Monthly Archives: July 2016

REVISITING SCHOOL VISITS

As my years as an author and illustrator fly by, I realize I have probably done writing workshops with well over 100,000 children. What a privilege.

There have been many highs (like a little boy running down the hall after school, catching my hand, looking up and saying ‘I love you’), and a definite low (the freebie where the teacher had me confused with another author).

I think of myself as a sort of Literary SWAT team, helicoptering into elementary schools to bolster interest in reading and writing. (OK. I admit I usually roll up in a car.) My program includes the herky-jerky clips from my childhood home movies that inspired Zelda and Ivy, ukulele sing-alongs ala Frank and Izzy, and a sprinkle of REAL fairy dust fresh-made with crayons on my cheese grater. It’s about writing and reading and living in the astonishing world of stories.

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Two sixth-grade journalists who interviewed me.

I love meeting all those great teachers and librarians. All those great kids. One student asked me, “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” and I said, “No, just today.” Another kid piped up, “She’s once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

As fun as it is to be someone’s once-in-a-lifetime experience, I am often left wishing I got to hear the endings of the kids’ stories, to watch them grow as writers. I have made some wonderful teacher and librarian friends whom I continue to be in touch with, but I rarely see the kids again. It’s a fleeting experience. And although school visits are well compensated, they are also exhausting and they take time from my ongoing work.

Lately I have limited the number of school visits I take on each year. And as I look forward to the next school year, I find myself wondering: Do author visits have a lasting impact on students?

Luckily, a Society of Authors survey asked that very question in 2014. They contacted 163 school respondents who had hosted over 1,471 author visits, of which 377 were in primary schools. The report included this encouraging finding:

“99.4% (all those who had organized an author visit) considered author visits to be an invaluable enrichment that encouraged reading for pleasure, wider reading and creative writing. Visits were described as having ‘a profound and lasting impact’. All pupils were positively engaged including (and particularly) reluctant readers and those with Special Educational Needs. Teachers also detailed the benefit to their own teaching skills.”

Time to fire up that imaginary helicopter.

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Ode to Bicycles

Oh, bicycles! Let us speak of spokes. bianchi poster
You could ride a bicycle to summer with Saul Steinberg.steinberg bicycle122
Salute the finest form of transportation! steinberg bicycle123

Have some wheel fun ( a papercut I made in 2012).Paschkis bicycle trick
Bicycles are good for all species, as you can see in these Polish circus posters.cyrk bicycles
Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad share a bike. Sweet!
frog and toad
But they aren’t the only cycling amphibians.
gorey bicycle018
The above creature is from The Broken Spoke – Edward Gorey’s 1976 book of bicycling cards. gorey bicycle001
Each card is inspired by a different school of art, but essential Gorey-ness shines through in every picture, and in the text.gorey bicycle spyglass  gorey bicycle003 gorey demon cyclistgorey bicycle015gorey bicycle011 gorey bicycle012   gorey bicycle008
Here Gorey shows us bugs on bikes.
gorey bicycle121
Pablo Neruda had a similar idea with a completely different mood in this excerpt from his Ode to Bicycles.Neruda ode to bicycles
Today I finished this painting/drawing of bicycles. I’m not sure if it is really finished, but I don’t want to paint right now. It’s time to take a bike ride.
out for a spin

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part I)

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

It’s a Big World Out There

Exactly a week ago, I got home from a three-week trip to Tanzania. I was there to research a book. It was an amazing experience. There’s a lot to say about Tanzania. But the part I want to talk about is a visit I took to a traditional Maasai village.

As they have for centuries, the Maasai primarily live by herding cattle. As we drove around the country, it was common to see young boys in traditional Maasai blankets driving cattle or goats out into the countryside to graze. But it’s not a very secure way to make a living and some Maasai are looking for other ways to make money. A few villages have opened themselves to tourist visits. They sing and dance, offer crafts for sale and show visitors around.

bonny with dancers

But I had to keep telling myself that this wasn’t a visit to Williamsburg or the Polynesian village in Hawaii. This wasn’t an “enactment,” but real life in one of the poorest, least developed countries in the world where the average income is less than $50 a month.

The hands I held were rough. They had worked much harder than I had ever done in my life, but the smiles felt genuine. It’s hard to say. I can say for sure that the bouncing dance of the Maasai is harder to do than it looks.

Here are the village homes.

massai among huts

And no, they don’t go someplace else when the “gates” close, as I had to keep reminding myself. Here’s the kitchen:

kitchen in hut

The heat and “stove”:

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And the bedroom, sitting area:

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It’s true that the Maasai probably spend most of their time outdoors and use their homes mostly for sleeping, but most of the rooms in my house are bigger than any of the huts we saw.

We also visited the village pre-school. I’d done an earlier school visit as an author in the town of Morogoro and was shocked by the contrast. The Morogoro school was a private school and by Tanzanian standards very well off. They had a library of hundreds of books, slide projectors, colorful teaching aids, and well-fed, well-clothed students.

morogoro school

Here’s the school in the Maasai village.

overview of schoolroom

Paper is scarce, (that cupboard in the back was their entire supply closet) so students use a slate until they perfect their letters and numbers and then they might get to work with paper.

hands on slate

Of course, this was the local preschool, which is not mandatory or paid for by the government. I have to hope that the elementary school and secondary school in the area have more resources.

As the Maasai have been traditionally nomadic it’s been a challenge figuring out how to serve this population. It’s a problem the country is still working on. And the Maasai are just one of some 120 different tribes there.

But some things were the same as they are everywhere. The ABCs:

teacher at blackboard

An encouraging teacher:

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And the incandescent beauty of children:

cropped girl

My book isn’t about the Maasai or about poverty. But it reminded me that as a writer, and as a person, travel can do so many things. It brings alive the world you’re trying to create in your book, but it also brings alive the world itself.

P.S. After I posted this, my friend and fellow writer, Carmen Bernier Grand, asked if there was any way to help. I’m so glad she asked because it prompted me to do some research and I found this organization that helps the Maasai right where this school is located in the Ngorongoro region. Here’s a link: http://www.aidtanzania.org/index.cfm

Liking Root Beer, Disliking Liver

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For the last few days I’ve been reading a book titled You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice by Tom Vanderbilt. Very interesting, though (for my taste)  a little heavy on statistics from sociological, psychological and marketing surveys (“In a group of 100 Americans of widely differing incomes, 100% will consider themselves middle-class” and “11 of the 12 rats went for the sugar,” etc.) Still, the whole idea of the whys behind liking and disliking fascinate me. They feel wildly complicated and (as  Vanderbilt admits) almost impossible to determine. So, of course, I want to try.

A majority of people, when asked their favorite color will answer “Blue.” Is that because it’s the color of the sky? Cool water?  Faded levis? Do infants prefer blue? Statistically no, they do not. Nor do the majority of people want blue cars. So a “favorite” – that is, the act of liking – can be changed by context, connotations, associations, experiences…or the lack of any of the above. Notice, by the way, that a blue cover was chosen for You May Also Like. Coincidence? Probably not.

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Blue sky, blue water, blue jeans….

“Taste” is one of those words that pushes several directions at once (poets love words like this) because it can be a verb (“When I taste ripe raspberries right off the vine on a sunny day, I’m in heaven”) or it can be a noun with several definitions (“It was clear she had good taste” – that is, discerning judgment – and “She loved the taste of a root beer float”  – a sensory experience, in the mouth, on the tongue, all fizz and creaminess going down the throat. Words like that can be used to twist a sentence, make it ring two bells at once, and  surprise someone (hopefully both author and reader.) The poet Heather McHugh taught me to look at words that work hard and do double duty like that. You can play with them, like kids play with playdough, reshaping them constantly.

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As for liking and disliking, I like the taste of root beer, though I have to admit it’s a little odd. Still, sweet is sweet, and humans apparently are programmed to like what’s sweet (so some liking can be a genetic predilection.) But I don’t like things too sweet. Don’t like membrillo, too sweet. Love sauerkraut, not the slightest bit sweet.  So liking can be quantified, as can disliking. Don’t like apricots very much, but compared to liver – ugh, gag, etc.- apricots are delicious. Like Auden’s poetry, while Ashbury’s poetry leaves me thinking meh. Usually prefer non-fiction to fiction, unless the non-fiction is badly written and the fiction is brilliant…those opinions being a matter of personal taste (discerning judgment, right?) I like Matisse, don’t much like Rothko, though my sister keeps telling me to look more carefully at Rothko. I try. Maybe Rothko for me is like an apricot. Not liver, but also not root beer.

Refreshing Root Beer Float with Vanilla Ice Cream

Classic Root Beer Float

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Classic Ugh…That Is, Liver

I trust my sister’s judgment – we often have similar likes and dislikes. But last night I watched Episode 1 of a TV series she recommended and I found it too long, badly paced, confusing. The guilt I felt about not liking it made me want to like it more, but on the root beer-to-liver scale, it was too close to liver.  Still, when there is this kind of pressure to like something, then unadulterated liking is at risk. We want to like what someone we admire likes. I remember wanting to like coffee when I started drinking it, and not really liking it, but all the adults I loved liked it, and I wanted so much to like it that eventually I did. So taste can be a matter of habituating ourselves to something. It’s not always logical or pre-programmed. It’s sometimes slow in coming. Shared likes can create a community of sorts, as Facebook tries to demonstrate.

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Hated it, then loved it….

Hope to finish Vanderbilt’s book soon. Then I have to focus on finishing a book one of my friends chose for our next book discussion. She chose it because she liked it, of course. I am only on Page 53…no real opinion yet as to its root beer/liver quotient. Some of us in the book group will love it, some not, that’s the way it usually works – it takes a pretty extraordinary book to be universally loved, and we are perfectly happy just to read books that will expand our reading horizons.

I used to tell my creative writing students to write for themselves and for the type of readers who will love their particular story. It’s not smart to write for the widest possible audience unless your motivation is all bottom-line. Instead, write for readers who will browse the shelves of the library aching to find just your story. Think of your audience as small. If that audience widens up to include more people – that is, if it turns into a blue sky people point to and say, “Blue is my favorite color” – then so much the better. But there are lots of colors in a paint box. My favorite color? Well, today it’s green. I wouldn’t want a green car, but I like green hills. And wouldn’t a green story be wonderful?