Winter Sunlight

Anna Silivonchik

Belarusian Illustrator Anna Silivonchik

I just finished reading an article in the New York Times about the record-setting lack of sunlight in Moscow this December. During the entire month, the poor citizens of that city got only six minutes of it, total. Yes, you read that correctly: six minutes. Total. That’s the time it takes to cook a soft-boiled egg. Now divide that by 31 days….

According to the article, the city was “shrouded in an unrelenting cloud cover” which meteorologists blamed on anomalies in cyclone patterns over the Atlantic, combined with warmer than average temperatures. When interviewed on NPR about what that month felt like, reporter Charles Mayne said that the sunlight was “painfully meted out over a number of days….you could enjoy just 30 seconds or so as it came by.”

I have subsequently vowed (on Facebook, if that can be called vowing) to stop my rants about the rain and the short days we suffer through every winter in the Pacific Northwest. The average duration of sunlight in Seattle during the month of December is 52.9 hours; in Moscow, the average drops to 18 hours. I do remember one winter where Seattle had measurable rain for 90 days in a row. That was dismal. But six minutes of sunlight in 31 days? Compared to that, the Northwest is a balmy paradise.

If you follow Books Around the Table, chances are good that you’re a writer or an artist or a creative person of one kind of another. Creative people can be instinctively hermit-like; we can stay at our desks or workshops and lose all track of time. I’m writing about the lack of light today only to encourage all of us (you, Readers, and myself) to go outside and soak up the light this winter whenever we can. Bundle up, put on boots, put on a hat and good mittens, but get outside. Sunlight helps our bodies remember their circadian rhythms; it helps us fight depression.

phoebe wahl

Artwork and Desk/Tools of Illustrator Phoebe Wahl

Sometimes, we need to resist isolation: a nice smile from (or to) passing strangers on a cold but sunlit day can make all the difference in boosting our moods. We can go from dour to cheerful in one walk around the block.  Better yet, we can embark on a ramble, completely unfettered. We can let the light fill us up.

It’s true that hot cocoa, a fire in the woodstove, a cozy chair, and a good book to read are lovely during the winter. No doubt about it. But don’t forget to let the light in (or let yourself out into it) whenever you can. Remember what Thoreau said:

“What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice  come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.”

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Sunshine on the Snow (Replica of Thoreau’s Cabin, Walden Pond)

The reporter I mentioned above, Charles Mayne, said this: ” Well, you know, those six minutes – I mean, I pretty much remember every single one of them. You’d be in the middle of your day, working or meeting a friend. And if you were lucky enough to be either outside or near a window, you know, you’d suddenly feel this kind of shift in your mood, you know, something along the lines of – I think it’s called happiness….”

 


[In honor of all the snow around the country, I’ve posted a poem for Poetry Friday titled “Winter” by Walter de la Mare. You can read it over at my blog, The Drift Record.]

 

 

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Words and Images from the Women’s March

Words and Images. That’s how we convey story in a picture book. Yesterday, I tuned into the words and images that told the story of the Women’s March in Seattle.

It started with how it all looks. I had misplaced the pink pussyhat I knit last year – so decided to wear a red hat my sister Kate sewed me, edged with buttons from my mom’s button box. It was a way to bring Mom and my sisters along.

Then we met a woman on the Light Rail who’d sewn 100 pink fleece pussyhats to give  away. That set the generous feeling for the day.

with my friend Suzette

We took the train from the University station. There had been a smattering of pink pussy hats and signs as we descended the escalator into the Light Rail dungeon. By the time we emerged at Cal Anderson park everyone was showing the colors of the movement – which seems to stick to the purple and red side of the color wheel.

At the park, these two passed out the 1000 buttons they had made. I like the words on mine: strong female character, (especially good for a writer, right?)

Words and images. The Seattle march, which numbered as many as 50,000, was led off by Native Americans wearing black and red clothing, some with button blankets and woven hats. Their drums set a beat of gravitas. Their signs drew attention to the cause of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.

Before we fell into line, a guy with a microphone and camera asked us why we were there. Where to start?

Some of my favorite signs said why. Sometimes with humor, sometimes just pointing to the heartbreaking truth.

Respect my existence or expect resistance

I loved that many of the marchers were men…

 …and that many children participated as well, like this adorable group with Suzette’s daughter and her friends: four moms and seven little ones. When I asked seven-year old Sidney why she was marching, she said, “I want girls and women to have the same rights as men –  because I’m a girl.”

Their future keeps us marching. I plan to hang on to my new pussyhat. This story’s not over.

 

 

Many Gifts

Each month, Julie Paschkis, Laura Kvasnosky, Bonny Becker, Julie Larios and I meet at one of our houses, around one of our tables, to review and critique each other’s work. We also share news, thoughts, stories, quandaries and lunch (or brunch) and tea. As most of you already know, this blog evolved out of our working friendship.

Each year, we exchange gifts for the holidays – small things, often items we have made ourselves, sometimes souvenirs from places we have visited in the past year.

But the greatest gift we give each other isn’t at these yearly holiday gatherings; it is what we give each other each time we meet, and often in between. We give our eyes, ears, brains and trust. It has been many years since I joined this group (around 2002) and it started ten years before that. A few members have come and gone (and come back again). We started blogging together in January of 2012. Between the five of us, we have published 69 books and 309 blog posts. Geez.

There have been a lot of thoughts and ideas shared around our tables. I am forever grateful for the excellent input and feedback I have received over the years – and that is not to discount in any way the friendships we have developed.

If you have a professional critique group like ours, you know how valuable it is. If you don’t and wish you did, find a few open-hearted individuals whose work you respect see if they are amenable to starting a children’s book group with you. Maybe you will find a good group if you take a picture book writing or illustration class or workshop (that is how this group got started). It helps if you are all at a similar place with your writing and/or illustration careers.

Best wishes for a creative and productive new year!

 

On Board

At the end of every year I look back. I think about the shape of the previous year. I look at my decisions – good and bad, and see where they took me.
Each decision leads me somewhere, and each year has a different shape. Some of what happens is beyond my control and some isn’t.
Like a board game!

Here are some board games from long ago. I hope you will enjoy looking at them. Maybe you’ll be inspired to play a game, or to make up your own.


in 1804, this game was “Designed for the amusement of Youth of both Sexes and calculated to Inspire their Minds with an Abhorrence of Vice and a Love of Virtue.” (My generation had Twister.)


You could climb the Mount of Knowledge in 1800.


100 years later you could climb to Klondyke and search for gold.

Snakes and Ladders is a game based on Moksha-Patamu – an Indian game used for religious instruction, which has 12 vices but only 4 virtues. Some later versions also include moral consequences,

and some don’t.

When my niece Zoe was little she made her own version.

with vivid details.

Some game boards have squares.

And some are round.


Here are instructions for Mu Torere in case you would like to play.

Sometimes a game (or life in general) can feel like a wild goose chase.

Sometimes the box sums it up.

Here is a game from Roman times, with advice, as translated by R.C. Bell.


To Hunt, to Swim,
To Play, to Grin,
This is to Live

Lavari might be translated more accurately as “to wash”, but swimming is more fun.
Happy New Year! May you be awash in good things.

p.s. What was your favorite game growing up? I liked Chinese Checkers because of the star shaped board and marbles, and Milles Bornes, because we got to shout Coup Fourre! I still don’t know what that means.

p.s. Most of the games in this post came from two books: The Boardgame Book by R.C. Bell, and A Collector’s Guide to Games and Puzzles by Caroline Goodfellow.16 5x5 board

Books and bad weather

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

It can be a moment of solitude…

Illustration by Samantha Dodge

or a moment that unites us.

Illustration by Vincent Mahe

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Sometimes you can create your own shelter.

Illustration by Iker Ayestaran

Illustration by Michelle Riche

In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.

Illustration by Sasha Ivoylova

But not always.

Illustration by AJ Frena

But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.

Illustration by Raija Nokkal

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!

“Rare as Georgia Snow”

Winter Weather Deep South

Last week snow fell from San Antonio to Atlanta before moving up the Eastern seaboard to a more likely spot for a winter snowfall, New England. I know my good friend Leda Schubert was thrilled to see the snow fall in Vermont, where she lives (“the center of the universe,” as she calls it.) But across the country the headlines were focusing on the South: “Snow snarls flights at world’s busiest airport,” read the headline in USA Today (and don’t you’ love a good headline…”Snow snarls flights” – isn’t that poetry?)

Snow in Atlanta put me in mind of a beautiful poem by Kevin Young. It wasn’t written for kids, though I’m hoping we can all expand our sense of what kind of poetry is appropriate for kids. Read this one through. It’s simple, direct, it looks effortless. Certainly a 10-year-old child could hear it and think about it; not all poetry for kids needs to be rambunctious. The ending is a bit of a puzzle, but not beyond pondering – and why not let poetry teach children that life is puzzling?

As simple as it looks, there’s lovely music in the way the words flow and the sounds the words make. Music – melopoeia – that’s one of the three elements that poet Ezra Pound attributed to poetry. The other two are phanopoeia (the casting of an image) and logopoeia (harder to define.) I think of logopoeia as intellect – the mind coming in to play, usually discerning meaning behind the music and the image.

In any case, here’s the perfectly-titled poem. Ditty: “A short simple song.” Remember to read it aloud, and you’ll hear the music. And just imagine: a person rare as Georgia snow! The minute the poem starts with that opening phrase, you belong to it.

 

Ditty

You, rare as Georgia
snow. Falling

hard. Quick.
Candle shadow.

The cold
spell that catches

us by surprise.
The too-early blooms,

tricked, gardenias blown about,
circling wind. Green figs.

Nothing stays. I want
to watch you walk

the hall to the cold tile
bathroom—all

night, a lifetime.

 

Kevin Young, 1970

newspoet_kevinyoung03

Poet Kevin Young

By the way, it’s Poetry Friday. Diane is hosting the round-up over at Random Noodling. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

 

What I Learned from the 2017 Caldecott Winners’ Portland Panel

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Marian Creamer of Children’s Literature Alive introducing the panel. L to r: Marian in front, Brendan Wenzel, Javaka Steptoe, Carson Ellis, Gregory Christie, Vera Brogsol and moderator Steven Engelfried.

There they were – all five recipients of the 2017 Caldecott awards – seated for a panel discussion in Portland, Oregon. Usually a given year’s Caldecott winners appear together only at their ALA awards ceremony. But shortly after these winners were announced last January, my friend, Portland librarian Marian Creamer, who served on the awards committee, realized all five of the 2017 recipients had a connection to Portland. So she hatched a plan to gather them for a wonderful few days of events in her corner of the world.

Here are some remarks from these illustrious illustrators that stuck with me.

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Javaka Steptoe with Faubion PK-8 student.

First off, Javaka Steptoe whose book, Radiant Child, the Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, was given the top Caldecott medal. His illustrations were created in the style of Basquiat’s work: painted and collaged onto found wooden panels with repetition of iconic Basquiat images in Basquiat-bright colors.

Javaka said he begins his projects by looking for the story behind the story. For this book, it was the mother/son connection that spoke to him, “the basis of Basquiat’s humanity.” In the first stages of any book project, Javaka advises, “Let it be ugly: throw it up on a page, put it all out there, then scale it back.” His goal is to find “a balance of flavors.”

As he works through successive drafts, Javaka finds “better words and flow out of the chaos and jumbledness.” He concluded, “Put the work in – and also realize you have to give it up eventually. You gotta let it go.”

Javaka first visited Portland 17 years ago and “looks for any excuse to return.”

Next up, the four Caldecott honors.

 

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Vera Brogsol scored Caldecott honor recognition with her first picture book, Leave Me Alone, the tale of a grandma who yearns for a place where she can knit in peace and quiet. Born in Russia in 1984, Vera came to the US at age five and worked many years in animation. Like the babushka in her book, she relishes time alone and the opportunity to work on her own projects.

Vera emphasizes she works slowly. “Projects become a part of you, like a limb.” She looks for projects that will challenge her, to help her grow and understand herself.

Screen Shot 2017-12-09 at 2.57.16 PMVera’s fellow Portlander, Carson Ellis, author of Du Iz Tak, is flat out inventive. This is a book written in a language spoken by insect characters; a language made clear by repetition and context. The illustrations move the story along with delightful surprises at each page turn. Carson is the mother of two young kids and wife of indie musician Colin Maloy of the Decemberists. She keeps a slush pile of pieces that she revisits to see if any of it “can go anywhere. Everything I do is over-complicated and I have to simplify.” She circles back to the slush pile to see if any ideas are ready to “flesh out properly.”

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Gregory Christie and me.

Greg Christie spent three months painting in the Portland arts environment, in the time before he opened a bookstore/gallery in Atlanta. His book, Freedom in Congo Square, recounts a chapter of slave history in New Orleans. The rhyming text by Carole Boston Weatherford, tells of the slaves working day by day, leading to a Sunday gathering for dancing and music in the city’s Freedom Square.

“Anywhere you go in the US, New Orleans is unique,” Greg said. “Its unique urban energy was forged in African American culture.” Greg has illustrated over 60 children’s books and lots of album covers as well. He used a combination of collage and acrylic gouache on this one. He paints his final art over a loose sketch. “I like to give myself room to keep energy in the painting.”

His reason for creating children’s books? “I do these books because I want there to be books I wish I had as a child.”

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Brendan Wenzel is based in Brooklyn, NY, but his book, They All Saw A Cat, came out of his experience of living three years in SE Asia. The illustrations reveal the ways that various creatures (flea, snake, mouse, skunk etc.) see a cat, as well as how the cat sees itself. Brendan says he was aiming to “create a sense of healing through understanding our different perspectives.” That is exactly what these illustrations do. Also, this book has my favorite first line, “A cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, paws and ears.”

Brendan worked with Michael Curry, Portland’s creator of large puppets, i.e. Lion King, for four months.

The Caldecott 2017 panel was introduced by students from Grant High school and Riverdale Elementary and moderated by Steven Engelfried, Library Services Manager, Wilsonville Public Library. In the following days, the five visited Faubion PK-8 school in NE Portland and worked with students on art and writing projects.

I met Marian Creamer – who dreamed this up and made it happen – about 20 years ago when she was a school librarian at Riverdale Elementary and I a visiting author. Though she is retired from her school library, she continues to work tirelessly to bring kids and books together.

Marian was struck by something she gleaned from these five Caldecott winning books as a whole: “A multiplicity of viewpoints can coexist, and differences of perspectives are evident without preaching. Children are the best judges of discerning what is true and relative.”

Yes!

Marian’s non-profit organization, Children’s Literature Alive, sponsored the Portland events. If you would like to join me in supporting Marian’s work, leave a note in the comments and I will send you her contact information.

 

Ideas Beget Ideas

I’ve been asked “Where do ideas come from?”

For me, ideas beget ideas. It’s hard to begin anything. Every idea can seem stupid and dismissible. But once I start working even a slight idea can take root and grow. To put it another way – whatever I am making has its own ideas and talks back to me. I just try to start a conversation.

That is true within any individual painting or illustration. It’s also true from painting to painting. The more work I do the more I want to do – the ideas bounce off of each other. When I am busy I have too many ideas to implement. When I actually have time the ideas sometimes wither or run away, and I am bereft. They like being part of a crowd.

I love illustrating books because the words take me to new places, and each book is a complete journey. But the finished work has to deliver on the promise of the sketches. For my whole life as an illustrator I have continued to paint pictures that are not part of books – just because they (I) can wander off in new directions. This feeds back into the books and allows me to grow. It is also just plain fun.

Here is the cover of a new book – VIVID – that will be coming out next summer.

Painting that cover led me to these explorations of color.

I bought some white ink for those paintings, and that led to more explorations with black and white ink.

sisters 8x8

 

stretch 7 x 19

The act of painting points me in new directions.
ms weathervane 15 x22 All of the art in this blog post will be in a show at the i.e. gallery in Edison, WA from December 2-24th. The gallery is open every Friday-Sunday, and by appointment.
I hope you can come to the show (opening Saturday December 2 from 4-6 PM).

I’m not sure where ideas come from – but for me they multiply when they can bounce off of each other. I’d like to hear your comments on whether your ideas like to be in crowds, or whether they flourish more in solitude. What stops you? What keeps you going?

Here is a poem by Anne Stenzel, from her new collection called The First Home Air After Absence.

combustion stenzel

Vintage Holiday Images from the (Great) Pacific Northwest

This week I went to the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, Washington. They have a several shows there currently. Territorial Hues: The Color Print and Washington State 1920-1960 is an excellent exhibit of mid-century Northwest printmakers.  The pieces by Glen Alps were some of my favorites.

The museum is also showing their third annual display of Vintage Christmas Cards.Many of them are done using printmaking techniques (always good for reproducing images in multiple). Here is a small sampling from the display.

Glen Alps, 1954.

George Tsutakawa, 1967.

Danny Pierce, “Christmas Trees”, 1986

Danny Pierce, “Cockle Prober”, 1990

Danny Pierce, circa 1990.

LaVerne Fromberg, 1958.

Artist Unknown, circa 1955.

William J. C. Klamm, 1949.

William J. C. Klamm, 1964.

William J. C. Klamm, 1955.

Stephen Dunthorne, circa 1952.

Katherine Westphal Rossbach, 1948.

Jacob Elshin, circa 1929.

Artist unknown, circa 1951.

Richard Kirsten Daiensai, Ancient King and Calling Bird, 1955.

Here are two decorated envelopes from Orre Noble that remind me of my trans-continental correspondence with Julie Paschkis.

I like how many of them have more to do with what the artist was currently doing with their work, than Christmas itself.

Seeing them makes me wonder what I might do for a holiday card this year. I hope they inspire you as well!

And if you are in the region, go see the exhibits! They are there till January 7th.

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.