Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

OCEAN LULLABY – Our New Picture Book Launches May 18

APRIL 7 UPDATE: The original May 4 launch date launch has been changed to May 18.

A year before we all retreated to our houses, our family spent an idyllic week at a little resort on Maui’s Napili coast. Our visit coincided with that of a group of retirees from Canada and the US who had met there on previous trips and now regularly return the first week of February. One of them is a singer/guitarist who has a one-man show in Las Vegas. Their tradition is to circle the lounge chairs on the lawn above the beach one night for a sing along. They invited us to join in. He played all the best love songs. We sang. We danced. We rocked our grandchildren on our laps as the sun went down and a crescent moon rose.

That’s when the first lines of OCEAN LULLABY came to me. Song floats up, moon smiles down while we rock to ocean sounds. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. The ocean’s soothing song. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. We can sing along.

Then I looked out across the surf and started wondering. What do ocean creatures do as night falls? Do they sleep? Do they dream?

That’s how the story progresses.

I learned that adult whales buoy their calves so the calves can continue to breathe while they rest.

After grouping turtles and jellyfish on the same spread, I found out turtles eat jellyfish, so I quickly erected a coral structure to keep them apart.

A diver at the Maui Aquarium told me that resting octopusses (his preferred plural) have a brain pattern similar to humans when they are dreaming.

The monk seals are my favorite spread. As soon as I saw a reference photo with the little guy waving, I wanted to include them.

*****

On May 18 this year – over two years after our trip to Napili beach – OCEAN LULLABY will be published by Philomel. It is the third book my sister Kate Harvey McGee and I have illustrated together. I paint the black lines with a gouache resist technique, doozy them up in Photoshop and email them to Kate who lives near Philomath, OR. She’s a retired landscape architect, now pastel plein air painter, who colors our illustrations in Photoshop. I am so lucky to collaborate with her. I love the way she paints light.

One of the reasons I like to make picture books is because I love my work to be part of a remembered magical circle: those times with my kids, snuggled in the big chair, the neighborhood settling quiet around us, the warmth of their small selves on my lap as we enter a story together. OCEAN LULLABY was crafted for that circle. It ends:

You my sweet, my sleepy child, rest here in my arms awhile. As the new moon rides the sky, dream the ocean lullaby. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. Shhhhh…

We hope to set up a zoom event for an official launch soon. Meanwhile, OCEAN LULLABY will be available for sale at all the usual places after May 18. It offers a window to the big world that’s waiting for us out there when the Covid days are over: a world full of dozing whales, dreaming octopuses, snoring monk seals, family and friends.

Rose Wilder Lane: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter and secret collaborator

I was eight when we moved to Sonora, CA. It was my fourth school in five years and I wasn’t adjusting well.

Luckily, our new town had a library tucked into the Veteran’s Hall, right on Main Street, between our house and our dad’s newspaper office.

And luckily, Mrs. Hoe was at the desk there, looking out for lonely readers. She handed me Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the story of a girl like me: same age and name, and quite attached to a warm and wonderful father. I loved reading how that other Laura found her way in her new place.

The book was a lifeline.

I suppose it may have been my first binge experience: reading all the Little House books.

Not surprisingly, I was fascinated by the recent PBS show on American Masters, Laura Ingalls Wilder Prairie to Page. It begins by comparing Laura’s real childhood experiences to the Little House series’ stories, pointing out interesting discrepancies. As Laura said in her later years, “All I have told is the truth, but it is not the whole truth.”

But most interesting to me was to learn that the books were a collaboration between Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Rose was an established author in her own right – penning magazine articles and fiction and non-fiction books – when she started working with her mother. Letters between Rose and Laura reveal how the Little House books were shaped by both women from conception to writing to editing.

The TV show uses examples from when they were working on the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake. Rose’s letters are written on an old-fashioned typewriter. She has good advice about inhabiting the main character: “This is Laura’s story. You must stay inside Laura. Try always to make sight, scent, sensation immediate. ‘So Laura took the lines in her hands,’ is better than ‘So Laura drove the black ponies.’ Get it all directly as sight, emotion, thought, scent. Don’t say, ‘It reminded Laura of other times.’ Say, ‘This was like other times.’ Stay inside Laura.”

In another letter, Rose infers the collaboration did not always sit well with her mom. Rose wrote: “You are one of the few writers in the country who would turn down a collaboration with RWL – But go ahead! You certainly are handling the material much better all the time and if you don’t want this book touched, you are absolutely right to not have it touched.”

At issue? Rose advised against including the heartbreaking, true-to-life storyline about Mary going blind. Laura wrote back in her slanted scrawl on lined paper: “A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life and showing the way we all took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.”

If you are a Little House fan, you will remember how Mary’s blindness is a poignant part of the book.

More from Rose to her mom: “As to similarity in our writing, of course. You often write lines and whole paragraphs that I feel are what I would have written or anyway I had. What you haven’t developed is structure, a kind of under-rhythm in the whole body of the writing, and a ‘pointing up’ here and there. English is an impressionistic language, an onomatopoeic language. It has a quality of a sunrise or a landscape, a meaning in feeling. Essentially, it is poetry.”

I love thinking of language as sunrise or landscape; as the atmosphere it creates.

The TV show says Rose denied any connection to the Little House books until her dying day. Apparently she did not want the act of writing for children to taint her adult publishing career. Her own best-known book is non-fiction: The Discovery of Freedom, an early work that laid the foundation for the Libertarian party.

The show includes a discussion of the issue of racial prejudice in the Little House books, noting Laura was the first recipient of the ALA’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement award in 1954. In 2018 the ALA changed the name of this award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in light of parts of the Little House books that are “dehumanizing to children of color and send damaging messages to white children.”

Lousie Erdrich characterizes the Little House books as “valorizing things that destroyed entire peoples in this country.” As an adult, I see that and am sickened. Still, when I am asked what books made a big difference in my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods belongs on the list. My adult self sees things differently, but my child self remembers walking into the library’s cool brick building on a hot September afternoon and finding Mrs. Hoe in her crisp white high-collared blouse, doing her best with the books at hand to offer a little bibliotherapy to a lonely kid.

For these past six years and three picture books, I have collaborated with my sister Kate McGee on illustration. I have benefited from the insights of a second brain and a second artistic sense to clarify each project, as well as Kate’s sense of color and innate good cheer. I hope Rose and Laura got some of that, too.

Note: The TV show is 90 minutes and covers lots, lots more. You can access it on demand.

Telling the Story of the “Germ Season”

We’re into the tenth month of stay-at-home recommendations. The only regular interactions we have are with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandsons. We always meet outside, always wearing masks. We miss the Fridays we used to care for the little boys before they headed back to socially-distanced school. Oh, how I wish to pull them onto my lap and share a book. Our custom now is to sit opposite from each other when we read. They miss our old coziness, too. The younger one, who is 3 1/2, solemnly told me, “When germ season is over, we can go into your house again, Nana.” The older one, 5 1/2, is planning a two-night sleepover when the situation changes.

Meanwhile, I wonder how this exceptional year will impact the rest of their lives. They’ve come to accept maskwearing as easily as they might a warm coat. But the constant precautions they hear pervade how they understand the world. For instance, they have been reading Greek myths with their mom and were talking about the god Pan.

“Pan is naughty,” said my daughter.

“Yes,” the littlest agreed. “He doesn’t wash his hands.”

We are writers, the keepers of the stories. How will we tell the stories of this world-wide pandemic?

Recently I read Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, which recounts another world-wide horror: World War II. He tells the story of Winston Churchill and the UK, focusing on the 12-month period when Hitler waged a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons, 30,000 of them Londoners. It is a spellbinding account – woven of stories big and small – of how Churchill held the country together and persuaded FDR to join the fight.

Among Larson’s resources are diaries collected as part of the Mass Observation project, founded by an anthropologist, a filmmaker and a poet at the University of Sussex. They felt newspapers were not accurately conveying public opinion around King Edward VIII’s 1936 abdication of the throne to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. They recruited almost 500 volunteers to systematically document feelings about this historical event by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews in diaries.

When history took the dark turn to WWII, these diarists continued to keep day-to-day accounts of their lives, sometimes reflecting a wider perspective on history than news reports. No special instructions were given to the diarists so their writings vary greatly in their style, content and length. The project continued to the mid-sixties, then was revived in 1981. Archives are held at the University of Sussex.

What resources will future historians consult to understand the effects of our current pandemic?

They will be inundated by accounts on both social media and traditional news sources. I think the challenge will be wading through the ocean of source material.

They might start with the Sunday New York Times in late May. Did you see it? The front section was dedicated to the first 100,000 people who died. Under the headline “An Incalculable Loss,” they listed the names, dates, locations and a single sentence for each person, gathered from nearly 300 news sources. Stuff like: Great grandmother with an easy laugh. Could recite Tennyson from memory. Preferred bolo ties and suspenders. Quiet hero. Man, could she cook. Den mother for Cub Scout Pack 9. Each sentence evokes a lifetime. The interactive version is here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html You have to scroll and scroll and scroll to get from the beginning to the end. It’s heartbreaking.

These past weeks I have been working on our 2021 McGee family calendar. I am the middle of five sibs and our family numbers almost 70 now. Our mom started the calendar tradition in the 80’s and we five have kept it up, taking turns to gather the previous year’s photos that tell the story of our children and grandchildren growing up. All together, the calendars make a family archive: vacations, weddings, deaths and births. (We are hoping the first fourth-generation baby, a great-great niece whose due date is Dec. 11, will be born before we have to go to press.)

This year I used my grandsons’ vivid art for backgrounds, as well as my niece Anna’s beautiful batiks and some backgrounds from my books. I grouped COVID-19 photos on the back: family members playing board games, setting up socially-distanced outdoor meeting spaces, wearing masks – even a photo of a masked grandniece and her date posing for their traditional picture before leaving for the prom.

My sister Susan’s deck awaits her Tuesday night Bible and prayer meeting, Sacramento, CA.

There’s a photo of our immediate family there on the back of the calendar, too. We’re playing Sleeping Queens at the patio table, masked and bundled against COVID and the cold. We are part of the story.

THREE SHORT TAKES

COINCIDENCE

There are things that happen in real life that you would never believe if you read them in a novel – too coincidental, you’d think. Not believable.

But this really happened.

We were watching the vice-presidential debates when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s carefully coifed silver dome. When we looked a little later, we realized we had been mistaken, the fly was in our living room, crawling above Pence’s head on our TV screen. It buzzed over to the coffee table and across to the kitchen. Odd to have a fly in the house, we thought, especially this time of year.

Then post-debate commentators confirmed there had been a fly on Pence’s head. But what about the fly that seemed to come out of our TV? Too coincidental. Not believable.

This morning the Twitter world is atwitter with photos and comments about that fly on Pence’s head. In a New York Times column, Frank Bruni wrote: “How could [Pence] be expected to register or exile an itty-bitty pest when he routinely puts up with a great big one? That fly was some crazy combo of metaphor, visitation and karmic joke.”

What meaning would he attach to the doppelganger fly on our TV?

I am intrigued by coincidence. Or maybe it’s synchronicity? Like when I pick up the phone and the person I was going to call is already on the other end. Or that time we hiked miles down a trail on Orcas Island and found our old neighbors sitting on a log.

I once came out of a BART station in San Francisco and a busker was playing Wagon Wheel, the song that had been running through my head all morning. Another time, I opened the gate into a fancy garden party just as the jazz combo leaned into Laura, the song I was named after.

These coincidences stand out exactly because they seem uncanny, unbelievable. But in a bigger sense, synchronicities shape your life – you are there at the precise right moment to meet the people who open doors and teach and help you along the way. That leads to my second item.

12:34 – WHO LOVED YOU INTO BEING?

Whenever I happen to look at the clock and it is 12:34, I stop and take a minute to think about someone who helped me along the way. I got this idea from Fred Rogers, who called it “One Silent Minute.”

He urged kids to take a whole minute to think about a person who had “loved you into being.” Turns out a minute is a long time to stick with this, so just like Fred, I time it. Sometimes I think about someone from the past, like Doris Fletcher, a neighborhood mom who worked with us sixth grade girls so we could have a singing group, The Six Belles. Songs she taught us still give me comfort. I imagine us standing behind her at the her spinet singing, “May you always walk in sunshine…” Other times, I think about present friends and relations. As Fred reminds us, “Wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self.”

Who will you think about the next time you notice the clock at 12:34?

EMPATHY

With the divisiveness of the presidential election and rising racial unrest, it seems empathy is needed more than ever.

On his brilliant podcast, The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores the topic of empathy with Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki. I highly recommend listening to the whole podcast, but here are some highlights that will hit home for children’s book creators.

SV – “Deeply written narrative fiction has the ability to pull us deep into the lives of other people.”

JZ—”Absolutely… this is why I love fiction… It allows us to effortlessly voyage into the lives of other people and not just see them from the outside but see them from the inside.

“There’s a fair amount of evidence now that the more fiction that people read, the more empathetic they become. There’s a number of correlational studies that show, for instance, that children who read lots of storybooks (for instance, those who read less nonfiction) become more empathetic.

“There’s also some experimental evidence now that even small doses of fiction produce small but reliable improvements in people’s empathy, especially important because fiction is one of the most powerful ways to connect with people who are different than us…

“There is evidence that when people read novelistic, vivid accounts of, say, experiences of Arab Americans or people of different gender identities than themselves, they form greater empathy for those other groups.”

Zaki argues that empathy is like a muscle — it can be strengthened with exercise and it can atrophy when idle. Fiction is “the empathy gym.”

Shankar Vedantam, host of the Hidden Brain, and his guest, psychologist Jamil Zaki

So there it is: buzzing coincidence, brimming silence, bountiful fiction.

Books that stand the test of time, when time no longer has meaning

A guest post today from my daughter, who is using children’s books to help her through the parenting challenges of COVID:

We’ve heard how the COVID pandemic has brought particular challenges for working parents of small children. Time no longer feels the same, and yet somehow parenting duties have become incessant. As our friend Heidi says, the week only has 3 days now: Today, Tomorrow, and Yesterday. Possum parenting – where the parent plays dead on the couch while the children run feral – can only get you so far; more entertainment is needed. Which children’s books are helping beleaguered parents?

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.12.20 PM

Old Favorites. Both for parents and kids alike, we all need a little extra comfort and gentleness. The familiar refrains of beloved favorites are like the grandparent’s hug we all crave right now: tender, well-worn, and perhaps a little musty. Stories with a repetitive framework, like King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub, by Don and Audrey Wood, are especially appealing. Will the king ever get out of the tub? Even though we all know what’s going to happen next – after the knight checks on him, after the queen checks on him – we all can’t wait to see how it unfolds. At the same time, it allows Mom to live vicariously through the ultimate dream of a daylong bathtub (even if it is interrupted periodically for matters of great import).

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.20.54 PM

Shiny and New-to-you. Never underestimate the power of novelty to buy yourself a few moments of sibling harmony. With the library closed, and our bookshelf on constant rotation, adding a new book to our collection has outsized value. We’ve especially appreciated books that take us on new adventures, since we ourselves are staying close to home. One recent new addition for us was Marc Martin’s A River, whose languid rhythm and dreamy pictures lead us on an imaginary journey from a city through the Amazon to the sea and back.

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.23.08 PM

Another favorite is Marianne Dubuc’s Up the Mountain Path, where we follow along with an intrepid kitty named Lucy and her mentor Mrs. Badger on a mountain hike to a great view, but with an ultimate destination of true friendship.

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 12.22.42 PM

Silly Stories Kids Love that Won’t Drive Parents Bonkers. In the “before times,” you could read your kid their favorite story 10 times over from a place of grounded patience and understanding. When you’re starting from a base of sleep deprivation and overwhelm, set yourself up for success with stories that will make you and your kids laugh. Eat Pete, by Michael Rex, is a particular favorite of my three year-old and his beloved granddad. A monster appears at Pete’s window, and Pete invites him to play, but all he wants to do is eat Pete! The monster puts off the inevitable as long as possible, enjoying playing pirates and blocks instead of indulging in a boy-sized snack, and (spoiler alert) he finally gives in and eats Pete. But as we’ve found out during quarantine with chest freezers full of popsicles and no one to share them with, a full belly is no substitute for a playmate. A big burp later, and the Monster’s redemption is complete: a tiger can change his stripes. Enjoy reading this to a soundtrack of your kiddo’s delighted giggles as the monster navigates his impulses, learns about social expectations, and indulges in a hearty belch and even heartier hug.

Here’s hoping these books and ideas can bring parents a few moments of wonder, delight or calm as you keep on keeping on. As I remind myself every time I think “I can’t do this,” remember you ARE doing this!

p.s. from LMK – Thank you, dear daughter, for writing this post and for hanging in there with the little guys through “the germ season,” as the kids call it. With all you have on your plate, you created a blogpost, too! Incredible.

Dear readers: Please add titles that stand the test of time with your little ones, be they old favorites, shiny new or silly.

The STAY Inside Story

For 22 years, the Inside Story has chugged along, staging twice-yearly gatherings at libraries and bookstores to celebrate new books created by Seattle-area children’s authors and illustrators. The goal is to give each book creator two minutes to share something unique and insightful about their book’s creation; to share the story behind the story with the larger children’s book community of teachers, librarians, booksellers and children’s book aficionados. 

But this spring, as you well know, quarantine circumstances prohibited gatherings. Organizer Dana Sullivan was not deterred. He stamped “STAY” across the top of the Inside Story logo and thus the “STAY Inside Story” was born.

 Dana and Michele Bacon are the current caretakers of this Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators event. In previous outings, their tasks included sending out the call to local SCBWI members, setting up venues, coordinating with a bookstore to sell participants’ books, creating programs, and emcee-ing the show.  

The new virtual format demanded an expanded skill set. To his customary roles of illustrator, designer, and web-content creator, Dana added participant coach, rehearsal director, and technology troubleshooter. His sense of humor leavened the challenges, including navigating Zoom webinar technology, with the help of Michele and SCBWI co-chair Julie Artz.

Co-chair of the STAY Inside Story, Dana Sullivan, emceed the event with humor and panache.

You can see the program of presenters and their books here: http://www.danajsullivan.com/inside-story-may-2020.html

It’s an entertaining lineup, including BATT’s own Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine who showcased their lovely new picture book, Where Lily Isn’t, and Vikram Madan, whose spiel about his poetry collection, A Hatful of Dragons: And more than 13.8 billion other funny poems, included a magic trick.

Suzanne Selfors, new proprietor of Liberty Bay Books in Poulsbo, coordinated book sales through a special section on her website, working with presenting authors and illustrators to provide signed books to purchasers. https://www.libertybaybooks.com/event/scbwis-inside-story

Afterwards, Dana created a YouTube video of the event, which you can see if you click on this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHpaKmWh-Y0

George Shannon and I, who created the Inside Story in 1998 and ran it for the first five years, had cameo roles in the opening scene. We both tip our virtual hats to Dana and his team for this successful first-ever STAY Inside Story. It was so heartening to see our children’s book community rally despite being unable to gather. In fact, attendance topped 100 viewers, a record!

For the inside story about the Inside Story, check out my blogpost from 2013. https://booksaroundthetable.wordpress.com/?s=Inside+Story

There’s No Place Like…

Since March 12, we have had a chance to decide if Dorothy is right, if there truly is no place like home. Our enforced staycation has given us all lots of time to think about what ‘home’ means.

It’s a common theme of literature: the hero’s journey takes him out and away only to return home, changed, to a hot supper.

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 8.52.57 AM

Home. Such a perfect word. The sigh of the initial ‘h,’ the round ‘o,’ the ‘m,’ which can be drawn out ‘mmmmm.’

In the early 2000’s I spoke at a joint Oregon and Washington library gathering. Organizers asked participants to respond to the question: “What is ‘home’ to you?” I remember Lois Lowry said home was her mother singing in the kitchen. And Jacqueline Woodson, who had a new baby, said home was the curve of her daughter’s neck, that little nuzzling place.

Their answers engage the senses – the sound of singing, the touch of a warm baby – because home is a place we know with our senses. The smell of oak duff takes me to my childhood home in the Sierra foothills, as does any starry, starry night.

But no matter where your physical house is, it’s the people there that make it a home. Anyone who has experienced homesickness knows the truth of the old axiom “Home is where the Heart is.” No matter how good a vacation is, it’s always comforting to come home to your own bed.

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 8.53.59 AM

Have you ever taken a walk through your neighborhood at dusk, when neighbors have their lights on but before they have shut the curtains? In every picture window there’s a vignette of home being experienced: kids playing, a family eating dinner, a mother rocking a baby. Lots of stories going on.

These days we get glimpses into peoples’ homes because of the necessary reworking of live TV shows. For instance, if you watch American Idol, the contestants are broadcasting from their homes. You get to know them a little better: the freeway is off in the distance from one guy’s porch, another has a couch full of kids watching.

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 9.03.30 AMYou can’t help but imagine their lives as revealed by their homes. It’s an interesting insight, especially for we nosy writer-types.

I’ve become fond of Jimmy Fallon’s home edition, videoed by his wife on an iPhone. He is so charming with his two little girls on his lap, reading the evening’s jokes – and what an interesting house!

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 9.04.45 AM

 John and I realize we are lucky. We have each other – that’s what home is for us – and a roof over our heads and access to just about anything we need – and two little grandboys who are on their way over here right now. Maybe they will build a fort of sofa cushions and blankets. A home in a home.

My heart goes out to those whose housing is uncertain and healthcare and food sources iffy.  The inequalities in our land-of-plenty are laid bare by this crisis. As we recover from the corona virus’ impact, I hope we will take the opportunity to reset our communities, and services, and country with compassion and inclusion. Here’s a chance to do things better, to take better care of each other, to offer everyone the welcome of home.

Wishing you all the best during our “safe at home” days — and wondering; When you click your sparkly red heels, what is ‘home’ to you?

Screen Shot 2020-05-15 at 8.56.58 AM

Authors Connect with Kids Stuck at Home

Last month, many U.S. schools were closed until the end of April to try to slow the spread of the corona virus. This week, our Washington Governor, Jay Inslee, announced state schools will likely not reopen until fall. All these closures have sent parents scrambling for study space, learning materials and content.

Luckily, Erica Rand Silverman, who works for the Stimola Literary Studio, had an idea how to fill that content need. Within days of the first closures, she contacted the authors and illustrators the agency works with, asking them to contribute programs – and StimolaLive.com was born.

Launched on March 23, the programs run on weekdays for kids of all ages. So far, they include picture book readings, a sing along, a bake along, and wonderful workshops on myriad aspects of writing and illustration. After each program is livestreamed, it is transferred to the Stimola Live YouTube channel for future reference.

On April Fool’s day, with help from my husband John, I jumped into the livestream. My event included reading Little Wolf’s First Howling and a workshop about creating a character based on a stuffed animal, as I did with Little Wolf and A.A. Milne did with the Winnie the Pooh crew. Clearly, it’s my first attempt at livestreaming, but I was pleased to get my toes wet. See here.

Erica juggles her new livestreaming project with literary agent tasks and family duties, but she found time to tell us more about Stimola Live. What follows is our Q and A.

How did you get this idea? 

I was near other parents when we received the news that school was going to close. The look of fear on all their faces would have been funny if it wasn’t such truly devastating news. Most of them were worrying how they would be able to continue engaging their kids authentically on their own. They were worrying that one of the first things to slip would be their kids’ reading skills and interest in books. The idea for Stimola Live came flying in at the very moment – our authors and illustrators can help to create content that parents can feel good about using with their kids. It’s a win for the parents who are desperate to keep their growing readers engaged. A win for authors and illustrators who want to stay connected to their readers. And, a win for booksellers who desperately need patrons to remain invested in book buying (we link to booksellers – often indies- on each event page!). Honestly, it grew into something bigger and better than I could have ever imagined! I called author-illustrator, Shanda McCloskey, to ask her to participate and three sleepless days later she and her husband had created a website and logo for it! Then, my colleague, Allison Hellegers, had the idea to save the livestreams as videos to a Stimola Live YouTube channel.

ericaandboys

Erica Rand Silverman and her boys. She writes, “This is from the first day of school this year which is particularly bitter sweet.”

What kinds of challenges did you have to overcome to create Stimola Live?

The biggest challenge has been figuring out the technology end of things. We learned a lot as we went through the process, like which platforms are easiest to save the video from, which platforms allow for interaction, which are difficult to use because of overcrowding. Some of the livestream platforms translate well to a saved video and some aren’t as good. We had over 50 participating authors and illustrators each with their own questions and challenges. It was a lot to manage but incredibly satisfying at the same time.

Can you offer recommendations per age level or guidance through the offerings?

One of the best things about Stimola Live is that the livestreams and saved video content range in age from preschool to teen. There is truly something for everyone. Each event page on StimolaLive.com lists appropriate ages directly in the event title, and on the Stimola Live YouTube channel we organize videos by age as well.

Unexpected benefits? Response?

I loved unexpectedly bumping into [Stimola Literary] Studio authors and illustrators at the different live stream events. Authors and illustrators who might not have known each other well before were able to tune into each other’s live streams and participate. I loved seeing them (and their own children in many instances) participate. It helped to create even more camaraderie and community at the Studio itself. There may be 15 people attending the livestream with you or 300. Either way, when you’re able to see each other tune in and read each other’s comments, you really feel like you’re all in the room together.

It has also been amazing to see that people from all over the world have come to the site! People have visited from Canada, Germany, Mexico, China and more.

Teachers write to us to ask if they can link to Stimola Live or specific events/videos in their Google Classrooms. Those are the best emails to get!

There were instances where some livestreams didn’t go as planned or teachers/students/kids weren’t able to access the event as expected. That was disappointing for all but as we say on the FAQ page, we’re book-makers, not professional livestreamers . . . at least not yet!  We did over 60 events in two weeks! There were bound to be some mistakes and all the viewers were really kind about it.

Going forward we’ll continue to host events and will now be able to refine them based on everything we learned. We love feedback and suggestions. So, please let everyone know that they can email us at info@stimolalive.com  and if they want to know when we have more events going up they can subscribe to the newsletter – https://www.stimolalive.com/newsletter/

• • • • •

Thank you, dear husband and quarantine mate, for helping me participate. And thank you, Erica, for inventing this wonderful river of connection and sharing the story of its beginnings with our BATT readers. 

Reading the Times

WE’RE SITTING TIGHT here in Seattle, at the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, while news of Boeing’s 737 Max crisis, the Democratic primaries, and the stock market’s volubility swirl around us.

How to stay calm in these stressful times? Curl up with a good book.

rand2310

From its first sentences, a good book opens a door into the story and you are welcomed in. Everything in the ‘real’ world – from big concerns, like global warming and homelessness, to the quotidian, like the dog’s teeth that need brushing, and piles of laundry, and unpulled weeds – everything fades away. You may find yourself with that other Laura, settling down to sleep in the loft of a Little House in the Big Woods, or howling with a wolf pup on a faraway mountainside, or summoning an owl messenger to Hogwarts with a certain boy wizard.

Stories give us a chance to live forward and backward in time; to inhabit other places, be they real or imagined. We can put on the skin of a dragon or a fox or another person. In stories, we can experience things that are way too scary or infuriating or heartbreaking to experience in real life. If, subsequently, our own lives serve up fear, or anger or heartbreak, sometimes it is a story that helps us through, offering information and comfort.

rand2311

The wonderful irony is that while a story can offer refuge from the ‘real’ world, it also has the amazing power to connect. We humans are story people. I wrote about the chemical reason for this in my last post.

When we share our stories – in both reading and writing – that connection leads naturally to empathy, an empathy that sends us back to the ‘real’ world refreshed for the challenges ahead. I like how Barrack Obama put it: “The thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories.” I hope other politicians know about this.

WE MADE A RUN to Costco Sunday and I can assure you that should we be quarantined because of the coronavirus, we have sufficient maple syrup, guacamole and toilet paper for the duration. More importantly, should the weight of the current news cycle become too heavy, the Seattle Public Library offers an escape to ebooks and audiobooks, all easily downloaded from the comfort of our isolation.

We’re up to the challenge, here, holding down the northwest corner of the map. But a little bibliotherapy may be necessary.

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 10.40.11 AM

The characters from Little Wolf’s First Howling, as featured in the Mazza calendar last year. Thanks to my sister Kate Harvey McGee for the lovely colors.

 

 

 

 

Story Chemistry

“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”     – Gabrielle Roth

I think she’s got it right – better mental health through dancing, singing, being enchanted by stories, and comforted by silence. To which I would add two more questions: When did you stop gardening? and When did you stop hanging out with your dog?

But that story thing. That’s what’s on the plate here today. Stories. From daily incidents – what elementary school writers call “small moments” – packed with meaning and humor and pathos, to the big arcs of a lifetime that spool out of the ephemera of past generations. Through stories, we connect. It is one of my favorite things about being human.

Turns out there is a chemical reason why we find stories so satisfying, according to neuro-economist Paul Zak. Zak measured his subjects’ brains’ oxytocin before and after watching character-driven videos. The oxytocin levels took a definite jump.

His verdict: human beings are “wired for story.”

You know that pleasurable feeling you get from a good story? That’s oxytocin synthesizing in your brain. In further studies, Zak found that the more oxytocin a person released, the more likely a person would be willing to help others, for example, by donating money to charities associated with the video’s narrative. This mechanism will play out repeatedly Sunday in Superbowl commercials whose stories will tug your heartstrings and then your wallet, all in 30 seconds flat.

Zak wrote, “Many of us know from Joseph Campbell’s work that enduring stories tend to share a dramatic arc in which a character struggles and eventually finds heretofore unknown abilities and uses these to triumph over adversity; my work shows that the brain is highly attracted to this story style.”

Zak noted people respond most strongly to narratives with beginnings, middles and ends that used dramatic tension to sustain attention. That’s the basic structure of many Superbowl commercials – but also of typical picture books. Here are some examples from our BATT  group:

Margaret and Julie P’s recent Where Lily Isn’t, the tender story of a little girl struggling with the death of her dog.Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.31.38 PM

Bonny’s The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, where a small boy finds a surprising way to deal with a scary bus driver.

LWCover

My sister Kate’s and my Little Wolf’s First Howling about a wolf pup finding his voice.

Screen Shot 2020-01-30 at 6.32.16 PMThe same story structure is also found in a spare form in this poem from Julie L.’s Imaginary Menagerie, illustrated by Julie P.:

Firebird

Who will bring me golden apples?

Calls the firebird

From her silver tree.

Who will sing me a golden song?

All day she waits

In the tsar’s garden.

Who will set me free? Who?

If given a feather

Bright as heaven,

Would you?

I still wonder why stories have this oxytocin-releasing affect on our brains. Perhaps over the eons, as humans evolved, stories were necessary to survival. I like that hypothesis. Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy the pleasure of good stories, as they spark our ability to connect, to empathize and to make meaning.