Category Archives: Art and Life

Sticks and Stones

The young man was bumping like a pinball through the crowded sidewalk on Greenwood Ave—the “Black Wall Street” of Tulsa, OK.  Suddenly he was hit by two bullets. One hit his shoulder; one traveled around his skull and landed near his nose, a few centimeters from his brain.

To operate presented terrible odds–50/50 odds of survival and even if he lived, he might end up insane at best. He decided to leave the bullet there and lived the rest of his life with it. The man was the father of children’s illustrator Floyd Cooper, shot by a white man in the long-hidden 1921 race massacre in Tulsa.

Cooper told this story as part of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators panel featuring ten best-selling, award-winning (from Newberys to Caldecotts)  children’s writers and illustrators of color. In five-minute segments, each creators shared their experiences with racism and racist assumptions, and how that informs their work.

It wasn’t a lecture; it was a sharing of coming to the creative life from many different places.

Author Crystal Allen began her career in middle-grades as any serious writer would with research into the kind of books she wanted to write–African American middle-grade books. But she couldn’t find any on the shelves of her local bookstore. When she asked about it, she was told she wouldn’t find anything on those shelves. Instead she followed the store clerk for “what felt like six days” to the African American section.

In a small dusty room, the clerk pointed to a spindle with a smattering of middle-grade books. The clerk left and Allen says she followed right behind. Later, she was told by an instructor that the reason she couldn’t find any African American middle grades is that publishers wouldn’t publish them. They aren’t marketable she was told.

“Hopefully, you brought something else you can work on,” the instructor said. Allen left that workshop, too.

She wondered if she’d heard the voice of truth.

As a college student, illustrator Rafael Lopez lived on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, but traveled to the U.S. for his classes. He would get up at 3:30 to 4:00 every morning, in order to cross the busy border in time to get to his 8:30 class. Usually he’d arrive 5 to 10 minutes late.

One morning as he entered the classroom, his professor announced, “There he is. Mr. L-o-p-e-z.” The prof said his last name slowly. “Late as usual.”

“That really stung,” Lopez said. “He didn’t know my story, but he judged.”

In the beginning of what he hoped would be a career in advertising, he was offered a job that would have meant creating a demeaning stereotype of Latino “peasants”. The man who wanted to hire him thought his idea for the ad was wonderfully clever and funny. Desperate for money, Lopez considered it, but ultimately turned the job down.

Lisa Yee, third-generation Chinese, was accustomed to living in a very diverse community in West Hollywood. But driving across country to a job a Florida, she found herself the only Asian American around. Most people were very nice, she said, complimenting her on her English, especially her accent.

Yee was more amused, than offended. But one day as she and a friend wended their way along winding roads through small towns, she was intrigued to see that there was some sort of festival or parade happening in the town ahead of them. How interesting it looked. And everyone was dressed in white, a kind of cool costume parade! Then suddenly she realized she as looking at a Klan rally. Still, intrigued, she urged her friend to drive closer.

It was like a movie as she looked out her car window at the crowd. Then suddenly people were turning to look at her and the terror kicked in. She ducked down and told her friend “Get out of here!” It didn’t feel like entertainment any more.

These are just a few of the stories the creators shared. Each had different experiences of being “other.” And yet each also described how they found a haven–a welcoming place, a valid space–in the world of children’s books. And each told how such experiences drive them to make sure their cultures and characters and stories are out in the world.

So maybe no more thin spindles in dusty rooms for diverse books?

You can watch a video of the full panel here.

And check out these other panelists.

Panel organizer, Pat Cummings

Lamar Giles

Meg Medina

Linda Sue Park

Christian Robinson

Shadra Strickland

 

 

Read a book. Turn on a light.

Recently, I went searching for new images to add to my collection of images of books featured in art. A funny theme began to emerge with the images I was finding.

It was books as light—books as sources of illumination–an obvious metaphor, but funny to see so many of them popping up in what was a pretty short, random search.

There are books to come home to…

Illustration by Mariusz Stawarski

There are books to light the way

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

And books that light the way to dimensions far from home

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

Of course, it’s not so much about books, but illumination in whatever form it comes to us.

Illustration by Matt Murphyred

Some knowledge can be dangerous–radioactively so.

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

It can even lead you astray. Although I’m not sure if the artist is commenting on the content or the form here.

Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald

Sometimes books are all sweetness and light…

Illustration by Takashi Tsushima

Sometimes they are their own source of darkness and confusion.

Illustration by Franco Matticchio

Whatever they are, books beckon…

Illustration by Quint Buchholz

especially in times like these.

 

 

There’s No Place Like…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pet Love

Last month I posted my video read-along of Where Lily Isn’t, in which I suggested viewers could send pictures of their own beloved pets.

My friend and fellow author/illustrator Wendy Wahman sent me a drawing of her poodle LaRoo, also known as Nanny Paws, who inspired a book by that name.

Wendy was the only one who sent me any pictures. Ah well.

I was hoping to get more responses so I could share them with you in this post. Instead, I am posting my own.

Where Lily Isn’t is dedicated to: Stanley, Boo, Stinker, Freya, Bluey, Ajax, and Lily. Those are the names of pets that Julie and I have loved, and lost (mine are in boldface).

Stanley was an English bulldog my family got when I was six. I wanted to name him Trixie, but my brother thought Stanley, after comedian Stanley Myron Handelman, was more appropriate. I guess my parents agreed. He was a loving, slobbery, snaggle-toothed goof who terrified my friends when they came over and he charged at them to say hello. Cartoons like Spike gave bulldogs a bad name. I’ve never met an English bulldog that didn’t want to just snuffle you up and down and drool all over you. He was my constant playmate until I hit puberty, when there was a bit of a Puff-The-Magic-Dragon situation. I still feel guilty about that. Stanley died when I was about fourteen.

This is me with Stinker, my Half Moon Conure. I bought him from a bird farm with $30 my grandfather sent me for my birthday when I was a tween. I was not his first human. He already knew how to croak “don’t bite!” (maybe that and his given name should have clued me in on why he was so affordable for a parrot) and I taught him to squawk “hello.” He also picked up yelling my name from hearing my mother. I loved him dearly. He died when I was in high school.

Bluey was a blue parakeet I got in Kyoto when I was living there with my parents when I was nine. I was lonely without other English-speaking kids my age to play with, so my parents took me to a pet shop on the top of a department store that had parakeet chicks for sale. He became so tame he would nap on my chest. I brought him back to California in a mouse cage in my carry-on bag (maybe smuggled is a better word). He inspired my dad to build an aviary and we raised parakeets for many years. Bluey flew out of my hands when I was carrying him back inside from a visit to the other birds in the aviary. Stanley had jumped up to see what I was carrying and it startled both me and Bluey. I never saw Bluey again. I cried for weeks.

And Ajax. Ajax was the Best Cat Ever. He showed up as a kitten when we were working on remodeling our first house in Seattle. We had been thinking of adopting a cat, and my friend Gabrielle who we’d hired to help us (and who is an expert on cats IMHO) said “this is the cat you want.” We figured out that he lived a couple of houses down from us, so I gathered him up, along with my courage, and went to ask if we could adopt him. I knocked on the door. When they answered I asked, “is this your cat?” and the guy said “yeah, you want him?” Ajax was the kind of cat who loved people, would come when you called him, and liked to sleep as close to your face as he could get. He lived a good long life. We said goodbye when he was nineteen.

Which brings me to Nik. Nik is our current animal companion. He is a Rat Terrier. We’ve had him since 2013. We are his third family. He is coming up on sixteen. He is deaf now, and going blind, but he still loves his walks, his meals, and his naps. He has many quirks, and that is what we love about him.

Like many terriers, he likes to burrow, and while our youngest daughter was still home, he would sleep under the blankets by her feet every night. I am preparing myself for when he’s gone, but who knows? Terriers are tough. I hope he makes it with us at least until the COVID-19 era is over so Clare can see him again.

The importance of animal companions during these days of home confinement can’t be underestimated. Nik gets us out of the house on a regular basis. Petting him helps me feel less anxious. He is a good listener, even though he’s deaf. Pets have no clue what’s going on in the world, thank goodness.

Here is a little drawing I did of Nik. I think it highlights his best features.

If anyone wants to send me pictures of their pets, they are still welcome to! You can send them to: margaret@chodos-irvine.com, and I will post them below.

Update: Here are a few loves from friends!

Laura Kvasnosky’s dear Izzi
Julie Paschkis’s dear Freya.

Year-end Musing

Are there parallels between building character – as in becoming a mature, evolved human being – and building character, as in creating an interesting protagonist for your story?

David Brooks is talking about that first kind of character building in his book, The Road to Character. But I wonder how his ideas might relate to the work we do when creating story characters. I am especially interested in what he calls the “agency moment,” and how that might apply to characters in picture books. Does a story character’s agency moment provide a compass for the plot?

Brooks uses the example of Victorian novelist George Eliot to introduce this idea of the agency moment. Eliot, he says, was an emotionally needy young woman in her 20s who declared her love to the philosopher Herbert Spencer at age 32 in a letter:

“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she wrote.

She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”

Brooks writes, “You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.

“The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.”

She published Middlemarch at age 52 in eight parts, 1871-72.

I searched my library for examples of agency moments to see how that notion plays out in picture books.

Marion Dane Bauer’s Winter Dance, illustrated by Richard Jones, revolves around a fox’s question, “Winter is coming…What should I do?” The fox asks caterpillar, turtle, bat, geese and bear. But she is sure what works for them will not work for her. Then a fellow fox offers a solution: “When a million snowflakes fill the air, twirling, tumbling, spinning, waltzing, you and I join them.” The questing fox has an agency moment, tapping into her innate capacity to initiate action and drive her own life. She responds:

“Of course,” says the fox, standing tall. “Because that’s what we fine red foxes do in winter. Dance!”

A moment of agency is front and center in fellow-BATT blogger Margaret Chodos Irvine’s Ella Sarah Gets Dressed. Ella Sarah states her wardrobe choices very clearly on the first page: “I want to wear my pink polka-dot pants, my dress with orange-and-green flowers, my purple-and-blue striped socks my yellow shoes, and my red hat.” Other family members’ suggestions are spurned

and her choices are confirmed by her just-as-wildly dressed friends who visit at the end.

In my own Little Wolf’s First Howling, illustrated with my sister Kate Harvey McGee, Little Wolf’s agency moment comes at the turning point of the story. “Little Wolf’s heart swelled with wildness and joy. He knew it wasn’t proper howling form, built he had to let loose.”

Seems related to David Brooks’ explanation: “Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action.”

In Libba, Laura Viers’ picture book biography of folksinger Elizabeth Cotten, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the agency moment comes early in the story, early in Libba’s life, when she sneaks into her brother’s room and figures out how to play his guitar, though she is left-handed. “She turned the guitar upside down and played it backwards…Nobody else played that way, but it was the way that felt right to Libba.”

I polled various friends and family to see if they could point to a single agency moment in their lives. Several thought it would need to be something big. And not one could point to just one moment. This is true in my own experience, as well. It is many small moments that coalesce over time, viewed retrospectively, that shape our true and, hopefully, evolved selves.

When creating a story, however, you have the luxury to choose your character’s agency moment in a way that reveals the most compelling narrative.

Here’s to Happy 2020 dear BATT readers! Come January, the five of us have taken turns posting here for eight years. Eight years! We appreciate your reading and sharing your thoughts in the comments discussion.