Monthly Archives: February 2018


Earlier this week it snowed in Seattle. We woke to clear blue skies and an outdoor world blanketed with an inch or two of bright white powder. My daily walk down the driveway to get the newspaper became one of discovery: the yellow witchhazel fluffs each wore a snow hat, same for the rhody leaves.

Animal tracks on the pavement led into the woods. Who knew this was a bunny crossing?

bunnytracksI was seeing my old familiar walk with fresh eyes. So exhilarating.

Seeing with fresh eyes is one reason I love hanging out with my almost-three-year old grandson. The world is new to him. On a walk around an ordinary San Francisco city block he discovers seedpods and leaves and various ornamental details. He pays attention to everything. When the MUNI tram goes by, he notices the paint scheme (he particularly loves the polka dot MUNI). He watches the sidewalk, too, and points out letters he recognizes on the public works cement vaults signage. He finds other lines in the cement that are perfect to jump between.

I understand that our adult brains, in the interest of efficiency, stop noticing familiar details. I have walked down our driveway at least 1,000 times. I guess it makes sense to tune out. But what wonders await when I tune in.

This week my sister Kate Harvey McGee was visiting so we could work on our book, SQUEAK, which is slated to come out from Philomel in 2019. I create the black and white part of our illustrations, first painting in gouache resist, then scanning, and reworking in Photoshop.

8-9mouseK I send my files to Kate for coloring. Kate works in Photoshop, too.

Kate lives near Philomath, Oregon, and we usually work through email. So it was fun to sit in the same room and kibitz, and to be able to print out our efforts and take a look together.


Something about printing out triggers the fresh eyes thing. We hung the print on the wall and kept returning to look at it over the next few days. Pretty soon we were adding post-its: “rounder mouse butt,” “shadow plant” etc etc.

Kate and her partner Scott were also in Seattle because we had a family event to celebrate – our niece Maia is now engaged to Chris. So we were all thinking about how it is to fall in love. It’s related, isn’t it, to seeing with fresh eyes?


Remember when you first met the person you love most deeply – and that wonder of discovering him or her?

I wish Mai and Chris all the best – and for the rest of us, here’s to seeing all the world with fresh eyes.









Last week I learned about the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota. How could I not have known about it before?

by Raúl Colón

The Kerlan Collection is an amazing, world class collection of children’s literature. They have more than 100,000 children’s books, as well as manuscripts, galleys, dummies and original art. It is a book orchard, laden with tasty images and fruitful information.

by Jesse Hartland

If you can’t get to Minnesota this week, you can still explore a lot of their on-line resources. I saw work by old favorites, and discovered new artists.
Here is a link to an article exploring the many ways that picture book art has been made. You can learn about color separations. You can see examples of illustrations that were created with drawing, printing, scratchboard, paint and collage.

by Leonard Everett Fisher

by Marisabina Russo

by Melissa Sweet

Another part features Melissa Sweet explaining how she illustrated Balloons Over Broadway. There are sections on how she developed the ideas: her research, meandering and techniques. There are curriculum ideas. Reading about Sweet’s process enriches the experience of looking at this buoyant book. Here is a link.

A third section compares versions of Little Red Riding Hood. I found this particularly interesting because of the books by Paul Fleischman that I have illustrated which combine multiple versions of fairy tales. Here is a link to the Red Riding Hood exploration.

Ames 1901

Platt- Munk 1924

Benji Montresor 1989

I had never heard of the artist Edgard Tijtgat before seeing his version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Tijtgat 1918

I found it so haunting and beautiful that I hunted down other images by him on the World Wide Web. (I wandered away from the Kerlan for this digression.)


I am grateful to the Kerlan for amassing such a collection and for sharing it with the world. I liked learning more about people I already admired such as Melissa Sweet, and discovering new artists, like Edgard Tijtgat. I am honored that I might be included in the Kerlan collection in the future.
Check out the Kerlan here! Who knows where your discoveries might take you.


Always Coming Home

When I learned that Ursula K. LeGuin had died, it came as a shock. I knew she was getting older, but she still seemed invincible to me. I am fortunate to have been one of the many people whom Ursula Le Guin brought into her creative universe. She was very generous in her collaborations. I worked on several book projects with her, and kept in touch over the years. I will miss her.

In the summer of 1982 when I was 20 years-old, I got a call from Todd Barton, the then music director for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and a former teacher of mine at the University of Oregon, asking if I would be interested in working on a project with Ursula Le Guin and him.

Ursula K. Le Guin. I knew that name. I had read one and a half books of the Earthsea Trilogy in high school, but had to give the set back to my friend so never finished the rest. I figured that I should memorize the author’s name so I could find them and finish them some day.

The reason Todd Barton called a 20-year-old college junior was because he knew I had an interest in scientific illustration (I was pursuing a double major in art and anthropology) and had seen a fair amount of my student work. Ursula had written Always Coming Home, an archaeological study of a culture that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now” and was looking for someone to illustrate it. She wanted someone young and not yet “jaded” about work. Todd was going to create the music. The book would come in a boxed set with a cassette tape.

I said yes.

I worked on the book for a year and a half, taking time off from school to complete it. I created 101 illustrations, mostly in pen and ink, but including a few woodcuts.

While I was working on the illustrations for the book, I spent a few weeks with Ursula and her family at her childhood summer house in Sonoma County – the setting for Always Coming Home. I went there to observe, study and draw reference on site for the illustrations.

One day while walking with Ursula on the grassy hills surrounding the house, she bent over and picked up a leaf and showed it to me. The leaf had a beautifully convoluted pattern etched into it by some sort of leaf borer. That was the moment that I realized that she saw much more than I did in the world around me. It isn’t enough to see things when you look for them. You need to look for things to see.

So I want to give Ursula credit for changing my life. Not in the obvious way – by being the first person to hire me to illustrate anything – but on a more personal and fundamental level.

To be open. To notice. To gather. To find.

That is the gift I needed most at the time, and I have carried it throughout my life.

And I still have that leaf.


LeGuin and the sleeping castle

Illustration by P.D. White

There are so many things one could say about Ursula LeGuin, who died Jan. 22. The sure, clean music of her prose, the way certain of her images and passages stay in your mind forever (the labyrinthine tombs of Atuan, the clot of black shadow called forth by Ged), her deeply thought-out world-building. But this week as I reread some of her essays and books, I was reminded how much she engages the reader.

A lot of us can find ourselves spoon-feeding the reader with the appropriate emotions to have, the appropriate conclusions to draw. But there’s almost no way to read LeGuin and not have one’s mind opened to ideas, feelings and possibilities that feel like your own explorations. That refresh and engage your mind and your emotions.

Recently I read some of her essays in Cheek by Jowl, a collection of essays about how and why fantasy matters. Reading one essay The Wilderness Within, I was suddenly cast back into my childhood and the role of solitude in creative work—which wasn’t actually LeGuin’s point at all. But her words took me there.

The essay starts with how a writer is influenced by other writings, and she scolds the literary establishment for ignoring fairy tales, folk tales, oral stories, and picture books—the pre-literate influences that touch us before we can read.

LeGuin uses the story of The Sleeping Beauty as an example.

“The Sleeping Beauty… is one story I’ve ‘always known,’ just as it’s one of those stories ‘we all know.’ Are not such stories part of our literary inheritance?”

Of course they are. And, in truth, I’m not sure who LeGuin is arguing with here. I’m don’t think there are many writers or readers or critics who would argue with that. But, straw man or not, it does give her chance to talk about her take on Sleeping Beauty, and how it influenced her own writing.

She briefly recounts the familiar tale—the curse, the spindle, the sleep, the kiss, –then notes, “I wasn’t aware it held any particular meaning or fascination for me, that it had ‘had any influence’ on me, until, along in my sixties, I came on Sylvia Townsend Warner’s evocation of the tale in a tiny poem…

The Sleeping Beauty woke:
The spit began to turn,

The woodmen cleared the brake,
The gardener mowed the lawn.
Woe’s me! And must one kiss
Revoke the silent house, the birdsong wilderness?

Illustration by Edward Coley Burnes-Jones

According to LeGuin this poem was a revelation. It turned the story on its head and suddenly she could see her own way into it.

“The pall of sleep… is supposedly the effect of a malicious spell, a curse; the prince’s kiss…a happy ending. Townsend Warner asks, was it a curse after all? The thorn-hedge broken, the cooks growling at their porridge-pots, the peasants laboring again at their sowing and harvesting, the cat leaping upon the mouse…Beauty staring in some confusion at the smiling young man who is going to carry her off and make her a wife—everything back to normal, everyday, commonplace, ordinary life. The silence, the peace, the magic—gone.”

LeGuin realized that, at least for her, the story was about that “still center” symbolized by the sleeping castle: ‘the silent house, the birdsong wilderness.’”

It is, of course, in archetypal terms the enchanted place of childhood. Preadolescence. Celibacy. Virginity.

“…a place hidden in the heart and mind of a girl of twelve or fifteen. There she is alone, all by herself, content, and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don’t wake me. Don’t know me. Let me be…

At the same time she is probably shouting out of the windows of another corner of her being, Here I am, do come, oh do hurry up and come! And she lets down her hair and the prince comes thundering up… and the world goes on.

But at least she had a little while by herself, in the house that was hers the garden of silence. Too many Beauties never even know there is such a place.”

Although LeGuin goes on to talk about how this led her to write a short story based on the tale, what really struck me was her delicious description of that place before the kiss.

“That is the image we retain. The unmoving smoke above the chimney top. The spindle fallen from the motionless hand. The cat asleep near the sleeping mouse. No noise. No bustle, no busyness. Utter peace. Nothing moving but the slow subtle growth of the thorn bushes, ever thicker and higher about the boundary, and the birds who fly over the high hedge, singing, and pass on.

“It is the secret garden; it is Eden; it is the dream of utter, sunlit safety; it is the changeless kingdom.”

Illustration by Martha Saudek

This whole section caught me up. Because I, too, knew that enchanted place. For a time I was in complete possession of my body, of my mind, of my interests. It didn’t occur to me to be defensive about any of that. Who was there to answer to? I wasn’t completely a girl. I wasn’t completely a boy. I was just a person. I was about ten years old.

I think that maybe why I’m drawn to writing for children. Part of me wants to touch that changeless kingdom, again.

And then my thoughts moved onto something new. Even though it wasn’t the point of LeGuin’s essay, it occurred to me that being an artist requires regular visits to that timeless place.

There, we are not necessarily boys or girls, human or animal. We are all of them. We are briefly accountable to no one. And, until the first person reads our work, we don’t have to be defensive about anything.

We can’t stay in that place, of course. The work must come back through the thorns. It needs to communicate. Or rather, most of us in this field, hope it communicates. And so our “critic” comes in (waking us considerably less gently than with a kiss) and starts to do his or her work.

But as artists we need to routinely reclaim that place of solitude, of quiet, of stillness whenever we can. The cook spoon can fall from our hands; the phone can go unanswered; the floor can be unswept. Because as LeGuin notes, that’s where the magic is.