Author Archives: Bonny Becker

Read a book. Turn on a light.

Recently, I went searching for new images to add to my collection of images of books featured in art. A funny theme began to emerge with the images I was finding.

It was books as light—books as sources of illumination–an obvious metaphor, but funny to see so many of them popping up in what was a pretty short, random search.

There are books to come home to…

Illustration by Mariusz Stawarski

There are books to light the way

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

And books that light the way to dimensions far from home

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

Of course, it’s not so much about books, but illumination in whatever form it comes to us.

Illustration by Matt Murphyred

Some knowledge can be dangerous–radioactively so.

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

It can even lead you astray. Although I’m not sure if the artist is commenting on the content or the form here.

Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald

Sometimes books are all sweetness and light…

Illustration by Takashi Tsushima

Sometimes they are their own source of darkness and confusion.

Illustration by Franco Matticchio

Whatever they are, books beckon…

Illustration by Quint Buchholz

especially in times like these.

 

 

It Takes Two: How to kickstart your story-making brain

You can’t make a story out of a single thing. A “one” thing. A lone thing. Story comes from that lone thing in relationship to something, anything else. That’s where it all begins.

If you’re starting to think of the story of Dot, it’s because your brain has already added a second element. The dot is trying to escape the square? The dot is lonely? Your brain is already adding something else for Dot to be in relationship with.

I discussed this idea little in my last post—how the human brain seems hardwired to find connections between things.  And out of that instinct comes story.

I love this idea that all it takes is two images to prompt story. Using this kind of prompt could be a fun activity for yourself or for any of your at-home kids who can “never think of anything to write about.”

Of course, you can come up a story with just one image.

A lot of writers start with just that–character. But look what happens to your story-making brain if you add just one other element.

Is this Bulldog’s dream self, a goal, an unlikely friend, his mortal foe?

Just about any pairing can suggest a story, but I’m always looking for contrast, contradiction and the unlikely:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

Putting two things in relationship almost inherently suggests goals or dreams or conflict… plot:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You could put almost any of the images on this page together and start to get story ideas.

 

 

 


Of course, the more unlikely the juxtaposition, the harder it can be to create a logical story. But, especially with picture books, it’s exactly the unlikely, the unexpected that can make your book jump off the shelves

So it’s great to play with all kinds of juxtapositions. Watch what happens to your story-telling brain as you run through the possibilities:

There’s this adorable kid. And then this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or this:

 

And, of course, our very unlikely crocodile.

 

 

 

 

 

Every one of these stories would be very different. So which do you tell? For me, it comes down to a gut feeling about where my heart and energy want to go.

If you find yourself stuck for story and would like to get out of your own head for awhile, pull some images from the Internet or from magazines or even your own photo albums and put them together. There’s a story in there!

If any of these prompt a story in your household, I’d love to hear about it or to have you share images you might have found that sparked story for you.

Be well!

 

 

 

 

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

The Little Red Book

Illustration by Consuelo Mura

The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”

Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way.  And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below).  Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:

You can escape from the everyday…

Agata Raczynska

Agata Raczynska

into an imagined passion

Illustration by Phil Jones

Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton

Or maybe it’s a real world passion

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

Or  forbidden fruit

Jean F. Martin

Jean F. Martin

 

Illustration by Toni Demuro

 

Alessandro Gottardo

Alessandro Gottardo

Or perhaps red, is after all,  just a mystery

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.

Illustration by Nakamura Daizaburo

 

And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.

 

*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.

Making Your Illustration Notes Work for You

Illustration by Jonathan Cooper

One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.

So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.

In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.

So, no illustration notes…

Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:

Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor.
(Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).

 I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.

One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.

I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.

Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.

BUT…  if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in.  It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.

Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her)
“The moon.”

The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.

But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)

 I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.

It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.

And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!

 

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?

T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.

It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:

I never saw an abominable snowman
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping if I do
that it will be a wee one.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.

It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:

“How To Treat Elves”

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall–
‘Twas taller than himself!

“How do you do, little elf,” I said,
“And what do you do all day?”
“I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he,
“‘N scuttle about and play;”

“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when
A katydid I see,
‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he
Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!

“I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
‘N only jus’ to fwighten him
I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’

“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
‘Upsy-daisy-die!’

“‘N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
‘N what do you think of that?” said he.
I said, “It makes me sick.

“It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool.”
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

Glittering Tidbits for Book Lovers

Like most readers, I’m a magpie when it comes to picking up odd facts and wonders. All things books make for particularly glittering tidbits. I can never resist a chance to see unusual and beautiful books.

— Tucked into a far corner of the annex to Carolina Rediviva, the main library at Sweden’s Uppsala University, a book sits alone behind bulletproof glass. You might think its remote placement indicates its minor significance. But look closer and you’ll see a work of visual splendor.  It’s the Codex Argenteus, a beautiful and mysterious bible from the sixth century.

How about Emily Dickinson’s herbarium?  So many writers have been gardeners and have written about gardens that it might be easier to make a list of  those who didn’t. But even in this crowded company, Emily Dickinson stands out. She not only attended the fragile beauty of flowers with an artist’s eye—before she’d written any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to anyone with the leisure, curiosity, and creativity to undertake it.

— Artist Yiota Demetriou’s new book of love letters can only be read when warmed by human touch. The book is a metaphor for relationships and the insecurity that comes with love and grief.

Of course, there’s always a chance to read books about such books.

— History abounds with tales of obsessive bibliophilic greed, betrayal, theft, blackmail, fraud, assault, and murder. Can mystery fiction be far behind? (Lured by the puns, if nothing else? A Cracking of Spines? Dewey Decimated? Here are some mysteries centered on the world of bibliophiles.

Also irresistible is the chance to test one’s book knowledge.

Can you pick the Harry Potter characters from a description of how their lives might have gone if they were muggles?

And there are all those fabulous ways we store and enjoy books.

— Featured in A blog about weird and wonderful bookshelves. Be sure to scroll on down when you get there.

–And this historic Michigan library listed as the most amazing college library in the country.

And then there are these shining objects that writers love:

Like words themselves.

Words you should know before a moon shot

Or

Absurd quests in fiction from seeking how to stop being an ass to finding out where a month has gone missing.

Or unexpected connections and literary inspirations:

— The influence of “The Year Without a Summer” on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when a sun-obscuring ash cloud ejected from one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in recorded history caused temperatures to plummet the world over.  Frankenstein and the Climate Refugess of 1816

Of course, the Internet is deadly for bookish magpies. Even finding an image for “The Year without a Summer” led to yet more links. Like this article from the New England Historical Society.

I could probably spend all day at this. So I think the thing for all us magpies to do is to give ourselves a magpie holiday every once in awhile and simply allow ourselves an entire day to just follow from one shiny object to another at our leisure.

Illustration by Brian Lies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Many Books, Just the Right Amount of Time

Is there anything more luxurious than summertime reading. A long summer day, a world before you on the page; the time to look up, half seeing the world around you, half still in the dream. As a child it was easy to slip into that world for hours at a time. There was so much time and grown ups to make sure the world kept on spinning. It’s harder as an adult to experience the true luxury of summertime reading, but sometimes things fall in place.

Right now I’m at Long Beach, WA. The ocean is rolling in outside my window.

I have a well-stocked bookshelf. Someone else’s choices to explore, which I love to do.

Not to mention the three  books I brought along with my Kindle.

It feels like the day can unfold at its leisure. I can read a bit, stare a bit, think a bit. Read some more. Perfect.

Here from my collection of images of books in art is how summertime reading  feels.

Illustration by Chris Gall

 

Illustration by Kurt Solmssen

 

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

 

Illustration by Susan Estelle Kwas

 

Illustration by Rita C. Ford

 

Illustration by Elsa Jenna

 

Illustration by Eugeni Balakshin

It only takes 30,000 years of culture to get this

Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.

Cartoonist Amy Hwang

I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.

We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we  know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.

You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.

You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.

Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon.  Oh, and you need to be able to read.

For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.

That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.

That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.

And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry;  what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite  get from other writing.

Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.

Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.

Cartoonist Tom Gauld