Monthly Archives: November 2014


Bookamania Chicago: Quite An Event

Sometimes in this business you get the royal treatment. Drivers picking you up at the airport, luxurious hotel stays, lines of fans.

The lobby of the Palmer Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Chicago.

The lobby of the Palmer Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Chicago.

A week ago I was in Chicago for the Chicago Public Library’s annual Bookamania. I’d never heard of Bookamania and didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to participate several months ago. Turns out it’s a fairly big deal. Funded by Target, nearly 6,000 people attended the one-day event last year. It’s held in the Chicago central library branch, the Harold Washington Library.

The Harold Washington Library Center

The “acroteria” on the roof feature owls.

Along with a dozen different performances and activities that filled the day, four authors and illustrators were invited to do presentations, sign books and meet with kids and their parents, including me, Kady MacDonald Denton (the illustrator of the Mouse and Bear books) the legendary Ashley Bryan and funny author/illustrator Dan Santat.

Mouse and Bear were everywhere. Kady donated artwork of Mouse and Bear which became the “face” of this year’s Bookamania—including posters, t-shirts, flyers and name badges.

One of the many, many volunteers who help make this event possible.

One of the many, many volunteers who help make this event possible.

The best part of the day, however, was getting to meet Kady, the illustrator of the Mouse and Bear books. We’d never met or talked in person. The author and illustrator rarely interact in the creation of a book. We usually communicate through the editor or the art director. But I’ve wanted to meet Kady for a long time.

She is at least half of the making of Mouse and Bear. One of the happiest moments in my life as an author was when I saw Kady’s early sketches for Mouse and Bear. I knew that Kady was the perfect artist for those two.

We didn’t get to chat as much as I would have liked even though we were there for four hours. We were busy pretty much non-stop signing our own books as well as mini-autograph and memory books the kids could fill out.

Kady signing autograph books.

Kady signing autograph books.

Among the activities for the day were arts and crafts focused around the featured authors. Here kids get to make a pencil featuring a bear’s head complete with googly eyes.

making bear pencilsIn town for less than 24 hours, I did manage to get in a quick visit to Millenium Park. It was a cold gray day in a city that feels somehow gritty and industrial despite its amazing architecture. So it was an unexpected lift to see this giant head by Barcelona artist Jaume Plensa. It seems to float above the landscape.

The 39 foot head is made of marble and resin.

The 39 foot head is made of marble and resin.

The sculpture is scheduled to be up only until Dec. 2015. But if I were Chicago I’d make it permanent.

Seattle has its won Plensa head installed this summer.

46 foot tall "Echo" in the Olympic Sculpture Park

46 foot tall “Echo” in the Olympic Sculpture Park

All in all, a fast, but wonderful trip.

An Afternoon at Foster’s

Fosters Books-Master Stephen

Imagine what the quintessential British bookstore might look like. If you picture a little shop in an 18th century building stocked untidily with old and unusual books from floorboards to rafters, then you could be thinking of Foster’s Bookshop in Chiswick, London.

The owner Stephen Foster is a second generation bookseller who bills himself as a purveyor of “outmoded educational tools and antiquated entertainment devices.” He looks the part, don’t you think?

I had stopped in the shop a few times since moving here, and thought it would make a good blog post source, so I made an appointment with Stephen to come in and photograph some of his children’s books – if he wouldn’t mind.

What I had thought would be a half-hour visit turned into the better part of an afternoon, talking and viewing.

The first volume he took down from his shelves was a 1906 (U.S.) edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, by J. M. Barrie, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Rackham-Peter Pan-book coverRackham-Peter Pan-title page

Stephen told me that he grew up near Kensington Gardens and that he and his siblings visited the park often when they were young. Walking through the park where Peter Pan’s stories took place must have been wondrous for a child. Would that not make you believe in fairies, too?

Rackham-Peter Pan-little boatRackham-Peter Pan-hoursRackham-Peter Pan-web

Most Americans think of Peter Pan as Disney portrayed him in the 1953 animated film – an impish young boy in a pea green suit and elf slippers. That is nothing like J. M. Barrie’s original character as shown by Rackham – an infant wandering the park and befriending it’s otherworldly denizens after closing time.

Rackham-Peter Pan-boat under bridge Rackham-Peter Pan-kite Rackham-Peter Pan-swansRackham-Peter Pan-tulipRackham-Peter Pan-flying Rackham-Peter Pan-king Rackham-Peter Pan-Broad WalkRackham-Peter Pan-fairies Rackham-Peter Pan-hidingRackham-Peter Pan-stars

I clearly remember the first time I saw illustrations by Arthur Rackham. It was in a little bookstore owned by a friend of my parents, and she carried a number of publications from Green Tiger Press, which specializes in reproducing antique and vintage illustrations. I was a pre-teen who was still enthralled by fairy tales, and who drew a lot. Rackham was like God.

A few years later I visited London with my parents, and was ecstatic to find whole books about Arthur Rackham that I could purchase and take home with me. I spent hours looking at the illustrations in those books, wishing I could see more of his work, but 19th century picture books were not something a teenager could easily access in the U.S. in the 1970s, at least not in my home town in California. I had to be content with the few images that had been chosen for reproduction.

Until last week.

Next Stephen pulled down a 1905 edition of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, also illustrated by Rackham.

Rackham-Rip V W-cover Rackham-Rip V W-title page Rackham-Rip V W-intro page

Because there were so many illustrations in each volume Stephen showed me, only a few of which I had seen before, I was determined to take as many pictures as possible to share here. The photos aren’t great – I was taking them under poor lighting on the only space in the shop that wasn’t piled high with books and prints – but I hope they will still give you some of the thrill that I felt turning those pages to reveal so many wonderful images.

Rackham-Rip V W-certain biscuit-bakersRackham-Rip V W-kite Rackham-Rip V W-These fairy mountains Rackham-Rip V W-hen-pecked Rackham-Rip V W-daughter and grand daughterRackham-Rip V W-window Rackham-Rip V W-his knees smote Rackham-Rip V W-Kaatskill MountainsRackham-Rip V W-making friendsRackham-Rip V W-new moon Rackham-Rip V W-postscript

I learned a few things from studying Rackham as a teen that I still keep in mind when I work: Don’t just illustrate what the author describes – imagine scenes beyond the text; if you limit your palette to a only three or four colors, nothing in your image will “clash” with anything else. It is part of why Rackham’s illustrations are so pleasingly quiet, visually.

My favorite image of Rackham’s as a teen was from Undine. The coquettish creature coming up from the sea had a lot of appeal to me then. I wondered what that look in her eyes was about, and what story the other pictures from the book would tell. I had only seen a few.


And there it was, between Spike Milligan and The Hobbit.

Rackham-Undine-cover of 1912 US edition

Okay, so I went all out here. I took photos of pretty much every image in the book, just in case there was another teenager out there who wondered the same thing about this girl.

The story is similar to The Little Mermaid. Lots of romance and melodrama and a moralistic ending.

Rackham-Undine-frontespieceRackham-Undine-Contents tableRackham-Undine-webbed pair Rackham-Undine-list of illustrations headRackham-Undine-This is the story Chapter I How the knight came to the fishermanRackham-Undine-fearsome forest Chapter IIHow Undine had come to the Fisherman Rackham-Undine-beautiful little girl Rackham-Undine-infancyRackham-Undine-flood Rackham-Undine-Knight Rackham-Undine-false goldRackham-Undine-storm “At length they all pointed thier stained fingers at me” Rackham-Undine-Little niece and KülhlebornRackham-Undine-framed spotCHAPTER X HOW THEY FARED IN THE CITY Bertalda Rackham-Undine-a mark“Bertalda in the Black Valley” “Soon she was lost to sight in the Danube” “He could see Undine beneath the crystal vault” CHAPTER XIVTHE BLACK VALLEYRackham-Undine-Chapter XVIIRackham-Undine-bearded spotCHAPTER XVIIIHOW THE KNIGHT HULDBRAND IS MARRIED CHAPTER XIXHOW THE KNIGHT BULDBRAND WAS BURIED

Even the endpapers are beautiful.


I hope this wasn’t too much of a good thing for you.

If you like old books and happen to be in London, you should add Foster’s Bookshop to your sightseeing list. It will be worth the tube ride to Chiswick.

Fosters Books-more books

I plan to go back and peruse the shelves further, and I’m sure another blog post will come of it. At least, that will be my excuse for taking more photos…


Even More on Lines, Architectural and Musical

Speaking of lines (Julie Paschkis’s post of two weeks ago and Laura Kvasnosky’s post last week) I’ve been thinking a little about narrative lines (which accumulate into stories) and lyrical lines (which accumulate into poems.) What got me started on all this, in relation to those most recent posts, was this video (if the embedded video doesn’t play, just click here.) I wrote a little about it in my own blog, The Drift Record, last week, but I want to share it here on Books Around the Table:

I have no idea what that song says. But the woman enlivens it in a way that suggests both revelry (the woman’s full-throated delivery, her delight) and sorrow (the waver, the dip at times into a quieter voice, the frown.) Someone told me “It could be a drinking song.” Yes, it could be, though not many drinking songs fall into a minor key.  Could be a love song? Doesn’t feel quite dreamy or tender enough – I don’t hear betrayal or devotion in it.  I watch and listen to it all again and again, to hear her voice, to watch her eyebrows and eyes and smile, to see the way her hands move, to hear the phrasing of the words in combination with the melody.  I let the nonsense (that is, the non-sense of it) into me.

Music (poetic line) vs. Meaning (narrative line.) I like thinking about those terms. They’re a little combative, and the longer I contemplate them, the more sparks they send off.

I have a knee-jerk reaction to poems where I can find no hint of music – meter, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, consonance, assonance, discernible patterns…all those tricky and beautiful tools poets can use to make their work memorable, word by word. My eye scans over a poem looking for them – they can hide! –  and if I don’t find them on first scan, I have to cut the poem some slack in order to like it.  Once in awhile, the slack allows me to discover a poem with a compelling narrative line or a way of looking at the world which is interesting even if non-musical. But usually, the lack of craftsmanship (which is what knowing how to use those tools is all about) leaves me cold. Confess what you want to confess in prose, fine, but if you’re going to write a poem, craft it and let it sing the way the woman in that video sings. Think about structure. Think about melody.

Structure? What’s that have to do with poetry? Certainly both stories and poems have structures. Fiction isn’t built on air, no matter how short (microfiction) or long (oof – 784 pages – The Goldfinch, anyone?) nor is poetry, despite the fact that a poem can feel light as air. Look hard enough (that’s our job as careful readers, and as writers, right?) and you’ll find a structure. But the narrative lines of poetry and fiction seem architectural – they determine, often, whether the story or poem stands or falls. The overriding metaphor when thinking of literature this way is in how relates to physics – what weight will the wall ( the story / the poem) bear before it collapses? Literary work can be mathematical in the same way architecture can be – you want it to stand up.


But the words of a poetic line also involve song (fiction sentences not as much, unless readers and critics call it “poetic” writing.) The poetic line involves breath, syllables fall on a musical scale; they involve both meter and patterns of vocalization. The lines of a lyric poem can play out as musical notes, which is why poems and songs so often convey emotion and meaning even if untranslated.


If I hum that, will I get the tonal register of it…?  Obviously, providing us with meaning and music  is why lines of great poetry remain memorable. But I find it fascinating that a song or a poem can transfix us without any translation provided.  That’s what Archibald MacLeish means in his poem “Ars Poetica,” when he tells us that “a poem should not mean but be.”

Ars Poetica

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.

Archibald MacLeish

I used to think the last two lines of that poem were non-sensical – they irritated me. But the more I read poetry, the more I can make room for it. Ideally, I’d like a poem to both mean AND be. But I can let go of meaning – I can enjoy the experience of a poem just washing over me or – in the case of that video – filling me up.

By the way if you know what that song says, don’t tell me yet. I’m savoring not knowing!!


Last week Julie Paschkis wrote here about lines – the lines that make up illustrations.

I’d like to add to the lines conversation – only I want to talk about lines that relate to text. It was a subject of discussion when I talked to Jolie Stekly’s UW-extension class in Writing for Children this week. We talked about lines that describe the plot of a story. Graphic plotlines.


PICTURE BOOK  — To start, here’s a simple graph that uses a line to indicate the rising dramatic tension in a picture book.sharkfinThink of it as a sharkfin. Tension rises continuously to a climax followed by a quick denouement/resolution.

carrot seedA classic example of this is Ruth Krauss’ The Carrot Seed, illustrated by Crockett Johnson. A little boy plants a seed. Tension mounts as his various family members tell him it won’t grow. He persists. He weeds and waters. Family members again say it won’t grow. He weeds, waters, waits. Then the climax: “a carrot came up,” and the resolution “just as the little boy had known it would.”

NOVEL — For a basic novel graph, you can’t beat the Cascades profile.


Here are the three acts, beginning/middle/end, each with its own rising tension and climax, all building together to the biggest climax and the resolution. I first learned about this profile from Barthe deClements who is a fellow Northwesterner, thus the Cascades Mountains get naming rights.

MORE ABOUT STORY STRUCTURE — Norma Fox Mazer gave a memorable lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts about how “a novel’s structure is the glass that holds the wine.” (Now there’s a good line.) Like Barthe, she talked about the structure of the novel as a three act play, explaining each act has its own beginning, middle and end. Each act has its role to play. The opening act must introduce character, setting and conflict; the middle is the place for rising struggle and confrontation, and the end turns on the climax and resolution.

Norma recommended creating a story ladder as you begin revising a novel. This is a scene-by-scene list of essential actions, emotions and characters as the story progresses.

Working on my present middle grade novel project, I decided to combine Norma’s story ladder with Barthe’s Cascade graph. I wrote a short description for each scene on a strip of paper. Then I rated each scene for dramatic tension. (The note beside my computer reads: It is not a scene if it does not have conflict.)

Next, I laid them out on our dining room table, letting each strip poke up in a little mountain range at heights that related to how much dramatic juice each scene held.tablemtn

It was helpful-ish. I began to see where the three acts of this project were located. And that long flat place in the middle – a sort of valley in the jagged mountain range of chapter strips – clearly needs attention.

A FEW OTHER LINES — One of the best known graphic depictions of plot is the circle that describes the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell wrote about this plot sequence that is often found in myths and fairy tales. It’s a circle with many proscribed story elements along the way.


There are other, more simple, depictions of plot as well.

In the world of early readers, you sometimes encounter the umbrella profile – each chapter has it’s own rising conflict, climax and resolution. Sometimes there’s an overarching plotline that rises across the whole work to the biggest climax in the last story/chapter.


Of course, all plots don’t run chronologically. One fairly common one works sort of like a fly fishermans’ cast. The story opens with a compelling scene that is in fact close to the chronological end of the story, then the author suspends that plot line and circles back in time to fill in back story, bringing the reader back to that compelling scene, picking up that suspended plot line and following through to the climax and resolution. Kathi Appelt’s Keeper follows this profile, as does Bruce Colville’s Jeremy Thatcher Dragon Catcher.


Then there are plots with two characters whose storylines each have rising tension as they find their way to be together, a fir tree profile. My favorite example of this is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, an adult book.


In the wings profile, the story begins with the characters together, then each circles out on his/her own adventures and they meet again, each changed, at the end, like in The Prince and the Pauper.


Shark fin, Cascades, Hero’s Circle, Umbrella, Flyfisherman, Fir Tree, Wings — all of these graphic depictions of plot supply helpful visuals when you are considering how to shape your story.  That’s my finish line.