Author Archives: Julie Larios

The Pleasure of a Book Group

 

Why We Swimkillers-of-the-flower-moon  hamnet 

The Wonder  Water Wood Wild Things  The Leavers

Akin  Fine Just the Way It Is Song of the Lark

  Little  Paper Palace

BOOKS WE READ THIS YEAR

As the end of this sometimes difficult/sometimes hopeful year approaches, I begin to feel a number of New Year’s Resolutions sneaking up on me. I capitalize “Resolutions” because those little buggers need the insistence and ferocity of a capital “R”; my track record with resolutions is not stellar. I often break them by January 2nd. But it’s a new year, so new goals, right?

Some of the goals are about my relationship with my body. I’m 72 and this relationship, like any relationship that lasts decades, includes fondness, irritation, misunderstandings, boredom, and laughter.  Bodies are strange things, no? Frankly, I’ve always been better friends with – and kinder to – my brain. Brains can also wear out, of course – that thought scares me more than mortality.

I don’t want my brain wearing out, and I hear it’s good for brain health to keep the brain active. One resolution I feel coming on is this: READ MORE BOOKS. Not that I haven’t been reading in bits and pieces, but as some of my blog posts suggest, my attention has been brief and scattered. Articles here and there. Headlines, Commentary. Opinions. Reviews. Interviews. Cartoon captions. An essay about the joys of Rome or a googled article about how electrical circuits work. Fluttering and jumping. Snippets and bits.

But I’ve been lazy and undisciplined about books. What’s that about? Pandemic fatigue? I don’t have the answer(s) yet. Might not ever figure it out, but I’m going to try to get the joy back. I remember reading several books a month – even big, generational narratives –  and loving them when I was younger. Would I read One Hundred Years of Solitude now? Probably not, and what a loss that would be. Lately, if a book is long and challenging, and I’m reading it on my own, I abandon it.

Here is my working theory: I need to talk about books with people. Especially novels, which I find, pro forma, challenging. Non-fiction, easy: the real world is intriguing. But fiction? I need to talk about fiction. That way, I can see characters and authorial strategies from a different point of view. If I’ve disliked a novel and someone else has liked it, why would that be? Have I missed something? Have I read carelessly? Have I neglected a good story because I’m too hooked on style? Too hooked on reality, too suspicious of the imagination?

Luckily, I have a group of friends I talk with about books.  Over the last year, the books we’ve chosen have honestly been the only books I’ve read cover to cover. Maybe my resolution to read more books is actually a resolution to pay attention to other books the way I pay attention to the ones I read and discuss with friends.

We’ve been meeting monthly for ten years – Zooming, for the last year and a half. Books we’ve discussed have ranged from classics to recently published books, from old favorites and small gems to big bestsellers. We’ve never established parameters about the way the books would be chosen, haven’t made rules about the way we would talk about them. We simply decided that each person, in turn, would pick out a book that the group would read. Some of the book choices have surprised us – we ended up not enthusiastic about some we thought we would love, and we absolutely loved a few we initially were unsure of (Hannah Kirshner’s Water, Wood and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town – who expected that to become one of our favorites this year?)

Over the last ten years, we’ve read between eight and ten books per year. We’ve turned mixed reactions over and around in our discussions. I’ve come to think of our conversations the same way i think about going to museum exhibits – enjoying them most when I’m with someone who likes a piece that I’ve approached with disinterest. Those familiar questions come out:  Have I missed something? Have I looked at the exhibit carelessly? Have I too often privileged style over substance? Is there something I can learn from this? The person I’m with (often my sister, who studied art in college) invariably knows a few more details than I do about technique, about effect, about effort, about the life of the artist. I listen and become interested. I find new footing. I grow. So it is with my book club.  Without fail, someone adds an observation that gives me a new perspective.

In 2021, we read eleven books. I’ve put their covers up at the beginning of this post. Loved some, disliked others, was bored by some, couldn’t put others down. Looked forward each time to hearing what friends thought of of a story, and why they thought what they thought. I heard people mention things about the book I hadn’t thought about. Loved re-viewing the book after their comments. A new member is joining us this month, and I look forward to getting to know her through books. 

As for the resolution I feel coming on: If I read eleven books this last year, can I put aside the snippets and bits long enough to double that number, or triple it? Can I re-engage with longer reading? Re-engage with novels? Re-connect with more people to get a discussion going? Maybe the bottom line in that resolution is “reconnect with more people.” I moved to a new town not too long ago and barely got settled in – I’m slow when it comes to settling in – before the pandemic began and new friendships went on hold. Maybe it’s time for me to join the local library’s book club.  Make new book friends, keep the wonderful old book friends. And give another old friend, my brain, more of a workout.

Coffee and Something to Read

If you’re reading this first thing in the morning, be sure you make your cup of coffee straightaway. After all, it’s National Coffee Week.

Now sit down and, as you drink your coffee, pretend you’re sitting in the extravagant Caffe Gilli in Florence. Go ahead, make it a cappuccino. Have a croissant, too. Caffe Gilli doesn’t cost a penny when you’re daydreaming.  

In your daydream, you’re sitting at the table on the right, nearest the clock.

As you sip, you need something to read. Here is something wonderful – an interview with the author/illustrator Maria Kalman posted this week on the Art of the Picture Book website.

When you finish, you can tell yourself you just had the perfect morning, and it will be true. Coffee and Kalman.

If you want a second cup, pour yourself one. This time pretend you’re in the Caffe Greco in Rome, founded in 1760, the spot where John Keats drank his morning tea.

With your second cup, try the two short videos (below) of storyteller Patricia McKissack. They are excerpts (can’t find the whole lecture) from her 2010 Spencer Shaw talk at the University of Washington. The highlight for me: She reads a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the style of a jump-rope rhyme (Video 2.) In the first video, she talks about her storytelling coming from inquisitiveness – she wants answers, but she wants good stories, too. And can she tell a story! – as could her grandparents and her mother – I wish I’d been at that lecture to hear her.

By the way, the Spencer Shaw Endowed Lecture this year will be given by author/ illustrator Yuyi Morales. You can hear the lecture free – live streaming on YouTube October 14th at noon PST – here’s a link.

McKissack Video 1 “I write because I have an inquisitive mind.”

McKissack Video 2 Jumping Rope to Paul Lawrence Dunbar

[Note: When you watch the McKissack videos, be sure to move the bar back to the beginning – for some reason they’re opening for me mid-way through.]

And if you need a shot of Caffe Greco’s interior for your daydreaming, here it is. Sigh.

You’re sitting at the table next to the statue.

Hither and Thither, Bits and Pieces

One Heck of a Pickle.

This post constitutes what is called a “mixed bag.” It’s summer, and as far as I’m concerned, that means my mind can wander. And my mind usually wanders hither in bits, thither in pieces. Here are seven of those pieces.

  1. Summer: the beach, family, friends, and a picnic of hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato salad. And though I’m holed up inside my house due to dangerous heat and unhealthy air quality levels (the smoke from forest fires has finally descended on the suffering, over-cooked Pacific Northwest (scary orange sun, eerie orange moon) I’ve spent a bit of the morning making potato salad, heavy on the mustard and dill pickles. Bought eight ears of corn from a farm stand yesterday. Saw friends last night, all of us vaccinated, fingers crossed that was okay, because it was glorious to sit around a table with them and laugh and reminisce.  Summer!
  2. Summer: nonsense and play. While making the potato salad this morning, I realized that if I totally followed my own writing advice to play more, be goofier, dive into nonsense, I would write a book about dill pickles. Maybe format it as a blog post from a young child who loves everything tart and sour – dill pickles, sauerkraut, rhubarb.  Or maybe just write a few poems about tart edibles for a collection of jump rope rhymes.
  3. Jump rope rhymes. Hmmmmmmm. What rhymes with pickle? The list turns out to be more substantial than I thought.  Bicycle, tickle, fickle, nickel (and pumpernickel!), prickle, popsicle, icicle, and, of course, motorsickle.  Practically a sonnet’s worth. Nothing Shakespearean. Maybe a limerick.  You know what they say, follow your passion. Even if it’s a passion for poetry and pickles. 
  4. If you didn’t see the high jump during the Olympics, be sure to look it up online. There was a golden moment at the conclusion of the jump, after both finalists (good friends from Qatar and Italy) cleared 2.37 meters. The jumper from Qatar, rather than agreeing to a “jump-off,” asked an official if he and his friend could share the gold medal – and the official said yes. The ballet of the jumps (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjSCT97GSsA) was gorgeous, and the friendship that showed up at the end of the competition was even more so.
One Heck of a Friendship

5. Writers: If you haven’t seen The Father yet, see it. It stars Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman; they are brilliant. Watch it once to get the story (a doubled and unsettling perspective on Alzheimer’s) and once to study the character development on the part of the screenwriter and the craftsmanship on the part of the actors. In both cases, this is a lesson in “less is more.”

One Heck of a Movie

6. In case you ever doubted it, climate change is real. Here’s an image from the Seattle Times today. Smoke from the wildfires, temperatures from Portland to Seattle in the mid-90’s. Air quality officially “Unhealthy.” Third summer in a row.

One Heck of a Mess.

7. Last but definitely not least, kudos to friend Erik Talkin, whom I got to know at Vermont College of the Fine Arts. His picture book Lulu and the Hunger Monster just won a Social Justice Literature award from the International Literacy Association. “The SJL Award seeks to recognize outstanding books that address social responsibility towards individuals, communities, societies and/or the environment and which invite reflection and socially responsible action by the reader.” That’s a wonderful goal. And a well-deserved award, Erik!

One Heck of An Award

That’s all from me this time around. Autumn approaches, and maybe my wandering mind will settle in for a period of linear thinking….? Meanwhile, summer: Indulge yourself in the misc.’s and etc’s of the season.

On the Art of Construction

First, before we get into the word “construction,” let me just say that June got away from me.

I say that as if June were a rambunctious toddler, but the fact is, I’m actually the toddler, and it’s me that got away from June. Not to mention getting away from time in general since February of 2020. Somehow, a lot of us have been functioning outside the normal tocks and ticks, with both internal and external clocks providing a cuckoo bird to pop out occasionally and announce the state of affairs, but no hands to mark exactly where we are in a given day. Did I say “given day”? Do I even know what day it is?

Bigger question: Should I blame it all on the pandemic? No, I should not. I’m getting older – there’s that. Still, the pandemic didn’t help. But it might have been wise to keep an actual calendar on the wall and turn the pages. At least then I would have seen the lay of the land, with Sunday standing solidly at one end of a week and Saturday standing just as solidly at the other end, with rows of weeks stacking up one after another, and with a substantial oomph to the accumulation, also known as “months.”

Instead, I’ve been keeping my calendar on my iPad lately, and things are different in iPad World. They have a different shape. Less oomph. Less turn-the-page-ability, more spillage of May into June, etc.

So, should I blame my losing June (June losing me) on my electronic calendar? No, I should not. I will blame it on construction equipment. Excavators, lumber deliverers, Mack trucks! At my house to build an addition to the nest.

Mack trucks mean business.

I’ve been eating, sleeping, dreaming, breathing construction progress. We had a big crane come up the alley in May and move our outdoor studio from one part of the yard to another. Lost an asparagus bed and some raspberry plants, very sad, but a thrilling moment when the 12×12 structure was lifted off one foundation and put onto another. Like a great clumsy bird flying low to the ground. Or more like a big baby being carried in straps and swaddling by an equally big stork.

Baby studio about to lift off.

An excavator came and dug a somewhat precise hole. Our garden lost its adolescent golden chain tree, but holes are fascinating, too. I managed to save the pink dogwood and the white hydrangea paniculata at the edge of the hole. Whew.

What we called the Big Digger.

Then the foundation forms were built in the hole and a cement truck came to the front of the house, accompanied by another truck with a 90-foot crane/hose to deliver the cement up and over the house and into the back yard from the cement truck. Neighbors came to watch. Fast work, loud and messy and exciting. Very carnivalesque.

The talk of the neighborhood.

Then our builder went for a ride on his mountain bike, fell coming down a dangerous trail, broke his collarbone, had to walk out on his own, was taken to the hospital, had surgery. Real life came back into focus. The next day he’s walking around with his arm in a sling and making sure his assistant knows what needs to be done. The man is a sweet lunatic. And he loves building houses.

Next the sill is then nailed in place (I hope I have the terminology right!) and plywood subfloors go on and it starts to look like a bedroom. Walls even start to go up. As of the moment I’m typing this, the room awaits more walls and trusses and a roof and shingles and and and and and. And that is how I lost June.

I love our construction team. Bravo! I could sit all day and watch them work.

I wish I had taken woodshop in high school but that just wasn’t “done” in the 1960’s. So my brother learned how to swing a hammer and use a skill saw; he worked in a lumberyard and basically built a second floor on to his house one summer. I, meanwhile, studied literature, read poetry, and learned to construct both Elizabethan and Petrarchan sonnets. People call what I do “creative” and what our construction crew does “manual labor.” I know for a fact that both our efforts demand blood, sweat and tears. Well, not blood, hopefully. We’ll save that for mountain biking accidents. But definitely sweat and tears.

I’m tempted to offer up comparisons between the building of a house and the writing of a book – the design work, prep work, foundational work, the structural considerations, the progress forward, the big Mack truck of a deadline bearing down on you, the dozens of first decisions and final decisions, the trance-like condition of creating something that makes you lose track of hours and days. The joy you feel when you’ve made something that will stand the test of time.

Poetry and house-building. Many similarities between these two arts.

What a DELICIOUS day!

I’m so happy to tell everyone reading Books Around the Table today that my latest picture book collaboration with illustrator Julie Paschkis is now officially out in the worldDelicious: Poems Celebrating Street Food Around the World has been published by Beach Lane Books! Big shout hurrah, huzza, yippee and yay!! And a big thanks to editor Allyn Johnston for the fine work her team did in making this a real, hold-in-your-hands book.

“Out in the world” is exactly where this book lives – New York City, Oaxaca, Jaffa, Marrakech, Launceton, St. Petersburg, Lima, Mumbai, Surabaya, Seoul, Athens, Dakar, Beijing, and Boston, to be exact. And there could have been so many more cities, each one with its own rich stories about traditional street food. Choosing just fourteen poems to fit the picture book format was hard! So many beautiful cities, so much delicious food. I wrote one of the poems to honor many of the foods at once.

“Syrian shawarma wrapped in a pita? / Biryani? Pork carnitas? / Maybe I’ll get a hot falafel? / Schnitzel? Pretzel? Sesame noodles? / Cajun? Lebanese? Cuban? Thai? / So many choices! What should I try?”

I set “Carts in the Park” in New York City, where doors open wide to many immigrants and many kinds of street food (thinking of hot pretzels covered with mustard, a hot dog in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and divine biryani one night after a show in the Theater District.) But my own personal experience with this kind of gathering of food carts is Portland, Oregon, a city that in the past has supported a whole city block of food carts downtown, as well as mini-parks full of carts in other neighborhoods. I hear a big apartment building might be built on the food cart block – say it ain’t so, Portland! We need some food cart advocates. Maybe this book and others like it will help ensure another generation of food cart lovers?

Food carts in downtown Portland

When you travel, do you come home with memories of unexpected moments with a local food seller? A small conversation, a delicious bite of traditional street food? I suspect you do, I hope you do, because those memories stay with you and become part of your family lore, don’t they? My best memories of Mexico, aside from visiting my husband’s family, are from the lively markets and the street carts – hot corn on the cob covered in chile sauce, all-you-can-drink orange juice, sweet peanut brittle, morning tamales, fruit juice popsicles, churros, cocoa, and – yes – deep fried grasshoppers. The poem I wrote for Oaxaca comes straight up from my love of the kind and hard-working Mexican street vendors I’ve met.

“Steaming cup of champurrado / panecitos, cinnamon churros — / mmm, mmm! Delicioso! / Lovebirds chirp: Pio! Pio!”

This is my fourth book with Julie Paschkis, and when the box of author copies arrived at my door, I said my usual hallelujah for Julie’s energy and vision, her talent, and – most important – her friendship. With this book in particular, I thank her and my other Books Around the Table friends for their patience and support – this book was a long time coming! Many first versions of the poems were just too long for a picture book collection (one stand-alone poem about Mexican markets was highlighted in 2010 in a blog post by Jama Kim Rattigan – eleven years ago this month!) so the project came to a standstill. I even put the manuscript away for a number of years, busy with my teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But it kept sneaking out of that drawer in my desk, and it really does help to have an encouraging and supportive writers group to keep your spirits up. Thank you, Laura, Julie P., Margaret and Bonny.

I’m hoping someday I’ll get to St. Petersburg….“Four pelmeni / three piroshki / two sweet blini — / one big belly.”

And hoping I’ll get to Lima …. “From a tin tray / on parade day / to celebrate the Lord of Miracles — / star cookies, pink sprinkles!”

And to Marrakech. And to Athens. And…and…and….

Can you tell I’m aching to travel again? Fingers crossed. Vaccinated, wearing my mask, dreaming of Oaxaca.

February: The Bits-and-Pieces Month

I’m not sure why I think of February as a bit of a pretender in the January-to-December calendar. It could be the lack of a satisfactory ending: finished in a too-tidy 28 days, so some days go missing. It could be the lack of a proud identity: it’s surrounded by the more illustrious months, January (“I’m the beginning of a brand new year!”) and March (“Spring will be arriving before I’m gone!”) Or it could be the awkward unprounounced “r” at the heart of it (does anyone say Feb-ru-ary rather than Feb-u-ary?) which feels a little “presumido” as they say in Spanish. A bit pretentious and effortful. I remind myself right now that it has Valentine’s Day…so romance, love, roses…maybe I’ll cut it a little slack? Or maybe I won’t, because every February I wish I could escape the Pacific Northwest and go someplace less gray and less rain-soaked.

In any case, I feel like it’s a month that merits a collection of thoughts, so I offer up some interesting bits and pieces that have been on my mind and on my desk.

  1. I’m celebrating a new book, Nathan’s Song, by the talented Leda Schubert. It’s one of those perfect picture books; Leda knows what she’s doing: not a word too many, not a word too few, exciting illustrations, and a story I love. It’s based on Leda’s real grandfather, a young Russian Jew who yearned to study opera in Italy, left the shtetl to do just that, and accidentally (he got on the wrong ship) became an immigrant in New York City. Wonderful book – if your local library doesn’t have it, encourage them to purchase it. Or, even better, order it and add it to your collection. Leda has recently posted photographs of her grandfather on Facebook; here is one of Nathan with his sister, and another of just Nathan:

2. Next, a heads up for tonight, literally: Friday the 26th is the best night for viewing the Snow Moon. Which is also known as the Big Hoop Moon (Cheyenne), the Sleet Moon (Comanche), and the Big Bear Moon (Tlingit.) By the way, February has no full moon every 19 years. Another example of its fragmentary nature?

The full super snow moon rises, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020, at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

3. Julie Paschkis’s wonderful post two weeks ago looked into pianos: learning to play them, reading about them. So I follow up with an unrelated “Piano” of my own: I recommend the book Atlantis by Carlo and Renzo Piano. The subtitle is “A Journey in Search of Beauty,” and it follows the trip by sailing ship of Carlo Piano, a journalist, and his famous father, Renzo Piano, the architect of the Pompidou Center, the Whitney Museum, and the new New York Times Building, among many other famous structures. I especially liked Chapter 16: City of Music, which offers up this interesting observation when discussing the call of sirens (the kind that seduce sailors, not the kind that sound an alarm): “There are plenty of theories about sirens….Some believe that what gets mistaken for sirens are rogue waves that produce melodies.” There’s a poem in that if anyone wants to write it. And here’s an interesting passage for another poem: “Sound is air quivering in space, physicality. .An architect is a constructor of music boxes. When designing a concert hall, merely achieving acoustic perfection is insufficient. An architect must also give it character. And he has to grant everyone access to the same emotions at the same time. One of the beautiful things about listening to music is that we listen to it together.” Piano goes on to talk about the lightness of music and the heaviness of architecture. Pure poetry.

That’s it for now: two bits and one piece, or one bit and two pieces.

Oh. One last bit-let (aka trivia): Did you know that February used to have another name? In Old English it was called Solmonath – which some translate as “mud month.”

No wonder I’m dreaming of Oaxaca!

THIS….?
…OR THIS?

.

2021: Three Favors, One Resolution

Yes, it’s 2021! Hallelujah!

There’s light at the end of that long tunnel called 2020, and as I emerge into that light I’m going to ask 2021 for three favors.

FIRST:

It’s easy for me to forget I live in my whole body because I spend a lot of time in my head. I suspect that’s true for a lot of us who love to write and love to read and who make the time to do it. But inside our heads can be a dark place, too – not dark as in frightening, but dark as in isolating. It’s important to remember the delivery system for our brains involves our lungs, bones, blood, and skin. Without them the inside of our heads go completely dark. As in kaput. My mortality is not something I need to be thinking about all the time, but reminders (there have been plenty this year) like Covid-19 push me out of my head into the open air, send me out into the neighborhood or over to the beach for walks and fresh air. More, more, more of this, 2021, are you listening? Help push me out the door.

SECOND:

To feel creative, I first need a little noise. Not a lot. But I’m at my happiest if there are people moving around, some chatter, doors opening and closing, kids playing, the goings and comings of a real world, the scene turning over in a kind of tidal way, bit by bit, as I watch and listen. Noise – the kind you get at a good coffee shop. The kind you get when you’re walking down a street in Rome, London, Paris, San Francisco, Oaxaca, anyplace new that’s filled with people. The kind you get in a public market or when you’re singing with a choir. Later, silence is fine. But first, give me a world that’s boisterous and rambunctious. I’m looking forward to more noise, 2021, please!

THIRD:

Who knew that it was possible to miss touching people? To miss giving someone a little kiss to say hello, hugging them to say goodbye. Shaking hands when you say, “Nice to meet you.” Sitting down next to someone else, not worried about the distance between you. Such an undervalued thing until this last year. Proximity. Rubbing shoulders. Touch. I long for that most basic and most lovely of our senses, 2021. So please, more.

***

There’s one other thing, but I have to thank 2020 for it. Last year helped me remember that the word “essential” applies to just about everyone who works hard to make our daily lives work, often without the respect they deserve. So I’ll toss in this one resolution, after asking for three favors: I’m going to remember, 2021, to let those essential workers know whenever I can how grateful I am.

Addicted to the News

As I write this, I’m headed into my 58th hour of election coverage. Not that I’ve watched or listened to all 58 hours of it….maybe just 56 or 57.

Tuesday ….
Wednesday
Thursday…..
Friday…..

No, I’m kidding. I’ve slept in the last few days, so 15-16 hours over the last couple of days I’ve been in bed dreaming strange dreams of being lost. I’ve also fixed a few meals, washed & dried the dishes. I’ve sat quietly and read my email each day & responded (most interestingly, a message from a friend in Australia who seems to know every detail about our election.) I’ve driven once to the curbside pickup location of the library and gotten several books by Lynda Barry and several films by Alfred Hitchcock.

I’ve showered twice. I’ve washed a couple of loads of clothes. I’ve had a few Zooms with my writing friends in Seattle and my writing friends in Canada, Vermont and Oregon. God bless them one and all for the conversations, and for the laughter which has kept me sane. I’ve watched and re-watched a wonderful loop of short-short videos called Election Distractor which was put together by the New York Times — thank you for the link, Julie Paschkis, that was delightful!

Steve Kornacki at MSNBC’s Big Board

But the fact is that at least part of my heart and mind were on the election news during each one of those other activities. I’m a news addict, especially when it comes to history-making news. The addiction probably began when I was 11 and watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates, continued when I was 14 and John Kennedy was assassinated – my family and I listened to Walter Cronkite report that for four days straight.

Walter Cronkite
Announces the Death of John Kennedy

I’ve always watched Presidential election coverage, from 1960 through the one I’ve been watching now….maybe a dozen national elections?….no, sixteen!

Add in the coverage of rocket launches, John Glenn circling the earth, Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, the Watergate testimony – a whole summer of that kept me riveted. The coverage of Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City. The O.J. Simpson trial – I felt guilty about being so addicted to that trial coverage, though guilt didn’t keep me from being glued to it, fascinated by the characters as if it were a novel. The terrorist attack on 9/11 – exhausting to watch the videos – over and over again – of those planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings, but there I was, watching it, one day, two days, it became a blur. There was (and continues to be) heartbreaking and nerve-wracking coverage of riots and/or protests all around the country, through the decades.

John Dean Testifies at the Watergate Hearings

Many of these were chilling events. Some were confusing. I watched some of the coverage with friends or family. I watched some of it alone. A few history-making moments were thrilling. All fourteen of the elections were mysterious and compelling, with candidates whose body language I studied, whose words I analyzed. I include the journalists and commentators and pundits – who are these people? What pulls them into this drama?

Friends have told me they were emotionally so drained by both the long months of the pandemic and long months of nasty politics that they couldn’t watch the 2020 debates, much less hours of the actual election night(s) coverage. I have to say that several days of it is now wearing me out. But as I type, Steve Kornacki is over at the Big Board on MSNBC explaining results in Pennsylvania – sounds like he’s going to put up numbers soon which will signify the election of Joe Biden. I’d like to stay up long enough to see the look on his face when he does that. The narrative of these events is all about character – McVeigh, Simpson, Biden, Trump, Nixon, Kennedy, Cronkite, Kornacki. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that History is Character.

The Kennedy-Nixon Debate

The books I read over and over again as a child were biographies – Genevieve Foster’s George Washington’s World, Abraham Lincoln’s World, even Augustus Caesar’s World. I wanted to know who these people were, the clothes they wore, the food they ate. I read historical fiction – Blue Willow by Doris Gates, Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Read everything I get my hands on that involved children in the Holocaust. I wanted to see people in their everyday lives, hear their stories. I now collect, in the same spirit, mid-20th century photographs of people I don’t know. People at picnics, people sitting on big boulders, people next to their old cars, people waving from parade floats, people hanging up their laundry. Who are they? I want the details! I want the history.

There are children out there as hungry for history as I’ve always been. I’d die happy (well, I will anyway, but….) if I could write a historical novel for kids. How wonderful it would be to have the 2020 version of my ten-year-old self walk into the library and pull my book off the shelf….you know, that sounds a little surreal – a time-traveling doppleganger who reads a book I haven’t yet written……?

Whoa. I’m getting a little ditzy waiting for election returns from Pennsylvania. It’s now 3:00 a.m. and Thursday night is well on its way to Friday morning. Time to say goodnight to Steve Kornacki who has been on mute in the background as I write. Time for me to get to bed and dream another dream about being lost. I’ll get up tomorrow morning and see history happening. History keeps doing that.

Rah-Rah-Sis-Boom-Bah!

It’s the official launch day of my new picture book EEK!, co-written by good friend and talented artist Julie Paschkis, and published by Peachtree Books. I am whoop-dee-doing because there is just something special about this story of a mouse who persists through thick and thin (and jring and kabonk) on a journey to deliver a flower to a friend. During a time of staying safe/staying home, and a time when in-person school days are on hold, it offers up a burst of much-needed energy and playfulness.

Sometimes, as a poet, my work turns introspective – poetry can be a walk on the quiet side of things. But EEK!’s subtitle tells it all: A Noisy Journey from A to Z.

For this Books Around the Table post, I’d like to share some thoughts about collaboration, because Julie Paschkis, who illustrated two of my previous four picture books, has now joined me as co-author of the fifth.

As Julie P. told you in the last Books Around the Table post, I came up with the idea of an alphabet of sounds. Version #1 was all mine – random sounds, no story. Julie P. shaped it into a narrative. The journey, from “achoo” to “zzzzz,” reads as effortless – the best writing usually does – but believe me, Julie P. had a huge task, introducing sense to the nonsense I imagined.

What I find most exciting about this collaboration is that Julie P. and I have the same desire for playfulness and the same response to the delights of language. If you’re going to collaborate, it’s important to find someone in sync with your priorities, and Julie P. definitely responds the way I do to the pure joy of hearing what a language can do, down to the level of individual words and syllables. I’ve always known she was part poet – we’ve been critique group partners for many years – but I’ve never heard her articulate this joy in words better than she did for the Author’s Note at the end of her wonderful book Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido (animal poems in both English and Spanish):

I am a painter and a lover of words. A few years ago I illustrated a book about Pablo Neruda, the famous Chilean poet. I began to learn Spanish in order to illustrate that book, and I fell in love with the language. At the same time as I was struggling to learn the difference between ser and estar and between para and por I immersed myself in Neruda’s poetry. Later I read many more prosaic things, but he was my gateway to Spanish.
Somehow my unfamiliarity with Spanish freed me to write poetry. I felt like a visitor wandering through a forest of Spanish words, marveling at the beauty of sound, meaning and syntax.

If you haven’t read Flutter and Hum / Aleteo y Zumbido, get a copy and look carefully at the love of the sound of words that Julie P. shares with me.

As the novelist Anne Enright once said, “The writer’s great and sustaining love is for the language they work with every day. It may not be what gets us to the desk but it is what keeps us there and, after 20 or 30 years, this love yields habit and pleasure and necessity.”

Julie P. also has a new book in the works titled The Wordy Book, coming out next fall, full of paintings that include many words. In it, she expands on this explanation about her love of language:

A word can be savored for its sound and shape as well as for its meaning. When you hear a word the meaning usually arrives first; sometimes the meaning obliterates the other qualities of a word. When words are in paintings the other qualities can surface: sound and shape. The words still have meaning, but the meaning can be fluid. The words bump into each other and they bump into the images in the painting. They ask questions as well as giving answers.

Aha – there is another priority Julie P. and I share – a desire to ask questions!

Quick last thought: Are you one of those people who sits until the final credit rolls by at the end of a movie before you get up to leave the theater? I am. I like to see not just the whole cast list and the director, but also who did the casting, who the cinematographer was, who held the grip, who handled sound, who wrote the score, who handled the catering, who gets thanked, who did everything. If you sit through the credits, too, aren’t you amazed by how many people it takes, all working together, all doing their part, to make a 90-minute film? Isn’t that kind of group cooperation a little thrilling?

But in writing, the assumption is that you sit alone, imagine alone, write alone. I understand it’s a solid model – thus it has been and ever will be, amen. An author offers up a work that comes solely from his or her own imagination. But does it need to be that way always? How about a little experimentation? How about children’s book writers being the pioneers we usually are? How about taking on the model-breaking enterprise of collaboration every once in awhile? Put two authors’ names (or more!) on the cover of your next picture book. Two imaginations can be twice the fun of one.

Happy reading to you, happy end of summer. Stay safe and healthy. Here in the Pacific Northwest we’re covered with smoke from wildfires. But when the air clears, I’m going to use EEK! as my get-up-and-go book: If a little mouse can handle the fwumps and grrrs, so can I!

Three Little Nudges

If you’ve been feeling uncharacteristically un-creative, you’re not alone. This pandemic has got a lot of us stymied creatively, and understandably so.  But isn’t it true that all we need sometimes are little nudges to get us going again?

So I’ll keep things brief today and just send three nudges your direction.

#1. Best nudge for me lately: WindowSwap – a website that shares photos of views from people’s windows all around the world. Some of the views are simple and domestic, others are sweeping. For example, the view from Lina’s window in Aeschiried, Switzerland…D5088323-D691-4A9F-A83D-C41BEB0AB0F3

…and from Rexina’s window in Bangalore, India…

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…from Simone’s window in Villongo, Italy….

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…and from Ula’s window in Doha, Qatar…

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This WindowSwap nudge is meant to lift your spirits in general, but it can also get your imaginations going.  Just think: Who are Lina, Rexina, Ula, and Simone? Who would you be if one of those views were yours?  What would someone imagine about you if you submitted a photo of the view out a window in your house? When you see the phrase “We’re all in this together,” it’s this kind of sharing that forms connections between people and cultures in times of crisis. We have more in common than some people think.

 

Will you consider your own window view in a new way if you take a photo of it and submit it online for people around the world to see? Here’s the view I might submit, taken from the upstairs bedroom of our house during the neighborhood Sidewalk Chalk Festival.

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#2.  Get inspired tomorrow (Saturday the 18th – 7:30-9:00 EST) when there will be free streaming access to a dance performance in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur. It will feature dance companies from India and Sri Lanka – the setting in the Sackler Wing of the Met, and the heady colors of the outfits worn by the dancers, should get your heart racing and your creative juices flowing.

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The New York Times said “The only proper response to dancers this amazing is worship.” If the phrase “down in the doldrums” has been echoing around in your head since March, this performance should chase it off. And if you miss it tomorrow, I think the Met is making it available soon on YouTube.

#3. Last nudge – this one will make you giddy. Or dizzy. Or both. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is providing 3-D looks at objects in their collection online via a company called Sketchfab. You can turn the on-screen object around 360 degrees, look at it from underneath and from above, you can zoom in….you can practically feel it,  as if you in the museum viewing it, or even better, as if were holding it in your hand. Be sure to go to full-screen mode to get a really close up look. Try the tiny netsuke of a shoki (a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings) capturing an oni (an ogre.) This photo of it is not 3-D, but you’ll find one at the link.

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I’m a great believer in the power of one sense to heighten another. Music, sculpture, dance, good food  – all can inspire us to be better writers.  If we hit bad writing snags, we can venture outside the world of writing to unsnag ourselves. We can look out a window in Barcelona or Singapore. We can hold a netsuke in our virtual hands. We can watch as East Indian dancers move to the music of a bamboo flute. .