. She reads them the book, "Snow What Fun: When Snowmen Come to Life on Christmas Eve." She reads slowly and holds the book outward so the students can see the beautiful drawings that accompany the enchanting story.
But when she reaches "the end," the lesson isn't over. Booth explains to the children the pictures were drawn by a former Riverview student. She asks them to imagine the illustrator, Mike Esberg, as a little boy walking the Riverview hallways. "Maybe he once drew a picture in this very classroom," she tells them.
Mike Esberg as a second grader at Riverview.
Esberg graduated from Central in 1978.
If he was actually in that classroom, he definitely was drawing pictures, said Esberg, a senior illustrator with Hallmark Cards, Inc. Esberg, now 47, said he was constantly drawing as a child and that his passion was encouraged while he was a student at Riverview, especially by his first-grade teacher Mary Walker, (now Mary Esteves at Pinewood).
"I was always helping her with bulletin boards and other crafts," Esberg recalled. "She took a special interest in me. She was always motivating me to push myself, to find out how much more I could do with my art."
So when his first book of illustrations was published by Hallmark in 2004, "Snow What Fun," he sent his former teacher a copy. He followed suit with the next two books in the holiday series, "The Snowbelly Family at Chillyville Inn" in 2005 and "The Snow Must Go On: a Way, Way off-Broadway Adventure" in 2006.
Esteves described Mike as was one of those children teachers love to have--kind, cooperative, talented, with a great attitude. “He did draw almost anything I needed,” said Esteves, adding she was thrilled when she received his first book. “I had always hoped he would illustrate a children’s book. And I was so touched he sent me a copy.”
Esteves said every year she uses Mike as an example of someone who worked hard to develop his talent so he could do something he loves when he became an adult. “He fits right in with other authors and illustrators she shares with her students, such as Tomi dePaola and David McPhail.
“I talk about how they liked to draw when they were children,” Esteves said. “Then I talk about Mike, one of my own students, who was also talented as a little boy and worked hard, and studied, and went to college, and now look what he’s accomplished."
"Hopefully, Mike’s story will encourage children to dream and inspire them to do something they’re passionate about," she added.
While Esberg had a passion for art from an early age, he never envisioned himself making a career of it. At Central High School, he took a variety of art classes, including drafting, and thought he might eventually become an architect. But Esberg's drawings got noticed by the owner of a local van conversion company. After he graduated from Central in 1978, Esberg was hired to design murals for the vans, a job that kept him busy for the next two years and showed him he could make a living from his passion.
So he enrolled at Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, graduating in 1984. He was recruited by Hallmark right out of college and has been with the Kansas City, Missouri, based company ever since.
He was initially hired to design humorous characters for Hallmark's contemporary card line, but like most artists who work for the greeting-card giant, was encouraged to branch out. This creativity is one of the things Esberg likes best about working for Hallmark.
"It's been a nice journey," he said from his Kansas City home. "As the years have gone by, I've illustrated all kinds of cards and worked on a number of projects. You're encouraged to step out of your comfort zone, to explore new ideas. There are new opportunities around every corner."
One of those opportunities was to illustrate a book. Esberg said he originally created the snowmen family illustrations for a different project, but Hallmark writer Cheryl Hawkinson saw them and proposed writing a children's book. They collaborated and the result was "Snow What Fun."
The snowmen family
illustrations in Esberg's
children's books are also
used on other Hallmark
products, such as this holiday candle.
That book (sold only at Hallmark stores) was such a success, the project turned into a series. Esberg said he just finished designing the cover for the 2007 edition, "Snow Happy To Be Here."
While illustrating the books is one of the highlights of his career, Esberg said he's just as proud of some of the design work he's done for the greeting card line, including last year's Halloween series.
"It was a series of nine cards," he explained. "Several of them had songs and lighting added to them. They were very unique. An artist is always trying to do something different. It's exciting when you find yourself doing something you didn't expect."
Mike Esberg, senior illustrator at Hallmark, today
That ability to continually be excited about his job is what keeps Esberg at Hallmark and keeps him smiling. "I still get to paint and draw and be creative every day," he said. "It's an artist's dream job.
"And I get to work with like-minded people," he continued. "It's a wonderfully creative environment."
Esberg, who still has family in the area, returns to Elkhart each summer with his wife, an editor at Hallmark, and their two children. He enjoys introducing them to the places of his childhood and to "small town" life.
This "small town" boy is proud to say he graduated from Elkhart Community Schools. "There were many opportunities along the way," he said. "I was never denied anything I needed.
"I see education as a personal choice," he added. "We're all given the same opportunities, but not everyone takes them."
He believes a staff that takes a personal interest in its students is what sets Elkhart apart. "It helps so much for students to have positive role models," he noted. "Kids need to see their teachers passionate about something if they are to find their own passion."