Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

Community, Connection, Creativity

The floweristas convene in a big workroom at the back of Orcas Center on the morning of the concert. Fresh from their gardens, they bring magenta hollyhocks, bright blue hydrangeas, fat white roses, squiggly branches and phlox. The workroom buzzes as they create huge arrangements to grace the sides of the stage and the lobby.

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Planning up to a year ahead, volunteers plant their gardens with an eye toward creating flower arrangements inspired by each of the concert programs. 

In the nearby kitchen, other volunteers plate cheeses and appetizers for the post-concert reception. Still others prepare the post-reception dinner for the performers. And in the lobby, volunteers settle ticket sales, having already set up an art show of local work.

It is all in anticipation of the 19th annual Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, and it truly takes a village.

We were there for the opening last month, in the island’s 200-seat community theatre. Framed by vats of hydrangeas, a trio named Time for Three – two violinists and a bassist – took the stage. They did not look like classical musicians, rather mid-thirties-aged hipsters dressed in dark t-shirts and torn jeans, like in their student days at Curtis Institute.

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Time for Three: Nikki Chooi, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer

They took us by storm: with dazzling violin runs in exact duet, with bowing so fierce the horsehairs hung ragged on Nick Kendall’s bow. They offered up a whirlwind called Ecuador composed by bassist Ranaan Meyer, and a mash up of Purcell and Stairway to Heaven complete with guitar solo ripped from Kendall’s violin. Then, sweet and pure, violinist Nikki Chooi introduced the melody of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They passed it back and forth, layering the harmonies, as tears welled in my eyes.

Time for Three impressed not just by their virtuosity, but by their joy in the music. Could it get any better?

The next morning we were part of one of the festival’s three “hamlet” concerts. For these, the musicians travel to outlying communities on Orcas. My friend Betsy, a head flowerista, did the flowers for this one, and I got to assist. We helped set up early at the Olga Energetics Club in what is essentially a large living room, pushing the old couches to the walls and lining up mismatched chairs. A spot was saved for a neighbor who is unsteady on her feet, with extra space for her service dog.

Then the audience began to arrive. Each carried a covered dish, sweets and savories for the after-concert reception: veggie spreads, crab in pate choux, butter cookies. One neighbor provides champagne each year. Another brings her famous apple cake.

We filled up the straight chairs and the folding chairs. Three generations of the Friedmann family squeezed into a couch along the wall: Aloysia Friedmann, violist, the artistic director of the festival; Aloysia’s father Martin, a violinist who played with the Seattle Symphony for 25 years; her mother Laila Storch, oboeist, who taught at UW, and her daughter Sophie.

And the music started.

It had been stunning to hear Time for Three play in the theatre, but was even better in this simple room where we were 10 feet from the musicians. They played without amplification. Raw, pure stuff. Heaven should sound so good.

Then they had a little Q and A.

Someone asked, “What inspires you?”

Bassist Ranaan turned to the Friedmanns on the couch, then reached toward Laila Storch, matriarch of the family, who had studied oboe at Curtis at least 40 years before the trio members.

You inspire me,” he told her, “I see how music sustains a life.”

So what does all this have to do with creating picture books? Maybe it’s more about the general idea of creating. Maybe all those Orcas islanders: the ladies growing and arranging the flowers, the volunteers selling tickets and passing out programs and setting up chairs and bringing covered dishes; maybe those musicians, too, that Time for Three trio, putting their bright and brilliant music out into the fresh Orcas morning, maybe as they participate in the thing they are creating they get the same feeling I get when I work on a picture book. That feeling of how good it is to be alive.

It sustains me.

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With Betsy, my friend of 40-plus years. Betsy and and her husband John retired to Orcas ten years ago and invite us up each summer for the chamber music festival. 

 

 

REVISITING SCHOOL VISITS

As my years as an author and illustrator fly by, I realize I have probably done writing workshops with well over 100,000 children. What a privilege.

There have been many highs (like a little boy running down the hall after school, catching my hand, looking up and saying ‘I love you’), and a definite low (the freebie where the teacher had me confused with another author).

I think of myself as a sort of Literary SWAT team, helicoptering into elementary schools to bolster interest in reading and writing. (OK. I admit I usually roll up in a car.) My program includes the herky-jerky clips from my childhood home movies that inspired Zelda and Ivy, ukulele sing-alongs ala Frank and Izzy, and a sprinkle of REAL fairy dust fresh-made with crayons on my cheese grater. It’s about writing and reading and living in the astonishing world of stories.

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Two sixth-grade journalists who interviewed me.

I love meeting all those great teachers and librarians. All those great kids. One student asked me, “Are you going to be here tomorrow?” and I said, “No, just today.” Another kid piped up, “She’s once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

As fun as it is to be someone’s once-in-a-lifetime experience, I am often left wishing I got to hear the endings of the kids’ stories, to watch them grow as writers. I have made some wonderful teacher and librarian friends whom I continue to be in touch with, but I rarely see the kids again. It’s a fleeting experience. And although school visits are well compensated, they are also exhausting and they take time from my ongoing work.

Lately I have limited the number of school visits I take on each year. And as I look forward to the next school year, I find myself wondering: Do author visits have a lasting impact on students?

Luckily, a Society of Authors survey asked that very question in 2014. They contacted 163 school respondents who had hosted over 1,471 author visits, of which 377 were in primary schools. The report included this encouraging finding:

“99.4% (all those who had organized an author visit) considered author visits to be an invaluable enrichment that encouraged reading for pleasure, wider reading and creative writing. Visits were described as having ‘a profound and lasting impact’. All pupils were positively engaged including (and particularly) reluctant readers and those with Special Educational Needs. Teachers also detailed the benefit to their own teaching skills.”

Time to fire up that imaginary helicopter.

CLOSE BY CLOSE

Margaret, this one’s for you: a world-class exhibit of Chuck Close’s work at the Schack Art Center in Everett, WA. It’s a printmaker’s dream of nearly 90 works plus lots of process materials. Luckily,  it’s open until September 4, so you can see it when you return from your London adventures.

close1The show begins with Close’s first mezzo print, Keith/1972. The huge plates are scribed with a grid which recurs in his work in other print methods. You get the idea that he sees the world in fat pixels.

We visited the day after opening. As we went in the door, Dale Chihuly (he of the pirate eyepatch and the splendiferous art glass) was just leaving. Upstairs, Chuck himself, seated in his wheelchair, held forth in a crowded room flooded with sunlight.

 

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Did you know that Chuck Close was born in the hamlet of Monroe, Washington? Back in 1940. Chuck’s dad died when he was 11 and he and his mom moved to Everett. Acacemics were difficult for him. Years later he discovered he has an unusual form of dyslexia. I wonder how much his grid-dled view is the result of a physiologically different way of seeing the world? The young Chuck was a skilled artist, however, and early on learned realistic drawing techniques, like perspective. After graduating from Everett High, he went on to major in art at Everett Junior College, then on to UW in 1960 and an MFA from Yale. At Yale, one of his classmates was sculptor Richard Serra.

After Yale, Close set up shop in New York. He got famous in the late 60’s for his nine-foot tall paintings of heads – his friends’ and his own. And heads are what you will see at this exhibit.

The great thing about this show is that process is on display with the imagery. It is fascinating to see working proofs and copper plates and lino blocks and graphs and printing hue notes. The works are etchings and aquatints and lithographs, silk screen, Japanese woodcut, reduction linocuts and even images made of paper pulp that was carefully color coded and poured into a grid onto a wet paper backing.

If I could have one of these beautiful pieces, I would choose Cecily/Felt Hand Stamp 2012. Again, the grid underlies the image. Felt stamps were used to apply oil paints on a silkscreen ground.

 

 Cecily/2012, close up on right.

Much of Close’s work in this exhibit was created in collaboration with master printers. It starts with those huge mezzotints and ends with his most recent work.

Extra bonus: the exhibition space has a printshop in the back, and the sweet smell of ink seeps into the galleries.

Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration, through Sept. 5, the Schack Art Center, 2921 Hoyt Ave., Everett. General admission is $10; Schack members, seniors, military and youth pay $5; children are free. Check the Schack website, www.schack.org, to find out about free-admission Mondays. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, Memorial Day and Labor Day. Closed Independence Day. Extended hours to 8 p.m. on June 16, July 21 and Aug. 18. Books about Close are offered for sale.

KEB MO: Life is Beautiful

Because sometimes only music will do:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWRaiggxRAk

 

WHAT NEXT?

On March 30 I sent all the interior illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING to Candlewick Press for publication next Spring.

It has been an intense and exhilarating five months creating the final art for this book: learning Photoshop, (thank you Kevan Atteberry for help with that); collaborating with my sister Kate McGee, (I did the black layer, Kate did the color), and figuring out what the art would look like.

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And now, except for the cover, it’s done.

What next?

 I am reminded of a family story. My mom and dad raised five kids.

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That meant every three years between 1962 and 1975 they joined the audience on the football bleachers at Sonora High on a beautiful June evening to watch one of their kids graduate. After the youngest, my brother Tim, was handed his diploma, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, Harve, what shall we do now?”

I know. It’s not really comparable. Mom and Dad worked on their project of raising kids for thirty years. Theirs was a much bigger “what next?”

LITTLE WOLF’s been growing in my mind and studio for less than a year and a half. But I did become very fond of him and will certainly miss the almost daily interaction with Kate as we worked on the art.

My cousin Jerry has a quote for times such as these. It’s advice from 1790: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell. Blake was in his mid thirties when he wrote that, and already he’d produced an impressive body of work: books and engravings, both. Clearly he leapt forward to each next task quickly and with joy.

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But I am feeling a little empty. All I could do for Little Wolf has been done, (except for the cover). His boat has sailed.

I suppose this is why some author/illustrators work on more than one project at a time: to make it easier to face the end of possibilities when you send the artwork away.

I told Bonny Becker, (fellow BATT blogger), that I was having trouble letting go of Little Wolf. She reminded me of a picture book idea I had floated awhile back, a story that started with a mouse squeak.

“Get to work,” she suggested.

p.s. Mom took up air racing.

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ADDENDUM

Our critique group met Tuesday and Julie Paschkis brought along a special tin of tea. It’s BATT Brand Finis Tea, made in Seattle and London. Ingredients: Wit, Wisdom, Labor & Love of Bonny, Julie, Laura, Margaret and Julie. Directions: Steep tea for three minutes and 32 seconds. Sip slowly and savor the sensation of sending it off.

We toasted Little Wolf with our mugs of berryblossom white tea. I get to keep the tin until the next member has a book to send off. A tradition is born. Thank you, Julie!

 

 

 

THE SPELLBINDING MOMENT

The first time it happened I was at Girl Scout Day Camp, in the oak ravines of Tuolumne county. Camp Apalu. I was 11. We were standing in the closing circle, baking in the sun, when I noticed how beautiful Mrs. Walsh and her adopted daughter Donna were, right there beside me. I grabbed my trusty Brownie Starlight camera and turned it on the diagonal to capture this mother-and-daughter image bathed in sunlight.

I was careful to conserve my film, so I only took one photo of Mrs. Walsh and Donna. But I knew the love of a mother and her daughter would shine through with the intensity of thestainedglassma&child Madonna and Child in the stained glass window of the Little Red Church where I’d spent a few Sunday mornings daydreaming.

I was shocked when I opened my envelope of developed prints and saw Mrs. Walsh in curlers. daycampphotoNot at all what I had seen when I snapped the picture.

 Making art is about creating a vehicle that transfers the image in your head into someone else’s head — through photography, music, dance, art, story, film, etc. On that day at Camp Apalu, the yawning chasm between what I thought I saw and what the photograph recorded was disconcerting.

So you can imagine my delight when the spellbinding moment of imagination did come true.

In the process of creating artwork for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, John and I traveled to Yellowstone last September, scouting locations. I had my sketch dummy in hand, based on images in books and Googled.

We watched for wolves in the LaMar valley during the day,jklamarheard them howl across the ridges in the evening, saw the full moon rise.

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Then, driving through the park, I saw a ridge that looked just like the place I imagined Little Wolf first howled. How amazing! Luckily, this time the photo was the same as what I imagined I saw.

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We walked up and looked around, taking photos of the sage and grasses, the snags of dead trees and rocks. The specificity of these photos has informed the final art.

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I have stood on the grassy bench where the Little Wolf of my imagination first howled.

I wonder if any of you have experienced this convergence of imagination and art in a life experience?

 

THE POWER OF STORY

The experience of one life is limited, bound in time and space, culture and personality. But a story does not have those limits. A story lets us peer into lives that are quite different from our own. A story can build empathy and human understanding.

This was brought home Friday night when we saw HANA’S SUITCASE at the Seattle Children’s Theatre. The play dips forward and back, from recent times in Japan to 1940s Germany. It follows the present-day investigations of two children and their teacher at a Holocaust museum in Tokyo who are given an artifact from the Auschwitz museum. The simple brown suitcase says “Hanna Brady,” on the side. And her date of birth. And “Waisenkind,” (orphan child). The museum group’s investigations lead to a single Jewish family’s experience in wartime eastern Europe.

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As the Japanese teacher and her students uncover Hana’s story, playgoers learn that before Hana turned 11, her mother and father were sent to concentration camps. That year, 1942, she and her older brother George were sent to Therensienstadt, called Terezin by the Czechs. They were able to see each other about once a week during their two years there. Hannah participated in an art class taught by Bauhaus artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova. Friedl smuggled 5,000 pieces of children’s art out of the camp and some of Hana’s art survives. This provides one of the few happy moments in the play.

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The Japanese teacher and her students learn that Hana and George were transferred to Auschwitz in 1944. He became part of a work crew and she was sent to the gas chambers shortly after she arrived. Hana and George’s parents died in Auschwitz in 1942. Artist Friedl Dicker-Bandeisova in 1944.

Of the 140,000 people sent to Terezin, 15,000 were children. Only 300 children survived. Much of what the Japanese investigators learned they learned from George Brady, who was one of those survivors. He moved to Canada after the war and raised a family. At age 89, he attended the opening night of the play in Seattle.

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Such a powerful story, made more powerful because it is told through the viewpoint of a Japanese teacher and her two students; experienced through children’s eyes halfway across the world.

• • • •

It is a tradition at Seattle Children’s Theatre to end performances with a Talk Back.

My favorite question Friday night was from a kid who asked, “Why did the Germans hate the Jews?”

Why indeed? I cannot begin to answer that question. Even Hana’s brother George long avoided such a question by telling his children that the tattoo on his wrist was an old telephone number.

  • • • • •

Nazis, like ISIS terrorists, depend on dividing the world into “us” and “other.” Even a certain presidential candidate participates in this kind of blanket dehumanization.

But stories build our compassion for each other. Stories have the capacity to make us see our common humanity and break through walls of hatred.

 

Note: Hana’s Suitcase the play is based on a book of the same name by Karen Levine. The SCT play, from Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre (see? another world connection), runs through February 7.

The Brady family has a wonderful website, http://www.hanassuitcase.ca/

 

 

 

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

Holiday Favorites for Reading Aloud

Now’s the time of year to dig into holiday picture books. And who better to suggest titles than my fellow grandmother, Judy Luiten? Judy has spent the last 35 years teaching pre-schoolers, which includes lots and lots of reading to them. Her list of Christmas books features tried and true favorites as well as a new title she recently ordered for her students.

Judy notes these books are all good read-alouds. The list includes a wide variety because she believes in exposing kids to lots of kinds of books.

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The Christmas Wreath by James Hoffman, illustrated by Jack Stockman, School Ground Publishing Co., 1993. A polar bear gets a Christmas wreath caught on his neck and eventually saves Santa’s own Christmas experience. Magical.

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Mr. Wallaby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry, Doubleday, 2000. Mr. Wallaby’s tree is too tall for the parlour. What to do? Rhyming text. Delightful.

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The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy by Jane Thayer, re-illustrated by Lisa McCue, Harper Collins, 2005; original illustrations by Seymour Fleishman for Morrow, 1958. Most boys want puppies for Christmas. This puppy wants a boy. Judy can’t read this one without crying.

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Merry Christmas Big Hungry Bear by Don and Audrey Woods, Childs Play, 2004. Little Mouse worries who will bring a present to Big Hungry Bear who lives on the top of the hill. These are the same characters who first appeared in the beloved The Little Mouse, The Red Strawberry and the Big Hungry Bear, 1984.

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Judy has ordered Jan Brett’s latest Christmas book, The Animals’ Santa, Putnam, 2014, based on how kids respond to Brett’s tried and true story, The Mitten. She says her students love to predict the next animal to appear in Brett’s books by looking carefully at the illustrations.

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The Santa Mouse by Michael Brown, illustrated by Elfrieda DeWitt, Barnes and Nobles, 1996; reprinted from the original Grosset and Dunlap, 1966. A cute classic in which a mouse gets to go along with Santa on his deliveries.

Thanks to Judy for these wonderful suggestions. It is so fun to be grandmas together and also to share our love of picture books.

Happy holidays to you all!

 

 

 

 

REMEMBERING VERA B. WILLIAMS

I came to love picture books when our kids were little. Every week we’d visit the library and haul home a big bag of books. So I first met Vera B. Williams between the pages of her books.

Sadly, Vera B. died October 16. Happily, we have her wonderful books for comfort.

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If I had to point to the one book that made me want to be a picture book maker, I would point to Vera B. Williams’ Three Days on the River in a Red Canoe.

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Three Days was Williams’ third book, published in 1981 when she was 54. It was the first of her books to gain popularity, winning the Parents Choice award. The story’s in the guise of a young girl’s journal during a family canoe trip, illustrated in colored pencil. Like all of Williams’ books, it has a big generous heart. That’s the part that grabs me.

But Vera B. Williams was not just a children’s author and illustrator. The same year Three Days was published, she spent a month at Alderson Federal Prison Camp following arrest at a women’s peaceful blockade of the Pentagon.

As she wrote, “At various times I have helped start a cooperative housing community, an alternative school, a peace center, and a bakery where young people could work. I have worked to end nuclear power and weapons, and for women’s rights. I have demonstrated and been jailed. I have produced posters, leaflets, magazine covers, drawings, paintings, short stories, and poem, as well as books.” To which I would add she was also a school teacher and the mother of three.

Bookwise, she went on to write and illustrate the Caldecott honor book, More, More, More Said the Baby, inspired by her first grandchild.

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And the Rosa trilogy, including Caldecott-winning A Chair for My Mother.

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My favorite of the Rosa books is Music, Music for Everyone  in which Rosa and her friends form a band to raise money for her grandmother’s medical care. Here’s my favorite (wordless) spread, at the climax.

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As you can see, decades before the call went out for more diversity in picture books, Vera B. Williams’ stories were inclusive across all racial and economic lines. I love that.

• • • • •

Like Vera Williams, I was in my early forties when I started trying to make picture books. To figure it out, I studied the books my kids and I had loved the most. I made  thumbnail grids of Vera B. Williams’ books to teach myself about pacing and page turns. I pored over her illustrations noting point of view, character depiction, color, flow.

Early on, I attended a workshop that brought together teachers and authors. That’s when I first met Ms. Williams in person. She was an intense little person, already in her 60s. I had a minute to talk to her while she signed a book and I quickly told her how she’d inspired me to try to publish a book. She endured my gushing with equanimity.

I sent her copies of my first board books when they came out in 1994. She sent back an encouraging note.

• • • • •

I am a total fan of Vera B. Williams’ books. But she did not write them for me. Luckily, I got to see how her books impact young readers the year I volunteered as a writing coach in Lilly Rainwater’s fourth/fifth grade split at Hawthorne Elementary.

The kids I worked with at Hawthorne came from all walks of life and many ethnic backgrounds. When we were working on personal narratives, I brought in Williams’ last book, published in 2001, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart.

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It is a story for older kids, told in poems and pictures. It recounts what happens to two girls whose father goes to prison and then returns.

For months, each week when I returned to the classroom, that book would be in another student’s desk. It made the rounds. These kids had relatives and friends who were in prison. They had had to be brave and smart. The book resonated.

Which, in the end, is what all Vera B. Williams’ books do. Whether it’s a grandma sweeping up a baby to love in More, More, More, or little girl saving up money for A Chair for My Mother, Williams’ stories give us the best of what it is to be human.

Though I wish there were more, more, more Vera B. Williams’ books, I am forever grateful that she showed us all a picture book can be.

Now that’s a life well-lived.