In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this is simplified MacGyvering, done on the fly, like substituting a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew.

MacGyver was a television series about an undercover government agent who preferred to fight crime with ingenious feats of engineering rather than lethal force.

Pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve reborn as a winter hat, certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use: all qualify for GUOEM points.

This post itself should earn me some points. It’s a topic I first explored ten years ago on the now-defunct blog of the Vermont College Children’s Writing MFA program faculty. So meta.

My beloved Aunt Norma belongs in the Good Use of Existing Material Hall of Fame. She was a recycler before recycling was a thing; a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise to hold chicken breasts which she defrosted on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more milk cartons.

Even her Fourth of July party featured old milk cartons. It included a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.

In my experience, Good Use of Existing Material applies to making picture books, too. The six Zelda and Ivy books are rooted in my childhood as the middle child of five – sibling rivalry is my God-given existing material. More recently, Ocean Lullaby grew from a beach singalong with a grandson on my lap, when I looked out and wondered how the sea-animal families settle down at night. Even on vacation, existing material is waiting to be shaped into stories.

Your own particular existing material is your take on it all – what grabs your attention, what makes you laugh and shiver and cry. The task is to identify the materials we have to work with – including the metaphors, the details and even the individual words – and then to use them ingeniously, with the snick of a key in the lock, to create the story.

Kinda like Macgyver.



  1. Loved this Laura! I remember using milk cartons to make cool candles with ice cubes. (fill the carton with ice, pour the wax in, once the candle set and the ice melted you would peel the carton away). And my mom made us tons of clothes for Barbie out of all the scraps of material from sewing our own clothes! We have a great place in Pittsburgh called The Center for Creative Reuse. It’s a blast to roam through. Check them out online!

    • Hi Beth! Thanks for yet another wonderful use of milk cartons. if only Aunt Norma were alive – it wd be a great gift to make her.

      We have an art recycling store in Greenwood part of Seattle called Seattle recreative. It is inspiring to see all the ingredients in one spot — existing material for painting and felting and sculpting etc.

  2. Laura – This was a totally great subject to revisit and reuse! I’ve followed the MacGyver tradition when I repurpose coat hangers into any number of makeshift tools. Here’s to innovation! Thanks!

  3. Thank you dear sis for all the sweet memories of our memorable Aunt Norma, and for the fun and honor of being a MacGyver in your life. And for appreciating the snick.

  4. Love this post. A walk down memory lane w aunt Norma.

  5. So Happy to know there are points awarded for GUOEM!!! If I can repurpose a discarded tablecloth found in the woods for a much needed studio curtain against the blazing summer sun, and collage security envelopes with soap wrappers, zoo maps and old sheet music into bird illustrations, surely I can use the existing life images to create an enduring story, including a lost key!

  6. I used to reuse all the newspapers I could find at U-Wash student housing (lots of fellow students were Russian, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.) for gift wrap because I thought the lettering was so intriguing and beautiful. Wrap it up, put a red bow on it and presto – great-looking gift. The use of existing material for writing – oh, my gosh – that’s practically the definition of metaphorical thinking! Here’s an autumn leaf, reuse it to express something else! Thanks for your post, Laura, and for sharing your Aunt Norma ❤️

  7. Anna Maria Polidori

    Beautiful piece! ❤️ ❤️ ❤️

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