Category Archives: picture books

If the Chair Fits…

(You should probably sit down to read this one — and put on your Goldilocks wig.)

There are many, many ways into a story. My sister Susan Britton, who is also a writer, likens the process to opening a big bag of dogfood. You pick and pull at the stitching across the top, tugging one thread and loosening another until whoosh! the bag zips open. And the kibble/story is waiting.

I agree, it is a matter of scratching around, trying one idea and then another.

Character is often the way in for me; sketching characters especially. Setting or even a little dialogue may also provide traction. But when I saw San Francisco’s deYoung museum’s exhibit of American chairs, I thought maybe I could sit my way in. If I could sit in one of those chairs for an afternoon, I am pretty sure a story would result; a new twist on butt-in-chair methodology.

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The exhibit was arranged chronologically and these were a few of the oldest chairs. I imagined myself, for instance, seated in the sack-back Windsor armchair on the left, built of oak, hickory, maple and pine in 1780-1800s. I imagined the worn arms under my hands. I’d begin by writing twenty questions as fast as I could. Pencil on paper. Anything that came to mind. This almost always gives me a thread that I can pull to get to the kibble/story.

For example: Who made this chair? For whom? Under what circumstances? Why does it have so many kinds of wood? It is obviously handmade, perhaps with crude tools. Was the maker poor? Who sat here? What conversations took place? Was it drawn close to the fire on long winter nights? What stories were told? Somewhere along the way, ideas related to the story would start to suggest themselves: i.e. maybe the story is a story within a story. I would capture these thoughts and keep asking questions.

Had this chair ever been broken? It is so old. Was it handed down through the generations? Was it prized? I could not help connecting the chair to my own memories. It is a little like my grandfather’s Windsor rocker. Like me, did a little girl feel safe in this chair? Or was it a “naughty” chair, where a child was put for time out? Was it ever pulled to the table for a special guest? Or used to reach a secret from a high shelf? Or to put the star on the top of a Christmas tree? In the eight or so generations since this chair was built, did it travel? Did it ever fall off of a truck in the middle of I-5? Was it the only nice thing on the top of the pile when someone was thrown out of a house? That’s 20 questions. Hmmm. I see a couple of directions I could further explore.

Or maybe I would need to look more closely at the chair. I would get up and draw it from several perspectives. You can get to know something better by drawing it because you have to look carefully.

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As I thought my way down the line of chairs, I could see that in every case I would be scratching around for a story with queries about the chair itself, the people who had owned it, and its significance in their lives — and probably it would evoke a connection to my life, a memory that would create personal meaning.

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For instance, this maple Shaker rocking chair made in Waterviliet, New York c. 1805 suggests babies rocked and little ones cuddled before bed. The high back is distinctive, a ladder back. The worn arms speak of years of rocking and crooning. How would it fit in a modern setting? The seat looks new, which leads me to wonder if it were discarded and found and renovated and reloved? Who would have discarded it and why? Who would have found it? What a treasure it would be to a young family — like my own when our kids were little and I loved to rock them.

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Look at this fussy pink-cushioned armchair from the Victorian age. It seems eager to take a role as an endowed object in a story. Who would have sat on its tight padded seat? Perhaps talking about this chair would offer a repressed Victorian character an avenue to express her inner passion.

L to R: Frank Lloyd Wright chair, 1907; Timothy Gandt armchair for Stickley, 1901; Greene and Greene chair, 1907.

Perhaps we should divvy up these chairs and create an anthology of stories they inspire. They seem full of possibilities. Then we can sit in the line and one by one spin their tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ONE SUN ONE MOON

Wren, Oregon — Early Monday morning we slipped under the wire fence and climbed a hillside cow pasture, then watched while the light dimmed and crickets tuned up their fiddles.

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As the moon slipped in front of the sun, the skies darkened to indigo and the most wondrous jewel was revealed, hanging in the sky where the sun had been – a total solar eclipse. We were transfixed.

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Then roosters crowed and the skies began to lighten again.

Over the next hours, as the eclipse moved coast to coast across America, millions of people shared our gobsmacked, goosebumped wonder.

Eclipses have amazed humans for a long time. Ancient Mesopotamian warriors who witnessed a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC interrupted a longstanding war between the Medes and the Lydians. They saw the eclipse as an omen. Fighting immediately stopped and they agreed to a truce.

For modern scientists, this eclipse offered a chance to study the sun’s corona. A Nova special which included film of Monday’s event, detailed how scientists are trying to understand the forces that impact coronal heating – the surface of the sun is 10,000 degrees but the corona can heat up to 1 million degrees.

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We gathered in a field near my sister Kate’s house. She labeled it a “Partial Reunion Total Eclipse,” and made t-shirts based on our LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING artwork. Note the wolves wear protective sunglasses and the white ink glows in the dark.

•  •  •  •  •

Monday’s eclipse may have been the most photographed event in the history of mankind.

My friend, photographer Max Waugh got some amazing shots from Central Oregon.

Solar Eclipse Composite

Solar Eclipse Composite

See more of Max’s images here: Max Waugh

In Seattle, my friend Karen captured the effect of the eclipse on leaf shadows in her driveway.

Another friend, Melanie, set up an Optical Sun Projector with binoculars and snapped photos as the reflection crossed a screen. She explained: “The binoculars are set up on a tripod, facing the sun. One lens is occluded to allow for one image. This will project a reflection onto a screen. I made my screen out of white black-out fabric and made a little tent over to help balance light.” The image on the right takes into account a cloud passing by.

Before the advent of photography, artists painted the eclipse. A current exhibit at the Princeton Art Museum includes the paintings of Howard Russell Butler, whose “scrupulously accurate paintings” captured the colors in the corona. Check out his methods here. http://artmuseum.princeton.edu/transient-effects

•  •  •  •  •

I was proud of the moon on her Big Day. I am a longtime fan. I wear a crescent moon necklace. Joe Max Emminger’s painting of a tender moon hangs in our entry

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and Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s moon series hangs over the piano — where the chart for “How High the Moon,” stands ready.

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The moon has a starring role in my picture books, too. The highpoint of FRANK AND IZZY SET SAIL, where they sing to the stars, features a crescent moon,

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and Kate’s and my latest, LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING, is all about howling the full moon to the top of the sky. I love how Kate painted the moonlight into our book.

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This eclipse was incredible, even more incredible when you think it is only possible because the sun and moon appear the same size in Earth’s sky because the sun’s diameter is about 400 times greater – but the sun is also about 400 times farther away. The disc of the moon fits perfectly over the sun.

Like the millions of others who witnessed Monday’s eclipse, I was filled with wonder when the temperatures dropped, the sky darkened and the beautiful jewel appeared. Quite a memorable Partial Reunion Total Eclipse.

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A Tale of Two Izzies

1. First, a game. We have been gardening up a storm here in preparation for the Mazza Institute visit to my studio and wherever I work in the garden, Izzi makes herself a fort. See if you can spot the spaniel.

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2. Second, mucking about in murky morals.

“I might have lied,” said Izzy. “But let’s not get bogged down in the facts.”

Does that sound like a clip from a recent White House statement? Perhaps something Kellyanne ‘alternative facts’ Conway might say?

Nope. It’s from my book Frank and Izzy Set Sail, published in 2004 by Candlewick Press. Lately, my grandson has taken to this book. (Like Izzy, he loves ukuleles.) My daughter, who has been reading it several times a day, pointed out the connection between Izzy’s relationship to the truth and the present administration’s.

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Which led us to wonder what other children’s books espouse less-than-honorable behavior.

In my book, Izzy’s lying has a bad influence on Frank – later in the story he says, “Could be my grandma was a pirate, too.” He’s trying out lying. My intention is humor, not to encourage kid-readers to lie. I expect kids will be in on the joke. But it gives me pause in light of present events.

Does it matter – when you think about how stories shape the character of our small readers – if immoral behavior is not addressed? There are consequences when Peter Rabbit steals from Farmer MacGregor. He is sent to bed without supper. Whereas Max in Where the Wild Things Are returns to a warm supper. Hmm. Perhaps this reflects a softening of parental attitudes between 1902 and 1963? (Kellyanne Conway was born in 1967 so we can assume she was read Wild Things when she was a peerie lass.)

What other characters in children’s books come to mind? Any other liars, thieves, tantrum-throwers? Or sexist, bigoted, disrespectful, ignorant narcissists? What is the cost of immoral behavior in picture books? Does it matter?

 

 

 

Butterflies and Books

Illustrations depicting books and reading tend to feature certain animals over and over. Cats, cats and more cats is one motif. Birds show up quite a bit. And, I’ve noticed in my collection of images about books and reading, although insects are a rare element, there’s one insect that is clearly the favorite.

Winged, fanciful and echoing the shape of a book, it’s easy to see why artists choose the butterfly.

This week, I wanted to share some of the images I like. Most are simply pretty:

Illustration by Duy Huhnh

 

Illustration by Marco Palena

No credit found

No credit found

 

But some have a little more to say:

Illustration by Linda Apple

 

And after all that pretty, I like the vigor of my friend and co-blogger Julie Paschkis’s reading acrobat and his butterfly friend.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis

 

This one is intriguing to me because the butterflies are so flat. Were they flattened in the book and now are set free? Are they dead or artificial ideas even if they can fly off the page? Or just the play of thoughts for this absorbed reader?

Illustration by Jannike Vive

 

There’s one illustration I have to include. I say dragonflies are close enough and perhaps, as even their name suggests, they subvert the sweetness of the butterfly imagery. I love the mischief in this young reader’s eyes.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

 

 

Concept book, concept book. What do you see?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“so she can fly BUZZ outside”

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

“like a busy bee.”

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

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

Did you ever have a ladybug crawl across your finger?

How did it feel?

Tickly, prickly. Fly away quickly.

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

Did you ever have a fish wriggle in your hands?

How did it feel?

Slippery, slickery. Turny and twistery.

Ending with:

Did you ever have a puppy cuddle in your arms?

How did it feel?

Velvety snug. A hugful of love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring is here.

The snow melts.

The earth is fresh.

The grass sprouts.

Each line is a new, two-page spread.

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

The wind blows.

The storms rage.

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

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

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

The Seattle Public Library also has this list:

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

And here’s this from Goodreads:

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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What makes a good children’s book?

I dropped by Julie Paschkis’ the other day while I was searching for a topic for this blogpost. Her friend Marjorie was sitting at the kitchen table.

“Write about your favorite book as a child,” Marjorie suggested and began to tell us about her favorite, Little Bobo and His Blue Jacket. Marjorie had searched and searched for a copy in her adult years and luckily a friend found it. Marjorie keeps the book in a vault, but she had photos on her phone, which she delightedly showed us, spread by spread.

The story follows Little Bobo, a child elephant. He takes his blue jacket to a monkey for laundering. The monkey mishears and thinks Bobo wants the jacket shrunk. When the jacket no longer fits, Bobo goes from animal to animal hoping to find someone who will fit it. Many try with no success. Then the hippo wiggles into the shrunken jacket. Although it is too small for the hippo, trying it on stretches the jacket and lo and behold Bobo can fit it again!

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We agreed that, compared to today’s picture books, the text is wordy – maybe twice as long as is currently typical. The artwork is cute, as you can see: cartoony and sweet at the same time. The story seems unremarkable.

But something about that book resonated with that little girl at that moment in time. The child Marjorie and the Little Bobo book made a connection that has lasted a lifetime.  By the measure of belovedness ­­– the Marjorie Meter, I think we should call it – Little Bobo is a good children’s book.

• • • • •

Fellow children’s author Adam Gadwitz writes about what makes a good children’s book in the October 3 issue New Yorker magazine. He suggests several measures by which to judge, beginning with the financial measure, noting the Goosebumps series has sold over 350 million copies. He suggests others might rate a book for its social consciousness, on how “instructive or nutritive, often morally so” that it might be. And he brings up Bruno Bettelheim’s idea that a good children’s book helps the child reader find meaning in life.

Does a good children’s book have to work for adults as well? Gadwitz lets C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia published in the 1950s, answer: “… a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”

Gadwitz, who writes middle grade novels, has found two guides to his own writing. One is content-oriented: “I aspire to write books that are so exciting that my readers will want to devour every page, and are rich and thoughtful enough that every page will be worth devouring.”

The other, results-oriented: “If a child opens a book, reads every page, closes it, clutches it to his chest and says, ‘I love this book,’ then it is a good book.”

It’s good to be aware of these scales on which to measure a good children’s book:  financial success, social relevance, significance to a child’s understanding of life, accessibility to adults and kids, longevity, content and results.

But in the end I have to agree with Gadwitz. It’s content and results that matter.

Content – My favorite picture books are favorites for many different reasons. I love some of them because they have a wonderful voice, (like Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks and illustrator Martin Matje, 1999);

some for the dance of text and art, (Emeline at the Circus by Marjory Priceman, 1999);

some for the expressive illustrations and shining story, (All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrator Marla Frazee, 2009);

some for a resonant theme, (Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and illustrator Patrick Benson, 1992);

and some for the characters, (Ben Clanton’s brand new Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea, 2016).

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All these content aspects of picture books are vital to the species. Every book has its own mix of these ingredients, stirred in in service to the story.

Results – In the end, Little Bobo and His Blue Jacket shines by measures of results as well as longevity. I would be so happy if, like Little Bobo, one of my books mattered to a reader across a lifetime.

Julie P mentioned Margery Clark’s The Poppy Seed Cakes. For me, it would be Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear. 

SO WHAT ABOUT YOU? Is there a book from your childhood that is still beloved by you? As people suggest them, I will add covers of other books that scored high on the Marjorie Meter.

From “hangtown”:

From Cathey Ballou Mealey:

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Childhood favorites of Deirdre O’Sullivan:

Favorites of Wendy Wahman:

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.

 

Community, Connection, Creativity

The floweristas convene in a big workroom at the back of Orcas Center on the morning of the concert. Fresh from their gardens, they bring magenta hollyhocks, bright blue hydrangeas, fat white roses, squiggly branches and phlox. The workroom buzzes as they create huge arrangements to grace the sides of the stage and the lobby.

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Planning up to a year ahead, volunteers plant their gardens with an eye toward creating flower arrangements inspired by each of the concert programs. 

In the nearby kitchen, other volunteers plate cheeses and appetizers for the post-concert reception. Still others prepare the post-reception dinner for the performers. And in the lobby, volunteers settle ticket sales, having already set up an art show of local work.

It is all in anticipation of the 19th annual Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival, and it truly takes a village.

We were there for the opening last month, in the island’s 200-seat community theatre. Framed by vats of hydrangeas, a trio named Time for Three – two violinists and a bassist – took the stage. They did not look like classical musicians, rather mid-thirties-aged hipsters dressed in dark t-shirts and torn jeans, like in their student days at Curtis Institute.

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Time for Three: Nikki Chooi, Nick Kendall and Ranaan Meyer

They took us by storm: with dazzling violin runs in exact duet, with bowing so fierce the horsehairs hung ragged on Nick Kendall’s bow. They offered up a whirlwind called Ecuador composed by bassist Ranaan Meyer, and a mash up of Purcell and Stairway to Heaven complete with guitar solo ripped from Kendall’s violin. Then, sweet and pure, violinist Nikki Chooi introduced the melody of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They passed it back and forth, layering the harmonies, as tears welled in my eyes.

Time for Three impressed not just by their virtuosity, but by their joy in the music. Could it get any better?

The next morning we were part of one of the festival’s three “hamlet” concerts. For these, the musicians travel to outlying communities on Orcas. My friend Betsy, a head flowerista, did the flowers for this one, and I got to assist. We helped set up early at the Olga Energetics Club in what is essentially a large living room, pushing the old couches to the walls and lining up mismatched chairs. A spot was saved for a neighbor who is unsteady on her feet, with extra space for her service dog.

Then the audience began to arrive. Each carried a covered dish, sweets and savories for the after-concert reception: veggie spreads, crab in pate choux, butter cookies. One neighbor provides champagne each year. Another brings her famous apple cake.

We filled up the straight chairs and the folding chairs. Three generations of the Friedmann family squeezed into a couch along the wall: Aloysia Friedmann, violist, the artistic director of the festival; Aloysia’s father Martin, a violinist who played with the Seattle Symphony for 25 years; her mother Laila Storch, oboeist, who taught at UW, and her daughter Sophie.

And the music started.

It had been stunning to hear Time for Three play in the theatre, but was even better in this simple room where we were 10 feet from the musicians. They played without amplification. Raw, pure stuff. Heaven should sound so good.

Then they had a little Q and A.

Someone asked, “What inspires you?”

Bassist Ranaan turned to the Friedmanns on the couch, then reached toward Laila Storch, matriarch of the family, who had studied oboe at Curtis at least 40 years before the trio members.

You inspire me,” he told her, “I see how music sustains a life.”

So what does all this have to do with creating picture books? Maybe it’s more about the general idea of creating. Maybe all those Orcas islanders: the ladies growing and arranging the flowers, the volunteers selling tickets and passing out programs and setting up chairs and bringing covered dishes; maybe those musicians, too, that Time for Three trio, putting their bright and brilliant music out into the fresh Orcas morning, maybe as they participate in the thing they are creating they get the same feeling I get when I work on a picture book. That feeling of how good it is to be alive.

It sustains me.

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With Betsy, my friend of 40-plus years. Betsy and and her husband John retired to Orcas ten years ago and invite us up each summer for the chamber music festival. 

 

 

A Quick Heads-Up

 

My Family Tree and Me by

from My Family Tree by Dusan Petricic

Just want to make sure you all know about (and have a chance to subscribe to) the site called ART OF THE PICTURE BOOK, which comes out online with interviews of wonderful picture book illustrators from all over the world. Listed on their main page right now, among others, are interviews with Oyvind Torseter (of Norway),  Renata Liwska (born in Poland, now lives in Calgary, Canada),  Kris Di Giacomo (born in Brazil to American parents, now lives in Paris), Yasmeen Ismail (born in Ireland, now lives in Bristol, England)  and Dusan Petricic (of  both Toronto and Belgrade, Serbia.  I’ll let the drawings and photos speak for themselves – just know that the site often features glimpses of the artists at work and spreads from their sketchbooks. I encourage you to subscribe – it’s free and easy! You’ll find a subscription form here.

Oyvind Torseter - Whyt Dogs Have Wet Noses

Cover Art for Why Dogs Have Wet Noses by Kenneth Steven

Oylind's Studio

Oyvind Torseter’s Studio Desk

Renata Liwska - The Quiet Book

The Quiet Book by Renata Liwska

Sketchbooks

Renata Liwska’s Sketchbooks

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Kris Di Giacomo’s illustration from Take Away the A by Michael Escoffier

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from Kris Di Giacomo’s sketchbooks….

One Word from Sophia

detail from Yasmeen Ismail’s illustration for One Word from Sophia by Jim Averbeck

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Dusan Petricic’s cover art for The Color of Things by Vivienne Shalom

I love poetry. I think it is the most important field in literature for me. With poetry you have to be very precise, very focused and explain simple things. There’s always something a little bit conceptual in each poem. So I love to do that. It’s a lot to do with my opinion about cartoons in general, not only political cartoons. The cartoon is a way of thinking. So poetry and cartoons are similar to me. And that similarity is very simplistic, with the concept of how to find the right, the most precise way to explain yourself. With the least possible words.” [from the interview of Dusan Petricic]