Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

Oops – Yet Another Missed Deadline….

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Lately I’ve been missing all kinds of deadlines. Won’t go through them all, but it was my turn to post here at Books Around the Table on June 16th and it’s now June 23. Ah, well. And ah, darn it. How does this happen – time passing at warp speed? And why does it happen more and more often?

My last post had to do with a Big Move (sold our house of 30 years, moved to a new town) and all the packing and unpacking involved (still only about 33% unpacked.) In the middle of that move, I flew off to an Alumni Mini-Residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, had a ball, recharged my writing batteries, saw colleagues and former students, delivered a lecture about the importance of reading like a writer, led a workshop, won a couple of items at the Alumni Auction (proud to contribute to the fund-raising), marveled at the glass-enclosed lounge in the new faculty residency I’d been hearing about (lovely design but….impossible to sit around in your p.j.’s talking to friends at night with the lights on….), had an important conversation with a friend and colleague that I’ve only known slightly but now I know quite well, then took the bus down to Boston, saw my daughter and her family (grandson is now ten years old, how on earth did that happen??? Ah, yes, that phrase again: “warp speed” ) for a few days, flew home day before yesterday, unpacked suitcase, began to unpack boxes again….

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Whew! Life got busy and days just evaporated. I only noticed tonight that it was my turn to offer up a well-considered thought or two about writing and or/the writing life for Books Around the Table. Well, what I’ve just described — that is my crazy writing life. Filled with curiosity and activity, but basically amorphous. Or, better said, shaped into periods of creativity book-ended by 1) chaos or 2) fallow times. I have friends who offer up the advice “BIC” (meaning “butt in chair”) and they follow their own advice – they sit themselves down and work every day. And they produce good books. I can’t seem to do the BIC thing.

Maybe because writing isn’t really a career for me? I’ve begun to wonder about that.  Writing is more a curiosity-satisfying activity for me. I love it, but it doesn’t really put food on the table for me. I’m unambitious – that’s sometimes good, sometimes not. And friends who know me know I don’t punch the clock well. But I’ve been writing in-between all the moving and traveling, so it’s not all fallow. I’ve written a series of poems called “What She’s Been Thinking Lately” about what a woman who lives a little too much inside her mind. Each poem is about what this woman has been thinking about lately – mainly about stars, tiny houses, medical research, space travel, bog bodies, the roots of Western Civilization, sink holes, mind control, biometric authentication, tissue engineering – things like that. She isn’t me, but….I’ve been thinking about those things lately.

Like I said: life has been haphazard and chaotic. Curiosity survives. I do like to share, so I remain part of Books Around the Table – and my BATT friends put up with me when I miss deadlines. I’m in awe of each one of them – they’re artistic, organized, energetic, productive, thoughtful friends. Then there’s me – often scattered, lost in thought, overbooked, late to the table, under-productive, absent-minded.  One of the nice things about “the writing life” is that you have writer-friends. So I want to say this to them officially: You know that woman I mentioned in that series of poems? She’s been thinking lately about friendship. And she’s very grateful her friends put up with her.

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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?

 

 

 

Drink Ink

Schreibmeisterbuch is a nice chewy German word that means Writing Master’s Book.

My friend Claudia collects them.  These books date from the 1700’s and were used to teach penmanship. Some are printed and some are manuscripts. They are filled with examples of beautiful script,

and ornament,

and playful doodles.

Here is lettering from another of Claudia’s books, from a different part of her library. The delicacy and rhythm of the line contrasts with the solidity and singularity of the rose.

Here the lines become the flight path of insects.

All of these images inspired me to fool around with my own fountain pen again.

With a pen I have to pay attention and let go at the same time. If I am too tight the line has no life or joy. If I am not paying attention the line has no purpose. In every drawing I can see where I erred in both of those directions, but that leads me to draw again.

When I am drawing I think with my hand as well as my mind. A pencil line feels different than an ink line. (For more on that subject please go to this older post: Pencils, Pens and Brushes).

Today I type more than write. But there is joy to be found in real ink.

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In his blog The Technium, Kevin Kelly writes that old technologies never die. They continue to exist in some form somewhere on earth.

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The old technologies are often slower but still fulfill their original purpose, often in a more pleasing way than the more modern iterations. Care for a boat ride, a balloon ride or a trip on United Flight 3411? It depends on why you are going.

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I like that I can use the new and the old.

I can draw pencils with a fountain pen and scan the drawing, or take pictures from a schreibmeisterbuch with my phone and send them to you. Please raise your monocle and take a closer look at your screen!

African Prints Fashion Now!

Julie Paschkis, Deborah Mersky and I just returned from a field trip to Los Angeles to see African Print Fashion Now! at the Fowler Museum.

All of us are fans of the large and varied category of fabrics known as African prints. Deborah first introduced me to them many years ago when she brought some pieces for Julie and me back with her from a shop in New York. Then Julie gave me some yardage from Vlisco for my birthday.

“African print” is an umbrella term for commercially produced, patterned cloths made for the African market. The most prestigious, true “wax print” is a complicated process using wax or resin resist.

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Many African prints, including some that say ‘genuine wax’, are printed with simpler processes such as roller or screen printing. They are still very appealing. 

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The designs often carry symbolic meanings, and are chosen to communicate the cultural heritage and status of the wearer. Many motifs appear frequently in different designs. Keys and locks are common.

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Some have political or popular figures.

IMG_3293I always like the ones with birds.

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These two were designed with a similar theme in mind, over fifty years apart.

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Some are electronic.

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Fans are popular.

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Some designs are geometric and others floral. Many are both.

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It seems as though nearly anything can be made into a beautiful print cloth design.

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I’ve rarely seen African prints for sale in Seattle, but London fabric shops have a large clientele for African-style material. My collection grew substantially while I was there.

IMG_1148IMG_1143IMG_1141IMG_7782Julie and I even went to Helmond outside of Amsterdam to visit the Vlisco factory for a bit of viewing and shopping.

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Established in 1846, Vlisco is the premier producer of African prints. It was hard to leave with only as much as we could carry. 

The origins of these prints can be traced back to painted and printed cottons from India for trade between South Asian and East Africa. These then inspired batiked fabrics in Indonesia. Later, Dutch and British manufacturers started producing mechanically made wax-resist prints for the Indonesian market. When the Indonesians rejected their products, preferring their own hand-dyed cloth, European manufacturers shifted their market to West Africa.

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There, they began to work with local traders, most of them women, to provide goods that reflected the cultural values and aesthetics of their clientele. During the 60s and 70s, newly independent African nations opened their own factories. More recently, Asian companies have flooded markets with more affordable designs, many of them knock-offs of Vlisco and other well-loved patterns. This has hurt the European and African companies, but has also increased the global awareness of African print textiles.

Both men and women wear clothing and accessories made from these fabrics.

Below are a few pieces shown in the exhibit.

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Here are two more that I saw in shop windows in Montreal recently.

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Why do I like these prints so much? Perhaps because of their connection to the printmaking techniques that have always appealed to me. Or maybe because of their playful and bold designs. They are as illustrative as they are decorative. I use patterns and color on clothing to add to the story in my children’s books too, but mine aren’t quite so bold.

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I think what appeals to me most is the anything-goes approach to pattern design.
Fashion is always a form of personal expression. These fabrics just sing a bit louder than gingham or chambray.

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A Big Move

This is the photo we’ll call BEFORE:

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And this the photo which can only be called AFTER:

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My husband and I  just sold our house in Seattle (bought it in 1987, raised our three kids in it, still love it) to start a new phase of our lives 90 miles north in Bellingham, not far from the Canadian border.  We found a new house to fill up with old stuff (I mean, treasures….) and I know I should be thinking of this as an adventure. Still, it’s hard to empty out a house you’ve lived in and been happy in for thirty years. The bedroom that was once my youngest son’s room now looks like this:

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When I say something in it, my words reverberate and echo across the space, which hurts.

I hosted my last Books Around the Table meeting here on Wednesday, having kept one tablecloth in reserve for the occasion. Haven’t packed up the kitchen yet, so dishes were available for our lunch together. It felt almost normal. And not all the shelves are empty; some are actng as Grand Central for the fragile stuff, waiting for bubble wrap:

 

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There used to be books on all these shelves, of course; my books are all packed up in boxes. And boxes. And boxes.

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I own a lot of books, as do my BATT friends, as do most readers of this blog, I’m sure. And I like them to be everywhere:

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I feel like telling my books as I pack them, “Hold your breath, stay calm, see you soon.” Crazy, right? But we’ll be moving into the new house slowly. Here is the BEFORE photo. So empty.

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We need to get the carpet up, re-do the mantle, lay down maple flooring, paint the walls. It might be awhile before we get to the bookcases, and to putting books on the shelves.  Once books fill the house, I’ll believe it’s home. Then I’ll be able to go out on the deck with a cup of coffee, sit down, look out at the view, and think about the future. I know, the sky looks threatening. But I’m hopeful.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magic Spell

I have a new book out called Magic Spell.

Magic Spell is a book about spelling in all senses: the spelling of words, the spells of magicians, and the spells that people cast over each other.

I have always liked puzzles and wordplay. With a flick of your pen a word can change meaning completely – night becomes light,  a toy turns into a boy, a ball becomes a bell.

In 2012 I drew the character Aziz – a magician who was a mighty speller.

I wrote a story where Aziz performed prodigious feats of spelling. But it wasn’t enough. He needed an assistant. And the story needed a plot. Along came Zaza.

The story became about their relationship and their struggle.

In the beginning Aziz is the star, the main attraction.

He has all of the power and his beautiful assistant doesn’t even have a name. She does all of the dirty work – such as picking up fish, wrestling with a hose that had been a rose, or putting out a fire.

She goes along with this until he turns her wig into a pig. That is too much.

She lets him know her name, Zaza, and tells him that she can spell too. They fight over the wand.

A series of spelling battles ensue.

Aziz turns a bug to a rug to a rat to a cat.

Zaza turns his coat to a boat to a boot to a book to a rook.

They cast spells back and forth. The argument escalates and things get bad.  Beads become beans become bears.

Aziz and Zaza must learn to work together pronto.

And they do. TADA! A new show is born.

If a magic spell is done well it seems effortless. The same is true of a book. But with both (with everything) there is usually a lot of work behind the scenes. I rewrote Magic Spell many, many times in an effort to strengthen the story and to make the word transitions smooth. Before it was accepted for publication my critique group helped,  Linda Pratt gave advice and encouragement and Andrea Spooner gave helpful editorial feedback. After it was accepted by Simon and Schuster, Kristin Ostby and Liz Kossnar were wonderful editors. Art director Laurent Lynn added his magic touch including SPARKLES. Katie Johnson consulted to make sure that the spelling changes and word choices were appropriate for learning readers. Many people waved their wands and – voila – five years after Aziz fell out of my pen a book was born.

You can buy Magic Spell at your local bookstore or click here to buy it from Secret Garden Books in Seattle. I hope you will enjoy it.

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.

A Few Thoughts about Competition

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Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a piece, personality-wise. Well, I’m sure it’s many pieces, given how many go into any given personality and how often I wonder. If you put the metaphorical pieces end to end, would they stretch from here to the metaphorical moon?

But one piece in particular (better said, the lack of it) puzzles me, and that’s the piece governing competitiveness. I look deep, but I can’t find it. What happened to it? It must have snuck off in the night some time back. And I’m not bragging about this — it’s not like I’m so zen-blessed or Buddha-like that competition is beneath me.  It’s more like I don’t really care anymore about being the fastest, the best, the most. I can’t think of anything I would be driven to win at.

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When I was a kid it was different. On the playground I wanted to be the best at everything. If my friends and I ran around pretending we were wild horses, I wanted to be the fastest and the wildest horse. Playing tetherball or dodge ball, I wanted to beat everyone who challenged me – not just beat them, but crush them, and I did crush them.  Many kids thought I was mean.  I practiced yo-yo tricks so much it hurt, because I wanted to be the Yo-Yo Champion of the World. If I couldn’t master something (like the strategy behind games of chess) and knew I couldn’t win,  I simply didn’t engage in it.

How things change as you age, no? If I do something well now (write a good poem, for example) I’m happy, but I’m just as happy to have a friend write a better one. Nothing eats away at me if I’m not The Best – I don’t curse and tell myself I’ll win next time.

So, I’m really curious: Do most of you reading this feel that competition is healthy? That it shows energy and self-confidence? Even in an adult? My lack of competitiveness –  rather than representing a state of blissful Nirvana, does it only represent inertia? Even worse, does it suggest a lack of confidence and/or depression? On the other hand (lots of hands waiting for their turn) could a lack of competitiveness, seen by some as a problem, mean I’m ready for sainthood?

 

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.