Ode to Bicycles

Oh, bicycles! Let us speak of spokes. bianchi poster
You could ride a bicycle to summer with Saul Steinberg.steinberg bicycle122
Salute the finest form of transportation! steinberg bicycle123

Have some wheel fun ( a papercut I made in 2012).Paschkis bicycle trick
Bicycles are good for all species, as you can see in these Polish circus posters.cyrk bicycles
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad share a bike. Sweet!
frog and toad
But they aren’t the only cycling amphibians.
gorey bicycle018
The above creature is from The Broken Spoke – Edward Gorey’s 1976 book of bicycling cards. gorey bicycle001
Each card is inspired by a different school of art, but essential Gorey-ness shines through in every picture, and in the text.gorey bicycle spyglass  gorey bicycle003 gorey demon cyclistgorey bicycle015gorey bicycle011 gorey bicycle012   gorey bicycle008
Here Gorey shows us bugs on bikes.
gorey bicycle121
Pablo Neruda had a similar idea with a completely different mood in this excerpt from his Ode to Bicycles.Neruda ode to bicycles
Today I finished this painting/drawing of bicycles. I’m not sure if it is really finished, but I don’t want to paint right now. It’s time to take a bike ride.
out for a spin

In The Study Rooms at the V&A (Part I)

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

It’s a Big World Out There

Exactly a week ago, I got home from a three-week trip to Tanzania. I was there to research a book. It was an amazing experience. There’s a lot to say about Tanzania. But the part I want to talk about is a visit I took to a traditional Maasai village.

As they have for centuries, the Maasai primarily live by herding cattle. As we drove around the country, it was common to see young boys in traditional Maasai blankets driving cattle or goats out into the countryside to graze. But it’s not a very secure way to make a living and some Maasai are looking for other ways to make money. A few villages have opened themselves to tourist visits. They sing and dance, offer crafts for sale and show visitors around.

bonny with dancers

But I had to keep telling myself that this wasn’t a visit to Williamsburg or the Polynesian village in Hawaii. This wasn’t an “enactment,” but real life in one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world where the average income is less than $50 a month.

The hands I held were rough. They had worked much harder than I had ever done in my life, but the smiles felt genuine. It’s hard to say. I can say for sure that the bouncing dance of the Maasai is harder to do than it looks.

Here are the village homes.

massai among huts

And no, they don’t go someplace else when the “gates” close, as I had to keep reminding myself. Here’s the kitchen:

kitchen in hut

The heat and “stove”:

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And the bedroom, sitting area:

IMG_1430

It’s true that the Maasai probably spend most of their time outdoors and use their homes mostly for sleeping, but most of the rooms in my house are bigger than any of the huts we saw.

We also visited the village pre-school. I’d done an earlier school visit as an author in the town of Morogoro and was shocked by the contrast. The Morogoro school was a private school and by Tanzanian standards very well off. They had a library of hundreds of books, slide projectors, colorful teaching aids, and well-fed, well-clothed students.

morogoro school

Here’s the school in the Maasai village.

overview of schoolroom

Paper is scarce, (that cupboard in the back was their entire supply closet) so students use a slate until they perfect their letters and numbers and then they might get to work with paper.

hands on slate

Of course, this was the local preschool, which is not mandatory or paid for by the government. I have to hope that the elementary school and secondary school in the area have more resources.

As the Maasai have been traditionally nomadic it’s been a challenge figuring out how to serve this population. It’s a problem the country is still working on. And the Maasai are just one of some 120 different tribes there.

But some things were the same as they are everywhere. The ABCs:

teacher at blackboard

An encouraging teacher:

IMG_1446

And the incandescent beauty of children:

cropped girl

My book isn’t about the Maasai or about poverty. But it reminded me that as a writer, and as a person, travel can do so many things. It brings alive the world you’re trying to create in your book, but it also brings alive the world itself.

P.S. After I posted this, my friend and fellow writer, Carmen Bernier Grand, asked if there was any way to help. I’m so glad she asked because it prompted me to do some research and I found this organization that helps the Maasai right where this school is located in the Ngorongoro region. Here’s a link: http://www.aidtanzania.org/index.cfm

Liking Root Beer, Disliking Liver

image

For the last few days I’ve been reading a book titled You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt. Very interesting, though (for my taste)  a little heavy on statistics from sociological, psychological and marketing surveys (“In a group of 100 Americans of widely differing incomes, 100% will consider themselves middle-class” and “11 of the 12 rats went for the sugar,” etc.) Still, the whole idea of the whys behind liking and disliking fascinate me. They feel wildly complicated and (as  Vanderbilt admits) almost impossible to determine. So, of course, I want to try.

A majority of people, when asked their favorite color will answer “Blue.” Is that because it’s the color of the sky? Cool water?  Faded levis? Do infants prefer blue? Statistically no, they do not. Nor do the majority of people want blue cars. So a “favorite” – that is, the act of liking – can be changed by context, connotations, associations, experiences…or the lack of any of the above. Notice, by the way, that a blue cover was chosen for You May Also Like. Coincidence? Probably not.

image

Blue sky, blue water, blue jeans….

“Taste” is one of those words that pushes several directions at once (poets love words like this) because it can be a verb (“When I taste ripe raspberries right off the vine on a sunny day, I’m in heaven”) or it can be a noun with several definitions (“It was clear she had good taste” – that is, discerning judgment – and “She loved the taste of a root beer float”  – a sensory experience, in the mouth, on the tongue, all fizz and creaminess going down the throat. Words like that can be used to twist a sentence, make it ring two bells at once, and  surprise someone (hopefully both author and reader.) The poet Heather McHugh taught me to look at words that work hard and do double duty like that. You can play with them, like kids play with playdough, reshaping them constantly.

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As for liking and disliking, I like the taste of root beer, though I have to admit it’s a little odd. Still, sweet is sweet, and humans apparently are programmed to like what’s sweet (so some liking can be a genetic predilection.) But I don’t like things too sweet. Don’t like membrillo, too sweet. Love sauerkraut, not the slightest bit sweet.  So liking can be quantified, as can disliking. Don’t like apricots very much, but compared to liver – ugh, gag, etc.- apricots are delicious. Like Auden’s poetry, while Ashbury’s poetry leaves me thinking meh. Usually prefer non-fiction to fiction, unless the non-fiction is badly written and the fiction is brilliant…those opinions being a matter of personal taste (discerning judgment, right?) I like Matisse, don’t much like Rothko, though my sister keeps telling me to look more carefully at Rothko. I try. Maybe Rothko for me is like an apricot. Not liver, but also not root beer.

Refreshing Root Beer Float with Vanilla Ice Cream

Classic Root Beer Float

image.jpeg

Classic Ugh…That Is, Liver

I trust my sister’s judgment – we often have similar likes and dislikes. But last night I watched Episode 1 of a TV series she recommended and I found it too long, badly paced, confusing. The guilt I felt about not liking it made me want to like it more, but on the root beer-to-liver scale, it was too close to liver.  Still, when there is this kind of pressure to like something, then unadulterated liking is at risk. We want to like what someone we admire likes. I remember wanting to like coffee when I started drinking it, and not really liking it, but all the adults I loved liked it, and I wanted so much to like it that eventually I did. So taste can be a matter of habituating ourselves to something. It’s not always logical or pre-programmed. It’s sometimes slow in coming. Shared likes can create a community of sorts, as Facebook tries to demonstrate.

image

Hated it, then loved it….

Hope to finish Vanderbilt’s book soon. Then I have to focus on finishing a book one of my friends chose for our next book discussion. She chose it because she liked it, of course. I am only on Page 53…no real opinion yet as to its root beer/liver quotient. Some of us in the book group will love it, some not, that’s the way it usually works – it takes a pretty extraordinary book to be universally loved, and we are perfectly happy just to read books that will expand our reading horizons.

I used to tell my creative writing students to write for themselves and for the type of readers who will love their particular story. It’s not smart to write for the widest possible audience unless your motivation is all bottom-line. Instead, write for readers who will browse the shelves of the library aching to find just your story. Think of your audience as small. If that audience widens up to include more people – that is, if it turns into a blue sky people point to and say, “Blue is my favorite color” – then so much the better. But there are lots of colors in a paint box. My favorite color? Well, today it’s green. I wouldn’t want a green car, but I like green hills. And wouldn’t a green story be wonderful?

 

CLOSE BY CLOSE

Margaret, this one’s for you: a world-class exhibit of Chuck Close’s work at the Schack Art Center in Everett, WA. It’s a printmaker’s dream of nearly 90 works plus lots of process materials. Luckily,  it’s open until September 4, so you can see it when you return from your London adventures.

close1The show begins with Close’s first mezzo print, Keith/1972. The huge plates are scribed with a grid which recurs in his work in other print methods. You get the idea that he sees the world in fat pixels.

We visited the day after opening. As we went in the door, Dale Chihuly (he of the pirate eyepatch and the splendiferous art glass) was just leaving. Upstairs, Chuck himself, seated in his wheelchair, held forth in a crowded room flooded with sunlight.

 

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 11.25.28 AM

Did you know that Chuck Close was born in the hamlet of Monroe, Washington? Back in 1940. Chuck’s dad died when he was 11 and he and his mom moved to Everett. Acacemics were difficult for him. Years later he discovered he has an unusual form of dyslexia. I wonder how much his grid-dled view is the result of a physiologically different way of seeing the world? The young Chuck was a skilled artist, however, and early on learned realistic drawing techniques, like perspective. After graduating from Everett High, he went on to major in art at Everett Junior College, then on to UW in 1960 and an MFA from Yale. At Yale, one of his classmates was sculptor Richard Serra.

After Yale, Close set up shop in New York. He got famous in the late 60’s for his nine-foot tall paintings of heads – his friends’ and his own. And heads are what you will see at this exhibit.

The great thing about this show is that process is on display with the imagery. It is fascinating to see working proofs and copper plates and lino blocks and graphs and printing hue notes. The works are etchings and aquatints and lithographs, silk screen, Japanese woodcut, reduction linocuts and even images made of paper pulp that was carefully color coded and poured into a grid onto a wet paper backing.

If I could have one of these beautiful pieces, I would choose Cecily/Felt Hand Stamp 2012. Again, the grid underlies the image. Felt stamps were used to apply oil paints on a silkscreen ground.

 

 Cecily/2012, close up on right.

Much of Close’s work in this exhibit was created in collaboration with master printers. It starts with those huge mezzotints and ends with his most recent work.

Extra bonus: the exhibition space has a printshop in the back, and the sweet smell of ink seeps into the galleries.

Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration, through Sept. 5, the Schack Art Center, 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett. General admission is $10; Schack members, seniors, military and youth pay $5; children are free. Check the Schack website, www.schack.org, to find out about free-admission Mondays. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Closed Independence Day. Extended hours to 8 p.m. on June 16, July 21 and Aug. 18. Books about Close are offered for sale.

Zuleika and the Strange Bean

In February I was given the seed of an idea by Jennifer Kennard of Letterology.

zuleika and bean

One crafternoon at her house I made a paper doll with articulated appendages. Over the next month or so I made a lot of them at home.

Paschkis paper dollsPaschkis crocodile

It was fun to make them move.

backbend

I wanted to make a movie but I had no idea how to do it. Once again Jennifer planted a seed. She suggested contacting Seattle Central College and seeing if a student there could help me.  Enter Sam To!Sam ToIMG_1438

Sam is a design student at Seattle College. (He graduates this week). He knows how to do stop motion animation, 3-d animation and many other kinds of design. He is comfortable with technology. He is efficient and responsible and flexible. We met, and I explained that I wanted to make a stop animation movie where my characters danced around. He suggested that we make a story – not just a dance. So I made up a story about a character named Zuleika. I cut some new dolls. Sam came to my studio.
Lights! Camera!  Rearrange lights! Rearrange camera! Try again!

The table had to be dismantled and the camera tucked into the rafters. Then Sam took many many pictures while I rearranged the dolls. A few weeks later he made the images into a movie called Zuleika and the Strange Bean.  The seed of an idea had sprouted.

paschkis paper dolls

Click on the title here to watch our movie Zuleika and the Strange Bean . (The music starts a few seconds after the visuals…)

Now I would like to plant a seed. Sam has just graduated. Hire him!
If you are looking to hire someone at your design firm you couldn’t do better than Sam. He is capable, creative and responsible. He has lots of ideas and can make them happen. You can see his portfolio  here at www.hieuto.com or contact him at sam@hieuto.com. Thank you.

Paschkis paper doll

A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The New Childhood entry poster House of Illustration

Last week I returned to House of Illustration to see their current show – A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia.

It is an excellent, eye-opening exhibit. I snapped a few subversive shots to share with you.

Before the October Revolution of 1917, children’s books were beautifully illustrated but expensive. Only children of the upper classes were regularly taught to read. Children’s books were not for the masses.

bilibin feast cakeIvan Bilibin, 1895

After the end of the Tsarist regime, fairy tales were considered irrelevant. Children were reimagined as “builders of the new egalitarian future.” New children’s books would promote socialist beliefs and give practical instruction.

Galina & Olga Chichagova 1925-posterGalina and Olga Chichagova, poster design with text by A. Galena, 1925.

“The images of old storybooks. Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!! Give a new children’s book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood.

On the positive side, during this time there was a blossoming of creativity in children’s literature. The influence of folk art as well as past art movements and picture books from Europe converged in these new books.

Eduard Krimmer 1926-How The Whale Got His ThroatEduard Krimmer, How the Whale Got His Throat (Rudyard Kipling) 1926.

Illustrators explored new styles and techniques. The Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing.

Issachar Ber Ryback 1922-In The Forest coverIssachar Ber Ryback for In The Forest (Leib Kvitko) 1922.

Books were considered valuable tools in disseminating new ideals. Publishers flourished.

Eduard Krimmer 1925-NumbersEduard Krimmer, Numbers, 1925

Vera Ermolaeva 1925-Top Top TopVera Ermolaeva, Top-Top-Top (Nikolai Aseev), 1925

Absurdism proved useful in communicating the regime’s ideas.

Iureii Annenkov 1918-The FleaIllustrations for The Flea (Natan Vengrov) by Iurii Annenkov, c. 1918

Konstantin Rudakov’s work was humorous and zany, but considered “bourgeois dregs” by Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted theorist and Lenin’s wife. Some of his books were banned.

Kostantin Rudakov 1926-TelephoneKonstantin Rudakov, Telephone, 1926

Picture books would show children how to build the future.

Evgenia Evenbakh 1926-The TableEvgenia Evenbakh, The Table, 1926

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-ElectricianAleksandr Deineka, Electrician (B. Uralski), 1930

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Cow ShedTevel Pevezner, The Cow Shed (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Poultry YardTevel Pevezner, The Poultry Yard (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 1 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 2 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 3 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 4Georgii Echeistov, What It Carries Where It Travels, 1930

Unknown 1934-First Counting BookUnknown illustrator, First Counting Book (F. N. Blekher), 1934

The circus was still popular, but the Lion was no longer portrayed as King of the beasts. Instead he was President.

Maria Siniakova 1929-CircusMaria Siniakova, Circus (Nikolai Aseev), 1929

Vladimir Lebedev 1925-CircusVladimir Lebedev, Circus (Samuil Marshak) 1925

Marshak quote

Some illustrators were still determined to show children at play and having fun. Some got away with it.

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-Unpublished illustration-Pictures For Little OnesVladamir Konashevitz, unpublished illustration for Pictures For Little Ones, 1925

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-MugsVladamir Konashevitz, Mugs, 1925.

Others delved further into the new reality of childhood.

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-Red Army ParadeAleksandr Deineka, The Red Army Parade, 1930

The atmosphere of experimentation ended in the mid-1930s when “socialist realism” became the assigned aesthetic ideal. Children’s books could only support Soviet approved aspirations. State censorship was enforced. Yiddish publishing was no longer tolerated and high taxes caused many Russian publishers to close. Many illustrators continued to work but ceased experimenting. Some fled to Europe. Others were arrested.

I visited Soviet Russia when I was a child in 1970. What I remember most about Moscow was how bleak it was. Saint Basil’s Cathedral rose like a glorious fantasy out of the concrete. Everything else, including the people, was grey and heavy. Our guide was afraid to answer any of our questions. People spoke to us in whispers if they spoke to us at all. They were the children who had grown up under the Soviet regime.

For those of you who aren’t able to make it to London to see this show before it closes in September, you can look for the book, Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful books, terrible times, which inspired House of Illustration to exhibit works from this collection.

Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

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So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

IMG_1933 (1)

It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

IMG_1937

Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.

What We See and What We Don’t

. St. Helens - Before

Mt. St. Helens – Before

My husband and I drove recently from our home in Seattle down to Eugene, Oregon, to help celebrate our grandson’s ninth birthday. It’s a five-hour trip down I-5, which runs north-south roughly parallel to the Cascade Range of mountains to the east. North of us stands Mt. Baker – near the Canadian border – but to the south we would be passing Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and finally –  crossing into Oregon – Mt. Hood. The Three Sisters peaks are to the east of Eugene, and Mt. Shasta in California is well to the south.

To pass the time as we drove, I got the audiobook version of Steve Olson’s Eruption: The Untold Story of Mt. St. Helens. After all, we were going to be passing through the countryside most affected by the volcano, and the date of the drive down was May 20th, exactly thirty-six years and two days after May 18, 1980, the day of St. Helens’ disastrous eruption. I looked up the word “disaster” while thinking about this post. The dictionary says the word is “derived from Middle French désastre, and that from Old Italian disastro, which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek pejorative prefix δυσ-, (dus-) ‘bad’ and ἀστήρ (aster), ‘star’. In other words, slightly Shakespearean, “ill-starred.”

St. Helens - After

Mt. St. Helens – After

St. Helens is far enough to the east of the interstate that you can see it well only on a clear day. When you do see it, it’s still nerve-jangling thirty-six years after the eruption. Nerve-jangling, thrilling, awe-inspiring, horrifying. 57 people died that day. The force of the blast moved at up to 650 mph. and the vertical plume rose 80,000 feet into the sky – 15 miles high.

On I-5 headed south you cross a bridge over the Toutle River, the river which was devastated by the mudflow and log jam caused by the collapse of the mountainside. Twenty-seven bridges in the eruption zone were destroyed that day.

St. Helens bridge in mudflow, North Fork Toutle River, north ...

Bridge in mudflow, North Fork of the Toutle River, 1980.

Driving north on I-5 you don’t see much about the mountain that is disturbing: a diminished peak, 1300 feet shorter than it was, less elegant, fewer glaciers. But heading south from Seattle,  you see the north side of St. Helens, which is the side which collapsed. The landside – largest ever recorded, definitely “ill-starred” – presaged the lateral explosion and the vertical plume made familiar by photos of the eruption.

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8:32 a.m., May 18, 1980 – Lateral Surge and Explosion

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Vertical Plume – with Mt. Rainier visible to the north. Ash from Mt. St. Helens traveled around the world.

For our trip, we had an overcast day – the gray of a typical day in the Pacific Northwest, with low bunched clouds obscuring the view. We saw Mt. Rainier – the king of the Cascades – as we headed out, but we couldn’t see St. Helens. At least, not visually. Not with our eyes. But with Olson’s narrative playing on the CD player, there’s no doubt we could see it.

Is there anything better than that kind of story, a story which can transport us from a car traveling easily down the freeway in 2016 to a strange spring day in 1980 when Nature reminded us how fierce and uncontrollable it can be?

We listened to Olson’s story all the way down to Eugene and all the way back, pulling back up to our house just as the last CD was ending. Five hours down, five hours back, and they passed like a blink. I’m not sure how much we actually paid attention to what was on the highway during our drive. Did the traffic slow down when we hit Portland? In fact, did we even drive through Portland? I don’t remember. What happened to that usually boring stretch of the road between Kelso and Olympia? What about the irritating traffic jams by the Tacoma Dome? Those, I didn’t see.

Instead of being on the freeway for those ten hours, we were right there with David Johnston, the young USGS volcanologist who died within seconds of the explosion. “This is it,” he said before his radio went dead. We were right there with the couple who almost drowned trying to cling to logs banging madly down the Toutle River. There with the two people circling St. Helens’ summit in a Cessna airplane right as the north face of the mountain collapsed and the lightning-filled ash cloud began to rise. The mountain, the mud-choked river, the blue sky turning black, and those people struggling, I could see them all.

Non-fiction awakens our imaginations just as formidably as fiction, doesn’t it? Real mountain, real eruption, real people losing their lives or fighting to stay alive.  All of it real. Non-fiction: stranger than fiction, and at least as mesmerizing.

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North Face, Mt. St. Helens, 2016

 P.S. Over at my blog, The Drift Record, I’m this week’s host for the Poetry Friday round-up. I posted an original poem about a disappearing river, based on something I read in The Smithsonian magazine. Again, non-fiction! (Well, the article is non-fiction. The poem is appropriated non-fiction, perfectly fair, right?) Head over there to read it, and to see links to all the other Poetry Friday posts.

Toys in Prague

Come with me to the Czech Republic, to Prague.
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Cross the street.
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Walk on stone streets past statues, signs and stores.IMG_1755
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Go all the way up the hill to the castle.
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Inside the castle walls you will find the Toy Museum.
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And inside the toy museum you will find delight.
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– the shapes and shadows of childhood.
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IMG_1653Toys poem