Category Archives: writing

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

 

 

 

It only takes 30,000 years of culture to get this

Lately, for some reason I’ve been thinking about how much you need to know to understand a simple cartoon. Here’s the cartoon.

Cartoonist Amy Hwang

I have it pinned to my refrigerator door because I love to nap, so that’s the first reference point for me. But what else do you need to know to “get” this cartoon? I mean I figure a Martian wouldn’t begin to know what to make of this.

We earthlings need to know that a cat (or any creature) lying in a bed with other similar creatures of different sizes gathered around it is typically a death bed scene. Here you get a further hint out of the fact that this a hospital bed, which we  know because of a mutually understood visual shorthand.

You need to know that at death, people sometimes express their thoughts on life including their big regrets. You need to know that those regrets are usually about rather grand things—I regret not loving more. I regret not appreciating every day. It’s a doorway into the deep wisdom of someone at the end of their life.

You need to know that napping is considered a pretty negligent use of one’s time. You need to know that cats nap a lot, so much in fact that it is improbable that any cat could nap more. How much napping does any cat need? And so the grand is turned into the banal, and yet, it’s touchingly real, too.

Finally, at a very basic level, you need to have learned how to decipher lines and shades on a flat surface as images. Not to mention that you need to know our current conventions in clothing and size for indicting age and gender; that the creature with an open mouth is the one speaking in a cartoon.  Oh, and you need to be able to read.

For a lot of you, you’ll know something more. You’ll recognize this as a New Yorker cartoon. You’re unconsciously picking up on conventions that are telling you that.

That’s a lot piled up into appreciating this. I love that. I love how layered our awareness is and how so many layers can be captured so simply and so perfectly in this ephemeral bit of humor.

That’s what I love about writing, too. One of the best descriptions of I ever heard about poetry was from a professor at San Francisco State University who taught a class on Shakespeare. I don’t remember his name (I never do) but he said something to the effect that a poem is words compressed into a seed that only blossoms in the mind.

And that description blossomed in my own mind. I “got” it. I got what is so powerful about poetry;  what’s so special about it. Why you experience it differently from other art forms. All writing blossoms in the mind to some degree, but poetry is the ultimate compression and gives it that deep, internal “oh” that you don’t quite  get from other writing.

Cartoons especially single panel cartoon can also be wonderfully compressed, too. But they rely so much on current, temporary associations that they rarely (never?) achieve the timelessness of poetry. Just try reading old New Yorker cartoons.

Want to play? What all is compressed into this cartoon? What do you need to know? Is it so specific to writing that it’s more of an in-joke? I’m betting that our current “meta” approach to art makes this much more universally accessible than that.

Cartoonist Tom Gauld

 

 

THE WELL-SAID WELL

Most my life I have been saving quotes. Today I offer a few that encourage me as a writer and a human being. Hope they speak to you, as well.

“Writers are like the cheese in the ‘Farmer and the Dell’ – standing there all alone but deciding to take a few notes.” – Annie Lamott in Bird by Bird.

“You absorb these influences almost by osmosis and then how many years later – it’s been 22 years – they just come out. I think it’s beautiful. It’s like when there’s no rain in the desert for a long time and then it rains and these beautiful flowers pop up.” – k.d. lang speaking on NPR about the influence of Roy Orbison on her new songs. April 16, 2011

“Maclean was deeply influenced by Wordsworth’s notion of ‘spots of time,’ or moments that give life shape and meaning, ‘as if an artist had made them,’ in Maclean’s own words… His aim, he wrote, ‘was to study the topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul.’” – from my sister, Susan Britton’s notes of a Norman Maclean interview

“Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” –Itzhak Perlman

“As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with glaciers and wild gardens and get as near the heart of the world as I can.” – John Muir

Do you have some quotable quotes to add to the stack? Extra points for inspiration and humor.

 

 

 

Runaway Reading

The first box arrived Thursday. Inside were seven picture books. I’ve been told to expect about 175 more before the January 15 deadline, from which my fellow judges and I will select the 2019 winners of the Margaret Wise Brown Prize, and an honor award.

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I’ve never judged a picture book contest before, but by virtue of having won the Margaret Wise Brown honor this year with Little Wolf’s First Howling, I was asked to help choose next year’s winners.

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My fellow judges are Elaine Magliaro, who authored this year’s prize winner, Things to Do, and E.B. Lewis, a five-time Coretta Scott King award-winning illustrator of 70-plus books for children. Over the next months we will read and note our responses to the submitted books and figure out how to work with each other as we wend our way to a decision.

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The 2018 Margaret Wise Brown Prize winner by fellow judge, Elaine Magliaro

 

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Books illustrated by fellow judge, E. B. Lewis

Presented annually by Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, the Margaret Wise Brown Prize recognizes the author of the best text for a picture book published during the previous year. The award is a tribute to one of Hollins’ best-known alumnae and one of America’s most beloved children’s authors. Winners are given a $1,000 cash prize, which comes from an endowed fund created by James Rockefeller, Brown’s fiancé at the time of her death. It makes sense that the award is for text, since Margaret herself was the author of all those wonderful classics, not the illustrator.

This focus on text contrasts with the ALA’s Caldecott which is “awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” (from ALA site, emphasis mine)

I will have as hard a time considering text without illustrations as I would considering illustrations without text. I think these two ways of telling must work together to serve the story in a picture book. It will be interesting to see how my thinking about this progresses. In fact, I am eager for the education this experience will offer.

I look forward to reading the 2018 crop of picture books — and to sharing my favorites with friends and family.

 

WEAVING A BLOGPOST

spider3In our garden, we’ll remember this as the Year of the Spider. The golden slant of autumn light has come — and with it a bumper crop of spider webs.

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The spiders are easy to spot, hanging head downward on their vertical webs that serve as both home and hunting ground. Just what kind of spiders are they? I searched the Other Web and found this handy identification chart on iwastesomuchtime.com.

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Reference.com had better information. I learned that the classification of spiders begins with their webs. Much as children’s writers work in genres – board books, picture books, middle grade and YA — spiders spin out one of four different kinds of webs: orb, sheet, funnel and tangle.

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By the shape of their art in our garden, I identified these weavers: orb spiders of the family Araneidae.

Yes, that’s the same spider family as Charlotte’s in EB White’s beloved Charlotte’s Web.

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It seems fitting that they are spinning webs outside my windows while I spin a blogpost within.

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Ah, that I could be so productive. Orb spiders build new webs just about every evening, after consuming the old web. Revision and more revision. Only the females weave webs. The males spend their time searching for mates. To create silk, an orb female squirts liquid out of the spinneret glands in her abdomen. It stays liquid until it hits the air, much as ideas solidify as they become words. She makes sticky silk for the circular strands, to catch insect prey, and non-sticky radials to run along: threads of dialogue and narrative; exposition and introspection.

She weaves a web from her own substance: story woven from the deepest self.

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Orb spiders do not see well, despite the fact that they have eight eyes. An orb female is alerted to an insect on her web by its vibration. She runs along the radials to subdue it with a bite, sometimes wrapping it in silk for later consumption.

A writer might move blindly into a story, as well, feeling her way for the vibrations that raise the little hairs on the back of her neck, the visceral reaction that telegraphs yes, here’s a juicy story part, an idea to bite into, a just-right word to wrap in silk for future use.

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My three-year old grandson took a good look at the orb spiders at his house, too. He counted five webs in the tree next to their stairs. But he doesn’t call them Araneus or even spiders. He calls them “Booby Voobek,” in the insect language that Carson Ellis invented for her brilliant book, Iz Du Tak. And there, where language and spiders collide, seems a good place to end this woven tale.

“Rup furt,” Ellis writes. Rup furt, indeed.

 

 

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.

For Love of the World

“All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” – E.B. White

Lately I have been digging into the final dummy revisions for SQUEAK, a picture book which will be published by Philomel in 2019. It is a chain-reaction story; a Rube Goldberg alarm clock that starts with the squeak of a small mouse and ends with the biggest bison’s bellow billowing out over mountains and meadows and waking everybody else.

Along the way I get to draw chipmunks, trout, elk, eagles, bears, wolves, and big horned sheep, as well. Also the landscape and the plants where they live.

You might recognize Little Wolf whose howling in SQUEAK wakes the big horn sheep.

I am illustrating SQUEAK with my sister Kate Harvey McGee. I wrote the story and will create a black and white gouache layer, like the wolves above, for the illustrations. She will provide the color, as she did for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. One of the benefits of this collaboration is we talk over possibilities. For instance, tree choice.

We were hiking on the Oregon coast and came by this lovely Sitka spruce. It had the perfect opening at the bottom for a small mouse nest – and great checkered bark. But the big cast of animals in SQUEAK requires the ecosystem of a place like Yellowstone. That sent me scampering through the internet to see if there is a similar spruce in the Rockies – Yes! The Englemann spruce. I gathered screen grabs of the pine cones and needles, branching habit, etc. of this particular tree. And photos of the inside of stumps, too, for the final spread.

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For LITTLE WOLF, Kate captured the colors of the hours from evening to night, painting moonlight. But SQUEAK takes place just before the sun comes up, the whole story happens in about 15 minutes. She is experimenting with possible palettes, auditioning various pinks and oranges to suggest the pre-dawn.

To find the images and the colors to illustrate this story we tune into the beauty and wonder of the natural world: from the thick brown shag of a bear’s coat to the silver scales of trout, from grass-choked meadows to conifers hugging the bottom of rocky cliffs.

We were raised in Sonora, CA, in the Sierra foothills, and spent many happy days hiking the Emigrant Wilderness, about an hour up Highway 108. On backpack trips into the high country, we sometimes woke in the chilly pre-dawn when a few stars still lit the sky. We lay awake long enough to note the beautiful mountains, meadows and towering trees all around. Then, like the small mouse in SQUEAK, we snuggled down with our friends and went back to sleep.

How satisfying to have a project that recalls that place and lets us speak our love for the natural world.

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. 

 

 

Art, Pleasure, and Beauty, No Less

Beauty, everywhere you look....

Beauty, everywhere you look….

Getting back from Europe last week, I started reading a book titled Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott. I know that his opinions about movies/art/culture often jibe with mine, and I loved the lunch-room conversations — videotaped and posted under the title “Sweet Spot” on the NYTimes website and on YouTube — he had with the late David Carr. So I’m interested in what he has to say about these four slippery-fish abstractions: Art? Pleasure? Beauty? Truth (the slipperiest and fishiest of the four)?

I thought a lot about the first three categories when I was in Europe. Can you be in three of Europe’s great cities – Paris, Rome, Barcelona – without thinking of them? The first two – art and beauty – are everywhere outside you,  and the third – pleasure – fills you up inside to the point you can barely sleep. And since I was traveling with my husband, our married daughter, her husband, our grandson, both of our grown sons and one of their girlfriends – eight of us on the Grand Tour! – I got to see what moved them and what they thought was beautiful, too, so my pleasure multiplied. I think we all agreed there was beauty everywhere we looked.

THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE MUSEUMS…

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THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE SHOPS…


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THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE STREETS…

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THERE WAS BEAUTY UNDER OUR FEET AS WE WALKED, AND IN THE SKY ABOVE, AND IN THE SMALLEST PLACES AND SPACES, AND IN THE LARGEST VIEWS….

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When beauty is underfoot, overhead, in front of you, behind you, all around you, you feel it, don’t you? I’m not sure I understand the “why” behind my feelings –  maybe while I travel, the feeling is all I need.  Now that I’m home, I have a good book to read which might help me learn “how to think” about those feelings, about why something appeals to me — why a particular Etruscan vase or Roman lamppost or Paris thistle or Barcelona chocolate shop makes me stop my wanderings long enough to snap a photo — when a host of things I walk right past might appeal to other people. Is there any accounting for taste? Is “beauty” always a subjective quality, or is there some universal standard? As a writer, I learned to question “beauty” because it can be too easy, too pleasant. I like the idea of “wabi-sabi,” the imperfection that makes for perfection. It will be interesting to see where A.O. Scott takes me. I think “Truth” might be a hard nut to crack. But Art, Beauty, Pleasure…I’m ready to think about them. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a little something of Scott’s that I marked with a star. It involves a question that I think writers should ask themselves:

“[Criticism] has always been part of the landscape…arising from our desire — nearly as strong as the urge toward pleasure itself — to think about, recapture, and communicate our delights, to make them less solitary, less ephemeral. The origin of criticism lies in an innocent, heartfelt kind of question, one that is far from simple and that carries enormous risk: Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” 

Aha. Truth.

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WHAT NEXT?

On March 30 I sent all the interior illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING to Candlewick Press for publication next Spring.

It has been an intense and exhilarating five months creating the final art for this book: learning Photoshop, (thank you Kevan Atteberry for help with that); collaborating with my sister Kate McGee, (I did the black layer, Kate did the color), and figuring out what the art would look like.

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And now, except for the cover, it’s done.

What next?

 I am reminded of a family story. My mom and dad raised five kids.

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That meant every three years between 1962 and 1975 they joined the audience on the football bleachers at Sonora High on a beautiful June evening to watch one of their kids graduate. After the youngest, my brother Tim, was handed his diploma, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, Harve, what shall we do now?”

I know. It’s not really comparable. Mom and Dad worked on their project of raising kids for thirty years. Theirs was a much bigger “what next?”

LITTLE WOLF’s been growing in my mind and studio for less than a year and a half. But I did become very fond of him and will certainly miss the almost daily interaction with Kate as we worked on the art.

My cousin Jerry has a quote for times such as these. It’s advice from 1790: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell. Blake was in his mid thirties when he wrote that, and already he’d produced an impressive body of work: books and engravings, both. Clearly he leapt forward to each next task quickly and with joy.

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But I am feeling a little empty. All I could do for Little Wolf has been done, (except for the cover). His boat has sailed.

I suppose this is why some author/illustrators work on more than one project at a time: to make it easier to face the end of possibilities when you send the artwork away.

I told Bonny Becker, (fellow BATT blogger), that I was having trouble letting go of Little Wolf. She reminded me of a picture book idea I had floated awhile back, a story that started with a mouse squeak.

“Get to work,” she suggested.

p.s. Mom took up air racing.

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ADDENDUM

Our critique group met Tuesday and Julie Paschkis brought along a special tin of tea. It’s BATT Brand Finis Tea, made in Seattle and London. Ingredients: Wit, Wisdom, Labor & Love of Bonny, Julie, Laura, Margaret and Julie. Directions: Steep tea for three minutes and 32 seconds. Sip slowly and savor the sensation of sending it off.

We toasted Little Wolf with our mugs of berryblossom white tea. I get to keep the tin until the next member has a book to send off. A tradition is born. Thank you, Julie!