Joohee Yoon relights the burning tiger in her book Beastly Verse from Enchanted Lion. Yoon’s tiger pulses with energy. She uses a limited palette – the colors vibrate. The shadows of the forest become the stripes of the tiger. The page folds out. First you see mostly the forest, then open the gatefold to reveal the rest of the tiger with fearful asymmetry.
Morris Hirshfield’s tiger radiates energy through the curving stripes of the beast, framed by the curving lines of the sky. This tiger is bigger than any mere tree, bigger than the hills.
Straight lines can be energetic too. Tiger leaps with big paws onto this soft rug, this new year.
This quizzical feline might not be a tiger. He wonders.
He is painted by Tatiana Mavrina. Her joyful style always reminds me to be free when painting.
Today’s tiger journey ends with another visit to William Blake.
Here we are in a new year. I wonder if you, like me, are using this quiet Covid time to generate new writing projects?
The EMOTION door is one way into a new story. Many of my favorite picture books are powered by emotion – i.e. Where the Wild Things Are, Owl Babies, The Rabbit Listened. A whole reason to read is to feel the emotion of the story. Why not cross the border to childhood and mine your own emotional geography for stories from your deepest sense of who you are, your particular take on the world?
For instance, the Zelda and Ivy series comes from my experience as the middle of five children. I earned my black belt in sibling rivalry. Those childhood incidents have provided material for six books about the fox sisters. Mostly I go for stuff that makes me laugh, but those long ago happenings evoke all five of the major emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger and peevishness.
It’s a matter of feeling your way back to where the good stuff is waiting and reconnecting with experiences that provoked big emotions; experiences you found funny or scary or exasperating or intriguing or hurtful as hell.
Here are three exercises I have found useful:
1. Emotional event inventory: Look at the first ten years of your life in two or three year chunks. What significant events occurred in each chunk? Note events that hold emotion: times of great loss, disappointments, times of wonder, deep satisfactions, things that made you laugh. List objects, people, places you loved or hated or found scary or funny. Even if you are not an illustrator, it is helpful to draw this stuff, or at least describe it carefully in words, so you retrieve a mental picture – picture books are a visual medium. Then add the audio. Put the event on scene – write it in first person present tense, using dialogue and narration. Don’t be encumbered by the facts. Lie, embellish and shape your story into the best story it can be.
2. Gather evidence from family archives: Revisit home movies and photos, diaries and any other artifacts from your childhood that bring up emotion.
3. Research Your Own Life: Visit the old neighborhoods, talk to the kids you grew up with. Comb old newspapers and magazines from the places and times in which you were a child. This probably comes from my journalism background, but often research will present stories and backstories. Scratch around. It’s waiting to be discovered. You can tell something belongs in a story if it raises the little hairs on the back of your neck, as friend and fellow Seattle writer Brenda Guiberson taught me years ago. Pay attention. Some stuff is charged for some people. Who knows why? It¹s that emotional charge that will carry your story and connect to readers.
Of course, ideas are found in the present, too. In fact, think it is the synergy of experiences and observations across a lifetime that gives a story juice. Crafting a story is a way to make sense of it all: to savor and honor some memories, and to provide closure and put to rest others.
As the end of this sometimes difficult/sometimes hopeful year approaches, I begin to feel a number of New Year’s Resolutions sneaking up on me. I capitalize “Resolutions” because those little buggers need the insistence and ferocity of a capital “R”; my track record with resolutions is not stellar. I often break them by January 2nd. But it’s a new year, so new goals, right?
Some of the goals are about my relationship with my body. I’m 72 and this relationship, like any relationship that lasts decades, includes fondness, irritation, misunderstandings, boredom, and laughter. Bodies are strange things, no? Frankly, I’ve always been better friends with – and kinder to – my brain. Brains can also wear out, of course – that thought scares me more than mortality.
I don’t want my brain wearing out, and I hear it’s good for brain health to keep the brain active. One resolution I feel coming on is this: READ MORE BOOKS. Not that I haven’t been reading in bits and pieces, but as some of my blog posts suggest, my attention has been brief and scattered. Articles here and there. Headlines, Commentary. Opinions. Reviews. Interviews. Cartoon captions. An essay about the joys of Rome or a googled article about how electrical circuits work. Fluttering and jumping. Snippets and bits.
But I’ve been lazy and undisciplined about books. What’s that about? Pandemic fatigue? I don’t have the answer(s) yet. Might not ever figure it out, but I’m going to try to get the joy back. I remember reading several books a month – even big, generational narratives – and loving them when I was younger. Would I read One Hundred Years of Solitude now? Probably not, and what a loss that would be. Lately, if a book is long and challenging, and I’m reading it on my own, I abandon it.
Here is my working theory: I need to talk about books with people. Especially novels, which I find, pro forma, challenging. Non-fiction, easy: the real world is intriguing. But fiction? I need to talk about fiction. That way, I can see characters and authorial strategies from a different point of view. If I’ve disliked a novel and someone else has liked it, why would that be? Have I missed something? Have I read carelessly? Have I neglected a good story because I’m too hooked on style? Too hooked on reality, too suspicious of the imagination?
Luckily, I have a group of friends I talk with about books. Over the last year, the books we’ve chosen have honestly been the only books I’ve read cover to cover. Maybe my resolution to read more books is actually a resolution to pay attention to other books the way I pay attention to the ones I read and discuss with friends.
We’ve been meeting monthly for ten years – Zooming, for the last year and a half. Books we’ve discussed have ranged from classics to recently published books, from old favorites and small gems to big bestsellers. We’ve never established parameters about the way the books would be chosen, haven’t made rules about the way we would talk about them. We simply decided that each person, in turn, would pick out a book that the group would read. Some of the book choices have surprised us – we ended up not enthusiastic about some we thought we would love, and we absolutely loved a few we initially were unsure of (Hannah Kirshner’s Water, Wood and Wild Things: Learning Craft and Cultivation in a Japanese Mountain Town – who expected that to become one of our favorites this year?)
Over the last ten years, we’ve read between eight and ten books per year. We’ve turned mixed reactions over and around in our discussions. I’ve come to think of our conversations the same way i think about going to museum exhibits – enjoying them most when I’m with someone who likes a piece that I’ve approached with disinterest. Those familiar questions come out: Have I missed something? Have I looked at the exhibit carelessly? Have I too often privileged style over substance? Is there something I can learn from this? The person I’m with (often my sister, who studied art in college) invariably knows a few more details than I do about technique, about effect, about effort, about the life of the artist. I listen and become interested. I find new footing. I grow. So it is with my book club. Without fail, someone adds an observation that gives me a new perspective.
In 2021, we read eleven books. I’ve put their covers up at the beginning of this post. Loved some, disliked others, was bored by some, couldn’t put others down. Looked forward each time to hearing what friends thought of of a story, and why they thought what they thought. I heard people mention things about the book I hadn’t thought about. Loved re-viewing the book after their comments. A new member is joining us this month, and I look forward to getting to know her through books.
As for the resolution I feel coming on: If I read eleven books this last year, can I put aside the snippets and bits long enough to double that number, or triple it? Can I re-engage with longer reading? Re-engage with novels? Re-connect with more people to get a discussion going? Maybe the bottom line in that resolution is “reconnect with more people.” I moved to a new town not too long ago and barely got settled in – I’m slow when it comes to settling in – before the pandemic began and new friendships went on hold. Maybe it’s time for me to join the local library’s book club. Make new book friends, keep the wonderful old book friends. And give another old friend, my brain, more of a workout.
It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, although I am still a participating member of our Books Around The Table group. I needed a blogging break. But I have been busy with various other projects, and I am excited to tell you about one of those projects here.
Though not related to children’s books, it still deals with narrative. The big difference is that this time the story is told through movement and costume, rather than pictures and words.
I have posted before about my textile work on our blog here and here. When I was first experimenting with garments as a form of storytelling, one of the first test garments I made was this:
There is an engineering challenge to sewing conjoined garments. I like to make my mistakes on a prototype if I can (although I still make lots of wrong turns in the final piece as well).
That experimental piece led to these, among others:
But I kept looking at that first test piece and imagining how dancers might use it to show the transference of love, knowledge, and life experience from one person to another, like the relationship between a mother and daughter – or how I feel as both daughter, and mother. Memento mori…
Could a dance piece be part of my garment work? Could there be live performances to coincide with an art show?
I met with dance artist Erica Badgeley to talk about the idea. I asked her for a budget estimate to choreograph and produce a short dance piece (five to ten minutes) for a few live performances, set to music by cellist Gretchen Yanover. Then I applied for an Artist’s Project grant through 4Culture in hopes of getting funds to pay the artists involved, buy supplies, and perhaps rent an exhibit space. The grant deadline was March 4th, 2020.
I got the grant.
But in the meantime, COVID-19 had happened. By the time I was notified, we were in full pandemic mode. The plan to have live performances had to be scrapped for the foreseeable future. Could we videotape the dance and show that virtually instead?
I didn’t know then that Erica had been studying how to create dance films. She was excited about this new direction. So, rather than looking for exhibit options, we looked for a videographer and filming location.
Erica began choreographing. We met in my backyard, outdoors, masked, socially distanced…
Lucie Baker was brought in to dance the duet with Erica
I started working on designing and building the costumes.
We’re back in the grey tunnel of winter here in Seattle, a tunnel made even darker by the gloom of 20 months of Life Under Covid. When it all gets too heavy, I turn to the GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS file I keep on my phone: a list that proves sometimes the world works the way it should. Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals who make a difference. Might lift your spirits, too.
The dad and his son in early Spring ushering a mother duck and her eight ducklings across several city blocks — stopping traffic as needed — to get them all safely to Green Lake.
The grandpa and grandson walking to school one Fall day, holding hands plus each one with a grandpa-sized glove on their outside hand – so all four hands were warm.
The woman dropping off a bag of beautiful handknit hats at the local fabric store that was putting together donations for people without houses.
The grey-haired lady at the post office mailing 185 postcards to Georgia voters before the November 2019 election.
From a pre-Covid school visit: A little girl bent over in a wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. As she rolled along with a line of kids, she was the one to say to me. “I hope you have a nice day at our school.”
From a visit to Emerald City Smoothie with my triplet grandnephews: When it was our turn at the register, we were slow getting our order organized. Instead of getting annoyed, the guy behind us reached forward with his credit card and treated us.
And kudos to these kind people I read about:
The chain of 900 drive-thru customers at the Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota, last winter who each purchased the meal for the car behind them. The chain went on over two and a half days, finally ending when one customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his, at a point that the restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.
The family that created a stick library for dogs. Every neighborhood should have one.
The Southwest Airlines gate steward who returned a Buzz Lightyear doll to a young passenger, after photographing the doll’s adventures in the airport.
“The Don Quixote of Brooklyn” who tilts at plastic bags. This former middle school teacher, now traveling poet, created the Snatcherlator, a 20’ extendable pole that aids his efforts. His quest? To remove garbage from the branches of trees throughout the city.
And the Canadian vet who came to the rescue of an Army wife who was driving her two kids and two dogs and a cat 4,000 miles from Georgia to Alaska to reunite with her husband when she was met with whiteout conditions in British Columbia with 1,000 miles still to go. Kudos to the bigger group of vets in Alaska who paid for his ticket back home, as well.
Not to mention MacKenzie Scott’s $6 billion in gifts. Gotta respect someone who takes the old adage to heart: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
I welcome more items to my GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS list. Please add your stories in the comments.
The longer I’ve been a writer, the more I’ve come to trust my intuition. I wish I’d had more faith in it sooner or, rather, understood earlier what a powerful compass it is. It’s funny because it’s something I’ve always used in critiquing the work of others. I can tell quickly if the story of a student has gone off the mark because I’ll feel it. It’s not an intellectual knowing. It’s the reader in me who simply wants to stay interested in a story.
Recently I attended a Zoom seminar by best-selling mystery writer Elizabeth George, best known for her Detective Inspector Lynley novels. I’ve heard George speak a few times and you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who is more exacting about her writing process than George. She maintains lengthy files on major characters, their biographies, their behavior, motivations, important scenes and developments not just for one book but for the course of the still-growing series. With some twenty Detective Inspector Lynley novels, keeping track of who said what to whom fourteen books back is a challenge. (George’s self-described tendency toward OCD has to be helpful.)
She is equally exacting when it comes to editing her work. Unlike most writers she doesn’t belong to a writing group, instead she’s figured out her own precise process.
George’s manuscripts undergo three readings before she sends them to her agent. The first read is what she calls the Fast Read.
George prints out her manuscripts then sits down with a hard copy (often 700 pages or more) and a pad of Post-It notes. Even if it takes all day she tries, if possible, to read the new mss. in one long sitting, looking for things like:
– repetition of words, expressions, moments, actions, settings (she doesn’t want to forget that the same two characters have had a conversation at that same little coffee shop described in the same way four times now)
– accurate chronology
– things she forgot to put in
– unnecessary characters or themes
– inadequacy of themes or characterizations
She writes notes to herself on the Post-Its , not on the manuscript. She’s very specific about that, although I didn’t get a chance to find out why. Then it’s time for the Slow Read. She’s looking for the same things, but now she rereads the mss. over the course of several days. And now she also looks for:
– things to cut
– she takes each POV character and pulls out all the scenes with that character looking for consistency of attitude, voice, arc, eye color, etc.
She asks herself:
– Have I proved my premise?
– Have I fully illustrated my theme?
– Have I touched reader’s emotions?
– Are there characters in conflict?
– Would human relations really be like this?
– Does the character grow, change or learn something?
Then she puts the book back together and asks some more questions of herself:
– Does story start in right place?
– Are events and scenes causally related?
– Is the climax exciting? Is there a “bang in the bang”?
– Is there a resolution?
– Is there justice in the end? Psychological, judicial or physical justice?
– Are characters fully revealed at the end?
– Any anticlimaxes? In other words, has she failed to deliver on story promises?
– Used the right POVS?
– Used the right voice for each POV?
– Avoided obvious, unnecessary dialog such as hello, come on in, how’re you? etc.
Then she writes herself an editorial letter, telling herself what needs to be fixed, what clunks, what works, what she needs more of, less of. The kind of detailed letter a good editor might send you.
Finally, she starts rewriting, but, no, it’s still not done. She now sends the revised manuscript out for a third read, what she calls the Cold Read. According to George, the important thing to look for in this reader is someone who has not seen the story in any of its versions, and someone you are sure has no axe to grind. For George it’s been the same reader for some 33 year–a friend she taught with when she was a high school English teacher.
George, naturally, has a specific approach to the Cold Read, too. She provides her reader with an open set of questions and a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the reader has finished the book.
For the set of questions, she asks her reader to mark up the hard copy of the mss. with symbols. She keeps it simple—for example, jot down B when bored, ! when you think you know who the killer is, P if something feels wrong or inadequate about the setting (P is for place).
Then the reader opens the mystery envelope and here George asks questions more specific to that particular manuscript, such as are there too many scenes in Havers’ point of view? Did I prove my point?
Now she writes what she hopes is her third and (final?) draft. Whew!
But the truly interesting thing for me in all of this was to learn that George, despite her exacting process, when all is said and done, relies on plain old gut feeling.
“I listen to my body.”
In particular, she’s notices a feeling of dread. She may not know yet what it is, but that feeling tells her something is wrong and she jots that moment down. I call that moment of dread, “a niggle”. It’s a tiny twinge inside that’s saying something is wrong here, something isn’t working, something is tripping me up. I hadn’t put a word to how that often feels, but “dread” is right.
Why “dread”? Well, for me, it’s the dread of needing to rewrite and not knowing how to fix it. I don’t want to do it! If I’d known how to do it right I would have done that in the first place! The more experience I’ve had, the less I truly dread this. I have more confidence in my ability to eventually figure it out (really the ability of my subconscious to figure it out) or, if it comes to it, to know when to give up.
I call on my intuition more quickly than George. I often rewrite as I work, but it’s because I’m having that same feeling of things not working. When I dread plunging back into that scene, when it bores even me–the creator, when it won’t take me naturally to the next scene—it’s time to stop and rethink.
I’ve come to realize more and more, it all comes down to what your gut (or maybe that headache or that niggling worry) is telling you. Don’t be afraid of it, any more than you’re afraid when you read a library book and realize you’re bored or confused or annoyed. All you have to do is note it, come back to it and make it better. (Hey, that’s all! 😉
Before the pandemic I became interested in Crankie Theaters. I wrote about them HERE. I decided to make a crankie theater production of The Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog by Oliver Goldsmith. To make it more interesting the audience would bark along. But then the pandemic struck. Gathering to bark (or meow) around a theater was unwise.
It occurred to me that a bark-along children’s book would be just as fun.
Goldsmith’s elegy is wonderful (you can hear it sung HERE). But its gentle mocking of piety didn’t seem clear or interesting to children. So I took one stanza of his poem and wrote my own story using Goldsmith’s structure and rhythm. Thank you, Oliver Goldsmith.
The book opens with instructions on how to bark and meow along.
The new story is about a lonely cat…
…who eventually meets a particular dog. Read the book to find out how.
They become true friends and companions. They travel paw by paw.
There are more dogs. More barking ensues…
and even more. Cacophany!
Just like it takes many dogs to make a chorus, it takes many people to make a book sing. I was lucky to work once again with the editor Reka Simonsen and the art director Michael McCartney at Simon & Schuster.
This book is best read aloud with lots of barking. For story hour you could cut out a large red circle and yellow diamond to use as cues.
P.S. The Wordy Book came out in September. It was expected earlier but supply chain and shipping issues delayed its arrival. So The Barking Ballad came fast on its heels, although the creation of the two books was more spread out.
The two books are quite different. Thanks for looking at them both.
If you’re reading this first thing in the morning, be sure you make your cup of coffee straightaway. After all, it’s National Coffee Week.
Now sit down and, as you drink your coffee, pretend you’re sitting in the extravagant Caffe Gilli in Florence. Go ahead, make it a cappuccino. Have a croissant, too. Caffe Gilli doesn’t cost a penny when you’re daydreaming.
As you sip, you need something to read. Here is something wonderful – an interview with the author/illustrator Maria Kalman posted this week on the Art of the Picture Book website.
When you finish, you can tell yourself you just had the perfect morning, and it will be true. Coffee and Kalman.
If you want a second cup, pour yourself one. This time pretend you’re in the Caffe Greco in Rome, founded in 1760, the spot where John Keats drank his morning tea.
With your second cup, try the two short videos (below) of storyteller Patricia McKissack. They are excerpts (can’t find the whole lecture) from her 2010 Spencer Shaw talk at the University of Washington. The highlight for me: She reads a poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the style of a jump-rope rhyme (Video 2.) In the first video, she talks about her storytelling coming from inquisitiveness – she wants answers, but she wants good stories, too. And can she tell a story! – as could her grandparents and her mother – I wish I’d been at that lecture to hear her.
By the way, the Spencer Shaw Endowed Lecture this year will be given by author/ illustrator Yuyi Morales. You can hear the lecture free – live streaming on YouTube October 14th at noon PST – here’s a link.
McKissack Video 1 “I write because I have an inquisitive mind.”
McKissack Video 2 Jumping Rope to Paul Lawrence Dunbar
[Note: When you watch the McKissack videos, be sure to move the bar back to the beginning – for some reason they’re opening for me mid-way through.]
And if you need a shot of Caffe Greco’s interior for your daydreaming, here it is. Sigh.
Distelfink is the delightful word for the birds in Fraktur. (The literal translation is thistle finch.)
Fraktur is folk art made by the Pennsylvania Dutch, mainly in the 1700 and 1800’s. I grew up in Pennsylvania and saw a lot of Fraktur. The ink seeped into me.
The word refers to the type of script which was used in baptismal and other documents in Germany. In the new world the Fraktur included script, and became increasingly decorative.
Fraktur were drawn with ink and watercolor and often included flowers and distelfink.
In 2016 I was in a bicycle accident and broke my arm. I was despondent because I couldn’t draw, until a friend suggested that I draw with my left hand. My left hand drawing was slow, wonky and pulled me from my sadness. I did a series of paintings I called Fracture Fraktur.
That fall I made a calendar to support the ACLU, drawn left-handed in my fracture fraktur style.
I included the lion and the lamb – made famous by Edward Hicks’s paintings of The Peaceable Kingdom.
Sales of the calendar raised a lot of money for the ACLU, so I have made one every year since then. I have continued with the same fraktur style, although I reverted to my right hand out of habit and ease.
Most of the calendar images have included the lion and the lamb.
I am currently selling the 2022 calendar called We Are All Connected. Thank you to the many people who have purchased them already.
My hope is to help heal the fractures of America with these odd frakturs. I hope you will get one by clicking here. Each calendar sells for $12, and all $12 goes to the ACLU. The printing is donated by G & H Printing, and Ingrid Savage contributes greatly to the shipping. Your many purchases add up to something larger.
Thank you for your help in this endeavor. Distelfink by distelfink!
P.S. Recently I took part in a live Instagram series called Art Out Loud OnLine, hosted by the Society of Illustrators and Enchanted Lion Books. It was archived. Please click here for a leisurely visit with me at my house and studio, along with Julian Snider and Madeline Feig.
It’s Back-To-School time and I am reminded of my own elementary school experiences:
I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets until the older kids finish eating and we can all go out for recess.
I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me?
“My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze.”
She glances my way.
“And my aunt danced with a bear,” I add.
That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.
“Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.
“We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”
Now the boys behind us are listening, too.
“Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.
But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. I need to think quickly.
“And then I woke up,” I say.
“You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.
She doesn’t play with me at recess.
I was a liar liar in my early years. Pants. On. Fire. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course, I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.
I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I realized maybe lie ability was not a complete liability – but maybe even good practice for a life in fiction writing. (In my early years as a picture book maker, I even explored the idea of my family as the circus in a board book dummy, the sketches of which decorate this blogpost.)
To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.
But back to those black-tongued childhood days. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars? Let us know in the comments — and even If you weren’t, you can always make something up.
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.