Monthly Archives: January 2016

Tile Tales

Henry Chapman Mercer (1856-1930) told stories with tiles.  Mercer tileIn  Doylestown, PA. you can find three museums: The Mercer Museum, Fonthill (Mercer’s house) and the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works (founded by Mercer and still in operation). I’ve been visiting these places for all of my life, most recently in December. Pile in for a quick tour of the Moravian Tile Works.moravian tile worksMercer was a scholar, an artist, an archaelogist, and a world traveler. He seemed curious about all things, and he built curious and unique places.  The Moravian Tile Works was made of poured concrete and built in the style of a Spanish mission; somehow it fits right into Bucks County, Pennsylvania.Moravian Tile WorksBefore founding the tile works Mercer apprenticed with a German-American potter. He used local clay. With this local clay and from this specific place he told tales that ranged the world and dipped into all his areas of knowledge and interest.IMG_0812

IMG_0813Many of his original designs were based on Moravian cast iron stove designs – thus the name of the tile works.dance stoveplate

dance mercer tileHe was influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement in England. His tiles are decorative and rich with pattern.IMG_0835

mercer tileThey often include words.Moravian Tile Works

Mercer tile

Most of all they tell stories. There are stories of workers and craftspeople.Mercer TileMercer TileMercer TileOf seasonal workMercer Tile

Mercer Tileof journeysMercer Tileof playMercer Tileand quarrels.Mercer TileThey tell old storiesMercer Tile

Mercer Tileand of new(ish) discoveries:Mercer tileThe tiles tell their stories on every available surface of Fonthill, and on many walls of the Moravian Tile Works and the Mercer Museum.Moravian Tile Works

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IMG_0826The tiles are still being produced today.

Here is a quick peak outside and inside the Mercer Museum.Mercer Museum

Mercer MuseumThe museum is a treasure trove of tools and objects from America’s past. It is also a peek into the mind of Henry Chapman Mercer. His interests, passions and point of view are all evident in the structure and contents of the museum. All of these things also go into the designs of the tiles: the tiles are the specific expression and compression of who Mercer was.

What does this have to do with children’s books? Children’s books tell stories. A book tells one specific story, but all of the experiences and knowledge of the author and illustrator contribute to the depth of what is created. Mercer told stories with tiles. His travels and studies, his eye for beauty, his respect for work and workers, his love of history and his humor bring the stories alive. He used his head, hands and heart.

Thanks to Henry Chapman Mercer for letting us sip from his cup of knowledge.mercer tile sip

 

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Art Is Our Human Right

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I recently went back to the William Morris Gallery to see their current exhibit, “The Artistic Campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith”.

Bob and Roberta Smith is actually one person, Patrick Brill, who chose this double pseudonym to create a more “egalitarian platform” for art making. The name Bob Smith is the most common name in England (like John Smith in the United States) and Roberta is Patrick’s sister’s name. Combined, this artistic nom de plume is about as low brow as one can get.

The son of a well-known landscape painter and teacher, Smith studied for his MA at Goldsmiths in the early 90s. He has been an Artist Trustee of Tate Museum and the National Campaign for the Arts. He currently is an Associate Professor at the Sir John Cass Department of Art, Media and Design at London Metropolitan University,

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His irreverent humor and straightforward approach is apparent throughout his work. He paints with sign-painting enamel on found objects and discarded wood panels. His images center on the written word – he paints personal stories as well as social commentary. His lettering is mostly freehand, paying homage to the sign-painting styles of fair grounds, old shop advertisements and folk art.

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This exhibit was of special interest to me. In Seattle, I was actively involved in advocating for arts in education. I volunteered as an arts community liaison for in Seattle public schools for over a decade. I started a blog – Pebbles In The Jar – to help inform and encourage others to do the same. I was a member of the arts community advisory group during the development of the Seattle Public Schools Creative Advantage plan. I even spoke on the topic at a few events.

Arts Soap Box

After moving to London, I was curious to see how arts in education is handled here. I assumed that, with London’s broad art scene and history of supporting the arts, arts teaching in public (what they call “state” schools here) would be more secure. I was wrong. The arts in education have been whittled away by conservative politics and “austerity” measures in the U.K., just as in the U.S.

Smith says he grew up believing “education is not about improving your life chances or getting a better job, education is about building knowledge and experience and enriching humanity and society.” Art as an integral part of democracy.

BRSmith-ILikeArtInSchools

Taking his art to another level, Smith in 2013 started the Art Party with Crescent Arts, Scarborough. “The Art Party seeks to better advocate the arts to Government. The Art Party is NOT a formal political party, but is a loose grouping of artists and organizations who are deeply concerned about the Government diminishing the role of all the arts and design in schools.”

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In 2015, Bob and Roberta Smith ran for parliament as an independent during the 2015 general election against conservative Michael Gove, former Secretary of State for Education and Member of Parliament for Surrey Heath. This is when I first became aware of his work. I was impressed with a visual artist who dared to enter the outspoken and contentious realm of politics.

CreativityORAusterity

Smith sees his campaigns as “extended art works which include a variety of consciousness raising artifacts.” He has taken to the streets in a camper covered in his campaign slogans. He has created videos, performance pieces and radio shows. He sings. He plays guitar and piano. He walks the walk.

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“It’s almost impossible for kids to study art and music together, let alone dance or drama as well. This is worrying for British culture and Britain’s long-term reputation for being a great place to make, teach and experience the arts.”

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“Art is about the appreciation of ambiguity. Only when people realize what unites us is huge and wonderful and what divides us is small and mean will people live peacefully.”

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“Hey artists, forget about making money, and make things better.”

BRSmith-MuseumsShouldBeLikeNewspapers

It’s notable that the William Morris Gallery has hosted this exhibit and supported Smith’s campaign. William Morris was also a political activist. In 1882 he told the Royal Commission on Technical Education “everybody ought to be taught ought to draw, just as much as everybody be taught to read and write”.

BRSmith-GiveAChildAPencil

ArtMakesPeoplePowerful

MusicMakesChildrenPowerful

If you would like to learn more about Bob and Roberta Smith, you can watch this excellent and entertaining documentary, Make Your Own Damn Art: the world of Bob and Roberta Smith, directed by John Rogers.

I wish I could have voted for Bob and Roberta Smith.

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RUBobtimistic

Magical Middle Grade

suzanneselforsBest-selling children’s author Suzanne Selfors remembers the question well.

“Why are all your characters so miserable?” asked the grade-schooler.

She’d never been asked that, but it was a good question because she does like to open her books on kids in less-than-happy situations. And she quickly had her answer, “I like to make my characters as miserable as possible because it’s so much fun to make them happy again.”

I’m on Whidbey Island teaching for the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and Suzanne is one of our guest speakers. (Just to brag a bit, our summer residency featured two Newbery authors–Gary Schmidt and the just-announced medal winner, Matt de la Pena.)

But back to Suzanne–she’s an expert on popular middle grade novels. She has three different series going including the Imaginary Veterinary series, Smells Like Dog series and Ever After High series. She’s also the author of books for teens and adults, but middle grade is her sweet spot. She sold eight middle grades last year with more in the works.

smells like dog

Middle grade is currently hot” in children’s literature. It used to be YA, but middle grade is in even more demand right now. Some of Suzanne’s insights include:

Middle grade is aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds but 4th graders are considered the core readers of the middle grade genre.

Overwhelmingly middle grade deals with a theme or issue of displacement. The main character is often transported to a new location—they move from one world to another. To a new school, to summer camp, arrive for a visit with grandparents. It makes sense. Not only do you get troublesome parents out of the way, but your kid hero is in a natural situation to discover new things and to be tried and tested.

Speaking of troublesome parents, they, along with other adults, are few and far between in middle grade stories. And, really, who wants them around giving advice, solving problems, soothing hurts and, in general, interfering with this process of growing up.

Even if the basic setting is new much of the action will happen at home or at school, Suzanne says. As an author, she particularly likes conjuring up her main character’s bedroom, because this is such an important space for a child; the one place in the home that is theirs.

many middle grades

Middle grade heroes are doers. No mini-Hamlets here. They are going to jump up and rush in where wise men fear to tread.

Middle grade books are clean. No swearing and no sex. If you get into boy/girl dynamics, your character might have a mild crush, but mostly it will be a friendship. If the kid reader wants something grittier or more romantic at 11 or 12, they are going to read up and find books like the Twilight series.

Make ‘em laugh. Humor is huge. Just consider The Diary of Wimpy Kid series. Author Jeff Kinney is the top-selling children’s author in the U.S., probably in the world, with hundreds of millions of his books sold. As Susanne noted, when it comes to awards, humor doesn’t win, but when it comes to sales and kid-appeal, it definitely does.

Magic is big. Of course, there’s realistic fiction but many, many middle grade books contain magic. Not just in their plot, but in their appeal. Ask people about their favorite books and so often, you’ll get a far away look and a smile as they remember a book they read before they were 12. They are the heart of the childhood reading experience from Charlotte’s Web to Pippi Longstockings to Harry Potter to Percy Jackson.

engrossed reader

Which is one reason they are my favorite genre to write. You can have humor, magic, complex characters, dramatic plots, moments of quiet beauty, and a depth that can hit kids at a level they will remember all their lives.

 

 

 

 

 

My Reading Resolution

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I’m going to do it. I’m actually going to make a New Year’s Resolution, something I haven’t done for many years now, possibly because I’m a bit of a pessimist (no, a big pessimist) about the chance of keeping it. But my fellow Books Around the Table writers are coming up with writing resolutions of their own, so I’ve decided on a reading resolution. Here is what’s inspiring me: The upcoming American Library Association announcement of 2016 Youth Media medal winners and honor books. It happens on Monday, January 11, coming to us via live webcast from their midwinter conference in Boston.

My New Year’s Resolution is to read the winners (or honor books – my choice) in the following categories (explanations of what these categories represent can be found at this link): Caldecott (I’ll read the winner and all honor books for this),  Newbery, Sibert, Pura Belpre, Coretta Scott King, T.S. Geisel, Batchelder and Prinz. And I’ll read them some time before next year’s announcements are made. I’ve got 12 months to read approximately 12 books (well, in addition to other non-kid books that I’ll be reading.) This might just be the year I keep my resolution!!

Read, read, read – that’s the best advice a creative writing student can get. Read like a writer, read for techniques of structure, voice, pacing, setting, character-building. Read!  It’s time to follow my own advice. Speaking of time, the announcement webcast will begin at 7:30 a.m. Eastern time on Monday – easy for East Coasters, harder for those of us on the West Coast. The ALA is setting up a contest involving the time factor:

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When I taught at Vermont College of Fine Arts, our winter residencies sometimes coincided with the ALA announcements; we held Mock Caldecott discussions, led by the divine Leda Schubert. If the announcements were being made on a residency day, we took a break from our tightly-packed schedules to watch and listen carefully, see how we did with our predictions, and either 1) dance a jig because a book we loved had been chosen or 2) stand silent and dumbfounded because a book we loved (and/or one that had gotten many starred reviews and/or had been mentioned in many Best Books of the Year lists) didn’t even get a nod. Committee-made decision are usually quirky, and committees making the choices for 2016 categories will no doubt run true to form.

I have some favorites but feel superstitious about mentioning them – bad luck follows? But here are some books bound to get the attention of the committees:

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For the Newbery and the Sibert, maybe?  Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg & the Secret History of the Vietnam War

A big favorite for the Newbery, though, seems to be this one:

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And for the Caldecott…?

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April Chu for her illustrations of In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van…

or

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The Night World by Mordecai Gerstein (a long shot…?)

or…

or…

so many other wonderful choices….

and I’ll be reading the ones that get chosen.

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)