Monthly Archives: August 2018

The All-American County Fair

Charlottes Web 7

We went to the Northwest Washington Fair a couple of weeks ago, and no – I did not ride on the Ring of Fire.

Instead, I went straight to see the piglets in the big petting barn next to the Swine Barn. How can it be, I wondered as I turned in my ticket and walked through the gate, that some wonderful sow is ready to give us a new set of piglets just in time for the fair each year? Thank you, sows of Northwest Washington!

Charlottes Web 11

We took along my sister-in-law and niece who were visiting from their home in Hermosillo, Mexico, and we planned their visit specifically so we could show them the quintessential American event: the county fair. Though some people prefer state fairs, I like mine a bit smaller, more regional, like this:

Charlottes Web 9

Oh, my gosh, that’s Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web, isn’t it?

Charlottes Web 1

I like looking for names I recognize on the quilts or the flower & canned goods (especially peaches and pickles) displays.

Charlottes Web 16

charlottes web 22

charlottes web 21

charlottes web 29

I love to see how inventive kids are when they make their “vegetable critters.”

charlottes web 20

Each year I vote for my favorite display of kids’ collections (legos galore, model horses, matchbox cars, dolls, beer bottle caps) and I vote for the local grange displays. This year we saw a corn stalk that measured 14-feet tall. Bravo! Corn is very big on my list of Why the World is Wonderful. The countryside of Whatcom County, Washington, where I live, is covered with corn fields (that is, where it’s not covered with raspberry fields. And blueberry fields…) A drive out into the country to find a corn stand can be pretty breathtaking.

Rural Beauty

We live in real county-fair territory….

I sometimes agree but often disagree with the judges about which item was awarded Best of Show (Big Purple Ribbons, Big Red-White-and-Blue Ribbons!) in just about every category under the sun. And I’m always touched by how eager and devoted the 4-H kids seem to be to their animals and their chores.

This year we paid special attention to the horses, since my niece has three of her own and is learning to jump with them. We saw barrel racing, saw the judged 4-H horse jumping, and were struck dumb by the size of the Clydesdales when you’re standing right next to them.

charlottes web 8.png

charlottes web 23

I like staying as long as humanly possible, but at least from midday until the sun goes down and the carny rides light up and the food begins to smell divine. We eat without any attention to what’s healthy for the long term, and without any regard to “a balanced meal.” To follow the Charlotte’s Web thread, we pig out on….

Charlottes Web 6

Kettlecorn…

charlottes web 26

…and curly fries…

Charlottes web 13

…and corn-on-the-cob…

charlottes web 27

…and hot dogs…

charlottes Web 17

Anything with whipped cream and berries gets our attention, but….

charlottes web 12

…”Chocolate-Covered Bacon”? Maybe too much, even for us….

Garth Williams knew exactly how a person (or a pig…or a rat) feels after a day at the fair:

Charlottes Web 2

When the fair begins….

Charlottes Web 10

…and when it’s time to go home!

I’m not a true flag-waving patriot most of the time. Maybe I’m an ACLU and League-of-Women-Voters-style patriot. My neighbor, a sweet guy, flies an American flag most of the year, while I fly a Bellingham flag with symbols on it which stand for for two Native American tribes, one saltwater bay, a waterfall, and four towns which eventually became the town we live in. So the red-white-and-blue is not quite as appealing to me as the green-white-and-blue. But when it comes to showing my family from Mexico around, giving them an experience I consider truly American, the county fair is the way I wave a flag. You might call me a county-fair patriot.

Now that our guests have gone, I’ve got some quiet time, and I’m looking for a good book to read. I think I’ll get out my old and battered copy of Charlotte’s Web.  If “Write what you know”  is good advice for writers, I’m sure E.B. White knew a few fairs, as did Garth Williams – they had county fairs (and the people who head for the Swine Barn first) all figured out.

Charlottes Web 15

‘All morning, people wandered past Wilbur’s pen. Dozens and dozens of strangers stopped to stare at him and to admire his silky white coat, his curly tail, his kind and radiant expression.” (Charlotte’s Web)

 

Advertisements

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

082018_angledUP

In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s 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.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

Vivid

Just out: VIVID- Poems and Notes about Color.

The spark for this book came in April of 2015 when I listened to a Radio Lab show about color. I already thought about color all the time. What a pleasure  it is to put one color next to another when I paint! But the podcast opened my eyes to the science of color. I painted this picture then.

Over the next 6-8 months I began writing poems about colors and squirreling away facts.When I had enough for a book I submitted with the manuscript with the sample illustration for RED. Laura Godwin at Henry Holt accepted it – hooray!

In the fall of 2016 I began to paint. But I had a bicycle accident and lost the use of my arm for 6 months. I was able to paint again in early 2017 and I struggled to find my way back in to the book. The joy of color eventually pulled me in again.

Did you know that the color pink was named after a flower (pinks – also called dianthus)? Did you know that it took 250,000 snails to make an ounce of purple dye which is why purple was a royal color? I didn’t.


You can learn about color with your mind, and with your eyes and hands. Even though a computer offers a huge palette of colors it is exciting to mix your own.What happens when you add a drop of orange to a lot of yellow and a little blue?
I hope you will play with color. And I hope that you will pick up a copy of Vivid. You can get it at Secret Garden Books: click here. Thank you.

I offer tidbits about color – but the science and poetry of color ask for deeper study. My goal is to encourage you and all readers to dive in headfirst.

p.s. I will be away this weekend – I will answer any comments next week.

Wild Things

I have another book to recommend: Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As An Adult, by  Bruce Handy. I checked it out from the library after reading this piece in the New Yorker. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but it has been an enjoyable summer read.

Bruce Handy is about my age, a parent, white, and born on the West Coast. Perhaps having those things in common is why I can relate so easily to his nostalgic trip through classic American kid lit. He broke his reading teeth on Dr. Seuss (for him it was Ten Apples Up on Top!, for me it was One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish). Like me, he remembers the first time he was read Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He also received, as a new parent, multiple copies of Goodnight Moon. So his trip down a literary Memory Lane takes me back as well. He revisits many of the books I read as a child, but also several that I didn’t. He also explores the whys and hows that have made these books into classics.

I often wonder about the lives of the authors I read, but even in this age of Wikipedia, who has the time? Handy has done that for us. He finds the stories behind the stories – from Margaret Wise Brown and her taste for luxury, to the  “philosophical conversion” of C. S. Lewis and Theodore Geisel’s anarchic response to Dick and Jane – with humor and insight and many personal asides (maybe too many? but hey, I’m guilty of the same fondness for parentheses).

To be clear, Wild Things is not an anthology. It is an appreciation of the books and the authors who start us on the path (a yellow brick road, perhaps?) to a lifelong love of books. The most famous ones, at least.

I will warn you of one frustration I have with the book; there are no pictures apart from some spot drawings for the chapter headings by Seo Kim. When Handy describes an illustration, I want to see what he’s talking about, but I imagine that would have been expensive to produce and problematic with all those copyrights to contend with.

I am almost to the last chapter, which is appropriately titled “The End: Dead Pets, Dead Grandparents, and the Glory of Everything.” Since I have been working on a book about the loss of a pet, it should be especially interesting. After I’m done, maybe I’ll go reread some of my favorite kid lit!

 

 

Sometimes Telling Does the Trick

A couple blog posts ago, I talked about how important is to create an emotional experience for your reader. Donald Maass lays out some strategies for how you can do that in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass says the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond,” says Maass

There are three main paths to creating an emotional response. Outer Mode: showing. (see my earlier post on that one.) Inner Mode: telling. And something Maass calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

Let’s take a look at Inner Mode and that forbidden art of telling.

Here’s an example that Maass uses from Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. It’s about a young man named Philip Ashley who’s been raised by his older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose leaves on a trip and Philip is miserable without him. Then he gets a letter from Ambrose announcing his marriage to a woman named Rachel.

The letter came about half-past five, just after I had dined. Luckily, I was alone. Seecombe had brought in the post-bag, and left it with me. I put the letter in my pocket and walked out across the fields down to the sea. Seecombe’s nephew, who had the mill cottage on the beach, said good-day to me. He had his nets spread on the stone wall, drying in the last of the sun. I barely answered him, and he must have thought me curt. I climbed over the rocks to a narrow ledge, jutting into the little bay, where I used to swim in summer. Ambrose would anchor some fifty yards out in his boat, and I would swim to him. I sat down, and taking the letter from my pocket read it again. If I could have felt one spark of sympathy, of gladness, one single ray of warmth towards those two who were sharing happiness together down in Naples, it would have eased my conscience. Ashamed of myself, bitterly angry at my selfishness, I could raise no feeling in my heart at all. I sat there, numb with misery, staring at the flat calm, sea. I had just turned twenty-three, and yet I felt as lonely and as lost as I had done years before, sitting on a bench in Fourth Form, at Harrow, with no one to befriend me, and nothing before me, only a new world of strange experience that I did not want.

Du Maurier is doing several things here. First of all, she makes you, the reader, wait to learn what’s in that letter. You know the news isn’t good (Luckily, I was alone.) And, the wait builds up your own sense of dread. And, even if she isn’t showing Philip’s reaction through describing him, she is putting you through the character’s experience as he focuses on the mundane details of his walk to the beach. Isn’t that what we all do when we’re in something of emotional shock. We narrow our focus; we delay the feelings until we’re somewhere where we can deal with them.

And, as Maass notes, once we get to the place were Philip can unpack his feelings, she uses the setting, alone on a rocky shore, as a metaphor for his inner state. She also juxtaposes his earlier, trusting time with Ambrose learning to swim with this current feeling of separation.

Maass also likes that she runs the reader through the emotions that Philip believes he should be feeling versus what he actually feels. Maass calls this getting down to third level feelings. Getting past the obvious, immediate feelings that a character might be expected to have and surprising the reader with what is actually going on inside.

One of the more iconic examples of creating an analogy for a feeling. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.

He offers an exercise for how to create scenes like this in your own writing.

– Select a moment from your story when your main character feels strongly. Identify the feeling and ask your character: “What else are you feeling at this moment?” Write that down and ask again. Get to the third-level of feeling for this moment.

– Now examine that third-level feeling is four ways. 1) Create an analogy for it. 2) Make a moral judgement about it. Is it good or bad to feel this way? 3) Create an alternative: What would a better person be feeling  instead? 4) Justify this feeling. Why is it appropriate for your character to feel this way?

– Look around your scene and setting. What is your character seeing that might be unique here. Add this one detail to the list you’re making.

– Now write as new scene for this moment using the third-level emotion.

According to Maass, if you plunge right into the third-level feelings—spite, envy, bitterness—underneath something like good news for a friend, your character will be unappealing. So have your character give a nod to their own failure to be generous. And then, let them be complexly human like all the rest of us.