The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”
Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way. And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below). Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:
You can escape from the everyday…
into an imagined passion
Illustration by Phil Jones
Or maybe it’s a real world passion
Or forbidden fruit
Jean F. Martin
Illustration by Toni Demuro
Or perhaps red, is after all, just a mystery
My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.
Illustration by Nakamura Daizaburo
And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.
*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.
Coney Island, aerial photograph at night – by Jeffrey Milstein
This is going to be sweet and brief – let’s call it a little extra slice of pie on the day after Thanksgiving. I’m just going to link you to the portfolio page of a photographer I recently discovered whose work I love because 1) it’s unique, 2) it explores patterns, which is something acknowledged to be true in formal poetry, and is probably true in many other creative endeavors, 3) it makes me feel like maybe mankind has an eye for beauty, and 4) it makes me remember that wonder – that is, a sense of wonder – is just as important as all the other senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, sound.
Other reasons spring to mind for loving Milstein’s photographs, but I’ll leave it there. He has a book out titled LA NY – it’s well worth spending an hour or two with. If you follow his website’s portfolio link, below, you’ll find other links that tell you about his background. But right now, I’m going to keep it visual. Scroll down past the photo samples to find the link, and to find out what you’re looking at from above.
Happy Day After Thanksgiving! And thank god – or God – for Wonder!
Last weekend, I had the honor of being a guest speaker at the Mazza Museum Fall conference at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio.
The Mazza Museum collection is the largest collection of picture book art in the world, with a holding of more than 14,000 pieces of original picture book art – and counting!
The Mazza Fall conference is a yearly event to promote literacy through picture books. It is primarily attended by teachers, librarians, and students – a pleasant audience for us picture book folk.
The event was organized by Benjamin Sapp, the Mazza Museum director. He also arranges a group tour of picture book artists’ studios in some part of the country every few years. He brought a group to our neck of the woods in July of 2017 which Laura Kvasnosky wrote about here.
During the entire weekend Ben was the epitome of gracious calm. If he felt the strain of hosting six artists and 275 attendees and overseeing troupes of volunteers (known as Mazza Enthusiasts) he didn’t show it.
I find public speaking to be like a roller coaster ride. I fret for weeks as I prepare. I worry about what might go wrong (I have my own personal repertoire of performance-anxiety dreams). I get a kaleidoscope of butterflies in my stomach as the moment gets closer. Then I give the talk and I think … That wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of fun. I might do that again …
But all that aside, I enjoy these sorts of events because of the people I get to meet and the other artists whose talks I get to listen to.
Melissa Sweet is like a soft-spoken firecracker. I admire her and the care and discipline she puts into her process. There is so much love in her work for her subjects. I purchased a copy of the book she wrote and illustrated about E.B. White – Some Writer!. It is a beautiful and informative read.
Lori Nichols talked about her personal and professional growth rings and how her book characters Maple and Willow came to be. I felt at one point as if we were sitting in her yard with her under her beloved trees. Her talk was so engaging I (almost) forgot that my talk was up next.
Nina Laden (my fellow Pacific Northwesterner at the event) wove her talk through with personal tales of trial and perseverance, as well as envious shots of her Island studio.
Peter Catalanotto talked about how as a boy, he struggled with writing until a wise teacher told him to try starting his story with drawing pictures instead. Lead with your strengths. His story ideas often start with him asking himself “What if…”
Stephen Savage discussed the importance of composition (what he calls hierarchy) in imagery, especially in books with no written story as many of his are. Vertical lines on a horizontal plane are static. Diagonal lines and curves imply movement. The simplest of images can say a great deal.
In my 45 minutes, I talked about how Where Lily Isn’t came to be, from my early work through my time in London and my wordless letters with Julie Paschkis. Where I started, what I left behind, what I’ve brought with me. That sort of thing.
Although each of us had very different styles of presenting, there were some commonalities: We all mentioned events in our youth that formed our future selves as artists. We all spoke of our challenges and failures as well as our successes. We all talked about the importance of play in our work. And I believe we all showed pictures of our dogs at some point.
Other treats for me included:
Meeting and sitting at the dinner table with this year’s Dickman librarian of the year, Christina Dorr. I love librarians.
Seeing Kathy East again, the head of the 2004 Caldecott committee. It was she who called me to tell me Ella Sarah Gets Dressed was receiving an honor award. She will always have a special place in my heart.
Getting my hand cast in resin by Daniel Chudzinski for the Mazza archives. A new and slightly macabre experience.
Finding an open spot to sign the signing wall at the museum – my mark is now there with so many artists whom I admire. Intimidating yet exciting!
My one regret is that I did not have a chance to tour the Mazza Museum itself. My appointed tour time was forgone due to bad traffic coming from the airport in Detroit and the rest of the time I was booked (no pun intended) tightly. However, I did manage a couple of photos on the fly.
Thanks to Ben and all the Mazza folks for including me in their pantheon of picture book artists. It was a roller coaster ride I am glad I participated in.
I have illustrated many books, but I’ve never created the illustrations for each page of every copy of a book by hand. Until now!
I teamed up with Claudia Cohen, an amazing and talented bookbinder.
Together we created a limited edition artist’s book called Idyll.
We met several times to figure out our subject matter and technique. For subject matter we settled on this fragment of a poem written in the 3rd century BC by Theocritus, creator of bucolic poetry.
Many an aspen, many an elm
bowed and rustled overhead,
and hard by, the hallowed water welled
purling forth of a cave of the Nymphs,
while the brown cricket chirped busily amid the shady leafage,
and the tree-frog murmured aloof in the dense thornbrake.
Lark and goldfinch sang and turtle moaned,
and about the spring the bees hummed and hovered to and fro.
All nature smelt of the opulent summer-time,
smelt of the season of fruit.
Pears lay at our feet, apples on either side, rolling abundantly,
and the young branches lay splayed upon the ground
because of the weight of their damsons.
For technique we decided to stencil the images. Together we figured out the size, shape and length of the book. I sketched out all of the illustrations and cut the stencils. Claudia selected and folded handmade rag paper.
Each Tuesday for 15 weeks I went to Claudia’s studio where I would stencil 20 copies of 1 page. She handed me the papers and kept everything in order. That got more complicated as we completed more pages.
I used gouache paint (opaque watercolor in tubes) and Korean stenciling brushes made of badger hair.
The stencils were held in place with small heavy weights.
As I finished each page Claudia would press it between wood.
I would take the pack of wood and pages back to my house and hand letter the words during the week.
Each page is unique; there are variations in the stencil print and in the lettering.
Here are a few of the other pages:
When all of the pages were stenciled and lettered, Claudia stenciled endpapers and hand lettered the colophon (last) page.
She bound the books in goatskin vellum with gold embossing.
She made a case for each book.
It was fun to spend the time with Claudia in her studio which is a treasure trove for bibliophiles.
It was a privilege to work with someone with such expertise.
Idyll is available from Two Ponds Press in Maine, although it might not be up on their website yet.
Claudia and I are starting to plan our next adventure. We won’t be idle for long.
One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.
So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.
In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.
So, no illustration notes…
Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:
Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor. (Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).
I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.
One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.
I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.
Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.
BUT… if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in. It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.
Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.
The sky darkened and…
“Look!” (Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her) “The moon.”
The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.
But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:
The sky darkened and…
“Look!” (Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)
I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.
It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.
And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!
While browsing and poking around over at The Poetry Foundation website, I came across an older article (2010) about the singer/songwriter Natalie Merchant. She had just come out with a 2-cd set of children’s poems set to music. The title of the article (“Lullabies for Maniacs”) plays on the fact that Merchant once was lead singer for the band 10,000 Maniacs. But for the cd in question, titled Leave Your Sleep, the songwriter did a deep dive into 19th and 20th-century children’s ditties, nursery rhymes, lullabies, and nonsense poems that her own daughter responded to, picking out some verses written by well-known poets like Robert Graves and Robert Louis Stevenson, some by uncelebrated authors, and others by the ubiquitous (especially in rhymes for children) “Anonymous.”
Here’s one Merchant set to music:
‘maggy and milly and molly and may’
maggy and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)
and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn't remember her troubles,and
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;
and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and
may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.
For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
its always ourselves we find in the sea
E. E. Cummings
The 2-disc set is still available at Amazon. I’m not trying to hawk the cd here, so I’ll just copy and paste the list of tracks – and when you have time, you might want to use it as a list of poems you can look up for fun. [Added note: Do not miss the video of the Ted Talk performance where Merchant sings many of these poem-songs, including “maggy and milly….” Click here for the link to it . ]
1. Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience
3. Calico Pie
4. Bleezer’s Ice-Cream
5. It Makes a Change
6. The King of China’s Daughter
7. The Dancing Bear
8. The Man in the Wilderness
9. maggie and milly and molly and may
10. If No One Ever Marries Me
11. The Sleepy Giant
12. The Peppery Man
13. The Blind Men and the Elephant
1. Adventures of Isabel
2. The Walloping Window Blind
4. The Janitor’s Boy
6. The Land of Nod
7. Vain and Careless
8. Crying, My Little One
9. Sweet and a Lullaby
10. I Saw a Ship A-Sailing
11. Autumn Lullaby
12. Spring and Fall: To a Young Child 13. Indian Names
It falls to me to complete this tour Around the Table, our fifth post about poems we met as children.
Certainly my sense of language and story were shaped by the many poems our mom read to us five children at bedtime. I especially loved There Once Was A Puffin by Florence Page Jaques (1890-1972), and proposed it as a text that I would illustrate for Dutton Children’s books early on in my career. It came out in 1995. The dedication reads, “To Mom, in whose voice I hear this still.”
Oh, there once was a puffin
Just the shape of a muffin,
And he lived on an island
In the bright blue sea!
He ate little fishes,
That were most delicious,
And he had them for supper
And he had them for tea.
But this poor little Puffin,
He couldn’t play nothin’,
For he hadn’t anybody
To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,
And he cried for awhile, and
He felt very lonely,
And he felt very small.
Then along came the fishes,
And they said, “If you wishes,
You can have us for playmates,
Instead of for tea!”
So they now play together,
In all sorts of weather,
And the Puffin eats pancakes,
Like you and like me.
This poem was previously published in Child Life magazine and then reprinted in The Big Golden Book Of Poetry by Jane Werner Watson (1947).
Other childhood poem favorites were by A.A. Milne: Binker in Now We are Six, and Disobedience in When We Were Very Young, all with wonderful “decorations” by Ernest H. Shepard. I loved reading A.A. Milne’s poems to my own children and look forward to sharing them with grandsons, too.
Binker is about an imaginary friend who never lets the young protagonist down.
The curious Disobedience is about a mother who does not mind her three-year old’s rules, which made me wonder if my mother needed better taking care of.
Here, in it’s entirety:
Last but not least, here’s a shout out to the story-poems that Mom recited by heart. Once when I burnt my hand badly and couldn’t sleep, Mom sat beside my bed long into the dark night. I was comforted by the glow of the tip of her cigarette and her beautiful voice reciting one poem after another: The Flyaway Horse, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Highway Man, Custard the Dragon. Those cadences are as much a part of me as the genetic material I inherited. Little did she know she was nurturing a writer.
It might not have been called a book of poetry, but it was and is all about savoring words (and pictures).
My last word goes to Margaret Wise Brown from her book “Where Have You Been?”, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. This poem roosted inside me when I was about 5, and it has lived there ever since. I recite it to the crows in our neighborhood.
In the comment section I welcome any of your favorite poems or words from childhood. Thank you.
p.s. In my newsletter I mentioned the wonderful book Forgotten Words by Robert MacFarlane. It is actually called Lost Words.
Following the trend set by Julie Larios and Bonny Becker in their preceding posts on this blog, here is a favorite poem of mine from my younger years, by Ogden Nash. I even posted a copy of it on the wall of my dorm room (I have long had a thing for dinosaurs) along with my collection of dinosaur memorabilia, my freshman year at college. Keep in mind that this poem predates the Night At The Museum movies by several decades.
I thought that I would like to see
The early world that used to be,
That mastodonic mausoleum,
the Natural History Museum.
On iron seat in marble bower,
I slumbered through the closing hour.
At midnight in the vasty hall
The fossils gathered for a ball.
High above notices and bulletins
Loomed up the Mesozoic skeletons.
Aroused by who knows what elixirs,
They ground along like concrete mixers.
They bowed and scraped in reptile pleasure,
And then began to tread the measure.
There were no drums or saxophones,
But just the clatter of their bones,
A rolling, rattling, carefree circus
Of mammoth polkas and mazurkas.
Pterodactyls and brontosauruses
Sang ghostly prehistoric choruses.
Amid the megalosauric wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
Cheer up, old man, he said, and winked —
It’s kind of fun to be extinct.
I still enjoy the work of Ogden Nash – his wonderful play with words. However, in rereading this poem now, it does take on a more ominous meaning than it used to!
Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?
T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:
Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp. Guns aren’t lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful; You might as well live.
But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.
It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:
I never saw an abominable snowman I’m hoping not to see one, I’m also hoping if I do that it will be a wee one.
But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.
It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:
“How To Treat Elves”
by Morris Bishop
I met an elf man in the woods, The wee-est little elf! Sitting under a mushroom tall– ‘Twas taller than himself!
“How do you do, little elf,” I said, “And what do you do all day?” “I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he, “‘N scuttle about and play;”
“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when A katydid I see, ‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!
“I hide behind my mushroom stalk When Mister Mole comes froo, ‘N only jus’ to fwighten him I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’
“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing Up in the air so high, ‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing ‘Upsy-daisy-die!’
“‘N then I play with the baby chicks, I call them, chick chick chick! ‘N what do you think of that?” said he. I said, “It makes me sick.
“It gives me sharp and shooting pains To listen to such drool.” I lifted up my foot, and squashed The God damn little fool.
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.