The Art of Naming Things

werners nomenclature of colors

My fellow Books-Around-the-Table blogger Julie Paschkis recommended a book to me yesterday titled Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – the subtitle is Adapted to Zoology, Botany, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Anatomy, and the Arts –  published by Smithsonian Books. The press’s website (visit it if you have a minute after reading this post – wonderful!) describes the book, first published in 1814, as “a taxonomic guide to the colors of the natural world that has been cherished by artists and scientists for more than two centuries,” adding that it is “a charming artifact from the golden age of natural history and global exploration.”

Now, it might sound like Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours would be of little use to a poet who writes picture books. For an illustrator, yes, the connection is clearer. But Julie Paschkis recommended it to me because we both love words, and Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours is about words as much as it is about colors.

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Julie Paschkis’s word-filled “Apple-Babble” ( see Julie’s artwork at  https://juliepaprika.com )

Here is a description from the Smithsonian Books website:

In the late eighteenth century, mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner devised a standardized color scheme that allowed him to describe even the subtlest of chromatic differences with consistent terminology. His scheme was then adapted by an Edinburgh flower painter, Patrick Syme, who used the actual minerals described by Werner to create the color charts in the book, enhancing them with examples from flora and fauna.

In the pre-photographic age, almost all visual details had to be captured via the written word, and scientific observers could not afford ambiguity in their descriptions. Werner’s handbook became an invaluable resource for naturalists and anthropologists, including Charles Darwin, who used it to identify colors in nature during his seminal voyage on the HMS Beagle. Werner’s terminology lent both precision and lyricism to Darwin’s pioneering writings, enabling his readers to envision a world they would never see.

“Envisioning a world they would never see” – with that, the connection to poetry takes a small step forward. Both poems and stories work to share specific moments (or narrative arcs) that resonate with but don’t reproduce their readers’ experiences. Imagination is the key, and precision in our descriptions gets the reader there.

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A sample from the book – Werner named the color, then gave us three categories (animal, vegetable and mineral, where we might find it.

I also keep going back to the press’s description of the book as “a taxonomic guide.” I’ve been interested in taxonomy for a long time – it’s the art of classifying things according to their similarities. Biological taxonomy involves things like domain, kingdom, genus, species, phylum, class, family, and order. It’s hierarchical – that is, it goes from broad to narrow.

Here is a biological taxonomic chart…

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…and here is a botanical taxonomical chart from the father of all taxonomy, Linnaeus, who used Latin to name the plants, a system we still use for precision’s sake in a world of many languages:

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A taxonomy of color – which is not hierarchical – would look more circular,  like this:

color taxonomy

If you’ve ever been to a paint store and gathered paint chips, you know what kind of imagination and effort goes into the naming of specific shades!

Just as interesting to me is that word in the title: “nomenclature.” The art of naming things. It has an almost Biblical ring to it, straight out of the Book of Genesis. Werner’s desire to name things is innate to human beings – after all, we can talk very little about things that go unnamed. A child just learning to speak is given nouns – named objects – to play around with. My own kids spent a lot of time with A-Z books and Richard Scarry’s Busy World and Best Word books (is the power of naming things the reason behind a certain inhabitant of the White House claiming he knows “lots of words…the best words”?) More important than giving us power, knowing the names of things allows us to reach that level of “precision and lyricism” that Smithsonian Press believes Werner inspired in Darwin.

So, Reader, I ordered  Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. The book has two ideas that have everything to do with being a writer:

1) “Taxonomy” – classifying things according to their similarities. That’s what metaphors do, no? Metaphorical thinking helps us understand how one thing resembles another and is involved in our ability to empathize.

2) “Nomenclature” – the precise naming of things because we “can’t afford ambiguity” in our descriptions.

Besides, it’s late January and a book about color will brighten up my day. I can’t wait for it to arrive! Thanks, Julie Paschkis!

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” Sea of Words” by Julie Paschkis

[**As Bonny suggested in the comments below, the perfect companion book for this is Julie Paschkis’s own picture book, VIVID. See pictures from it here. ]

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In Memory of John Burningham

jb studio shotOne of my favorites picture book makers, John Burningham, died last week in his Hampstead, England, home. He was 82. He leaves his wife, fellow book creator Helen Oxenbury; a family of four children and seven grandchildren, and a legacy of over 60 picture books.

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With Helen in earlier days.

Our family met John’s work in pre-bedtime reading sessions when our kids were little. Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar was an favorite. We still borrow its phrase, “it’s a bit of a squash,” if the car is too full.

When I decided to try my luck in picture books, Burningham’s books became touchstones. There is much to learn from studying the books he published.

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His texts resonate with relatable themes, humor and simplicity. His illustrations, too, are so inviting, often drawn in a scrawl of brown ink that’s brightened by loose watercolor and colored pencil. I particularly love the proportions of his people and his varied points of view. And the animals; especially dogs and rabbits.

Burningham’s first book was published in 1963: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. He was well into his career by the time I met him at a Book Expo in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. The occasion was a Candlewick cocktail party where he held court near the bar: a dark haired, dapper guy with a charming British accent. I’d published about six books by then and was thrilled to meet one of my idols. He autographed my conference bag and drew a rabbit on my napkin, which has sadly since hopped away.

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My favorite John Burningham book is Granpa.

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Here are the opening spreads:

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The story continues, through various Granpa/granddaughter activities. The text is inferential, a dialogue that indicates who is speaking by typeface: italic (child) or Roman (Granpa).

As in most friendships, they have a spat.

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Then more shared adventures.

 

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They visit the beach (note the lovely point of view) and go fishing and jump rope. The seasons pass.

The final three spreads:

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Burningham says so much in that little girl’s posture; says so much with the empty chair.

But he does not leave it there. This is a children’s book, after all. So on to page 32 and a promise of the future.

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So it goes. I am a Granma myself now and I love to share John Burningham’s books with our grandchildren. Thanks, John Burningham for your wonderful books. Rest in peace.

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John Burningham and his wife Helen Oxenbury receiving the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from Book Trust.

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Lanterns and Learning

Making paper lanterns is a good antidote to dark winter days. I’ve been making quite a few.

To make a pinprick lantern, draw lightly on the back of medium weight paper. Poke holes along the lines of your design with a pushpin or nail. Put a piece of an old exercise mat under the paper for easy poking.

You can add a lot of pinholes. The smaller the pin, the more closely you can poke.

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Pin drawing by Sarah Jones

Connect the sides with a staple or brass fastener, forming a cylinder. Let there be light! (in this case an electric tea light candle).

lantern by Erica Hanson

I showed these projects to my friend Claudia Cohen who exclaimed “Froebel!” Who is Froebel? Or Frobel?

He was a visionary – a man of “curious passions and focussed eccentricities” – who invented kindergarten.

He believed that all of the natural world contained an inner order. This could be taught to children through activities like pricking paper, weaving, embroidery and playing with building blocks. Claudia had examples in her library of antique sampler books based on Froebel’s teaching.

Froebel believed in nurturing children like plants in a garden – thus the name kindergarten. His ideas spread all over the world. He planted the seeds for many modern artists and architects.

Kindergarten in the USA still has echoes of Froebel. Most preschools and kindergartens have a block corner. Froebel called for blocks to be simple so that children could learn ” to feel and experience, to act and represent, and to think and recognize.”

You can read more about Froebel, the origins of kindergarten, and the connections between kindergarten and the growth of modern art in Inventing Kindergarten by Norman Brosterman.

The seeds that are planted in early education make a difference in children’s lives. According to Froebel, “Harmony, unity and the reconciliation of opposites are the concepts that form the theoretical and practical underpinnings of the kindergarten.”

Here is to light and dark, to young and old, to then and now. Best wishes for a harmonious and enlightening New Year.

Out with the old…

…in with the new!

Once a year, I like to send a few cards out to clients and people I don’t see very often. I make cards for the Winter season or the New Year.

This year, I made two. This was the first one.

To me it says, The old year is over. Time to take out the garbage. But perhaps it is too negative a sentiment.

So I made another one that is perhaps a bit more optimistic.

You can pick whichever you prefer!

Happy New Year and Best Wishes for less garbage and more good things to come in 2019!

Materials used: gouache, colored pencils, rubber stamp and ink, makeup sponge, makeup brushes, and sparkly eyeshadow powder on paper.

I See Well-Read People

In my collection of images related books in art, there are many different takes on the relationship between people and reading, but my favorite one is the mood of absorption.

That’s what I remember most about reading as a child. My utter absorption in the book–beyond sound, time, oblivious to the movement of the sun across the sky or my mother’s voice calling to dinner. It’s a much harder state for me to get into as an adult. But looking at these images, the feeling of that deep entrancement comes back to me.

Illustration by Gotay de Anderson

Illustration by Leonid Balaklav

It’s there in all kinds of setting:

Illustration by Frederick Frieseke

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

Suggesting its own stories.

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Luisa Kelle

In all kinds of weather. (How I love that every reader in the airport is reading an actual book. Talk about a fantasy!)

Illustration by Jorge Roa

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

I love how Sophie Blackall captures not only the mood, but the metaphor. Immersed, submerged, deeper and deeper into the world of the book.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall

Let me end by thanking all of you for reading our blog this year. And to wish you Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas and a New Year of reading enchantment!

A Little Gingerbread

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My daughter (visiting for a few days from Boston) and my husband, sister, brother and I went last Saturday to Bellingham’s annual Gingerbread House display in our port’s Alaska Ferry Building.   Some of the “houses” (also pyramids, robots, tree trunks, animals, volcanoes) were a great success (see the photo above, with Oz’s yellow brick road, Dorothy’s house coming down from the twister, a field of red poppies, and the Emerald City in the corner – what a lot of work that must have taken!) Some were just plain cute, and a few were what you might call a hot mess. Better said: For some of the projects, grand ambitions ruled the day, not grand abilities (but more power to them for forging ahead.)  Let’s also admit that from time to time the aesthetic approach of “If a little is good, a lot is better” took a kid with free access to marshmallows and Skittles way over the top.

In any case, the gingerbread projects – about 50 every year – are ambitious, hilarious, fascinating, and full of heart. A few are even mysterious. And all are a delight to see. You can spy a Christmas tree made of green Cheerios, cedar shingles made of Wheat Chex, ladders made of pretzle sticks, a path made from a piece of cooked bacon, and at the end of the viewing – joy! – you get to vote for your favorite project for the People’s Choice Award.  I think the robot pictured below might have won that award.

Here are the photos my daughter took to share with my grandson back in Boston. There is no deeper meaning to this post, no words of wisdom. It’s just good to remember that the kids we write for,  and the families they are a part of, have lives filled with humor, wonder, creativity and community. We’re lucky to have our books be part of all that.

Enough said. Enjoy the gingerbread.

AND FROM MY HOUSE TO YOUR HOUSE, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

[THIS R2-D2 STANDS ABOUT 30″ TALL AND ITS HEAD MOVES!!!]

 

Happy Birthday, Marion!

(First, an appetizer) For years I wanted to sing in a choir but was afraid to audition. This fall when a friend encouraged me to try out for Seattle’s Cantare choir, I decided to go for it. Ever since, each Tuesday night rehearsal I have bathed in the beauty of its sound. Deep beauty. This weekend we have three holiday concerts and you are invited. See details in the dessert at the end of this post.

(Next, the main course) If you are lucky in life, you meet people along the way who show you that getting old can be a time of productive, thoughtful work. I met Marion Dane Bauer in the early 2000s when we were both teaching in the MFA-Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She turned 80 last month and is still producing all kinds of books for kids. On the occasion of her 80th birthday she wrote the blogpost below, looking back on a full life and sharing insights.

THIS BLINK OF TIME  from Marion Dane Bauer’s blog, Just Thinking

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Today is my birthday.  My 80th, would you believe?  I add “would you believe?” because I don’t quite believe it myself.  That’s despite the fact that I’ve been trying out the number for months, mostly inside my head, sometimes out loud.  “Hey!  You’re 80!”

I’ve been saying it when I do a full Pilates hang, suspended by my ankles.

I’ve been saying it when, despite that full hang, I find myself suppressing a groan when I rise from a chair.

I’ve been saying it when I dive back into the novel I’ve been working on for too long and discover that I’m repeating myself . . . again.  Do I do that when I talk as well?

I’ve been saying it when I find the world wearying, threatening, horrifying.  “You’re 80!  Perhaps you won’t have to live into whatever is coming.”

I’ve been saying it when I gaze out at the wonder of a new day, budding trees or swirling snow, and ask how many more such gifts await me.

I never expected to be 80, though the irony is that I don’t suppose I’ve been expecting to die, either.  Does any of us truly believe that inevitable, uncompromising end will be our own?  Every life is a blink between two unknowns, and as I have never tried to imagine my whereabouts prior to my birth, I don’t attempt to fathom what lies beyond these days I have been given.  But my death grows larger in me every day.

Along with the hope that I may arrive there with some grace intact.

Eighty seems such a venerable age that I tell myself I should have some wisdom to impart on this page.  But I don’t feel wise.

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a few things in the process.  The two are not unrelated.  Mostly I learned because I made mistakes.

I married almost 60 years ago, though I had little desire for the man I decided to marry.  (I had never desired any other man, either, and was incapable in that homophobic time of understanding why.)  I thought him a fixer-upper.  I knew he wasn’t all I wanted, but I planned to bring him around.

I learned that I am the “fixer-upper.”  When I finally realized how difficult it is to grow and change myself, I understood the futility of attempting to change anyone else.  I understood, too, that no one of his gender could ever meet my needs.

Now, in our mutual age, my one-time husband and I live a great distance from one another, but we come together often on Words with Friends and on FaceTime where we rejoice in and occasionally worry about our progeny.  We each accept the other tenderly, unquestioningly.  That acceptance represents an abundance of learning on both sides.

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Fifty-four years ago, I gave birth to a son, a child so longed for that my desire for him, my need to mother him, lived in my bones.  And from the time he was very small, he defeated me every step of the way.  Lovingly.  Masterfully.

When Peter died at the age of 42 of a disease that robbed him of control of his body and of his intelligence and finally of his sanity, too, I learned, at last, that he had always been the only son he could be.

I learned, too, that the love that lived between us was enough.

I started my life trying to fit in, seeking approval.  And I learned that I don’t fit in and that approval has very limited value.  I’m not made for the kind of coupling society demands.  The activities so many care about don’t appeal to me.  And my mind, while possessing a certain uniqueness, lacks some very basic skills.

Maybe no one ever fits in, truly.  Maybe we each feel in some way alienated and alone.  And maybe we all have to learn, as I am finally beginning to learn, that it is enough to be who we are given to be.

Who am I?  All my life that question has puzzled me.  I have no answer.  None.  I don’t even know what might make an answer possible.

But as I move into this end time, I am beginning to understand something else.  I am a human becoming.  I am a verb, an action, not a noun.  I am not, will never be, a static thing that can be labeled and explained.  Even to myself.

I am a human in process, making mistakes—oh, so many mistakes—and learning and moving on.  And learning again.

And while I’m learning, I rejoice in the love that happens along the way.

Finally it is only the love that gives this blink of time purpose and meaning and even holiness.

(Lastly, the promised dessert) For tickets and more info: cantarevocalensemble.org

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Books on Books

A book is an idea. It is also an object. You can feel its weight, smell the ink and paper. The pages rustle as you turn them.

When I think of books that have delighted, scared, comforted or bored me I can see and feel the physical books in my memory. I now read many e-books because it is easy to get and store them. But I wonder if the ideas will linger as long without being anchored to physical objects.

Isabelle Arsenault from Velocity of Being

Right now I am reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean. It tells the story of the LA Library fire. It is the story of millions of pounds of books, of one specific library and of  libraries in general. Her prose is exhilarating  and surprising, enriched with odd morsels of information.

Violeta Lopiz – Velocity of Being

I am about to read The Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Here is their description of the book:

And here is a link to Popova’s announcement of the book in her newsletter Brainpickings.

I am happy to be there in The Velocity of Being along with so many people I admire. Here is my illustration painted in response to a letter by Sarah Lewis.

I look forward to reading, seeing and touching the book.

Vladimir Radunsky- The Velocity of Being

I have a favorite cookbook that is falling apart from use. The binding is shot. The pages are battered, spattered and lumpy. My husband found a brand new copy of the book at Goodwill, so I gave mine to a friend. But I missed it! The wrinkled and oil-spotted pages told a history of my life in the kitchen. I traded back for my old book.

Beatrice Alemagne – The Velocity of Being

Well-loved and oft-read books have memories that stick to them. Despite the konvenience of Kindle I still like holding books in my hands. The content comes through all the senses.

Lara Hawthorne – the Velocity of Being

Gratitude from A to Z

Last night, while waiting for the feast to begin, a friend told me about a solution one family found for the discomfort of reciting what they were thankful for at the Thanksgiving dinner table each year — they began a tradition of going round the table giving gratitudes in alphabetical order, A to Z.

This sounded like such a good idea to me that I am going to begin it here, and I invite you to add gratitudes as well, beginning with the next letter in the alphabet from the one before. Let’s see if we can make it all the way to Z…

I am grateful for Adaptability, Avocados, and All of you who take the time to read our posts.

Will you Be next?…

Here’s to Fall and Feasting

Abundance by Julie Paschkis

One fall day many years ago, when the wind was gusting and leaves, golden and red, cartwheeled across the street, I suddenly felt inspired to write an ode to the season. I was thinking of the kind of fulsome, simple poem that my father sometimes read to us. (When he wasn’t baffling us with things like The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock.)  I went home and wrote The Harvest in Our Hearts and it’s been part of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition ever since.

I’d like to share it with you along with a new painting that Julie Paschkis generously gave me permission to use. It’s a piece for a two-person show at the Seattle Art Museum’s café, TASTE, in May. Keep your eyes open for it!

Thanks to my fellow bloggers Julie Paschkis, Julie Larios, Margaret Chodos-Irvine and Laura Kvasnosky, and HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all who read our blog. You are all part of the harvest in my own heart.

The Harvest in Our Hearts

by Bonny Becker

It was the dawn of winter
and the table was set for feasting.
The silver was polished, the fire ablaze.
The turkey at last done with roasting.

We had just then raised a glass to toast
the harvest and the day,
when there came a knock at the door,
and a stranger blew in and seated himself saying,
“Room for one more?”

He wasn’t the kind to argue with. He was wide and tall and brawny.
His robes were worked in the richest threads
of brown and red and tawny.
His head was wreathed with an herbal crown;
He smelled of smoke and cold, and it seemed when he sat
that leaves fell down in a whirl of red and gold.

“Who are you?”  I dared to ask, but he merely smiled
and demanded a glass of his own.

He surveyed our board and seemed to judge, weighing its merit,
assessing the richness of each dish, the quality of the claret.
Beneath his gaze it was odd to note our table grew more rich.
The silver gleamed more deep; the candles burned more bright.
Our fire stood more securely against the winter night.

He nodded. This god approved.

“Be warm, eat well, be gay.
Each season has its moment;
Each moment slips away.”

Thus saying, he, too, began to fade like smoke in the autumn wind,
but his words still lingered as we raised our glasses again.

“Here’s to friends and harvest
 to winter days and rain.
Here’s to those who are with us
and to those we’ll not see again.
Here’s to fall and feasting,
to good wine and good cheer.
Here’s to the harvest in our hearts
in the winter of the year.”