Category Archives: Children’s Books

Noise to Avoid

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With the recent re-issue of my book “The Christmas Crocodile,” I’ve been doing a few readings and suddenly I’m having to deal again with a big scream that happens in the middle of the book.

I remembered a little essay I wrote at the time, which I submitted to the SCBWI national newsletter. It didn’t get accepted, but I thought it would be fun to put here:

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out how to get published, it’s easy to forget that someday you may actually have a book. You may actually have to read it to others, not once, not twice but potentially hundreds of times.

Having put a loud scream into my picture book The Christmas Crocodile, illustrated by David Small, I learned a few things the hard way. Here’s my handy-dandy list of what not to put in your story if you want to ensure read-aloud ease:

– Do not put in weird sounds you really don’t want to make in front of 100 people such as loud, drawn out screams. (see above.)

– Do not put in alliterative names that are used each time you mention that character.  Rodney the Rickety Rabbit gets real tiresome about the twentieth time you have to say it in full.

– A corollary is to avoid overly elaborate, difficult to pronounce character names. Oonaqaurklypomadorio is going to be a source of regret.

– Do not put in word choices that are tongue twisters.  Beware. These are not always obvious.  One line in The Christmas Crocodile reads:  “He waved his tail farewell.” “Tail farewell” does not trip off the tongue and one quickly wishes they’d written “waved goodbye.”

– Avoid big long sentences with numerous dependent clauses, descriptive phrases, qualifiers and just plain meanderings that looked so good on paper and made you feel literary, but make your eyes bulge and have you gasping for breath when read out loud.

– Be sparing with repetition. Repetition is the spice of children’s books and sometimes you just have to write some variant of the “House that Jack Built.” But you will find yourself beginning to sound like a radio ad disclaimer as you try to speed read through the ever-growing, ever more tedious list. “’This is the mouse that swallowed the house that ate the pig that sat on the rat…’ Oh, hell, boys and girls, you know the rest!”

– If you’re picking a selection to read from a novel, try for at least one readable scene/section that does not require a longer explanation than the reading itself.

– Be sparing with foreign phrases you actually don’t know how to pronounce or dialog requiring accents you can’t do—unless, of course, you want to sound like Pepe LePue.

– Beware of jokes, unless you are an expert in comic timing. Sometimes the audience doesn’t laugh. Sometimes there is dead silence. Sometimes you start to really sweat.

And that’s when you wish you’d written a nice little bedtime book, instead of this one about who can fart the loudest.

P.S. The way I solved the big, long, loud scream I didn’t really want to do was to realize (brilliantly, if belatedly) that I could prompt the kids to do it. They love it, especially within the hushed halls of schools and libraries.

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Who Was Randolph Caldecott, And Why Do We Have An Award Named After Him? (and a bit more from the V & A Study Rooms)

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Most American illustrators know about the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award, but how many know anything about Randolph Caldecott? I received a Caldecott Honor in 2004, but I knew very little about him myself. My only reference was from Maurice Sendak’s essay in Caldecott & Co. which I read many years ago. There, he writes:

“Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out – but the words says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

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I took these words to heart when I first read them. I realized that my favorite children’s book illustrators (of which Sendak is one) do just that – they augment the story rather than just retell it visually. I aspire to do the same. I thank both Sendak and Caldecott for that guidance.

Sendak goes on to state:

“Caldecott is an illustrator, he is a songwriter, he is a choreographer, he is a stage manager, he is a decorator, he is a theater person; he’s superb, simply. He can take four lines of verse that have very little meaning in themselves and stretch them into a book that has tremendous meaning – not overloaded, no sentimentality anywhere.”

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While I was in England I intended to write a post about Randolph Caldecott, but somehow never managed it. People in England are much more familiar with Caldecott’s work than most of us in the U.S. It’s not uncommon to see copies of books illustrated by Caldecott in used bookstores there. On my first visit to Foster’s Bookshop, I found a book illustrated by Caldecott on the sale table. I didn’t buy it, but I snapped a few photos, of course.

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Caldecott was born in Chester, England in 1846. He started working in a bank at the age of fifteen, studying art on the side. In 1872, he moved to London to pursue an art career full time. Five years later, he began his well-known work in children’s picture books.

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His work was also published in novels, travel books, and various periodical publications, and he was commissioned to design the British Afghan war medal.

He had suffered from poor health since childhood, and died in 1886 while visiting the U.S. with his wife. He is buried in St. Augustine, Florida. There is a memorial for him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. He was only forty years old.

The image below is a sadly prophetic self portrait from The Babes in the Wood (1879).

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Frederic G. Melcher established the Caldecott Medal for the “most distinguished picture book for children” in 1938, fifty-two years after his death. The medal features a relief of this image from The Diverting History of John Gilpin, an animated tale told in 253 lines of verse by William Cowper (1731–1800). It was printed by Edmund Evans in 1878 (the same engraver who worked with Walter Crane).

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Havoc. Falling babes. The women in Caldecott’s illustrations always look so calm and imperturbable. He isn’t usually so flattering of the men.

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When I went to the V & A drawing and print study rooms I requested to see a sketchbook of Caldecott’s from the mid-1870s.

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I also saw a box of loose drawings and paintings from their collection.

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His drawings of faces and hands are wonderfully expressive. His line and brushwork are both fluid and accurate. He excels at rampant gestures.

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He accomplished much in his forty years. It is easy to see how his work influenced Beatrix Potter and other illustrators as well as Sendak. I recommend The Randolph Caldecott Society UK and the Randolph Caldecott Society of America if you want to learn more about his life and art.

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A long, winding book road

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It began as a ditty in my head over 25 years ago:

There once was a Christmas crocodile

A crocka-a-crocka-a-crocodile

Who said with a wicked and cunning smile

“I shall eat the Christmas tree

unless, you see,

I get exactly what I want.”

Seven years later it had morphed into a prose story about a crocodile who eats up Christmas and begins: The Christmas Crocodile didn’t mean to be bad, not really. Alice Jayne found him on Christmas Eve under the tree. He wore a red bow around his neck. It was lovely. Except he ate it.

A few years later Simon & Schuster bought it. Caldecott-winning artist David Small miraculously agreed to illustrate it and in the fall of 1998 it was published. It got a big glowing review by Judith Viorst in the New York Times; it was read on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater and on the QVC t.v. shopping channel; and it sold out that Christmas season.

Unfortunately, it was also orphaned. My editor, Stephanie Lurie, left Simon & Schuster. And without an in-house champion, The Christmas Crocodile was out of print by 2004.

And that seemed to be that.

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But I kept hearing from people how much they loved the book. That it was a Christmas favorite, a Christmas tradition at their house. I just knew it was a good book. It was illustrated by David Small, for heaven’s sake. It shouldn’t have died so soon.

So I tried numerous times over the years to get a publisher interested in a re-issue, but it’s an almost impossible goal. Publishers generally don’t like to re-issue some other publisher’s book. If that publisher couldn’t make a go of it, how could they? is the reasoning. For a while, Simon & Schuster even considered reissuing it themselves.

But it seemed like good old Croc was doomed to out-of-print status until I happened to be chatting with Nancy Pearl at an event[i] and she mentioned that she had a new line of “rediscovered” books coming out.

Nancy is probably the best-known librarian in the world. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. She has written a number of best-selling books, including Book Lust and Book Crush, recommending books she loves. Perhaps her most fun claim to fame is as the model for the Shushing Librarian action figure.

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She also finds out-of-print books for Amazon that she thinks deserve to be re-issued. A few years ago she set her sights on out-of-print kids books. You can imagine how eager I was to tell her about The Christmas Crocodile. Nancy asked to see a copy; she loved it and it went from there.

So my crocodile lives again re-printed by Two Lions Press, a division of Amazon. The team there, headed by editor Marilyn Brigham, did a beautiful job of it. With David Small’s approval, they developed a new cover for it, and it features a couple pages of introduction by Nancy. But otherwise it’s exactly like the original.

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It just came out this September and here’s hoping the book finds a second life!

By the way, if you have an out-of-print kid’s book and don’t have a chance of running into Nancy Pearl anytime soon, there is one press that specializes in re-issues of out-of-print kids books, Purple House Press.

Also, if you buy the book and would like a signed book plate, just let me know who you’d like me to sign it to and where to send it. You can contact me by leaving a comment here or by messaging me on Facebook.

[i] So this is a pitch for seemingly thankless tasks. Nancy and I were volunteer judges for the University of Washington Bookstore’s annual bookmark contest where kids design a bookmark. We judges pick the winners out of many hundreds of entries and these are printed up by the bookstore to hand out over the year. It’s fun, but one of those things that you don’t expect to further your career.

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part III)

w-crane-babys-bouquet-ringel-tanz-sketchWhen I wrote my last post, I had just left London for Seattle. I am over my jet-lag now and my cultural re-entry is underway. It is great to reconnect with friends and family on the same continent, but I DO miss London. What a richly laden place that is.

And the Victoria and Albert is a richly laden museum. As I mentioned in my first post about my visit to the V & A Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms, one of the objects I viewed that day was the original volume of Walter Crane’s designs for The Baby’s Bouquet, a companion to his earlier Baby’s Opera. Fifty-six pen and watercolour drawings in a bound, 7 1/4″ X 7 1/2″ booklet – created in the 1870s and published in 1877.

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In my notes from that day I wrote,

OMG! This is the most beautiful thing ever!!! I can’t believe I am here touching this! I can’t believe it’s allowed!

Clearly, I was thrilled. It is truly exquisite. The illustrations appear to have been made contiguously in the bound book, with no correction fluid or paste-ins. There are some suggestions and notes for the engraver. Inside the cover there is a mini-mock up with a few endpaper ideas.

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Preliminary pencil drawings can be seen under the watercolour. Crane’s touch with the brush (or pen) is light and confident. It is as though he never had a moment of doubt about any aspect of what he was doing.

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I was curious to see a published edition of the book for comparison, but wasn’t able to until recently, when I joined Julie Paschkis and Jennifer Kennard on a book field trip to the University of Washington Rare Books Library. Jennifer made an advance appointment for us, and I requested to see their copy of an 1879 edition.

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The published version is beautiful as well, but very different from the original. Engraving was the technique that allowed illustrations to be printed with the press technology of the time. Each colour was cut into a different plate, then inked and printed separately.

Watercolour washes have variations in value and tone that are made when the paintbrush moves across the surface of the paper with varying amounts of pigment. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing from a wood block. What isn’t meant to print is cut away. A thin layer of ink is then rolled across the surface of raised lines. The image is transferred to paper through the use of pressure. Watercolour and wood engraving are extremely different techniques.

The engraver, Edmund Evans, based his prints on Crane’s drawings, but made many artistic additions of his own. I don’t know if Edmunds was someone Crane knew personally and worked with repeatedly, but one would think so. Crane must have been able to trust him to take his creation and transform it so dramatically. Either way, both books exemplify two artists and masters of their craft. I will show photos of Crane’s originals along with the prints so you can compare for yourself.

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Some images are more different than others. Who do you think decided to add the target and turn the boy’s head?

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This image appeared in the original version, but was eliminated in the final.

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This image was changed in format to become a two-page spread with a full-page image. Crane’s handwritten notes show below the drawing.

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Some colours deepen from the original sketches.

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Some palettes change more dramatically.

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In this piece, you can see how a fairly simple painted background…

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…becomes more complex when transformed into an engraving. There are four blocks cut and printed – yellow, red, blue and black. Notice how finely the lines are carved.

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I think you will agree that both the drawn and painted sketches and the cut and printed final illustrations are beautiful. I leave it to you to decide which you prefer. You can dance Looby Light while you think about it.

 

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead

I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.

Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.

There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”

Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

The  most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”

To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.

Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.

In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part II)

 

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When I wrote my last post for this blog, I had just moved out of our rented home in London. With most of our belongings headed to Seattle in a shipping container, my husband, daughter and I felt like tourists again.

Until two days ago, when we flew back home. My re-acclimation to American life has begun. But, for my next couple of posts I will be returning to London (in spirit at least) to write more about my visits (I went back a second time before I left) to the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The V & A has most of the original drawings by E. H. Shepard for A. A. Milne’s Pooh series. My mother used to read to me from Milne’s Now We are Six when I was young (the book made turning six sound very grown up) and I still hear my mother’s voice when I read it now.

Milne-The Good Girl

“Well? Have you been a good girl, Jane?”. . .

I was able to request several boxes of Shepard’s sketches. The drawings are all in pencil on the pages of a 9″ X 14″ sketchbook.

Shepard’s lines are fluid and confident.

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I like to see where he tried different options and erased or crossed out some.

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It’s also interesting to compare these drawings to the finished art from the published books.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-19 at 15.49.06Sometimes Shephard draws many lines till he finds the right ones (I can relate to that).

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On the sketches that were accepted for the final illustrations, you can see that Shepard rubbed a graphite pencil across the back and then traced over the image to transfer it to his drawing board.

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Shepard seems to enjoy drawing trees, especially the grand, gnarled ones.

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And of course, bears.

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THE END

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,

I was nearly new.

When I was Three,

I was hardly Me.

When I was Four

I was not much more.

When I was Five,

I was just alive.

But now I am Six, I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six new for ever and ever.

 

Into the Woods With Jung

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Why does Harry Potter battle spiders? And Wilbur, the pig, befriend one? Why does Odysseus sail the sea and that girl go down in the basement in every horror film?

There are lots of reasons for these creative choices, but I think chief among them is the fact that these are all “charged” symbols, characters and events. They carry more than their literal weight when it comes to creating emotional and psychological effects in the reader or viewer. And as a creator it’s worth your while to learn more about deep symbolism.

Carl Jung is a great place to start. The early-20th century psychologist was one of the first people to explore the human unconscious to try to codify the powerful symbols and images that arise from there.

Recently I checked out Jung’s The Red Book from the public library. It’s Jung’s fascinating exploration of his own unconscious through symbolic writing and his own illustrations. (All the illustrations in this post are from “The Red Book.”)

The writing can be hard to work through. Some is reasonably accessible:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my Lord, an expensive red rug from the land

Of morning…

I am the mother, the simple maiden who gave birth and did not

Know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd who received his message as he guarded his herd at

Night on the dark fields.

Some of the writing not so much:

However, I am not ready, since I have still not accepted that which chokes my heart. That fearful thing is the enclosing of the God in the egg. I am happy that the great endeavor has been successful, but my fear made me forget the hazards involved. I love and admire the powerful. No one is greater than he with the bull’s horns, and yet I lamed, carried, and made him smaller with ease.

But his paintings are powerful and evocative. It’s hard to say exactly how. I don’t know why I keep coming back to study this dragon slayer, but I do.

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Of course, most of his paintings are deliberately symbolic and as, Jung notes, a symbol has “a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

Jung goes on to say: “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

In The Red Book, Jung was exploring his own mind, but he believed that many of our symbols (or archetypes, as he called them) were universal coming from the “collective unconscious” of humanity.

One of my writing friends is very aware of Jungian archetypes and other mythic materials such as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. And she consciously works these ideas into her stories. The result is often images or characters or events that are supercharged. Somehow they are more evocative or disturbing than their obvious elements would suggest.

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But even if you aren’t that conscious of universal symbols, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on them if you let your thoughts and emotions go deep. What scares you more than it seems it should? What naturally comes to mind as you take your character on an adventure? Does she end up in a cave? Does he travel by water? Meet a monster? Climb mountains? Explore attics and basements?

boatWater is often a symbol of the unconscious. And it’s not simply by chance that heroes on a quest for self-knowledge will often cross something watery. We see it in some of our most powerful fiction from The Odyssey to Moby Dick to Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Monsters are constantly rising up from water–the serpent thing in the trash masher in “Star Wars”, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp Thing.

For some reason there seems to be an almost universal fear of spiders (why do we find the swastika so creepy? Is it just contemporary cultural association or does it go deeper.) Yet, EB White makes Wilbur’s friend a spider. White says  that’s because he became interested in spiders after watching them on his farm. But it’s hard to believe Charlotte’s Web would have the power it does if Wilbur had befriended a less symbolically charged creature. And I suspect EB White was deliberately playing against type and stirring unconscious emotions with this choice of hero.

Jung believed houses and other buildings are symbolic of our own psyches. Tower rooms may represent our conscious intellect. Dark basement our subconscious and every maker of horror films knows that nothing is more frightening than the idea of going down into the dark unknown that lingers there.

I’m betting most of these creators–from JK Rowling to John Carpenter to Ursula LeGuin–were well aware of the symbolic charge of their choices. And you can be to. If you’re interested in exploring archetypes and symbols more, some good books include Man and his Symbols, a book featuring an essay by Jung and then commentary by others on his ideas. There’s Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and authors like Clarissa Pinkola Estés who writes extensively about women and their particular symbolic needs and expressions.

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In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part I)

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The New Childhood entry poster House of Illustration

Last week I returned to House of Illustration to see their current show – A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia.

It is an excellent, eye-opening exhibit. I snapped a few subversive shots to share with you.

Before the October Revolution of 1917, children’s books were beautifully illustrated but expensive. Only children of the upper classes were regularly taught to read. Children’s books were not for the masses.

bilibin feast cakeIvan Bilibin, 1895

After the end of the Tsarist regime, fairy tales were considered irrelevant. Children were reimagined as “builders of the new egalitarian future.” New children’s books would promote socialist beliefs and give practical instruction.

Galina & Olga Chichagova 1925-posterGalina and Olga Chichagova, poster design with text by A. Galena, 1925.

“The images of old storybooks. Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!! Give a new children’s book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood.

On the positive side, during this time there was a blossoming of creativity in children’s literature. The influence of folk art as well as past art movements and picture books from Europe converged in these new books.

Eduard Krimmer 1926-How The Whale Got His ThroatEduard Krimmer, How the Whale Got His Throat (Rudyard Kipling) 1926.

Illustrators explored new styles and techniques. The Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing.

Issachar Ber Ryback 1922-In The Forest coverIssachar Ber Ryback for In The Forest (Leib Kvitko) 1922.

Books were considered valuable tools in disseminating new ideals. Publishers flourished.

Eduard Krimmer 1925-NumbersEduard Krimmer, Numbers, 1925

Vera Ermolaeva 1925-Top Top TopVera Ermolaeva, Top-Top-Top (Nikolai Aseev), 1925

Absurdism proved useful in communicating the regime’s ideas.

Iureii Annenkov 1918-The FleaIllustrations for The Flea (Natan Vengrov) by Iurii Annenkov, c. 1918

Konstantin Rudakov’s work was humorous and zany, but considered “bourgeois dregs” by Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted theorist and Lenin’s wife. Some of his books were banned.

Kostantin Rudakov 1926-TelephoneKonstantin Rudakov, Telephone, 1926

Picture books would show children how to build the future.

Evgenia Evenbakh 1926-The TableEvgenia Evenbakh, The Table, 1926

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-ElectricianAleksandr Deineka, Electrician (B. Uralski), 1930

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Cow ShedTevel Pevezner, The Cow Shed (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Poultry YardTevel Pevezner, The Poultry Yard (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 1 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 2 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 3 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 4Georgii Echeistov, What It Carries Where It Travels, 1930

Unknown 1934-First Counting BookUnknown illustrator, First Counting Book (F. N. Blekher), 1934

The circus was still popular, but the Lion was no longer portrayed as King of the beasts. Instead he was President.

Maria Siniakova 1929-CircusMaria Siniakova, Circus (Nikolai Aseev), 1929

Vladimir Lebedev 1925-CircusVladimir Lebedev, Circus (Samuil Marshak) 1925

Marshak quote

Some illustrators were still determined to show children at play and having fun. Some got away with it.

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-Unpublished illustration-Pictures For Little OnesVladamir Konashevitz, unpublished illustration for Pictures For Little Ones, 1925

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-MugsVladamir Konashevitz, Mugs, 1925.

Others delved further into the new reality of childhood.

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-Red Army ParadeAleksandr Deineka, The Red Army Parade, 1930

The atmosphere of experimentation ended in the mid-1930s when “socialist realism” became the assigned aesthetic ideal. Children’s books could only support Soviet approved aspirations. State censorship was enforced. Yiddish publishing was no longer tolerated and high taxes caused many Russian publishers to close. Many illustrators continued to work but ceased experimenting. Some fled to Europe. Others were arrested.

I visited Soviet Russia when I was a child in 1970. What I remember most about Moscow was how bleak it was. Saint Basil’s Cathedral rose like a glorious fantasy out of the concrete. Everything else, including the people, was grey and heavy. Our guide was afraid to answer any of our questions. People spoke to us in whispers if they spoke to us at all. They were the children who had grown up under the Soviet regime.

For those of you who aren’t able to make it to London to see this show before it closes in September, you can look for the book, Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful books, terrible times, which inspired House of Illustration to exhibit works from this collection.

Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

IMG_1930

So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

IMG_1933 (1)

It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

IMG_1937

Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.