Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

WEAVING A BLOGPOST

spider3In our garden, we’ll remember this as the Year of the Spider. The golden slant of autumn light has come — and with it a bumper crop of spider webs.

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The spiders are easy to spot, hanging head downward on their vertical webs that serve as both home and hunting ground. Just what kind of spiders are they? I searched the Other Web and found this handy identification chart on iwastesomuchtime.com.

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Reference.com had better information. I learned that the classification of spiders begins with their webs. Much as children’s writers work in genres – board books, picture books, middle grade and YA — spiders spin out one of four different kinds of webs: orb, sheet, funnel and tangle.

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By the shape of their art in our garden, I identified these weavers: orb spiders of the family Araneidae.

Yes, that’s the same spider family as Charlotte’s in EB White’s beloved Charlotte’s Web.

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It seems fitting that they are spinning webs outside my windows while I spin a blogpost within.

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Ah, that I could be so productive. Orb spiders build new webs just about every evening, after consuming the old web. Revision and more revision. Only the females weave webs. The males spend their time searching for mates. To create silk, an orb female squirts liquid out of the spinneret glands in her abdomen. It stays liquid until it hits the air, much as ideas solidify as they become words. She makes sticky silk for the circular strands, to catch insect prey, and non-sticky radials to run along: threads of dialogue and narrative; exposition and introspection.

She weaves a web from her own substance: story woven from the deepest self.

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Orb spiders do not see well, despite the fact that they have eight eyes. An orb female is alerted to an insect on her web by its vibration. She runs along the radials to subdue it with a bite, sometimes wrapping it in silk for later consumption.

A writer might move blindly into a story, as well, feeling her way for the vibrations that raise the little hairs on the back of her neck, the visceral reaction that telegraphs yes, here’s a juicy story part, an idea to bite into, a just-right word to wrap in silk for future use.

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My three-year old grandson took a good look at the orb spiders at his house, too. He counted five webs in the tree next to their stairs. But he doesn’t call them Araneus or even spiders. He calls them “Booby Voobek,” in the insect language that Carson Ellis invented for her brilliant book, Iz Du Tak. And there, where language and spiders collide, seems a good place to end this woven tale.

“Rup furt,” Ellis writes. Rup furt, indeed.

 

 

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PICTURE BOOK FODDER

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In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

Story and Connection – A Letter to Hannah Gadsby

Screen Shot 2018-07-16 at 11.39.55 AMDear Hannah Gadsby,

I am writing this with tears in my eyes, having just watched your Netflix comedy special, Nanette.

I had to watch it twice to appreciate how you wove together – with humor – threads of your coming out story and assault, insights about the cost of turning your story into comedy, analysis of comedy structure v. story structure, your experiences with unsolicited advice givers and anti-depressives, and, even, info from your undergrad degree in Art History. You brought these storylines together for maximum impact, making a indelible case for embracing multiple perspectives.

It is so much more than a comedy special, which seems to be stirring up a bit of controversy. Did you see where Judy Berman in the New York Times wrote, “The controversy surrounds the nature of Nanette, which is packaged as comedy but evolves into a searing critique of that medium when, midway through her set, Gadsby announces that she’s quitting stand-up. A lesbian from conservative Tasmania, she is done mining past trauma for jokes. Instead, Gadsby launches into a shrewd and impassioned dissection of misogyny, homophobia, art history and especially comedy. Is it fair to call this stand-up? Opinions vary.”

Whatever you want to call it, your brilliant performance gathers steam as it goes. I put your closing words above my computer:

“Laughter is not our medicine. Stories hold our cure. Laughter is just the honey that sweetens the bitter medicine.

“I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger. I just needed my story heard, my story felt and understood by individuals with minds of their own. Because like it or not your story is my story and my story is your story. I just don’t have the strength to take care of my story anymore. I don’t want my story defined by anger. All I can ask is just please help me take care of my story.

“Do you know why we have The Sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether, a connection to the world and that is the focus of the story we need.

“Connection.”

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Hannah, I want you to know I will take care of your story. I think that’s my purpose on this earth – to take care of stories. One of my first picture books, published 22 years ago, is about a princeling who finds his own dreams. The most recent is about a little wolf who sings his own song. I agree our diversity is our strength; there is room for all our dreams, all our songs, all our stories. The first thing I will do to take care of your story is to share it with the BATT blogpost readers.

Your very specific, individual story is universal. That’s the way stories work. They connect us to a world where everyone is welcome at the table. Thanks again for your wonderful special.

Yours truly, Laura

Alaskan Stories Sewn and Carved

Last week Julie P. wrote about the picture books she discovered on her journey to Portugal. This week, I plan to share some art and stories from our trip to Southeastern Alaska.

We traveled by small boat – an Uncruise – chugging up the inlets of the Inland Passage between Juneau and Ketchikan, everyday kayaking and hiking into the fiords and forests. jkpaddleAKI grew up near Yosemite in California and I think the best way to describe this scenery is to imagine Yosemite – the towering granite cliffs, the waterfalls – filled with salt water. In addition to the animal life you’d find in Yosemite, like bears and mink and eagles, the Southeastern Alaska wilderness is home to whales, sea lions and harbor seals, etc. Yes, it was amazing.

But just as intriguing was the opportunity to learn about the native people of this area – the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. Our trip included a visit to the Chief Shakes longhouse in Wrangell.

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There, a man named Arthur talked about the history of the Tlingit people and the building of the longhouse, and, more personally, the history of the blanket robe he wore, a garment that had originally been his grandmother’s.

With the robe for illustration, Arthur talked about the two “moieties” in the Tlingit tribe: eagle and raven. Families follow a matrilineal line and marriages are traditionally only allowed between one of each moiety. Arthur’s grandmother was of the eagle clan, thus the eagle at the top front of his blanket.

During his grandmother’s youth, the western government disallowed all tribal regalia as well as the Tlingit language. Grandmother’s robe, made of black and red government-provided blankets and decorated with white buttons, was hidden between the studs of her house.

When Arthur was a young man, his grandmother showed him the robe, then returned it to its hiding place. “It kept us warm, even then,” Arthur said. Thirty years later, Arthur’s family sold the house and the new owner remodeled. A demo crew found the robe and set it aside. The new owner noticed it and stuffed it into a trash bag. When the owner left, workers rescued the robe and gave it to a tribal leader who recognized that it had belonged to Arthur’s grandmother. Five years ago when Arthur left his job as a fisherman to learn more about his Tlingit culture, he took a Tlingit name. The tribal leader gifted him back his grandmother’s robe, which he has altered to fit. Over the years he added an Orca on the front and Wolf and Bear images on the back – each depicting other parts of his family.

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Arthur’s robe is a visual reminder of his family lineage in Tlingit images. In a culture that had no written language, the robe holds the stories.

In Ketchikan at the end of our journey, we met Jason, a Tsimshian guide, in the Totem Heritage Center. He unwound the stories of five ancient totem poles. He told us how totem poles could have a funerary or commemorative use, or tell a family’s history. But this particular one was made to tell a cautionary tale.

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As Jason told us, the face featured is that of a strong and arrogant man who went out fishing. He didn’t want to wait for his partner so he went alone. “That’s when the Alaska weather showed up,” Jason said. Waves capsized the man’s canoe. “The mythological killer whale people saw him. They recognized him as a strong and important person and saved him, bringing him underneath the water to the mythological village of the killer whale people.” They revived him, so he stayed with them for many years to repay them.

Eventually he got homesick. He realized he was not strong enough as a regular man to make it from the bottom of the ocean to the surface. “So he wrapped himself in a sealskin and transformed himself into a seal – until he broke the surface of the ocean and returned to his people.”

Jason added that there are two morals from this story: “Never go out fishing alone, and always take care of those who take care of you.”

This totem pole, unlike most, is carved on all sides. The seal’s skin wraps around the man, with the head of the seal (a little damaged due to age) rising straight above the man, as the seal swims up to the surface of the water.

Stories and storytellers and the beautiful native art that holds the stories surely added to our Southeastern Alaska adventures. These tribes’ oral storytelling traditions relied on art made from materials at hand: fabric, buttons and sewing needles, and huge cedar logs. But the urge to tell a story with words and images is the same urge we picture book people feel. It’s a part of the human condition.

NAOMI SHIHAB NYE ON READING AND WRITING

“We read books. We write poems. We belong to ourselves. Does your story have room for me? My story has room for you – ways to enter in, ways to feel our lives reflected or confirmed. Ways of finding greater confidence. We’re all here. We can do it.

“We live on the edges of stories we don’t hear. Every person walking past us on your beautiful Bellingham pier is full of stories…”

Poet, humanist and teacher Naomi Shihab Nye took the stage April 28 at Western Washington University to deliver her Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, REFRESHMENTS WILL BE SERVED – Our Lives of Reading and Writing.

naomiX3It was a luminous presentation, full of stories from her 42 years of working and writing with students from all over the world. Her attitude is ever curious. When a student from Afghanistan asked her why she choses to spend time with kids, she answered, “Because I want to remember what you know.”

She spoke of the importance of asking for stories before they are lost and proposed ways to keep the flow going, like writing on various papers: found papers, round paper placemats, post-its, etc.

She talked about the way writing works: “Nothing is too small to work on.” And “One person’s story encourages another.” And “Each thing gives us something else – another way of thinking, a new thought, more compassion for people who have trouble finishing their work.”

She reminded us that when you feel beleaguered as a writer or a citizen, reading will fortify you.

Near the end, she read her poem KINDNESS. She told us she did not write this poem; it was a gift and she was the scribe. It came to her on her honeymoon, after she and her husband had been robbed. This poem has seen me through hard times and I loved hearing her read it.

KINDNESS

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

–Naomi Shihab Nye, 1995

P.S. Earlier this month, walking around Green Lake, this great heron reminded me of another poem that speaks to us in trying times, from poet, writer, activist and farmer Wendell Berry:

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The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

– Wendell Berry, 1998

P.P.S. William Stafford, Oregon’s beloved poet and mentor to Naomi Shihab Nye gets the last line here: “If you are having trouble writing, lower your standards.”

 

 

 

For Love of the World

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E.B. White

Lately I have been digging into the final dummy revisions for SQUEAK, a picture book which will be published by Philomel in 2019. It is a chain-reaction story; a Rube Goldberg alarm clock that starts with the squeak of a small mouse and ends with the biggest bison’s bellow billowing out over mountains and meadows and waking everybody else.

Along the way I get to draw chipmunks, trout, elk, eagles, bears, wolves, and big horned sheep, as well. Also the landscape and the plants where they live.

You might recognize Little Wolf whose howling in SQUEAK wakes the big horn sheep.

I am illustrating SQUEAK with my sister Kate Harvey McGee. I wrote the story and will create a black and white gouache layer, like the wolves above, for the illustrations. She will provide the color, as she did for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. One of the benefits of this collaboration is we talk over possibilities. For instance, tree choice.

We were hiking on the Oregon coast and came by this lovely Sitka spruce. It had the perfect opening at the bottom for a small mouse nest – and great checkered bark. But the big cast of animals in SQUEAK requires the ecosystem of a place like Yellowstone. That sent me scampering through the internet to see if there is a similar spruce in the Rockies – Yes! The Englemann spruce. I gathered screen grabs of the pine cones and needles, branching habit, etc. of this particular tree. And photos of the inside of stumps, too, for the final spread.

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For LITTLE WOLF, Kate captured the colors of the hours from evening to night, painting moonlight. But SQUEAK takes place just before the sun comes up, the whole story happens in about 15 minutes. She is experimenting with possible palettes, auditioning various pinks and oranges to suggest the pre-dawn.

To find the images and the colors to illustrate this story we tune into the beauty and wonder of the natural world: from the thick brown shag of a bear’s coat to the silver scales of trout, from grass-choked meadows to conifers hugging the bottom of rocky cliffs.

We were raised in Sonora, CA, in the Sierra foothills, and spent many happy days hiking the Emigrant Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 108. On backpack trips into the high country, we sometimes woke in the chilly pre-dawn when a few stars still lit the sky. We lay awake long enough to note the beautiful mountains, meadows and towering trees all around. Then, like the small mouse in SQUEAK, we snuggled down with our friends and went back to sleep.

How satisfying to have a project that recalls that place and lets us speak our love for the natural world.

SEEING WITH FRESH EYES

Earlier this week it snowed in Seattle. We woke to clear blue skies and an outdoor world blanketed with an inch or two of bright white powder. My daily walk down the driveway to get the newspaper became one of discovery: the yellow witchhazel fluffs each wore a snow hat, same for the rhody leaves.

Animal tracks on the pavement led into the woods. Who knew this was a bunny crossing?

bunnytracksI was seeing my old familiar walk with fresh eyes. So exhilarating.

Seeing with fresh eyes is one reason I love hanging out with my almost-three-year old grandson. The world is new to him. On a walk around an ordinary San Francisco city block he discovers seedpods and leaves and various ornamental details. He pays attention to everything. When the MUNI tram goes by, he notices the paint scheme (he particularly loves the polka dot MUNI). He watches the sidewalk, too, and points out letters he recognizes on the public works cement vaults signage. He finds other lines in the cement that are perfect to jump between.

I understand that our adult brains, in the interest of efficiency, stop noticing familiar details. I have walked down our driveway at least 1,000 times. I guess it makes sense to tune out. But what wonders await when I tune in.

This week my sister Kate Harvey McGee was visiting so we could work on our book, SQUEAK, which is slated to come out from Philomel in 2019. I create the black and white part of our illustrations, first painting in gouache resist, then scanning, and reworking in Photoshop.

8-9mouseK I send my files to Kate for coloring. Kate works in Photoshop, too.

Kate lives near Philomath, Oregon, and we usually work through email. So it was fun to sit in the same room and kibitz, and to be able to print out our efforts and take a look together.

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Something about printing out triggers the fresh eyes thing. We hung the print on the wall and kept returning to look at it over the next few days. Pretty soon we were adding post-its: “rounder mouse butt,” “shadow plant” etc etc.

Kate and her partner Scott were also in Seattle because we had a family event to celebrate – our niece Maia is now engaged to Chris. So we were all thinking about how it is to fall in love. It’s related, isn’t it, to seeing with fresh eyes?

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Remember when you first met the person you love most deeply – and that wonder of discovering him or her?

I wish Mai and Chris all the best – and for the rest of us, here’s to seeing all the world with fresh eyes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Words and Images from the Women’s March

Words and Images. That’s how we convey story in a picture book. Yesterday, I tuned into the words and images that told the story of the Women’s March in Seattle.

It started with how it all looks. I had misplaced the pink pussyhat I knit last year – so decided to wear a red hat my sister Kate sewed me, edged with buttons from my mom’s button box. It was a way to bring Mom and my sisters along.

Then we met a woman on the Light Rail who’d sewn 100 pink fleece pussyhats to give  away. That set the generous feeling for the day.

with my friend Suzette

We took the train from the University station. There had been a smattering of pink pussy hats and signs as we descended the escalator into the Light Rail dungeon. By the time we emerged at Cal Anderson park everyone was showing the colors of the movement – which seems to stick to the purple and red side of the color wheel.

At the park, these two passed out the 1000 buttons they had made. I like the words on mine: strong female character, (especially good for a writer, right?)

Words and images. The Seattle march, which numbered as many as 50,000, was led off by Native Americans wearing black and red clothing, some with button blankets and woven hats. Their drums set a beat of gravitas. Their signs drew attention to the cause of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Before we fell into line, a guy with a microphone and camera asked us why we were there. Where to start?

Some of my favorite signs said why. Sometimes with humor, sometimes just pointing to the heartbreaking truth.

Respect my existence or expect resistance

I loved that many of the marchers were men…

 …and that many children participated as well, like this adorable group with Suzette’s daughter and her friends: four moms and seven little ones. When I asked seven-year old Sidney why she was marching, she said, “I want girls and women to have the same rights as men –  because I’m a girl.”

Their future keeps us marching. I plan to hang on to my new pussyhat. This story’s not over.

 

 

What I Learned from the 2017 Caldecott Winners’ Portland Panel

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Marian Creamer of Children’s Literature Alive introducing the panel. L to r: Marian in front, Brendan Wenzel, Javaka Steptoe, Carson Ellis, Gregory Christie, Vera Brogsol and moderator Steven Engelfried.

There they were – all five recipients of the 2017 Caldecott awards – seated for a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon. Usually a given year’s Caldecott winners appear together only at their ALA awards ceremony. But shortly after these winners were announced last January, my friend, Portland librarian Marian Creamer, who served on the awards committee, realized all five of the 2017 recipients had a connection to Portland. So she hatched a plan to gather them for a wonderful few days of events in her corner of the world.

Here are some remarks from these illustrious illustrators that stuck with me.

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Javaka Steptoe with Faubion PK-8 student.

First off, Javaka Steptoe whose book, Radiant Child, the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was given the top Caldecott medal. His illustrations were created in the style of Basquiat’s work: painted and collaged onto found wooden panels with repetition of iconic Basquiat images in Basquiat-bright colors.

Javaka said he begins his projects by looking for the story behind the story. For this book, it was the mother/son connection that spoke to him, “the basis of Basquiat’s humanity.” In the first stages of any book project, Javaka advises, “Let it be ugly: throw it up on a page, put it all out there, then scale it back.” His goal is to find “a balance of flavors.”

As he works through successive drafts, Javaka finds “better words and flow out of the chaos and jumbledness.” He concluded, “Put the work in – and also realize you have to give it up eventually. You gotta let it go.”

Javaka first visited Portland 17 years ago and “looks for any excuse to return.”

Next up, the four Caldecott honors.

 

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Vera Brogsol scored Caldecott honor recognition with her first picture book, Leave Me Alone, the tale of a grandma who yearns for a place where she can knit in peace and quiet. Born in Russia in 1984, Vera came to the US at age five and worked many years in animation. Like the babushka in her book, she relishes time alone and the opportunity to work on her own projects.

Vera emphasizes she works slowly. “Projects become a part of you, like a limb.” She looks for projects that will challenge her, to help her grow and understand herself.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 2.57.16 PMVera’s fellow Portlander, Carson Ellis, author of Du Iz Tak, is flat out inventive. This is a book written in a language spoken by insect characters; a language made clear by repetition and context. The illustrations move the story along with delightful surprises at each page turn. Carson is the mother of two young kids and wife of indie musician Colin Maloy of the Decemberists. She keeps a slush pile of pieces that she revisits to see if any of it “can go anywhere. Everything I do is over-complicated and I have to simplify.” She circles back to the slush pile to see if any ideas are ready to “flesh out properly.”

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Gregory Christie and me.

Greg Christie spent three months painting in the Portland arts environment, in the time before he opened a bookstore/gallery in Atlanta. His book, Freedom in Congo Square, recounts a chapter of slave history in New Orleans. The rhyming text by Carole Boston Weatherford, tells of the slaves working day by day, leading to a Sunday gathering for dancing and music in the city’s Freedom Square.

“Anywhere you go in the US, New Orleans is unique,” Greg said. “Its unique urban energy was forged in African American culture.” Greg has illustrated over 60 children’s books and lots of album covers as well. He used a combination of collage and acrylic gouache on this one. He paints his final art over a loose sketch. “I like to give myself room to keep energy in the painting.”

His reason for creating children’s books? “I do these books because I want there to be books I wish I had as a child.”

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Brendan Wenzel is based in Brooklyn, NY, but his book, They All Saw A Cat, came out of his experience of living three years in SE Asia. The illustrations reveal the ways that various creatures (flea, snake, mouse, skunk etc.) see a cat, as well as how the cat sees itself. Brendan says he was aiming to “create a sense of healing through understanding our different perspectives.” That is exactly what these illustrations do. Also, this book has my favorite first line, “A cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, paws and ears.”

Brendan worked with Michael Curry, Portland’s creator of large puppets, i.e. Lion King, for four months.

The Caldecott 2017 panel was introduced by students from Grant High school and Riverdale Elementary and moderated by Steven Engelfried, Library Services Manager, Wilsonville Public Library. In the following days, the five visited Faubion PK-8 school in NE Portland and worked with students on art and writing projects.

I met Marian Creamer – who dreamed this up and made it happen – about 20 years ago when she was a school librarian at Riverdale Elementary and I a visiting author. Though she is retired from her school library, she continues to work tirelessly to bring kids and books together.

Marian was struck by something she gleaned from these five Caldecott winning books as a whole: “A multiplicity of viewpoints can coexist, and differences of perspectives are evident without preaching. Children are the best judges of discerning what is true and relative.”

Yes!

Marian’s non-profit organization, Children’s Literature Alive, sponsored the Portland events. If you would like to join me in supporting Marian’s work, leave a note in the comments and I will send you her contact information.

 

If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

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The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

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As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

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For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

victorian

Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.