Monthly Archives: January 2020

ANT and BEE

A while ago I wrote about a book a friend showed me from her childhood.

This post is about a book that another friend showed me from her childhood, but this book brought back flashes of memory as soon as I saw it. It was a book from my childhood as well, long forgotten.

ANT and BEE: An Alphabetical Story for Tiny Tots (Book I) by Angela Banner, illustrated by Bryan Ward, first published in the U.K. in 1950.

There is nothing quite like the feeling of recognition that happens when you come upon a book that you haven’t seen in maybe, fifty years. It is like the way a certain scent will suddenly take you back to a long-ago visited place; little bells tinkling in the back of my brain announcing the arrival of an old friend.

The book is small – roughly 3 ½ x 4 inches – which suits it’s subject matter and adds to its charm. It is straightforward yet silly. Realistic yet completely implausible. But it is not cute. It maintains a dignity in spite of its diminutive size and subject. Maybe it’s the hats…

The opening endpaper states:

Ant and Bee is a progressive ABC written as a story with simple words, some of which are printed in red and some in black. The words in red are to be called out by the child when it has learned to spell them out and to pronounce them. A grown-up then completes the sentences by reading the words in black as soon as the words in red have been called out by the child. Encouraged by the grown-up, the child will soon learn the words which it must read before the story can progress. In this way, the child will feel an interest in helping to tell the story and will, at the same time, gain confidence in reading and building up a small vocabulary.

That’s a lot of instructions for such a small book. Apparently Banner wrote the book as a way to help her son learn to read. This probably helped sell the book in the ‘50s, but it seems a bit bossy for today’s grown-up readers.

Here is ANT.

And here is BEE.

They live in a CUP.

And so on. Here are more images that I particularly like.

I loved finding this book again. But do I love this book now because I liked it when I was young? Is it charming only because of nostalgia? And I wonder what I often wonder when I read a book published before 1980: Would it be published now?

How Pictures Work

Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, Molly
Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang agreed and set out to learn more.
She took classes, read books and went to art museums. Eventually she set out to create a composition with emotional resonance from the most basic elements–simple geometric forms and a palette limited to four colors: red, black, white and lavender.
She decided to see how this all worked with the story Little Red Riding Hood beginning with the idea of the girl as red triangle.
Of course, this choice echos the idea of a hood and the color is obvious, but beyond that, she asked herself, “Do I feel anything about this shape.” Although it wasn’t exactly fraught with emotion, she knew she felt some things about it.
How about you?
Here’s what Bang came up with: it isn’t huggable because it has points. It feels stable because of its flat bottom and equal sides. And red makes it feel bold, flashy–a good color for a main character. Molly also felt danger, vitality, passion. She felt that added up to the feeling of a warm, alert, stable, strong, balanced character. It did more than simply echoing the name of the story.
Then she set about making the forest. She tried triangles for the trees…
…but eventually settled on rectangles.
She liked how you can’t see the tops of the trees, suggesting how tall they are and how she could create a sense of depth. Now to put Little Red Riding Hood into the scene…
…but this wasn’t as as menacing as Bang wanted.
So she made Red much smaller. And she needed room for the wolf.
But before introducing the wolf, she knew she could create even more sense of danger.
Diagonals create a sense of instability, so now she had Red out in an older, more primal forest, a less certain place, and it was time to bring in the wolf.
It’s obvious why she would choose sharp triangles and to bring him into the forefront. Even so, she thought she’d experiment with what happened if she changed various elements.
How about if she made him smaller?
Or softened the triangles?
Or changed his color?
She went back to her first instincts. And set out to make him even scarier.
What big teeth he has.
What big eyes. But let’s make them more menacing.
Nothing has changed but the color. Not only is red–the color of blood and fire–more threatening than lavender, it links the wolf with his prey.
What if you changed the eye shape?
I was surprised how much difference it made. He looks slightly goofy. Maybe this would be the way to go if you wanted to do a Little Red Riding Hood spoof of some sort.
But Bang wanted to push the menace.
So more “blood”.
And finally she made it a gloomier day and, just for the fun of it, added even more focus on those sharp, sharp triangles of teeth.
This is how Molly Bang’s classic book, “Picture This. How Pictures Work” begins. The rest of her book talks more about basic composition and how it works. What horizontals do. What verticals do. How to make things look stable and unstable. How to create momentum and depth, chaos, calm and drama simply by compositional elements.
She talks about her theories as to why these elements work the way they do, often linking back to primal instincts–such as pointed shapes feeling scarier than rounded shapes or curves. One can hurt you, the other is less likely to.
It’s fun to think of these same principles and how you might apply them to writing. For example, I’m thinking of the sense of character created by a plump woman with sharp eyes. After all, we writers are in the business of creating pictures, too.
I would highly recommend “Picture This: How Pictures Work” for anyone interested in art or picture books. Or just for the fun of it!

I Resolve…

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I resolve to read more.

There, that wasn’t hard. And I mean it, I do. I do. I resolve to read more.

Following through on that resolution shouldn’t be hard either, since I have loved to read all my life. And reading makes for better writing.

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But lately, what’s been happening? I pick up a book, I read five or ten pages, then I remember I had some charity donations to complete, I have some thank-you’s to write, I need to sweep the kitchen floor, I need to clean out the fridge. So I put down the book. Later, when the donations are made, thank-you’s written, floor swept, fridge cleaned, I pick the book up again.

Then I remember I told my sister I would call her, I put the book down. I make the call, I make dinner, I print out a list of TV shows nominated for Golden Globes, I watch too many episodes of one of those. The next day, I pick up the book again. Another ten pages in, I remember I missed the cold open on Saturday Night Live, decide to watch it on YouTube, put the book down. After YouTube (and a few Seth Meyer “Closer Looks”) I pick up the book, but I remember I haven’t read the Sunday NY Times Book Review yet, so I put the book down,

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I spend a long time reading reviews of books, probably more than is healthy. I put the books that sound intriguing on hold at our wonderful library. I have a long list of holds. But the book I’m (supposedly) reading right now is from the library and tomorrow it’s due, so I take the book back and pick up the new ones that have come in. My husband says I’m personally increasing the circulation of the library by a hefty percentage. But am I reading the books I check out? Bits of them. Pieces of them. But basically, no.

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Good thing I’m a member of a book discussion group, or I might never feel any pressure to finish a book. Just finished this month’s book, but it’s taken me six weeks to do it. So many books, so little…no…there isn’t so little time. I’m retired, and I have plenty of time, but I’m not reading. I’m nibbling.

Right now I have six great books out from the library:  Living in the Weather of the World by Richard Bausch, Flights by Olga Tarkaczuk, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley (it must have been hard growing up with that name), The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventures of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik (love every book he’s ever written – both content and style.) Each one of those books has gotten great reviews and piqued my interest.

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Maybe my problem is too many books at once? I tell myself I like having a lot of books to choose from, depending on my mood-  am I needing information (that weather book) or needing stories? But maybe too many at once contributes to the Nibbling Syndrome. Do I hear the siren call of other books (“Read me instead….”) as I’m trying to read just one?

No, that’s not it. And, Reader, I’m sorry to say that I don’t know the answer to my original question, “What’s been happening?” (Better said, I don’t know the why behind what’s happening.) Can books be like some desserts – eat too much and you don’t feel good?

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When I thought about taking my turn here at Books Around the Table, I planned on recommending a good book for writers of childrens’ books to read. The title is A Velocity of Being : Letters to a Young Reader. It’s a collection of letters written by some very interesting people (musicians, anthropologists, physicists, Yo-Yo Ma and Jane Goodall among them) encouraging young readers to read, to love books, to engage their imaginations with the possibilities and the people they find in books. Each letter is illustrated by an artist (BATT’s own Julie Paschkis among them.) And the drawings in this post are all from the book. Published in 2018, A Velocity of Being was put together by the amazing Maria Popova of Brainpickings, and her friend, the publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, Claudia Bedrick. It’s inspirational, and I deeply believe in its premise: that the great benefit of falling in love with books when you’re young is the development of empathy. Without empathy, we’re doomed.

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But after reading through the book to pick out a few inspirational passages to share with you here, I realized that I needed to be honest enough to say that maybe once in awhile, at least for adults, or at least for writers, or at least for me, one needs to go through some kind of deep cleansing process and forego reading temporarily…

Wait. I didn’t just write that, did I? Forego reading? After I’ve just resolved to read more books? Have I just set a record for how fast I can break a New Year’s Resolution?

Maybe I should make myself distraction-proof. Procrastination-proof? Maybe I should resolve to read fewer reviews? Check out fewer books at one time? Stop nibbling? Persist and persevere?

I don’t know the answer. There are many choices and life is complicated. What can I say? (Well, I could say Happy New Year! )

What say you? – finished any good books lately?