Monthly Archives: December 2016

Our Nation’s Library

The Library of Congress is one of those things that you feel you know—because you’ve said the words all your life—but then you realize you don’t really know that much about it.

One of my sisters recently sent me a link that I want to share, but first a bit about the library gleaned from the web. It’s the largest library in the world. According to its website “its collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages. Two-thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English.”

Officially, it’s the research library for the United States Congress and it’s the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. It includes the Center for the Book which supports the Young Readers Center and the Poetry and Literature Center, which promote books, reading and libraries.

And it does lots of amazing things including scanning and posting this wonderful collection of classic children’s books: http://read.gov/books

Most of the books are from the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s fun to see how kids books have changed.

I love this one–The Children’s Object Book published in the 1880s.

objects-kitchen

objects-winter

I instantly thought of Richard Scarry books.

scarry-townscarry-mealtime

The objects have changed, the art style has changed, the sheer volume of stuff has changed—but kids still like to look at and identify the objects of their world.

The book collection is heavy on fairy tale and folk tale collections, Mother Goose and lots of rhyming. Some of it pretty tortured.

the-rocket-text the-rocket-1

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rocket-train-set-text

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But it’s fun to see “concept” books like The Rocket Book by Peter Newell, 1912, being played around with early on in children’s publishing. Another concept book, Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old, published in 1896, encourages kids to use their imaginations with inkblots.

gobolink-1

Of course, it instantly brings to mind the Rorschach test. So out of curiousity I googled it to see how the dates matched up. The Rorschach test wasn’t developed until the 1960s, but interpreting blobs of ink started much earlier. According to Wikipedia, “Justinus Kerner invented this technique when he started accidentally dropping blots of ink onto paper due to failing eyesight. Instead of throwing them away, he found that intriguing shapes appeared if he unfolded the papers. He elaborated these shapes into intricate cartoons and used them to illustrate his poems.” This was in the 1850s.

The collections features work from some big name illustrators like Arthur Rackham:

sleeping-beauty

Sleeping Beauty, 1920

And N.C. Wyeth

Robin Hood, 1957

Robin Hood, 1957

And W.W. Denslow:

Denslow's Three Bears, 1901

Denslow’s Three Bears, 1901

There are also early versions of what I would call “franchise” books (like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh books.) There’s a long chapter book about Peter Rabbit called Mrs. Peter Rabbit from 1919. They don’t claim this is Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, but still the name serves its purpose.

In this case, Peter Rabbit, after many adventures finds his true love, gets married and has kids.

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Part of what I love about this on-line collection is the clarity of the reproductions. The pages show the wear and tear of the years and the hands they passed through.

marked-up-peter-rabbitmother-goose

It reminds me of the books I read from my family bookshelves as a kid. Many of them dating back to the turn of the century. I remember the tattered covers, the soft, yellowed pages and their musty smell; the occasional colored illustration on it’s own page of slicker, whiter paper. Sometimes there was onion paper between the illustration page and the next page of text. All of this shows up in the Library of Congress’s collection. So the experience of these books will be saved for generations to come.

If you want to check out the Library itself and all it has to offer you can here: https://www.loc.gov

 

 

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Salaaming into Joy

carl-larsson-tree

In the Christmas cards I’m sending out this year, I’ve been asking friends, “Who knows what 2017 will bring?” I don’t know the answer. Weather sites all say it’s going to be a hard winter. So do the opinion pages of the New York Times.

We’re all a bit unsure, aren’t we? A bit worried? More than a bit? Here are my two recommendations for facing the year ahead:

First, read a poem about winter.

My favorite is John Clare’s Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter. But here is another poem I found recently, and I think I’ll read it as my family (fourteen people around my table) sits down to dinner on Christmas Eve. You can read (and listen to) many more winter poems here.

Winter Evening by Georg Trakl

When snow falls against the window,
Long sounds the evening bell…
For so many has the table
Been prepared, the house set in order.

From their wandering, many
Come on dark paths to this gateway.
The tree of grace is flowering in gold
Out of the cool sap of the earth.

In stillness, wanderer, step in:
Grief has worn the threshold into stone.
But see: in pure light, glowing
There on the table: bread and wine.

bread-and-wine

I know that the message in that poem might be about a higher kind of “gateway” than my own front door. Most likely, it’s religious (Heaven, anyone?) But I like its simpler message. Time to meet. Time to share. What about the grief which has “worn the threshold into stone”? Well, maybe we can step from it and enter the house, talk, feel generous again.  Feel worried, but also feel energetic.  There’s bread and wine on that table; on mine, there’s going to be smoked ham, brussels sprouts, tabbouleh, cheeses, hot cross buns, marion-berry pie and gingerbread.

Next, read a poem about summer.

lake-and-dock

I’m going to let my heart tell my brain that, despite the puzzling and worrisome events of November 8th, 2016, in America, there is still room for hope. The sun will shine…

laundry-line

…it’s just up to me and millions of other people to help determine which direction it shines. I’ve got my New Year’s resolution figured out: to become more optimistic, more active and committed to helping light shine in the right places in the year ahead.

Here is a summer poem I like a lot. Word of warning: the formatting of the lines is a little wonky – it’s long-lined and there’s not quite room on this blog page – so lines are slightly broken up. Still, I wanted to share it. I love what the poet, Dick Allen, says – time to “air out the linen,” notice the light, slow down, hear and see and touch the real world, gather together. The ski bum in this poem believes we can “salaam into joy.” So do I.

If You Get There Before I Do by Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible–what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all–the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses–
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.


Isn’t that lovely? Dick Allen is part of a poetry movement called Expansive Poetry – you can read more about it here. He’s a storyteller – and I’m going to work to figure out how to tell more stories through poetry this next year. I’m going to try to be more creative, and more active politically. How about you? Are you reading this and feeling like there might be a place for you that “love has kept protected”?  Tell all the skeptics, bigots, critics right now: What Dick Allen said — you’re allowed to go there. And as Georg Trakl said, “In stillness, wanderer, step in.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2017 to all the readers of Books Around the Table!

[P.S. It’s Poetry Friday today and Buffy Silverman is hosting the round-up at Buffy’s Blog. Head over there to see what other people have posted.)

carl-larsson

Snow on the ground….

2017

…flowers on the horizon.

wildflower-field-at-farm

 

RING THE BELLS

Seventy-year old rocker Patti Smith sang at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize induction this earlier this month. She chose to sing Dylan’s It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall, but she had a rough go at it. As Patti writes in the New Yorker, she had totally prepared, but when the time came to deliver the lyrics, she was overcome by the momentous occasion and the thought of the luminous laureates who had come before and, though she could feel the lyrics inside herself, she could not pull them out. She started over. But, as she writes, it never got easier.

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Watch her performance. It is raw and authentic. Though the lyrics are imperfect, she delivers the song. Her stumbles went to the heart of what the song is about.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony

Of course writing and illustrating books are not performance art. Our process allows an attempt at perfection with countless revisions of text, and – especially since the advent of digital art – endless dinking with the illustrations.

So I’m thinking about Patti Smith’s performance more in terms of navigating life than in creating a picture book.

Here we are in the thick of the holidays with their expectation of perfection: the perfectly decorated perfect tree, the perfect feast just like Mom used to make, perfect gifts tied up with perfect bows. And I think we can learn from Patti Smith’s experience: prepare the best we can and trust the song will come through.

As Leonard Cohen writes eloquently in Anthem:

       Ring the bells that still can ring 
       Forget your perfect offering 
       There is a crack in everything 
       That’s how the light gets in.

*****

Happy holidays to all our BATT readers. Here’s to a New Year full of music and good stories and light. Lots of beautiful light.

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P.S. Bob Dylan did not attend his ceremony, but he sent a letter. You can read that here: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-speech.html

First Light Thoughts: Paul Fleischman

I have been lucky enough to illustrate two books written by Paul Fleischman: Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal and First Light, First Life. The writing in them is gem-like: much information is compressed into something brilliant. Each word matters. Today Paul is a guest blogger, writing about how the many strands in his writing developed from his life.  The article shows how his writing is infused with more than you notice at first. It’s like a soup broth that has been made of many ingredients. You can no longer see all of the ingredients when the broth is done, but you can taste them.

first-light-cover

Here is Paul’s essay. For more of his writing go to  www.paulfleischman.net.

………………………………………………..

With its braiding together of creation motifs from around the world, First Light, First Life might seem to have been rushed into print to counter the nationalism that’s erupted into political life.  If only my crystal ball were that clear.  In truth the book came from far in my past, and all our pasts.

“A man is known least to himself,” wrote Cicero.  The same holds true for our cultures.  Immersed in them, we can’t get an objective view and tend toward thinking they’re universal, or should be.  Many are the societies whose name for themselves means “the people.”  I accepted unthinkingly the white, upper-middle class world of Santa Monica, California that I grew up in.  We were “the people,” our lifeways confirmed by the programs we watched on TV.  Everyone lived in the suburbs, didn’t they?  But then I became aware of alternate possibilities.

They arrived through the air.  At eleven years old, I received a shortwave radio.  Suddenly my world’s boundaries shot outward.  My classmates got their news from Walter Cronkite; I got mine from the BBC, Radio Peking, Radio Australia.  I listened to the latest Beatles hits on KRLA but also to the pulsing, odd-sounding scales of music from the Middle East.  Each station was its country’s chamber of commerce and culture.  I heard programs from Norway in praise of saunas and Radio South Africa’s repeated explanations of the many benefits of apartheid.  English was one tongue among many here.  Listening to languages I didn’t understand showed me the purely musical side of words, something that would inform my writing style decades in the future.  Every house should have a shortwave.

Paul and his shortwave radio

Paul and his shortwave radio

And so it was that in high school I began slipping into churches for the first time in my life and sampling their services.  I watched my neighbors and did what they did, fumbling to find the hymn that was being sung, dropping down onto the kneeler when they did.  The same impulse must have led me to attend my first folk dance.  The small room was packed with college students dancing in lines to music from Bulgaria, Israel, Sweden, French Canada.  The songs were in 4/4 rhythm, then 7/8, then 13/16, some played on instruments I’d never heard.  I knew none of the steps, but I was hooked.

Though I concentrated on English and history in college, I found myself studying mythology and folklore on the side.  I memorized Greek myths, filling the hole left by my secular youth.  I pored over the bizarre customs and religions in The Golden Bough, James George Frazier’s tour of the world we’d all come from.  And then came one of those right-book-at-the-right-time moments: opening Patterns of Culture by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, a portrait of the differing values encouraged by the consensus-minded Pueblo Indians, the belligerent Dobu of New Guinea, and the reputation-obsessed Kwakiutl of British Columbia.  For the first time I felt I had a view from above of my own society and its heavy weighting toward individualism and competition.

I finished college in multi-cultural Albuquerque.  Living there again years later, I attended the right party at the right time, during which a woman appeared with a loop of string and did the opening move of cat’s cradle.  She held it out to the man beside her and though none of us had played this string game since grammar school, he remembered the next move.  The string came to me.  I was surprised that I remembered as well.  The woman I turned to had grown up in Nepal.  Amazingly, she too knew the next move.  Though we’d come from many places, it was as if we’d had the same childhood.

These many tributaries flowed into Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal, a weaving of Cinderella variants from around the world into a single strand, a testament to diversity as well as the commonality of the human condition.  That book in turn led to First Light, First Life.  Cinderella’s story is folklore, but creation accounts are something more.  Believing or not believing them matters.  What matters for me is the larger truth: that our beliefs vary widely and that the culture around us is only one square in the quilt.  And what a marvelous, many-colored quilt it is.  Children are never too young to learn this.

The same goes for adults.  The urge toward group identity and exclusion of others is strong.  Borders, walls, and cultural superiority have always been an easy sell.  It’s easy as well to see where these lead when stoked: to intolerance, scapegoating, war, genocide.  Gaining altitude and perspective has never been more vital.  Books, like hot air balloons, can lift us above the walls we’ve built around ourselves.  I salute the writers who taught me to see beyond borders, and the teachers who brought me their books.

 

What Would Betsy Ross Do?

This post is drafted from a letter that I recently sent out to artists that I know. Although many of our readers are from outside the United States, I hope that it will still be something in which everyone can find commonality and perhaps participate.

zimand-us_historical_flags-united_states_of_america

We are living in interesting times.

November 9, 2016, was a difficult day for me. It felt like the world as I knew it, or thought I did, had upended itself. I went through something similar in London with the Brexit vote, but this goes deeper, and feels more ominous.

upsidedownusflag

As I usually do in times of confusion and pain, I turned to making things. Textiles have been my favored medium of late, so I started making a version of what I was feeling out of fabric. After I got started, I realized I was designing my concept of a new flag for this country. It is a work in progress. It gives me some catharsis.

m-chodos-irvine-newusflag1detail

But now I want more. I want to see what other people imagine a new, more accurate flag for this country might look like. Flags are symbolic representations of nations. The Stars and Stripes represent unity and balance. Are we still that nation?

So I am asking, regardless of how you voted, What do you envision? Show us.

You may use any medium: fabric, paper, paint, metal, printmaking, wood, computer graphics, collage, mixed media … whatever you are comfortable with.

You can find the specifications of the U.S. flag (as well as it’s history) here, but you are not limited to this format. The size limit is 6’ X 10’.

If  enough new flags are created, I will find a way to publicize and exhibit them, perhaps producing a catalogue.

The deadline to begin is Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. The final deadline will be March 15, 2017. My goal is to have everything completed for a show by Flag Day, June 14th, 2017.

If you post on social media, please tag me, (Margaret Chodos-Irvine on FB, @margaretci on Instagram) and include this hashtag: #newusflag

You may also include the following hashtags if you like: #newflagsforinterestingtimes #whatwouldbetsyrossdo #whatwouldbetsyrossthink

Yours in creative solidarity,

Margaret Chodos-Irvine

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