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.”

Sixty-Six Years of the Best

For the last sixty-six years, the New York Times Book Review editors have been announcing their choice of the 10 Best Illustrated Books of the year. I encourage you to follow this link to the 2018 list:

If you love picture books, if you share the ones you love with your friends and colleagues, and if you are a student of the history of illustration, then the NYTimes’ Best Illustrated lists 1952-2018 include almost all your favorite illustrators – just look at some of the many:


Maurice Sendak, Alice and Martin Provensen, Marie Hall Ets, Ludwig Bemelmans, Roger Duvoisin, Walter Lorraine, H.A. Rey, Laurent de Brunhoff, Leo Lionni, Edward Sorel, Bruno Munari, Ed Emberley, Edward Ardizzone, Ben Shahn, Tomi Ungerer, Arnold and Anita, Lobel, Edward Gorey, Brian Wildsmith, Alexander Calder, Jacob Lawrence, Remy Charlip, Mitsumasa Anno, Edward Koren, James Marshall, John Burningham, Rosemary Wells, Petra Mathers, Lane Smith, Peter Sis, Leo and Diane Dillon, William Joyce, Maira Kalman, David Shannon, Jerry Pinkney, David Wisniewski, Ted Lewin, Chris Raschka, David Diaz, Richard Eglieski, Gennady Spirin, Douglas Florian, Kevin Henkes, Kadir Nelson, Jon Klassen, Susan Marie Swanson, Ian Falconer…AND (sound of trumpets please) our own Julie Paschkis!!

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Night Garden: Poems from the World of Dreams (written by Janet Wong, illustrated by Julie Paschkis) named to the NY Times/NY Public Library Best Illustrated  Books in 2000. 

In the comments area below, I hope you’ll share your reactions to this year’s list (as well as to individual books on it, and/or books you think should have been named to it.)

You can see a more complete list here [this link has been corrected from a previously incorrect link] of  books named to the Best list between 1952 to 2016: https://www.librarything.com/bookaward/New+York+Times+Best+Illustrated+Children%27s+Book

For the 2016 list, go to https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/03/books/review/best-illustrated-books-of-2016.html

For the 2017 list, follow this link: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/books/review/best-illustrated-childrens-2017.html

And don’t miss the wonderful look at the 2018 illustrators’ studios, processes, and thoughts about their books here: https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2018/11/02/books/childrens-illustrators-studios.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article

Runaway Reading

The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.

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I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.

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My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.

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The 2018 Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner by fellow judge, Elaine Magliaro

 

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Books illustrated by fellow judge, E. B. Lewis

Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.

This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)

I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.

I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.

 

Which Witch?

 

It’s election time! Here is a slate of witches, hags, crones and harridans. Please pick which witch is your favorite she-devil. Of course there are 13 in the coven. Please place your vote in the comment section between October 26-31.

NOTE: VOTING IS CLOSED! SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM TO SEE THE WINNER OF THE WITCHY ELECTION.

Witch by Vladimir Lebedev

Witch and Xantippe by John Harris

Baba Yaga by Ivan Bilibin

The Ghost Oiwa by Hokusai

La Bruja by A. Dempster

Witch with Demons by Vladimir Lebedev

The Witch of Hissing Hill by Janet McCaffery

Baba Yaga Lubok

Baba Yaga by Nicolai Demetryevsky

Mother Shipton- English Soothsayer

Okiku the Well Ghost by Hokusai

Witch on the mountain by Arthur Rackham

Strega Nona by Tomie DePaola

Vote Wisely and Vote Now! The victorious witch will be announced here on Halloween.

AND THE WINNING WITCHES WERE:
Baba Yaga by Nicolai Demetryevsky (9 votes) and the Witch of Hissing Hill by Janet McCaffery (9 votes). Close behind them were Strega Nona, Arthur Rackham’s witch and and Okiku the Well Ghost by Hokusai. Almost every witch got at least one vote.

Thank you all for casting your ballots and casting your spells.

As a bonus, here are two more images by the top vote getters. 

The Witch of Hissing Hill by Janet McCaffery

Nikita Kozhemyaka by Dmitryevsky

Duvoisin II

Last month I warned I might revisit Roger Duvoisin’s work in picture books. So, here are two more of his books from my shelves: Donkey-donkey (1940) and Petunia (1950).

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Unlike A Child’s Garden of Verses, these two books are authored by Duvoisin as well. His writing style matches his illustrations – light and delightful.

The themes are similar – animals wanting to better themselves somehow and making themselves and others suffer for it. Silly animals.

Using animals to upstage human folly is common in literature. Duvoisin’s squiggly images help us laugh at the situations such foolish creatures get themselves into.

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Donkey-donkey is a happy donkey until he starts comparing himself to Pat, the horse.

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He becomes dissatisfied with his big donkey ears and gets advice from everyone else at the farm on what to do about it.

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As we expect, he comes around to accepting his ears and going back to his happy donkey life.

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Petunia is literally a silly goose. She finds a book and has heard that ‘He who owns Books and loves them is wise,’ so she picks up the book and carries it around with her, feeling very wise indeed.

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Petunia’s pride in her new-found wisdom leads her to mis-advise all the other animals at the farm.

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This causes misery and mayhem.

She is too busy being wise to notice until the situation becomes explosive.

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At this point she notices the book has something in it, namely pages, with words on them that she cannot read. Now she understands, ‘It was not enough to carry wisdom under my wing, I must put it in my mind an in my heart. and to do that I must learn to read.”

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Be true to yourself.

Wisdom only comes from books if you use them correctly.

If a goose can learn to read, so can you.

Good lessons at any age.

 

 

Getting to Know You…all too well

Pamela Lyndon Travers

Once upon a time, an author was an elusive creature. Rarely glimpsed, rarely heard from except in his or her published writings. There were the exceptions—the ever-touring Dickens and Twain. But when I was growing up a real writer was such a rare beast that I vaguely thought that all authors were either dead or perhaps lived in some land not really connected to our own.

So, I was thrilled to finally meet an actual author when I was 21–P.L. Travers of Mary Poppins fame when she was a writer in residence at my college. I had read and adored Mary Poppins as a child and here was the author herself.

The meeting, at a dinner table in my dorm, was disappointing. She was fulfilling what clearly was an annoying requirement—a meal with the students. She brushed off my shy, gushing acknowledgement of her and her books, ate as quickly as she could and immediately left. But, like Mary Poppins, she did leave me with a bit of wonder. I noticed that the salt and pepper shakers had vanished with her.

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Was it a bit of Mary Poppins magic or was P.L. just a bit of a kleptomaniac? This was certainly possible. Pamela Lyndon Travers was a complicated person. She was notorious for her snappish demeanor and extreme protectiveness of Mary Poppins. You can see a highly sentimentalized (but reasonable accurate) version of her struggles with Walt Disney over the making of the Mary Poppins film in the movie “Saving Mr. Banks.”   (Insider tip: Travers’ tears at the end are not tears of joy.)

You can get a more direct feel for her in this interview with Alex Witchel that ran in the New York Times in 1994.I love many of the exchanges in what must have been an intimidating interview, but this is one I could particularly relate to as a writer. Witchel asks Travers if she is proud of her Mary Poppins books.

“Yes, I am proud,” she [Travers] says clearly. “Because I really got to know her.”

Miss Travers has written that when she was a child she wished to be a bird. Is Mary Poppins? After all, she can fly and she is the only adult capable of understanding the starlings and the wind.

“That’s something I can’t tell you,” she says. “I didn’t create Mary Poppins.”

“Oh? Who did?”

“I refuse the answer,” she says. “But I learned a lot from Mary Poppins.”

“Like what?”

“I can’t say exactly,” she snaps. “It’s not a sum. I know less about her after reading ‘Comes Back’ again.” Her tongue works itself over her lips.

“I think I would like her always to remain unknown,” she continues. “I feel I’ve been given her. Perhaps if somebody else had her she’d be different. I don’t know. I’ve forgotten so much.”

I love Travers’ acknowledgement that Mary Poppins was “given” to her. And her refusal to further explain her character. In some ways, I think writers (like Mary Poppins herself) should also remain unknown. Perhaps some of the magic goes out of things when we meet them, especially if they coldly brush us off! (Although the disappearing salt and pepper shakers almost made up for it.)

Illustration by Mary Shepard

Authors are not so private and mysterious these days. Between school visits, blog posts, social media, bookstore appearances, and late-night interviews, the world seems rotten with authors. We get to know them all too well, perhaps.

Still, believe it or not this is all by way of letting you know that I’ve been doing readings and signings lately for my new book “The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael.”

So, even if you don’t need to meet me, I love getting a chance of getting to meet you. Like so many of us introverted writers, we turn into extroverts under the right light. Even P.L. Travers start to get expansive toward the end of her New York Times interview.

If you’d like to meet the not-that-elusive Bonny Becker and learn more about my latest book, do come to see me at the Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, Oct. 25 at 7:00 p.m.

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves and Kitchen Sinks

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Well, it’s definitely autumn now, a season when you can turn a corner and have your breath taken away by the color of a bush. I had to stop the car the other day, out on Hannegan Road between Lynden and Bellingham in Whatcom County, Washington, because a maple tree I saw left me stunned. Every single color of fall was represented: green, yellow, gold, orange, red, hints of purple, all those colors set against a blue sky, with sunshine streaming through the bright leaves. I had to pull off the road and get out of the car, I wanted to take a…oh, no, no…no camera?

But I brought a few leaves home and set them in a small vase on the sill above my kitchen sink. Our window faces west, towards the setting sun and a view across town, out to Bellingham Bay and Lummi Island. Here’s what the sky looked like a little later that evening:
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I didn’t get a photo of the maple tree, but I did get a photo of those leaves above the kitchen sink, as you can see at the opening of this post.

As I washed the dishes that day, I thought about leaves, about the way light comes through them. Can you see how the pattern of the screen behind the window shows through? I thought about that kind of illumination and transparency.  Thinking about things like that, especially as I scrub out pots and pans, is part of my process as a poet.

Here’s my advice to writers reading my post today: put some autumn leaves on your kitchen window sill. Ignore the diswasher and wash your dishes by hand. I bet after a few plates and bowls, a handful of silverware and a kettle or two, you’ll be thinking about wind, light, color, transparency, and (look at that – the dishes are done !) you’ll be in a writerly mood.