One Hundred Lilies

Last month I confessed to a bout of nerves before starting on a new picture book project. I have gained some calm as I have delved into defining the imagery for the book. I am no longer on the shore. I am wading in.

Of the two primary characters in the book (a dog and a child), it is the dog that I have been working on the most so far.

I have a dog. He is a rat terrier. My initial drawings for Lily were based on him.

But they were rejected for not being cute and cuddly enough. I admit, Nik is a bit angular and bony and he doesn’t have much of a tail.

So I drew a dog very unlike Nik; a furry pooch with a more expressive tail (as I showed you in my last post).

That Lily thankfully got the go-ahead.

Even though Lily the dog appears in less than half of the imagery, I want to be sure of what she looks like and how she moves. The best way for me to do this is to draw lots of character studies. This is how I familiarize my brain with characters so that I can draw them without having to actually see them. I mostly draw characters from my imagination and then seek reference to augment the drawings. It may seem like an ass-backwards approach, but it’s how I feel most comfortable working.

I have drawn a lot of children. Usually I do about five to ten studies per character before starting on illustrations for a book. But I have not drawn a lot of dogs, so I set myself a goal of one hundred Lily drawings. Here are a few of them.

After I had drawn about seventy imaginary Lilies, I thought it was time to find a real dog to look at. Then one day, while walking in the park with Nik, I met Romeo.

I introduced myself to Romeo’s family and they let my take photos of him. Those pictures helped get me up to my three-digit goal.

Now I feel like I know this Lily. She becomes more real to me, each time I draw her.

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A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!

 

 

 

 

 

National Book Award Shortlist

 

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Rita Williams-Garcia

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Ibi Zoboi

Just want to make sure you all know that the shortlists for the National Book Awards have been announced. On the list of five authors for Young People’s Literature are two wonderful writers associated with Vermont College of Fine Arts; first, the brilliant and adorable Rita Williams-Garcia, for her book Clayton Byrd Goes Underground; second, Ibi Zoboi, a graduate of VCFA, for her book American Street. Ibi had Rita as an advisor for her first semester at VCFA and those two must have really clicked. Congratulations to them both…to all five shortlisted authors in the category, actually… (and, as we used to claim gleefully for VCFA when I taught there, “World Domination!”)

 

On the Go

Drago Jurac

I’ve just returned from a sea voyage. Travel refreshes.
What’s your favorite way to get away?
You could hop on a bike.

by William Steig

Or a bug.

by Hedwig Sporri-Dolder

Ride a swallow, a pale blue cat or black dog.

by Eleanor Vere Boyle

 

by Julie Paschkis

 

by Lisbeth Zwerger

 

Float in a boat

Ola by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire

 

or a balloon.

by Alice and Martin Provensen

Ride a truck, a car, or a train.

by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

French Advertising Card 1920

 

by William Pene du Bois

Or just head out on foot.

The Disorderly Girl 1860

by Arthur Rackham

by Yuri Vasnetsov

 

Enjoy the ride!

from A Visit to William Blake’s Inn, poems by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen

 

 

Why Write for Children?

Why write for children instead of adults?

(I am thinking about this question because on October 8 I’m going to speak at WRITE ON THE SOUND, a weekend writing conference in Edmonds, WA. Most of the conference is focused on writing for adults.)

More exactly: Why create picture books for children instead of write for adults?

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Notice I had to rephrase my question. That’s because I need the pictures part – I love telling my stories with pictures as well as words. I love the dance of text and art; the possibilities and humor and resonance as these two ways of telling bring a story forward.

Most of all, I love the form: the 32-page structure. As surely as a sonnet or a villanelle is proscribed by demands of rhythm and rhyme, the 32-page structure shapes a picture book story’s telling. The page turns create a cadence, a pacing. And it all happens in less than, say, 700 words: a beginning that typically introduces a character and his or her dilemma, a middle full of rising tension as things get worse, then even worse, then worst of all before the end where the character figures a solution, hopefully one that is unexpected and yet expected, hopefully one that changes character and reader. The 32-page structure forces a writer to condense and clarify, to make every word earn its keep.

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Plus it seems the stories I want to tell are geared to a child reader. I’ve had my nose in a book since I learned to read — and it amuses me to create stories that would have amused the child I was.

Then there’s the fact that some of my favorite times as a parent were spent reading picture books with our kids. Picture books are read and reread. Sometimes they become part of a family’s way of looking at the world. They matter. (The books illustrating this blogpost are picture books that are part of our family’s history.)

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Plus I like what CS Lewis said about writing for children: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.”

The more I understand about the craft of writing for children, the more satisfying it is to try to express my story ideas. After 26 years, the question for me is not why write for children instead of adults, but how to keep my work fresh and alive, and better tap into the original vision of each picture book project.

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On October 8, I will share my enthusiasm for the art and the craft of picture books with the adult writers at WRITE ON THE SOUND. I wonder what stories they might create, were they to bend their considerable writing skills to this 32-page wonder?

Now it’s your turn: Why write for children instead of adults?

Note: WRITE ON THE SOUND is already sold out.

 

 

 

 

Tittery Jitters

How many of you have felt both excitement and anxiety when starting a new project? Many, I predict.

I believe those feelings are really two sides of the same coin. In fact, the degree of excitement I feel is in direct correlation with the amount of anxiety I also experience. It is the irony of caring about the work I do.

So I am nervously happy, or perhaps ecstatically terrified, to tell you that I am starting the illustrations for a new picture book.

I will give you more details in the future, but for now I will only tell you that the story is by Julie Paschkis and it is titled Where Lily Isn’t.

Here are a few early studies I have done for one of the main characters.

Now I would like to hear whether I am correct that many of you feel the same combination of emotions when starting a new creative endeavor. Do you bite your nails, or do you confidently proceed without a tentative thought? Or are you somewhere in between . . . ?

The Top Four Lists of Writing Tips

 

Okay, I lied. These are great tips, but not necessarily the top four, but numbered lists are pretty irresistible. For some reason we love them—Top Six Beauty Tips, the Ten Best Eats in Portland, Eight New Looks for You, 13 Reasons Why.

Maybe we like the promise of something simple, definitive, brief—condensed wisdom. The other day I started browsing through a compilation of writing advice put together by the amazing Maria Popova, who writes the blog Brain Pickings. It’s a guide to 117 columns she’s written over the years on authors and their advice to other writers.

It’s well worth checking out all 117 essays for inspiration and entertainment, but I focused on the ones that promised to be simple lists, like Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And then I rather randomly picked four that I liked because it was fun to see them all together. It’s interesting how practical most of the tips are. Writers, it seems, do not want to talk high-faluting artsy stuff when it comes to advice to other writers. Even Henry Miller’s list was surprising mundane, mostly counsel to himself bordering on “don’t forget to buy milk.”

I suspect as writers we know that we only hope to catch lightning in a bottle—it’s not something we have much control over. So the best we can offer is “here’s my bottle.”

KURT VONNEGUT

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that I might comment on some of the advice—maybe something from my own experience or somesuch. But as I looked over the lists, I realized the other thing that maybe we like about lists–they don’t offer a lot of context. Instead, you, the reader, bring the context. You fill in the blanks with your own experience and decide if it rings true for you or not.

I’d love to know: did any of these tips strike you?

 

 

 

Tick-Tock, School Clock

BATT - School Clock

Is there any tick of the clock more predictably sobering each year than the one which moves us from August 31st to September 1st? From the August of hot days, U-Pick berries, lake docks, family picnics, sand castles, country fairs, campfires, s’mores, and sitting around doing absolutely nothing, to the September of school hallways, bells, classrooms, rows of desks, blackboards, textbooks, math problems, vocabulary lists, lunch lines, tests, rules…? Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved school when I was a kid. But I felt the solemnity of the calendar page turning from the last month of summer to the first month of autumn. It seemed like a moment of radical transformation: you go to bed wild and free and wake up…changed…that is, you go from this:

BATT - Kids Picnic

to this:

BATT - Michigan -

from this:

Batt - Kids Beach 1

to this:

BATT - Serious Students - Michigan

 from this:

BATT- Marshmallows

and this:

BATT - S'Mores

to this:

BATT - school lunch

and this:

BATT - School Lunch 2

from this:

BATT - Water Slide

to this:

Batt - Child at Desk

and from this:

BATT - Ferris Wheel

to  –  aaaaacccckkkkkk! – it makes me shudder –  this:

BATT - School Clock

I was a happy kid, loved school. I was a good reader, interested, eager to please, well-behaved, teachers liked me, I liked learning things, and I loved school supplies: pencils, erasers, notebooks, Peechee folders, lined paper, glue, staplers, binders, loved it all. Loved getting new saddle shoes every year. Loved looking forward to school picture day. My school pictures looked almost exactly like the one below – lots of stripes, lots of plaids, boys in rolled dungarees, girls with sweet collars or their dresses and barrettes in their hair (and by the way, this teacher had thirty-six students in her class – they look to be first- or second-graders – that is WAY too many students for one primary teacher – I hope she survived the school year):

BATT - River Oaks 1951

I didn’t like chalk, math, or cafeteria food, and I would have preferred wearing dungarees, too, but that’s about it for the negative side of all things academic. Despite being quite happy in the classroom, I loved recess best, and my memories of the playground – jump rope, hopscotch, tether ball, jacks, tag  – are vivid.

My mom was a teacher. My dad was a teacher. My aunt was a teacher. My husband was a teacher. My sister became a teacher. I ended up teaching for several years. And, as I say, I loved school. So why can I still remember staring at a clock exactly like the one pictured above, seeing the minute hand move backward for one second, then jerk ahead to the next minute? I’ve got that double-tick of the clock imprinted on my muscles and bones and brain. The hands on that clock moved SO S-L-O-W-L-Y. When the bell rang for recess, I was out the door running like a banshee, screaming with delight all the way to the playground.

I salute all of the wonderful teachers now who are, without doubt, much like the teachers I knew and loved when I was in elementary school – Miss Nelson, Mrs. Frizzi, Mr. Threewit, Mr. Bloyd. Teachers still hang wonderful bulletin boards with bright pictures, just like this:

BATT - Bulletin Board

They keep their classrooms cheerful and organized, and they manage to create quiet little nooks and crannies for some of their quieter little people:

BATT - Bulletin Board 2

They read to their students, they encourage the kids who struggle, they correct endless papers, they wake their students up to the wonders of the world, they do work that is vitally important in terms of producing good citizens for a democracy, kids who learn to listen, kids who learn to ask the right questions.  Good teachers open metaphorical doors, the hardest kind to open.

And every September, teachers deal with a classroom full of kids whose families have just turned the page of the calendar from August to September. These teachers still have – and the kids in their classrooms still have  – sunburns that have not faded. The scent of hot dogs and s’mores cooked over a campfire linger somewhere just outside the doors next to the attendance office. Even the principal dreams about his August paddle board lessons while he tells students to slow down, no running in the hallways.

I wish all the teachers reading this a wonderful, satisfying, bump-free school year, full of unexpected pleasures. When you’re reading the list of class rules, just remember that many of your students are still thinking about what it felt like to somersault off the dock down at the lake into the icy cold water. They are still going from this:

BATT - Camping

to this:

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and from this:

BATT - Dock

to this:

BATT - kids-school-bus

It takes awhile to get into the groove of school. Sitting at a desk can be hard after running through sprinklers for three months. It’s even hard for the kids who love school. And for their teachers.

But you all know that. So chin-up, have some fun, take your students outside once in awhile, let them run around and go crazy. You run around and go crazy once in awhile, too, whether in front of the students or once you’re home.

Tick-tock until next summer.

 


[Visit The Drift Record to see my post for Poetry Friday: “Sentimental Education” by Mary Ruefle.]

 

ONE SUN ONE MOON

Wren, Oregon — Early Monday morning we slipped under the wire fence and climbed a hillside cow pasture, then watched while the light dimmed and crickets tuned up their fiddles.

famonhill

As the moon slipped in front of the sun, the skies darkened to indigo and the most wondrous jewel was revealed, hanging in the sky where the sun had been – a total solar eclipse. We were transfixed.

myphotoeclipse

Then roosters crowed and the skies began to lighten again.

Over the next hours, as the eclipse moved coast to coast across America, millions of people shared our gobsmacked, goosebumped wonder.

Eclipses have amazed humans for a long time. Ancient Mesopotamian warriors who witnessed a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC interrupted a longstanding war between the Medes and the Lydians. They saw the eclipse as an omen. Fighting immediately stopped and they agreed to a truce.

For modern scientists, this eclipse offered a chance to study the sun’s corona. A Nova special which included film of Monday’s event, detailed how scientists are trying to understand the forces that impact coronal heating – the surface of the sun is 10,000 degrees but the corona can heat up to 1 million degrees.

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We gathered in a field near my sister Kate’s house. She labeled it a “Partial Reunion Total Eclipse,” and made t-shirts based on our LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING artwork. Note the wolves wear protective sunglasses and the white ink glows in the dark.

•  •  •  •  •

Monday’s eclipse may have been the most photographed event in the history of mankind.

My friend, photographer Max Waugh got some amazing shots from Central Oregon.

Solar Eclipse Composite

Solar Eclipse Composite

See more of Max’s images here: Max Waugh

In Seattle, my friend Karen captured the effect of the eclipse on leaf shadows in her driveway.

Another friend, Melanie, set up an Optical Sun Projector with binoculars and snapped photos as the reflection crossed a screen. She explained: “The binoculars are set up on a tripod, facing the sun. One lens is occluded to allow for one image. This will project a reflection onto a screen. I made my screen out of white black-out fabric and made a little tent over to help balance light.” The image on the right takes into account a cloud passing by.

Before the advent of photography, artists painted the eclipse. A current exhibit at the Princeton Art Museum includes the paintings of Howard Russell Butler, whose “scrupulously accurate paintings” captured the colors in the corona. Check out his methods here. http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects

•  •  •  •  •

I was proud of the moon on her Big Day. I am a longtime fan. I wear a crescent moon necklace. Joe Max Emminger’s painting of a tender moon hangs in our entry

joemax

and Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s moon series hangs over the piano — where the chart for “How High the Moon,” stands ready.

mci

The moon has a starring role in my picture books, too. The highpoint of FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, where they sing to the stars, features a crescent moon,

F&I.31

and Kate’s and my latest, LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, is all about howling the full moon to the top of the sky. I love how Kate painted the moonlight into our book.

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This eclipse was incredible, even more incredible when you think it is only possible because the sun and moon appear the same size in Earth’s sky because the sun’s diameter is about 400 times greater – but the sun is also about 400 times farther away. The disc of the moon fits perfectly over the sun.

Like the millions of others who witnessed Monday’s eclipse, I was filled with wonder when the temperatures dropped, the sky darkened and the beautiful jewel appeared. Quite a memorable Partial Reunion Total Eclipse.

finalimage

 

Many Moons

I just returned from a week in Maine. In addition to visiting my family, the sea, and the rocky shore, I also got to visit old friends whom I had not seen in many moons. I’m referring – of course – to books.



 

Shelves and shelves of books. I could remember just when I had met most of them. These books connect me to my family, to my younger self, and to the world.


 

Time moves in only one direction, but books are time machines. They take us back to when we first read them. They take us to new or old worlds.

Across seas,

The Story of Vania, Helen Pons

 

and under trees.



They take us home even if home no longer exists.


They take us on unsettling adventures.

Dare Wright

Eudora Welty said “The events in our lives happen in a sequence of time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily – perhaps not possibly – chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

Alice and Martin Provensen

The art and stories I have read, seen and loved (or sometimes disliked) provide intermittent sparks of revelation and inspiration. What books are sparks for you? What books offer time travel?

The Great Quillow by James Thurber, illustrated by Doris Lee

I hope that the my work will spark someone else. I can never create with that in mind; thinking about how something will be received is a quick way to kill the joy of making art. But in the abstract I hope that before croaking I can make time machines for someone else to ride.

Ed Emberly