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.
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.
At the coming of spring, I go from mostly INSIDE myself (blanket, book, sofa, the smell of hot cocoa, and a mental image of the personal library. above) to mostly OUTSIDE myself (garden, seed packets, blue sky, the smell of fresh dirt.) Sweet peas (pretty) have been planted; raspberries (yumm) have been transplanted (fingers crossed); sugar snap peas (yumm again) are in; tulips, grape hyacinths and forsythia are blooming under pink cherry and white almond trees. Even my daphne bushes survived the big freezes (multiple) of Winter 2022.
As the weather warms and flowers bloom, I’m inclined to share more. So here are a few links, and my reasons (other than red tulips in bloom) for sharing them:
I love the work of local photographer Edmund Lowe (see photo of the Skagit Valley daffodil fields, above.) When I look at his photos I not only see his world, I also hear it, smell it, taste it, touch it. All art is a conjuring of the senses, isn’t it? No matter the medium (including writing!) we want to link our bodies to the story. Here is a link to his website.
I want to share Julie Danielson’s examination of Corinna Luykens and her 2017 book, The Book of Mistakes. At Danielson’s blog “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.” Luykens makes an artist’s case for having fun and letting go of anxieties, specifically those that involve making mistakes with your work. An accidental smudge, a disproportionate head? Serendipitous mistakes, says Luykens, often take you exciting places. And if you’re interested in children’s literature in general, check out Danielson’s blog . It’s not to be missed.
3. Another sharable favorite: Du Iz Tak by Carson Ellis. This is my kind of book, 100%. How did I manage to miss a careful reading of Carson Ellis in all my years with kids books? Her work is relatively new to me, and I’ve had a ball reading it (Home is the most popular, I think, but don’t miss In the Half Room.) Imagine being a fly on the wall when Du Iz Tak was pitched to its editor: “Well, it’s a story told completely in a made-up bug language. No, there’s isn’t a translation; no, there isn’t any explanation. It’s all just bug gibberish.” Of course, the read-aloud inflections and the illustrations provide clues about what these strange words mean. Many picture books stay soft and quiet, but this one makes you laugh out loud. Here’s a link to the Kirkus Review, which locates a deeper meaning. Personally, I’m satisfied with the wordplay.
4. From the Archives: a fascinating look at the life and work of Ursula LeGuin, by Julie Phillips, in the New Yorker a few days after Le Guin died. “An author’s business is lying,” she wrote for the introduction of The Left Hand of Darkness. Reade this article and see if you agree. If you already love Le Guin, I recommend her book of essays, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters.
A bit of trivia: The photographer and all three of the authors mentioned in #1-4 live/lived in the Pacific Northwest – Oregon and Washington, west of the Cascade Range. Is it the fresh air we breathe here that keeps our imaginations stimulated? I say yes.
6. Not from the Pacific Northwest but from a part of the world we all have our minds on: the Ukrainian illustrator Maria Prymachenko (several spellings but Wikipedia goes with this one.) Thanks to Jama Kim Rattigan, a Facebook friend, for the heads-up – Jama has been posting many pictures by Ukrainian artists. Below is a piece of Prymachenko’s art. She worked mainly in embroidery and ceramics.
I know we’re holding in our hearts all the people who are suffering in that part of the world right now. Please do what you can to help them – perhaps a donation to UNICEF, for the children?
[Update from Wikipedia; “The Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, where several works by Prymachenko were held, was burned during the ongoing 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the supposed loss of 25 of her works. However, according to a social media post by journalist Tanya Goncharova, local people were able to save some of Prymachenko’s works from the fire. According to an interview with Prymachenko’s great-granddaughter, Anastasiia Prymachenko, in The Times, ten of her works were saved by a local man who entered the museum whilst it was on fire.” ]
I am a big fan of Dolly Parton. And not just because of the video she made while getting her Covid shot to the tune of her song Jolene, lyrics reworked to “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine…” Under her fancified outer self beats a heart that’s true.
In 1995 she launched a formidable effort to raise literacy in Sevier County, Tennessee, where she grew up: The Imagination Library. Since its inception, this book-gifting program has mailed monthly high-quality books to children from birth to age five, no matter their family’s income.
The program grew quickly and now serves children in the US, Canada, UK, Australia and Ireland. As of January 2022, 174 million books had been gifted. Wow.
The books are chosen by committee and purchased in wholesale agreement with Penguin Random house. My sister Kate and I were lucky to have our book SQUEAK! included in the Imagination Library. And this year the Dollywood people created an English/Spanish edition of ISLAND LULLABY for distribution.
As you probably know, Dolly’s main gig is not literacy. She is a memorable performer and remarkable composer, known for having written Jolene and And I Will Always Love You on the same day. A ten-time Grammy winner, Dolly says, “I take myself more serious as a songwriter than anything else. I always say I’ve written about 3,000 songs and three good ones, but I just love the joy of writing.”
Now Dolly writes books, too. Monday, March 7, she and author James Patterson co-released Run, Rose, Run, a novel about navigating the music industry in Nashville. The previous Friday she had released her latest studio album with the same title.
I think it was on an American Idol show where she was the guest coach that I heard her advise a contestant, “Figure out who you are and do it on purpose.” That has sure worked for Dolly.
A while ago I wrote about a book a friend showed me from her childhood.
This post is about a book that another friend showed me from her childhood, but this book brought back flashes of memory as soon as I saw it. It was a book from my childhood as well, long forgotten.
ANT and BEE: An Alphabetical Story for Tiny Tots (Book I) by Angela Banner, illustrated by Bryan Ward, first published in the U.K. in 1950.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of recognition that happens when you come upon a book that you haven’t seen in maybe, fifty years. It is like the way a certain scent will suddenly take you back to a long-ago visited place; little bells tinkling in the back of my brain announcing the arrival of an old friend.
The book is small – roughly 3 ½ x 4 inches – which suits it’s subject matter and adds to its charm. It is straightforward yet silly. Realistic yet completely implausible. But it is not cute. It maintains a dignity in spite of its diminutive size and subject. Maybe it’s the hats…
The opening endpaper states:
Ant and Bee is a progressive ABC written as a story with simple words, some of which are printed in red and some in black. The words in red are to be called out by the child when it has learned to spell them out and to pronounce them. A grown-up then completes the sentences by reading the words in black as soon as the words in red have been called out by the child. Encouraged by the grown-up, the child will soon learn the words which it must read before the story can progress. In this way, the child will feel an interest in helping to tell the story and will, at the same time, gain confidence in reading and building up a small vocabulary.
That’s a lot of instructions for such a small book. Apparently Banner wrote the book as a way to help her son learn to read. This probably helped sell the book in the ‘50s, but it seems a bit bossy for today’s grown-up readers.
Here is ANT.
And here is BEE.
They live in a CUP.
And so on. Here are more images that I particularly like.
I loved finding this book again. But do I love this book now because I liked it when I was young? Is it charming only because of nostalgia? And I wonder what I often wonder when I read a book published before 1980: Would it be published now?
Sometimes you don’t know the meaning of a picture book project until you are well into the work. So it was for our new book, SQUEAK!
The text and thumbnails were done and sketches well underway on a beautiful morning in Spring 2016 when insight struck. It hit during our docent group’s tour of Dunn Gardens, led by then-head gardener Zsolt Lehoczky.
As we headed out onto the Great Lawn – which is an important feature of this 100-year old Olmsted-designed estate garden – Zsolt noted the lush grass was pocked with gopher mounds. He explained that the rich soil attracts lots of worms and the worms attract the gophers.
I was walking beside fellow-docent Elizabeth Conlin. Under her breath, she murmured, “We’re all in this together.”
And I realized that’s what SQUEAK! is about. It’s the story of how, in a cause-and-effect way, a little mouse’s squeak can wake up all the animals in the meadows and mountains. “We’re all in this together.” Elizabeth’s comment became the epigraph for the book.
SQUEAK! itself caused a further effect: I have come to know Elizabeth better. It turns out this cause and effect mechanism is key to her way of being in the world. She writes:
“I was tickled about the meaning of SQUEAK! when you told me about it. We were standing outside the classroom and I think the wisteria was in bloom. I’ve thought about it often. I love the possibility of kids experiencing your book and realizing that every sound and every movement they make can reverberate far beyond their imaginings. I love the idea of children being exposed to that concept.
“We are, essentially, vibration. The only true choices we have are in how to use and direct our energy/vibrations. I became a Kundalini yoga teacher when I discovered that I have the ability to positively effect the people I come into contact with — that I could learn to do it better and more consistently with just my vibratory frequency.”
When you put a book out into the world, you really don’t know what the effect will be, much as the mouse in SQUEAK! has no idea his tiny utterance will awake an entire ecosystem. Books themselves are both a cause, and the result of a lot of effect.
•• • • • • • •
Next Monday evening, Sept. 16, at 5 pm, we will have the first public reading of SQUEAK! at Seattle’s University Bookstore. We plan a participatory reading. Everyone who comes can be part of the cause and effect of the story. The initial squeak will come from our two-year old grandson in his mouse suit. You are invited to get in on the fun. Plus, there will be snacks!
Note: Dunn Gardens is open through October and offers docented tours as well as ‘wanders.’ It is one of Seattle’s secret treasures. For more information about visiting: https://dunngardens.org/visiting-tours
A wonderful side benefit of judging the 2018 Margaret Wise Brown prize has been the opportunity to develop a sense of the state of picture books in 2018, based on the 200+ books that publishers entered.
One group that caught my eye are meta books – those that use the object of a book as part of the story. If you are familiar with Grover’s There’s a Monster at the End of This Book or, more recently, Herve Tullet’s Press Here, you know what I’m talking about.
The 2018 crop that I read had at least four that fit this interactive category. I think the most effective is Jon Agee’s The Wall in the Middle of the Book (Dial). The premise is that a brick wall divides the left and right hand pages.
Text tells us the wall protects the safe left side from the right. On each spread, there is one story on the left: initially about a little knight raising a ladder, and another on the right: a stack of fearsome animals and an ogre.
Then – oh no! – the water rises on the left side.
Luckily the scary ogre reaches over the wall and saves the little knight from drowning. “I’m actually a nice ogre,” he says. “And this side of the book is fantastic.” Meanwhile, on the now ocean-filled left side of the book, bigger fish eat big fish.
The great satisfaction is that expectations are flipped. Things are not as they seemed. And we get to watch the stories on each side of the wall as this change is accomplished. It says so much about walls.
Beware the Monster! by Michael Escoffier, art by Amandine Piu, (annick press), begins with a warning: “This book contains a monster with a great big appetite!”
The colorful monster proceeds to eat all the apples, then leaves, then trees, then cows.
Next spread: “Yikes. I think he’s spotted you. You’ve got to get away!” (Many of these books use the second person directive to draw in the child reader and escalate the drama. It’s kind of the picture book equivalent of theatre’s breaking the fourth wall.)
Next spread: “Here he comes! Close the book!” (This is a line used in many of these meta books. Of course the readers plunge onward, despite warnings.)
The monster moves in closer and closer as spreads whiz by. Luckily just when he’s about to eat the child reader he burps instead. Everything flies out of his mouth and he decides to take a nap, saying “I’ll take care of you later.”
Also written in second person is Nothing Happens in this Book by Judy Ann Sadler, art by Vigg, (Kids Can Press). This accumulative story is meta in its voice; the little guy on the cover has an ongoing one-sided discussion with the reader about what is going to happen in the book. Eventually he gathers up a bunch of stuff and distributes it to a wild assortment of beings.
As they march away in a fold-out page parade, he exclaims, “Everything happens in this book!” Another nice flip of expectations.
A red grosgrain ribbon bookmark is key to the story in Hungry Bunny by Claudia Reuda, (Chronicle Books). This one gives a nod to Press Here. For instance, it asks the reader to shake the book so some apples will fall off the tree, then blow away the leaves when the apples don’t fall.
The reader helps the bunny use his red “scarf” to climb up and get the apples. Bunny’s ride home in the wagon is helped by various physical movements of the book. Then the reader is asked to give Bunny a push through a die-cut hole so he can return to the burrow where his mom bakes apple pie. Of course the reader is offered a piece.
Makes sense that the dedication acknowledges the participatory nature of this book: “Bunny would like to dedicate this book to you, for all your help with the harvest. Also dedicated to children’s play.”
Every one of these examples uses the object of the book to boost interaction with the story. All of them engage the reader and listener in movement and response. I think it’s an interesting niche in our children’s book world, another tool we could add to our toolbelts.
Have you seen the meta mechanism used to good effect? Please chime in with other titles that use the object of the book to tell stories.
You never forget your first book sale. Mine was a book published over 20 years ago about the sounds a father and daughter hear on their walk home from school. It combines playing with sounds and a guessing game.
Let’s go the quiet way home.
Not by the dog who growls at the gate…
but the way where the kittens play.
Hush. Can you hear it?
Skittle, scattle, bat-and-claw.
Let’s go the quiet way home.
Not by the garbage men clanging the cans…
but the way where the lilies stand.
Hush. Can you hear it?
Hummmm, thrummm, dart-and-flee.
I’ve always loved reading this book to classes. Hush is a magic word. Somehow just saying it softly can make noisy, rustling kids go quiet and focus. I still read it for school visits, even though it’s long been out-of-print.
That was an early lesson that was pretty dismaying. Sometimes the books we struggle over, then sell to much celebration and hopeful expectations, go out-of-print. And it’s very rare that books come back from the OP grave.
But one day about two years ago, I got an unexpected e-mail from Purple House Press. They wanted to reissue The Quiet Way Home. The press specializes in bringing out-of-print picture books back into print. It was one of those lovely surprises you get along with the harder realities of being a published writer.
In fact, I’ve had the great good luck of now having three of my OP books revived in the last few years. Each book has had a it’s own quirky route back into print. After years of trying to get a more traditional publisher to republish it, The Christmas Crocodile,which was initially published by Simon & Schuster and illustrated by the great David Small, was picked by librarian Nancy Pearl as part of her Book Crush Rediscoveries series with Amazon. Twin Lions (an imprint of Amazon) reissued it two years ago with a lovely foreword by Nancy and a new cover.
Tickly Prickly, a concept book about how things feel to the touch, is being re-issued as a book for sight impaired kids. It’s another case of the publisher contacting me. (Yay!) It’s still in the works. This one won’t make me any money, the market is too small and such tactile books are too expensive to publish, but who cares. I’m excited to see how they bring a verse like:
Have you ever had a ladybug crawl on your finger? Tickly-prickly. Fly away quickly–
to life under a child’s fingertips. When book production gets underway, I’ll share more about it.
One fall day many years ago, when the wind was gusting and leaves, golden and red, cartwheeled across the street, I suddenly felt inspired to write an ode to the season. I was thinking of the kind of fulsome, simple poem that my father sometimes read to us. (When he wasn’t baffling us with things like The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.) I went home and wrote The Harvest in Our Hearts and it’s been part of my family’s Thanksgiving tradition ever since.
I’d like to share it with you along with a new painting that Julie Paschkis generously gave me permission to use. It’s a piece for a two-person show at the Seattle Art Museum’s café, TASTE, in May. Keep your eyes open for it!
Thanks to my fellow bloggers Julie Paschkis, Julie Larios, Margaret Chodos-Irvine and Laura Kvasnosky, and HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all who read our blog. You are all part of the harvest in my own heart.
The Harvest in Our Hearts
by Bonny Becker
It was the dawn of winter
and the table was set for feasting.
The silver was polished, the fire ablaze.
The turkey at last done with roasting.
We had just then raised a glass to toast
the harvest and the day,
when there came a knock at the door,
and a stranger blew in and seated himself saying,
“Room for one more?”
He wasn’t the kind to argue with. He was wide and tall and brawny.
His robes were worked in the richest threads
of brown and red and tawny.
His head was wreathed with an herbal crown;
He smelled of smoke and cold, and it seemed when he sat
that leaves fell down in a whirl of red and gold.
“Who are you?” I dared to ask, but he merely smiled
and demanded a glass of his own.
He surveyed our board and seemed to judge, weighing its merit,
assessing the richness of each dish, the quality of the claret.
Beneath his gaze it was odd to note our table grew more rich.
The silver gleamed more deep; the candles burned more bright.
Our fire stood more securely against the winter night.
He nodded. This god approved.
“Be warm, eat well, be gay. Each season has its moment; Each moment slips away.”
Thus saying, he, too, began to fade like smoke in the autumn wind,
but his words still lingered as we raised our glasses again.
“Here’s to friends and harvest to winter days and rain. Here’s to those who are with us and to those we’ll not see again. Here’s to fall and feasting, to good wine and good cheer. Here’s to the harvest in our hearts in the winter of the year.”
The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.
I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.
My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.
The 2018 Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner by fellow judge, Elaine Magliaro
Books illustrated by fellow judge, E. B. Lewis
Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.
This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)
I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.
I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.
Last month I warned I might revisit Roger Duvoisin’s work in picture books. So, here are two more of his books from my shelves: Donkey-donkey (1940) and Petunia (1950).
Unlike A Child’s Garden of Verses, these two books are authored by Duvoisin as well. His writing style matches his illustrations – light and delightful.
The themes are similar – animals wanting to better themselves somehow and making themselves and others suffer for it. Silly animals.
Using animals to upstage human folly is common in literature. Duvoisin’s squiggly images help us laugh at the situations such foolish creatures get themselves into.
Donkey-donkey is a happy donkey until he starts comparing himself to Pat, the horse.
He becomes dissatisfied with his big donkey ears and gets advice from everyone else at the farm on what to do about it.
As we expect, he comes around to accepting his ears and going back to his happy donkey life.
Petunia is literally a silly goose. She finds a book and has heard that ‘He who owns Books and loves them is wise,’ so she picks up the book and carries it around with her, feeling very wise indeed.
Petunia’s pride in her new-found wisdom leads her to mis-advise all the other animals at the farm.
This causes misery and mayhem.
She is too busy being wise to notice until the situation becomes explosive.
At this point she notices the book has something in it, namely pages, with words on them that she cannot read. Now she understands, ‘It was not enough to carry wisdom under my wing, I must put it in my mind an in my heart. and to do that I must learn to read.”
Be true to yourself.
Wisdom only comes from books if you use them correctly.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.