If you’re reading this first thing in the morning, be sure you make your cup of coffee straightaway. After all, it’s National Coffee Week.
Now sit down and, as you drink your coffee, pretend you’re sitting in the extravagant Caffe Gilli in Florence. Go ahead, make it a cappuccino. Have a croissant, too. Caffe Gilli doesn’t cost a penny when you’re daydreaming.
As you sip, you need something to read. Here is something wonderful – an interview with the author/illustrator Maria Kalman posted this week on the Art of the Picture Book website.
When you finish, you can tell yourself you just had the perfect morning, and it will be true. Coffee and Kalman.
If you want a second cup, pour yourself one. This time pretend you’re in the Caffe Greco in Rome, founded in 1760, the spot where John Keats drank his morning tea.
With your second cup, try the two short videos (below) of storyteller Patricia McKissack. They are excerpts (can’t find the whole lecture) from her 2010 Spencer Shaw talk at the University of Washington. The highlight for me: She reads a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the style of a jump-rope rhyme (Video 2.) In the first video, she talks about her storytelling coming from inquisitiveness – she wants answers, but she wants good stories, too. And can she tell a story! – as could her grandparents and her mother – I wish I’d been at that lecture to hear her.
By the way, the Spencer Shaw Endowed Lecture this year will be given by author/ illustrator Yuyi Morales. You can hear the lecture free – live streaming on YouTube October 14th at noon PST – here’s a link.
McKissack Video 1 “I write because I have an inquisitive mind.”
McKissack Video 2 Jumping Rope to Paul Lawrence Dunbar
[Note: When you watch the McKissack videos, be sure to move the bar back to the beginning – for some reason they’re opening for me mid-way through.]
And if you need a shot of Caffe Greco’s interior for your daydreaming, here it is. Sigh.
Distelfink is the delightful word for the birds in Fraktur. (The literal translation is thistle finch.)
Fraktur is folk art made by the Pennsylvania Dutch, mainly in the 1700 and 1800’s. I grew up in Pennsylvania and saw a lot of Fraktur. The ink seeped into me.
The word refers to the type of script which was used in baptismal and other documents in Germany. In the new world the Fraktur included script, and became increasingly decorative.
Fraktur were drawn with ink and watercolor and often included flowers and distelfink.
In 2016 I was in a bicycle accident and broke my arm. I was despondent because I couldn’t draw, until a friend suggested that I draw with my left hand. My left hand drawing was slow, wonky and pulled me from my sadness. I did a series of paintings I called Fracture Fraktur.
That fall I made a calendar to support the ACLU, drawn left-handed in my fracture fraktur style.
I included the lion and the lamb – made famous by Edward Hicks’s paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom.
Sales of the calendar raised a lot of money for the ACLU, so I have made one every year since then. I have continued with the same fraktur style, although I reverted to my right hand out of habit and ease.
Most of the calendar images have included the lion and the lamb.
I am currently selling the 2022 calendar called We Are All Connected. Thank you to the many people who have purchased them already.
My hope is to help heal the fractures of America with these odd frakturs. I hope you will get one by clicking here. Each calendar sells for $12, and all $12 goes to the ACLU. The printing is donated by G & H Printing, and Ingrid Savage contributes greatly to the shipping. Your many purchases add up to something larger.
Thank you for your help in this endeavor. Distelfink by distelfink!
P.S. Recently I took part in a live Instagram series called Art Out Loud OnLine, hosted by the Society of Illustrators and Enchanted Lion Books. It was archived. Please click here for a leisurely visit with me at my house and studio, along with Julian Snider and Madeline Feig.
It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:
I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.
I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?
“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”
She glances my way.
“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.
That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.
“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.
“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”
Now the boys behind us are listening, too.
“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.
But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.
“And then I woke up,” I say.
“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.
She doesn’t play with me at recess.
I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.
I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)
To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.
But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.
In 2017 (when we still gathered in big sweaty, breathing, coughing groups and didn’t find anything extraordinary about it) I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert speak. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, her then recent book, Big Magic, was about nurturing creativity.
She had/has a fascinating belief that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she put in in Big Magic:
“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”
She also believes that ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else. But you still need to “interview” your ideas to make sure it’s right for you and you’re right for it.
At the time, I blogged about the questions I’d like to ask my auditioning ideas, and it seems to be a good time to repost–so many of my writer and artist friends are feeling re-charged.
Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. And I sometimes have a hard a hard time figuring out which ideas are worth the effort and which aren’t. When I first started writing, there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.
The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” It’s more intuitive than formalized. But after hearing Gilbert talk, I put together a list of interview questions for my idea applicants:
Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?
What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?
Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?
Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)
And I had some questions for myself as the boss:
Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?
Is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?
If a picture book idea comes to my door, I like to ask:
Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?
If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?
If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?
If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and child-friendly?
Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?
I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?
Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you interest me, energize me? Do I want to do you?
When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.
I’ve thought of a poem. I carry it carefully, nervously, in my head, like a saucer of milk; in case I should spill some lines before I put them down.
So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.
This post constitutes what is called a “mixed bag.” It’s summer, and as far as I’m concerned, that means my mind can wander. And my mind usually wanders hither in bits, thither in pieces. Here are seven of those pieces.
Summer: the beach, family, friends, and a picnic of hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato salad. And though I’m holed up inside my house due to dangerous heat and unhealthy air quality levels (the smoke from forest fires has finally descended on the suffering, over-cooked Pacific Northwest (scary orange sun, eerie orange moon) I’ve spent a bit of the morning making potato salad, heavy on the mustard and dill pickles. Bought eight ears of corn from a farm stand yesterday. Saw friends last night, all of us vaccinated, fingers crossed that was okay, because it was glorious to sit around a table with them and laugh and reminisce. Summer!
Summer: nonsense and play. While making the potato salad this morning, I realized that if I totally followed my own writing advice to play more, be goofier, dive into nonsense, I would write a book about dill pickles. Maybe format it as a blog post from a young child who loves everything tart and sour – dill pickles, sauerkraut, rhubarb. Or maybe just write a few poems about tart edibles for a collection of jump rope rhymes.
Jump rope rhymes. Hmmmmmmm. What rhymes with pickle? The list turns out to be more substantial than I thought. Bicycle, tickle, fickle, nickel (and pumpernickel!), prickle, popsicle, icicle, and, of course, motorsickle. Practically a sonnet’s worth. Nothing Shakespearean. Maybe a limerick. You know what they say, follow your passion. Even if it’s a passion for poetry and pickles.
If you didn’t see the high jump during the Olympics, be sure to look it up online. There was a golden moment at the conclusion of the jump, after both finalists (good friends from Qatar and Italy) cleared 2.37 meters. The jumper from Qatar, rather than agreeing to a “jump-off,” asked an official if he and his friend could share the gold medal – and the official said yes. The ballet of the jumps (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjSCT97GSsA) was gorgeous, and the friendship that showed up at the end of the competition was even more so.
5. Writers: If you haven’t seen The Father yet, see it. It stars Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman; they are brilliant. Watch it once to get the story (a doubled and unsettling perspective on Alzheimer’s) and once to study the character development on the part of the screenwriter and the craftsmanship on the part of the actors. In both cases, this is a lesson in “less is more.”
6. In case you ever doubted it, climate change is real. Here’s an image from the Seattle Times today. Smoke from the wildfires, temperatures from Portland to Seattle in the mid-90’s. Air quality officially “Unhealthy.” Third summer in a row.
7. Last but definitely not least, kudos to friend Erik Talkin, whom I got to know at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. His picture book Lulu and the Hunger Monster just won a Social Justice Literature award from the International Literacy Association. “The SJL Award seeks to recognize outstanding books that address social responsibility towards individuals, communities, societies and/or the environment and which invite reflection and socially responsible action by the reader.” That’s a wonderful goal. And a well-deserved award, Erik!
That’s all from me this time around. Autumn approaches, and maybe my wandering mind will settle in for a period of linear thinking….? Meanwhile, summer: Indulge yourself in the misc.’s and etc’s of the season.
The Wordy Book, as you might have guessed, is bursting, babbling, mumbling and billowing with words, beginning with the endpapers.
The book is a collection of paintings that I made over many years. Each painting is paired with an open ended question.
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.
In paintings those other qualities have time to surface; 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.
Some of the paintings were created years ago, and they inspired new questions. The Sea of Words was used by the King County Library for their Playing With Words program. What do you sea?
In some of the paintings the question came first and I painted a response to it. What do you see?
Can the inside be bigger than the outside? The dragon has other creatures inside of it, as do we. All of the words in the dragon also have a second word embedded inside them.
In the Ouroboros the end of each word contains the beginning of the next.
Some of the pages are plain silly.
Some ask for more thought.
Is this book for kids? Yes. (Although adults are allowed to enjoy it too.) When I was a child I loved words. A favorite book of mine was Ounce Dice Trice and I itched to read it. I hope my book will scratch that same itch for kids now.
The Wordy Book can be preordered now from your local bookstore, from Enchanted Lion or from Bookshop.org. It will be available in mid August – a good time to notice words, bathe in words, play with words and go astray with words.
p.s. Can you find the tribute to Ounce, Dice, Trice hidden in the endpapers?
p.s.s. Here is what Kirkus has to say about the book:
THE WORDY BOOK[STARRED REVIEW!]
Words and pictures connect in surprising, stimulating ways.
Talk about painting with words. Author/illustrator Paschkis plays with them, too, and encourages readers to do likewise. In the process, she explores the elasticity and seemingly endless possibilities of language. The vividly colored, wittily detailed, folk-style paintings on double-page spreads organically incorporate words into the artwork in wondrous, creative ways. Words frequently repeat in different sizes and colors; illustrated images include words that sound or are shaped like them, are variations of them, rhyme or nearly rhyme with them, sort of resemble them, are sort of spelled like them, etc. A bouquet of flowers in a vase sports roses exuding the scents of slumber, sultry, shush, and other evocative words beginning with S; on a daisy’s petals readers find dizzy, doozy, lazy, jazzy; lief, leap, life, and more decorate the leaves. Delightful words—many of which readers won’t know, and that’s OK—flex vocabulary and spelling muscles to the max and also enhance readers’ visual and auditory senses when the pictures are taken in. Furthermore, the spreads are connected to thought-provoking questions. Some inspired the paintings, or vice versa, and themselves contain examples of wordplay. Persons depicted have diverse skin tones. The book makes a great springboard for creative-thinking activities in writing and art units in classroom and library programs. Keep dictionaries handy. Endpapers abound with swirling words readers can savor (and look up).
In a word, a feast for the eyes, brain, and artistic imagination. (author’s note) (Picture book. 6-10)
Philomel associate publisher Jill Santopolo was home on maternity leave when she saw President Joe Biden’s inauguration on TV. She heard him say he hoped “the next chapter in the American story” might sound like one verse in “a song that means a lot to me.” Then he recited:
The work and prayers of centuries / Have brought us to this day.
What shall be our legacy?/What will our children say?
Let me know in my heart that when my days are through
America, America, I gave my best to you.
Biden was quoting the lyrics of Gene Scheer’s American Anthem, a 20-year old song that was sung by opera star Denyce Graves at the memorial service in the Capitol rotunda for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and by Norah Jones in Ken Burns’ 2007 PBS documentary on World War II, The War, among others.
The words resonated with Santopolo. She reflected on her husband’s and her own families’s life trajectories after immigrating to the United States. Then, as she said to Publisher’s Weekly, she decided, “It was a book that I felt I had to do. Especially with a baby at home. There’s a lot we need to work on in this country, but there’s also some wonderful things too. I think that this book celebrates that.”
It was January 20th. Despite a new baby and the pandemic, she wanted the book to launch before the Fourth of July, our nation’s 245th birthday. She envisioned a different illustrator for every spread, so that even in its very make-up the book would reflect the quilt of diversity that is our country. Editor Talia Benamy and art director Ellice Lee swung into action.
My sister Kate and I were honored to be invited to join in. We gave some thought to our family’s American stories, too, including George Chorpenning who founded the first mail service from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, (pre-Pony Express), and our newspaper editor father who taught us about First Amendment rights and flew a big American flag over his office on Main Street Sonora.
What could we say in a single illustration to convey the big feeling of love for America that we shared? How could we ‘give our best’ to America through this project? Our assigned part of the text was: “Know each quiet act of dignity / is that which fortifies / the soul of a nation / that never dies.”
As we considered our text, we thought about where in our lives we experience quiet acts of dignity. Kate immediately thought of the Community Garden, a place where a wide diversity of gardeners come to share the humble work of planting, growing and harvesting. It is a place where gardening knowledge, seedlings and compost are all generously shared — as well as the fruits (and vegetables) of everyone’s labors. There is a quiet dignity in those interactions that respects what each person brings to the garden, as well as a sense of community responsibility.
We are both avid gardeners and that setting seemed right. We poured through scrap to find a lively cast of characters to populate it. Per our usual process, I painted the black lines in gouache resist, scanned and doozied them up in Photoshop. Kate supplied the sumptuous color. And voila! We turned in our illustration by early March and the book was published on schedule as Santopolo planned, in time for the Fourth of July.
It was a revelation to open our first copies of American Anthem, starting with the dedications. Author Scheer and each illustrator contributed one. Some favorites: “To the dream chasers. – Rafael Lopez,” and “For all who call this country home. – Jacquieline Alcantara.” Kate and I dedicated our work “To the growers and grocers, gardeners and gleaners.”
My favorite illustration is by Rafael Lopez. I love the idea of a child drawing his country, imagining it into being. And I hope this book will help children – including Jill Santopolo’s new baby – imagine their futures in America.
First, before we get into the word “construction,” let me just say that June got away from me.
I say that as if June were a rambunctious toddler, but the fact is, I’m actually the toddler, and it’s me that got away from June. Not to mention getting away from time in general since February of 2020. Somehow, a lot of us have been functioning outside the normal tocks and ticks, with both internal and external clocks providing a cuckoo bird to pop out occasionally and announce the state of affairs, but no hands to mark exactly where we are in a given day. Did I say “given day”? Do I even know what day it is?
Bigger question: Should I blame it all on the pandemic? No, I should not. I’m getting older – there’s that. Still, the pandemic didn’t help. But it might have been wise to keep an actual calendar on the wall and turn the pages. At least then I would have seen the lay of the land, with Sunday standing solidly at one end of a week and Saturday standing just as solidly at the other end, with rows of weeks stacking up one after another, and with a substantial oomph to the accumulation, also known as “months.”
Instead, I’ve been keeping my calendar on my iPad lately, and things are different in iPad World. They have a different shape. Less oomph. Less turn-the-page-ability, more spillage of May into June, etc.
So, should I blame my losing June (June losing me) on my electronic calendar? No, I should not. I will blame it on construction equipment. Excavators, lumber deliverers, Mack trucks! At my house to build an addition to the nest.
I’ve been eating, sleeping, dreaming, breathing construction progress. We had a big crane come up the alley in May and move our outdoor studio from one part of the yard to another. Lost an asparagus bed and some raspberry plants, very sad, but a thrilling moment when the 12×12 structure was lifted off one foundation and put onto another. Like a great clumsy bird flying low to the ground. Or more like a big baby being carried in straps and swaddling by an equally big stork.
An excavator came and dug a somewhat precise hole. Our garden lost its adolescent golden chain tree, but holes are fascinating, too. I managed to save the pink dogwood and the white hydrangea paniculata at the edge of the hole. Whew.
Then the foundation forms were built in the hole and a cement truck came to the front of the house, accompanied by another truck with a 90-foot crane/hose to deliver the cement up and over the house and into the back yard from the cement truck. Neighbors came to watch. Fast work, loud and messy and exciting. Very carnivalesque.
Then our builder went for a ride on his mountain bike, fell coming down a dangerous trail, broke his collarbone, had to walk out on his own, was taken to the hospital, had surgery. Real life came back into focus. The next day he’s walking around with his arm in a sling and making sure his assistant knows what needs to be done. The man is a sweet lunatic. And he loves building houses.
Next the sill is then nailed in place (I hope I have the terminology right!) and plywood subfloors go on and it starts to look like a bedroom. Walls even start to go up. As of the moment I’m typing this, the room awaits more walls and trusses and a roof and shingles and and and and and. And that is how I lost June.
I wish I had taken woodshop in high school but that just wasn’t “done” in the 1960’s. So my brother learned how to swing a hammer and use a skill saw; he worked in a lumberyard and basically built a second floor on to his house one summer. I, meanwhile, studied literature, read poetry, and learned to construct both Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnets. People call what I do “creative” and what our construction crew does “manual labor.” I know for a fact that both our efforts demand blood, sweat and tears. Well, not blood, hopefully. We’ll save that for mountain biking accidents. But definitely sweat and tears.
I’m tempted to offer up comparisons between the building of a house and the writing of a book – the design work, prep work, foundational work, the structural considerations, the progress forward, the big Mack truck of a deadline bearing down on you, the dozens of first decisions and final decisions, the trance-like condition of creating something that makes you lose track of hours and days. The joy you feel when you’ve made something that will stand the test of time.
Poetry and house-building. Many similarities between these two arts.
A solo show of my paintings will be at the i.e. gallery in Edison, WA. for the month of June, opening this Saturday June 5th from 2-4 PM.
Here are many of the paintings for those of you who can’t visit in real life.
My paintings have always been connected to my work as a children’s book illustrator. Most of my paintings tell stories although they don’t have manuscripts. You can make up your own stories when you see them. This show includes a few series of work done over the past several years, before and during Covid isolation.
One group of paintings began with this character whom I call Aurinko (the Finnish word for sun). In this painting she has lots of feet so that she can travel far. Those feet were inspired by a Catalan print of La Vella Quaresma that hangs in the kitchen of my friends Karel and Nancy.
I imagined her in different settings and seasons (and with varying numbers of legs and heads).
I painted this series using a dip pen and waterproof ink, then added color. Here is a detail. What is summer without bugs?
The Fishermoon soon joined Aurinko.
And the mermaid. And various other creatures of the woods and waterways.
Another group of paintings was painted with gouache and pinpricks. These were from the heart of the pandemic – a time of isolation.
Here is a detail:
Another series is gouache and collage with simple shapes and bold colors.The paper for the collage elements is hand-painted. I began this series in 2019 and have continued because the strong colors feed me.
Here is a detail:
I made designs for giant enamel panels for Sound Transit in 2020 with this technique, playing with the idea of transportation. I will be redesigning them to be mosaics, so these paintings could be included in the show. You might recognize the influence of La Vella Quaresma again. Unlike that story, my character gets to keep and use her legs. She even gets new shoes.
The Skagit Valley is a wonderful place to ride your bicycle.
I hope that by bike, car or foot you can see the show in real life, or visit the i.e. website to see more work. Thank you.
On the last day of the show (Sunday June 27) I will be teaching a workshop where we will make paper lanterns. For more information on the workshop please click here.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.