Category Archives: inspiration

THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH

It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:

I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.

I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?

“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”

She glances my way.

“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.

That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.

“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.

“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”

Now the boys behind us are listening, too.

“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.

But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.

“And then I woke up,” I say.

“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.

“Yes.”

She doesn’t play with me at recess.

I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)

To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.

Bring out the toys and the dreams

Maybe it’s burnout from the quarantine or the accumulation of years of working or maybe I’m just extra aware these days, but so many people around me are wishing that they could get back to play and to joy, not only in their lives, but in their work.

Back in March for Books Around the Table, I wrote about some of the ideas that children’s author Laurel Snyder shared about how she brought play back into her work. Check it out here.

Here’s a grab bag of some of Snyder’s other suggestions

Back to the toy box

Remember those dolls you loved as a kid? Or the stuffed animals or the Legos or the GI Joe doll? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a storyteller and that’s what your toys were all about. Stories. Adventures. Created worlds. According to Snyder, maybe it’s time to bring them back into your life.

Snyder’s particular love as a child was paper dolls to the point where she made her own. She also loved all kinds of other dolls from the chubby cheeks of Madame Alexander dolls to Barbie’s sculpted cheekbones. In her grown-up office, she has a doll house where she routinely creates different scenarios. I couldn’t quite determine if the scenarios always related to a book she was working on or if the dolls were having a life of their own in that house. Either way, childhoods toys can bring back pure play into the art of storytelling.

Time travel

Remember how it felt to be called to the front of the class to give a report? Or when your best friend was suddenly with someone else at recess? Or the first time someone you actually knew actually died? 

Some people can readily put themselves back into their childhoods. Some of us think we can, but maybe we’ve forgotten the real intensity of what we felt or the questions and worries that flooded our minds. 

One way to get back the feelings of childhood is to put yourself back there. You can dream yourself back there through thoughtful remembering. But even better, how about getting down on the ground and back into a childhood perspective? What comes back if you sit under the dining room table? What happens to time if you lie on the grass and study that scrambling ant all the way back to the nest? What’s it like to sit on your kitchen floor and stare up at that glass on the counter? What would it feel like to reach for it with the very tips of your fingers?

Once in awhile I get back to my hometown of Wenatchee and drive by the house I grew up in. I’m lucky. My neighborhood was declared an historic district and there is an effort to preserve the houses there, so it looks much the same as it did when I was a child. So much comes flooding back on those visits. How long has it been since your visited a place from your childhood or looked at those old report cards or took out that crumbling prom corsage?

Keep a story box

JK Rowling did this for her first Harry Potter book. She kept a box (eventually a pretty big box) full of writing—random thoughts, inspirations, scenes, details on scraps of paper. It included hundreds of ideas about the world she was creating–the look of a character, the rules of magic,  major plot turns, interesting names. This is what she turned to when she started work on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

For your story box, Snyder suggests mementos. A stone from the beach that your character lives on or an oddity that simply, for now, just intrigues you or a button that might go on the great-aunt’s dress. The idea is another way to get at what it is you’re trying to do with your story, through the fun of simply collecting interesting things.

Enter your world through its small details

I loved this bit of advice from Snyder. We can spend a lot of our time picturing the castle, the mountain pass, the monsters and the maps of our world, but maybe we can enter it even more fully through the knickknack on the Queen’s bedside table. 

The details are so much fun to dream about. They don’t require quite the same effort as setting up a tricky plot turn. E.B. White devoted entire lovely paragraphs to the details of Charlotte’s world. I just have to believe it was his love of that sleeping barn and the smells and the sounds that really informed the entire story of Charlotte’s Web from the wonderful characters of Templeton or the geese to Wilbur’s love of slops and leisure to the general sense of love and affection that infused the entire tone and voice of the book. I bet it all began with the smell of manure and hay, and the warmth of that patch of sunlight on the broad back of a pig.

Let’s escape…

The last two weeks have been doozies (since I was born in 1906, I get to say that… jk which is a newer bit of slang). Anyway, I’m not feeling like being very serious right now. So let’s escape. In my collection of images about books and reading there are lots of repeating motifs and themes–books and cats, reading and cafes, books and beds, books and birds, reading and women, etc.–but probably the overwhelming theme is escape into another world, into self, into peace.

So this week let’s go. Let’s run away together.

Illustration by Iker Ayerstaran

Illustration by Tuylek

Illustration by Joost Swarte

Illustration by Caroline Magerl

Illustration by Javier Naverette

Photo by Hesham Alhumaid

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski

Illustration by Achiki

Illustration by Bianca Bagnarelli

Illustrator not known (anybody recognize?)

Illustration by Remy Coutarel

Read a book. Turn on a light.

Recently, I went searching for new images to add to my collection of images of books featured in art. A funny theme began to emerge with the images I was finding.

It was books as light—books as sources of illumination–an obvious metaphor, but funny to see so many of them popping up in what was a pretty short, random search.

There are books to come home to…

Illustration by Mariusz Stawarski

There are books to light the way

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

And books that light the way to dimensions far from home

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

Of course, it’s not so much about books, but illumination in whatever form it comes to us.

Illustration by Matt Murphyred

Some knowledge can be dangerous–radioactively so.

Illustration by Karolis Strautniekas

It can even lead you astray. Although I’m not sure if the artist is commenting on the content or the form here.

Illustration by Brian Fitzgerald

Sometimes books are all sweetness and light…

Illustration by Takashi Tsushima

Sometimes they are their own source of darkness and confusion.

Illustration by Franco Matticchio

Whatever they are, books beckon…

Illustration by Quint Buchholz

especially in times like these.

 

 

Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!

 

 

 

 

 

How Pictures Work

Once upon a time, the children’s book illustrator, Molly
Bang, was told she really didn’t understand how pictures worked. Bang agreed and set out to learn more.
She took classes, read books and went to art museums. Eventually she set out to create a composition with emotional resonance from the most basic elements–simple geometric forms and a palette limited to four colors: red, black, white and lavender.
She decided to see how this all worked with the story Little Red Riding Hood beginning with the idea of the girl as red triangle.
Of course, this choice echos the idea of a hood and the color is obvious, but beyond that, she asked herself, “Do I feel anything about this shape.” Although it wasn’t exactly fraught with emotion, she knew she felt some things about it.
How about you?
Here’s what Bang came up with: it isn’t huggable because it has points. It feels stable because of its flat bottom and equal sides. And red makes it feel bold, flashy–a good color for a main character. Molly also felt danger, vitality, passion. She felt that added up to the feeling of a warm, alert, stable, strong, balanced character. It did more than simply echoing the name of the story.
Then she set about making the forest. She tried triangles for the trees…
…but eventually settled on rectangles.
She liked how you can’t see the tops of the trees, suggesting how tall they are and how she could create a sense of depth. Now to put Little Red Riding Hood into the scene…
…but this wasn’t as as menacing as Bang wanted.
So she made Red much smaller. And she needed room for the wolf.
But before introducing the wolf, she knew she could create even more sense of danger.
Diagonals create a sense of instability, so now she had Red out in an older, more primal forest, a less certain place, and it was time to bring in the wolf.
It’s obvious why she would choose sharp triangles and to bring him into the forefront. Even so, she thought she’d experiment with what happened if she changed various elements.
How about if she made him smaller?
Or softened the triangles?
Or changed his color?
She went back to her first instincts. And set out to make him even scarier.
What big teeth he has.
What big eyes. But let’s make them more menacing.
Nothing has changed but the color. Not only is red–the color of blood and fire–more threatening than lavender, it links the wolf with his prey.
What if you changed the eye shape?
I was surprised how much difference it made. He looks slightly goofy. Maybe this would be the way to go if you wanted to do a Little Red Riding Hood spoof of some sort.
But Bang wanted to push the menace.
So more “blood”.
And finally she made it a gloomier day and, just for the fun of it, added even more focus on those sharp, sharp triangles of teeth.
This is how Molly Bang’s classic book, “Picture This. How Pictures Work” begins. The rest of her book talks more about basic composition and how it works. What horizontals do. What verticals do. How to make things look stable and unstable. How to create momentum and depth, chaos, calm and drama simply by compositional elements.
She talks about her theories as to why these elements work the way they do, often linking back to primal instincts–such as pointed shapes feeling scarier than rounded shapes or curves. One can hurt you, the other is less likely to.
It’s fun to think of these same principles and how you might apply them to writing. For example, I’m thinking of the sense of character created by a plump woman with sharp eyes. After all, we writers are in the business of creating pictures, too.
I would highly recommend “Picture This: How Pictures Work” for anyone interested in art or picture books. Or just for the fun of it!

The Little Red Book

Illustration by Consuelo Mura

The color red has its literary roots. It’s blood and drama and passion. Red is the first color that Jonas sees in Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” It’s no accident that Little Red Riding Hood wears scarlet or that Robbie Burns’s love is “like a red, red rose.”

Red shows up in literature in another funny way. I collect electronic images of books in art. Copies of illustrations, paintings and prints that feature books in some way.  And I began to notice a lot of red books in art (* see my reader’s note below).  Not just as a random spot of color, but as a color that makes a statement, suggests its own story:

You can escape from the everyday…

Agata Raczynska

Agata Raczynska

into an imagined passion

Illustration by Phil Jones

Jonathan Burton

Jonathan Burton

Or maybe it’s a real world passion

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

Or  forbidden fruit

Jean F. Martin

Jean F. Martin

 

Illustration by Toni Demuro

 

Alessandro Gottardo

Alessandro Gottardo

Or perhaps red, is after all,  just a mystery

Jennifer Dionisio

Jennifer Dionisio

My favorite literary use of red is the William Carlos William poem, The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

So much depends on the red book, so much is suggested that is dark and forbidden, hinting at hidden depths beneath the most sedate appearances.

Illustration by Nakamura Daizaburo

 

And isn’t that what reading is all about–that gateway into other selves. In this case, our red selves. Our read selves.

 

*Readers note: This is a reprint of a post I did in July 2014, but with some additional red book images.

Making Your Illustration Notes Work for You

Illustration by Jonathan Cooper

One of the first rules pounded into you as an aspiring picture book writer is, no matter how vivid your vision of your book is, you aren’t the illustrator. Sadly, you don’t get to decide that your protagonist is redhead with braids who lives in a split level home, at least not as an instruction to the illustrator. If you do add it as part of the text, always think about how necessary those words are. Don’t bog down a picture book text with non-essential details.

So you quickly learn that you shouldn’t sprinkle your manuscripts with detailed descriptions of what the illustrations will show. That will be up to the editor, art director and, most specifically, the illustrator.

In fact, you’ll find as you move into the publishing process that usually the author and the illustrator are kept out of contact, rather like the buyer and seller in a real estate deal. Most editors want the communication to go through them. Their job is to respect the creative talents of both the author and the illustrator.

So, no illustration notes…

Except, of course, when there are. When you need them. Usually for obvious reasons such as when the text contradicts what the illustration needs to show. For example, I might write:

Biff was so excited to be the new class monitor.
(Illustration note: clearly Biff isn’t excited at all. The last thing class clown Biff wants to do is police other kids).

 I don’t know if there are any rules about how to format illustration notes. The example above is how I do them. Separated from the regular text by spacing, in parenthesis, labeled as “Illustration note:” to make it crystal clear that what follows isn’t text. And all set in italics. But I’m sure other writers handle them in different ways.

One approach that does seem pretty universal is to put your note in present tense. It makes it more vivid, more immediate. Just as an illustration is more immediate.

I have another less obvious reason for sometimes putting in illustration notes. Your first reader is going to be an agent or an editor. They don’t yet have the illustrations to help them along. Most of the time this is good and it’s another reason to not use illustration notes. You want the editor to start owning this story. You want their imagination to start going to work. An experienced editor doesn’t need your help to start picturing what the illustrations will do.

Your text, hopefully, will create a mood, a tone, a particular experience for the reader. Sweet, funny, warm, old-fashioned, wacky. You can’t always know where the editors imagination will go, so don’t constrain it by illustration notes.

BUT…  if I think a note is necessary for the book to “work,”for the story to come across as effectively and persuasively as it can I’ll put one in.  It’s rarely comes up and it’s a tough call to make. Is this story more effective with that note or not? Tempted as you are to steer the editor to a certain reading (this is a warm, cozy story set in a Tudor cottage, damn it!) 99% of the time you’re going to want to restrain that impulse.

Here’s a specific example that I think shows all those elements at work. The other day I was critiquing a picture book in one of my writing groups. My friend is an experienced, excellent picture book writer, but she rarely has had to do illustration notes. I won’t use her actual words, but below is essentially what was happening in her story.

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl points at the rising moon with her dog beside her)
“The moon.”

The basic story was about the seasons using lovely lyrical language detailing the changes in nature. But each section ended with a girl and her dog experiencing something from the changes. The twosome are, however, never explicitly mentioned in the text, and it wasn’t always clear from the text what the two were experiencing. The pictures would carry that part of the story. So, illustration notes seemed justified.

But thinking about that agent or editor’s reading experience, I suggested the following edit:

The sky darkened and…
“Look!”
(Illustration note: The girl, her dog beside her, points at the rising moon.)

 I thought this would create a more vivid experience for the editor. Number one: rather than bury that all-important rising moon in the middle of the note, move it to the end where it will stand out as the final image you’ve called the reader’s attention to. And, number two: I thought seeing the moon, having the reader look as the character instructs, was more effective than adding to what the illustration would show–the moon.

It seemed to me that the editor would have an experience closer to that of a child reader who might hear the word “Look,” then perhaps there would be a page turn, and then the sight of the moon. No words necessary in the text. But in this case, totally necessary as an illustration note to give the editor the experience you want her to have reading your story.

And, notice that you’re not telling the illustrator what the moon looks like. Who knows what they might come up with, and that’s half the fun!

 

The Children’s Hour

 

Last week Julie Larios wrote about the poem The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat on this blog. It brought back memories of my dad reading to us every Sunday night. Every once in a while it was an evening of poems, including that Gingham Dog and Calico cat one.

Dad’s selections were all over the map from my mom’s favorite (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock) to Ogden Nash to Edgar Allan Poe. How could you not fall in love with words? How could you not want to be a writer and play with words, too?

T.S. Elliott was as high brow as things got. We got doses of other more adult-ish poems, like Dorothy Parker’s Resume:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

But most of the poems were aimed at the kids sprawled around the living room. We loved things like Poe’s The Bells or Anabelle Lee and, of course The Raven.

It helped that we’d already heard The Purple Cow before we heard Nash’s The Abominable Snowman:

I never saw an abominable snowman
I’m hoping not to see one,
I’m also hoping if I do
that it will be a wee one.

The Cremation of Sam McGee (Robert Service), Casey at the Bat (Ernest Lawrence Thayer) and The Jabborwocky (Lewis Carroll) were favorites.

Sometimes the poems were sentimental like Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Children’s Hour.

But as kids who were growing up in an earnest world (Dick and Jane, Howdy Doody, The Wonderful World of Disney) our absolute favorite was How to Treat Elves by Morris Bishop, which my father gleefully read in a nice treacly manner.

It was transgressive and meta in a way none of us had quite heard before. Of course, this kind of thing is everywhere now. But back in the day my father could count on a delighted audience every time he brought it out. Here it is:

“How To Treat Elves”

by Morris Bishop

I met an elf man in the woods,
The wee-est little elf!
Sitting under a mushroom tall–
‘Twas taller than himself!

“How do you do, little elf,” I said,
“And what do you do all day?”
“I dance ‘n fwolic about,” said he,
“‘N scuttle about and play;”

“I s’prise the butterflies, ‘n when
A katydid I see,
‘Katy didn’t’ I say, and he
Says ‘Katy did!’ to me!

“I hide behind my mushroom stalk
When Mister Mole comes froo,
‘N only jus’ to fwighten him
I jump out’n say ‘Boo!’

“‘N then I swing on a cobweb swing
Up in the air so high,
‘N the cwickets chirp to hear me sing
‘Upsy-daisy-die!’

“‘N then I play with the baby chicks,
I call them, chick chick chick!
‘N what do you think of that?” said he.
I said, “It makes me sick.

“It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool.”
I lifted up my foot, and squashed
The God damn little fool.

Now there’s a kid’s poem!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43190/bed-in-summer

 

 

 

CAUSE AND EFFECT

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