Monthly Archives: June 2015

Yoko Tanaka – Emotion In Detail

Y Tanaka holding ME 2

Looking carefully at one of Yoko Tanaka’s images rewards you with details that on a quick perusal you could easily miss. They are feather-light, with the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wing.

Yoko Tanaka Magician's Elephant 2 detail

I met Yoko through Rotem Moscovich, an editor at Hyperion Publishing who saw her in New York last Fall and thoughtfully introduced us to each other over e-mail. Yoko has lived in London since 2011 and Rotem knew that I had recently relocated here.

I have enjoyed talking with Yoko and learning a bit about her process and approach to imagery. She was kind enough to consent to my featuring her on this blog, and invited me to her studio.

yoko04_2

There is an ethereal, dreamlike quality to Yoko’s illustrations. Monochromatic in tone, the elements emerge out of shadows as if lit by the moon. Since her paintings are often dark with a limited, earthy palette, she says she receives many jobs whose stories deal with “winter, snow, night, death, witches and magic, and children with problem parents.” She is excited that her next picture book project has “100% happy components.”

Yoko Tanaka with Magician's Elephant Chap 1

There is a sadness in many of the pieces, but there is humor as well. Each face tells a story. There are no abbreviations when it comes to elements that convey emotion. Emotion is a word Yoko uses frequently when talking about her work. It is the element she strives to communicate visually. She succeeds.

Yoko Tanaka Magicians Elephant Chap 1 detail

It surprised me to learn that Yoko first studied Law in Japan, her native country, before moving to California in 2000 to study design. She was then accepted to Art Center College in Pasadena where she changed direction to study painting, intending to become a gallery artist. Her first painting was of a large coffee cup.

She enjoys painting on a bigger scale, but that isn’t practical for reproduction, and her current studio space is small. Her illustration work is done to size or slightly larger (which is tiny for the amount of detail she includes).

It was literary agent Steve Malk who first encouraged her to pursue illustration rather than gallery work. She has been working with Steve since 2005. One of the first book contracts Steve brought to her was to illustrate Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant for Candlewick Press in 2008.

Y Tanaka-ME cover_04

yoko03

Four months is Yoko’s ideal amount of time for a children’s book project; one month to sketch and three months to paint. She doesn’t like projects to go on much longer than that. One project at a time is better for her than overlapping jobs.

yoko02

Yoko says that ideas don’t come to her while she is sitting at her drawing table. Driving a car is where she prefers to do her thinking – in quiet isolation, following a well-known route. In London, she walks instead.

When she gets an idea, it comes to her fully formed, in 3-D, sometimes even with sounds and smells. She then sketches it with pencil and paper as quickly as possible. Revisions are relatively few. She will use Photoshop to add color and value for preliminaries to show clients, but her finished work is usually done in acrylic paints on illustration board.

Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_01 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_02 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_03 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_04

Yoko recently completed a cover for a new edition of The Magician’s Elephant as part of Candlewick’s reissue of five of DiCamillo’s books in their Fall/Winter 2015 catalog. The publisher wanted a brighter palette with the animal in the center of the composition, in keeping with the rest of the paperback collection.

Y Tanaka-ME new cover

Yoko also showed me the art she created for the first edition of Tiny Pencil, an art-zine “devoted to the lead arts.” These illustrations are done in graphite, not her usual medium. She used stencils and chamois cloth to create the gradations of value. The images have a ghost-like quality that is both poignant and spooky.

Y Tanaka holding Tiny Pencil 1

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 1 detail

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2 detail

I am grateful to Yoko for taking the time to welcome me to her studio, and for sharing her ideas and process, as well as her time. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future, perhaps on a gallery wall as well as in books.

Y Tanaka balcony arrangement

 

 

 

Advertisements

Every syllable spelled out a spark

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

The Young Reader by Miguel Mackinlay

Judy Blume was in town last week and I, along with a group of children’s writer buddies, went to hear her speak. She talked about her books, her writing process and a little about growing up in the 1950s, but one thing that stuck in my mind is what she said about reading.

“My parents gave me a great gift. The idea that reading is great. They were proud that I was a good reader.”

It had never hit to me quite so clearly that such an attitude was not universal. I grew up knowing that, of course, being a good reader was a good thing. Of course, you learned to read and to read well. I mean, yes, some kids struggled to read, but surely reading was a valued thing.

But then I remembered homes that oddly didn’t seem to have books in them.  Parents who I never saw reading. Families who didn’t go the library every week. Friends who marveled that our father read aloud to us every Sunday.

I think I was a bit like Harper Lee who said, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

reading is sharing.1

Until Blume made her comment, it never occurred to me that to have people around you who valued reading wasn’t simply a given. Or to put it better, it hadn’t occurred to me that to have such people around you was a gift in itself.

Do you remember when you learned to read? I remember the exact moment.

I’m sitting in the first grade. It’s probably the second or third week of school and we’re learning the alphabet. On the wall is a picture of a clown holding balloons. He has a red balloon, a blue balloon, a green balloon and a yellow one. There are letters of the alphabet on the balloons. And suddenly I realize something amazing. The letters on the red balloon, R-E-D, meant “red.” They are the same thing—the color I’m seeing with my eyes and the letters are telling my brain the same thing.

It was a code and my mind raced with the realization. All the things in the room had a code that meant it—desk, pencil, teacher, floor. What an incredible thing.

“To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark,” said Victor Hugo

Pawel Kuczynski

Pawel Kuczynski

After that, reading came quickly for me. Of course, I was motivated to learn this magic thing. You didn’t need an apple for someone to tell you: apple. You didn’t have to be in the same room or live in the same town or the same country or the same century for someone to tell you, “apple.” For someone to tell you anything.

As George R.R. Martin has one of his character’s say, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

And I wanted to live every life, real and imagined, that I could get my hands on. At that stage, I wasn’t thinking about what I could tell others with my magic code. I just wanted to know what was out there; what others knew; what they could tell me.

Later I began to dream about telling my own stories, casting my own spell with this magic code. But like Blume, I belatedly realize that it began with what I took for granted: being surrounded and supported by those who honored reading.

Kuniyoshi

Kuniyoshi

A Puzzle

sarah-ruhl-100-essays-i-didnt-have-time-to-writeI’ve been reading an interesting book by playwright Sarah Ruhl titled 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas, and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Children and Theater. Great title. And great little essays, with subject matter ranging all over, as you can tell from the subtitle. In the book, Ruhl examines paintings, participles, interruptions, Andy Goldsworthy, writing as reform school, smallness, Ovid, Italo Calvino, satyrs, secrets, neologisms, privacy, bad poetry, rhyme on stage – and that’s only in Part One of a four-part, six-page Table of Contents. If you’re picturing a book better suited for flower-pressing, picture again – the book is only 218-pages long, with essays coming in at 1-3 pages.

In the first essay of the book, Ruhl says something that stopped me in my tracks: “I found that life intruding on writing was, in fact, life. And that, tempting as it may be for a writer who is also a parent, one must not think of life as an intrusion. At the end of the day, writing has very little to do with writing, and much to do with life. And life, by definition, in not an intrusion.”

I certainly prefer that take on things to the often-quoted line from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: ““A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Examining those two opposing views – “life” intruding on creativity vs. “life” sustaining creativity – would have made a great essay assignment for my students at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. “Think this through and tell me what conclusions you come to” I would have suggested. I suspect most students would have agreed with Woolf.

RozChast2Implied in Woolf’s quotation is the idea that 1) writers must have money and 2) the room must have a door and the door must be lockable (figuratively if not literally) against “intrusions.” Is that what we long for as writers? Or do we simply use the absence of such a room as an excuse for not writing?

Of course, the best student essay would have told me that the truth lies somewhere in the middle (oh, that was interesting, typing the phrase “the truth lies”!) and that I skewed the assignment to get interesting results; in reality, the two views are not really diametrically opposed.  As in many areas of activity, balance makes more sense or – at the least – has more appeal, is more calming and leaves us less exhausted. Our “room” as artists probably should be neither all locked against the outside world nor all porous.

What I’m trying to sort out is the question of attitudes and how an attitude can affect creativity. One attitude implies that creativity owes its life to interruptions, since what’s interrupting is life (from which all creativity springs…?) The other attitude asks, “How can I sustain my creativity if I’m constantly interrupted?” The New Yorker this week had an interesting article about a writers’ “space,” whether that space is a dedicated room of one’s own, a counter at Starbucks, or the kitchen table. [Searching the New Yorker’s archives for past articles about writing spaces, I found this brilliant report by Ben McGrath about a project called Flux Factory where architects designed three rooms for three writers to live in for 30 days.]

Reading Ruhl’s book, I lean towards letting life intrude. I know many things intrude on my creative life. I’ve not only come to terms with that, I kind of like it that way. In fact, the longer I live, the more I like it that way, and the result is I write less. But look at how Ruhl smiles in that author photo. She looks supremely satisfied. Amused. Energized. And I’ve always been worried about portraits of Virginia Woolf:

iwoolfa001p1

Virginia Woolf

Obviously, not a good way to judge happiness – by a photo. Bipolarity was Woolf’s demon. And Ruhl’s youthful good health could be reason enough for the smile. But I do wonder. Meanwhile, I let family, friends, good books, walks, laundry, washing dishes, random moments of daydreaming intrude all they like. Should I circle the wagons and develop some kind of writer’s space? Come to think of it, a circle of wagons is pretty porous. Well then, should I find a door with a lock on it at this late date? Maybe I should focus on writing 1-3 page essays – absolutely do-able. Or maybe I should answer the question at hand: Which is it, intrusion or sustenance, this thing called life? Intrusion and sustenance? It’s a puzzle.

LESS IS MORE

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

rollers

Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

californiamap

I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

jackflying

When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

ernesthem

There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

chickens026

TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”