Today’s post is a plunge into Polar Bear pictures and facts.
Although polar bears are usually solitary, a group of polar bears is called a Celebration.
I plan to celebrate the new year by taking a quick plunge into Lake Washington – aka a Polar Bear Plunge.
A polar bear can swim for days at a time. It uses its big front paws as paddles and the back paws as a rudder.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivores on earth.
They can smell prey from great distances.
They spend half of their life searching for food.
The D’Aulaire’s Book of Animals is an accordion book showing animals of the north and south. The front of the accordion is in color and shows the animals facing forward. The back is in black and white and shows the same animals from behind.
Polar bears have black skin. Their fur is hollow and it is not white – it is translucent. But it looks white because it reflects light.
My sweet neighbor sent over a plate of Christmas cookies the other day, via her 8-year old son, Henry (who is maybe a foot taller than the last time I talked with him in September as school opened) and her 5-year old daughter, Thea (ditto.) The kids, of course, are even more of a treat than the cookies.
I’m going to offer up my own little plate of “cookies” on Books Around the Table today – links to delicious articles I’ve read in the past month that I want to share. Think of them as gingerbread men, peppermint bark, Mexican wedding cookies, shortbread, chocolate chips, little reindeer and Santas and mittens – sugar cookies with red and green frosting and white piping. Enjoy!
Have you seen the New York Times announcement of “Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2022”? I like a lot of them this year — they seem kid-oriented, lots of fun. I went immediately to my library to check them out – and a couple of them are so popular right now that I’m on a waiting list to get them. That’s a good sign, isn’t it? My favorites of the books I found on the shelf and brought home were Yellow Dog Blues, written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by Chris Raschka, and Telling Stories Wrong by Gianni Rodari, illustrated by Beatrice Alemagna. The latter will make kids hoot with laughter. I’d love to be at a read-aloud of that with kids in stitches. Here’s the link: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/10/books/review/the-2022-new-york-times-new-york-public-library-best-illustrated-childrens-books.html
Do you know the work of the South Korean author-illustrator Baek Heena? She won the 2020 Astrid Lingdgren Award but her prize ceremony was postponed due to the pandemic. The citation about her work says, “With exquisite feeling for materials, looks and gestures, Baek Heena’s filmic picture books stage stories about solitude and solidarity. In her evocative miniature worlds, cloud bread and sorbet moons, animals, bath fairies and people converge. Her work is a doorway to the marvelous: sensuous, dizzying, and sharp.” If your local library doesn’t have any of her books, urge them to purchase a few. Here’s the link to the announcement about her prize: https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/82868-baek-heena-wins-2020-astrid-lindgren-award.html
And here is the general Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award page, with the 2021 and 2022 winners – Jean-Claude Mourlevat and Eva Lindstrom: https://alma.se/en/
Tsundoku: That’s the Japanese word for a stack(s) of books you’ve purchased but haven’t read. It comes from the words tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books). I have a few stacks, to say the least. And here is a wonderful article from Big Think about how important these stacks are when it comes to reminding us that we don’t know everything! https://bigthink.com/neuropsych/do-i-own-too-many-books/
If you want to read about more “untranslatable words” like “tsundoku,” take a look at Lost in Translation: An Iluustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders.
That’s it for my little plate of holiday “cookies.” Hope you’ve found them delicious, too. Wishing you all the joys of the season!
Here’s Shakespeare on the subject: “O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”
And here’s Stephen King: “My muse is here. It’s a she. Scruffy little mutt has been around for years, and how I love her, fleas and all.”
I’m not sure what my muse is like. I think perhaps it’s a scholarly girl with big glasses reading in an easy chair, glancing up once in awhile to send me a smile.
I wrote this post over seven years ago and thought it was worth updating and posting again. Although I’m not sure my muse is this bespectacled girl anymore. Maybe more like an amorphous cloud with flashes of lightning?
Whoever or whatever your muse is, chances are you struggle like all creative people to tap into its powers. Sometimes the words and images flow, sometimes it’s like that Disney ride “Pirates of the Caribbean” where the pirates keep trying unsuccessfully to lure a mutt to bring them the jailer’s keys.
In the meantime, science has renamed the muse our “subconscious” and discovered some interesting things about that “scruffy little mutt.” For one thing, our muse may not necessarily visit from above as a rare gift from the gods, but could be built into us.
Take a look at these two images for a second.
According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, odds are good that as you look your brain is beginning to construct a narrative, a story, a reason why these two images go together. And it isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could be joined into a story, but according to Linden you will automatically start figuring out a narrative even if I show you this.
No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection. Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories. It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in as we work to make sense of what’s happening around us. If we see a chimpanzee running past us in the jungle, it could be important for our survival to figure out what it’s running from. If we see a panther running by next–that’s one story. If we see a clown car next–that’s a lot less scary story (depending, of course, on how you feel about clowns).
Our brains are putting together a causal link: this is happening because that happened and that happened because of that other thing. And isn’t that the essence of story–connecting one action and to another exploring actions and their consequences?
Another interesting thing about our brain is it often seems to know things before we do. I can remember writing stories where I’d put in what seemed an incidental detail—the white rose on the dresser—in the beginning of a story only to discover that this seemingly arbitrary detail was perfect for my ending. It’s an experience familiar to many writers.
It’s as if some part of our brain knows our story before we do.
And according to science your brain literally does know things before you consciously do. In a study where participants were asked to solve a puzzle, scientists could tell before the participants consciously knew it that they had solved the puzzle. How? They could see that the brain started to form alpha waves. Sometimes they could predict as much as eight seconds ahead of the time that the participant was going to have the answer.
There are two types of brain waves associated with subconscious creativity. Alpha waves are a function of deep relaxation. In alpha, we begin to access the creativity-that lies just below our conscious awareness – it is the gateway, the entry-point that leads into deeper states of consciousness.
That deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves.The theta wave state is also known as the twilight state something which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep, although theta waves are abundant in experienced meditators.
It’s these relaxed brain wave states that give us access to our unconscious thoughts and images. And there are ways to encourage them. For one thing, those alpha and theta waves like what Emily Dickenson calls it “reverie.”
You no longer need to feel guilty for staring off into space, doodling aimlessly or watching a fly crawl across the ceiling. Next time family or friends look at you accusingly as you sit there chewing on your pencil eraser with a dreamy look on your face, you can tell them it has been scientifically proven that you are working. Even Einstein agrees.
“Creativity is the residue of wasted time,” he said.
One last bit of science: it is still a bit speculative, but there’s a scientific theory that the human brain has a tendency to change its dominant wave frequency towards the frequency of a dominant external stimulus.
Basically what that means is that your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heart beat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment.
So the creative muse likes rhythmic activities: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.
As Mozart said, “When I am traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that ideas flow best and most abundantly.”
The way I first heard it described years ago was “bed, bath and bus.” Do something mindless, repetitive and meditative. In other words, allow yourself to muse and maybe that mutt will bring you the keys.
While I am waiting for inspiration to strike and the next project to catch my attention, I find it helps to clean my studio. There, deep in a file drawer, I dug up these six illustrations: a sort of To Do List that aims to get your creative tail wagging.
It is often said that advice you give others is advice you need to hear. This is offered in that spirit.
I know BTC (Butt To Chair) is necessary, but regular hours at your desk are not the only hours that count.
Consider the impressionist painter Claude Monet. One day he was sitting in a green chair under a blossoming apple tree in his garden at Giverny. A neighbor came by and said, “Monsieur Monet, I see you are resting.”
“No, no,” answered Monet, “I am working.”
The next day when the neighbor walked by, Monet had set up his easel and was painting away. The neighbor said, “Monsieur Monet, I see you are working.”
“You are wrong, my friend,” said Monet. “Now I am resting.”
I envy Monet this overlap of work and rest. But I expect it was easier to achieve 120 years ago when the only interruption was an occasional neighbor walking by. These days, distractions are innumerable. So here’s my advice to myself: park it AND unplug. Whether you sit on a green chair in a beautiful garden or a worn chair in a Seattle studio, turn off the phone and email and texts etc. and give the work the time it deserves. BTC. There is no substitute. BTC means you show up daily, stay on task, and follow where your mind leads.
I love that there is a word for this in German: sitzfleisch, and also in Yiddish: yechas.
Does anyone keep a writer’s notebook anymore? I have a shelf full of past years’ notebooks, but these days I capture ideas in the NOTES section of my phone. Though I no longer keep a daily journal, I am still dedicated to recording story bits as they appear. Experiences, observations, memories; if it rings your story bell, write it down. Which reminds me of writer Brenda Guiberson’s advice to pay attention to the little hairs on the back of your neck. When they stand up, you have story material. Tell Siri to put it in NOTES.
Julie Larios once taught a class in the art of the flaneur. It was great practice in tuning in. She encouraged us to collect anything that engenders a writing response: photos, memories, questions, confusions, reactions to reading, stories held in objects, candy wrappers, newspaper clippings, feelings, fast-written lists. It’s all fodder, the puzzle pieces that may assemble as a story.
Humans are story people, readers as well as writers. Think back to the books you loved and figure out why they mattered to you. Then weave those qualities into your own work. For instance, my favorite childhood book was Betty McDonald’s Nancy and Plum about two orphaned sisters. I like to think some of the push and pull of sisterhood as well as the abiding sisterly love that is in Nancy and Plum shows up in my Zelda and Ivy series. It can be helpful to look back at old photographs and home movies to help remember the child you were.
I think it was Peter Sagal on NPR who said he chose his activities for their anecdotal value, planning ahead so he’d have interesting stuff to talk about. Why not? Research and adventures feed the story mill. Plus they can be entertaining and intriguing and often humorous. Full of story potential.
Give up on conformity. Don’t limit your imagination with the fear of acceptability. Receive with gratitude anything your imagination serves up: be it beautiful, ugly, absurd, outrageous or excessive. You can always revise later.
Lots of mistakes. Think of the Wright brothers and all their failed experimenting. Let yourself fail so that you can fly. You’ve probably heard the story retold in Art and Fear about the ceramics teacher who divided his students into two groups at the beginning of the semester. Students in the ‘quality’ group each needed to produce one perfect pot to get an ‘A’. Those in the ‘quantity’ group were graded by the weight of all the pieces they created, (i.e. 50 pounds = an ‘A’). Turned out (hah!) the students who made the most pieces also created the most successful ones, meaning they produced more schlock as well as more brilliant work.
WE SAID GOOD-BYE to our sweet Izabella on September 14. For sixteen and a half years she shared our lives, including hanging out with me while I worked. My students once gave me a pad of post-its printed: “Laura Kvasnosky…writing to the tune of dog snores,” which was often true. She helped create books in many ways: providing support and comfort and inspiration, and posing as a wolf for illustrations in Little Wolf’s First Howling. We are so grateful for all the time we had with her.
My father, Albert Ernest Paschkis, died at the end of September at the age of 94.
He was born in Berlin in 1928. His family left Germany in 1933 to escape the rising power of Hitler. They lived in Italy, Switzerland and Holland before coming to the USA in 1938. He spoke 5 languages when he was 10 years old!
He arrived in New York City and saw CARS everywhere. For the rest of his life he loved cars.
He became a mechanical engineer. He had a long work life where he invented test and measurement devices and solved all kinds of problems. He built things and fixed things at work.
And he built things and fixed things at home – including the house we grew up in. He was often making things in his basement workshop, or fixing the cars. Everyone around knew they could turn to him for help.
In the book Albert is part of a community. He is never too busy or too tired to help anyone.
In the late 1980’s my father designed a studio/addition to my house. He came out and built it together with my husband, friends and with me. I sat in that studio and illustrated this book. I am sitting in it now writing this blog!
There were similarities and differences between real Albert and the character Albert. In the book Albert is short, bearded and almost roly-poly.
In real life he was tall and thin.
In the book he ended every day with a bowl of corn flakes.
That was true. He always saved the last sip of milk for the cat.
In the book he lives alone. In real life he was married to Marcia Iliff Paschkis for 72 years. They were a team. They had four children, a niece and nephew, and a large and loving extended family.
In real life Albert invented things as well as fixed them- including an elliptical bicycle gear, a long lasting lightbulb, and a tide clock that shows the tide and time on the clock face.
In the book he builds community through fixing things. Truly true. In his life he also built community by building and living in interracial housing, by counseling draft resisters during the Vietnam war, and by leading workshops in nonviolent problem solving at Graterford Prison.
The character Albert gets a cold and all of the many people that he has helped get together to help him. They bring him delicious food and he recovers.
In real life many of the people who knew him and loved him gathered together to remember him last week. There was a Quaker memorial service at Foulkeways where he lived, and where my mother still lives. Following the memorial there was a gathering at Gwynedd Friends Meeting where he had been a member for over 60 years. The family made delicious food – homemade soup, bread and cheese, gugelhopf and lebkuchen. Family and friends connected, drawn together by our love for him.
A few days after the memorial I returned to Gwynedd Friends Meeting. The room where we had gathered after the memorial had reverted to its usual function: a preschool. (I attended preschool there in 1961.) Gwynedd Friends School is a wonderful thriving place now. I read Albert the Fix-it Man to the current crop of bright eyed preschoolers.
I hope that I can live up to the ideals of generosity, kindness and inventiveness that my father quietly exemplified. And I hope that telling his story to kids will carry his spirit forward.
All writers know what a tug-of-war the writing life is – you’re never quite sure whether to prioritize stimulation or contemplation. With the former, you experience the world; with the latter, you make sense of it. During the down time it gets real: cook meals, clean dishes.
I’ve been both off-the-grid (on an island near Martha’s Vineyard) and deep into the grid (NYC) for the last two weeks. The island has rowboats, it has sheep in the meadow, it has dirt paths leading to beaches with bleached-white whale bones. It has no commercial enterprises. None. Meanwhile, on nearby Martha’s Vineyard, several dozen Venezuelan immigrants were being declared victims of a crime (perpetrated by Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis), so I guess “off-the-grid” is only true up to a point. But in general, the vibe on this particular island is non-vibe. Days spent in contemplation.
New York City, indisputably on-grid, has a 3-story (!!!) M&M souvenir shop, outside of which the question bubbles up: How many M&M souvenirs does any one person need? Key chains, magnets, t-shirts, hats, coffee mugs, wind-up dancing M&M’s, M&M flashlights, M&M phone covers, M&M sheets and pillow cases, M&M pajamas, M&M stadium blankets, M&M onesies. At this level, NYC is a 180-degree turn from the world of the island — it’s ALL commercial enterprise, 24/7.
On the other hand, NYC also has Broadway (both On- and Off- I saw Tom Stoddard’s new play Leopoldstadt and the musical Book of Mormon) and a public library guarded by Patience and Fortitude, two lions sculpted from pink Tennessee marble. In the streets of the city, you hear many languages spoken by people from many countries. Though the island I was on near Martha’s Vineyard is calm and green, the chaos and energy and diversity of NYC appeal to me just as much. City days aren’t days of contemplation but days of stimulation. Is there anything quite like the thrill of a curtain rising in a majestic Broadway theater?
As I write this, I’m just north of Boston in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s a smallish blue-collar town. Lots of ponds around, lots of autumn trees currently flaming yellow, flaming orange, and flaming red. Lobster roll restaurants, with “lobster” pronounced “lahbstuh.” The big booming Atlantic Ocean rolling in nearby. Also nearby is Salem, famous for its witch hunts (the real hunts, not the political ones.) Both Lynn and Salem are getting ready for Halloween, putting skeletons on their porches, hanging spider webs rather than hanging “witches,” buying pumpkins to carve. There are no sheep in the meadow, no pink marble lions, no dancing M&M’s. But there are cardinals at the bird feeder and someone paddle-boarding across the pond. This is life at the normal level, the day-to-day level, the cook-and-clean level. And though Lynn is neither off-grid idyllic nor on-grid frenetic, that is, not the stuff of a writerly life, it’s where my daughter and her family live, so it’s perfect for now. I’ve contemplated, I’ve been stimulated. Time now to be with people I love.
Here are half-a-dozen links I think you, as readers and writers, will like:
It’s not too early for Halloween, is it? My collection of images featuring books in art has plenty of skulls and skeletons to go around.
This looks like something for a heavy metal band but the DA in the bottom right is for Dicky Artwork. Check out his work here.
It’s hard to see exactly what this skull is reading, but a likely guess is The Book of the Dead. Wondering if he’s a little boy skeleton opening a birthday present.
This Catrina is reading about her creator Jose Guadalupe Posada. An interesting detail is the serpent figure reading over her shoulders which I assume is a reference to Mesoamerican history. There are a lot of layers going on here. There’s more information in this National Geographic article.
A skull, a zombie or just a bald guy with sunglasses sinking into a gruesome book?
Is this guy clacking out a book about a culture of guns and death in America?
I’ve glanced at this illustration a number of times, mostly noticing the tiny people struggling to scale this mountain of knowledge. I never noticed before what was actually at the top.
Skeletons populate a lot of AJ Frena’s work. I wonder if this woman is being bound up by the book or by outside forces as she sits reading immersed and unaware.
Immersed and unaware, maybe that’s the real source of fear in reading. Lost in a book and not noticing what’s coming…
In our family we give extra points for Good Use of Existing Materials. Mostly this is simplified MacGyvering, done on the fly, like substituting a paper towel when the coffee filters run out, or opening a wine bottle with a screw and a hammer when you can’t find the corkscrew.
Pajama bottoms that double as capris, an old sweater sleeve reborn as a winter hat, certainly duct tape and bungie cords put to inventive use: all qualify for GUOEM points.
This post itself should earn me some points. It’s a topic I first explored ten years ago on the now-defunct blog of the Vermont College Children’s Writing MFA program faculty. So meta.
My beloved Aunt Norma belongs in the Good Use of Existing Material Hall of Fame. She was a recycler before recycling was a thing; a model of economy and ingenuity. Consider her reuse of milk cartons, for instance. Like many, she used empty milk cartons as containers to freeze soup. But she also cut them lengthwise to hold chicken breasts which she defrosted on the floor in the front of the refrigerator to take advantage of the warm fan there. On her kitchen counter, flattened milk cartons found new life as cutting boards. In her storeroom, she organized stuff into more milk cartons.
Even her Fourth of July party featured old milk cartons. It included a Milk Carton Regatta, motored and non-motored classes, racing across her swimming pool. No milk carton went to waste at Aunt Norma’s.
In my experience, Good Use of Existing Material applies to making picture books, too. The six Zelda and Ivy books are rooted in my childhood as the middle child of five – sibling rivalry is my God-given existing material. More recently, Ocean Lullaby grew from a beach singalong with a grandson on my lap, when I looked out and wondered how the sea-animal families settle down at night. Even on vacation, existing material is waiting to be shaped into stories.
Your own particular existing material is your take on it all – what grabs your attention, what makes you laugh and shiver and cry. The task is to identify the materials we have to work with – including the metaphors, the details and even the individual words – and then to use them ingeniously, with the snick of a key in the lock, to create the story.
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.