What I Learned from the 2017 Caldecott Winners’ Portland Panel

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Marian Creamer of Children’s Literature Alive introducing the panel. L to r: Marian in front, Brendan Wenzel, Javaka Steptoe, Carson Ellis, Gregory Christie, Vera Brogsol and moderator Steven Engelfried.

There they were – all five recipients of the 2017 Caldecott awards – seated for a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon. Usually a given year’s Caldecott winners appear together only at their ALA awards ceremony. But shortly after these winners were announced last January, my friend, Portland librarian Marian Creamer, who served on the awards committee, realized all five of the 2017 recipients had a connection to Portland. So she hatched a plan to gather them for a wonderful few days of events in her corner of the world.

Here are some remarks from these illustrious illustrators that stuck with me.

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Javaka Steptoe with Faubion PK-8 student.

First off, Javaka Steptoe whose book, Radiant Child, the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was given the top Caldecott medal. His illustrations were created in the style of Basquiat’s work: painted and collaged onto found wooden panels with repetition of iconic Basquiat images in Basquiat-bright colors.

Javaka said he begins his projects by looking for the story behind the story. For this book, it was the mother/son connection that spoke to him, “the basis of Basquiat’s humanity.” In the first stages of any book project, Javaka advises, “Let it be ugly: throw it up on a page, put it all out there, then scale it back.” His goal is to find “a balance of flavors.”

As he works through successive drafts, Javaka finds “better words and flow out of the chaos and jumbledness.” He concluded, “Put the work in – and also realize you have to give it up eventually. You gotta let it go.”

Javaka first visited Portland 17 years ago and “looks for any excuse to return.”

Next up, the four Caldecott honors.

 

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Vera Brogsol scored Caldecott honor recognition with her first picture book, Leave Me Alone, the tale of a grandma who yearns for a place where she can knit in peace and quiet. Born in Russia in 1984, Vera came to the US at age five and worked many years in animation. Like the babushka in her book, she relishes time alone and the opportunity to work on her own projects.

Vera emphasizes she works slowly. “Projects become a part of you, like a limb.” She looks for projects that will challenge her, to help her grow and understand herself.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 2.57.16 PMVera’s fellow Portlander, Carson Ellis, author of Du Iz Tak, is flat out inventive. This is a book written in a language spoken by insect characters; a language made clear by repetition and context. The illustrations move the story along with delightful surprises at each page turn. Carson is the mother of two young kids and wife of indie musician Colin Maloy of the Decemberists. She keeps a slush pile of pieces that she revisits to see if any of it “can go anywhere. Everything I do is over-complicated and I have to simplify.” She circles back to the slush pile to see if any ideas are ready to “flesh out properly.”

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Gregory Christie and me.

Greg Christie spent three months painting in the Portland arts environment, in the time before he opened a bookstore/gallery in Atlanta. His book, Freedom in Congo Square, recounts a chapter of slave history in New Orleans. The rhyming text by Carole Boston Weatherford, tells of the slaves working day by day, leading to a Sunday gathering for dancing and music in the city’s Freedom Square.

“Anywhere you go in the US, New Orleans is unique,” Greg said. “Its unique urban energy was forged in African American culture.” Greg has illustrated over 60 children’s books and lots of album covers as well. He used a combination of collage and acrylic gouache on this one. He paints his final art over a loose sketch. “I like to give myself room to keep energy in the painting.”

His reason for creating children’s books? “I do these books because I want there to be books I wish I had as a child.”

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Brendan Wenzel is based in Brooklyn, NY, but his book, They All Saw A Cat, came out of his experience of living three years in SE Asia. The illustrations reveal the ways that various creatures (flea, snake, mouse, skunk etc.) see a cat, as well as how the cat sees itself. Brendan says he was aiming to “create a sense of healing through understanding our different perspectives.” That is exactly what these illustrations do. Also, this book has my favorite first line, “A cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, paws and ears.”

Brendan worked with Michael Curry, Portland’s creator of large puppets, i.e. Lion King, for four months.

The Caldecott 2017 panel was introduced by students from Grant High school and Riverdale Elementary and moderated by Steven Engelfried, Library Services Manager, Wilsonville Public Library. In the following days, the five visited Faubion PK-8 school in NE Portland and worked with students on art and writing projects.

I met Marian Creamer – who dreamed this up and made it happen – about 20 years ago when she was a school librarian at Riverdale Elementary and I a visiting author. Though she is retired from her school library, she continues to work tirelessly to bring kids and books together.

Marian was struck by something she gleaned from these five Caldecott winning books as a whole: “A multiplicity of viewpoints can coexist, and differences of perspectives are evident without preaching. Children are the best judges of discerning what is true and relative.”

Yes!

Marian’s non-profit organization, Children’s Literature Alive, sponsored the Portland events. If you would like to join me in supporting Marian’s work, leave a note in the comments and I will send you her contact information.

 

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Ideas Beget Ideas

I’ve been asked “Where do ideas come from?”

For me, ideas beget ideas. It’s hard to begin anything. Every idea can seem stupid and dismissible. But once I start working even a slight idea can take root and grow. To put it another way – whatever I am making has its own ideas and talks back to me. I just try to start a conversation.

That is true within any individual painting or illustration. It’s also true from painting to painting. The more work I do the more I want to do – the ideas bounce off of each other. When I am busy I have too many ideas to implement. When I actually have time the ideas sometimes wither or run away, and I am bereft. They like being part of a crowd.

I love illustrating books because the words take me to new places, and each book is a complete journey. But the finished work has to deliver on the promise of the sketches. For my whole life as an illustrator I have continued to paint pictures that are not part of books – just because they (I) can wander off in new directions. This feeds back into the books and allows me to grow. It is also just plain fun.

Here is the cover of a new book – VIVID – that will be coming out next summer.

Painting that cover led me to these explorations of color.

I bought some white ink for those paintings, and that led to more explorations with black and white ink.

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The act of painting points me in new directions.
ms weathervane 15 x22 All of the art in this blog post will be in a show at the i.e. gallery in Edison, WA from December 2-24th. The gallery is open every Friday-Sunday, and by appointment.
I hope you can come to the show (opening Saturday December 2 from 4-6 PM).

I’m not sure where ideas come from – but for me they multiply when they can bounce off of each other. I’d like to hear your comments on whether your ideas like to be in crowds, or whether they flourish more in solitude. What stops you? What keeps you going?

Here is a poem by Anne Stenzel, from her new collection called The First Home Air After Absence.

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Vintage Holiday Images from the (Great) Pacific Northwest

This week I went to the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, Washington. They have a several shows there currently. Territorial Hues: The Color Print and Washington State 1920-1960 is an excellent exhibit of mid-century Northwest printmakers.  The pieces by Glen Alps were some of my favorites.

The museum is also showing their third annual display of Vintage Christmas Cards.Many of them are done using printmaking techniques (always good for reproducing images in multiple). Here is a small sampling from the display.

Glen Alps, 1954.

George Tsutakawa, 1967.

Danny Pierce, “Christmas Trees”, 1986

Danny Pierce, “Cockle Prober”, 1990

Danny Pierce, circa 1990.

LaVerne Fromberg, 1958.

Artist Unknown, circa 1955.

William J. C. Klamm, 1949.

William J. C. Klamm, 1964.

William J. C. Klamm, 1955.

Stephen Dunthorne, circa 1952.

Katherine Westphal Rossbach, 1948.

Jacob Elshin, circa 1929.

Artist unknown, circa 1951.

Richard Kirsten Daiensai, Ancient King and Calling Bird, 1955.

Here are two decorated envelopes from Orre Noble that remind me of my trans-continental correspondence with Julie Paschkis.

I like how many of them have more to do with what the artist was currently doing with their work, than Christmas itself.

Seeing them makes me wonder what I might do for a holiday card this year. I hope they inspire you as well!

And if you are in the region, go see the exhibits! They are there till January 7th.

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

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“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

Altered Books

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Altered book created in Debra Goldman’s workshop “Story, Art and Transformation.”

Well, this post is not about writing books but unwriting them! Or re-writing them. Re-imagining them. Turning them into something else, even when that something else is another book.

I took an “altered books” workshop the other day, led by the muti-talented Bellingham artist Debra Goldman.  It’s clear to me that altering my book will take a long, long time, because my approach to creativity seems to be so verbal. What I want to do is push myself into more visual territory, and that’s going to be a challenge for me; it will take real pushing…and maybe more than one workshop session. But I imagine many moments of surprise ahead, and surprise keeps a writer — and most artists, I believe — attentive.

My inspiration – my models – were two books, one by Tom Phillips titled  A Humament, and the other A Little White Shadow by the poet Mary Ruefle.

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A Humament is filled with pages where most of the text has been painted over, leaving only words that Phllips conceives of as a new narrative. He used a forgotten 19th-century novel titled A Human Document, written by W. H. Mallock, and “plundered, mined and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories…which seem to lurk within its wall of words.”  The text of every original page has been painted or transformed in some way, leaving only the words Phillips chose for his “alteration.” Here is part of one page looks like:

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So the text which descends down the right-hand side of the page reads “memory, turning seventy, renewed with a muse of quaint treated news.”

Another page, which lets quite a bit more of the original text show through, looks like this:

imageIt reads, “I could be a book, explaining everything on margins / I could be a photograph lifted from his heart, /  Ah! Tomorrow”.

Mary Ruefle’s book, A Little White Shadow (the original 19th-century novel’s title was used), is equally interesting: only 56 pages long, it’s more like a chapbook of selected pages from the original (Phillips’s book is small but hefty – 368 altered pages!) The poems Ruefle finds are delicate and haunting, and the sense that these poems represent a palimpsest, a fragment of something washed or scraped away, gives you an extra little shiver.

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My beginnings are pretty clumsy, but I’m going with the idea of found poems. So far, I’ve cut to pieces the cover of Sandra Cisneros’s book Woman Hollering Creek, eliminated one word fom the title, and added a question mark. My altered book will be titled Woman Hollering? Here’s the unfinished title page:

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The found poem on the title page is a little strange, but I tend to like strange:

What they don’t understand
and what they don’t tell you —
in just three paragraphs —
is how a girl can “go bad”
while selling cucumbers,
and why she wants to yell.

That’s taken from the front flap of the cover. The cucumbers on the left-hand page were colored in with green pastels, and the text underneath is gibberish – machine language, not English. Maybe that’s what hollering is? Anyway, I’m having a ball finding the poems within the original text…but the visual imagination is still lacking. Debra Goldman’s suggestions and advise will help, I’m hoping to fill the spaces around the found poems with metaphorically connected images and shapes. We’ll see if I can do it, and I’ll post more about the book/experiment as it develops. Meanwhile, here’s my advice (to myself, as well as to you): Surprise yourself by doing something new. It’s like mental yoga – it stretches you.

If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

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The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

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As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

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For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

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Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greek Sketches

Last week Margaret talked about sketching Lily. Her myriad sketches refined Lily.

This week I am talking about a different kind of sketching – sketches as note taking. When I travel I take lots of photographs – it’s easy with a phone/camera. I like to look back at the pictures.
But on recent trips I’ve also started sketching what I see. I carry a mini notebook and make rough drawings which are neither refined nor beautiful. But somehow the things that I sketch stick with me more than the photographs that I take. Just using my hand helps to embed the images into my brain. Here are some pages from the sketchbooks that I filled in Greece and Turkey in September, followed by some work that sprouted from the sketches.

The sketches became raw material for drawings,  for embroidery, and for paintings.

 

Sketches help me go back to the places I’ve been and to sail out to new places.

Maybe you would find it fun to include more sketching in your life – rough sketches, working sketches, sketch diaries or sketchy adventures.

Here is a poem called Sketch by Carl Sandburg from 1915.

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.

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!”)