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I resolve to read more.
There, that wasn’t hard. And I mean it, I do. I do. I resolve to read more.
Following through on that resolution shouldn’t be hard either, since I have loved to read all my life. And reading makes for better writing.
But lately, what’s been happening? I pick up a book, I read five or ten pages, then I remember I had some charity donations to complete, I have some thank-you’s to write, I need to sweep the kitchen floor, I need to clean out the fridge. So I put down the book. Later, when the donations are made, thank-you’s written, floor swept, fridge cleaned, I pick the book up again.
Then I remember I told my sister I would call her, I put the book down. I make the call, I make dinner, I print out a list of TV shows nominated for Golden Globes, I watch too many episodes of one of those. The next day, I pick up the book again. Another ten pages in, I remember I missed the cold open on Saturday Night Live, decide to watch it on YouTube, put the book down. After YouTube (and a few Seth Meyer “Closer Looks”) I pick up the book, but I remember I haven’t read the Sunday NY Times Book Review yet, so I put the book down,
I spend a long time reading reviews of books, probably more than is healthy. I put the books that sound intriguing on hold at our wonderful library. I have a long list of holds. But the book I’m (supposedly) reading right now is from the library and tomorrow it’s due, so I take the book back and pick up the new ones that have come in. My husband says I’m personally increasing the circulation of the library by a hefty percentage. But am I reading the books I check out? Bits of them. Pieces of them. But basically, no.
Good thing I’m a member of a book discussion group, or I might never feel any pressure to finish a book. Just finished this month’s book, but it’s taken me six weeks to do it. So many books, so little…no…there isn’t so little time. I’m retired, and I have plenty of time, but I’m not reading. I’m nibbling.
Right now I have six great books out from the library: Living in the Weather of the World by Richard Bausch, Flights by Olga Tarkaczuk, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley (it must have been hard growing up with that name), The Overstory by Richard Powers, The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, and A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventures of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik (love every book he’s ever written – both content and style.) Each one of those books has gotten great reviews and piqued my interest.
Maybe my problem is too many books at once? I tell myself I like having a lot of books to choose from, depending on my mood- am I needing information (that weather book) or needing stories? But maybe too many at once contributes to the Nibbling Syndrome. Do I hear the siren call of other books (“Read me instead….”) as I’m trying to read just one?
No, that’s not it. And, Reader, I’m sorry to say that I don’t know the answer to my original question, “What’s been happening?” (Better said, I don’t know the why behind what’s happening.) Can books be like some desserts – eat too much and you don’t feel good?
When I thought about taking my turn here at Books Around the Table, I planned on recommending a good book for writers of childrens’ books to read. The title is A Velocity of Being : Letters to a Young Reader. It’s a collection of letters written by some very interesting people (musicians, anthropologists, physicists, Yo-Yo Ma and Jane Goodall among them) encouraging young readers to read, to love books, to engage their imaginations with the possibilities and the people they find in books. Each letter is illustrated by an artist (BATT’s own Julie Paschkis among them.) And the drawings in this post are all from the book. Published in 2018, A Velocity of Being was put together by the amazing Maria Popova of Brainpickings, and her friend, the publisher of Enchanted Lion Books, Claudia Bedrick. It’s inspirational, and I deeply believe in its premise: that the great benefit of falling in love with books when you’re young is the development of empathy. Without empathy, we’re doomed.
But after reading through the book to pick out a few inspirational passages to share with you here, I realized that I needed to be honest enough to say that maybe once in awhile, at least for adults, or at least for writers, or at least for me, one needs to go through some kind of deep cleansing process and forego reading temporarily…
Wait. I didn’t just write that, did I? Forego reading? After I’ve just resolved to read more books? Have I just set a record for how fast I can break a New Year’s Resolution?
Maybe I should make myself distraction-proof. Procrastination-proof? Maybe I should resolve to read fewer reviews? Check out fewer books at one time? Stop nibbling? Persist and persevere?
I don’t know the answer. There are many choices and life is complicated. What can I say? (Well, I could say Happy New Year! )
What say you? – finished any good books lately?
Are there parallels between building character – as in becoming a mature, evolved human being – and building character, as in creating an interesting protagonist for your story?
David Brooks is talking about that first kind of character building in his book, The Road to Character. But I wonder how his ideas might relate to the work we do when creating story characters. I am especially interested in what he calls the “agency moment,” and how that might apply to characters in picture books. Does a story character’s agency moment provide a compass for the plot?
Brooks uses the example of Victorian novelist George Eliot to introduce this idea of the agency moment. Eliot, he says, was an emotionally needy young woman in her 20s who declared her love to the philosopher Herbert Spencer at age 32 in a letter:
“Those who have known me best have already said that if ever I loved any one thoroughly, my whole life must turn upon that feeling, and I find they said truly,” she wrote.
She asked him not to forsake her, “If you become attached to someone else, then I must die, but until then I could gather courage to work and make life valuable, if only I had you near me. I do not ask you to sacrifice anything — I would be very glad and cheerful and never annoy you.”
Brooks writes, “You might say that this moment was Eliot’s agency moment, the moment when she stopped being blown about by her voids and weaknesses and began to live according to her own inner criteria, gradually developing a passionate and steady capacity to initiate action and drive her own life.
“The letter didn’t solve her problems. Spencer still rejected her. She remained insecure, especially about her writing. But her energies were roused. There was growing cohesion and, at times, amazing courage.”
She published Middlemarch at age 52 in eight parts, 1871-72.
I searched my library for examples of agency moments to see how that notion plays out in picture books.
Marion Dane Bauer’s Winter Dance, illustrated by Richard Jones, revolves around a fox’s question, “Winter is coming…What should I do?” The fox asks caterpillar, turtle, bat, geese and bear. But she is sure what works for them will not work for her. Then a fellow fox offers a solution: “When a million snowflakes fill the air, twirling, tumbling, spinning, waltzing, you and I join them.” The questing fox has an agency moment, tapping into her innate capacity to initiate action and drive her own life. She responds:
“Of course,” says the fox, standing tall. “Because that’s what we fine red foxes do in winter. Dance!”
A moment of agency is front and center in fellow-BATT blogger Margaret Chodos Irvine’s Ella Sarah Gets Dressed. Ella Sarah states her wardrobe choices very clearly on the first page: “I want to wear my pink polka-dot pants, my dress with orange-and-green flowers, my purple-and-blue striped socks my yellow shoes, and my red hat.” Other family members’ suggestions are spurned
and her choices are confirmed by her just-as-wildly dressed friends who visit at the end.
In my own Little Wolf’s First Howling, illustrated with my sister Kate Harvey McGee, Little Wolf’s agency moment comes at the turning point of the story. “Little Wolf’s heart swelled with wildness and joy. He knew it wasn’t proper howling form, built he had to let loose.”
Seems related to David Brooks’ explanation: “Agency is not automatic. It has to be given birth to, with pushing and effort. It’s not just the confidence and drive to act. It’s having engraved inner criteria to guide action.”
In Libba, Laura Viers’ picture book biography of folksinger Elizabeth Cotten, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the agency moment comes early in the story, early in Libba’s life, when she sneaks into her brother’s room and figures out how to play his guitar, though she is left-handed. “She turned the guitar upside down and played it backwards…Nobody else played that way, but it was the way that felt right to Libba.”
I polled various friends and family to see if they could point to a single agency moment in their lives. Several thought it would need to be something big. And not one could point to just one moment. This is true in my own experience, as well. It is many small moments that coalesce over time, viewed retrospectively, that shape our true and, hopefully, evolved selves.
When creating a story, however, you have the luxury to choose your character’s agency moment in a way that reveals the most compelling narrative.
Here’s to Happy 2020 dear BATT readers! Come January, the five of us have taken turns posting here for eight years. Eight years! We appreciate your reading and sharing your thoughts in the comments discussion.
Last month I was in Japan.
I saw great beauty and order in gardens, art, buildings, and food.
It wasn’t just surface beauty. It was/is an approach to life that manifests in outer beauty. That approach involves going slowly, taking care, learning something totally, following rules, mastering a craft, respecting process, being aware. It means spending your whole life learning to do something well, and then giving that thing your whole attention every time you do it.
One result of such mastery is freedom. Looseness and ease are paradoxically the result of discipline, of doing something with all of your being. (As in this painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu 1754-1799)
At the Miho Museum, in the forests SW of Kyoko, there was a show of Bizen pottery. The potters understood their clay and kilns perfectly. They allowed the spirit of the clay to shine, decorated with the natural residue of the firing process.
Miho had a great gift shop! I bought a small rough creature made of clay.
I also bought a children’s book. When I got home I discovered that they were by the same artist – Kouichi Maekawa.
In his art I see freedom, playfulness, and a love of this world.
Here are many of the pages from the book, enough to tell the tale.
The acorn of an idea that I took home from Japan is that the process is as important as the result in a piece of artwork: my life and work can’t be separated. I don’t know how that acorn will grow in the years to come.
Last week was the opening of my “Corral” art installation at the Method Gallery in Seattle, WA.
A corral is an enclosure to capture, confine, defend or protect.
Something “to bring a group of people together and keep them in one place, especially in order to control them” (Cambridge English Dictionary).
I work as an illustrator. I create art. I like to make clothing. And I like to take and twist garment making (sometimes literally) into something unexpected. I feel it is the ideal medium for me to explore human relationships: how we present ourselves; how we connect; how we exclude.
For Corral, I constructed thirteen white, button-down, men’s shirts from over 20 yards of Oxford cloth. Twelve are conjoined in a circle via their sleeves. The thirteenth is separate, with its sleeves joined behind its back in one piece from armscye to armscye.
Why did I sew thirteen shirts that no one can wear?
Here is my artist statement from the show:
Clothing is our human-made exoskeleton. Beyond functioning as a protective layer, it stands for how we see ourselves, and how we choose to be seen by others. Within each of our cultures we grow up learning the language of apparel. I enjoy using that language to reflect our own stories back to us.
We are accustomed to wearing clothes. It is natural for us to transfer our psyches into items of apparel and mentally “try them on.” By using familiar clothing forms as structures on which viewers may hang their interpretations, my work provides an opportunity to explore – visually, psychologically, spatially – how we interconnect and how we relate to others.
At first glance, you see the familiar: A bunch of shirts, like hanging on a shop rack or a laundry line.
Then you see that there is something more involved going on.
You begin to think about the possible meanings and the emotional content.
In order to make this piece, I researched the unique construction techniques traditional in menswear. I wanted the shirts to look as “store-bought” as possible. People are surprised that I could reproduce garments like this, but I think we forget that all our clothes are made by humans. Clothing factories have industrial sewing machines and specially designed equipment for specific tasks, but they are still made by human beings. Robotics have been slow to replace humans in garment production.
But sewing thirteen of the same thing tested my patience with repetition. When I imagine what working in a sweatshop would be like – making the same thing day after day, under pressure from the boss – I’m sure I wouldn’t last very long.
One of the interesting things about art is how differently it can be interpreted by different people.
Some people told me they saw this peace as playful, as though the shirts are dancing together.
Others said they thought it expressed community in unison.
Yet others see the shirts as representing white male dominance, with the lone thirteenth shirt being the “odd man out.”
What does this piece mean to you?
This is going to be sweet and brief – let’s call it a little extra slice of pie on the day after Thanksgiving. I’m just going to link you to the portfolio page of a photographer I recently discovered whose work I love because 1) it’s unique, 2) it explores patterns, which is something acknowledged to be true in formal poetry, and is probably true in many other creative endeavors, 3) it makes me feel like maybe mankind has an eye for beauty, and 4) it makes me remember that wonder – that is, a sense of wonder – is just as important as all the other senses: taste, touch, sight, smell, sound.
Other reasons spring to mind for loving Milstein’s photographs, but I’ll leave it there. He has a book out titled LA NY – it’s well worth spending an hour or two with. If you follow his website’s portfolio link, below, you’ll find other links that tell you about his background. But right now, I’m going to keep it visual. Scroll down past the photo samples to find the link, and to find out what you’re looking at from above.
Happy Day After Thanksgiving! And thank god – or God – for Wonder!
Here’s the link to albums in Milstein’s portfolio: http://www.jeffreymilstein.com/portfolios/
Last weekend, I had the honor of being a guest speaker at the Mazza Museum Fall conference at the University of Findlay in Findlay, Ohio.
The Mazza Museum collection is the largest collection of picture book art in the world, with a holding of more than 14,000 pieces of original picture book art – and counting!
The Mazza Fall conference is a yearly event to promote literacy through picture books. It is primarily attended by teachers, librarians, and students – a pleasant audience for us picture book folk.
The event was organized by Benjamin Sapp, the Mazza Museum director. He also arranges a group tour of picture book artists’ studios in some part of the country every few years. He brought a group to our neck of the woods in July of 2017 which Laura Kvasnosky wrote about here.
During the entire weekend Ben was the epitome of gracious calm. If he felt the strain of hosting six artists and 275 attendees and overseeing troupes of volunteers (known as Mazza Enthusiasts) he didn’t show it.
I find public speaking to be like a roller coaster ride. I fret for weeks as I prepare. I worry about what might go wrong (I have my own personal repertoire of performance-anxiety dreams). I get a kaleidoscope of butterflies in my stomach as the moment gets closer. Then I give the talk and I think … That wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of fun. I might do that again …
But all that aside, I enjoy these sorts of events because of the people I get to meet and the other artists whose talks I get to listen to.
Melissa Sweet is like a soft-spoken firecracker. I admire her and the care and discipline she puts into her process. There is so much love in her work for her subjects. I purchased a copy of the book she wrote and illustrated about E.B. White – Some Writer!. It is a beautiful and informative read.
Lori Nichols talked about her personal and professional growth rings and how her book characters Maple and Willow came to be. I felt at one point as if we were sitting in her yard with her under her beloved trees. Her talk was so engaging I (almost) forgot that my talk was up next.
Nina Laden (my fellow Pacific Northwesterner at the event) wove her talk through with personal tales of trial and perseverance, as well as envious shots of her Island studio.
Peter Catalanotto talked about how as a boy, he struggled with writing until a wise teacher told him to try starting his story with drawing pictures instead. Lead with your strengths. His story ideas often start with him asking himself “What if…”
Stephen Savage discussed the importance of composition (what he calls hierarchy) in imagery, especially in books with no written story as many of his are. Vertical lines on a horizontal plane are static. Diagonal lines and curves imply movement. The simplest of images can say a great deal.
In my 45 minutes, I talked about how Where Lily Isn’t came to be, from my early work through my time in London and my wordless letters with Julie Paschkis. Where I started, what I left behind, what I’ve brought with me. That sort of thing.
Although each of us had very different styles of presenting, there were some commonalities: We all mentioned events in our youth that formed our future selves as artists. We all spoke of our challenges and failures as well as our successes. We all talked about the importance of play in our work. And I believe we all showed pictures of our dogs at some point.
Other treats for me included:
Meeting and sitting at the dinner table with this year’s Dickman librarian of the year, Christina Dorr. I love librarians.
Seeing Kathy East again, the head of the 2004 Caldecott committee. It was she who called me to tell me Ella Sarah Gets Dressed was receiving an honor award. She will always have a special place in my heart.
Getting my hand cast in resin by Daniel Chudzinski for the Mazza archives. A new and slightly macabre experience.
Finding an open spot to sign the signing wall at the museum – my mark is now there with so many artists whom I admire. Intimidating yet exciting!
My one regret is that I did not have a chance to tour the Mazza Museum itself. My appointed tour time was forgone due to bad traffic coming from the airport in Detroit and the rest of the time I was booked (no pun intended) tightly. However, I did manage a couple of photos on the fly.
Thanks to Ben and all the Mazza folks for including me in their pantheon of picture book artists. It was a roller coaster ride I am glad I participated in.
I have illustrated many books, but I’ve never created the illustrations for each page of every copy of a book by hand. Until now!
I teamed up with Claudia Cohen, an amazing and talented bookbinder.
Together we created a limited edition artist’s book called Idyll.
We met several times to figure out our subject matter and technique. For subject matter we settled on this fragment of a poem written in the 3rd century BC by Theocritus, creator of bucolic poetry.
Many an aspen, many an elm
bowed and rustled overhead,
and hard by, the hallowed water welled
purling forth of a cave of the Nymphs,
while the brown cricket chirped busily amid the shady leafage,
and the tree-frog murmured aloof in the dense thornbrake.
Lark and goldfinch sang and turtle moaned,
and about the spring the bees hummed and hovered to and fro.
All nature smelt of the opulent summer-time,
smelt of the season of fruit.
Pears lay at our feet, apples on either side, rolling abundantly,
and the young branches lay splayed upon the ground
because of the weight of their damsons.
For technique we decided to stencil the images. Together we figured out the size, shape and length of the book. I sketched out all of the illustrations and cut the stencils. Claudia selected and folded handmade rag paper.
Each Tuesday for 15 weeks I went to Claudia’s studio where I would stencil 20 copies of 1 page. She handed me the papers and kept everything in order. That got more complicated as we completed more pages.
I used gouache paint (opaque watercolor in tubes) and Korean stenciling brushes made of badger hair.
The stencils were held in place with small heavy weights.
As I finished each page Claudia would press it between wood.
I would take the pack of wood and pages back to my house and hand letter the words during the week.
Each page is unique; there are variations in the stencil print and in the lettering.
Here are a few of the other pages:
When all of the pages were stenciled and lettered, Claudia stenciled endpapers and hand lettered the colophon (last) page.
She bound the books in goatskin vellum with gold embossing.
She made a case for each book.
It was fun to spend the time with Claudia in her studio which is a treasure trove for bibliophiles.
It was a privilege to work with someone with such expertise.
Idyll is available from Two Ponds Press in Maine, although it might not be up on their website yet.
Claudia and I are starting to plan our next adventure. We won’t be idle for long.