Monthly Archives: March 2018

For Love of the World

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E.B. White

Lately I have been digging into the final dummy revisions for SQUEAK, a picture book which will be published by Philomel in 2019. It is a chain-reaction story; a Rube Goldberg alarm clock that starts with the squeak of a small mouse and ends with the biggest bison’s bellow billowing out over mountains and meadows and waking everybody else.

Along the way I get to draw chipmunks, trout, elk, eagles, bears, wolves, and big horned sheep, as well. Also the landscape and the plants where they live.

You might recognize Little Wolf whose howling in SQUEAK wakes the big horn sheep.

I am illustrating SQUEAK with my sister Kate Harvey McGee. I wrote the story and will create a black and white gouache layer, like the wolves above, for the illustrations. She will provide the color, as she did for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. One of the benefits of this collaboration is we talk over possibilities. For instance, tree choice.

We were hiking on the Oregon coast and came by this lovely Sitka spruce. It had the perfect opening at the bottom for a small mouse nest – and great checkered bark. But the big cast of animals in SQUEAK requires the ecosystem of a place like Yellowstone. That sent me scampering through the internet to see if there is a similar spruce in the Rockies – Yes! The Englemann spruce. I gathered screen grabs of the pine cones and needles, branching habit, etc. of this particular tree. And photos of the inside of stumps, too, for the final spread.

e spruce

For LITTLE WOLF, Kate captured the colors of the hours from evening to night, painting moonlight. But SQUEAK takes place just before the sun comes up, the whole story happens in about 15 minutes. She is experimenting with possible palettes, auditioning various pinks and oranges to suggest the pre-dawn.

To find the images and the colors to illustrate this story we tune into the beauty and wonder of the natural world: from the thick brown shag of a bear’s coat to the silver scales of trout, from grass-choked meadows to conifers hugging the bottom of rocky cliffs.

We were raised in Sonora, CA, in the Sierra foothills, and spent many happy days hiking the Emigrant Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 108. On backpack trips into the high country, we sometimes woke in the chilly pre-dawn when a few stars still lit the sky. We lay awake long enough to note the beautiful mountains, meadows and towering trees all around. Then, like the small mouse in SQUEAK, we snuggled down with our friends and went back to sleep.

How satisfying to have a project that recalls that place and lets us speak our love for the natural world.

Advertisements

Kalinka and Grakkle

It’s a book! It’s a beast!
It’s a book about a bird and a beast!

My new book Kalinka and Grakkle is a story about two neighbors: a tidy bird (Kalinka) and a messy beast (Grakkle). Kalinka thinks of herself as kind and helpful, but she is deluded. She goes into Grakkle’s house and offers him misguided and unwanted help. All he can say is GRAKK! He snaps.

kalinka grakk 18-19But eventually they find equilibrium in their friendship.

I hope you will get the book and read it, at your local library, or at Secret Garden Books in Seattle (you can order signed copies here), or at your local bookstore.

Even a simple book has a lot of backstory. Here is bit more about how Kalinka and Grakkle came to be.
Years ago I did a painting of a girl and a beast.


I wanted to paint more beasts, so I wrote a book about Beastly Behavior – a guide to bad manners. I tried many versions of the story, but it never quite worked.


My agent, Linda Pratt, suggested that I rewrite Goldilocks. I never understood why Goldilocks felt entitled to the bears’ porridge, chairs, and beds. Goldilocks became Goldibird – a small insufferable bird, and the bears became beasts. I painted these illustrations for Goldibird and the Three Beasts.


We sent it out and it was rejected – there were too many Goldilocks are in the world already.

Goldibird insisted on staying in the story, but I changed her name.
I rewrote the story as Kalinka and Grakkle. This time it worked! Peachtree Publishers accepted it for publication. But they weren’t crazy about the Goldibird art samples. So I drew many new Grakkles and Kalinkas.

We settled on how Grakkle and Kalinka would look. Next I worked on his house.


Peachtree thought this room was claustrophobic. Grakk!
So I repainted, and this is the version we used. Aah – more room to breathe.

Kalinka and Grakkle is about unwanted advice and help. I strive to balance my own thoughts with the advice of others – I want to stay open to good suggestions but also to retain my own core. Conversely I struggle to realize when I am over-generous with my opinions. I see some Kalinka and some Grakkle in myself!

Eventually Kalinka and Grakkle snuggle up for a nice nap. My advice: snuggle up with this book and enjoy it.

P.S. I will be at Secret Garden Books, 2214 NW Market St. in Seattle on May 12th  from 6-8 PM for the Ballard Art Walk. I will bring a lot of the original paintings from Kalinka and Grakkle.

P.S. I will be traveling next week. I appreciate your comments on the blog, but I won’t be able to reply immediately.

Easter Egg Hunt!

From Wikipedia:

An Easter egg is an intentional inside joke, hidden message or image, or secret feature of a work (often found in a computer program, video game, or DVD/Blu-ray Disc menu screen). The name is used to evoke the idea of a traditional Easter egg hunt.

I had never heard the term before last week, when Books Around The Table met for our monthly lunch and critique meeting.

I was showing the images I have done so far for Where Lily Isn’t and pointed out a not-so-hidden classic dog book reference (can you find it?) when Bonny Becker brought up the term.

M Chodos-Irvine-Where Lily Isn't pg 10 final

I’ve put Easter Eggs into my illustrations before. In my first picture book – BUZZ, by Janet Wong – I included my eldest daughter’s birthday on one spread,

BUZZ car page

And both my daughters appear in the parade led by the main character at the end of Apple Pie 4th of July, also by Wong.

M Chodos-Irvine Apple Pie 4th of July final spread

On a more somber note, many years ago I heard Maurice Sendak talk about his work for Dear Mili, a lesser known Grimm story about a young child’s journey during wartime. Sendak’s imagery for this book is full of visual clues of his thoughts and influences (perhaps Easter Egg isn’t an appropriate term in this case), including images of Jewish children in Nazi Europe during the Holocaust, the face of Mozart, references to Van Gogh, and many more that I can no longer remember. It is a masterwork, IMHO.

M Sendak- Dear Mili spread 2M Sendak- Dear Mili spread 1

I believe Easter Eggs are common in picture books. Do you know of any? Have you hidden them in your own work? Do tell! It’s the perfect time of year for an Easter Egg hunt!

Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.