Monthly Archives: February 2012

Quilt Pieces

A few years ago I began designing fabric for quilt makers. I looked at a lot of quilts for inspiration. The old quilts were especially beautiful and I wondered what stories they  told. If they could only talk they would tell me. That thought inspired my new book which comes out next week from Peachtree:
Mooshka – A Quilt Story.

My mother used to call leftover bits of fabric schnitz, or schnitzerle. This post is about the family schnitz that were used to create this book.

This is a photo of my younger sister Karla when she was in kindergarten.

And here is Karla sleeping under Mooshka in the book.

Here is my Great Aunt Marjorie in 1917.

This is how I imagined her as a child telling fortunes.Marjorie telling fortunes

Here is the wedding photo of Lily and William Powell in 1887. I had never seen this picture until last week but I had heard the story of his proposal many times.

And here is his proposal in the book.

All books are pieced together with bits of fact and fiction, with many people helping to stitch. That metaphor feels especially pertinent to this book. Thank you to all of the stitchers and stories that helped make Mooshka.

Here’s a photo of Karla and me working on a first draft in about 1964.

Click here to see the book: Mooshka at Amazon.

Click here to read a review from Publisher’s Weekly, or this starred review from Kirkus.

Click here to see some of the fabrics I have designed, future schnitz.

A Portfolio Primer

I’m afraid that I am now going to follow Beauty and Magic and Light with nuts and bolts and maybe some tire irons thrown in.

A week ago Tuesday I was the main presenter at our regional SCBWI monthly meeting. The purpose of my talk was to prepare illustrator attendees for the upcoming regional conference in April by reviewing a selection of portfolio submissions. This was a public critique session with an audience of 120 or so people.

First I would like to say how incredibly difficult it is to “keep” your audience when you are giving them bad news. At times I felt like Nurse Ratched and at others Heidi Klum (if a graying 5′ 6″ brunette can dare to say that). It’s tricky to keep the atmosphere light when you have to tell someone they need to practice drawing hands or that a mermaid couldn’t possibly ride a horse like that. If you joke about it you know there is probably at least one person in the audience not laughing.

I received 23 portfolios with up to six pieces each. Overall the caliber of work was impressive. Some of it really blew me away. But I wasn’t there to just talk about all the good stuff. As fun as that might be, that was not going to be very helpful to anyone.

So I apologized ahead of time for making people hate me and started with the following pointers:

How best to take criticism:

  • As gracefully as possible.
  • Do not respond with anger, resentment, tears, excuses, threats.
  • Say thank you when it’s over, even if you would rather say something less polite.

Later, after you have calmed down or cooled off or dried your tears, ask yourself, Was the criticism valid?

If Yes, what choices are you going to make based on that advice?
If No, articulate to yourself fully why you disagree.

Either way, make sure your choice of action is well thought out.


What comprises a strong children’s book illustration portfolio?
This is what I believe that editors/art directors are looking for:

  • a fully developed style or styles
  • command of chosen technique or media
  • evidence of ability to develop a character sequentially
  • narrative ability
  • creativity of concept
  • vision
  • they are not just looking for what you can do, they want evidence of how you think and how you see

Very Important Things to remember when putting your portfolio together:

  • start with a knock-out image
  • end with a knock-out image
  • make sure everything in between has a good reason to be there
  • never put anything in your portfolio that you feel you need to make an excuse for
  • never make an excuse for anything in your portfolio
  • make sure all your pieces are for children. Not grown-ups.
  • make sure your work isn’t too derivative of another illustrator’s work
  • drama is good, shown in both composition, use of color, shapes, vantage point, etc.
  • emotion is good – humor, joy, sadness, wonder, etc.
  • a portfolio is only as strong as its weakest link

Again, but a little louder this time:


Now I would like to show you some of my favorite submissions, and this time, I DON’T have to point out any flaws.

The above images were submitted by Ariel Smith. They are shown in the order given. I have no idea if they are part of a larger dummy, but if they are, I hope to see the entire book some day. I enjoy them for their humor, dynamic composition, and attention to detail. They also are excellent portfolio pieces because of their clear narrative and character progression.

Here are more portfolio samples that stood out:

This beautifully drawn trio was submitted by Margie Segress:

And this next charming set is by Nancy Foulke:

Love those bad dogs and tough cats!

And these two pairs by Ben Clanton:

I especially like the (dinosaur?) bits entering stage left and exiting stage right of the last two images. Who is that and where is it going?

Afterwards I felt somewhat redeemed when a number of the people whose work I had criticized thanked me for the comments and said they were very helpful. They took my advice and said thank you! I wish them all well as they face future, more critical, portfolio critiques.

Horns, Magic, Metaphors, and Me at the Gate

19th Century Austrian Postillon

By way of introducing myself here at BOOKS AROUND THE TABLE, I’m going to share this image of a postillon horn. Never heard of it? Me, either, until I went looking for something to serve as a metaphor for “beginnings” or “openings.” As a poet, I like metaphorical thinking and the sneaky way it makes its point via indirection, in the same way a magician performs sleight-of-hand, making people look at one hand while the other does the actual trick. Look, a dove!

Instinct usually tells me to go with a poem or an image, since one or the other of those will be sufficient. I generally leave explanation to the people who write fiction or non-fiction. But prose is the method of choice for blogs, so let me explain my thinking.

The horn pictured above resides in the Postal Museum in Prague. Postal carriers in the 19th century used it to “give different signals for having the town gate opened, warning the other drivers on the road to give way, calling for help in distress, announcing the post arrival and departure, changing horses, etc.” Note the horn hanging from the neck of the unabashedly jubilant postillon below. Looks like some of those letters aren’t going to make it to their destinations. I hope the news in the telegram was good news – maybe a prodigal son returning? A lost fortune regained? – and not news of cher Mama’s death. That image requires champagne after reading, no?

I don’t expect to toot my horn to warn the other drivers on this blog (Laura, Julie P. and Margaret) to “give way” – I rarely go above the speed limit, metaphorically speaking (Look, another dove!) Nor do I anticipate changing horses very often, though I’ve been known to do it, even mid-stream. But I do like the idea of a high clear note that asks for the gates of the city to open – after all, this blog is about sharing and building community among writers for children, and I hope to hear the hinges creaking, the doors opening and our voices mingling.

At the Gate- Porta Maggiore - Rome

From time to time I might blow the horn as “a signal of distress.” Writing is a strange business, and for many of us it is both exhilarating and exhausting.  There might be an occasional blast on the horn when I’m trying to figure out what keeps postal carriers – I mean writers – going when they’re bone tired. The Frenchman at the Cafe du Postillon pictured below doesn’t appear to be in a Pony Express mood. Maybe he’s a burned out writer. Some of you, I feel sure, have been there yourselves, leaning against that very door jamb.

Cafe du Postillon - Photograph by Aart Klein

Right now, I’m feeling energetic, and I’m here at the town gate with my trusty horn. Hope I’ve got some lovely bit of mail for you from time to time. I wish I could deliver it right to your door, and we’d have tea and talk about books around the table. But I’ll be satisfied with delivering the Books Around the Table part of that scene to your computer screen, 21st-century-style.

Postillon - Neckartailfingen, Germany

Story Light

When our critique group sits around the table, the discussion sometimes diverges from our storymaking undertaking, but usually finds its way back, as does my first entry in our blog.

Lately, I am thinking about sunlight. It is a rare commodity in the Northwest this time of year and I know I am not alone in my yearning for it. In fact, light yearning has long been a human preoccupation. Case in point: New Grange in Ireland, built over 5000 years ago. Its huge stones were aligned to allow sunlight to penetrate the inner passage and chamber exactly at sunrise around the Winter Solstice – an awesome engineering feat for Stone Age people – all for the wonder of a focused beam of light on the shortest days of the year.

I am thinking about the enlivening power of light, how each year the sun brings my garden to life. I am not talking about photosynthesis. I am talking about how sunlight shines through the garden: illuminating, dazzling; shadow and bright. The late afternoon slanting light is my favorite.

So how do these thoughts about sunlight transfer to writing? Like the Stone Age guys, we must set up all the elements of the story so that light penetrates the inner passage at the darkest moment. We craft our constructions from the stones of character and plot and language etc., and nudge our readers along to that moment of enlightenment. Light is about contrast, so of course dark is part of what we work with. But what exactly provides light, the enlivening element, in a story? What shines through, transcending the words on the page?

Or maybe it’s not the author but the reader who brings light to the work? Hmm. More thinking needed.

This is the kind of conversation I love to have with our critique group. Here, through our blog, we invite you to join the discussion.