Sandy Spring Friends School



Agog Over Og: Creating Picture Books with Johnny Williams and the Illustrious Illustrators

Agog Over Og: Creating Picture Books with Johnny Williams and the Illustrious Illustrators

Og the ogre, Zog the dog, and Pog the frog live in a bog. Everyone is happy—that is, until fog rolls in, causing Zog to lose his pet frog somewhere in the bog.

In his third year of teaching Third Grade at Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS), Johnny Williams—a professional furniture maker turned passionate elementary teacher—recently empowered and collaborated with an engaged group of student illustrators to publish the delightfully whimsical tale, Og. The book raises an urgent question: Will Og and Zog find Pog the frog in the bog, despite the fog?

After seven years in his custom furniture woodshop in Newtown, Connecticut, Johnny graduated from the University of Georgia with his master’s in early childhood education, moved to Colorado, and taught Fourth and Fifth Grade with Denver Public Schools. When the pandemic hit, the tumult of navigating a public health crisis in an under-resourced environment had him longing for an established, welcoming, and warm school community. He ultimately found it in SSFS, remarking, “The warm community was evident even during my Zoom interviews!” He was quickly drawn to the School’s emphasis on Quaker process, as well as its flexible leadership opportunities, which encourage the interests of individual faculty. While not a Quaker himself, he expresses his admiration for the Quaker values that guide the institution, which he is drawn to for reasons both spiritual and practical.

"Shared silence is really powerful—there is peace and meaning to be found in it. Our culture tends to be chaotic, especially recently. I call this place my ‘safe harbor’—it offers opportunities for healing. In my previous school, I felt like a cog in a big machine. At SSFS, I felt immediately valued. I was amazed that as soon as I joined the community, people asked for my ideas and sought my perspective—it’s what I’ve loved the most so far. Personalized opportunities for leadership. Ideas sought and valued. Individual passions encouraged. Sound like fertile ground for a custom-built educational experience?"

It was, indeed. After being on hiatus due to the pandemic, when the School brought back clubs (for both Middle and Lower Schools, this means after-school extracurricular offerings designed and led by interested staff), Johnny seized the moment, creating and leading a group called “Illustrious Illustrators” in fall 2022. “It was an opportunity to dive deeper into my own passions and share them with my students.” And since this particular Lower School club was open to students in Grades 3, 4, and 5, it also represented an opportunity to spend quality time with former students, which was especially appealing to Johnny.

One need only talk with Johnny for a few minutes before hearing about his deep passion for literacy. “I guess you could say I have a ‘side hustle’ as a kid lit writer.” Through a website geared to his target audience, Johnny shares his work, as well as tips for aspiring kid writers. He relates, “From a personal standpoint and also as a teacher of Language Arts, literacy is my deep passion. I try to think about how I can serve struggling readers, readers with learning differences, and students of neurodiverse backgrounds. That’s where I’m focused professionally right now: to develop my own practice and collaborate division-wide to create a cohesive strategy and path for students who may struggle with reading. Particularly as we come out of COVID, during which literacy and reading/writing instruction was so hard to replicate over Zoom, I’m digging into the science and best practices of literacy to best serve the range of my students’ needs.” 


What about Og…and Zog and Pog, you ask? Ah, yes, back to the bog—and the Illustrious Illustrators who helped bring the story to life. While he’s created many picture books on his own, Johnny confesses, “I’m not the best illustrator.” Through the club that debuted this fall, Johnny provided the story and a band of eager students created the accompanying artwork. “Og is secretly educational since it’s a ‘decodable reader,’ meaning the story repeats a particular vowel sound.” Over the course of eight weeks, club members examined mentor texts and artist portfolios to find artistic inspiration. Next, Johnny led them to create drawing guides, establishing consistent backgrounds and styles for each character—a way to create cohesion amidst the artistic contributions of 12 different illustrators.

At the end of the eight-week experience, the Illustrious Illustrators self published Og through a website called Book Baby, which quickly turned around the finished book, serving to further empower and energize the group of aspiring authors and illustrators. “This is the type of project-based learning that gets kids truly engaged. I learn right along with the students—it’s an imperfect process, it feels very authentic, and it exemplifies the non-hierarchical culture here at SSFS.”

Since its launch, the book has taken on a second and third life. “I’m also the Clerk of the Lower School’s Service Learning Committee, and I’m always looking to help students make these types of connections.” They decided to make the book a fundraiser, with all proceeds going to support the preservation and conservation of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary on the Chesapeake Bay in Lothian, Maryland.

After all, Og takes place in a bog.

Soon after joining the Sandy Spring Friends faculty in 2020, when Johnny was teaching over Zoom, he visited this particular bog in order to record videos and create a virtual field trip for his students. “I guess you could say I connected with the habitat!”

The culminating event in the process was an author panel attended by Grades 3, 4, and 5, when the Illustrious Illustrators read the book aloud and hosted Q&A in Yarnall Library. Johnny shares, “In my whole teaching career, it was a top-three moment to see the kids up there beaming over something they created together—it was heartwarming for everybody.” And, since Grades K, 1, and 2 are the story’s target audience, the Illustrators visited each of those SSFS classrooms for read alouds and Q&A, as well.

What’s next for Johnny and the Illustrious Illustrators? Johnny hopes to publish at least one book per year and lead three Lower School clubs each year (he’s currently leading the music history club, covering a new decade of pop music history during each of their meetings). In the meantime, the original Illustrious Illustrators are already dreaming up sequels to Og.

But come on, don’t leave us hanging! What happens to Og and his floofy dog and carefree frog—is their happiness lost in the fog? You’ll have to purchase the book—which, of course, means supporting the conservation of an actual bog—to find out.

Order your copy today!

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