Category Archives: Children’s Book Critique Group Blog

Sniffing Around for a Story

While I am waiting for inspiration to strike and the next project to catch my attention, I find it helps to clean my studio. There, deep in a file drawer, I dug up these six illustrations: a sort of To Do List that aims to get your creative tail wagging.

It is often said that advice you give others is advice you need to hear. This is offered in that spirit.

I know BTC (Butt To Chair) is necessary, but regular hours at your desk are not the only hours that count.

Consider the impressionist painter Claude Monet. One day he was sitting in a green chair under a blossoming apple tree in his garden at Giverny. A neighbor came by and said, “Monsieur Monet, I see you are resting.”

“No, no,” answered Monet, “I am working.”

The next day when the neighbor walked by, Monet had set up his easel and was painting away. The neighbor said, “Monsieur Monet, I see you are working.”

“You are wrong, my friend,” said Monet. “Now I am resting.”

I envy Monet this overlap of work and rest. But I expect it was easier to achieve 120 years ago when the only interruption was an occasional neighbor walking by. These days, distractions are innumerable. So here’s my advice to myself: park it AND unplug. Whether you sit on a green chair in a beautiful garden or a worn chair in a Seattle studio, turn off the phone and email and texts etc. and give the work the time it deserves. BTC. There is no substitute. BTC means you show up daily, stay on task, and follow where your mind leads.

I love that there is a word for this in German: sitzfleisch, and also in Yiddish: yechas.

Does anyone keep a writer’s notebook anymore? I have a shelf full of past years’ notebooks, but these days I capture ideas in the NOTES section of my phone. Though I no longer keep a daily journal, I am still dedicated to recording story bits as they appear. Experiences, observations, memories; if it rings your story bell, write it down. Which reminds me of writer Brenda Guiberson’s advice to pay attention to the little hairs on the back of your neck. When they stand up, you have story material. Tell Siri to put it in NOTES.

Julie Larios once taught a class in the art of the flaneur. It was great practice in tuning in. She encouraged us to collect anything that engenders a writing response: photos, memories, questions, confusions, reactions to reading, stories held in objects, candy wrappers, newspaper clippings, feelings, fast-written lists. It’s all fodder, the puzzle pieces that may assemble as a story.

Humans are story people, readers as well as writers. Think back to the books you loved and figure out why they mattered to you. Then weave those qualities into your own work. For instance, my favorite childhood book was Betty McDonald’s Nancy and Plum about two orphaned sisters. I like to think some of the push and pull of sisterhood as well as the abiding sisterly love that is in Nancy and Plum shows up in my Zelda and Ivy series. It can be helpful to look back at old photographs and home movies to help remember the child you were.

I think it was Peter Sagal on NPR who said he chose his activities for their anecdotal value, planning ahead so he’d have interesting stuff to talk about. Why not? Research and adventures feed the story mill. Plus they can be entertaining and intriguing and often humorous. Full of story potential.

Give up on conformity. Don’t limit your imagination with the fear of acceptability. Receive with gratitude anything your imagination serves up: be it beautiful, ugly, absurd, outrageous or excessive. You can always revise later.

Lots of mistakes. Think of the Wright brothers and all their failed experimenting. Let yourself fail so that you can fly. You’ve probably heard the story retold in Art and Fear about the ceramics teacher who divided his students into two groups at the beginning of the semester. Students in the ‘quality’ group each needed to produce one perfect pot to get an ‘A’. Those in the ‘quantity’ group were graded by the weight of all the pieces they created, (i.e. 50 pounds = an ‘A’). Turned out (hah!) the students who made the most pieces also created the most successful ones, meaning they produced more schlock as well as more brilliant work.

WE SAID GOOD-BYE to our sweet Izabella on September 14. For sixteen and a half years she shared our lives, including hanging out with me while I worked. My students once gave me a pad of post-its printed: “Laura Kvasnosky…writing to the tune of dog snores,” which was often true. She helped create books in many ways: providing support and comfort and inspiration, and posing as a wolf for illustrations in Little Wolf’s First Howling. We are so grateful for all the time we had with her.

Rest in peace, sweet pup.

Albert the Fix-it Man

My father, Albert Ernest Paschkis, died at the end of September at the age of 94.

He was born in Berlin in 1928. His family left Germany in 1933 to escape the rising power of Hitler. They lived in Italy, Switzerland and Holland before coming to the USA in 1938. He spoke 5 languages when he was 10 years old!

He arrived in New York City and saw CARS everywhere. For the rest of his life he loved cars.

And motorcycles.

And bicycles.

He became a mechanical engineer. He had a long work life where he invented test and measurement devices and solved all kinds of problems. He built things and fixed things at work.

And he built things and fixed things at home – including the house we grew up in. He was often making things in his basement workshop, or fixing the cars. Everyone around knew they could turn to him for help.

In 2008 my sister Janet wrote a book about him called Albert the Fix-It Man.

In the book Albert is part of a community. He is never too busy or too tired to help anyone.

In the late 1980’s my father designed a studio/addition to my house. He came out and built it together with my husband, friends and with me. I sat in that studio and illustrated this book. I am sitting in it now writing this blog!

There were similarities and differences between real Albert and the character Albert. In the book Albert is short, bearded and almost roly-poly.

In real life he was tall and thin.

In the book he ended every day with a bowl of corn flakes.

That was true. He always saved the last sip of milk for the cat.

In the book he lives alone. In real life he was married to Marcia Iliff Paschkis for 72 years. They were a team. They had four children, a niece and nephew, and a large and loving extended family.

In real life Albert invented things as well as fixed them- including an elliptical bicycle gear, a long lasting lightbulb, and a tide clock that shows the tide and time on the clock face.

In the book he builds community through fixing things. Truly true. In his life he also built community by building and living in interracial housing, by counseling draft resisters during the Vietnam war, and by leading workshops in nonviolent problem solving at Graterford Prison.

The character Albert gets a cold and all of the many people that he has helped get together to help him. They bring him delicious food and he recovers.

In real life many of the people who knew him and loved him gathered together to remember him last week. There was a Quaker memorial service at Foulkeways where he lived, and where my mother still lives. Following the memorial there was a gathering at Gwynedd Friends Meeting where he had been a member for over 60 years. The family made delicious food – homemade soup, bread and cheese, gugelhopf and lebkuchen. Family and friends connected, drawn together by our love for him.

A few days after the memorial I returned to Gwynedd Friends Meeting. The room where we had gathered after the memorial had reverted to its usual function: a preschool. (I attended preschool there in 1961.) Gwynedd Friends School is a wonderful thriving place now. I read Albert the Fix-it Man to the current crop of bright eyed preschoolers.

I hope that I can live up to the ideals of generosity, kindness and inventiveness that my father quietly exemplified. And I hope that telling his story to kids will carry his spirit forward.

written by Julie Paschkis, November 2022

Contemplation vs. Stimulation

All writers know what a tug-of-war the writing life is – you’re never quite sure whether to prioritize stimulation or contemplation. With the former, you experience the world; with the latter, you make sense of it. During the down time it gets real: cook meals, clean dishes.

I’ve been both off-the-grid (on an island near Martha’s Vineyard) and deep into the grid (NYC) for the last two weeks. The  island has rowboats, it has sheep in the meadow, it has dirt paths leading to beaches with bleached-white whale bones. It has no commercial enterprises. None. Meanwhile, on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, several dozen Venezuelan immigrants were being declared victims of a crime (perpetrated by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis), so I guess “off-the-grid” is only true up to a point. But in general, the vibe on this particular island is non-vibe. Days spent in contemplation.

New York City, indisputably on-grid, has a 3-story (!!!) M&M souvenir shop, outside of which the question bubbles up: How many M&M souvenirs does any one person need? Key chains, magnets, t-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, wind-up dancing M&M’s, M&M flashlights, M&M phone covers, M&M sheets and pillow cases, M&M pajamas, M&M stadium blankets, M&M onesies. At this level, NYC is a 180-degree turn from the world of the island — it’s ALL commercial enterprise, 24/7.

On the other hand, NYC also has Broadway (both On- and Off- I saw Tom Stoddard’s new play Leopoldstadt and the musical Book of Mormon) and a public library guarded by Patience and Fortitude, two lions sculpted from pink Tennessee marble.  In the streets of the city, you hear many languages spoken by people from many countries. Though the island I was on near Martha’s Vineyard is calm and green, the chaos and energy and diversity of NYC appeal to me just as much. City days aren’t days of contemplation but days of stimulation. Is there anything quite like the thrill of a curtain rising in a majestic Broadway theater?

As I write this, I’m just north of Boston in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s a smallish blue-collar town. Lots of ponds around, lots of autumn trees currently flaming yellow, flaming orange, and flaming red. Lobster roll restaurants, with “lobster” pronounced “lahbstuh.” The big booming Atlantic Ocean rolling in nearby. Also nearby is Salem, famous for its witch hunts (the real hunts, not the political ones.) Both Lynn and Salem are getting ready for Halloween, putting skeletons on their porches, hanging spider webs rather than hanging “witches,” buying pumpkins to carve. There are no sheep in the meadow, no pink marble lions, no dancing M&M’s. But there are cardinals at the bird feeder and someone paddle-boarding across the pond. This is life at the normal level, the day-to-day level, the cook-and-clean level. And though Lynn is neither off-grid idyllic nor on-grid frenetic, that is, not the stuff of a writerly life, it’s where my daughter and her family live, so it’s perfect for now. I’ve contemplated, I’ve been stimulated. Time now to be with people I love.

Here are half-a-dozen links I think you, as readers and writers, will like:

  1. A video game based on Emily Dickinson’s poetry. What??? https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/you-can-now-play-emilyblaster-a-video-game-inspired-by-emily-dickinsons-poetry-180980305/
  2. “Voices thought lost to history…” An imaginative Irish storytelling site: https://www.virtualtreasury.ie/hidden-stories
  3. Bestselling authors describe how they organize their bookshelves. https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/28/book-organizing-authors/
  4. Ever find anything tucked into the pages of a library book? https://www.npr.org/2022/08/02/1114851706/library-notes-books-collection
  5. Are you in a reading slump? Here’s a solution: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/07/11/reading-slump-help/
  6. Have you ever bought a book based on the blurbs endorsing it? If yes, this might explain why: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/13/killer-crabs-and-bad-leprechauns-how-the-best-book-blurbs-excite-our-brains

It’s horrible to read

It’s not too early for Halloween, is it? My collection of images featuring books in art has plenty of skulls and skeletons to go around.

This looks like something for a heavy metal band but the DA in the bottom right is for Dicky Artwork. Check out his work here.

It’s hard to see exactly what this skull is reading, but a likely guess is The Book of the Dead. Wondering if he’s a little boy skeleton opening a birthday present.

This Catrina is reading about her creator Jose Guadalupe Posada. An interesting detail is the serpent figure reading over her shoulders which I assume is a reference to Mesoamerican history. There are a lot of layers going on here. There’s more information in this National Geographic article.

A skull, a zombie or just a bald guy with sunglasses sinking into a gruesome book?

Is this guy clacking out a book about a culture of guns and death in America?

I’ve glanced at this illustration a number of times, mostly noticing the tiny people struggling to scale this mountain of knowledge. I never noticed before what was actually at the top.

Illustration by AJ Frena

Skeletons populate a lot of AJ Frena’s work. I wonder if this woman is being bound up by the book or by outside forces as she sits reading immersed and unaware.

Immersed and unaware, maybe that’s the real source of fear in reading. Lost in a book and not noticing what’s coming…

… until it’s too late.

Calendar Link

Hi All –

I just posted about Crocodiles, Crockodockles and Calendars and forgot to include a link.

Please CLICK HERE for a link to this year’s calendar. Thank you all for your vigilance in finding the missing link!

Julie Paschkis

Crocodockle

For the past six years I’ve made a calendar which I sell to raise money for the ACLU.

This year’s image includes a crocodockle snapping at the American Eagle.

I have never seen a crocodile in real life, but they populate my imagination.

On the Go , collage, J. Paschkis

I call mine crocodockles because they are inaccurate representations of the noble lizard Crocodylus.

Crocodockles can be scary

Illustration from Artist’s Book ALPHABABBLE by J.Paschkis, bound by Claudia Cohen, Two Ponds Press

but they like to go to parties.

Collage, J. Paschkis

They can help point the way

Ms. Weathervane, ink and gouache, J. Paschkis

or lie below the surface unhelpfully.

Voyage, Ink and Gouache, J. Paschkis

Some crocodockles like eating chickens

and some crocodockles prefer the taste of words.

Illustration from ZigZag, by J. Paschkis coming soon from Enchanted Lion Book

If you would like to order a crocodilian calendar please click here. They cost $15 each: all $15 goes to the ACLU.

Hurry before they are all snapped up!

Aurinko by J.Paschkis, ink and gouache

Thank you.

Julie Paschkis

p.s. I am not the only crocodile enthusiast. Here is a link to a wonderful blog post by Andrea Immel about crocodiles in children’s books.

What Crocodiles Eat for Dinner Besides Clocks, Pirate Captains, and Elephants’ Children

GOOD USE OF EXISTING MATERIAL

In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this is simplified MacGyvering, done on the fly, like substituting a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew.

MacGyver was a television series about an undercover government agent who preferred to fight crime with ingenious feats of engineering rather than lethal force.

Pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve reborn as a winter hat, certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use: all qualify for GUOEM points.

This post itself should earn me some points. It’s a topic I first explored ten years ago on the now-defunct blog of the Vermont College Children’s Writing MFA program faculty. So meta.

My beloved Aunt Norma belongs in the Good Use of Existing Material Hall of Fame. She was a recycler before recycling was a thing; a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise to hold chicken breasts which she defrosted on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more milk cartons.

Even her Fourth of July party featured old milk cartons. It included a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.

In my experience, Good Use of Existing Material applies to making picture books, too. The six Zelda and Ivy books are rooted in my childhood as the middle child of five – sibling rivalry is my God-given existing material. More recently, Ocean Lullaby grew from a beach singalong with a grandson on my lap, when I looked out and wondered how the sea-animal families settle down at night. Even on vacation, existing material is waiting to be shaped into stories.

Your own particular existing material is your take on it all – what grabs your attention, what makes you laugh and shiver and cry. The task is to identify the materials we have to work with – including the metaphors, the details and even the individual words – and then to use them ingeniously, with the snick of a key in the lock, to create the story.

Kinda like Macgyver.

– LMK

Country Fairs

Country Fair Screen+Shot+2021-02-23+at+3.25.59+PM

Caldecott Honor recipient Elisha Cooper’s first book, Country Fair.

This last Wednesday my husband and I went to the Northwest Washington Fair. It’s not the fancy State Fair, but to my mind it’s the perfect size. It’s small enough to see everything without getting worn out, but big enough to have all the magic ingredients: amusement rides, 4-H kids and their animals (horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits), vintage cars on display, hand-sewn quilts, knitted mittens and hats, art work, instructional displays about bee hives, perfectly canned peaches and string beans, flowers and berries from local gardens, kids’s Lego collections, kettlecorn, BBQ everything, cotton candy, gyros, corn on the cob. The Whatcom County Dairy Women sell ice cream. At various small stages there are local clog dancers and magicians and musicians. In the grandstand area, rodeo events. Perfection.

I took some photos and will share them below. Five are of kids’ displays – from vegetable “critters,” to instructions about how to play marbles. And two are of the quilts my husband and I voted for to win the “Viewers’ Choice” ribbon.

During the pandemic, the Fair was cancelled. This is the first time the gates have been open since the summer of 2019, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It’s one of the highlights of my year (and I’ve written about it before here at BATT.) I feel like the county fair is my local Italian piazza or Mexican market – full of life, full of tastes, textures, smells, sounds, and sights that anchor me to a certain world. In this case it’s not a distant, exotic world but a sweet, familiar one.

If you’re a children’s writer or illustrator and you’re reading this post, consider going to you local country fair to see what kids are passionate about. You’ll find that they’re interested in everything under the sun. And if you’re interested in one of those things, too (soap, honey, Ferris Wheels, Hot Wheels, photographs of dog snouts, the hidden talents and/or fears of chickens) – well, there you go: you’ll have come up with your next book

I sent this photo to my brother, who was school Marble King when we were young. And kids still love marbles! Hooray!
I did not know this! Chickens recognize faces. You learn something every day.
Who can resist an orange octopus?
The traditional quilt we voted for…
…and the wildly modern quilt.

Hope the rest of your summer brings many delights!

Julie Larios

Heat Wave

Seattle is in the thick of a heat wave. Here are some images to make things even warmer.

Sun by Brian Wildsmith

Brian Wildsmith’s sun is powerful, yet benevolent.

Antonio Frasconi made a Book of Many Suns in 1955. Here are nine Frasconi woodcuts of suns. Each small sun has a large personality.

Enough sun you say? There is always more sun.

More, More, More by Julie Paschkis 2018

Here are some images that are not specifically of suns but are hot with color and imagery.

Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire show the making of the world in their book of Norse Gods and Giants. A volcano erupts. Hot.

Joohee Yoon shows the beginning of the world in her illustration of Walt Whitman’s Hummingbird from the book Beastly Verse. With a controlled palate the world is erupting with heat and light.

There is more volcanic heat on Wm Steig’s Rotten Island. Steig was a master of beastliness including beastly heat

…and beastly beasts.

Is the heat making you feel beastly? Maybe you feel like this She Goat or Bear, from a late 19th centurty Russian Lubok.

Cool off with an early morning bike ride! Here’s a jaunty cyclist illustrated by Mariana Malhão in the book Uma Rosa Na Tromba de um Elefante by António José Forte.

A jump in the water is another good option. Orlando the Marmalade Cat, by Kathleen Hale shows how. The gentle drawing and the lithographic process make the water soft and inviting.

Whatever you do – keep cool!

A rose for Mary Poppins: thorns and All

Back in the day, growing up, devouring books and dreaming of writing one of my own someday, authors didn’t do school visits or post on social media. Certainly none lived next door to me. How could they be anything as mundane as a “neighbor”? As far as I knew, all authors were either A) dead or B) living amazing lives in a mysterious somewhere else. They certainly weren’t living in Wenatchee, Washington. No, they were wiser, funnier, more interesting and just all around more wonderful than other humans.

A couple months ago I went to California for my 50th college reunion and was reminded of the first time I met a real live author. Not only an author, but one of the more exalted among them for me–namely PL Travers,  author of the Mary Poppins books I’d loved as a child. I was so excited to learn that she would be visiting my dorm and having dinner with the students. Scripps was small, only about 400 students, and each dorm had sit-down dinners in small dining halls. I’m not sure how it came about but of the seven students at the table, I was seated right next to Ms. Travers. 

I couldn’t believe my luck and the second I sat down I turned to her and began to gush about how much I loved her books. I had a million questions that I was sure Travers would be eager to discuss with me. Sadly, she was not eager at all. In fact, she could barely muster a response. She was clearly not interested in discussing anything with any of the young women seated at the table. She ate beside us in rather forbidding silence and left as soon as she finished her meal.

I was crushed and rapidly revising my idea of how wonderful authors were. My one small consolation from that evening? As I finished my dinner, much more subdued than when I’d started it, I began to help the student server with clearing the table. And that’s when I realized that the heavy glass salt and pepper shakers was missing. No one could find them.

Had Ms. Travers taken it? Was it a magical sign of some sort, like the tokens the Banks children would discover after every Mary Poppins adventure, even as Poppins would deny they’d had any such escapade? Or (perhaps even more exciting to my then 21-year-old imagination) was the famous PL Travers a secret klepto? 

The vanished salt shaker somehow redeemed the evening for me. But it wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me to do a little research on Ms. Travers.

Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia, she changed her name Pamela Lyndon Travers later in life. Travers was her father’s first name and for some reason her friends called her Pamela. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times she used initials in her pen name because “so often very sentimental books are written by women, supposedly for children, and I didn’t want to be lumped together with those.”

Her frosty behavior to me was totally in keeping with her character (and, of course, the character of Mary Poppins). But it was substantially less child-friendly in real life. Never married, Travers was involved in various relationships including a liaison at 25 with a 57-year-old Irish playwright and various other affairs with both men and women. On her own at age 40 she decided to adopt a child and was offered twin baby boys, but she couldn’t decide between them. The children’s grandfather suggested that she take both: “They are only small.” But Travers took just one; never told the boy that he was adopted or had a twin brother. At 17, her son discovered the truth and according to various accounts Travers’ lie put an intense strain on their relationship. Both boys ended up alcoholics, as was Travers’ father—a failed banker (unlike the responsible, successful banker, Mr.Banks in the Poppins books.)

She had a mystical streak, studying Zen Buddhism, mythology and fairy tales. According to an article by Joseph Hone, the older brother of the boy Travers adopted and who later got to know Travers, “after she adopted Camillus, she occupied herself with her increasingly difficult ‘son’ while looking for answers to both their problems by immersing herself in arcane philosophies, fairytales, myths, legends, dodgy health cures and Jungian panaceas. She was encouraged by an assortment of usually charlatan gurus and sages, most notably the caviar-guzzling, Armagnac-tippling Russian mystic Gurdjieff, whom she consulted in his exotic Paris flat. He told her that she should have a daily enema and charged for the advice.”

Her last book, “What the Bee Knows” is a collection of essays included her reflections on astrology, crop circles, reincarnation and journalists who ask “stupid” questions. She might have added students and aspiring authors to that list.

These days Scripps is making more of the brief time Travers was there in 1970. After I told the Scripps librarian about my meeting with Travers, she shared the letter Travers wrote to the college president after her visit. I have to say she sounded a lot more pleasant than she was in real life (you can see how cantankerous she could be in this New York Times article).

I thought you’d enjoy seeing her letter, small typos and all. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Maybe it has to do with shared thorniness, but I also learned that Travers adored roses and one of her great wishes was to have a rose named after herself or Mary Poppins.

She asked only that her rose be “pink, fragrant, healthy, vigorous, enthusiastic, happy, pleasant, easy to live with, adaptable, always in bloom, readily and willingly cut for the home, long lasting in the vase, prolific, long seasoned, bright, cheerful, and if possible, gentle, wise, and completely honest.”

A California rose breeder, Dr. Dennison Morey, granted her wish.  And the three rose breeds that resulted, are planted in the Scripps rose garden. However, so much time has passed since they were planted, the college is still trying to identify which ones they are.

If you’d be interested in learning more about PL Travers herself and how these roses came about check out these posts by Lina Slavova (clearly a huge Mary Poppin fan) from the Mary Poppins Effect blog: here and here.