Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

Wordless Letters, part two

Last week Margaret wrote about our wordless correspondence while she lived in London. This week I am posting some of the letters that she sent to me.

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When we hatched our plan we decided that we would each send a wordless letter every Friday. We stuck with that deadline although Friday sometimes became Saturday. Having a deadline made us actually follow through on our intentions.

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I loved getting something in the mail every week and I never knew what it would be.

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This one comforted me when our dog Lily died.

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Some explored new tools such as a pen nib.

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Here is the other side of the teapot conversation –

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and the squiggle

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Some were three dimensional, or collaged from scraps of labels, or made of fabric.

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I enjoyed the exchange as it happened. But yesterday when I gathered everything  to photograph, the accumulation of letters and images amazed and moved me. Our small idea grew into something bigger – a record and testament of our friendship and of time passing. Giving and getting were both gifts.

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Wordless Letters

J Paskchis wordless letter

This post is about my correspondence with Julie Paschkis while I was in London. Apparently, February is International Correspondence Writing Month (InCoWriMo), so this will be especially appropriate.

After I had gotten myself settled in and had recovered from the initial shock of moving to another country, I still felt a bit untethered. Printmaking, my artistic comfort zone, had begun to feel tedious and boring, so I intentionally left my printmaking presses behind in Seattle. Now I had a new environment to explore and no reason not to experiment and be inspired.

But sometimes, having so many options becomes overwhelming. Where to start?

I told Julie how I was feeling. She said that when she isn’t sure where to start creatively, she finds it helpful to make something with someone particular in mind, as if she is making a gift for them. I liked that idea. Julie suggested we both send each other a “wordless letter” every week.

This turned out to be a wonderful solution, in so many ways. I found the challenge of describing what I was doing and expressing what I was feeling, without words, to be a very productive means to mine my experiences.

Julie and I have been friends for nearly thirty years. She knows my art. She knows my insecurities and foibles. She is my dear friend. I knew that whatever I sent her would be received openly and without judgement. That was important to me at a time when I was trying new things that I wasn’t necessarily good at. Some weeks I felt more inspired than others. Some weeks I had less time than others. It was all okay.

The practice kept me being creative, even when distractions and excuses not to stay in my workspace were everywhere, and it disciplined me to do so on a regular basis. During the week, I would keep my eyes open for bits and bobs of ephemera to use in my next missive. Often, what I would make for Julie would lead me to create other pieces in a similar vein.

It also kept me in touch with Julie in a different way than texts or FaceTime or even written letters would have done. It was like a conversation of imagery.

All that, and the joy of receiving something in kind every week. A letter is a gift. We don’t get or give them often enough.

These letters are some of my most treasured relics from my two years in London. All in all, I have nearly fifty wordless letters from Julie. The envelopes were also works of art. I have picked some of my favorites to show you here.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I told her about a missing teapot from my parents’ home.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterArrows were a common theme for me. Julie responded in kind.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie and I exchanged squiggles at one point, and then colored them in and sent them back.

J Paschkis - wordless letterSome of the letters were 3-D.

J Paschkis - wordless letterOthers had movable parts!

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J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterRose colored glasses to induce optimism.

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letter

J Paschkis - wordless letterThis was a Thank You note from Julie after she and her husband Joe visited us and we took a trip to Amsterdam.

J Paschkis - wordless letterJulie sent me this after I met her in New York for a visit.

J Paschkis - wordless letter A letter for a new year.

J Paschkis - wordless letterAnd this was one of the last letters Julie sent me. It is me, returning to Seattle (the handle on the suitcase goes up and down and the flaps open).

Next week, Julie will share her side of our exchange.

Concept book, concept book. What do you see?

Some of the simplest picture books are concept books. Books about sound, color, shapes, seasons… ways that we categorize the world that will be new to a toddler. Concept books might often seem like just random lists, but the good ones have an underlying structure that takes more planning than it seems.

A lot has to do with the order in which information is presented. It can be an order is natural to the concept itself such as the passage of seasons or the sequence of the colors in a rainbow, but often the author has to work to impose order. A lot of the pleasure of a concept book is to see how an author and illustrator do this.

A great example is the picture book Buzz by Janet Wong, illustrated by my blog-mate Margaret Chodos-Irving. It’s a book I’ve used in my writing classes long before I knew Janet or Margaret, because what could be a simpler idea than different things that buzz? But it’s far from a random collection of buzzes.

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In this case, author and illustrator explore the different buzzing sounds a boy hears as his household wakes up.

It starts with the single word: “Buzz.” as a boy sleepily looks out his window. Then a page turn.

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“Outside my window a bee eats breakfast in a big red flower.”

It then moves through the boy’s morning. The buzz of the alarm clock in his parent’s room. Dad shaving. The sound of the gardener mowing across the street. There’s one “buzz” sound per page. And they are relatively peaceful, everyday buzzes. The language is mostly simple declarative sentences.

Then comes breakfast and something interesting happens. The activity level picks up and the language gets more complex:

Mommy grinds coffee Buzzzzzzzzzzz while I fly my airplane Buzzzzzzzzz over the oatmeal Buzzzzzzz and past the apple juice Buzzzzzzz—OH NO!

All this activity happens on one page quickening the pace of the story.

On the next page, there are no buzz sounds—just mild chaos. Airplane lands in juice, cup spills, mom runs to catch cup, toast pops up, clothes are tumbling in dryer and then the BUZZZZ of the dryer gets buzzing back into the story, but now with more urgency. Mom is on the move getting ready to go to work. Buzz goes her hairdryer. Grandma buzzes the doorbell to come baby-sit. Boy kisses Mom goodbye…

“so she can fly BUZZ outside”

(page turn and we see Mom hurrying off to work)

“like a busy bee.”

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There’s plenty of structure here. The sequence of the buzzes matches the natural order of a morning’s activities. The pace and urgency of the story gradually escalate into mild chaos in the kitchen and Mom suddenly needs to rush to get out the door—this is the top of the story arc. Then the pace slows somewhat—not as leisurely as the beginning, but down off the peak and gradually we come in for a landing, with the closing image of the bee that perfectly rounds out the story at the same place we came in.

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A consistent pattern or rhyming scheme is another way to add structure to a simple book. I wrote a  concept book Tickly Prickly, illustrated by Shari Halpern (now out of print) about how things feel to the touch. It begins with:

Did you ever have a ladybug crawl across your finger?

How did it feel?

Tickly, prickly. Fly away quickly.

Every stanza that follows asks a question about how it feels to touch a familiar animal and answers that question within a consistent rhyming scheme.

Did you ever have a fish wriggle in your hands?

How did it feel?

Slippery, slickery. Turny and twistery.

Ending with:

Did you ever have a puppy cuddle in your arms?

How did it feel?

Velvety snug. A hugful of love.

Like Wong, I had to find an narrow focus for my book. I picked the feel of  animals—not the feel of a bedtime blanket or a snowball. And I picked familiar animals—bunnies, chicks, a cat’s paw—not a hippo hide or the beak of a stork. But I could have gone in those other directions. The main thing is to have a direction, a reason for the choices.

chick-tickly-prickly(By the way, the symbols at the top of this illustration are from an iTunes app that’s available for this book.)

There’s almost no build to the march of animals in Tickly Prickly, but the middle does feature perhaps the more interesting animals that might be in an average child’s world—a horse, a lake fish, a toad. And, it very deliberately ends with the coziest emotion, snuggling with a dog.

Ending with the coziest emotions is my favorite go-to for most concept books, but there are other ways to make sure you end in a satisfying place, including the ending of a day (a built-in cozy moment with a goodnight tuck-in or hug), the reward or result of that activity (the baked cake) or going full circle.

Taro Gomi’s, Spring Is Here is a perfect example of the circular ending.

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Spring Is Here is so deceptively simple. The prose couldn’t be more straightforward. It begins:

Spring is here.

The snow melts.

The earth is fresh.

The grass sprouts.

Each line is a new, two-page spread.

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But not only is there a lovely trick he plays with the illustrations (you’re going to have to get this one to see what he does. It’s worth it.) he, too, creates a build as we move from flowers blooming and grass growing to a little drama in the middle:

The wind blows.

The storms rage.

And then back down into the quiet harvest, falling snow and a hushed world. Before returning to:

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For more concept books to check out, I like this list compiled by the Contra Costa County Library (plus it’s fun to say all those C-words.)

http://guides.ccclib.org/c.php?g=43934&p=1046403

The Seattle Public Library also has this list:

https://seattle.bibliocommons.com/list/show/73413760__seattle_kids_librarians/85218609_seattle_picks_-_concept_books

And here’s this from Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/concept-books

 

 

 

 

 

Links and Lists in La La Land

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Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone in La La Land

Just some links today, in case you haven’t seen these lists yet:

It’s awards season, and all the ALSC announcements have been made – Newbery, Caldecott, Batchelder (always so interesting to see what’s being translated from abroad),  Sibert, Pura Belpre, Seisel, Odyssey…and lovely Nikki Grimes has been awarded the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award!! I’m also so pleased to see that Naomi Shihab Nye has been asked to deliver the May Hill Arbuthnot lecture.

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Poet and Novelist Naomi Shihab Nye

Nye is a role model for me, gracefully bridging the distance between poetry for children and poetry for adults.   Click here for a link to all the award-winners and Honor books. And for your reading pleasure, a small poem by Nye which, given the stance of our current president, seems timely:

TWO COUNTRIES

Skin remembers how long the years grow
when skin is not touched, a gray tunnel
of singleness, feather lost from the tail
of a bird, swirling onto a step,
swept away by someone who never saw
it was a feather. Skin ate, walked,
slept by itself, knew how to raise a
see-you-later hand. But skin felt
it was never seen, never known as
a land on the map, nose like a city,
hip like a city, gleaming dome of the mosque
and the hundred corridors of cinnamon and rope.

Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.
And skin remembers—silk, spiny grass,
deep in the pocket that is skin’s secret own.
Even now, when skin is not alone,
it remembers being alone and thanks something larger
that there are travelers, that people go places
larger than themselves.

It’s also awards-season out in Hollywood. Click here for a link to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ nominations for the best screen-style storytelling of the year. Recent history tends to support the theory that during difficult times, people go for stories that are dreamy and sweet; they long for La La Land, and a movie of the same name is winning all the big prizes lately. It’s up for a gazillion or so Oscars.  Romance and music and pretty people dancing under the stars – what’s not to enjoy? Personally, though, I’m a glutton for heartbreak, so I’m rooting for Manchester by the Sea to get it’s share of awards. Sorrow that soaks your bones, good people struggling to do their best, not always able to – I can’t seem to get enough of it. Or maybe it’s just the pacing of M-B-T-S – I like stories told slowly and quietly, stories that send me out of a theater thinking.

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Casey Afflect in Manchester by the Sea.

I’m also very pleased to see Fences up for some nominations – it was a great play. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but hey, Denzel Washington stars, and it’s always a pleasure to watch him give himself over to a character. Haven’t seen Moonlight yet, but I’m betting I’ll like it, too.

That’s it for me this time around. I’m not living in La La Land, but I’m not living in Manchester by the Sea, either. Just real Seattle, which will definitely do. And to illustrate why, here is a recent photo of a inspiring event in our neck of the woods.  The crowd, by the way, stretched for three miles.

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Bravo, Seattle!

 

 

The thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories.

Today Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.

Argh. (said in anguish, not pirate-ese)

Let us turn instead to Barack Obama, outgoing President, and consider the role of reading and writing in his life.

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Between granting last-minute pardons and a stirring farewell speech, the tallying up of legacy (six million net new jobs, 32 million uninsured Americans now with health care insurance, Wall Street reform, etc.) and a final stroll through the Rose Garden, President Obama sat down with NYT book critic Michiko Kakutani to talk about what books mean to him. What follows are excerpts from the transcript.

What made you want to become a writer?

I loved reading when I was a kid, partly because I was traveling so much, and there were times where I’d be displaced, I’d be the outsider. When I first moved to Indonesia, I’m this big, dark-skinned kid that kind of stood out. And then when I moved back from Indonesia to Hawaii, I had the manners and habits probably of an Indonesian kid.

And so the idea of having these worlds that were portable, that were yours, that you could enter into, was appealing to me.

… I think I rediscovered writing and reading and thinking in my first or second year of college and used that as a way to rebuild myself, a process I write about in “Dreams From My Father.”

That period in New York, where you were intensely reading.

I was hermetic — it really is true. I had one plate, one towel, and I’d buy clothes from thrift shops. And I was very intense, and sort of humorless. But it reintroduced me to the power of words as a way to figure out who you are and what you think, and what you believe, and what’s important, and to sort through and interpret this swirl of events that is happening around you every minute.

And so even though by the time I graduated I knew I wanted to be involved in public policy, or I had these vague notions of organizing, the idea of continuing to write and tell stories as part of that was valuable to me. And so I would come home from work, and I would write in my journal or write a story or two.

The great thing was that it was useful in my organizing work. Because when I got there, the guy who had hired me said that the thing that brings people together to have the courage to take action on behalf of their lives is not just that they care about the same issue, it’s that they have shared stories. And he told me that if you learn how to listen to people’s stories and can find what’s sacred in other people’s stories, then you’ll be able to forge a relationship that lasts.

But my interest in public service and politics then merged with the idea of storytelling.

Was writing partly a way to figure out your identity?

Yes, I think so. For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.

How has the speechwriting and being at the center of history and dealing with crises affected you as a writer?

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to see when I start writing the next book. Some of the craft of writing a good speech is identical to any other good writing: Is that word necessary? Is it the right word? Is there a rhythm to it that feels good? How does it sound aloud?

I actually think that one of the useful things about speechwriting is reminding yourself that the original words are spoken, and that there is a sound, a feel to words that, even if you’re reading silently, transmits itself.

It’s what you said in your farewell address about Atticus Finch, where you said people are so isolated in their little bubbles. Fiction can leap —

It bridges them.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

And then there’s been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head. [Laughter] Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.

What books would you recommend at this moment in time, that capture this sense of turmoil?

… one of the things I’m confident about is that, out of this moment, there are a whole bunch of writers, a lot of them young, who are probably writing the book I need to read. [Laughter] They’re ahead of me right now. And so in my post-presidency, in addition to training the next generation of leaders to work on issues like climate change or gun violence or criminal justice reform, my hope is to link them up with their peers who see fiction or nonfiction as an important part of that process.

We’re bombarded with information. Technology is moving so rapidly.

Look, I don’t worry about the survival of the novel. We’re a storytelling species.

I think that what one of the jobs of political leaders going forward is, is to tell a better story about what binds us together as a people. And America is unique in having to stitch together all these disparate elements — we’re not one race, we’re not one tribe, folks didn’t all arrive here at the same time.

What holds us together is an idea, and it’s a story about who we are and what’s important to us. And I want to make sure that we continue that.

• • • • •

As a lifelong reader and writer, I am cheered to learn the role of reading and writing and story in Obama’s life. I look forward to his next book. Meanwhile, he has given us writers a charge: to write the stories about who we are and what’s important to us; to write America.

You can read the whole interview transcription here.

Birds, Bees and Bumps in the Road

In February I will be in a group show at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery called The Birds and the Bees.  Lots of you know I was in a bike accident and lost the use of my right/write hand for a few months. I had agreed to take part in this show before the accident and thought that I would have to back out. But I started noodling around with my left hand and found that I could still make art.

Paschkis fracture-fraktur

It was odd: I could barely write out a grocery list, but I could paint or draw. The process was very slow but the awkwardness of it made it an adventure.

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I was inspired by fraktur: stylized Pennsylvania-German paintings, mostly from the 18th and 19th century. My wonky left handed drawing seemed a good fit with this art form.  I sent an image to the BACART gallery and asked if they would be open to my left handed self in place of my right handed self. Yes!

Paschkis fracture fraktur

Fraktur suits the Birds and Bees show because although the images are romantic they are also slightly askew.

Paschkis head-in-clouds fraktur
Some of the images are about the plight of love and some are about the pleasures of love.

Paschkis drawn-together fraktur

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Paschkis loves-arrow fraktur

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Valentine’s day can be alienating for single people so I also drew one fraktur for a happy person who is not part of a couple.

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What I learned from doing this work is that good things can come from dismal situations. The accident hurt and slowed me down, but that slowness allowed me to try something new. I was replenished.

Paschkis renewal-fraktur

Is there a word for the good things that can arise from bad situations? Perhaps sluck would suit: luck from something sucky. I welcome your linguistic suggestions.

The paintings for this show were done with gouache and ink on handmade cotton paper from India. I hope that if you are nearby you can take a ferry to BACART on Bainbridge Island for the opening on February 3, 6:00-8:00. You can see this work and the work of 14 other pollinators. The show will remain up until February 26.  Thanks.

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Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation

k-nielsen-poltarnees-coverWhen I was cleaning off my parents’ bookshelves, I came across a book, Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation, by Welleran Poltarnees. It was stashed between two larger art books. It must have been my mother’s, although I don’t remember her buying it. It was in a clear plastic bag with her name on it. Was my mother a fan of Nielsen’s work? She must have been. Like mother, like daughter.

I’ve been enamored of Kay Nielsen’s illustrations since I discovered them in my teens at my local bookshop. It was Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin (I bought it then and still have it). This was in the 70s, when illustrations of his were being re-popularized along with others of the “Golden Age of Illustration” such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

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Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation was issued by The Green Tiger Press in 1976. It is bound in hand-marbled paper. The interior is printed on heavy stock, with full color images tipped in. Along with both full and single color illustrations, there is commentary on the illustrations by Poltarnees, an autobiographical statement from 1939 and a 1945 interview by Jasmine Britton, the supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system at that time.

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It is clearly a labor of love. I understand why my mother kept it sealed in a plastic cover.

Although I loved Nielsen’s work, I never bothered to learn more about who he was. In fact, for many years I assumed Kay was a woman. Of course, now such research is simple to do if you have a computer and a blogpost to write.

Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886. He attended art schools in Paris, then moved to London in 1911. He became celebrated and successful for his wondrous, dramatic paintings in books such as Powder and Crinoline and Hansel and Gretel.

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My favorite book of his is East of the Sun West of the Moon,

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-lassie-and-her-godmother

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-of-whiteland

particularly the image below, which resonated with my angsty teenage soul.

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It surprised me to learn now that the illustrations I so admired were all produced between 1912 and 1925. He published one book in 1930. He moved twice to the United States, first in 1936, and again in the 50s after returning to Denmark. He worked for Disney for a few years, contributing to the “Ave Maria” and “Night on the Bald Mountain” sequences in “Fantasia”, where his influence is clear.

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night-on-bald-mountain

But his style fell out of favor after the second world war and there were long dry spells where he and his wife had to rely on assistance from friends.

Jasmine Britton arranged to have Nielsen paint a mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School in 1941.

k-nielsen-the-first-spring-mural

He painted another for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. His final work was a mural for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

He died in poverty and obscurity in 1957 at the age of 71. Services were held at the Wong Chapel. His wife died little over a year later.

Tastes change. Thank heavens that tastes change back again, and that the work of artists who were once considered out of fashion can be brought back for new viewers to appreciate. I found several sites with information about Kay Nielsen. If you want to learn more and see more wondrous images, I recommend this piece by Terry Windling.

Salaaming into Joy

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In the Christmas cards I’m sending out this year, I’ve been asking friends, “Who knows what 2017 will bring?” I don’t know the answer. Weather sites all say it’s going to be a hard winter. So do the opinion pages of the New York Times.

We’re all a bit unsure, aren’t we? A bit worried? More than a bit? Here are my two recommendations for facing the year ahead:

First, read a poem about winter.

My favorite is John Clare’s Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter. But here is another poem I found recently, and I think I’ll read it as my family (fourteen people around my table) sits down to dinner on Christmas Eve. You can read (and listen to) many more winter poems here.

Winter Evening by Georg Trakl

When snow falls against the window,
Long sounds the evening bell…
For so many has the table
Been prepared, the house set in order.

From their wandering, many
Come on dark paths to this gateway.
The tree of grace is flowering in gold
Out of the cool sap of the earth.

In stillness, wanderer, step in:
Grief has worn the threshold into stone.
But see: in pure light, glowing
There on the table: bread and wine.

bread-and-wine

I know that the message in that poem might be about a higher kind of “gateway” than my own front door. Most likely, it’s religious (Heaven, anyone?) But I like its simpler message. Time to meet. Time to share. What about the grief which has “worn the threshold into stone”? Well, maybe we can step from it and enter the house, talk, feel generous again.  Feel worried, but also feel energetic.  There’s bread and wine on that table; on mine, there’s going to be smoked ham, brussels sprouts, tabbouleh, cheeses, hot cross buns, marion-berry pie and gingerbread.

Next, read a poem about summer.

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I’m going to let my heart tell my brain that, despite the puzzling and worrisome events of November 8th, 2016, in America, there is still room for hope. The sun will shine…

laundry-line

…it’s just up to me and millions of other people to help determine which direction it shines. I’ve got my New Year’s resolution figured out: to become more optimistic, more active and committed to helping light shine in the right places in the year ahead.

Here is a summer poem I like a lot. Word of warning: the formatting of the lines is a little wonky – it’s long-lined and there’s not quite room on this blog page – so lines are slightly broken up. Still, I wanted to share it. I love what the poet, Dick Allen, says – time to “air out the linen,” notice the light, slow down, hear and see and touch the real world, gather together. The ski bum in this poem believes we can “salaam into joy.” So do I.

If You Get There Before I Do by Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible–what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all–the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses–
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.


Isn’t that lovely? Dick Allen is part of a poetry movement called Expansive Poetry – you can read more about it here. He’s a storyteller – and I’m going to work to figure out how to tell more stories through poetry this next year. I’m going to try to be more creative, and more active politically. How about you? Are you reading this and feeling like there might be a place for you that “love has kept protected”?  Tell all the skeptics, bigots, critics right now: What Dick Allen said — you’re allowed to go there. And as Georg Trakl said, “In stillness, wanderer, step in.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2017 to all the readers of Books Around the Table!

[P.S. It’s Poetry Friday today and Buffy Silverman is hosting the round-up at Buffy’s Blog. Head over there to see what other people have posted.)

carl-larsson

Snow on the ground….

2017

…flowers on the horizon.

wildflower-field-at-farm

 

RING THE BELLS

Seventy-year old rocker Patti Smith sang at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize induction this earlier this month. She chose to sing Dylan’s It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall, but she had a rough go at it. As Patti writes in the New Yorker, she had totally prepared, but when the time came to deliver the lyrics, she was overcome by the momentous occasion and the thought of the luminous laureates who had come before and, though she could feel the lyrics inside herself, she could not pull them out. She started over. But, as she writes, it never got easier.

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Watch her performance. It is raw and authentic. Though the lyrics are imperfect, she delivers the song. Her stumbles went to the heart of what the song is about.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony

Of course writing and illustrating books are not performance art. Our process allows an attempt at perfection with countless revisions of text, and – especially since the advent of digital art – endless dinking with the illustrations.

So I’m thinking about Patti Smith’s performance more in terms of navigating life than in creating a picture book.

Here we are in the thick of the holidays with their expectation of perfection: the perfectly decorated perfect tree, the perfect feast just like Mom used to make, perfect gifts tied up with perfect bows. And I think we can learn from Patti Smith’s experience: prepare the best we can and trust the song will come through.

As Leonard Cohen writes eloquently in 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.

*****

Happy holidays to all our BATT readers. Here’s to a New Year full of music and good stories and light. Lots of beautiful light.

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P.S. Bob Dylan did not attend his ceremony, but he sent a letter. You can read that here: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-speech.html

First Light Thoughts: Paul Fleischman

I have been lucky enough to illustrate two books written by Paul Fleischman: Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal and First Light, First Life. The writing in them is gem-like: much information is compressed into something brilliant. Each word matters. Today Paul is a guest blogger, writing about how the many strands in his writing developed from his life.  The article shows how his writing is infused with more than you notice at first. It’s like a soup broth that has been made of many ingredients. You can no longer see all of the ingredients when the broth is done, but you can taste them.

first-light-cover

Here is Paul’s essay. For more of his writing go to  www.paulfleischman.net.

………………………………………………..

With its braiding together of creation motifs from around the world, First Light, First Life might seem to have been rushed into print to counter the nationalism that’s erupted into political life.  If only my crystal ball were that clear.  In truth the book came from far in my past, and all our pasts.

“A man is known least to himself,” wrote Cicero.  The same holds true for our cultures.  Immersed in them, we can’t get an objective view and tend toward thinking they’re universal, or should be.  Many are the societies whose name for themselves means “the people.”  I accepted unthinkingly the white, upper-middle class world of Santa Monica, California that I grew up in.  We were “the people,” our lifeways confirmed by the programs we watched on TV.  Everyone lived in the suburbs, didn’t they?  But then I became aware of alternate possibilities.

They arrived through the air.  At eleven years old, I received a shortwave radio.  Suddenly my world’s boundaries shot outward.  My classmates got their news from Walter Cronkite; I got mine from the BBC, Radio Peking, Radio Australia.  I listened to the latest Beatles hits on KRLA but also to the pulsing, odd-sounding scales of music from the Middle East.  Each station was its country’s chamber of commerce and culture.  I heard programs from Norway in praise of saunas and Radio South Africa’s repeated explanations of the many benefits of apartheid.  English was one tongue among many here.  Listening to languages I didn’t understand showed me the purely musical side of words, something that would inform my writing style decades in the future.  Every house should have a shortwave.

Paul and his shortwave radio

Paul and his shortwave radio

And so it was that in high school I began slipping into churches for the first time in my life and sampling their services.  I watched my neighbors and did what they did, fumbling to find the hymn that was being sung, dropping down onto the kneeler when they did.  The same impulse must have led me to attend my first folk dance.  The small room was packed with college students dancing in lines to music from Bulgaria, Israel, Sweden, French Canada.  The songs were in 4/4 rhythm, then 7/8, then 13/16, some played on instruments I’d never heard.  I knew none of the steps, but I was hooked.

Though I concentrated on English and history in college, I found myself studying mythology and folklore on the side.  I memorized Greek myths, filling the hole left by my secular youth.  I pored over the bizarre customs and religions in The Golden Bough, James George Frazier’s tour of the world we’d all come from.  And then came one of those right-book-at-the-right-time moments: opening Patterns of Culture by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, a portrait of the differing values encouraged by the consensus-minded Pueblo Indians, the belligerent Dobu of New Guinea, and the reputation-obsessed Kwakiutl of British Columbia.  For the first time I felt I had a view from above of my own society and its heavy weighting toward individualism and competition.

I finished college in multi-cultural Albuquerque.  Living there again years later, I attended the right party at the right time, during which a woman appeared with a loop of string and did the opening move of cat’s cradle.  She held it out to the man beside her and though none of us had played this string game since grammar school, he remembered the next move.  The string came to me.  I was surprised that I remembered as well.  The woman I turned to had grown up in Nepal.  Amazingly, she too knew the next move.  Though we’d come from many places, it was as if we’d had the same childhood.

These many tributaries flowed into Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal, a weaving of Cinderella variants from around the world into a single strand, a testament to diversity as well as the commonality of the human condition.  That book in turn led to First Light, First Life.  Cinderella’s story is folklore, but creation accounts are something more.  Believing or not believing them matters.  What matters for me is the larger truth: that our beliefs vary widely and that the culture around us is only one square in the quilt.  And what a marvelous, many-colored quilt it is.  Children are never too young to learn this.

The same goes for adults.  The urge toward group identity and exclusion of others is strong.  Borders, walls, and cultural superiority have always been an easy sell.  It’s easy as well to see where these lead when stoked: to intolerance, scapegoating, war, genocide.  Gaining altitude and perspective has never been more vital.  Books, like hot air balloons, can lift us above the walls we’ve built around ourselves.  I salute the writers who taught me to see beyond borders, and the teachers who brought me their books.