Our family is weathering a sad event: my husband John’s younger sister Barbara died on May 16. Among other things, she will be remembered for her humor, her lively black eyes and her New Jersey accent, (she pronounced her name ‘Bobbra’).
Which is a long way to say we are going to postpone the June 1 first public reading of Ocean Lullaby that was to take place via zoom from Green Bean Books – until July or later.
I will let you know the new date when arrangements are set.
Meanwhile, enjoy the trailer John made, with music by our son Tim, played by Tim on slide guitar and his friend Coke Youngblood on acoustic.
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.
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.
Last week Julie Larios wrote here about our new book Delicious.
Her poems are tasty, and it was a pleasure to illustrate them.
It was a pleasure that lasted for a decade! Delicious celebrates street food, much of which is fast, but creating the book was slow. I loved her idea and poems when I first heard them in 2011. I then created sample illustrations using the technique of papercutting.
Julie and I submitted the book for publication in 2012 but the world was not hungry for it yet.
Years later Allyn Johnson at Beachlane had an appetite for this project but wanted paintings not papercuts.
With this painting I figured out my new approach. I began with Julie’s Oaxaca poem because of my deep love for the place – its art and food. (Here and here are links to other posts I have written about Oaxaca.)
Painting the images for this book was a trip around the world. It involved research about the food and also about the places. For example for the illustration about Senegal I looked at pictures of baobab fruit, bouye, bissap water and lots of Senegalese textiles which I referenced in the border and also in the bark of the trees.
SUMMER DAY (Dakar, Senegal)
Cousin, cousin – cold bouye?
Cold bouye from the baobab tree?
And icy bissap water for me.
My imaginary visit to Korea included kimchee and kites.
BEST FRIENDS (Seoul, South Korea)
First full moon day, time to play
You and I with kites in the sky.
Auntie brings us market meals:
mandu for you,
kimchee for me.
Food is joyful. Food is necessary. Food is a way to keep culture alive and to connect cultures. In my illustrations I celebrate each unique place as well as the food.
After many years of cooking, this feast is ready. Hot dog!
STADIUM DOG (Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Franks with relish
at Fenway Park,
going, going, gone-
and home before dark.
I hope that Delicious will lead to real shared meals and experiences. You can purchase the book many places including Elliott Bay Books here.
I’m so happy to tell everyone reading Books Around the Table today that my latest picture book collaboration with illustrator Julie Paschkis is now officially out in the world – Delicious: Poems Celebrating Street Food Around the World has been published by Beach Lane Books! Big shout hurrah, huzza, yippee and yay!! And a big thanks to editor Allyn Johnston for the fine work her team did in making this a real, hold-in-your-hands book.
“Out in the world” is exactly where this book lives – New York City, Oaxaca, Jaffa, Marrakech, Launceton, St. Petersburg, Lima, Mumbai, Surabaya, Seoul, Athens, Dakar, Beijing, and Boston, to be exact. And there could have been so many more cities, each one with its own rich stories about traditional street food. Choosing just fourteen poems to fit the picture book format was hard! So many beautiful cities, so much delicious food. I wrote one of the poems to honor many of the foods at once.
“Syrian shawarma wrapped in a pita? / Biryani? Pork carnitas? / Maybe I’ll get a hot falafel? / Schnitzel? Pretzel? Sesame noodles? / Cajun? Lebanese? Cuban? Thai? / So many choices! What should I try?”
I set “Carts in the Park” in New York City, where doors open wide to many immigrants and many kinds of street food (thinking of hot pretzels covered with mustard, a hot dog in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and divine biryani one night after a show in the Theater District.) But my own personal experience with this kind of gathering of food carts is Portland, Oregon, a city that in the past has supported a whole city block of food carts downtown, as well as mini-parks full of carts in other neighborhoods. I hear a big apartment building might be built on the food cart block – say it ain’t so, Portland! We need some food cart advocates. Maybe this book and others like it will help ensure another generation of food cart lovers?
When you travel, do you come home with memories of unexpected moments with a local food seller? A small conversation, a delicious bite of traditional street food? I suspect you do, I hope you do, because those memories stay with you and become part of your family lore, don’t they? My best memories of Mexico, aside from visiting my husband’s family, are from the lively markets and the street carts – hot corn on the cob covered in chile sauce, all-you-can-drink orange juice, sweet peanut brittle, morning tamales, fruit juice popsicles, churros, cocoa, and – yes – deep fried grasshoppers. The poem I wrote for Oaxaca comes straight up from my love of the kind and hard-working Mexican street vendors I’ve met.
“Steaming cup of champurrado / panecitos, cinnamon churros — / mmm, mmm! Delicioso! / Lovebirds chirp: Pio! Pio!”
This is my fourth book with Julie Paschkis, and when the box of author copies arrived at my door, I said my usual hallelujah for Julie’s energy and vision, her talent, and – most important – her friendship. With this book in particular, I thank her and my other Books Around the Table friends for their patience and support – this book was a long time coming! Many first versions of the poems were just too long for a picture book collection (one stand-alone poem about Mexican markets was highlighted in 2010 in a blog post by Jama Kim Rattigan – eleven years ago this month!) so the project came to a standstill. I even put the manuscript away for a number of years, busy with my teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But it kept sneaking out of that drawer in my desk, and it really does help to have an encouraging and supportive writers group to keep your spirits up. Thank you, Laura, Julie P., Margaret and Bonny.
I’m hoping someday I’ll get to St. Petersburg….“Four pelmeni / three piroshki / two sweet blini — / one big belly.”
And hoping I’ll get to Lima …. “From a tin tray / on parade day / to celebrate the Lord of Miracles — / star cookies, pink sprinkles!”
And to Marrakech. And to Athens. And…and…and….
Can you tell I’m aching to travel again? Fingers crossed. Vaccinated, wearing my mask, dreaming of Oaxaca.
Last spring I started creating coloring pages and posting them on my website here. It was a way for me to offer something to people who were suddenly home all the time (kids and adults). And it was a way to steady myself in a wobbling world.
Now, a year later, I have posted more than 150 drawing pages. They are all available to download for free here.
Recently I picked 21 of my favorite pages and made a new coloring book.
You can buy the coloring book at JuliePaprika for $10. (Click here). The pages can be colored with pencils, crayons, markers or paint.
You can make up your own stories for the images as you add color.
Because I used to be an art teacher, I hope that you will also make your own drawings from scratch. Here are a few prompts for starting a drawing. These are some of the ways I jump start myself.
Draw a shape and repeat it many times. Then decorate that shape with doodles.
2. Draw a straight line. Connect another line to it. Keep adding lines and see what happens. Various dimensions might appear.
3. Write a word so that the letters fill the whole page. Decorate the letters.
4. Draw something that is laying around your house. Don’t worry if your drawing is wonky or strange. If you wanted a perfect picture you could take a photograph.
5. Draw a line and repeat a similar line next to it, over and over. You can do it with many shapes (like these leaves), or just one shape over and over. The little irregularities and variations of the line as it repeats will make your drawing interesting.
I hope that you will have fun creating your own drawings, and adding color to mine. And I hope that as the world opens up there is still time to draw or be contemplative in other ways.
p.s. Today’s blogpost comes with dessert. Here is a recipe/painting of strawberry rhubarb pie by my niece Zoe Paschkis. You can see more of Zoe’s work on Instagram ( click HERE) or Etsy (HERE).
APRIL 7 UPDATE: The original May 4 launch date launch has been changed to May 18.
A year before we all retreated to our houses, our family spent an idyllic week at a little resort on Maui’s Napili coast. Our visit coincided with that of a group of retirees from Canada and the US who had met there on previous trips and now regularly return the first week of February. One of them is a singer/guitarist who has a one-man show in Las Vegas. Their tradition is to circle the lounge chairs on the lawn above the beach one night for a sing along. They invited us to join in. He played all the best love songs. We sang. We danced. We rocked our grandchildren on our laps as the sun went down and a crescent moon rose.
That’s when the first lines of OCEAN LULLABY came to me. Song floats up, moon smiles down while we rock to ocean sounds. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. The ocean’s soothing song. Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. We can sing along.
Then I looked out across the surf and started wondering. What do ocean creatures do as night falls? Do they sleep? Do they dream?
That’s how the story progresses.
I learned that adult whales buoy their calves so the calves can continue to breathe while they rest.
After grouping turtles and jellyfish on the same spread, I found out turtles eat jellyfish, so I quickly erected a coral structure to keep them apart.
A diver at the Maui Aquarium told me that resting octopusses (his preferred plural) have a brain pattern similar to humans when they are dreaming.
The monk seals are my favorite spread. As soon as I saw a reference photo with the little guy waving, I wanted to include them.
On May 18 this year – over two years after our trip to Napili beach – OCEAN LULLABY will be published by Philomel. It is the third book my sister Kate Harvey McGee and I have illustrated together. I paint the black lines with a gouache resist technique, doozy them up in Photoshop and email them to Kate who lives near Philomath, OR. She’s a retired landscape architect, now pastel plein air painter, who colors our illustrations in Photoshop. I am so lucky to collaborate with her. I love the way she paints light.
One of the reasons I like to make picture books is because I love my work to be part of a remembered magical circle: those times with my kids, snuggled in the big chair, the neighborhood settling quiet around us, the warmth of their small selves on my lap as we enter a story together. OCEAN LULLABY was crafted for that circle. It ends:
You my sweet, my sleepy child, rest here in my arms awhile. As the new moon rides the sky, dream the ocean lullaby.Shhh, hush. Shhh, hush. Shhhhh…
We hope to set up a zoom event for an official launch soon. Meanwhile, OCEAN LULLABY will be available for sale at all the usual places after May 18. It offers a window to the big world that’s waiting for us out there when the Covid days are over: a world full of dozing whales, dreaming octopuses, snoring monk seals, family and friends.
There comes a time in most creative lives when the joy gets lost. The doing of your art—your poetry, your books, your drawings, your cooking, your sewing, your teaching—becomes a chore.
I’ve gone through this cycle a number of times—the loss and the rediscovery of the spark that set me on my journey to be a writer. In a recent Zoom presentation for SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), author Laurel Snyder had some great observations about this same process for her.
She discovered that as the publishing of her work became easier, the writing became harder. As an eight-year-old, she had loved to create stories for no other reason than it was fun; it was exciting. It was play. I remember feeling like that, too, at eight and nine and ten. I loved inhabiting my imaginary world; I loved playing with it; I loved changing things to my exact desires.
But, as I did, Snyder found she lost the joyful need to tell a story somewhere in developing her ability to crank out a book.
“I needed to find the play again,” she said.
For the first step, she suggested a really difficult thing:
Step Away from Rewards
“We do the things we’re good at which are typically some version of the things we’ve been good at for a long time because we will gain respect or appreciation, because we get a boost when somebody compliments us.”
Often that thing we get good at, becomes the thing we need to do to make a living “otherwise they come and take away the house or the car or there’s no food in the fridge.”
Bottom line is we end up avoiding activities that don’t seem to advance the thing we’ve learned to do well and that we now need to do to make a living.
To get back to play, “you need to step away from the idea of utility and you need to step away from the idea of external appreciation, compliments and rewards”.
She acknowledged that this was the hardest thing we can do. “It’s a gigantic emotional leap.” But without it we won’t really get into true play.
“You aren’t going to do [these] things…because they will help your book…you’re going to do them because they feel good. And it will be awesome if your book improves…but you [want to] find a way to enjoy them so much that it doesn’t matter what happens to the book.”
“Learning to disconnect from rewards won’t get your book written, but it will help you make a better book and keep you writing for life.”
Notice that important qualifier at the end—keep you writing for life. Because if you can’t keep the joy, if what once was play is now a chore, you’ll stall out. Maybe you can slog along if there’s a sure paycheck or retirement account at the end, but that’s rarely the case with your creative outlet.
So if you want to keep doing that thing you love, how do you get back to that feeling of joy and fun?
Turn off the lights
Not to sleep but to daydream, to muse, to imagine, to dwell in the world you’re building in your book (or painting or poem or classroom). What Snyder started doing was to go into her room, turn out the lights and daydream about her book world for about an hour.
Mostly, she said, she moved around inside the world she was creating and imagined the details. You’re not going to record any of this, Snyder said. You’re not going to write it down or add it to your notes on your phone. But a lot of the things you imagine will probably make it into your book and your story world will come alive.
I remember so well how I did exactly this as a child. How much I simply adored lying there and pretending that I was in whatever magical land I wanted to be in. I remember how I lovingly crafted the details–going over and over exactly how my princess bedroom would be furnished, how that dragonfly carriage looked, exactly what my flower petal fairy dress looked like. Usually the plot of the story I was imagining wouldn’t advance one mote, but I knew in my heart what the dungeon looked like.
I don’t think I can do this for an hour, but I’d like to try 15-20 minutes where I simply daydream and allow myself to explore what my world looks like and feels like. I want to enjoy the sheer imagining of the beauty or the devastation I’m creating.
Develop the other side of your brain
For those of us who are primarily writers that means drawing, painting, sketching our story world.
“It’s been without question the most successful tool for my own purposes and yet it took me decades to discover, largely because I was stuck, as most of us are, in a grown-up mindset.”
Since she wasn’t any good at drawing, Snyder started with something that didn’t require a lot of skill. A map. In this case it was a map of an island she was imagining—an island where only orphaned children lived—which became the basis of her book, Orphan Island–A National Book Award Longlist title, recipient of starred reviews and, now, a future movie.
Of course, it’s rather ironic to mention that success up against the dictum to step away from rewards. But regardless of any external success allowing yourself to play creatively should give you a better book. You will have given your world the love and attention it deserves to truly come alive for you and the reader.
For those who already use the right (drawing) side of the brain (supposedly, since it’s turning out it’s not really as simple as that), maybe you could discover some way to play more with words that expand your story world for you: poems about your world, rhymes, skip-rope songs, bits of dialog, bits of dialect. Even if they won’t end up in the work, you will know better how that character moves, looks, expresses themselves.
What else might spark you that you rarely do now that you’re a mature creator. Dance out a character, a scene? Make up a song? Play with your kids stuffed animals or action toys? Make a paper mâché model of something in your book?
It doesn’t have to be any good!
What you do doesn’t have to be presentable at all. No one is grading you, no one is looking over your shoulder, no one ever has to see it. No one expects you to be any good. You’re a kid. You’re only playing.
In all, Snyder offered 8 different steps that helped her get back to play. I’ll list a few more of them in a future blog.
Laurel Snyder is the author of six novels for children, “Orphan Island,” “Bigger than a Bread Box,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Any Which Wall,” “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains OR The Search for a Suitable Princess,” and “Seven Stories Up.” She has also written many picture books, including “Charlie and Mouse,” “The Forever Garden,” “The King of Too Many Things,” “Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova,” “Inside the Slidy Diner,” Good night, laila tov,” “Nosh, Schlep, Schluff,” “The Longest Night,” “Camp Wonderful Wild,” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.”
Snyder has published work in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, and she teaches in the MFAC program at Hamline University, and also in the creative writing department at Emory University.
I’m not sure why I think of February as a bit of a pretender in the January-to-December calendar. It could be the lack of a satisfactory ending: finished in a too-tidy 28 days, so some days go missing. It could be the lack of a proud identity: it’s surrounded by the more illustrious months, January (“I’m the beginning of a brand new year!”) and March (“Spring will be arriving before I’m gone!”) Or it could be the awkward unprounounced “r” at the heart of it (does anyone say Feb-ru-ary rather than Feb-u-ary?) which feels a little “presumido” as they say in Spanish. A bit pretentious and effortful. I remind myself right now that it has Valentine’s Day…so romance, love, roses…maybe I’ll cut it a little slack? Or maybe I won’t, because every February I wish I could escape the Pacific Northwest and go someplace less gray and less rain-soaked.
In any case, I feel like it’s a month that merits a collection of thoughts, so I offer up some interesting bits and pieces that have been on my mind and on my desk.
I’m celebrating a new book, Nathan’s Song, by the talented Leda Schubert. It’s one of those perfect picture books; Leda knows what she’s doing: not a word too many, not a word too few, exciting illustrations, and a story I love. It’s based on Leda’s real grandfather, a young Russian Jew who yearned to study opera in Italy, left the shtetl to do just that, and accidentally (he got on the wrong ship) became an immigrant in New York City. Wonderful book – if your local library doesn’t have it, encourage them to purchase it. Or, even better, order it and add it to your collection. Leda has recently posted photographs of her grandfather on Facebook; here is one of Nathan with his sister, and another of just Nathan:
2. Next, a heads up for tonight, literally: Friday the 26th is the best night for viewing the Snow Moon. Which is also known as the Big Hoop Moon (Cheyenne), the Sleet Moon (Comanche), and the Big Bear Moon (Tlingit.) By the way, February has no full moon every 19 years. Another example of its fragmentary nature?
3. Julie Paschkis’s wonderful post two weeks ago looked into pianos: learning to play them, reading about them. So I follow up with an unrelated “Piano” of my own: I recommend the book Atlantis by Carlo and Renzo Piano. The subtitle is “A Journey in Search of Beauty,” and it follows the trip by sailing ship of Carlo Piano, a journalist, and his famous father, Renzo Piano, the architect of the Pompidou Center, the Whitney Museum, and the new New York Times Building, among many other famous structures. I especially liked Chapter 16: City of Music, which offers up this interesting observation when discussing the call of sirens (the kind that seduce sailors, not the kind that sound an alarm): “There are plenty of theories about sirens….Some believe that what gets mistaken for sirens are rogue waves that produce melodies.” There’s a poem in that if anyone wants to write it. And here’s an interesting passage for another poem: “Sound is air quivering in space, physicality. .An architect is a constructor of music boxes. When designing a concert hall, merely achieving acoustic perfection is insufficient. An architect must also give it character. And he has to grant everyone access to the same emotions at the same time. One of the beautiful things about listening to music is that we listen to it together.” Piano goes on to talk about the lightness of music and the heaviness of architecture. Pure poetry.
That’s it for now: two bits and one piece, or one bit and two pieces.
Oh. One last bit-let (aka trivia): Did you know that February used to have another name? In Old English it was called Solmonath – which some translate as “mud month.”
Pianos are splendid. Here is a book that explains with brio how they came to be.
My friend Julan Chu, a gifted pianist, lent me a fine, shiny piano. It felt wrong to have it and not to play it, so I began to take lessons again last January.
Julan Chu -portrait by Julie Paschkis 2003
My lessons became virtual when the pandemic arrived, and they also became more important to me. The discipline of practicing scales and pieces has been an anchor (a metronome?) during these strange times.
In the book Dancing Hands, Margarita Engle tells the story of the pianist, composer and singer Teresa Carreño, who immigrated to the U.S.A. from Venezuela during the Civil War. This book tells the story of the power of music in light and dark times- like a piano it conveys a whole range of emotions. Click here for a link to the illustrator Rafael Lopez’s fantastic blog about how he illustrated the book.
Although I am practicing and playing through dark and cloudy times, you wouldn’t illustrate my attempts with vivid blossoms. My hands stumble and squawk more often than they dance.
But it is interesting to try, and it is satisfying to see incremental change. Every once in a while I can make music.
Petr Vasilievich Miturich
When I am at the piano I need to let everything else go, which is difficult. I realize how fractured my attention has become. Practicing requires presence.
In May Christoph Niemann published a graphic essay in the New York Times about the solace of learning piano as an adult during the pandemic. (Click HERE for a link.) He brilliantly illustrated the pain and the pleasure of the practice. Now he has turned that essay into a book: Pianoforte.
His illustrations are perfectly compressed ideas – succinct, funny, and true to my experiences.
He shows the frustrations …
the side benefits…
and the ephemeral pleasures.
I had to include actual music in this post! Please click HERE for a link to Ballade No. 15 , composed by Teresa Carreño, played by Alexandra Oehler.
And here is a link to the website of my fantastic piano teacher, Carrie Kahler. She teaches young children as well as adults. Because the lessons are virtual you could sign up no matter where you live.
What has kept you going during the pandemic? Please share your thoughts in the comment section. Thank you.
I was eight when we moved to Sonora, CA. It was my fourth school in five years and I wasn’t adjusting well.
Luckily, our new town had a library tucked into the Veteran’s Hall, right on Main Street, between our house and our dad’s newspaper office.
And luckily, Mrs. Hoe was at the desk there, looking out for lonely readers. She handed me Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the story of a girl like me: same age and name, and quite attached to a warm and wonderful father. I loved reading how that other Laura found her way in her new place.
The book was a lifeline.
Not surprisingly, I was fascinated by the recent PBS show on American Masters, Laura Ingalls Wilder Prairie to Page. It begins by comparing Laura’s real childhood experiences to the Little House series’ stories, pointing out interesting discrepancies. As Laura said in her later years, “All I have told is the truth, but it is not the whole truth.”
But most interesting to me was to learn that the books were a collaboration between Laura and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Rose was an established author in her own right – penning magazine articles and fiction and non-fiction books – when she started working with her mother. Letters between Rose and Laura reveal how the Little House books were shaped by both women from conception to writing to editing.
The TV show uses examples from when they were working on the manuscript for By the Shores of Silver Lake. Rose’s letters are written on an old-fashioned typewriter. She has good advice about inhabiting the main character: “This is Laura’s story. You must stay inside Laura. Try always to make sight, scent, sensation immediate. ‘So Laura took the lines in her hands,’ is better than ‘So Laura drove the black ponies.’ Get it all directly as sight, emotion, thought, scent. Don’t say, ‘It reminded Laura of other times.’ Say, ‘This was like other times.’ Stay inside Laura.”
In another letter, Rose infers the collaboration did not always sit well with her mom. Rose wrote: “You are one of the few writers in the country who would turn down a collaboration with RWL – But go ahead! You certainly are handling the material much better all the time and if you don’t want this book touched, you are absolutely right to not have it touched.”
At issue? Rose advised against including the heartbreaking, true-to-life storyline about Mary going blind. Laura wrote back in her slanted scrawl on lined paper: “A touch of tragedy makes the story truer to life and showing the way we all took it illustrates the spirit of the times and the frontier.”
If you are a Little House fan, you will remember how Mary’s blindness is a poignant part of the book.
More from Rose to her mom: “As to similarity in our writing, of course. You often write lines and whole paragraphs that I feel are what I would have written or anyway I had. What you haven’t developed is structure, a kind of under-rhythm in the whole body of the writing, and a ‘pointing up’ here and there. English is an impressionistic language, an onomatopoeic language. It has a quality of a sunrise or a landscape, a meaning in feeling. Essentially, it is poetry.”
I love thinking of language as sunrise or landscape; as the atmosphere it creates.
The TV show says Rose denied any connection to the Little House books until her dying day. Apparently she did not want the act of writing for children to taint her adult publishing career. Her own best-known book is non-fiction: The Discovery of Freedom, an early work that laid the foundation for the Libertarian party.
The show includes a discussion of the issue of racial prejudice in the Little House books, noting Laura was the first recipient of the ALA’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Lifetime Achievement award in 1954. In 2018 the ALA changed the name of this award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award in light of parts of the Little House books that are “dehumanizing to children of color and send damaging messages to white children.”
Lousie Erdrich characterizes the Little House books as “valorizing things that destroyed entire peoples in this country.” As an adult, I see that and am sickened. Still, when I am asked what books made a big difference in my childhood, Little House in the Big Woods belongs on the list. My adult self sees things differently, but my child self remembers walking into the library’s cool brick building on a hot September afternoon and finding Mrs. Hoe in her crisp white high-collared blouse, doing her best with the books at hand to offer a little bibliotherapy to a lonely kid.
For these past six years and three picture books, I have collaborated with my sister Kate McGee on illustration. I have benefited from the insights of a second brain and a second artistic sense to clarify each project, as well as Kate’s sense of color and innate good cheer. I hope Rose and Laura got some of that, too.
Note: The TV show is 90 minutes and covers lots, lots more. You can access it on demand.
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.