Let’s escape…

The last two weeks have been doozies (since I was born in 1906, I get to say that… jk which is a newer bit of slang). Anyway, I’m not feeling like being very serious right now. So let’s escape. In my collection of images about books and reading there are lots of repeating motifs and themes–books and cats, reading and cafes, books and beds, books and birds, reading and women, etc.–but probably the overwhelming theme is escape into another world, into self, into peace.

So this week let’s go. Let’s run away together.

Illustration by Iker Ayerstaran

Illustration by Tuylek

Illustration by Joost Swarte

Illustration by Caroline Magerl

Illustration by Javier Naverette

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Achiki

Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

Illustrator not known (anybody recognize?)

Illustration by Remy Coutarel

2021: Three Favors, One Resolution

Yes, it’s 2021! Hallelujah!

There’s light at the end of that long tunnel called 2020, and as I emerge into that light I’m going to ask 2021 for three favors.

FIRST:

It’s easy for me to forget I live in my whole body because I spend a lot of time in my head. I suspect that’s true for a lot of us who love to write and love to read and who make the time to do it. But inside our heads can be a dark place, too – not dark as in frightening, but dark as in isolating. It’s important to remember the delivery system for our brains involves our lungs, bones, blood, and skin. Without them the inside of our heads go completely dark. As in kaput. My mortality is not something I need to be thinking about all the time, but reminders (there have been plenty this year) like Covid-19 push me out of my head into the open air, send me out into the neighborhood or over to the beach for walks and fresh air. More, more, more of this, 2021, are you listening? Help push me out the door.

SECOND:

To feel creative, I first need a little noise. Not a lot. But I’m at my happiest if there are people moving around, some chatter, doors opening and closing, kids playing, the goings and comings of a real world, the scene turning over in a kind of tidal way, bit by bit, as I watch and listen. Noise – the kind you get at a good coffee shop. The kind you get when you’re walking down a street in Rome, London, Paris, San Francisco, Oaxaca, anyplace new that’s filled with people. The kind you get in a public market or when you’re singing with a choir. Later, silence is fine. But first, give me a world that’s boisterous and rambunctious. I’m looking forward to more noise, 2021, please!

THIRD:

Who knew that it was possible to miss touching people? To miss giving someone a little kiss to say hello, hugging them to say goodbye. Shaking hands when you say, “Nice to meet you.” Sitting down next to someone else, not worried about the distance between you. Such an undervalued thing until this last year. Proximity. Rubbing shoulders. Touch. I long for that most basic and most lovely of our senses, 2021. So please, more.

***

There’s one other thing, but I have to thank 2020 for it. Last year helped me remember that the word “essential” applies to just about everyone who works hard to make our daily lives work, often without the respect they deserve. So I’ll toss in this one resolution, after asking for three favors: I’m going to remember, 2021, to let those essential workers know whenever I can how grateful I am.

Merry Mama

My mother, Marcia Iliff Paschkis, is an artist – a potter. She is 92 now and still makes pots and teaches other people how to make pots. 

She also likes to draw. Everyone in my family draws or makes things – I think largely because of the example that both of my parents set. It isn’t a big deal – it is just part of life.  

I have absorbed a lot of my mother’s habits of working as well as her style.

Every year my mother draws a Christmas card. As a holiday treat I am sharing some of the many cards she has sent out over the years.

 

I have also posted her images in a down-loadable form at my website HERE  in case you want to color them in. 

Happy Holidays from my mama to you!

 

 

Telling the Story of the “Germ Season”

We’re into the tenth month of stay-at-home recommendations. The only regular interactions we have are with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. We always meet outside, always wearing masks. We miss the Fridays we used to care for the little boys before they headed back to socially-distanced school. Oh, how I wish to pull them onto my lap and share a book. Our custom now is to sit opposite from each other when we read. They miss our old coziness, too. The younger one, who is 3 1/2, solemnly told me, “When germ season is over, we can go into your house again, Nana.” The older one, 5 1/2, is planning a two-night sleepover when the situation changes.

Meanwhile, I wonder how this exceptional year will impact the rest of their lives. They’ve come to accept maskwearing as easily as they might a warm coat. But the constant precautions they hear pervade how they understand the world. For instance, they have been reading Greek myths with their mom and were talking about the god Pan.

“Pan is naughty,” said my daughter.

“Yes,” the littlest agreed. “He doesn’t wash his hands.”

We are writers, the keepers of the stories. How will we tell the stories of this world-wide pandemic?

Recently I read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts another world-wide horror: World War II. He tells the story of Winston Churchill and the UK, focusing on the 12-month period when Hitler waged a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons, 30,000 of them Londoners. It is a spellbinding account – woven of stories big and small – of how Churchill held the country together and persuaded FDR to join the fight.

Among Larson’s resources are diaries collected as part of the Mass Observation project, founded by an anthropologist, a filmmaker and a poet at the University of Sussex. They felt newspapers were not accurately conveying public opinion around King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication of the throne to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. They recruited almost 500 volunteers to systematically document feelings about this historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews in diaries.

When history took the dark turn to WWII, these diarists continued to keep day-to-day accounts of their lives, sometimes reflecting a wider perspective on history than news reports. No special instructions were given to the diarists so their writings vary greatly in their style, content and length. The project continued to the mid-sixties, then was revived in 1981. Archives are held at the University of Sussex.

What resources will future historians consult to understand the effects of our current pandemic?

They will be inundated by accounts on both social media and traditional news sources. I think the challenge will be wading through the ocean of source material.

They might start with the Sunday New York Times in late May. Did you see it? The front section was dedicated to the first 100,000 people who died. Under the headline “An Incalculable Loss,” they listed the names, dates, locations and a single sentence for each person, gathered from nearly 300 news sources. Stuff like: Great grandmother with an easy laugh. Could recite Tennyson from memory. Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Quiet hero. Man, could she cook. Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Each sentence evokes a lifetime. The interactive version is here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html You have to scroll and scroll and scroll to get from the beginning to the end. It’s heartbreaking.

These past weeks I have been working on our 2021 McGee family calendar. I am the middle of five sibs and our family numbers almost 70 now. Our mom started the calendar tradition in the 80’s and we five have kept it up, taking turns to gather the previous year’s photos that tell the story of our children and grandchildren growing up. All together, the calendars make a family archive: vacations, weddings, deaths and births. (We are hoping the first fourth-generation baby, a great-great niece whose due date is Dec. 11, will be born before we have to go to press.)

This year I used my grandsons’ vivid art for backgrounds, as well as my niece Anna’s beautiful batiks and some backgrounds from my books. I grouped COVID-19 photos on the back: family members playing board games, setting up socially-distanced outdoor meeting spaces, wearing masks – even a photo of a masked grandniece and her date posing for their traditional picture before leaving for the prom.

My sister Susan’s deck awaits her Tuesday night Bible and prayer meeting, Sacramento, CA.

There’s a photo of our immediate family there on the back of the calendar, too. We’re playing Sleeping Queens at the patio table, masked and bundled against COVID and the cold. We are part of the story.

The love of doing, redoing and not doing

In a year of great doing, and the sometimes even harder task of not doing, we thought we’d pause and share our appreciation of the things that give us joy, purpose and meaning no matter what is happening in the world around us.

Julie let what she loves–creating images and writing–speak for itself.

Flourish and Grow by Julie Paschkis

By Julie Paschkis

Planting Thoughts by Laura Kvasnovsky

Illustration by Mila Marquis

Here you are again, on your knees in the dirt. 

Close your eyes and feel the sun warm on your back and the dry papery husks of the bulbs in your hand: Muscari armeniacum.

Breathe in the sharp scent of sandy soil and the darker fragrance of compost and leaf mulch, and hear the birds, if they chirp, and the rustle of the breeze.

The earth waits. Dig in and settle the bulbs, grateful for that ancient impulse to grow, to bloom, to go to seed, to fade.

And grateful for the turning of the seasons that finds you here again, on your knees in the dirt.

Mending by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Dress and photo by Margaret Chodos-Irvine

Close your eyes and think about the clothes you are wearing.

Think about everything that went into making them: 

The people who put them together, somewhere in the world, 

the plants and animals and energy that were used in making them.

We mend in gratitude for all these things. 

We practice patience. We practice acceptance. 

We embrace imperfection as part of what makes everything unique.

Words Full of Promise by Julie Larios

Illustration by Piero Schirinzi

I’m a poet. To me, being a poet means using words – individual words – words made of evocative letters. How can letters evoke feelings? Well, when I see the letter “j,” I love the dip it takes below the line, the little hook that feels rebellious, non-conformist. I love the letter “z” in a word, because it feels (and even sounds) strange; it’s a letter that can’t decide if it wants to go forward or backward. When you write it, it reverses direction. It’s a letter full of doubt, and I prefer doubt to certainty. The letter “k” is a bit aggressive, very certain, the Genghis Khan of letters. Each letter of the alphabet has a unique personality, yet together they cooperate, they cohere, they form little societies called words. 

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for each letter of the alphabet, and for the way letters make words and words make poems, and poems are, by nature, inclusive, they invite people of differing experiences to contemplate shared feelings – they help us share a spot at the Thanksgiving table. 

I invite you to think about the shapes of letters. Rebellious, uncertain, bold, shy – you’ll find their nature if you look. String some together into a word, two words, three. Don’t worry about grammar yet. Build a poem with one-syllable words. Right now I’m thinking of the word “thirst.” Begins with a “t,” ends with a “t.” That word feels suspended in time -something hangs in the balance, makes a growl. Then I consider the word “juice.” Playful. Generous. Put them together for a two-word poem, full of promise – “Thirst? Juice!”

Sleep by Bonny Becker

Illustration by Eugeni Balakshin

Close your eyes and think about sleep.

Turn off noise, color, fear, hate, right, wrong.

Even love can wait.

Nothing needs you right now.

Turn off the story.

Slip over the edge into the velvet void.

Nothing needs you right now. 

Be done today with do.

Rest and begin anew. 





Thank you from all of us to all of you.

Addicted to the News

As I write this, I’m headed into my 58th hour of election coverage. Not that I’ve watched or listened to all 58 hours of it….maybe just 56 or 57.

Tuesday ….
Wednesday
Thursday…..
Friday…..

No, I’m kidding. I’ve slept in the last few days, so 15-16 hours over the last couple of days I’ve been in bed dreaming strange dreams of being lost. I’ve also fixed a few meals, washed & dried the dishes. I’ve sat quietly and read my email each day & responded (most interestingly, a message from a friend in Australia who seems to know every detail about our election.) I’ve driven once to the curbside pickup location of the library and gotten several books by Lynda Barry and several films by Alfred Hitchcock.

I’ve showered twice. I’ve washed a couple of loads of clothes. I’ve had a few Zooms with my writing friends in Seattle and my writing friends in Canada, Vermont and Oregon. God bless them one and all for the conversations, and for the laughter which has kept me sane. I’ve watched and re-watched a wonderful loop of short-short videos called Election Distractor which was put together by the New York Times — thank you for the link, Julie Paschkis, that was delightful!

Steve Kornacki at MSNBC’s Big Board

But the fact is that at least part of my heart and mind were on the election news during each one of those other activities. I’m a news addict, especially when it comes to history-making news. The addiction probably began when I was 11 and watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates, continued when I was 14 and John Kennedy was assassinated – my family and I listened to Walter Cronkite report that for four days straight.

Walter Cronkite
Announces the Death of John Kennedy

I’ve always watched Presidential election coverage, from 1960 through the one I’ve been watching now….maybe a dozen national elections?….no, sixteen!

Add in the coverage of rocket launches, John Glenn circling the earth, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Watergate testimony – a whole summer of that kept me riveted. The coverage of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. The O.J. Simpson trial – I felt guilty about being so addicted to that trial coverage, though guilt didn’t keep me from being glued to it, fascinated by the characters as if it were a novel. The terrorist attack on 9/11 – exhausting to watch the videos – over and over again – of those planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings, but there I was, watching it, one day, two days, it became a blur. There was (and continues to be) heartbreaking and nerve-wracking coverage of riots and/or protests all around the country, through the decades.

John Dean Testifies at the Watergate Hearings

Many of these were chilling events. Some were confusing. I watched some of the coverage with friends or family. I watched some of it alone. A few history-making moments were thrilling. All fourteen of the elections were mysterious and compelling, with candidates whose body language I studied, whose words I analyzed. I include the journalists and commentators and pundits – who are these people? What pulls them into this drama?

Friends have told me they were emotionally so drained by both the long months of the pandemic and long months of nasty politics that they couldn’t watch the 2020 debates, much less hours of the actual election night(s) coverage. I have to say that several days of it is now wearing me out. But as I type, Steve Kornacki is over at the Big Board on MSNBC explaining results in Pennsylvania – sounds like he’s going to put up numbers soon which will signify the election of Joe Biden. I’d like to stay up long enough to see the look on his face when he does that. The narrative of these events is all about character – McVeigh, Simpson, Biden, Trump, Nixon, Kennedy, Cronkite, Kornacki. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that History is Character.

The Kennedy-Nixon Debate

The books I read over and over again as a child were biographies – Genevieve Foster’s George Washington’s World, Abraham Lincoln’s World, even Augustus Caesar’s World. I wanted to know who these people were, the clothes they wore, the food they ate. I read historical fiction – Blue Willow by Doris Gates, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Read everything I get my hands on that involved children in the Holocaust. I wanted to see people in their everyday lives, hear their stories. I now collect, in the same spirit, mid-20th century photographs of people I don’t know. People at picnics, people sitting on big boulders, people next to their old cars, people waving from parade floats, people hanging up their laundry. Who are they? I want the details! I want the history.

There are children out there as hungry for history as I’ve always been. I’d die happy (well, I will anyway, but….) if I could write a historical novel for kids. How wonderful it would be to have the 2020 version of my ten-year-old self walk into the library and pull my book off the shelf….you know, that sounds a little surreal – a time-traveling doppleganger who reads a book I haven’t yet written……?

Whoa. I’m getting a little ditzy waiting for election returns from Pennsylvania. It’s now 3:00 a.m. and Thursday night is well on its way to Friday morning. Time to say goodnight to Steve Kornacki who has been on mute in the background as I write. Time for me to get to bed and dream another dream about being lost. I’ll get up tomorrow morning and see history happening. History keeps doing that.

Vote Sun or Moon

A high stakes election is underway in the USA. It is time to vote. It is also time to vote here at Books Around the Table.

Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire

The election here is between The Sun and the Moon. Please look at THE SUN images and THE MOON images below, then cast your vote.

THE SUNS

Abner Graboff

Boris Artzubasheff

Brian Wildsmith

Beatrice Tanaka

Eva Rubin

Mariana Malhao

Yuri Vasnetsov – The Stolen Sun

THE MOONS

Arthur Rackham

Josef Lada

Alice and Martin Provensen

Lev Tokmakov

Melissa Sweet

Tomi Ungerer

Maurice Sendak

Thank you for voting.  And now that you have exercised your voting muscle, go to the polls and cast a real vote!

P.S.Who can really choose between the sun and the moon?  I am selling a 2021  calendar to raise money for the ACLU . It includes both the sun and the moon! This one page poster that sells for $12 and ALL of the money goes to the ACLU. If you buy 5 or more shipping is free. Please click here to find out more or purchase one. Thank you.

 

 

THREE SHORT TAKES

COINCIDENCE

There are things that happen in real life that you would never believe if you read them in a novel – too coincidental, you’d think. Not believable.

But this really happened.

We were watching the vice-presidential debates when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s carefully coifed silver dome. When we looked a little later, we realized we had been mistaken, the fly was in our living room, crawling above Pence’s head on our TV screen. It buzzed over to the coffee table and across to the kitchen. Odd to have a fly in the house, we thought, especially this time of year.

Then post-debate commentators confirmed there had been a fly on Pence’s head. But what about the fly that seemed to come out of our TV? Too coincidental. Not believable.

This morning the Twitter world is atwitter with photos and comments about that fly on Pence’s head. In a New York Times column, Frank Bruni wrote: “How could [Pence] be expected to register or exile an itty-bitty pest when he routinely puts up with a great big one? That fly was some crazy combo of metaphor, visitation and karmic joke.”

What meaning would he attach to the doppelganger fly on our TV?

I am intrigued by coincidence. Or maybe it’s synchronicity? Like when I pick up the phone and the person I was going to call is already on the other end. Or that time we hiked miles down a trail on Orcas Island and found our old neighbors sitting on a log.

I once came out of a BART station in San Francisco and a busker was playing Wagon Wheel, the song that had been running through my head all morning. Another time, I opened the gate into a fancy garden party just as the jazz combo leaned into Laura, the song I was named after.

These coincidences stand out exactly because they seem uncanny, unbelievable. But in a bigger sense, synchronicities shape your life – you are there at the precise right moment to meet the people who open doors and teach and help you along the way. That leads to my second item.

12:34 – WHO LOVED YOU INTO BEING?

Whenever I happen to look at the clock and it is 12:34, I stop and take a minute to think about someone who helped me along the way. I got this idea from Fred Rogers, who called it “One Silent Minute.”

He urged kids to take a whole minute to think about a person who had “loved you into being.” Turns out a minute is a long time to stick with this, so just like Fred, I time it. Sometimes I think about someone from the past, like Doris Fletcher, a neighborhood mom who worked with us sixth grade girls so we could have a singing group, The Six Belles. Songs she taught us still give me comfort. I imagine us standing behind her at the her spinet singing, “May you always walk in sunshine…” Other times, I think about present friends and relations. As Fred reminds us, “Wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self.”

Who will you think about the next time you notice the clock at 12:34?

EMPATHY

With the divisiveness of the presidential election and rising racial unrest, it seems empathy is needed more than ever.

On his brilliant podcast, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores the topic of empathy with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast, but here are some highlights that will hit home for children’s book creators.

SV – “Deeply written narrative fiction has the ability to pull us deep into the lives of other people.”

JZ—”Absolutely… this is why I love fiction… It allows us to effortlessly voyage into the lives of other people and not just see them from the outside but see them from the inside.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence now that the more fiction that people read, the more empathetic they become. There’s a number of correlational studies that show, for instance, that children who read lots of storybooks (for instance, those who read less nonfiction) become more empathetic.

“There’s also some experimental evidence now that even small doses of fiction produce small but reliable improvements in people’s empathy, especially important because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different than us…

“There is evidence that when people read novelistic, vivid accounts of, say, experiences of Arab Americans or people of different gender identities than themselves, they form greater empathy for those other groups.”

Zaki argues that empathy is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with exercise and it can atrophy when idle. Fiction is “the empathy gym.”

Shankar Vedantam, host of the Hidden Brain, and his guest, psychologist Jamil Zaki

So there it is: buzzing coincidence, brimming silence, bountiful fiction.

Purchase in haste, repent at leisure. Shopping during quarantine

So, I bought a few things during the quarantine this spring. Items that seemed to make great sense at the time, but now, I’m not so sure…

Several were grounded in good intentions:

I know! I’ll make agua fresca like they do in Mexico! You see the jugs and jars and pitchers of water and sugar mixed with fruits, flowers or seeds everywhere. Such a good idea. So much better than the sodas we drink in the U.S.

I’ll drink more water and, somehow vaguely in my mind, was a picture of how pleasant it would be at get-togethers in my home to use this handsome water dispenser. Never mind that nobody was getting together for anything anymore.

I was pretty good for about three weeks trying to find just the right blend of lemon or lime or cucumber for my water. Doesn’t this look refreshing?

Disclaimer: item never looked like this in my home.

Here is my actual dispenser, looking as it has looked for about three months now.

My daughter kindly tries not to smirk when she sees it still here on my counter. I haven’t given up, it will rise again!

Then there was the idea to do intermittent fasting to lose weight. My regimen called for no food for 16 hours (which will kick your body into fat-burning ketosis) then an 8 hour window for all the eating you can cram in. It’s simple: stop food at 8 in the evening and then nothing but water or black coffee until noon the next day.

But I really like to start my day with a latte. But its cream and sugar will kick me out of ketosis. But I can’t start my day without something. What to do?

Butter coffee! A blend of coffee, grass-fed butter—a lot of people use ghee—and coconut oil which “produces a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top” that doesn’t involve the type of carbs that stop ketosis.

Is it truly a delicious latte-like drink complete with foamy top?  I have no idea. As you can see from this unopened jar of ghee, I haven’t managed either the intermittent fasting or the butter coffee. It turns out it’s fairly complicated to fix butter coffee. It’s been easier to just stay fat.

See this unopened box?

It’s an altar. A meditation altar. Someday, any day now, it will be adorned with things that represent the four elements and a fifth component: spirit.

Incense or feathers or a photo of clouds for air. Some pretty rocks and minerals for earth. Candles for fire. A chalice or maybe a tiny little fountain to represent water. For spirit: a picture of a loved one or a spiritual master or a copy of an inspiring quote or a Hubble deep field image.

The possibilities for imagination, beauty and inspiration are endless. Any day now I will have an altar perfectly set up to gather dust just as this box has for the last three months.

Several of my quarantine purchases were more sensible, supporting vital research for my mystery novel in progress.

For example, this lock picking kit.

Yes, it’s surprising easy to pick locks—at least in principle. It takes only a few simple tools and techniques, but, of course, in practice it’s quite hard as you have to develop just the right feel for it. I have managed to get the padlock open several times, but that’s the only lock I’ve had success with. I messed around with various locks around my house for awhile until it dawned on me that maybe all my scraping and poking wasn’t doing my locks any good.

I watched numerous videos by lock picking masters. Then I watched one by the supposed masters of breaking in and mostly they didn’t bother with picking a lock  at all, it was usually easier to simply remove the door.

Here’s my most expensive purchase of the quarantine. Creepy, right?

It’s a fake baby bump. One of the characters in my novel is pregnant but it’s been 30 years since I was pregnant and I’ve forgotten a lot of the little details of hauling what amounts to at least a 20 pound backpack in front of you.

But before I got around to putting it on for research, I had a brilliant idea for a gag. A small family get-together was in the works (yes, all Covid precautions in place). We hadn’t seen each other in person for nearly four months. My plan was to put on my “bump,” walk into the gathering without saying a word, and then casually mention that I’d put on a bit of weight during the lock-down.

It was mostly aimed at seeing how my brother would react. I mean, here I was looking fat as hell and I sure was past baby carrying age. How many people have fake baby bumps lying around. At the least, it would flummox said brother for one delicious minute, wouldn’t it? Heh, heh. But, sadly, on the day of the party, it suddenly felt too mean. I renounced my prank. Sigh.

So the first time I’ve actually worn my baby bump was a day ago when I put it on for this photo. Is it uncomfortable, hot, heavy, bulky, clumsy? Yes. Being pregnant did indeed come rushing back.

Now I come to my pièce de résistance. My  most unlikely-to-be used purchase of the season. One gloomy day in April, maybe six weeks, into quarantine. This suddenly seemed like a great idea:

What is it? It’s a puzzle isn’t it? But, of course, it’s an acupressure mat and neck pillow set.  Yes, it’s bristling with “acupressure points,” otherwise known as a bed of nails. (Life time guarantee! And lightweight design makes it convenient for travel!)

Does it provide back and neck pain relief, headache and stress relief? Does it relax your body and mind? Does it improve circulation?

I couldn’t say for sure. I tried it for the first and only time this morning. But it’s actually not that uncomfortable. I haven’t progressed to the stage where I lie on it on a hardwood floor, yet. But I can nap on it as I consider all the good intentions I’ve purchased and failed to accomplish during quarantine.

 

P.S. anyone looking for a very slightly used baby bump?

 

 

 

 

 

Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah!

It’s the official launch day of my new picture book EEK!, co-written by good friend and talented artist Julie Paschkis, and published by Peachtree Books. I am whoop-dee-doing because there is just something special about this story of a mouse who persists through thick and thin (and jring and kabonk) on a journey to deliver a flower to a friend. During a time of staying safe/staying home, and a time when in-person school days are on hold, it offers up a burst of much-needed energy and playfulness.

Sometimes, as a poet, my work turns introspective – poetry can be a walk on the quiet side of things. But EEK!’s subtitle tells it all: A Noisy Journey from A to Z.

For this Books Around the Table post, I’d like to share some thoughts about collaboration, because Julie Paschkis, who illustrated two of my previous four picture books, has now joined me as co-author of the fifth.

As Julie P. told you in the last Books Around the Table post, I came up with the idea of an alphabet of sounds. Version #1 was all mine – random sounds, no story. Julie P. shaped it into a narrative. The journey, from “achoo” to “zzzzz,” reads as effortless – the best writing usually does – but believe me, Julie P. had a huge task, introducing sense to the nonsense I imagined.

What I find most exciting about this collaboration is that Julie P. and I have the same desire for playfulness and the same response to the delights of language. If you’re going to collaborate, it’s important to find someone in sync with your priorities, and Julie P. definitely responds the way I do to the pure joy of hearing what a language can do, down to the level of individual words and syllables. I’ve always known she was part poet – we’ve been critique group partners for many years – but I’ve never heard her articulate this joy in words better than she did for the Author’s Note at the end of her wonderful book Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido (animal poems in both English and Spanish):

I am a painter and a lover of words. A few years ago I illustrated a book about Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. I began to learn Spanish in order to illustrate that book, and I fell in love with the language. At the same time as I was struggling to learn the difference between ser and estar and between para and por I immersed myself in Neruda’s poetry. Later I read many more prosaic things, but he was my gateway to Spanish.
Somehow my unfamiliarity with Spanish freed me to write poetry. I felt like a visitor wandering through a forest of Spanish words, marveling at the beauty of sound, meaning and syntax.

If you haven’t read Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido, get a copy and look carefully at the love of the sound of words that Julie P. shares with me.

As the novelist Anne Enright once said, “The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.”

Julie P. also has a new book in the works titled The Wordy Book, coming out next fall, full of paintings that include many words. In it, she expands on this explanation about her love of language:

A word can be savored for its sound and shape as well as for its meaning. When you hear a word the meaning usually arrives first; sometimes the meaning obliterates the other qualities of a word. When words are in paintings the other qualities can surface: sound and shape. The words still have meaning, but the meaning can be fluid. The words bump into each other and they bump into the images in the painting. They ask questions as well as giving answers.

Aha – there is another priority Julie P. and I share – a desire to ask questions!

Quick last thought: Are you one of those people who sits until the final credit rolls by at the end of a movie before you get up to leave the theater? I am. I like to see not just the whole cast list and the director, but also who did the casting, who the cinematographer was, who held the grip, who handled sound, who wrote the score, who handled the catering, who gets thanked, who did everything. If you sit through the credits, too, aren’t you amazed by how many people it takes, all working together, all doing their part, to make a 90-minute film? Isn’t that kind of group cooperation a little thrilling?

But in writing, the assumption is that you sit alone, imagine alone, write alone. I understand it’s a solid model – thus it has been and ever will be, amen. An author offers up a work that comes solely from his or her own imagination. But does it need to be that way always? How about a little experimentation? How about children’s book writers being the pioneers we usually are? How about taking on the model-breaking enterprise of collaboration every once in awhile? Put two authors’ names (or more!) on the cover of your next picture book. Two imaginations can be twice the fun of one.

Happy reading to you, happy end of summer. Stay safe and healthy. Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re covered with smoke from wildfires. But when the air clears, I’m going to use EEK! as my get-up-and-go book: If a little mouse can handle the fwumps and grrrs, so can I!