Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

A Child’s Garden of Images by Roger Duvoisin

Well, while I am waiting for production to continue on Where Lily Isn’t (the designer at the publishing house just left, so the search is on for a replacement, *sigh*…) I will entertain both you and myself by looking through the books in my kid lit collection.

Today I pulled out a book that was a gift from a friend – A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin (The Heritage Press: 1944). Lucky for me she had two in her collection.

I have a few books illustrated by Duvoisin (you may know his work from his 1950 book Petunia). His drawings are joyful and loose, sometimes on the edge of silly. His illustrations are from the era when colored images were prepared for printing by separating them manually into multiple plates (as would be done in traditional printmaking). The plates were then printed in individual ink tones, usually including a yellow, a red, a blue or green, and black. The results create an appealingly limited palette of graphic shapes and patterns. I am a fan!

Below from ‘Foreign Lands’:

I love how the girl’s feet exit the top of the image in ‘The Swing’, although the flattened perspective makes me worry a bit for her safety on the way down:

‘The Cow’: Perhaps a precursor to Petunia?

‘Travel’:

‘My Ship And I’:

The illustrations for the book aren’t all in color. There are many lovely black and white images, such as this for ‘The Little Land’:

and this for ‘My Shadow”:

Also for ‘Little Land’:R Duvoisin-Childs Garden of Verses-The Little Land 2

‘Autumn Fires’: Do we not feel the loss of summer looming?

‘To Minnie’: That is some rug!

For all you picture book folk – ‘Picture Books In Winter’:R Duvoisin-Childs Garden of Verses-Picture Books In Winter

And finally, a peek under the jacket cover:

Perhaps for my next post I will show more of Duvoisin’s work. It is worth exploring further.

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When the Work Becomes a Slog

 

Do you know the feeling? The dread of sitting down at the computer or going to the drawing board? Bored of your own story? It’s pulling teeth! It’s torture! Creating is hell!

I’ve felt it, especially with my most recent work, a middle-grade novel that I’ve been struggling with for a number of years. So I was intrigued by Eliza Wheeler’s talk at the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference this August. Wheeler is an author-illustrator of Miss Maple’s Seeds which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. She’s illustrated many other picture books, was a Sendak Fellowship Recipient in 2017 and won the SCBWI National Grand Prize Award for best portfolio in 2011.

Somewhere in there Eliza realized she wasn’t always enjoying her work and she eventually figured out what to do about it.  Lisa outlined a 7 1/2 step process for keeping herself inspired and energized. It makes sense to me. (I like the 1/2 step best of all.)

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Dorothy Parker

1. First you dig. Go to that well that we pull ideas and inspiration from. Childhood passions, current interests, life experiences. Explore that inner landscape to feel what you connect with on a deep level and let that be the source of your next project.

2. Inspire yourself. Gather similar works. Study the masters of what you want to do. And create a bulletin board of inspiration and interests. When research starts to feel like a slog move on.

3. Collage. Wheeler is a big believer in hands-on inspiration. She creates literal collages of bits of inspiration, sketches and ideas shuffling things about to see what might connect. This is the stage to feel safe to openly fail. To not be afraid of laying out what turns out to be a false start or an idea that goes no where. There is no editor at this point. Just lay it out. Turn off the analyzing brain, instead give yourself free reign. You’re playing. Don’t judge, don’t think and, most importantly, don’t skip this phase thinking you need to get to the actual work.

Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur

4. Simmer. Now step back. Take a break, put down your work and let your subconscious take over. This is the stage where I often take a walk, run errands, dither around on social media. The thing is you’ve fed your mind the fuel it needs—ideas, models, research—now let the subconscious do its thing.

5. Ignite. Be ready for those flashes of inspiration, be ready to capture a few moments or a few hours of inspired work.

Create with the heart; build with the mind. Criss Jami

6. Refine. Finally, it’s time to bring out the analytical mind, to organize, hone and edit. Wheeler biggest caution here: don’t refine too soon. Don’t shortchange the process where the fire and fun comes from.

7. Assess what you’ve done. You have a “finished” product, so step back and take a clear look at it. Be objective. Get feedback. Now it’s time for your critique groups and your internal editor to join in. We all know it’s going to take many drafts to finally get there.

1/2. What’s the half step? It’s a step you take at every stage of the process. Ask yourself how are you feeling? If the process is feeling sloggy, if you feel you’re pushing to do the work, you are trying to refine too soon. Are you bored? Then you’re judging too soon.

Wheeler say to take time every day to ask yourself what’s your level of enjoyment and inspiration. If it’s low, if boredom and dread are slipping in, then slow down. Let things simmer more, do more writing, do more sketching, mull, muse. Go back to the well.

The truth is on most days we’re probably doing versions of all these steps–maybe some research, trolling the web for an image that sparks something, jotting down an idea, writing something, letting things simmer. But even so, it’s easy to cut short the musing, stewing, noodling, “I’m just wasting time!” phase all throughout the process.

So it seems like a good idea to ask yourself often how inspired you are; how much fun you’re having? Sure, not every day is great, but if the project has become a slog, maybe it’s time to recognize that, slow down, go back to the well and remind yourself why you care.

The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. Neil Gaiman

 

 

 

 

 

The All-American County Fair

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We went to the Northwest Washington Fair a couple of weeks ago, and no – I did not ride on the Ring of Fire.

Instead, I went straight to see the piglets in the big petting barn next to the Swine Barn. How can it be, I wondered as I turned in my ticket and walked through the gate, that some wonderful sow is ready to give us a new set of piglets just in time for the fair each year? Thank you, sows of Northwest Washington!

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We took along my sister-in-law and niece who were visiting from their home in Hermosillo, Mexico, and we planned their visit specifically so we could show them the quintessential American event: the county fair. Though some people prefer state fairs, I like mine a bit smaller, more regional, like this:

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Oh, my gosh, that’s Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web, isn’t it?

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I like looking for names I recognize on the quilts or the flower & canned goods (especially peaches and pickles) displays.

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I love to see how inventive kids are when they make their “vegetable critters.”

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Each year I vote for my favorite display of kids’ collections (legos galore, model horses, matchbox cars, dolls, beer bottle caps) and I vote for the local grange displays. This year we saw a corn stalk that measured 14-feet tall. Bravo! Corn is very big on my list of Why the World is Wonderful. The countryside of Whatcom County, Washington, where I live, is covered with corn fields (that is, where it’s not covered with raspberry fields. And blueberry fields…) A drive out into the country to find a corn stand can be pretty breathtaking.

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We live in real county-fair territory….

I sometimes agree but often disagree with the judges about which item was awarded Best of Show (Big Purple Ribbons, Big Red-White-and-Blue Ribbons!) in just about every category under the sun. And I’m always touched by how eager and devoted the 4-H kids seem to be to their animals and their chores.

This year we paid special attention to the horses, since my niece has three of her own and is learning to jump with them. We saw barrel racing, saw the judged 4-H horse jumping, and were struck dumb by the size of the Clydesdales when you’re standing right next to them.

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I like staying as long as humanly possible, but at least from midday until the sun goes down and the carny rides light up and the food begins to smell divine. We eat without any attention to what’s healthy for the long term, and without any regard to “a balanced meal.” To follow the Charlotte’s Web thread, we pig out on….

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Kettlecorn…

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…and curly fries…

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…and corn-on-the-cob…

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…and hot dogs…

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Anything with whipped cream and berries gets our attention, but….

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…”Chocolate-Covered Bacon”? Maybe too much, even for us….

Garth Williams knew exactly how a person (or a pig…or a rat) feels after a day at the fair:

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When the fair begins….

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…and when it’s time to go home!

I’m not a true flag-waving patriot most of the time. Maybe I’m an ACLU and League-of-Women-Voters-style patriot. My neighbor, a sweet guy, flies an American flag most of the year, while I fly a Bellingham flag with symbols on it which stand for for two Native American tribes, one saltwater bay, a waterfall, and four towns which eventually became the town we live in. So the red-white-and-blue is not quite as appealing to me as the green-white-and-blue. But when it comes to showing my family from Mexico around, giving them an experience I consider truly American, the county fair is the way I wave a flag. You might call me a county-fair patriot.

Now that our guests have gone, I’ve got some quiet time, and I’m looking for a good book to read. I think I’ll get out my old and battered copy of Charlotte’s Web.  If “Write what you know”  is good advice for writers, I’m sure E.B. White knew a few fairs, as did Garth Williams – they had county fairs (and the people who head for the Swine Barn first) all figured out.

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‘All morning, people wandered past Wilbur’s pen. Dozens and dozens of strangers stopped to stare at him and to admire his silky white coat, his curly tail, his kind and radiant expression.” (Charlotte’s Web)

 

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.

Vivid

Just out: VIVID- Poems and Notes about Color.

The spark for this book came in April of 2015 when I listened to a Radio Lab show about color. I already thought about color all the time. What a pleasure  it is to put one color next to another when I paint! But the podcast opened my eyes to the science of color. I painted this picture then.

Over the next 6-8 months I began writing poems about colors and squirreling away facts.When I had enough for a book I submitted with the manuscript with the sample illustration for RED. Laura Godwin at Henry Holt accepted it – hooray!

In the fall of 2016 I began to paint. But I had a bicycle accident and lost the use of my arm for 6 months. I was able to paint again in early 2017 and I struggled to find my way back in to the book. The joy of color eventually pulled me in again.

Did you know that the color pink was named after a flower (pinks – also called dianthus)? Did you know that it took 250,000 snails to make an ounce of purple dye which is why purple was a royal color? I didn’t.


You can learn about color with your mind, and with your eyes and hands. Even though a computer offers a huge palette of colors it is exciting to mix your own.What happens when you add a drop of orange to a lot of yellow and a little blue?
I hope you will play with color. And I hope that you will pick up a copy of Vivid. You can get it at Secret Garden Books: click here. Thank you.

I offer tidbits about color – but the science and poetry of color ask for deeper study. My goal is to encourage you and all readers to dive in headfirst.

p.s. I will be away this weekend – I will answer any comments next week.

Wild Things

I have another book to recommend: Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature As An Adult, by  Bruce Handy. I checked it out from the library after reading this piece in the New Yorker. I haven’t quite finished it yet, but it has been an enjoyable summer read.

Bruce Handy is about my age, a parent, white, and born on the West Coast. Perhaps having those things in common is why I can relate so easily to his nostalgic trip through classic American kid lit. He broke his reading teeth on Dr. Seuss (for him it was Ten Apples Up on Top!, for me it was One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish). Like me, he remembers the first time he was read Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. He also received, as a new parent, multiple copies of Goodnight Moon. So his trip down a literary Memory Lane takes me back as well. He revisits many of the books I read as a child, but also several that I didn’t. He also explores the whys and hows that have made these books into classics.

I often wonder about the lives of the authors I read, but even in this age of Wikipedia, who has the time? Handy has done that for us. He finds the stories behind the stories – from Margaret Wise Brown and her taste for luxury, to the  “philosophical conversion” of C. S. Lewis and Theodore Geisel’s anarchic response to Dick and Jane – with humor and insight and many personal asides (maybe too many? but hey, I’m guilty of the same fondness for parentheses).

To be clear, Wild Things is not an anthology. It is an appreciation of the books and the authors who start us on the path (a yellow brick road, perhaps?) to a lifelong love of books. The most famous ones, at least.

I will warn you of one frustration I have with the book; there are no pictures apart from some spot drawings for the chapter headings by Seo Kim. When Handy describes an illustration, I want to see what he’s talking about, but I imagine that would have been expensive to produce and problematic with all those copyrights to contend with.

I am almost to the last chapter, which is appropriately titled “The End: Dead Pets, Dead Grandparents, and the Glory of Everything.” Since I have been working on a book about the loss of a pet, it should be especially interesting. After I’m done, maybe I’ll go reread some of my favorite kid lit!

 

 

Pals

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At the Waterslides, Summer 2018

My daughter and grandson have been visiting this week from the East Coast just outside Boston. I worried about whether my grandson would have enough to do while visiting, but – as you see – kids find other kids and off they go. Five hours yesterday in the blistering heat at Birch Bay Water Slides (“Where the Sun Always Shines”) —what’s not to love?

Why am I posting this photo? Just wanted to remind myself of who I write for. I can get isolated at my desk while I write; it’s refreshing to be with kids when I’m stuck for a story or when I run out of juice – it’s good to be where I can hear them laugh, or where I can listen to the stories they tell me.

Some of us write for the boy with an undercurrent of shyness, some for the kid with 60’s hair and a wild flag swim suit. Sometimes we write for the kid with a summer buzz-cut who is willing to pause for a photo for his grandmother when he’s dying to get back to the slides.

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We write for the kid who is shivering. The kid laughing. We write for kids of every imaginable shape and size. Kids at summer camp who miss home.  Kids for whom summer camp is only a dream. Kids having chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cones melting too fast to keep them from dripping all down their arms. Kids visitng libraries and signing up for summer reading programs. Kids with pals…and kids without. Kids who remind us of ourselves. Sometimes for kids whose troubles make our hearts ache. Other times for kids who make us believe in the world again.

Spend a summer day with kids and have a ball. Laugh a little with them. Listen. Think about the energy they have.  We write for kids. How lucky is that?

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Photo done, back to the slides….

 

 

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

Pattern and Story

For many years I have had one foot in the world of picture books and another in the world of textiles.

Question: Is this a textile design or a children’s book illustration?

Answer: This is part of a new line of textiles called Hey Diddle Diddle, designed for In The Beginning Fabrics.

Question: Is this a textile design or a children’s book illustration?

Answer: this is the dedication page from my upcoming picture book Vivid: Poems and Notes about Color (I’ll write more about Vivid next month).

I studied weaving in college at the School for American Craftsmen. I was a pretty bad craftsperson – my selvages were always crooked.  I wanted to tell stories with my fabric, but the emphasis was more on technique.

Magpie by Yuri Vasnetsov

I also took a drawing class where the teacher dinged me for excessive pattern and flatness in my work. He asked if I really needed to draw every leaf on every tree. Yes, I did.

I felt like a misfit in all arenas. But luckily I had one class where the teacher told me to consider the things that made me different as strengths and not weaknesses. I was ready to hear that advice, and he helped me find my own direction. 

Since then my patterns have been full of stories and my stories have been full of pattern.

I like to play with the balance between the decorative and narrative, and to search for new directions.

Here is a piece that I made in 2016. Question: How was it made?

Answer: The black was stenciled onto 4 pieces of paper. The colors were painted on. The papers were rotated and stitched together.

Recently I designed some cotton scarves for my webshop Julie Paprika: Menagerie, Be Mine and Yum. The original drawings were ink on paper, painted at full size. I rotated the paper while painting.

Question: Can you tell which side is up? Can you make up stories for them?

In addition to balancing pattern and story, I try to balance having a creative life and making a living. Julie Paprika is my attempt to do both things. It would be peachy if you visited the shop.
Thank you.

P.S. I am currently selling a Zero Tolerance poster at Julie Paprika.
Question: Why is our government treating immigrants with such cruelty?
Answer: There is no good answer.
A small action: Buy this poster and 1oo% of the proceeds will go to United We Dream. Click here. Thank you.

A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

On June 13, I attended an event in Portland honoring Ursula K. Le Guin. The tribute was organized by the Le Guin family and hosted by Literary Arts. Speakers included writers and artists whom Ursula had worked with, as well as others she had influenced, inspired, and befriended. The spoken tributes alternated with photos and video selections from “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin”, a feature documentary film by Arwen Curry.

My feelings about Ursula have always been held close in my heart and not something I often talk about. But there, in that auditorium, I felt I was one of many whose hearts Ursula had touched. It was bittersweet, remembering her and missing her.

The event was filmed and is available to watch on the Literary Arts website.

Ursula K. Le Guin was a master of the art of words, but she also was a brilliant  thinker and an outspoken advocate for artists, free speech, and humanity. My admiration for her has only deepened as I have continued to read her writings in the months since her death. I have almost finished her Conversations On Writing with David Naimon, which I recommend if you want to hear more of her thoughts about her craft. It nicely captures Ursula’s relaxed style of speaking and her humor.

I am also about a quarter of the way through Lavinia, in which Ursula gives eloquent voice to a female character from Vergil’s Aeneid.

‘I know who I was, I can tell you who I may have been, but I am now, only in this line of words I write…”

I look forward to reading more of Ursula’s works that I have not yet read, and then maybe I will re-read some of my old favorites of hers that I read years ago. It is a good way to continue to pay tribute to her, and to keep hearing her voice and learning from her.