This is the Way the World Should Work

We’re back in the grey tunnel of winter here in Seattle, a tunnel made even darker by the gloom of 20 months of Life Under Covid. When it all gets too heavy, I turn to the GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS file I keep on my phone: a list that proves sometimes the world works the way it should. Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals who make a difference. Might lift your spirits, too.

Witnessed firsthand:

The dad and his son in early Spring ushering a mother duck and her eight ducklings across several city blocks — stopping traffic as needed — to get them all safely to Green Lake.

The grandpa and grandson walking to school one Fall day, holding hands plus each one with a grandpa-sized glove on their outside hand – so all four hands were warm.

The woman dropping off a bag of beautiful handknit hats at the local fabric store that was putting together donations for people without houses.

The grey-haired lady at the post office mailing 185 postcards to Georgia voters before the November 2019 election.

From a pre-Covid school visit: A little girl bent over in a wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. As she rolled along with a line of kids, she was the one to say to me. “I hope you have a nice day at our school.”

From a visit to Emerald City Smoothie with my triplet grandnephews: When it was our turn at the register, we were slow getting our order organized. Instead of getting annoyed, the guy behind us reached forward with his credit card and treated us.

And kudos to these kind people I read about:

 The chain of 900 drive-thru customers at the Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota, last winter who each purchased the meal for the car behind them. The chain went on over two and a half days, finally ending when one customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his, at a point that the restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.

The family that created a stick library for dogs. Every neighborhood should have one.

The Southwest Airlines gate steward who returned a Buzz Lightyear doll to a young passenger, after photographing the doll’s adventures in the airport.

The Facebook group in Washington state that helps people get vaccine appointments. The group’s founders say the real magic is in the 75 trained volunteers who speak more than 15 languages and provide one-on-one help. https://crosscut.com/equity/2021/04/facebook-group-wa-wants-help-you-get-vaccine-appointment.

“The Don Quixote of Brooklyn” who tilts at plastic bags. This former middle school teacher, now traveling poet, created the Snatcherlator, a 20’ extendable pole that aids his efforts. His quest? To remove garbage from the branches of trees throughout the city.

And the Canadian vet who came to the rescue of an Army wife who was driving her two kids and two dogs and a cat 4,000 miles from Georgia to Alaska to reunite with her husband when she was met with whiteout conditions in British Columbia with 1,000 miles still to go. Kudos to the bigger group of vets in Alaska who paid for his ticket back home, as well.

Not to mention MacKenzie Scott’s $6 billion in gifts. Gotta respect someone who takes the old adage to heart: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

I welcome more items to my GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS list. Please add your stories in the comments.

I think the Dalai lama should have the last word:

By George, she’s got it (and you can, too)

The longer I’ve been a writer, the more I’ve come to trust my intuition. I wish I’d had more faith in it sooner or, rather, understood earlier what a powerful compass it is. It’s funny because it’s something I’ve always used in critiquing the work of others. I can tell quickly if the story of a student has gone off the mark because I’ll feel it. It’s not an intellectual knowing. It’s the reader in me who simply wants to stay interested in a story.

Recently I attended a Zoom seminar by best-selling mystery writer Elizabeth George, best known for her Detective Inspector Lynley novels. I’ve heard George speak a few times and you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who is more exacting about her writing process than George. She maintains lengthy files on major characters, their biographies, their behavior, motivations, important scenes and developments not just for one book but for the course of the still-growing series. With some twenty Detective Inspector Lynley novels, keeping track of who said what to whom fourteen books back is a challenge. (George’s self-described tendency toward OCD has to be helpful.)

She is equally exacting when it comes to editing her work. Unlike most writers she doesn’t belong to a writing group, instead she’s figured out her own precise process. 

George’s manuscripts undergo three readings before she sends them to her agent. The first read is what she calls the Fast Read.

George prints out her manuscripts then sits down with a hard copy (often 700 pages or more) and a pad of Post-It notes. Even if it takes all day she tries, if possible, to read the new mss. in one long sitting, looking for things like:

– repetition of words, expressions, moments, actions, settings (she doesn’t want to forget that the same two characters have had a conversation at that same little coffee shop described in the same way four times now)

– accurate chronology

– things she forgot to put in

– unnecessary characters or themes

– inadequacy of themes or characterizations

She writes notes to herself on the Post-Its , not on the manuscript. She’s very specific about that, although I didn’t get a chance to find out why. Then it’s time for the Slow Read. She’s looking for the same things, but now she rereads the mss. over the course of several days. And now she also looks for:

 – things to cut

– she takes each POV character and pulls out all the scenes with that character looking for consistency of attitude, voice, arc, eye color, etc.

She asks herself:

– Have I proved my premise?

– Have I fully illustrated my theme?

– Have I touched reader’s emotions?

– Are there characters in conflict?

– Would human relations really be like this?

– Does the character grow, change or learn something?

Then she puts the book back together and asks some more questions of herself:

– Does story start in right place?

– Are events and scenes causally related?

– Is the climax exciting? Is there a “bang in the bang”?

– Is there a resolution?

– Is there justice in the end? Psychological, judicial or physical justice?

– Are characters fully revealed at the end?

– Any anticlimaxes? In other words, has she failed to deliver on story promises?

– Used the right POVS?

– Used the right voice for each POV?

– Avoided obvious, unnecessary dialog such as hello, come on in, how’re you? etc.

Then she writes herself an editorial letter, telling herself what needs to be fixed, what clunks, what works, what she needs more of, less of. The kind of detailed letter a good editor might send you.

Finally, she starts rewriting, but, no, it’s still not done. She now sends the revised manuscript out for a third read, what she calls the Cold Read. According to George, the important thing to look for in this reader is someone who has not seen the story in any of its versions, and someone you are sure has no axe to grind. For George it’s been the same reader for some 33 year–a friend she taught with when she was a high school English teacher.

George, naturally, has a specific approach to the Cold Read, too. She provides her reader with an open set of questions and a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the reader has finished the book.

For the set of questions, she asks her reader to mark up the hard copy of the mss. with symbols. She keeps it simple—for example, jot down B when bored, ! when you think you know who the killer is, P if something feels wrong or inadequate about the setting (P is for place). 

Then the reader opens the mystery envelope and here George asks questions more specific to that particular manuscript, such as are there too many scenes in Havers’ point of view? Did I prove my point?

Now she writes what she hopes is her third and (final?) draft. Whew!

But the truly interesting thing for me in all of this was to learn that George, despite her exacting process, when all is said and done, relies on plain old gut feeling.

“I listen to my body.”

In particular, she’s notices a feeling of dread. She may not know yet what it is, but that feeling tells her something is wrong and she jots that moment down. I call that moment of dread, “a niggle”. It’s a tiny twinge inside that’s saying something is wrong here, something isn’t working, something is tripping me up. I hadn’t put a word to how that often feels, but “dread” is right.

Why “dread”? Well, for me, it’s the dread of needing to rewrite and not knowing how to fix it. I don’t want to do it! If I’d known how to do it right I would have done that in the first place! The more experience I’ve had, the less I truly dread this. I have more confidence in my ability to eventually figure it out (really the ability of my subconscious to figure it out) or, if it comes to it, to know when to give up.

I call on my intuition more quickly than George. I often rewrite as I work, but it’s because I’m having that same feeling of things not working. When I dread plunging back into that scene, when it bores even me–the creator, when it won’t take me naturally to the next scene—it’s time to stop and rethink. 

I’ve come to realize more and more, it all comes down to what your gut (or maybe that headache or that niggling worry) is telling you. Don’t be afraid of it, any more than you’re afraid when you read a library book and realize you’re bored or confused or annoyed. All you have to do is note it, come back to it and make it better. (Hey, that’s all! 😉

The Barking Ballad

Woof! Please welcome a new book onto the shelf.

The Barking Ballad is a true pandemic puppy.

Before the pandemic I became interested in Crankie Theaters. I wrote about them HERE. I decided to make a crankie theater production of The Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog by Oliver Goldsmith. To make it more interesting the audience would bark along. But then the pandemic struck. Gathering to bark (or meow) around a theater was unwise.

It occurred to me that a bark-along children’s book would be just as fun.

Goldsmith’s elegy is wonderful (you can hear it sung HERE). But its gentle mocking of piety didn’t seem clear or interesting to children. So I took one stanza of his poem and wrote my own story using Goldsmith’s structure and rhythm. Thank you, Oliver Goldsmith.

The book opens with instructions on how to bark and meow along.

The new story is about a lonely cat…

…who eventually meets a particular dog. Read the book to find out how.

They become true friends and companions. They travel paw by paw.

There are more dogs. More barking ensues…

and even more. Cacophany!

Just like it takes many dogs to make a chorus, it takes many people to make a book sing. I was lucky to work once again with the editor Reka Simonsen and the art director Michael McCartney at Simon & Schuster.

This book is best read aloud with lots of barking. For story hour you could cut out a large red circle and yellow diamond to use as cues.

Have fun. Woof!

P.S. The Wordy Book came out in September. It was expected earlier but supply chain and shipping issues delayed its arrival. So The Barking Ballad came fast on its heels, although the creation of the two books was more spread out.

The two books are quite different. Thanks for looking at them both.

You can find The Barking Ballad at your local bookstore, at bookshop.org or at Secret Garden Books in Seattle.

Coffee and Something to Read

If you’re reading this first thing in the morning, be sure you make your cup of coffee straightaway. After all, it’s National Coffee Week.

Now sit down and, as you drink your coffee, pretend you’re sitting in the extravagant Caffe Gilli in Florence. Go ahead, make it a cappuccino. Have a croissant, too. Caffe Gilli doesn’t cost a penny when you’re daydreaming.  

In your daydream, you’re sitting at the table on the right, nearest the clock.

As you sip, you need something to read. Here is something wonderful – an interview with the author/illustrator Maria Kalman posted this week on the Art of the Picture Book website.

When you finish, you can tell yourself you just had the perfect morning, and it will be true. Coffee and Kalman.

If you want a second cup, pour yourself one. This time pretend you’re in the Caffe Greco in Rome, founded in 1760, the spot where John Keats drank his morning tea.

With your second cup, try the two short videos (below) of storyteller Patricia McKissack. They are excerpts (can’t find the whole lecture) from her 2010 Spencer Shaw talk at the University of Washington. The highlight for me: She reads a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the style of a jump-rope rhyme (Video 2.) In the first video, she talks about her storytelling coming from inquisitiveness – she wants answers, but she wants good stories, too. And can she tell a story! – as could her grandparents and her mother – I wish I’d been at that lecture to hear her.

By the way, the Spencer Shaw Endowed Lecture this year will be given by author/ illustrator Yuyi Morales. You can hear the lecture free – live streaming on YouTube October 14th at noon PST – here’s a link.

McKissack Video 1 “I write because I have an inquisitive mind.”

McKissack Video 2 Jumping Rope to Paul Lawrence Dunbar

[Note: When you watch the McKissack videos, be sure to move the bar back to the beginning – for some reason they’re opening for me mid-way through.]

And if you need a shot of Caffe Greco’s interior for your daydreaming, here it is. Sigh.

You’re sitting at the table next to the statue.

Distelfink

Distelfink is the delightful word for the birds in Fraktur. (The literal translation is thistle finch.)

Fraktur is folk art made by the Pennsylvania Dutch, mainly in the 1700 and 1800’s. I grew up in Pennsylvania and saw a lot of Fraktur. The ink seeped into me.

The word refers to the type of script which was used in baptismal and other documents in Germany. In the new world the Fraktur included script, and became increasingly decorative.

Fraktur were drawn with ink and watercolor and often included flowers and distelfink.

In 2016 I was in a bicycle accident and broke my arm. I was despondent because I couldn’t draw, until a friend suggested that I draw with my left hand. My left hand drawing was slow, wonky and pulled me from my sadness. I did a series of paintings I called Fracture Fraktur.

That fall I made a calendar to support the ACLU, drawn left-handed in my fracture fraktur style.

I included the lion and the lamb – made famous by Edward Hicks’s paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom.

Sales of the calendar raised a lot of money for the ACLU, so I have made one every year since then. I have continued with the same fraktur style, although I reverted to my right hand out of habit and ease.

Most of the calendar images have included the lion and the lamb.

I am currently selling the 2022 calendar called We Are All Connected. Thank you to the many people who have purchased them already.

My hope is to help heal the fractures of America with these odd frakturs. I hope you will get one by clicking here. Each calendar sells for $12, and all $12 goes to the ACLU. The printing is donated by G & H Printing, and Ingrid Savage contributes greatly to the shipping. Your many purchases add up to something larger.

Thank you for your help in this endeavor. Distelfink by distelfink!

P.S. Recently I took part in a live Instagram series called Art Out Loud OnLine, hosted by the Society of Illustrators and Enchanted Lion Books. It was archived. Please click here for a leisurely visit with me at my house and studio, along with Julian Snider and Madeline Feig.

THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:

I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.

I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?

“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”

She glances my way.

“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.

That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.

“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.

“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”

Now the boys behind us are listening, too.

“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.

But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.

“And then I woke up,” I say.

“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.

“Yes.”

She doesn’t play with me at recess.

I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)

To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.

Are You the One?

In 2017 (when we still gathered in big sweaty, breathing, coughing groups and didn’t find anything extraordinary about it) I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert speak. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, her then recent book, Big Magic, was about nurturing creativity.

She had/has a fascinating belief that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she put in in Big Magic:

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

She also believes that ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else. But you still need to “interview” your ideas to make sure it’s right for you and you’re right for it.

At the time, I blogged about the questions I’d like to ask my auditioning ideas, and it seems to be a good time to repost–so many of my writer and artist friends are feeling re-charged.

Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. And I sometimes have a hard a hard time figuring out which ideas are worth the effort and which aren’t. When I first started writing, there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” It’s more intuitive than formalized. But after hearing Gilbert talk, I put together a list of interview questions for my idea applicants:

  • Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?
  • What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?
  • Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?
  • Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

And I had some questions for myself as the boss:

  • Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?
  • Is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I like to ask:

  • Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?
  • If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?
  • If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?
  • If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and child-friendly?
  • Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?
  • I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you interest me, energize me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,

like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

Hither and Thither, Bits and Pieces

One Heck of a Pickle.

This post constitutes what is called a “mixed bag.” It’s summer, and as far as I’m concerned, that means my mind can wander. And my mind usually wanders hither in bits, thither in pieces. Here are seven of those pieces.

  1. Summer: the beach, family, friends, and a picnic of hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato salad. And though I’m holed up inside my house due to dangerous heat and unhealthy air quality levels (the smoke from forest fires has finally descended on the suffering, over-cooked Pacific Northwest (scary orange sun, eerie orange moon) I’ve spent a bit of the morning making potato salad, heavy on the mustard and dill pickles. Bought eight ears of corn from a farm stand yesterday. Saw friends last night, all of us vaccinated, fingers crossed that was okay, because it was glorious to sit around a table with them and laugh and reminisce.  Summer!
  2. Summer: nonsense and play. While making the potato salad this morning, I realized that if I totally followed my own writing advice to play more, be goofier, dive into nonsense, I would write a book about dill pickles. Maybe format it as a blog post from a young child who loves everything tart and sour – dill pickles, sauerkraut, rhubarb.  Or maybe just write a few poems about tart edibles for a collection of jump rope rhymes.
  3. Jump rope rhymes. Hmmmmmmm. What rhymes with pickle? The list turns out to be more substantial than I thought.  Bicycle, tickle, fickle, nickel (and pumpernickel!), prickle, popsicle, icicle, and, of course, motorsickle.  Practically a sonnet’s worth. Nothing Shakespearean. Maybe a limerick.  You know what they say, follow your passion. Even if it’s a passion for poetry and pickles. 
  4. If you didn’t see the high jump during the Olympics, be sure to look it up online. There was a golden moment at the conclusion of the jump, after both finalists (good friends from Qatar and Italy) cleared 2.37 meters. The jumper from Qatar, rather than agreeing to a “jump-off,” asked an official if he and his friend could share the gold medal – and the official said yes. The ballet of the jumps (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjSCT97GSsA) was gorgeous, and the friendship that showed up at the end of the competition was even more so.
One Heck of a Friendship

5. Writers: If you haven’t seen The Father yet, see it. It stars Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman; they are brilliant. Watch it once to get the story (a doubled and unsettling perspective on Alzheimer’s) and once to study the character development on the part of the screenwriter and the craftsmanship on the part of the actors. In both cases, this is a lesson in “less is more.”

One Heck of a Movie

6. In case you ever doubted it, climate change is real. Here’s an image from the Seattle Times today. Smoke from the wildfires, temperatures from Portland to Seattle in the mid-90’s. Air quality officially “Unhealthy.” Third summer in a row.

One Heck of a Mess.

7. Last but definitely not least, kudos to friend Erik Talkin, whom I got to know at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. His picture book Lulu and the Hunger Monster just won a Social Justice Literature award from the International Literacy Association. “The SJL Award seeks to recognize outstanding books that address social responsibility towards individuals, communities, societies and/or the environment and which invite reflection and socially responsible action by the reader.” That’s a wonderful goal. And a well-deserved award, Erik!

One Heck of An Award

That’s all from me this time around. Autumn approaches, and maybe my wandering mind will settle in for a period of linear thinking….? Meanwhile, summer: Indulge yourself in the misc.’s and etc’s of the season.

Wordy

Hark! A new book!

The Wordy Book, published by Enchanted Lion is coming soon.

The Wordy Book, as you might have guessed, is bursting, babbling, mumbling and billowing with words, beginning with the endpapers.

The book is a collection of paintings that I made over many years. Each painting is paired with an open ended question.

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.

In paintings those other qualities have time to surface; 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.

Some of the paintings were created years ago, and they inspired new questions. The Sea of Words was used by the King County Library for their Playing With Words program. What do you sea?

In some of the paintings the question came first and I painted a response to it. What do you see?

Can the inside be bigger than the outside? The dragon has other creatures inside of it, as do we. All of the words in the dragon also have a second word embedded inside them.

In the Ouroboros the end of each word contains the beginning of the next.

Some of the pages are plain silly.

Some ask for more thought.

Is this book for kids? Yes. (Although adults are allowed to enjoy it too.) When I was a child I loved words. A favorite book of mine was Ounce Dice Trice and I itched to read it. I hope my book will scratch that same itch for kids now.

The Wordy Book can be preordered now from your local bookstore, from Enchanted Lion or from Bookshop.org. It will be available in mid August – a good time to notice words, bathe in words, play with words and go astray with words.

p.s. Can you find the tribute to Ounce, Dice, Trice hidden in the endpapers?


p.s.s. Here is what Kirkus has to say about the book:

THE WORDY BOOK[STARRED REVIEW!]

Words and pictures connect in surprising, stimulating ways.

Talk about painting with words. Author/illustrator Paschkis plays with them, too, and encourages readers to do likewise. In the process, she explores the elasticity and seemingly endless possibilities of language. The vividly colored, wittily detailed, folk-style paintings on double-page spreads organically incorporate words into the artwork in wondrous, creative ways. Words frequently repeat in different sizes and colors; illustrated images include words that sound or are shaped like them, are variations of them, rhyme or nearly rhyme with them, sort of resemble them, are sort of spelled like them, etc. A bouquet of flowers in a vase sports roses exuding the scents of slumbersultry, shush, and other evocative words beginning with S; on a daisy’s petals readers find dizzy, doozy, lazy, jazzylief, leap, life, and more decorate the leaves. Delightful words—many of which readers won’t know, and that’s OK—flex vocabulary and spelling muscles to the max and also enhance readers’ visual and auditory senses when the pictures are taken in. Furthermore, the spreads are connected to thought-provoking questions. Some inspired the paintings, or vice versa, and themselves contain examples of wordplay. Persons depicted have diverse skin tones. The book makes a great springboard for creative-thinking activities in writing and art units in classroom and library programs. Keep dictionaries handy. Endpapers abound with swirling words readers can savor (and look up).

In a word, a feast for the eyes, brain, and artistic imagination. (author’s note) (Picture book. 6-10)

American Anthem – from idea to published book in 160 days

Philomel associate publisher Jill Santopolo was home on maternity leave when she saw President Joe Biden’s inauguration on TV. She heard him say he hoped “the next chapter in the American story” might sound like one verse in “a song that means a lot to me.” Then he recited:

The work and prayers of centuries / Have brought us to this day.

What shall be our legacy? / What will our children say?

Let me know in my heart that when my days are through

America, America, I gave my best to you.

Biden was quoting the lyrics of Gene Scheer’s American Anthem, a 20-year old song that was sung by opera star Denyce Graves at the memorial service in the Capitol rotunda for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and by Norah Jones in Ken Burns’ 2007 PBS documentary on World War II, The War, among others.

The words resonated with Santopolo. She reflected on her husband’s and her own families’s life trajectories after immigrating to the United States. Then, as she said to Publisher’s Weekly, she decided, “It was a book that I felt I had to do. Especially with a baby at home. There’s a lot we need to work on in this country, but there’s also some wonderful things too. I think that this book celebrates that.”

It was January 20th. Despite a new baby and the pandemic, she wanted the book to launch before the Fourth of July, our nation’s 245th birthday. She envisioned a different illustrator for every spread, so that even in its very make-up the book would reflect the quilt of diversity that is our country. Editor Talia Benamy and art director Ellice Lee swung into action.

My sister Kate and I were honored to be invited to join in. We gave some thought to our family’s American stories, too, including George Chorpenning who founded the first mail service from Salt Lake City to Sacramento, (pre-Pony Express), and our newspaper editor father who taught us about First Amendment rights and flew a big American flag over his office on Main Street Sonora.

What could we say in a single illustration to convey the big feeling of love for America that we shared? How could we ‘give our best’ to America through this project? Our assigned part of the text was: “Know each quiet act of dignity / is that which fortifies / the soul of a nation / that never dies.”

As we considered our text, we thought about where in our lives we experience quiet acts of dignity. Kate immediately thought of the Community Garden, a place where a wide diversity of gardeners come to share the humble work of planting, growing and harvesting. It is a place where gardening knowledge, seedlings and compost are all generously shared — as well as the fruits (and vegetables) of everyone’s labors. There is a quiet dignity in those interactions that respects what each person brings to the garden, as well as a sense of community responsibility.

We are both avid gardeners and that setting seemed right. We poured through scrap to find a lively cast of characters to populate it. Per our usual process, I painted the black lines in gouache resist, scanned and doozied them up in Photoshop. Kate supplied the sumptuous color. And voila! We turned in our illustration by early March and the book was published on schedule as Santopolo planned, in time for the Fourth of July.

It was a revelation to open our first copies of American Anthem, starting with the dedications. Author Scheer and each illustrator contributed one. Some favorites: “To the dream chasers. – Rafael Lopez,” and “For all who call this country home. – Jacquieline Alcantara.” Kate and I dedicated our work “To the growers and grocers, gardeners and gleaners.”

My favorite illustration is by Rafael Lopez. I love the idea of a child drawing his country, imagining it into being. And I hope this book will help children – including Jill Santopolo’s new baby – imagine their futures in America.