Author Archives: laurakvasnosky

META BOOKS

A wonderful side benefit of judging the 2018 Margaret Wise Brown prize has been the opportunity to develop a sense of the state of picture books in 2018, based on the 200+ books that publishers entered.

One group that caught my eye are meta books – those that use the object of a book as part of the story. If you are familiar with Grover’s There’s a Monster at the End of This Book or, more recently, Herve Tullet’s Press Here, you know what I’m talking about.

The 2018 crop that I read had at least four that fit this interactive category. I think the most effective is Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Dial). The premise is that a brick wall divides the left and right hand pages.


Text tells us the wall protects the safe left side from the right. On each spread, there is one story on the left: initially about a little knight raising a ladder, and another on the right: a stack of fearsome animals and an ogre.

Then – oh no! – the water rises on the left side.

Luckily the scary ogre reaches over the wall and saves the little knight from drowning. “I’m actually a nice ogre,” he says. “And this side of the book is fantastic.” Meanwhile, on the now ocean-filled left side of the book, bigger fish eat big fish.

The great satisfaction is that expectations are flipped. Things are not as they seemed. And we get to watch the stories on each side of the wall as this change is accomplished. It says so much about walls.

Beware the Monster! by Michael Escoffier, art by Amandine Piu, (annick press), begins with a warning: “This book contains a monster with a great big appetite!”

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The colorful monster proceeds to eat all the apples, then leaves, then trees, then cows.

Next spread: “Yikes. I think he’s spotted you. You’ve got to get away!” (Many of these books use the second person directive to draw in the child reader and escalate the drama. It’s kind of the picture book equivalent of theatre’s breaking the fourth wall.)

Next spread: “Here he comes! Close the book!” (This is a line used in many of these meta books. Of course the readers plunge onward, despite warnings.)

The monster moves in closer and closer as spreads whiz by. Luckily just when he’s about to eat the child reader he burps instead. Everything flies out of his mouth and he decides to take a nap, saying “I’ll take care of you later.”

Also written in second person is Nothing Happens in this Book by Judy Ann Sadler, art by Vigg, (Kids Can Press). This accumulative story is meta in its voice; the little guy on the cover has an ongoing one-sided discussion with the reader about what is going to happen in the book. Eventually he gathers up a bunch of stuff and distributes it to a wild assortment of beings.

As they march away in a fold-out page parade, he exclaims, “Everything happens in this book!” Another nice flip of expectations.

A red grosgrain ribbon bookmark is key to the story in Hungry Bunny by Claudia Reuda, (Chronicle Books). This one gives a nod to Press Here. For instance, it asks the reader to shake the book so some apples will fall off the tree, then blow away the leaves when the apples don’t fall.

The reader helps the bunny use his red “scarf” to climb up and get the apples. Bunny’s ride home in the wagon is helped by various physical movements of the book. Then the reader is asked to give Bunny a push through a die-cut hole so he can return to the burrow where his mom bakes apple pie. Of course the reader is offered a piece.

Makes sense that the dedication acknowledges the participatory nature of this book: “Bunny would like to dedicate this book to you, for all your help with the harvest. Also dedicated to children’s play.”

Every one of these examples uses the object of the book to boost interaction with the story. All of them engage the reader and listener in movement and response. I think it’s an interesting niche in our children’s book world, another tool we could add to our toolbelts.

Have you seen the meta mechanism used to good effect? Please chime in with other titles that use the object of the book to tell stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Graders, Cucumber Sandwiches and Foxes

Last month on a beach in Hawaii, I met a fellow grandma named Susie. She has a granddaughter, Hannah, back in Wisconsin. Turns out Hannah’s class was just then reading my book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways. What a coincidence! Before the week was out, Hannah’s teacher Jaime Charnholm and I set a date so I could meet the class over the internet, using Google Chat.

(The class is following a Lucy Calkins reading program that uses my book as one of its teaching texts, which are read aloud or as shared reading to model effective reading strategies.)

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Here was my view of Hannah’s first grade classroom at West Middleton Elementary, Verona, Wisconsin, where the kids told me it was cold!

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Using my laptop’s camera, I walked into my studio and showed the kids my computers, monitors and Wacom tablet, and paints and palettes and brushes, shelves of books and the light table, the stack of books that I have authored and/or illustrated, Izzi the dog and her dogbed, and my cozy writing chair.

The students sent charming thank you notes. I love their colorful drawings and creative spelling.

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Who wouldn’t like to be proclaimed “the best ather in the wrld”?  Also, I loved hearing that I inspired Paul to write a book.

The first chapter in Zelda and Ivy the Runaways gets going because Dad is making cucumber sandwiches for lunch (again!). The Fox sisters decide they can’t face it and run away.

Although not many of the kids said they have actually eaten cucumber sandwiches, they were great at drawing them.

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You can see what the kids remember about our connection by taking a look at their thank-you notes. The story I told about my first grade boyfriend, Danny, who is the basis for Eugene in Zelda and Ivy and The Boy Next Door, seemed to strike a chord. As did our dog, Izzi, and my paint palette.

INSIDES*5My Fox sisters are surely thrilled at the many portraits Mrs. Charnholm’s first graders included in their thank you notes.

FOXES5*more portraits —

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I feel lucky for all these connections: to have met Susie, which led to meeting the adorable, creative, wonderful kids in Hannah’s class. I answered most of the kids’ questions about the making of Zelda and Ivy, with this exception: How much paper does it take to make your books? Good question! Anyone out there know the average amount of paper it takes to print a picture book?

I smile every time I think of the first graders in West Middleton Elementary. Thank you, each and every one, for your wonderful letters. And thank you, teacher Jaime Charnholm and Hannah’s mom, Nicole, for making the technology work on the Wisconsin end.

I love when technology makes the world as small as the lawn above Napili Beach.

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Meanwhile, Back on the Idea Farm

Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout ‘I belong in a story’?

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is “that belongs in a story.” Writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story: the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown; or our dog’s evening vigil by the gate, her feathers backlit by the sun, as she waits for John’s return. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like the three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”

Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. I think that’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they make a good story. We savor vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day.   or  “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” According to my notes, this is something Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.  or  What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a single word – ‘snarky,’ ‘hunched,’ ‘snick’ – I gather them in, always attuned for a word that fits into my work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, or Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

And anecdotes. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.

I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged cobwebby hall. Golden light streams in through clerestory windows. Some bits seem to shift on the shelves and suggest themselves for today’s writing. They attract others and start to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has that supercharged quality – that “this belongs in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be. Those are the best days, right?

In Memory of John Burningham

jb studio shotOne of my favorites picture book makers, John Burningham, died last week in his Hampstead, England, home. He was 82. He leaves his wife, fellow book creator Helen Oxenbury; a family of four children and seven grandchildren, and a legacy of over 60 picture books.

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With Helen in earlier days.

Our family met John’s work in pre-bedtime reading sessions when our kids were little. Mr. Gumpy’s Motorcar was an favorite. We still borrow its phrase, “it’s a bit of a squash,” if the car is too full.

When I decided to try my luck in picture books, Burningham’s books became touchstones. There is much to learn from studying the books he published.

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His texts resonate with relatable themes, humor and simplicity. His illustrations, too, are so inviting, often drawn in a scrawl of brown ink that’s brightened by loose watercolor and colored pencil. I particularly love the proportions of his people and his varied points of view. And the animals; especially dogs and rabbits.

Burningham’s first book was published in 1963: Borka: The Adventures of a Goose with No Feathers. He was well into his career by the time I met him at a Book Expo in Los Angeles in the late 1990s. The occasion was a Candlewick cocktail party where he held court near the bar: a dark haired, dapper guy with a charming British accent. I’d published about six books by then and was thrilled to meet one of my idols. He autographed my conference bag and drew a rabbit on my napkin, which has sadly since hopped away.

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My favorite John Burningham book is Granpa.

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Here are the opening spreads:

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The story continues, through various Granpa/granddaughter activities. The text is inferential, a dialogue that indicates who is speaking by typeface: italic (child) or Roman (Granpa).

As in most friendships, they have a spat.

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Then more shared adventures.

 

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They visit the beach (note the lovely point of view) and go fishing and jump rope. The seasons pass.

The final three spreads:

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Burningham says so much in that little girl’s posture; says so much with the empty chair.

But he does not leave it there. This is a children’s book, after all. So on to page 32 and a promise of the future.

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So it goes. I am a Granma myself now and I love to share John Burningham’s books with our grandchildren. Thanks, John Burningham for your wonderful books. Rest in peace.

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John Burningham and his wife Helen Oxenbury receiving the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from Book Trust.

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Happy Birthday, Marion!

(First, an appetizer) For years I wanted to sing in a choir but was afraid to audition. This fall when a friend encouraged me to try out for Seattle’s Cantare choir, I decided to go for it. Ever since, each Tuesday night rehearsal I have bathed in the beauty of its sound. Deep beauty. This weekend we have three holiday concerts and you are invited. See details in the dessert at the end of this post.

(Next, the main course) If you are lucky in life, you meet people along the way who show you that getting old can be a time of productive, thoughtful work. I met Marion Dane Bauer in the early 2000s when we were both teaching in the MFA-Writing for Children program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She turned 80 last month and is still producing all kinds of books for kids. On the occasion of her 80th birthday she wrote the blogpost below, looking back on a full life and sharing insights.

THIS BLINK OF TIME  from Marion Dane Bauer’s blog, Just Thinking

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Today is my birthday.  My 80th, would you believe?  I add “would you believe?” because I don’t quite believe it myself.  That’s despite the fact that I’ve been trying out the number for months, mostly inside my head, sometimes out loud.  “Hey!  You’re 80!”

I’ve been saying it when I do a full Pilates hang, suspended by my ankles.

I’ve been saying it when, despite that full hang, I find myself suppressing a groan when I rise from a chair.

I’ve been saying it when I dive back into the novel I’ve been working on for too long and discover that I’m repeating myself . . . again.  Do I do that when I talk as well?

I’ve been saying it when I find the world wearying, threatening, horrifying.  “You’re 80!  Perhaps you won’t have to live into whatever is coming.”

I’ve been saying it when I gaze out at the wonder of a new day, budding trees or swirling snow, and ask how many more such gifts await me.

I never expected to be 80, though the irony is that I don’t suppose I’ve been expecting to die, either.  Does any of us truly believe that inevitable, uncompromising end will be our own?  Every life is a blink between two unknowns, and as I have never tried to imagine my whereabouts prior to my birth, I don’t attempt to fathom what lies beyond these days I have been given.  But my death grows larger in me every day.

Along with the hope that I may arrive there with some grace intact.

Eighty seems such a venerable age that I tell myself I should have some wisdom to impart on this page.  But I don’t feel wise.

I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and learned a few things in the process.  The two are not unrelated.  Mostly I learned because I made mistakes.

I married almost 60 years ago, though I had little desire for the man I decided to marry.  (I had never desired any other man, either, and was incapable in that homophobic time of understanding why.)  I thought him a fixer-upper.  I knew he wasn’t all I wanted, but I planned to bring him around.

I learned that I am the “fixer-upper.”  When I finally realized how difficult it is to grow and change myself, I understood the futility of attempting to change anyone else.  I understood, too, that no one of his gender could ever meet my needs.

Now, in our mutual age, my one-time husband and I live a great distance from one another, but we come together often on Words with Friends and on FaceTime where we rejoice in and occasionally worry about our progeny.  We each accept the other tenderly, unquestioningly.  That acceptance represents an abundance of learning on both sides.

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Fifty-four years ago, I gave birth to a son, a child so longed for that my desire for him, my need to mother him, lived in my bones.  And from the time he was very small, he defeated me every step of the way.  Lovingly.  Masterfully.

When Peter died at the age of 42 of a disease that robbed him of control of his body and of his intelligence and finally of his sanity, too, I learned, at last, that he had always been the only son he could be.

I learned, too, that the love that lived between us was enough.

I started my life trying to fit in, seeking approval.  And I learned that I don’t fit in and that approval has very limited value.  I’m not made for the kind of coupling society demands.  The activities so many care about don’t appeal to me.  And my mind, while possessing a certain uniqueness, lacks some very basic skills.

Maybe no one ever fits in, truly.  Maybe we each feel in some way alienated and alone.  And maybe we all have to learn, as I am finally beginning to learn, that it is enough to be who we are given to be.

Who am I?  All my life that question has puzzled me.  I have no answer.  None.  I don’t even know what might make an answer possible.

But as I move into this end time, I am beginning to understand something else.  I am a human becoming.  I am a verb, an action, not a noun.  I am not, will never be, a static thing that can be labeled and explained.  Even to myself.

I am a human in process, making mistakes—oh, so many mistakes—and learning and moving on.  And learning again.

And while I’m learning, I rejoice in the love that happens along the way.

Finally it is only the love that gives this blink of time purpose and meaning and even holiness.

(Lastly, the promised dessert) For tickets and more info: cantarevocalensemble.org

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Runaway Reading

The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.

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I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.

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My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.

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The 2018 Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner by fellow judge, Elaine Magliaro

 

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Books illustrated by fellow judge, E. B. Lewis

Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.

This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)

I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.

I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.

 

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.

 

 

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.