Category Archives: writing craft

PICTURE BOOK FODDER

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In this story, a mouse’s squeak sets off a chain reaction that wakes all the animals in the surrounding meadows and mountains. I painted the illustrations in black and white gouache resist and my sister Kate McGee colored them in Photoshop, as we did for Little Wolf’s First Howling,

THE ILLUSTRATIONS for SQUEAK! are delivered to Philomel for publication next spring. So it is time to scratch around for a new project. How to begin?

BEGIN as a cobbler – laying out all the pieces of the story on the bench. It’s going to be a shoe, but what sort of shoe? Bright buckles? Strong arch support? High heeled, strappy, patent leather?

Begin with an overheard line: “As long as you’re home in time for wormcakes,” or “You’re just a baby. A baby, baby, baby,” or “I remember he was missing a few fingers.”

Begin with a character and the stakes: a child in jeopardy, a badger or weasel or mouse with unquenched desire. Yearning is not enough, begin with clear need.

Begin with a sequence: days of the week, or the five senses, cities along a highway. Sequence can open up a writing experience. Begin there

or with place. Begin with a place that holds memories of the life lived there: the janitor’s hideout in the school basement, a dresser drawer that served as a cradle, a sun-parched hillside.

FREEDOM flows when I approach the blank page. In some ways a new beginning feels like the first time I tried to write anything. In other ways, I lean on 27 years of making picture books.

I think of Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll, talking about the freedom that players gain when they master their skills. He said: “Think of a dancer. Dancers work and they work and they work and they master their skill – or singers – they master their skills so far that improvisation just comes flowing out of them. Their natural expression of the best they can possibly be comes out of them because there is no boundary to hold them back.”

I hope for such intuitive leaps, but am aware of my shortcomings, too, and appreciate encouragement from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem:

      Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.

BEGIN. Let the world fall away and follow the path into the story – as long as you’re home in time for wormcakes.

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Imagery and the Election

THE NIGHT before the Big Election we slept at Inverness, a beach enclave north of San Francisco that is right smack on the major San Andreas faultline.

(Gotta love the hint and nudge of the objective correlative: earthquake possibilities and the election side by side.)

Election day bloomed sunny. News sources predicted that the earliest time Hillary Clinton would be declared winner was 5:30 PST, so we walked out across the dunes to Kehoe Beach to watch the sunset.

I noted details that might tell the day’s story: the miles-long empty beach, washed clean, as for the fresh start of the first woman president; the moon slashed by a jet trail, like a giant ballot mark, a celebratory green flash as the sun sunk into the Pacific.

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When, in the wee hours of the morning, Donald Trump was declared the next president of the United States, I realized I had made a big mistake in choosing metaphors. I should have noted, instead, our long slog through mud and sand, the putrid corn chip smell along the marshland trail, the huge breakers five and six layers deep that pummeled the shore. And the signs along the beach: “Riptide Warning” and “Beware of Sneaker Waves.”

WE FLIPPED on the TV Wednesday and heard our president Barrack Obama remind us again how we are One America. He said Donald Trump had spoken to him of the same intent: for America to be whole again. Obama used the analogy of the presidency as a relay race, stressing the importance of the handoff of one administration to the next.

It has been hard to sleep. Each time the heater switches on, it sounds like a distant siren. A simile of danger. But, as Obama told us, life goes on. The sun comes up each morning.

THURSDAY we hiked on Point Reyes North Beach, the outermost western edge of continental America. The horizon was lost in thick fog. A young couple walked near the breakers. He had a baby on his back. She led a dog on a leash. They held hands. I need this hopeful image in the face of the unknown.

On the radio, political experts talk about how this election pitted those who want change at any cost against those who want the status quo. They say the election reveals a deep division in America.

Children’s books can play a role in addressing this gap. As children’s books become more diverse and better represent the vast variety of human experience, young readers will come to understand our great commonality as well as our differences. Understanding leads to empathy.

When we drive from Inverness back to San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge we pass through a tunnel on each side. One tunnel is named for World War II General Douglas MacArthur, the other for comedian Robin Williams. That’s a pretty big divide, right?

Yes, it’s a bridge we’ll be needing. A Golden Gate. Maybe children’s books will help build it.

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