Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Poetry Roller Coaster

On the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz

I know it sounds almost sacrilegious for a poet to say this, but sometimes I get tired of poetry. Its compression exhausts me, and I long for the expansive qualities of fiction – long, languid prose that I hear in my head with a Southern accent so that each syllable is drawn out, drawled out, in less of a rush.  Even in fiction, Hemingway was never my thing; give me Flannery O’Connor every time. I go through phases where all I want is for the words and the world they bring me to unfold slowly.

Then, suddenly, I’ll come on a poem that says to me, “Yoo-hoo, Julie, this is why you love poetry.” Often, it’s a little ditty and not the great, famous poems that call to me that way. For one thing, famous poems rarely say “Yoo-hoo.” They are too solemn for that – at least when I’m in this kind of “Leave me alone” mood – they feel grand and architectural, pillars on the Parthenon. Elegant, accomplished, heady – they are poems to ponder, and when I’m in this mood, they feel ponder-ous.  No, the strong, upstanding, built-t0-last poems are not the ones that lure me back to my love of poetry.

It’s the playful little poems, often for children, that find me when I’m hiding and draw me back out into plain sight, out into the fresh air. Here’s one I found last night which did exactly that.  When I read it, I heard the roller coaster of poetry going back up, up, up – clackety-clacking.  You see, it’s a wooden roller coaster on a boardwalk at the beach, and it’s rickety and makes a  lot of noise, and I draw in my breath and get ready to whiz around and be thrilled.  Hands up in the air – poetry is not for cowards! And I hear someone shouting up to me from down on the beach, “Julie, is there ANYTHING BETTER THAN POETRY????”  And I shout back, “Noooooooooo!”   This little ditty did it:


I have a white cat whose name is Moon,
He eats catfish from a wooden spoon,
And sleeps till five each afternoon.

Moon goes out when the moon is bright
And sycamore trees are spotted white
To sit and stare in the dead of night.

Beyond still water cries a loon,
Through mulberry leaves peers a wild baboon
And in Moon’s eyes I see the moon.

That’s by a poet named Willam Jay Smith, not one of the pillars of the Parthenon, perhaps, but he knows a thing or two about poetry – was Poet Laureate from 1968-1970 –  and he is a sturdy wooden strut in my poetry roller coaster.

The Cyclone in Coney Island

By the way, it’s Poetry Friday, and if you want to see what people are posting, you can head over to Paper Tigers where Marjorie is in charge of the round-up today.

The Private Lives of Books

You rarely know what becomes of your book once it goes to live on other people’s shelves. Sure, you hope it is treasured, read and re-read. But mostly books don’t write home after they leave.

Luckily, every now and then I hear about one of my books’ lives out there in the world. Like this story.

A young mother who has three kids under the age of 7 told me how they played Zelda and Ivy and the Boy Next Door. I assumed the oldest, Betsy, would have played the bossy older sister Zelda. But Betsy was magnanimous and let her younger brother, David, 5, play Zelda. She assigned the youngest, Gus, 3, the role of the owl who is featured only in illustrations (see above).

The kids set up their sleeping bags and acted out the third chapter, “Camping Out,” in which Zelda sings Ivy to sleep while watching for shooting stars. Their mother fed them the lines, which they repeated, adding actions. David belted out The Ants Go Marching One by One and Take Me Out to the Ballgame, but was less sure of The Star Spangled Banner.

I like to imagine them in their living room: David/Zelda and Betsy/Ivy tucked in their sleeping bags, Gus the owl perched on the top of the sofa; kids and mom engaged. My book having a great life.


Last week I heard I heard Krista Tippett interview the oceanographer  Sylvia Earle. Earle was given the nickname Her Deepness because she was the first person to walk solo on the bottom of the sea.

Her Deepness talked about revelation: the wonder of the phosphorescent world beneath the sea. And she talked about conservation: the need to preserve the diversity of the ocean.

One morsel that stayed with me was her comment that every fish looks different. I take it for granted that every human, cat or dog looks unique. It is surprising and wonderful that this is true for fish as well. She recommended meeting fish in places other than your dinner plate.

Here are some fish by Bilibin:

The Underwater Kingdom

A snipefish from Leonard Baskin:

From Saito Shoshu:

from Matthaus Merian:
Deborah Mersky drew this with gall ink that she made from an oak tree:
Deborah Mersky
and here is a Merskmaid from many years ago.
Deborah Mersky Mermaid
 I’ve been thinking about creatures of the sea all week. How do these undersea thoughts relate to creating children’s books? Maybe in some way, maybe not at all: I don’t know yet.

Here is a poem by Stephen Spender.

The Word

The word bites like a fish.

Shall I throw it back free

arrowing to the sea

where thoughts lash tail and fin?

Or shall I pull it in

to rhyme upon a dish?

An Inspiration Grows Up

Fifteen years ago, I bought a dress for my two-year-old daughter. I thought it was the perfect little toddler dress – a red jumper that had a bit of a bell-shaped swing. I even paid full price for it, counter to my usual shopping philosophy.

My daughter however, was not enthusiastic about my taste in clothing. When I put the dress on her, she sat down on her wee diapered tush and cried, “I don’t like this dress Mommy. Take it off! Take it OFF!”

There are some battles worth fighting for. There are others where it’s best if you just write about them. This mother-daughter impasse was the inspiration for Ella Sarah Gets Dressed; the first children’s book I both wrote and illustrated, which won a Caldecott Honor award, way back in 2004.

Now my Ella Sarah picks out her own clothing, and pays for it too. She has defined her own style and has modeled and blogged for a local shoe store for the past three years. I even find myself consulting her on many of my wardrobe concoctions. I dare not wear an outfit that raises an eyebrow from her!

I am bringing this up now because I have been thinking a lot about this child I’ve known for nearly eighteen years. And I’ve been thinking about her because she is about to leave me. She will be going to college in New York in the Fall.

I would be waxing sentimental at this point whether I had written a book about Ella or not, but having preserved that moment in our lives in print perhaps makes it feel more poignant. Or sappy. Or both.

Ella has been a willing model for many of my illustrations over the years. There is nothing like having a kid handy when you are working on a children’s book. She outgrew my picture book needs quite a few years ago, to be replaced by her sister, who in turn has been replaced by younger neighborhood children, but I’ve done many images that owe their accuracy to Ella’s cooperative posing.

So maybe what I am feeling as we all prepare for her flight east – along with the joy and pride and sadness and worry  and hope – is gratitude. She gave me a enormous gift in being the inspiration for a story that became a book – a book that added my name to a venerable list of illustrators in addition to making me a published author. I never expected such a payoff when I boarded this motherhood boat.

Ella plans to major in Graphic Design and Communications. She says she wants to work in publishing some day. She may even study illustration for a while. Perhaps I have returned the favor and inspired her a just a bit?

Whatever she does, may she find as supportive a community of people with whom to work as I have. Go with grace, little bird!

A New Word: Solastalgia

I like words.  That’s a condition endemic to writers (along with an obsession with stationary supplies) but I don’t think it comes out in quite the way people imagine.  It’s not like I love a thesaurus, which, if used with too much enthusiasm, can produce writing  filled with inflated diction. No, writing like that, all tarted up, is not what loving words is about, at least not in my opinion. I don’t make lists of my favorite words and then look for random places to insert them in my writing. What I’m more interested in, in terms of words, is where they come from – their etymologies and how they made their way from one part of the world and one language group to another part of the world altogether, and how they changed as they moved through time and space. The Oxford English Dictionary handles etymologies brilliantly – I’ll take the OED over a thesaurus any day

Since I love words and their complicated provenance, it makes sense for me to be interested in neologisms – newly-invented words. The other day my sister told me about this one: Solastalgia. It looks a little like something that might send you to bed with the sniffles, or maybe like something in a 19th-century novel when the heroine requires “mustard plasters.”

Actually, the word “Solastalgia,” coined in 2003 by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, is a condition similar to nostalgia, with a twist; it occurs not when you are far from home and long to return, but when you are still home and feel the loss of home due to the changed nature of the landscape or environment in general. My sister and I are now convinced we suffer from this condition, since we live in a world so changed from what we remember – we are constantly looking for the landmarks that have disappeared, we keep longing to repair the damage and restore a well-loved spot to it’s former health.

Take Elger Bay, for example, midway down Camano Island in Puget Sound, with its old waterfront cabins from the 30’s (no indoor plumbing, no electricity) replaced now by 6000-square-foot mansions. Signs have gone up saying “Private Beach, Keep Off.” The trees are gone, eagles are gone, driftwood has been replaced by cement bulkheads. The cabin my great-grandmother built with her husband is gone. But what we’re feeling isn’t nostalgia. We’re not longing for a simpler time. This is the heartache (or “psychoterratic illness”) of searching for a landscape that once was whole and now is damaged. Solastalgia (a mix of the root word solacium, meaning comfort, and -algia, meaning pain.)

I don’t imagine that word will  make it into my writing for children any time soon. But what an interesting word it is.  Also, terrible.  I might try writing a story about a girl who is homesick even when she’s home.

All because I heard about a new word and looked it up.

[ADDED NOTE: The Australian blog mentioned in the comments below – Healthearth – has a wonderful explanation of solastalgia – click here for a link. This is the blog of Glenn Albrecht, who first developed the concept of solastalgia and came up with a name for it.]