Category Archives: Blogging about Life

Always Coming Home

When I learned that Ursula K. LeGuin had died, it came as a shock. I knew she was getting older, but she still seemed invincible to me. I am fortunate to have been one of the many people whom Ursula Le Guin brought into her creative universe. She was very generous in her collaborations. I worked on several book projects with her, and kept in touch over the years. I will miss her.

In the summer of 1982 when I was 20 years-old, I got a call from Todd Barton, the then music director for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and a former teacher of mine at the University of Oregon, asking if I would be interested in working on a project with Ursula Le Guin and him.

Ursula K. Le Guin. I knew that name. I had read one and a half books of the Earthsea Trilogy in high school, but had to give the set back to my friend so never finished the rest. I figured that I should memorize the author’s name so I could find them and finish them some day.

The reason Todd Barton called a 20-year-old college junior was because he knew I had an interest in scientific illustration (I was pursuing a double major in art and anthropology) and had seen a fair amount of my student work. Ursula had written Always Coming Home, an archaeological study of a culture that “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now” and was looking for someone to illustrate it. She wanted someone young and not yet “jaded” about work. Todd was going to create the music. The book would come in a boxed set with a cassette tape.

I said yes.

I worked on the book for a year and a half, taking time off from school to complete it. I created 101 illustrations, mostly in pen and ink, but including a few woodcuts.

While I was working on the illustrations for the book, I spent a few weeks with Ursula and her family at her childhood summer house in Sonoma County – the setting for Always Coming Home. I went there to observe, study and draw reference on site for the illustrations.

One day while walking with Ursula on the grassy hills surrounding the house, she bent over and picked up a leaf and showed it to me. The leaf had a beautifully convoluted pattern etched into it by some sort of leaf borer. That was the moment that I realized that she saw much more than I did in the world around me. It isn’t enough to see things when you look for them. You need to look for things to see.

So I want to give Ursula credit for changing my life. Not in the obvious way – by being the first person to hire me to illustrate anything – but on a more personal and fundamental level.

To be open. To notice. To gather. To find.

That is the gift I needed most at the time, and I have carried it throughout my life.

And I still have that leaf.

 

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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.

 

 

Many Gifts

Each month, Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Bonny Becker, Julie Larios and I meet at one of our houses, around one of our tables, to review and critique each other’s work. We also share news, thoughts, stories, quandaries and lunch (or brunch) and tea. As most of you already know, this blog evolved out of our working friendship.

Each year, we exchange gifts for the holidays – small things, often items we have made ourselves, sometimes souvenirs from places we have visited in the past year.

But the greatest gift we give each other isn’t at these yearly holiday gatherings; it is what we give each other each time we meet, and often in between. We give our eyes, ears, brains and trust. It has been many years since I joined this group (around 2002) and it started ten years before that. A few members have come and gone (and come back again). We started blogging together in January of 2012. Between the five of us, we have published 69 books and 309 blog posts. Geez.

There have been a lot of thoughts and ideas shared around our tables. I am forever grateful for the excellent input and feedback I have received over the years – and that is not to discount in any way the friendships we have developed.

If you have a professional critique group like ours, you know how valuable it is. If you don’t and wish you did, find a few open-hearted individuals whose work you respect see if they are amenable to starting a children’s book group with you. Maybe you will find a good group if you take a picture book writing or illustration class or workshop (that is how this group got started). It helps if you are all at a similar place with your writing and/or illustration careers.

Best wishes for a creative and productive new year!

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch with the Ladies of Mazza

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It was a cross between Parents’ Night at elementary school and a rolling party. Parents’ Night because we spiffed the place up and hung my sister Kate’s and my best artwork on the walls. A rolling party because these ladies were primed for a good time even before their big bus pulled up to the bottom of our driveway.

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I hung my sister Kate Harvey McGee’s paintings down the hall. Kate illustrated Little Wolf’s First Howling with me and I wanted the visitors to see her pastels.

Last month the Mazza Institute Study Tour landed in Seattle to begin their visits to NW children’s book illustrators’ studios. Most of the tour members were from around Findlay, Ohio, where the University’s Mazza Museum holds an amazing, diverse collection of original artwork by children’s book illustrators. Every summer they take a tour to a corner of the United States and visit illustrators’ studios. Julie Paschkis and I thought why not invite the group to lunch on the first day of their journey? Lunch for 40 on our patio. Why not?

Luckily, fellow BATTerinas Bonny Becker and Margaret Chodos-Irvine, as well as author/illustrator Dana Sullivan, signed on to help. And John, too, of course. (Our other BATT member, Julie Larios, was doing a tour of her own while teaching at Vermont College’s alum retreat.)

We greeted the enthusiastic busload of women and their leader, Ben Sapp, with peach bellinis. Mostly our guests were former teachers and librarians who now work as docents at the Mazza Museum. Several collect children’s book art themselves. Right away, we connected. Picture books matter to them like they matter to us.

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Margaret set out the buffet of sandwiches and salads while our guests helped ferry drink ingredients out to the patio. 

Over a luncheon prepared by Julie, Margaret and Bonny, we talked books and illustration and illustrators and heard about past Mazza tour adventures. Though we had ample leftover food, the ladies managed to polish off all the Prosecco.

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Bonny says we can see the back of her head in this photo. Ben Sapp, John and Julie and I are standing, left to right, in the back.  

Dana led a “Great Book Giveaway” trivia game. (“Name the four Little Women.” “Name four cats in children’s books…”) These ladies know their children’s book trivia! Later he posed with director Ben Sapp.

After lunch, our guests toured my studio, viewed artwork, bought books and tried their hands at gouache resist.

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It was a lot of fun. As we walked our guests back down the hill, I had a chance to tell director Ben Sapp how thankful I am that there is a place in this world like the Mazza Museum that values children and stories and especially the art of children’s books. It’s the culture of a world I want to live in.

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Loading up the bus after lunch and the studio tour. Dana says they rolled away singing “The Wheels on the Bus.”

Over seven days, the Mazza Study Tour ladies met 15 illustrators. In Tacoma: Ben Clanton and Wendy Wahman; in the Seattle area: Julie Paschkis, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Dana Sullivan and me; on Lummi Island: Nina Laden and Paul Owen Lewis; in Olympia: Nikki McClure; in Portland: Carolyn Canahan, Nicole Rubel, Maggie Rudy, Kate Berube, Alison Farrell, and Zoey Abbot Wagner. Such a rich variety of illustration styles and media. I wish I could have trailed along.

After the luncheon, as we took down tents and put artwork back into flat files, I thought back. Who would have guessed 25 years ago in Keith Baker’s Picture Book Illustration class, that two of my fellow classmates – Julie Paschkis and Margaret Chodos-Irvine – and I would create a critique group that grew into Books Around The Table, and that over the years together we’d all publish 70? (maybe more?) children’s books AND end up hosting 40 ladies from Findlay, Ohio, for lunch?

It was a memorable experience, but John and I had expected that because my old studio was on the itinerary 10 years ago, the last time the tour came to Seattle. Some of this June’s guests had been on that tour, too.

I hope in another ten years they will roll through again. I’ll have the peach bellinis waiting.

What Would Betsy Ross Do? The Exhibit!

Last night was the culmination of something that started nine months ago – the opening night of “What Would Betsy Ross Do? The New American Flag Project,” a community art project that evolved from my reaction to the 2016 United States presidential election.

You may have seen my call to participate on this blog in December last year.

This is my artist statement from the show:

The morning of November 9, 2016, I woke up feeling intense anxiety with an image in my head that I had to go do something about.

I started piecing bits of fabric together in a concentric pattern. I stepped back and looked at the piece, and it occurred to me that I was redesigning a new United States flag based on what I saw this country becoming – an endless circling of opposing forces. It was cathartic.

Then I started wondering what other people would do with the same idea. Regardless of how they voted, what did they think? The Stars and Stripes are meant to symbolize unity and balance, but do they still accurately represent our country now? What would Betsy Ross’s flag look like if she were to create it today?

I sent a note out to friends and artists whom I thought might be interested. As more people began to respond, I looked for a gallery to show the work. I am very grateful to Cora Edmonds and her staff at ArtXchange for stepping forward to host the show.

Some participants are professional artists. Some are not. Some are people I know and some are friends of friends or relatives of friends. Others came to the project through social media connections. And some are students of teachers who brought the idea to their classrooms.

To all of those who participated, I thank you for your thoughtfulness and your efforts. You gave me my wish; to see what other people think, to bring together a community of creative people, and to heal through making art happen.

Art may change the world we live in. Or it may not. What is important is that it gives us a way of dealing with the world on our own terms.

Initially, I just wanted to see what other people would do with the idea of redesigning the U.S. flag for today’s America. Then I wanted to bring people together to share the experience of making art that makes a statement. Then I wanted to find a way to exhibit their works for the public to view.

I got all three.


J Kennard-WWBRD? flag

Along the way I connected with a varied group of people, some of whom I knew and others whom I’d never met. I led a workshop for middle school students at Coyote Central (two other artists led art classes with young people as well). I got to work with the dedicated staff at ArtXchange Gallery.

The opening event was the icing on the cake, or perhaps the cookies.

I feel very fortunate to have been given the idea, the opportunity, and the support.

To see all the flags individually as well as the artists’ statements, please visit the ArtXchange Gallery website.

In addition, fifteen of the artists contributed to printing a collection of postcards with their images from the show. Proceeds from the sales of these packets will be donated to the ACLU at the end of the exhibit.

Cora Edmonds at What Would Betsy Ross Do? exhibit with postcards

As I write when I sign copies of Apple Pie 4th of July – make your own parade!

A Tale of Two Izzies

1. First, a game. We have been gardening up a storm here in preparation for the Mazza Institute visit to my studio and wherever I work in the garden, Izzi makes herself a fort. See if you can spot the spaniel.

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2. Second, mucking about in murky morals.

“I might have lied,” said Izzy. “But let’s not get bogged down in the facts.”

Does that sound like a clip from a recent White House statement? Perhaps something Kellyanne ‘alternative facts’ Conway might say?

Nope. It’s from my book Frank and Izzy Set Sail, published in 2004 by Candlewick Press. Lately, my grandson has taken to this book. (Like Izzy, he loves ukuleles.) My daughter, who has been reading it several times a day, pointed out the connection between Izzy’s relationship to the truth and the present administration’s.

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Which led us to wonder what other children’s books espouse less-than-honorable behavior.

In my book, Izzy’s lying has a bad influence on Frank – later in the story he says, “Could be my grandma was a pirate, too.” He’s trying out lying. My intention is humor, not to encourage kid-readers to lie. I expect kids will be in on the joke. But it gives me pause in light of present events.

Does it matter – when you think about how stories shape the character of our small readers – if immoral behavior is not addressed? There are consequences when Peter Rabbit steals from Farmer MacGregor. He is sent to bed without supper. Whereas Max in Where the Wild Things Are returns to a warm supper. Hmm. Perhaps this reflects a softening of parental attitudes between 1902 and 1963? (Kellyanne Conway was born in 1967 so we can assume she was read Wild Things when she was a peerie lass.)

What other characters in children’s books come to mind? Any other liars, thieves, tantrum-throwers? Or sexist, bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant narcissists? What is the cost of immoral behavior in picture books? Does it matter?

 

 

 

HOW I CELEBRATED NATIONAL CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK

You can spot Charlie’s Corner bookstore in San Francisco’s Noe Valley by the line up of strollers on the sidewalk out front. Five times a day they serve up storytime delights to an SRO audience of kids and their caretakers.

Our two-year old grandson is a regular on the mushroom stools there and each time we visit we are blown away by a program that includes books and puppets and music, usually led the proprietor, Charlotte Nagy aka Charlie. There’s this sense of community: storytime begins with a song that welcomes each child by name. And love of books: each book is read in “voices” that fully animate the text.

From a perch on a mushroom stool, I had dreamed that Little Wolf’s First Howling might someday be part of a Charlie’s Corner storytime. So I asked Candlewick, my publisher, if we could line up a reading when the birth of our second grandson prompted another visit to San Francisco.

Unbeknownst to me, Charlie had already picked up on Little Wolf’s scent. She was reading an advance copy at storytimes, howling along with kids to it several times a day. Charlie dons her own wolf headgear for the readings. She told us every howling session is different, depending on the “wolves” any given day.

My visit was smack dab in the middle of National Children’s Book Week. When I met Charlie, she greeted me with, “We love your book.” Turns out she had hoped that the author of Little Wolf would come to visit all the while I was hoping to be a visitor. We decided to split up the reading. She took the part of Little Wolf, reading his howls with gusto and panache.char corner_3

Charlie suggested we finish up with You are My Little Wolf (to the tune of You are My Sunshine). My grandson Emmett stepped forward to strum the ukulele as I played the chords. Yet another dream come true. Altogether my favorite celebration of Children’s Book Week ever. Thanks to all the Charlie’s Corner gang – Elise, Christine, Katharine, Jeffrey, and Tiffany, and most especially to Charlie herself – for a howling good time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science Lit

On this eve of Earth Day, 2017, with marches for science scheduled tomorrow in cities around the US, I got to thinking about science books for kids, and what they’ve meant to me.

It’s important for children to see real worlds as well as imaginary ones. They can be equally wondrous. Children love stories. Science is the narrative of the universe.

Looking through my science books as a child, I dreamed of seeing cardinals, and fireflies, and the Northern Lights. A bright red bird, a bug that lights up, colors in the sky – they seemed like magical things, in spite of being real.

I still have some of my childhood science books, and I’ve added a few more. I continue to use them as reference for my work.

Even though I spent a lot of time making things and drawing pictures when I was growing up, I also loved reading about insects and dinosaurs and rocks (I lean towards biology and geology). My family and I went on rock hunting expeditions in the California desert. When asked when I was five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said An Archaeologist. I did eventually go on to get a degree in anthropology (as well as art).

This is my parents’ fossil book that I poured over as a kid. Fossil hunting continues to be my idea of Big Fun.

There are wonderful books on scientific topics being published every year. My daughters both loved Cactus Hotel and Spoonbill Swamp, by Brenda Guiberson, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

Douglas Florian writes and illustrates quirky poems about areas of science. I especially enjoy his Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars.

The Minor Planets

Sometimes known as asteroids.
Sometimes called the planetoids.
They always help to fill the void.
Tween Jupiter and Mars.

Named for sweethearts, daughters, sons.
Some are small as breakfast buns.
Others larger, weighing tons,
But none as grand as stars

Florian knows how to be both funny and informative without either getting in the way of the other.

Several years ago I bought a book on the work of Charlie Harper. When I first saw the book I felt a pang of nostalgia. He was an illustrator in the later half of the twentieth century and created the images for The Giant Golden Book of Biology. I must have read that book at some point, because looking at his work gave me flashbacks of being in grade school.

You may recognize Harper’s work from recently produced coffee mugs and calendars. I have bought fabric with his birds on it. He is having a posthumous revival of sorts. But some of his most beautiful and innovative images are his illustrations about science.

Science is a varied and expansive topic. That is good, as there is something to spark interest in just about anyone. I applaud all authors, illustrators, teachers and parents who find inspiring and creative ways to introduce young people to the wonders of science. Let’s make sure students  continue to have access to a wide range of scientific ideas, exploration and knowledge in the future.

THE STORY OF LITTLE WOLF

Every book has its origin story. For Little Wolf’s First Howling, which launches April 11, that story begins and ends with collaboration and play.

In November 2014 John and I found out we were going to be grandparents. We bought a wolf puppet for the expected baby and were goofing around with it on the drive home when Little Wolf started howling with an Ella Fitzgerald-inspired vibe. We cracked each other up, so I tried working some of our play into a picture book text. John and the puppet were my first collaborators on Little Wolf.

But it is my sister Kate Harvey McGee whose name is beside mine on the cover. Kate gave the illustrations their luminous color. So I thought I’d give over my blog post today to some thoughts about what made our collaboration so much fun.

First, we have history. Kate and I are the third and fourth children in a family of five kids: four girls and (finally) a boy. We shared a bedroom most of our childhoods and spent lots of time coloring together, redecorating our room, making up stories with our stuffed animals and getting in trouble for laughing when we should have been going to sleep.

In the year I was a senior and she a freshman at Sonora High School, we worked together every week before home football games painting a huge Wildcat head that was leaned up against the goal posts for the football team to burst through as they took the field. That’s the last time we made art together.

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Until September 2015 when she agreed to provide the color for Little Wolf.

To backtrack a little — Candlewick Press editor Katie Cunningham and art director Heather McGee offered to publish Little Wolf in July 2015. Heather talked to me about the challenges of printing a book that takes place at night; a book with so much black. She explained that instead of the usual CYMK four plate process, this book would be printed CYMKK, two black plates. In other words, I would need to provide the black and the colors on two separate layers.

Since the artwork had to be in two layers, I knew just who I wished would do the color. About ten years ago my sister Kate turned her talents from landscape architecture to plein air painting with pastels.

I love her work, especially her sense of color and composition.

Little Wolf takes place at night in the wilds of Yellowstone, I could imagine how Kate would paint that light and beauty.

We made samples to show Katie and Heather what we had in mind. In November 2015 they welcomed my sister Kate on board.

One more hurdle: Kate and I would both have to learn Photoshop to make this work. (Much thanks to Kevan Atteberry for helping me with this.)

Five months of intense artmaking began. I created the black layer a conventional way, painting with white paint and black ink in gouache resist technique. This I scanned and adjusted in Photoshop, then emailed to Kate who lives near Corvallis, OR.

Also working in Photoshop, Kate created a pastel palette and “painted” the colors in layers under the black layer.

Every time she sent back a spread, I would open the file with bated breath. Every time it was a revelation.

Collaborating with Kate was fun because we trust what each of us brings to the table. We share a similar aesthetic. It was fun to be making something together and good to have each other’s advice to figure out when a piece was done.

Mostly we worked each in our own studios, but twice we met to work side by side. Once for a magical weekend at Arch Cape on the Oregon coast, where the nights were starry and the days sunlit. And once in Seattle as we wrapped up the project. We turned in the interior art April 2016.

Then began the design for the cover. Color proofs one and two. ARCs. Gratifying reviews (three stars!).

This story that began while playing with a wolf puppet grew to carry the truth about the importance of singing your own song – as well as the joy of singing with one you love.

YOU ARE INVITED

The launch of Little Wolf’s First Howling, Tuesday April 11, 7 pm at Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, 2214 NW Market St., Seattle. Come help us wolf down refreshments and howl along with family and friends to string bass accompaniment. Feel welcome to bring your pack.

Also – Special Storytime April 12 at 11 am. at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, kids department.

p.s. One more collaborator — As part of my ongoing effort to include Izzi in as many blogposts as possible, here she is posing for reference for Big Wolf on the cover.