Holiday Favorites for Reading Aloud

Now’s the time of year to dig into holiday picture books. And who better to suggest titles than my fellow grandmother, Judy Luiten? Judy has spent the last 35 years teaching pre-schoolers, which includes lots and lots of reading to them. Her list of Christmas books features tried and true favorites as well as a new title she recently ordered for her students.

Judy notes these books are all good read-alouds. The list includes a wide variety because she believes in exposing kids to lots of kinds of books.

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The Christmas Wreath by James Hoffman, illustrated by Jack Stockman, School Ground Publishing Co., 1993. A polar bear gets a Christmas wreath caught on his neck and eventually saves Santa’s own Christmas experience. Magical.

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Mr. Wallaby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry, Doubleday, 2000. Mr. Wallaby’s tree is too tall for the parlour. What to do? Rhyming text. Delightful.

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The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy by Jane Thayer, re-illustrated by Lisa McCue, Harper Collins, 2005; original illustrations by Seymour Fleishman for Morrow, 1958. Most boys want puppies for Christmas. This puppy wants a boy. Judy can’t read this one without crying.

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Merry Christmas Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Woods, Childs Play, 2004. Little Mouse worries who will bring a present to Big Hungry Bear who lives on the top of the hill. These are the same characters who first appeared in the beloved The Little Mouse, The Red Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear, 1984.

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Judy has ordered Jan Brett’s latest Christmas book, The Animals’ Santa, Putnam, 2014, based on how kids respond to Brett’s tried and true story, The Mitten. She says her students love to predict the next animal to appear in Brett’s books by looking carefully at the illustrations.

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The Santa Mouse by Michael Brown, illustrated by Elfrieda DeWitt, Barnes and Nobles, 1996; reprinted from the original Grosset and Dunlap, 1966. A cute classic in which a mouse gets to go along with Santa on his deliveries.

Thanks to Judy for these wonderful suggestions. It is so fun to be grandmas together and also to share our love of picture books.

Happy holidays to you all!





Word Watching

paschkis wordwatching
Several years ago Julie Larios introduced me to the concept of chiming (as opposed to rhyming).
When two words rhyme they have  the same ending: river and sliver.
Chiming is looser. Chiming words bounce off each other in all kinds of ways. They could have similar sounds at the beginning, middle or end: sliver, silver, swindle, windless, windswept. Chiming allows you to experience the meaning of the words and the pure sounds.
Since childhood I have loved the book Ounce Dice Trice. Those words chime! The book is all about word-watching: delighting in words for their sounds and meanings.

ounce dice trice

ounce dice trice4ounce dice trice3ounce dice trice og ounce dice trice1ounce dice trice2

Learning a new language is a way to hear words from the outside as well as the inside. I wrote about that in this post about my new book Flutter and Hum, Aleteo y Zumbido.

In 1955 Antonio Frasconi came out with See and Say – A Picture Book in Four Languages. Frasconi was born in 1919 in Argentina to Italian parents. He grew up in Uruguay and then settled in the US in 1945. His wonderful woodcuts shine a light on the words in all of the languages.frasconi 1955frasconi008frasconi006frasconi007frasconi005The struggle and delight of language is to describe things and evoke feelings that exist beyond language.  Here are two poems by Pablo Neruda, illustrated by Frasconi, that dip their toes into that river. I shiver.


p.s. -Thanks to Jennifer Kennard for lending me Frasconi’s See and Say. Please explore Jennifer’s wonderful blog Letterology.

p.s. -Please click on the events page to find out about upcoming events and sales.

p.s. – To read a blogpost about words on quilts click this link to Mooshka – a patchwork blog.

Happy 318th Birthday, Hogarth

William Hogarth, one of London’s most beloved artists, spent his later years in Chiswick (pronounced Chizzick), the area of London where my family and I are living now.

Hogarth statue

There is a statue of Hogarth on the Chiswick High Street not far from our house.  November 10th was his birthday.

Hogarth wreath

He is clearly Chiswick’s favorite 18th century celebrity.

Hogarth is another artist who seems like six or eight people compressed into one. In addition to being a very successful portrait painter, he was an engraver, publisher, caricaturist, satirist, social reformer, foster parent, storyteller, and writer. He also put through the first copyright legislation and was a founding Governor of the Foundling Hospital.

Hogarth and dog selfie detail

A few weeks ago I took a tour of Hogarth House in Chiswick, where Hogarth and his family lived from 1749 onward (Hogarth and his wife had no children of their own, but they fostered foundlings) and which is now a museum.  Hogarth bought the house as a quiet country escape from the hectic center of London where he had lived and worked until then. Now the house sits on a busy thoroughfare.

Hogarth House exterior

Hogarth was able to make a good income from his artwork. He was commissioned for portraits and sold paintings as well as engravings and etchings based on his paintings.

Engraving tools Hogarth engraved plate

W Hogarth-The Distrest Poet  W Hogarth-The Enraged Musician

Hogarth is best known for his serial works that mix moralist tales with social commentary and wit. He was keenly observant of human behavior in all it’s embarrassing and entertaining detail. He dealt with topical subjects like politics as well as perennials like sex, crime, cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy. He must have been a somewhat uncomfortable person to be introduced to. He would have had a ball with the latest American presidential debates.

W Hogarth-The Laughing Audience

A Harlot’s Progress (1731) and A Rake’s Progress (1735) are two of his most famous sequential series. Both tales depict the sorry end that can come from being deceitful, vain, selfish, greedy, lustful, and foolish. And from hanging with the wrong crowd.

W Hogarth-Detail from Rakes Progress plate 8

Hogarth is a master at portraying facial expressions. In the detail from A Harlot’s Progress plate 6 below, the clergyman is feeling up the skirt of the woman next to him at the Harlot’s funeral. She doesn’t seem to mind.

W Hogarth-Detail from Harlots Progress plate 6

Every millimeter of space in Hogarth’s pictures include details that reinforce the story being told. Below is a bit from the border of the final scene in A Rake’s Progress. The setting is an insane asylum, evidenced by the fact that an inmate has used the leather from a bible to mend a shoe.

W Hogarth-bible shoe leather Detail from Rakes Progress plate 8

Strolling Actresses In A Barn (1738) is flush with activity from all corners. Two neglected impish youngsters in devil costumes are fighting over their mother’s tankard of ale while she poses and loses her knickers.

W Hogarth-Strolling Actresses in a Barn-1738

W Hogarth-Strolling Musicians In A Barn detail

Elaborate details like these remind me of images I loved from the early Mad Magazine comics (that I wrote about here before). William M Gaines and Will Elder must have been influenced by Hogarth. He is the great-great-great-grandfather of modern comic strip cartoonists.

But Hogarth wasn’t only interested in showing the foibles and flaws of society. He also wrote and published a book The Analysis of Beauty (1753), to share with both artists and commoners alike what he saw as the six principles of aesthetics: fitness, variety, regularity, simplicity, intricacy and quantity.

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W Hogarth Principles of Beauty 1 detail

Hogarth died in Chiswick in 1764 and is buried in a nearby churchyard. I’m grateful to be able to see London through his eyes. The city has changed considerably, but humanity hasn’t so much.

My Head in the Clouds

cover cloud pixar release

The call was unexpected and exciting. Disney Hyperion wanted to know if I’d be interested in helping a Pixar artist develop a picture book. Art director Noah Klocek had been selected for the Pixar Artist Showcase, a Pixar program in partnership with Disney Hyperion press that gives some of Pixar’s very talented artists a chance to express themselves more personally on a project of their own.

The names Pixar and Disney certainly got my attention. But I was cautious. I had lots of questions—first and foremost was this a project I could relate to? I knew that Noah had already created several story lines for the book and had a specific character and world in mind. So what was that world like? Would it be appealing to me and a place where I could see creating a story?

Disney sent me some sample art. It was totally charming. I loved Gale and I loved those big older clouds. This was a reassuring, yet rather majestic place. A special place.

early sketch Gale

early sketch guardian cloudsMost importantly, it turned out Noah and Disney editor Kelsey Skea were willing to give me a completely free hand in creating the story. This was great and it was daunting.

All of my stories have come straight from me. Something hits me or bubbles up inside and the story has its foundation in something meaningful to me. I didn’t have that with Gale.

This was Noah’s world, his baby. He had been sketching Gale and her cloud world for years. I wanted to know what he hoped for in this story. And I was invited to visit Noah at Pixar headquarters. Flying down I made a point of studying the clouds below me—looking for Gale and seeing if inspiration hit. All I saw were puffy white things that always looked like you could walk on them, but you knew you’d fall like a rock if you tried.

The driver met me at the airport and I was ushered onto the rather secretive, iconic Pixar campus. I was treated royally from a private screening of several projects in the works to a tour of the headquarters’ building sprinkled with statues from Pixar classics.


I liked Noah right away. He loves picture books and really gets how important they are and is passionate about creating high quality stories and art for kids. We talked about our families and about picture books and about creating stories and bounced some ideas around. For several drafts I worked with an idea of Noah’s about Gale learning how to float, but I couldn’t make that work.

My problem, I realized, is that I didn’t know what a cloud would want or need. To discover eternal life as rain, then water, then evaporated mist, then a cloud again? To become “real” like kids on the ground? What could a little cloud grow up to be? I needed something for Gale to want or need to seed the story.

I went back to Noah’s studies and sketches several times trying to tap into where this story was coming from for Noah. I’ve found, for me anyway, stories that work have something deep driving them. Something that the creator often doesn’t even know themselves. There’s something there that keeps us coming back again and again to an idea or image or story seed or scene.

But in the end, I had to come up with my own inspiration. So more looking at clouds. More pondering. More drafts trying to find my own story in this world–from Gale getting in trouble with her little brother to Gale trying to get the attention of a couple of earthbound kids to Gale wandering lonely as a cloud to find her true self.

In all, I created about five different story lines. The editor, Kelsey, was exacting and I appreciated that. I wanted a story worthy of Noah’s beautiful, warm, charming world. In the end, the solution seemed obvious.

Like any respectable cloud, Gale wanted to make different cloud shapes—real shapes like puffy cumulus clouds, a wispy stratus cloud, stormy cumulonimbus clouds. But like artists and authors everywhere, she ended up making up daydream clouds. Tugboats and castles and mighty whales. Clouds for the world to dream on.

gale on cloud

To see more about how Noah created the art for CLOUD COUNTRY check out these links:

The Making of Cloud Country, Part 1:

The Making of Cloud Country, Part 2:

The Making of Cloud Country, Part 3:

P.S. As is not uncommon in publishing, Disney Hyperion editor Samantha McFerrin took Kelsey Skea’s place when Kelsey joined Amazon’s Two Lions children’s imprint a few years ago. And Samantha helped guide CLOUD COUNTRY through its final stages. Thanks to both of them!

Short and Sweet

Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman

I’m keeping things short and sweet today. All you have to do is follow the link below to read an article published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal. Written by Maira Kalman, it’s hard to categorize – not an article, actually, just brief notes for each day of one week of her life.  I’ve said many times here (or, if not here, then many other places – to friends, family, students, neighbors,  maybe even complete strangers on the street) that I adore the way this woman’s mind works.  I love the fact that she’s both heartbroken by and grateful to the world she lives in. That she sees/is stopped in her tracks by small details and their larger implications. That she has a Proust Reading Group.  That she is – as she proclaims about the people she sees on the streets of NYC – still alive, thank goodness.

Click here to read her notes: And if you don’t know her work for children (What Pete Ate, Ooh-la-la) and adults (Principles of Uncertainty, And the Pursuit of Happiness) then find out more about them on her web page at While you’re there, don’t miss the piece she wrote and illustrated called “On Beauty”  (you can find it under the Journalism tab) from which comes this wonderful page:

from "On Beauty."

from “On Beauty.”


I came to love picture books when our kids were little. Every week we’d visit the library and haul home a big bag of books. So I first met Vera B. Williams between the pages of her books.

Sadly, Vera B. died October 16. Happily, we have her wonderful books for comfort.

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If I had to point to the one book that made me want to be a picture book maker, I would point to Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe.

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Three Days was Williams’ third book, published in 1981 when she was 54. It was the first of her books to gain popularity, winning the Parents Choice award. The story’s in the guise of a young girl’s journal during a family canoe trip, illustrated in colored pencil. Like all of Williams’ books, it has a big generous heart. That’s the part that grabs me.

But Vera B. Williams was not just a children’s author and illustrator. The same year Three Days was published, she spent a month at Alderson Federal Prison Camp following arrest at a women’s peaceful blockade of the Pentagon.

As she wrote, “At various times I have helped start a cooperative housing community, an alternative school, a peace center, and a bakery where young people could work. I have worked to end nuclear power and weapons, and for women’s rights. I have demonstrated and been jailed. I have produced posters, leaflets, magazine covers, drawings, paintings, short stories, and poem, as well as books.” To which I would add she was also a school teacher and the mother of three.

Bookwise, she went on to write and illustrate the Caldecott honor book, More, More, More Said the Baby, inspired by her first grandchild.

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And the Rosa trilogy, including Caldecott-winning A Chair for My Mother.

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My favorite of the Rosa books is Music, Music for Everyone  in which Rosa and her friends form a band to raise money for her grandmother’s medical care. Here’s my favorite (wordless) spread, at the climax.


As you can see, decades before the call went out for more diversity in picture books, Vera B. Williams’ stories were inclusive across all racial and economic lines. I love that.

• • • • •

Like Vera Williams, I was in my early forties when I started trying to make picture books. To figure it out, I studied the books my kids and I had loved the most. I made  thumbnail grids of Vera B. Williams’ books to teach myself about pacing and page turns. I pored over her illustrations noting point of view, character depiction, color, flow.

Early on, I attended a workshop that brought together teachers and authors. That’s when I first met Ms. Williams in person. She was an intense little person, already in her 60s. I had a minute to talk to her while she signed a book and I quickly told her how she’d inspired me to try to publish a book. She endured my gushing with equanimity.

I sent her copies of my first board books when they came out in 1994. She sent back an encouraging note.

• • • • •

I am a total fan of Vera B. Williams’ books. But she did not write them for me. Luckily, I got to see how her books impact young readers the year I volunteered as a writing coach in Lilly Rainwater’s fourth/fifth grade split at Hawthorne Elementary.

The kids I worked with at Hawthorne came from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds. When we were working on personal narratives, I brought in Williams’ last book, published in 2001, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

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It is a story for older kids, told in poems and pictures. It recounts what happens to two girls whose father goes to prison and then returns.

For months, each week when I returned to the classroom, that book would be in another student’s desk. It made the rounds. These kids had relatives and friends who were in prison. They had had to be brave and smart. The book resonated.

Which, in the end, is what all Vera B. Williams’ books do. Whether it’s a grandma sweeping up a baby to love in More, More, More, or little girl saving up money for A Chair for My Mother, Williams’ stories give us the best of what it is to be human.

Though I wish there were more, more, more Vera B. Williams’ books, I am forever grateful that she showed us all a picture book can be.

Now that’s a life well-lived.

Books Across the Ocean

Edward Bawden tote bagFaithful readers of this blog will know that I was in London last week, along with my husband Joe. We stayed with Margaret, Bradley and Clare. They were generous hosts and brilliant guides.IMG_0270They fed our stomachs, eyes, hearts and minds.IMG_0324It will take a while to digest everything!IMG_0463We saw so much, including many wonderful old and new books.IMG_0194Here are a few book covers and illustrations from the trip.

IMG_0141Older:bestiariumNewish birds from Edward Bawden (1903-1989):Edward BawdenAnd cats, also from Edward Bawden:Edward BawdenEdward BawdenEdward BawdenWe took a side trip to Amsterdam where we saw some volksvertelsels (folk tales). Old…books in Amsterdamand new (Beautiful Griselda illustrated by Isol):GriseldeHere are images from De Direntoen: a Netherlands edition of a book by André Hellé called Drôles de Bêtes, originally published in 1911 in Paris.andre helleandre helle IMG_0200andre helleandre helleandre helleandre helleBack in London: old games at the Sunbury Flea Market.IMG_0444IMG_0421 (1)IMG_0413 (1)This is just a taste of what we saw. Right now I am feeling jet-lagged, but replete.Bawden backwardsHow many miles to London town?
Four score and ten.
Can you get there by candle light?
Aye – and back again.Museum of childhood V and A

Young Readers and Young Writers

BBC YWA Clare at balcony

Last Spring my youngest daughter submitted a short story to the inaugural Young Writers Award competition, hosted by BBC and Booktrust. Young people aged 14 to 18 who live in the UK were invited to submit short stories of up to 1000 words on any topic. A panel of three judges selected the shortlist of stories demonstrating original and exciting writing that “captures the reader.”

It was recently announced that Clare’s story was one of five to make it on the shortlist,  from over 1,000 submissions. I was thrilled. I was also incredibly pleased and impressed that she had the confidence to submit her story in the first place. It is so easy to talk oneself out of trying.

On October 6th, the five young authors were given a tour of the BBC studios. As mother/chaperone, I got to tag along. It was exciting to see the BBC hive buzzing, and I enjoyed meeting the other kids and chatting with their parents. There were some notable artefacts on display as well.

BBC Dalek

In the evening, we attended the exclusive live broadcast event at the BBC Radio Theatre.

BBC YWA screen

We were joined there by my husband and two special friends – Julie Paschkis and her husband Joe Max Emminger! – who had just flown in from Seattle for a visit. Brennig Davies won the Young Authors award (the prize is mentoring sessions with Matt Haig, one of the judges). The winner of the Adult Short Story Award, Jonathan Buckley, was also announced. There was a reception afterwards, where authors young and old,  publishers, agents, broadcasters, and proud parents, mingled. It was all pretty cool.

The evening was a celebration of stories and writing, but it was one event of many in a country where writing, and reading, are highly valued and celebrated.

I see people reading books everywhere I go here in London. On the train or sitting in the park. The mere fact that over a thousand teenagers submitted stories to this new competition is noteworthy. I also learned from the other parents that there are a number of writing competitions around the U.K. every year. While I don’t like the idea of writing as a competitive sport, I still think that this indicates an appreciation for the skills involved. British culture seems to recognise that young readers are also valuable as young writers, encouraging them at an early stage to put themselves forward.

BBC National Short Story Awards 2015, New Broadcasting House, London

If you would like to read Clare’s submission along with the other runners-up, and hear Sir Ian McKellen read “Skinning”, the winning story by Brennig Davies, go here. And here is the shortlist of the adult entries which include stories by Mark Haddon and Hilary Mantel.

Even though Clare’s story didn’t win, the experience got her thinking more seriously about her writing. I am encouraging her to keep honing her skills, not for the purpose of entering more writing competitions, but to enjoy the success of making good stories even better.

Julie and Margaret in Fosters

And it’s been great showing Julie around London!

With explanation kind…

J.R.R. Tolkien was a staunch defender of the appropriateness of fairy tales and fantasy for both children and adults but in his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he acknowledged that some stories need to be “sized” for children. “…children may hope to get fairy-stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history and the sciences…Their books like their clothes should allow for growth…”

“Sizing” your story and your writing is a common issue for children’s writers. A few writers, like Maurice Sendak, claim they don’t consider their audience at all,* but I have to believe it’s the rare children’s writer who doesn’t pause over a word concerned about its accessibility for the child reader or who isn’t modulating the level of violence and gore in their story.

It gets trickier with the notion of what adult worries and fears kids can absorb. Death, in particular, is a tough one. Oh, there are any number of dead parents littered through children’s lit, and certainly some tragic deaths like Beth’s in Little Woman or Old Yeller, and many near escapes and dangerous situations, but rarely is a child’s own death confronted head on.

Recently, I checked out two versions of a picture book by Russell Hoban, Jim’s Lion, because I was so struck by the very different sizing done by the two different illustrators. **

Hoban’s story is about a young boy, Jim, who is ill and worried about dying.

“People who have what I have, mostly they die, don’t they?” Jim says to his nurse and he worries that he won’t come back from where the doctors send him during his operation.

Jim’s nurse tells him that in his head is everything he’s ever seen or thought about, including all kinds of animals.

“One of those animals is the finder who can bring you back from wherever the doctors send you,” she says.

The rest of the story is about Jim finding and befriending his finder animal, who turns out to be a lion and who does indeed bring him back from his operation

But although the story is exactly the same, look how differently the two illustrators handled it.

Illustrator Ian Andrew’s lion is warm, wise and comforting.

andrew cover

Alexis Deacon’s lion not so much.

deacon cover

In Deacon’s version, Jim meets the lion even before the story begins in a surreal comic book type sequence that foreshadows Jim’s fears.

lion's first appearance

Contrast that with the first encounter in Andrew’s version:

first encounter

In the story, the lion (gentle or otherwise) isn’t immediately tamed and Jim has to first overcome his fear of the lion who greets him with a roar. Here’s Andrew’s roar:

roar andrews

Here’s Deacon’s roar:


But isn’t just in style that the two illustrators vary. Through illustrated sequences, Deacon expands considerably on Hoban’s story taking it into a very dark vein (yes, pun intended). Deacon’s illustrations are bloody, indeed.

blood from box

lion fights bloody animals


The operation sequence in the Deacon book takes up 26 pages taking Jim through many changes from the nightmare of the operating room:

operating lights

To a turnabout where the lion is the sick one:

lion sick

And Jim protects him:

jim fights phantoms

The operating sequence in Andrew’s version closely follows the text, which simply notes of the operation that Jim closes his eyes, sees the lion and says, “Okay, let’s do it.” Then he “walked down the long curve of the beach into the dark and lion followed.


The story then immediately jumps to Christmas morning, where Jim is at home: happy and well.

The Deacon version ends in the same place, but what a different journey he takes us on.

Are they appropriately sized for kids? Andrew’s version is aimed at a younger child than Deacon’s. At least based on the boy in the illustrations.  I can see a child taking comfort in this protective, powerful lion.

Even for an older child, the Deacon version is dark,  surreal and unsettling. (It reminds me of David Small’s Stitches.) The lion is not easily won over and Jim’s fight to survive the operation is clearly painful and hard. It seems perhaps YA in its bloodiness and menace, but it is shelved in the children’s section in the Seattle Public Library.

But the reality Jim faces is bloody and menacing. He will be cut open and he may die. Hoban’s story doesn’t shy away from that. And Deacon’s illustrations certainly don’t. I can imagine an older child faced with a hard reality like this could appreciate Deacon’s unflinching take on how frightening and difficult this is.

And I can see other children, not sick or facing anything like death, being intrigued and challenged by the Deacon version, as I was intrigued by the odd and sometimes horrifying art I saw in art history books when I was a kid at home.

It’s an interesting and risky way to illustrate this story. I applaud Deacon and his editors for taking the chance. Perhaps Deacon was aware of another thing that Sendak said in his Tate Modern interview. According to Sendak, “Herman Melville said that artists have to take a dive and either you hit your head on a rock and you split your skull and you die … or that blow to the head is so inspiring that you come back and do the best work that you ever did.”***

* I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” Sendak said in a taped interview for the Tate Modern. And on The Colbert Report he said, “I don’t write for children. I write and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” My apologies to the late, great Mr. Sendak, but I don’t believe him.

**Interestingly, both U.S. versions were published by Candlewick Press. I’m guessing both were originally published by Candlewick’s parent company, Walker, in the U.K. The Andrew version was published in 2001, the same year as the copyright for the text. The Deacon version was published in 2014.

***It must be pick-on-Maurice-Sendak day, because I haven’t been able to find a quote like this from Melville. But of course, I’m just googling around. Sendak probably actually read Melville.

Hitting the Bump

bumps ahead

We live in a sweet old neighborhood of Seattle which is just north of the University of Washington. It’s full of tree-lined streets and post-WWII bungalows that used to be called “starter homes” but which are now – given the crazy real-estate situation in Seattle with low inventory and high demand – being pulled down or renovated and modernized for people who expect a lot more space. So far, we’ve resisted renovating our place if doing so involved more than a few cans of paint. We did, however, take down two non-producing cherry trees in our back yard recently – they made small bumps in the lawn and didn’t give us any cherries. It was sad taking them down. I like trees. I even like bumps.

Just to our west, we have relatively new neighbors who moved in after developers finished a total re-design of their home. It’s sleek and hip now. I like the new couple well enough, but I miss our old friend, Sonny, who lived there even longer than the 28 years we’ve lived in our place.  I miss talking to him over the rickety picket fence (a fancy new fence went in) and I miss helping him with the harvest from his Italian plum tree, which got pulled down when he moved out. Another sad moment, watching that tree come down.

As Sunny aged, it was harder and harder for him to take care of the house and yard; eventually he went to live with his daughter in Atlanta, and his yard got stripped down to just about nothing – I think the new style is called “low-maintenance.”  Bye-bye, plum tree.

But a huge evergreen still looms over the northwest corner of what will forever be called “Sonny’s place”; everyone in the neighborhood uses the tree as a landmark for friends who visit – you tell friends to either turn right or turn left “at the big tree” to get to a particular house.  It anchors the neighborhood the way a needle anchors a compass.  A couple of winters ago, a huge branch broke right off in a storm and fell on a car parked in the street – no one was hurt, but neighbors began asking about the roots underneath the tree. What direction does the tree lean? Which direction will that tree fall if/when it falls down? How deep do its roots go? Evergreen roots are notoriously shallow – that’s why so many evergreens pull up their root balls when they fall.

tree rootball 2

Not an evergreen, but yikes.

As it turns out, one huge root of the tree is now making a large bump in the street in front of the house. Five or six times a day, I hear some car hit the bump going way too fast. You know the sound: metal hits asphalt with a bang. I can hear the ka-klank even from inside our house with the windows closed, and I can imagine the scene inside the car: brain jarred, yelp of surprise, driver’s hands gripping the steering wheel a bit tighter, car brakes applied too late to make a difference. If a Fed-Ex truck or an open-bedded pick-up goes flying over the bump with packages or equipment or a load of lumber in the truck bed, forget it: it sounds like there’s been an accident, and more than once I’ve gone outside just to reassure myself that it was only another driver who didn’t know what was coming.

So: hitting that bump. Isn’t it weird how things like that can take over your thoughts? I’ve been obsessing about the bump. I think of it as something completely organic and natural, made by a beautiful tree which was already large before our homes were built, before the street  was paved, maybe before there was a street at all.  It’s normal to think about the tree because we can see it – it’s elegant, threatening, dark, gorgeous, powerful, stately. It’s a terrifying and regal monarch that is showing its age.

What we don’t think much about are a tree’s roots, hidden until we trip on them or go flying over them. Of course, anyone whose been down that street more than once or twice knows the root-bump is coming and slows down. We learned our lesson the first time sparks flew from the back fender. We love the tree, so we don’t mind the bump. We respect it.

Is it too much of a stretch to think about that bump in terms of our writing lives or our current writing project? I think the metaphor is easy: bump = difficulties. Who doesn’t hit bumps along the way? And who expects there to be NO bumps? And who, having hit bumps before, doesn’t reconsider the speed at which he or she is traveling? Who doesn’t take a big deep breath and slow down?

Ah, there, I knew it, I knew I could get around again to slowing down. That seems to be my mantra lately. My advice always seems to be to slow down, ponder, observe, learn lessons, move on with care. Don’t avoid the bump, just anticipate it.


Does this obsession with the bump (that is, with respecting its inevitability) have something to do with age? Well, yes, I know I took more risks when I was younger. I drove faster, wrote faster, hit more bumps and simply gripped the steering wheel with whiter knuckles.  But it’s also about an approach to problem-solving (whether the problem is with your writing, your relationships, your attitude) that makes sense to me. Bumps happen. If you know they’re coming, you can decide whether to take them slowly or go sailing over them and lose your fender. You can choose, you can learn or you can forget about learning. Depends on how much you like your fender, I guess.  And let’s see: your fender is a metaphor for…for…

Oh, forget it. All I know is I’m fascinated with that bump. It speaks to me right now. It says “I’m here.” And I say, “I know you’re here.” I talk to trees, I talk to tree roots, there it is.  When I sit down to write, I don’t expect it all to be smooth sailing. Same with life. All smooth sailing???? Who believes that? Sparks are bound to fly, sooner or later.

I’m sure Sonny didn’t expect it to be all smooth sailing either.  Eventually, the big tree might need to come down, just like the plum tree and the cherry trees. We might need to find another anchor for the neighborhood. Meanwhile, when I hear those bangs and ka-klanks, they don’t annoy me. Just the opposite: they make me smile. I tell myself, “If you like trees, Julie, you better like their bumpy roots.”


Note: I have a poem of mine about the strange nature of mammatus clouds at The Drift Record today. Click on the link if you would like to read it.