Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah!

It’s the official launch day of my new picture book EEK!, co-written by good friend and talented artist Julie Paschkis, and published by Peachtree Books. I am whoop-dee-doing because there is just something special about this story of a mouse who persists through thick and thin (and jring and kabonk) on a journey to deliver a flower to a friend. During a time of staying safe/staying home, and a time when in-person school days are on hold, it offers up a burst of much-needed energy and playfulness.

Sometimes, as a poet, my work turns introspective – poetry can be a walk on the quiet side of things. But EEK!’s subtitle tells it all: A Noisy Journey from A to Z.

For this Books Around the Table post, I’d like to share some thoughts about collaboration, because Julie Paschkis, who illustrated two of my previous four picture books, has now joined me as co-author of the fifth.

As Julie P. told you in the last Books Around the Table post, I came up with the idea of an alphabet of sounds. Version #1 was all mine – random sounds, no story. Julie P. shaped it into a narrative. The journey, from “achoo” to “zzzzz,” reads as effortless – the best writing usually does – but believe me, Julie P. had a huge task, introducing sense to the nonsense I imagined.

What I find most exciting about this collaboration is that Julie P. and I have the same desire for playfulness and the same response to the delights of language. If you’re going to collaborate, it’s important to find someone in sync with your priorities, and Julie P. definitely responds the way I do to the pure joy of hearing what a language can do, down to the level of individual words and syllables. I’ve always known she was part poet – we’ve been critique group partners for many years – but I’ve never heard her articulate this joy in words better than she did for the Author’s Note at the end of her wonderful book Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido (animal poems in both English and Spanish):

I am a painter and a lover of words. A few years ago I illustrated a book about Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. I began to learn Spanish in order to illustrate that book, and I fell in love with the language. At the same time as I was struggling to learn the difference between ser and estar and between para and por I immersed myself in Neruda’s poetry. Later I read many more prosaic things, but he was my gateway to Spanish.
Somehow my unfamiliarity with Spanish freed me to write poetry. I felt like a visitor wandering through a forest of Spanish words, marveling at the beauty of sound, meaning and syntax.

If you haven’t read Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido, get a copy and look carefully at the love of the sound of words that Julie P. shares with me.

As the novelist Anne Enright once said, “The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.”

Julie P. also has a new book in the works titled The Wordy Book, coming out next fall, full of paintings that include many words. In it, she expands on this explanation about her love of language:

A word can be savored for its sound and shape as well as for its meaning. When you hear a word the meaning usually arrives first; sometimes the meaning obliterates the other qualities of a word. When words are in paintings the other qualities can surface: sound and shape. The words still have meaning, but the meaning can be fluid. The words bump into each other and they bump into the images in the painting. They ask questions as well as giving answers.

Aha – there is another priority Julie P. and I share – a desire to ask questions!

Quick last thought: Are you one of those people who sits until the final credit rolls by at the end of a movie before you get up to leave the theater? I am. I like to see not just the whole cast list and the director, but also who did the casting, who the cinematographer was, who held the grip, who handled sound, who wrote the score, who handled the catering, who gets thanked, who did everything. If you sit through the credits, too, aren’t you amazed by how many people it takes, all working together, all doing their part, to make a 90-minute film? Isn’t that kind of group cooperation a little thrilling?

But in writing, the assumption is that you sit alone, imagine alone, write alone. I understand it’s a solid model – thus it has been and ever will be, amen. An author offers up a work that comes solely from his or her own imagination. But does it need to be that way always? How about a little experimentation? How about children’s book writers being the pioneers we usually are? How about taking on the model-breaking enterprise of collaboration every once in awhile? Put two authors’ names (or more!) on the cover of your next picture book. Two imaginations can be twice the fun of one.

Happy reading to you, happy end of summer. Stay safe and healthy. Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re covered with smoke from wildfires. But when the air clears, I’m going to use EEK! as my get-up-and-go book: If a little mouse can handle the fwumps and grrrs, so can I!

EEK!

EEK! It’s a book.

A few years ago Julie Larios brought a new manuscript to our critique group. It was an alphabet book where each letter was a sound instead of a word. HUZZAH! I loved the idea and asked Julie if I could illustrate it. We both found the idea of random sounds delightful. I imagined an animal to go with each sound. 

My agent at the time felt that the book needed a story. UH-OH.

Julie L. and I decided that I would create a story through the art. So I invented a story with animals to go with and around the sounds. Because I came up with the story we are both credited as authors.

I kept the Mouse I had painted for ACHOO and sent him on a journey. The plot unfolds through the art and the sounds punctuate the story.

The story begins with Mouse picking a flower which he carries through the book. Each page introduces a new character (or characters).  A bird and the bee are the first characters to be introduced and they are on every spread until the flower at last is delivered to the mouse’s love: a Lion. All of the animals (except Lion) are hinted at before they appear and after they leave. The art is a kind of scroll.

If I couldn’t make a sequence work I went to Julie Larios and we reworked either the sound or the action. We changed many of the sounds through the whole alphabet, but always kept the idea of using sounds instead of words.

We sent the book out and it was accepted for publication by Peachtree. The wonderful editor Vicky Holifield guided the book through the next step of its journey. Every sound,  color  and image was considered carefully and discussed with many words. HMMMM. 
For example the sound for p began as PSST, became 
PHEW and ended up as PLOP. My magenta P was turned into a powder pink P.

We struggled at times to get the right words and imagery.

Sometime during the process I realized that my fantasy story was quite autobiographical. Raccoon had a bicycle accident – which I had had in 2016.

A big tree fell – just as a tree fell on my studio in 2019.

 A random marching band came by – which happened when I was visiting Golden Gate Park.

Julie and I hope that children and other readers invent their own narratives to go with the sounds. We want you to head off on your own imaginative journeys. ZWWOOP – Play with language and revel in sounds!

You can get EEK! at Secret Garden Books in Seattle , at Alibris , at Amazon or at your favorite local store. Thank you.

Books that stand the test of time, when time no longer has meaning

A guest post today from my daughter, who is using children’s books to help her through the parenting challenges of COVID:

We’ve heard how the COVID pandemic has brought particular challenges for working parents of small children. Time no longer feels the same, and yet somehow parenting duties have become incessant. As our friend Heidi says, the week only has 3 days now: Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday. Possum parenting – where the parent plays dead on the couch while the children run feral – can only get you so far; more entertainment is needed. Which children’s books are helping beleaguered parents?

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Old Favorites. Both for parents and kids alike, we all need a little extra comfort and gentleness. The familiar refrains of beloved favorites are like the grandparent’s hug we all crave right now: tender, well-worn, and perhaps a little musty. Stories with a repetitive framework, like King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Don and Audrey Wood, are especially appealing. Will the king ever get out of the tub? Even though we all know what’s going to happen next – after the knight checks on him, after the queen checks on him – we all can’t wait to see how it unfolds. At the same time, it allows Mom to live vicariously through the ultimate dream of a daylong bathtub (even if it is interrupted periodically for matters of great import).

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Shiny and New-to-you. Never underestimate the power of novelty to buy yourself a few moments of sibling harmony. With the library closed, and our bookshelf on constant rotation, adding a new book to our collection has outsized value. We’ve especially appreciated books that take us on new adventures, since we ourselves are staying close to home. One recent new addition for us was Marc Martin’s A River, whose languid rhythm and dreamy pictures lead us on an imaginary journey from a city through the Amazon to the sea and back.

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Another favorite is Marianne Dubuc’s Up the Mountain Path, where we follow along with an intrepid kitty named Lucy and her mentor Mrs. Badger on a mountain hike to a great view, but with an ultimate destination of true friendship.

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Silly Stories Kids Love that Won’t Drive Parents Bonkers. In the “before times,” you could read your kid their favorite story 10 times over from a place of grounded patience and understanding. When you’re starting from a base of sleep deprivation and overwhelm, set yourself up for success with stories that will make you and your kids laugh. Eat Pete, by Michael Rex, is a particular favorite of my three year-old and his beloved granddad. A monster appears at Pete’s window, and Pete invites him to play, but all he wants to do is eat Pete! The monster puts off the inevitable as long as possible, enjoying playing pirates and blocks instead of indulging in a boy-sized snack, and (spoiler alert) he finally gives in and eats Pete. But as we’ve found out during quarantine with chest freezers full of popsicles and no one to share them with, a full belly is no substitute for a playmate. A big burp later, and the Monster’s redemption is complete: a tiger can change his stripes. Enjoy reading this to a soundtrack of your kiddo’s delighted giggles as the monster navigates his impulses, learns about social expectations, and indulges in a hearty belch and even heartier hug.

Here’s hoping these books and ideas can bring parents a few moments of wonder, delight or calm as you keep on keeping on. As I remind myself every time I think “I can’t do this,” remember you ARE doing this!

p.s. from LMK – Thank you, dear daughter, for writing this post and for hanging in there with the little guys through “the germ season,” as the kids call it. With all you have on your plate, you created a blogpost, too! Incredible.

Dear readers: Please add titles that stand the test of time with your little ones, be they old favorites, shiny new or silly.

Sticks and Stones

The young man was bumping like a pinball through the crowded sidewalk on Greenwood Ave—the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, OK.  Suddenly he was hit by two bullets. One hit his shoulder; one traveled around his skull and landed near his nose, a few centimeters from his brain.

To operate presented terrible odds–50/50 odds of survival and even if he lived, he might end up insane at best. He decided to leave the bullet there and lived the rest of his life with it. The man was the father of children’s illustrator Floyd Cooper, shot by a white man in the long-hidden 1921 race massacre in Tulsa.

Cooper told this story as part of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators panel featuring ten best-selling, award-winning (from Newberys to Caldecotts)  children’s writers and illustrators of color. In five-minute segments, each creators shared their experiences with racism and racist assumptions, and how that informs their work.

It wasn’t a lecture; it was a sharing of coming to the creative life from many different places.

Author Crystal Allen began her career in middle-grades as any serious writer would with research into the kind of books she wanted to write–African American middle-grade books. But she couldn’t find any on the shelves of her local bookstore. When she asked about it, she was told she wouldn’t find anything on those shelves. Instead she followed the store clerk for “what felt like six days” to the African American section.

In a small dusty room, the clerk pointed to a spindle with a smattering of middle-grade books. The clerk left and Allen says she followed right behind. Later, she was told by an instructor that the reason she couldn’t find any African American middle grades is that publishers wouldn’t publish them. They aren’t marketable she was told.

“Hopefully, you brought something else you can work on,” the instructor said. Allen left that workshop, too.

She wondered if she’d heard the voice of truth.

As a college student, illustrator Rafael Lopez lived on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, but traveled to the U.S. for his classes. He would get up at 3:30 to 4:00 every morning, in order to cross the busy border in time to get to his 8:30 class. Usually he’d arrive 5 to 10 minutes late.

One morning as he entered the classroom, his professor announced, “There he is. Mr. L-o-p-e-z.” The prof said his last name slowly. “Late as usual.”

“That really stung,” Lopez said. “He didn’t know my story, but he judged.”

In the beginning of what he hoped would be a career in advertising, he was offered a job that would have meant creating a demeaning stereotype of Latino “peasants”. The man who wanted to hire him thought his idea for the ad was wonderfully clever and funny. Desperate for money, Lopez considered it, but ultimately turned the job down.

Lisa Yee, third-generation Chinese, was accustomed to living in a very diverse community in West Hollywood. But driving across country to a job a Florida, she found herself the only Asian American around. Most people were very nice, she said, complimenting her on her English, especially her accent.

Yee was more amused, than offended. But one day as she and a friend wended their way along winding roads through small towns, she was intrigued to see that there was some sort of festival or parade happening in the town ahead of them. How interesting it looked. And everyone was dressed in white, a kind of cool costume parade! Then suddenly she realized she as looking at a Klan rally. Still, intrigued, she urged her friend to drive closer.

It was like a movie as she looked out her car window at the crowd. Then suddenly people were turning to look at her and the terror kicked in. She ducked down and told her friend “Get out of here!” It didn’t feel like entertainment any more.

These are just a few of the stories the creators shared. Each had different experiences of being “other.” And yet each also described how they found a haven–a welcoming place, a valid space–in the world of children’s books. And each told how such experiences drive them to make sure their cultures and characters and stories are out in the world.

So maybe no more thin spindles in dusty rooms for diverse books?

You can watch a video of the full panel here.

And check out these other panelists.

Panel organizer, Pat Cummings

Lamar Giles

Meg Medina

Linda Sue Park

Christian Robinson

Shadra Strickland

 

 

Three Little Nudges

If you’ve been feeling uncharacteristically un-creative, you’re not alone. This pandemic has got a lot of us stymied creatively, and understandably so.  But isn’t it true that all we need sometimes are little nudges to get us going again?

So I’ll keep things brief today and just send three nudges your direction.

#1. Best nudge for me lately: WindowSwap – a website that shares photos of views from people’s windows all around the world. Some of the views are simple and domestic, others are sweeping. For example, the view from Lina’s window in Aeschiried, Switzerland…D5088323-D691-4A9F-A83D-C41BEB0AB0F3

…and from Rexina’s window in Bangalore, India…

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…from Simone’s window in Villongo, Italy….

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…and from Ula’s window in Doha, Qatar…

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This WindowSwap nudge is meant to lift your spirits in general, but it can also get your imaginations going.  Just think: Who are Lina, Rexina, Ula, and Simone? Who would you be if one of those views were yours?  What would someone imagine about you if you submitted a photo of the view out a window in your house? When you see the phrase “We’re all in this together,” it’s this kind of sharing that forms connections between people and cultures in times of crisis. We have more in common than some people think.

 

Will you consider your own window view in a new way if you take a photo of it and submit it online for people around the world to see? Here’s the view I might submit, taken from the upstairs bedroom of our house during the neighborhood Sidewalk Chalk Festival.

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#2.  Get inspired tomorrow (Saturday the 18th – 7:30-9:00 EST) when there will be free streaming access to a dance performance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur. It will feature dance companies from India and Sri Lanka – the setting in the Sackler Wing of the Met, and the heady colors of the outfits worn by the dancers, should get your heart racing and your creative juices flowing.

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The New York Times said “The only proper response to dancers this amazing is worship.” If the phrase “down in the doldrums” has been echoing around in your head since March, this performance should chase it off. And if you miss it tomorrow, I think the Met is making it available soon on YouTube.

#3. Last nudge – this one will make you giddy. Or dizzy. Or both. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is providing 3-D looks at objects in their collection online via a company called Sketchfab. You can turn the on-screen object around 360 degrees, look at it from underneath and from above, you can zoom in….you can practically feel it,  as if you in the museum viewing it, or even better, as if were holding it in your hand. Be sure to go to full-screen mode to get a really close up look. Try the tiny netsuke of a shoki (a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings) capturing an oni (an ogre.) This photo of it is not 3-D, but you’ll find one at the link.

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I’m a great believer in the power of one sense to heighten another. Music, sculpture, dance, good food  – all can inspire us to be better writers.  If we hit bad writing snags, we can venture outside the world of writing to unsnag ourselves. We can look out a window in Barcelona or Singapore. We can hold a netsuke in our virtual hands. We can watch as East Indian dancers move to the music of a bamboo flute. .

Flag and Country

Usually on the 4th of July I think first of fireworks and then of hotdogs.

This year is different. It is impossible to heedlessly celebrate because of the virus.

And the weeks leading up to July 4th have been filled with protests that lay bare the injustices of America today and throughout history.

Faith Ringgold Flag “Die Nigger” 1969

Faith Ringgold: This Flag is Bleeding 1997

Both the virus and the protests make me think about our responsibility towards each other.

Julie Paschkis 2020

How do we celebrate our country? What truths do we hold to be self-evident? What does it mean to be an American? 

Florine Stettheimer 1939

Bang Bang by Kerry James Marshall 1994

The social fabric is shredded and frayed right now, but that is an opportunity. The torn fabric can be sewn back differently. That would be worth celebrating.

Arcola Pettway

Support Social Justice – Buy Some Art!

Dear Friends,

These are unusual and important times.

I believe we are at a tipping point in America. We can move forward with
equal justice, equal pay, equal care, and equal respect, or we can fall back
into the mire of racism and prejudice.

I am not a lawyer or a politician. I am an artist. I have tried to use my
art to make this world a better place. Now I want to do more if I can. So I will
be selling original artwork from children’s books that I have illustrated to
raise money for the Black Lives Matter movement. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to organizations that support social justice and equity.

To start, I have chosen some of my favorite images from BOOM BOOM, by Sarvinder Naberhaus, published in 2014 by Beach Lane Books.

I will post the images with prices and information on Instagram (@margaretci) and Facebook. If you are interested, please follow me there.

Additional news: Books Around The Table will be publishing new posts every other week, rather than every week as we have been doing. I am stepping back from children’s books for a while to work on other projects, but I will continue to post occasionally as a “guest” blogger on this site.

Thank you for your continued support of our work here at Books Around The Table!

Margaret

 

The STAY Inside Story

For 22 years, the Inside Story has chugged along, staging twice-yearly gatherings at libraries and bookstores to celebrate new books created by Seattle-area children’s authors and illustrators. The goal is to give each book creator two minutes to share something unique and insightful about their book’s creation; to share the story behind the story with the larger children’s book community of teachers, librarians, booksellers and children’s book aficionados. 

But this spring, as you well know, quarantine circumstances prohibited gatherings. Organizer Dana Sullivan was not deterred. He stamped “STAY” across the top of the Inside Story logo and thus the “STAY Inside Story” was born.

 Dana and Michele Bacon are the current caretakers of this Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators event. In previous outings, their tasks included sending out the call to local SCBWI members, setting up venues, coordinating with a bookstore to sell participants’ books, creating programs, and emcee-ing the show.  

The new virtual format demanded an expanded skill set. To his customary roles of illustrator, designer, and web-content creator, Dana added participant coach, rehearsal director, and technology troubleshooter. His sense of humor leavened the challenges, including navigating Zoom webinar technology, with the help of Michele and SCBWI co-chair Julie Artz.

Co-chair of the STAY Inside Story, Dana Sullivan, emceed the event with humor and panache.

You can see the program of presenters and their books here: http://www.danajsullivan.com/inside-story-may-2020.html

It’s an entertaining lineup, including BATT’s own Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine who showcased their lovely new picture book, Where Lily Isn’t, and Vikram Madan, whose spiel about his poetry collection, A Hatful of Dragons: And more than 13.8 billion other funny poems, included a magic trick.

Suzanne Selfors, new proprietor of Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, coordinated book sales through a special section on her website, working with presenting authors and illustrators to provide signed books to purchasers. https://www.libertybaybooks.com/event/scbwis-inside-story

Afterwards, Dana created a YouTube video of the event, which you can see if you click on this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHpaKmWh-Y0

George Shannon and I, who created the Inside Story in 1998 and ran it for the first five years, had cameo roles in the opening scene. We both tip our virtual hats to Dana and his team for this successful first-ever STAY Inside Story. It was so heartening to see our children’s book community rally despite being unable to gather. In fact, attendance topped 100 viewers, a record!

For the inside story about the Inside Story, check out my blogpost from 2013. https://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/?s=Inside+Story

Kadir Nelson

Today I want to share imagery by one of my favorite artist/illustrators, Kadir Nelson. You probably know this artist’s work already. He won a much-deserved Caldecott as well as a Coretta Scott King award this year for his book The Undefeated, written by Kwame Alexander. Kadir’s work also embellishes a number of USPS stamps, and album covers, and movie posters, and many (of my favorite) New Yorker Magazine covers. And his paintings hang in a lot of prestigious places, including the U.S. House of Representatives.

I had the pleasure of meeting Kadir Nelson in Orlando at the 2004 ALA convention. He won his first Coretta Scott King award that year for Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange.

This book illustrates Shange’s poem about growing up in the midst of African American leaders like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Dubois.

I peruse Kadir’s books whenever I want a lesson in composition, or dramatic perspective, or skillful use of a restrained color palette, or emotion as told through gesture and expression. Or if I just want to look at beautiful paintings.

I think what I like most about Kadir’s painting style is the evidence of the drawing behind it. Kadir’s linework seems to flow from his fingers freely and without error. He makes it look so easy.

I met Kadir again a few years later at an NCTE convention in Nashville where I sat in on a presentation he gave. He spoke with humble confidence. He said he uses photography as reference. But his work extends far beyond realism. He enhances the expressiveness of anything he draws, even if that thing is an inanimate object.

Even his skies tell stories.

I have shown examples here from the few books by Kadir that I own, but if you want to see more of his outstanding work, you can purchase his books online, or find them at your local libraries (when they open up again). His work highlights stories of courage, perseverance and strength; stories that we all benefit from reading.

Read a book. Turn on a light.

Recently, I went searching for new images to add to my collection of images of books featured in art. A funny theme began to emerge with the images I was finding.

It was books as light—books as sources of illumination–an obvious metaphor, but funny to see so many of them popping up in what was a pretty short, random search.

There are books to come home to…

Illustration by Mariusz Stawarski

There are books to light the way

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

And books that light the way to dimensions far from home

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

Of course, it’s not so much about books, but illumination in whatever form it comes to us.

Illustration by Matt Murphyred

Some knowledge can be dangerous–radioactively so.

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

It can even lead you astray. Although I’m not sure if the artist is commenting on the content or the form here.

Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald

Sometimes books are all sweetness and light…

Illustration by Takashi Tsushima

Sometimes they are their own source of darkness and confusion.

Illustration by Franco Matticchio

Whatever they are, books beckon…

Illustration by Quint Buchholz

especially in times like these.