Birds, Bees and Bumps in the Road

In February I will be in a group show at the Bainbridge Arts and Crafts Gallery called The Birds and the Bees.  Lots of you know I was in a bike accident and lost the use of my right/write hand for a few months. I had agreed to take part in this show before the accident and thought that I would have to back out. But I started noodling around with my left hand and found that I could still make art.

Paschkis fracture-fraktur

It was odd: I could barely write out a grocery list, but I could paint or draw. The process was very slow but the awkwardness of it made it an adventure.

fraktur-horse

I was inspired by fraktur: stylized Pennsylvania-German paintings, mostly from the 18th and 19th century. My wonky left handed drawing seemed a good fit with this art form.  I sent an image to the BACART gallery and asked if they would be open to my left handed self in place of my right handed self. Yes!

Paschkis fracture fraktur

Fraktur suits the Birds and Bees show because although the images are romantic they are also slightly askew.

Paschkis head-in-clouds fraktur
Some of the images are about the plight of love and some are about the pleasures of love.

Paschkis drawn-together fraktur

Paschkis night-is-long-fraktur

Paschkis loves-arrow fraktur

paschkis do-not-deceive-fraktur

Valentine’s day can be alienating for single people so I also drew one fraktur for a happy person who is not part of a couple.

Paschkis solitude-fraktur

What I learned from doing this work is that good things can come from dismal situations. The accident hurt and slowed me down, but that slowness allowed me to try something new. I was replenished.

Paschkis renewal-fraktur

Is there a word for the good things that can arise from bad situations? Perhaps sluck would suit: luck from something sucky. I welcome your linguistic suggestions.

The paintings for this show were done with gouache and ink on handmade cotton paper from India. I hope that if you are nearby you can take a ferry to BACART on Bainbridge Island for the opening on February 3, 6:00-8:00. You can see this work and the work of 14 other pollinators. The show will remain up until February 26.  Thanks.

Paschkis eyes-fraktur

 

 

Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation

k-nielsen-poltarnees-coverWhen I was cleaning off my parents’ bookshelves, I came across a book, Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation, by Welleran Poltarnees. It was stashed between two larger art books. It must have been my mother’s, although I don’t remember her buying it. It was in a clear plastic bag with her name on it. Was my mother a fan of Nielsen’s work? She must have been. Like mother, like daughter.

I’ve been enamored of Kay Nielsen’s illustrations since I discovered them in my teens at my local bookshop. It was Kay Nielsen, edited by David Larkin (I bought it then and still have it). This was in the 70s, when illustrations of his were being re-popularized along with others of the “Golden Age of Illustration” such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac.

k-nielsen-poltarnees-frontispiece

Kay Nielsen: An Appreciation was issued by The Green Tiger Press in 1976. It is bound in hand-marbled paper. The interior is printed on heavy stock, with full color images tipped in. Along with both full and single color illustrations, there is commentary on the illustrations by Poltarnees, an autobiographical statement from 1939 and a 1945 interview by Jasmine Britton, the supervising librarian for the Los Angeles school system at that time.

k-nielsen-poltarnees-22-23

It is clearly a labor of love. I understand why my mother kept it sealed in a plastic cover.

Although I loved Nielsen’s work, I never bothered to learn more about who he was. In fact, for many years I assumed Kay was a woman. Of course, now such research is simple to do if you have a computer and a blogpost to write.

Kay Nielsen was born in Copenhagen in 1886. He attended art schools in Paris, then moved to London in 1911. He became celebrated and successful for his wondrous, dramatic paintings in books such as Powder and Crinoline and Hansel and Gretel.

k-nielsen-in-powder-and-crinoline-rosanie-or-the-inconstant-prince

k-nielsen-in-powder-and-crinoline-felicia-or-the-pot-of-pinks

kay-nielsen-hansel-and-gretel

k-nielsen-hansel-and-gretel

My favorite book of his is East of the Sun West of the Moon,

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-lassie-and-her-godmother

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-of-whiteland

particularly the image below, which resonated with my angsty teenage soul.

k-nielsen-east-of-the-sun-west-of-the-moon-the-three-princesses-in-the-blue-mountain

It surprised me to learn now that the illustrations I so admired were all produced between 1912 and 1925. He published one book in 1930. He moved twice to the United States, first in 1936, and again in the 50s after returning to Denmark. He worked for Disney for a few years, contributing to the “Ave Maria” and “Night on the Bald Mountain” sequences in “Fantasia”, where his influence is clear.

k-nielsen-sketch-for-night-on-bald-mountain

night-on-bald-mountain

But his style fell out of favor after the second world war and there were long dry spells where he and his wife had to rely on assistance from friends.

Jasmine Britton arranged to have Nielsen paint a mural for the library of the Los Angeles Central Junior High School in 1941.

k-nielsen-the-first-spring-mural

He painted another for the Wong Chapel in the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. His final work was a mural for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

He died in poverty and obscurity in 1957 at the age of 71. Services were held at the Wong Chapel. His wife died little over a year later.

Tastes change. Thank heavens that tastes change back again, and that the work of artists who were once considered out of fashion can be brought back for new viewers to appreciate. I found several sites with information about Kay Nielsen. If you want to learn more and see more wondrous images, I recommend this piece by Terry Windling.

Our Nation’s Library

The Library of Congress is one of those things that you feel you know—because you’ve said the words all your life—but then you realize you don’t really know that much about it.

One of my sisters recently sent me a link that I want to share, but first a bit about the library gleaned from the web. It’s the largest library in the world. According to its website “its collections are universal, not limited by subject, format, or national boundary, and include research materials from all parts of the world and in more than 450 languages. Two-thirds of the books it acquires each year are in languages other than English.”

Officially, it’s the research library for the United States Congress and it’s the oldest federal cultural institution in the U.S. It includes the Center for the Book which supports the Young Readers Center and the Poetry and Literature Center, which promote books, reading and libraries.

And it does lots of amazing things including scanning and posting this wonderful collection of classic children’s books: http://read.gov/books

Most of the books are from the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s fun to see how kids books have changed.

I love this one–The Children’s Object Book published in the 1880s.

objects-kitchen

objects-winter

I instantly thought of Richard Scarry books.

scarry-townscarry-mealtime

The objects have changed, the art style has changed, the sheer volume of stuff has changed—but kids still like to look at and identify the objects of their world.

The book collection is heavy on fairy tale and folk tale collections, Mother Goose and lots of rhyming. Some of it pretty tortured.

the-rocket-text the-rocket-1

rocket-dog-and-cat-textrocket-dog-and-cat

rocket-train-set-text

rocket-train-set

But it’s fun to see “concept” books like The Rocket Book by Peter Newell, 1912, being played around with early on in children’s publishing. Another concept book, Gobolinks, or Shadow-Pictures for Young and Old, published in 1896, encourages kids to use their imaginations with inkblots.

gobolink-1

Of course, it instantly brings to mind the Rorschach test. So out of curiousity I googled it to see how the dates matched up. The Rorschach test wasn’t developed until the 1960s, but interpreting blobs of ink started much earlier. According to Wikipedia, “Justinus Kerner invented this technique when he started accidentally dropping blots of ink onto paper due to failing eyesight. Instead of throwing them away, he found that intriguing shapes appeared if he unfolded the papers. He elaborated these shapes into intricate cartoons and used them to illustrate his poems.” This was in the 1850s.

The collections features work from some big name illustrators like Arthur Rackham:

sleeping-beauty

Sleeping Beauty, 1920

And N.C. Wyeth

Robin Hood, 1957

Robin Hood, 1957

And W.W. Denslow:

Denslow's Three Bears, 1901

Denslow’s Three Bears, 1901

There are also early versions of what I would call “franchise” books (like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh books.) There’s a long chapter book about Peter Rabbit called Mrs. Peter Rabbit from 1919. They don’t claim this is Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, but still the name serves its purpose.

In this case, Peter Rabbit, after many adventures finds his true love, gets married and has kids.

mr-and-mrs-peter-rabbit

Part of what I love about this on-line collection is the clarity of the reproductions. The pages show the wear and tear of the years and the hands they passed through.

marked-up-peter-rabbitmother-goose

It reminds me of the books I read from my family bookshelves as a kid. Many of them dating back to the turn of the century. I remember the tattered covers, the soft, yellowed pages and their musty smell; the occasional colored illustration on it’s own page of slicker, whiter paper. Sometimes there was onion paper between the illustration page and the next page of text. All of this shows up in the Library of Congress’s collection. So the experience of these books will be saved for generations to come.

If you want to check out the Library itself and all it has to offer you can here: https://www.loc.gov

 

 

Salaaming into Joy

carl-larsson-tree

In the Christmas cards I’m sending out this year, I’ve been asking friends, “Who knows what 2017 will bring?” I don’t know the answer. Weather sites all say it’s going to be a hard winter. So do the opinion pages of the New York Times.

We’re all a bit unsure, aren’t we? A bit worried? More than a bit? Here are my two recommendations for facing the year ahead:

First, read a poem about winter.

My favorite is John Clare’s Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter. But here is another poem I found recently, and I think I’ll read it as my family (fourteen people around my table) sits down to dinner on Christmas Eve. You can read (and listen to) many more winter poems here.

Winter Evening by Georg Trakl

When snow falls against the window,
Long sounds the evening bell…
For so many has the table
Been prepared, the house set in order.

From their wandering, many
Come on dark paths to this gateway.
The tree of grace is flowering in gold
Out of the cool sap of the earth.

In stillness, wanderer, step in:
Grief has worn the threshold into stone.
But see: in pure light, glowing
There on the table: bread and wine.

bread-and-wine

I know that the message in that poem might be about a higher kind of “gateway” than my own front door. Most likely, it’s religious (Heaven, anyone?) But I like its simpler message. Time to meet. Time to share. What about the grief which has “worn the threshold into stone”? Well, maybe we can step from it and enter the house, talk, feel generous again.  Feel worried, but also feel energetic.  There’s bread and wine on that table; on mine, there’s going to be smoked ham, brussels sprouts, tabbouleh, cheeses, hot cross buns, marion-berry pie and gingerbread.

Next, read a poem about summer.

lake-and-dock

I’m going to let my heart tell my brain that, despite the puzzling and worrisome events of November 8th, 2016, in America, there is still room for hope. The sun will shine…

laundry-line

…it’s just up to me and millions of other people to help determine which direction it shines. I’ve got my New Year’s resolution figured out: to become more optimistic, more active and committed to helping light shine in the right places in the year ahead.

Here is a summer poem I like a lot. Word of warning: the formatting of the lines is a little wonky – it’s long-lined and there’s not quite room on this blog page – so lines are slightly broken up. Still, I wanted to share it. I love what the poet, Dick Allen, says – time to “air out the linen,” notice the light, slow down, hear and see and touch the real world, gather together. The ski bum in this poem believes we can “salaam into joy.” So do I.

If You Get There Before I Do by Dick Allen

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible–what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all–the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses–
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.


Isn’t that lovely? Dick Allen is part of a poetry movement called Expansive Poetry – you can read more about it here. He’s a storyteller – and I’m going to work to figure out how to tell more stories through poetry this next year. I’m going to try to be more creative, and more active politically. How about you? Are you reading this and feeling like there might be a place for you that “love has kept protected”?  Tell all the skeptics, bigots, critics right now: What Dick Allen said — you’re allowed to go there. And as Georg Trakl said, “In stillness, wanderer, step in.”

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2017 to all the readers of Books Around the Table!

[P.S. It’s Poetry Friday today and Buffy Silverman is hosting the round-up at Buffy’s Blog. Head over there to see what other people have posted.)

carl-larsson

Snow on the ground….

2017

…flowers on the horizon.

wildflower-field-at-farm

 

RING THE BELLS

Seventy-year old rocker Patti Smith sang at Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize induction this earlier this month. She chose to sing Dylan’s It’s a Hard Rain That’s Gonna Fall, but she had a rough go at it. As Patti writes in the New Yorker, she had totally prepared, but when the time came to deliver the lyrics, she was overcome by the momentous occasion and the thought of the luminous laureates who had come before and, though she could feel the lyrics inside herself, she could not pull them out. She started over. But, as she writes, it never got easier.

screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-7-27-07-am

Watch her performance. It is raw and authentic. Though the lyrics are imperfect, she delivers the song. Her stumbles went to the heart of what the song is about.

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/patti-smith-on-singing-at-bob-dylans-nobel-prize-ceremony

Of course writing and illustrating books are not performance art. Our process allows an attempt at perfection with countless revisions of text, and – especially since the advent of digital art – endless dinking with the illustrations.

So I’m thinking about Patti Smith’s performance more in terms of navigating life than in creating a picture book.

Here we are in the thick of the holidays with their expectation of perfection: the perfectly decorated perfect tree, the perfect feast just like Mom used to make, perfect gifts tied up with perfect bows. And I think we can learn from Patti Smith’s experience: prepare the best we can and trust the song will come through.

As Leonard Cohen writes eloquently in Anthem:

       Ring the bells that still can ring 
       Forget your perfect offering 
       There is a crack in everything 
       That’s how the light gets in.

*****

Happy holidays to all our BATT readers. Here’s to a New Year full of music and good stories and light. Lots of beautiful light.

screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-7-17-49-am

P.S. Bob Dylan did not attend his ceremony, but he sent a letter. You can read that here: https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2016/dylan-speech.html

First Light Thoughts: Paul Fleischman

I have been lucky enough to illustrate two books written by Paul Fleischman: Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal and First Light, First Life. The writing in them is gem-like: much information is compressed into something brilliant. Each word matters. Today Paul is a guest blogger, writing about how the many strands in his writing developed from his life.  The article shows how his writing is infused with more than you notice at first. It’s like a soup broth that has been made of many ingredients. You can no longer see all of the ingredients when the broth is done, but you can taste them.

first-light-cover

Here is Paul’s essay. For more of his writing go to  www.paulfleischman.net.

………………………………………………..

With its braiding together of creation motifs from around the world, First Light, First Life might seem to have been rushed into print to counter the nationalism that’s erupted into political life.  If only my crystal ball were that clear.  In truth the book came from far in my past, and all our pasts.

“A man is known least to himself,” wrote Cicero.  The same holds true for our cultures.  Immersed in them, we can’t get an objective view and tend toward thinking they’re universal, or should be.  Many are the societies whose name for themselves means “the people.”  I accepted unthinkingly the white, upper-middle class world of Santa Monica, California that I grew up in.  We were “the people,” our lifeways confirmed by the programs we watched on TV.  Everyone lived in the suburbs, didn’t they?  But then I became aware of alternate possibilities.

They arrived through the air.  At eleven years old, I received a shortwave radio.  Suddenly my world’s boundaries shot outward.  My classmates got their news from Walter Cronkite; I got mine from the BBC, Radio Peking, Radio Australia.  I listened to the latest Beatles hits on KRLA but also to the pulsing, odd-sounding scales of music from the Middle East.  Each station was its country’s chamber of commerce and culture.  I heard programs from Norway in praise of saunas and Radio South Africa’s repeated explanations of the many benefits of apartheid.  English was one tongue among many here.  Listening to languages I didn’t understand showed me the purely musical side of words, something that would inform my writing style decades in the future.  Every house should have a shortwave.

Paul and his shortwave radio

Paul and his shortwave radio

And so it was that in high school I began slipping into churches for the first time in my life and sampling their services.  I watched my neighbors and did what they did, fumbling to find the hymn that was being sung, dropping down onto the kneeler when they did.  The same impulse must have led me to attend my first folk dance.  The small room was packed with college students dancing in lines to music from Bulgaria, Israel, Sweden, French Canada.  The songs were in 4/4 rhythm, then 7/8, then 13/16, some played on instruments I’d never heard.  I knew none of the steps, but I was hooked.

Though I concentrated on English and history in college, I found myself studying mythology and folklore on the side.  I memorized Greek myths, filling the hole left by my secular youth.  I pored over the bizarre customs and religions in The Golden Bough, James George Frazier’s tour of the world we’d all come from.  And then came one of those right-book-at-the-right-time moments: opening Patterns of Culture by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, a portrait of the differing values encouraged by the consensus-minded Pueblo Indians, the belligerent Dobu of New Guinea, and the reputation-obsessed Kwakiutl of British Columbia.  For the first time I felt I had a view from above of my own society and its heavy weighting toward individualism and competition.

I finished college in multi-cultural Albuquerque.  Living there again years later, I attended the right party at the right time, during which a woman appeared with a loop of string and did the opening move of cat’s cradle.  She held it out to the man beside her and though none of us had played this string game since grammar school, he remembered the next move.  The string came to me.  I was surprised that I remembered as well.  The woman I turned to had grown up in Nepal.  Amazingly, she too knew the next move.  Though we’d come from many places, it was as if we’d had the same childhood.

These many tributaries flowed into Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal, a weaving of Cinderella variants from around the world into a single strand, a testament to diversity as well as the commonality of the human condition.  That book in turn led to First Light, First Life.  Cinderella’s story is folklore, but creation accounts are something more.  Believing or not believing them matters.  What matters for me is the larger truth: that our beliefs vary widely and that the culture around us is only one square in the quilt.  And what a marvelous, many-colored quilt it is.  Children are never too young to learn this.

The same goes for adults.  The urge toward group identity and exclusion of others is strong.  Borders, walls, and cultural superiority have always been an easy sell.  It’s easy as well to see where these lead when stoked: to intolerance, scapegoating, war, genocide.  Gaining altitude and perspective has never been more vital.  Books, like hot air balloons, can lift us above the walls we’ve built around ourselves.  I salute the writers who taught me to see beyond borders, and the teachers who brought me their books.

 

What Would Betsy Ross Do?

This post is drafted from a letter that I recently sent out to artists that I know. Although many of our readers are from outside the United States, I hope that it will still be something in which everyone can find commonality and perhaps participate.

zimand-us_historical_flags-united_states_of_america

We are living in interesting times.

November 9, 2016, was a difficult day for me. It felt like the world as I knew it, or thought I did, had upended itself. I went through something similar in London with the Brexit vote, but this goes deeper, and feels more ominous.

upsidedownusflag

As I usually do in times of confusion and pain, I turned to making things. Textiles have been my favored medium of late, so I started making a version of what I was feeling out of fabric. After I got started, I realized I was designing my concept of a new flag for this country. It is a work in progress. It gives me some catharsis.

m-chodos-irvine-newusflag1detail

But now I want more. I want to see what other people imagine a new, more accurate flag for this country might look like. Flags are symbolic representations of nations. The Stars and Stripes represent unity and balance. Are we still that nation?

So I am asking, regardless of how you voted, What do you envision? Show us.

You may use any medium: fabric, paper, paint, metal, printmaking, wood, computer graphics, collage, mixed media … whatever you are comfortable with.

You can find the specifications of the U.S. flag (as well as it’s history) here, but you are not limited to this format. The size limit is 6’ X 10’.

If  enough new flags are created, I will find a way to publicize and exhibit them, perhaps producing a catalogue.

The deadline to begin is Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. The final deadline will be March 15, 2017. My goal is to have everything completed for a show by Flag Day, June 14th, 2017.

If you post on social media, please tag me, (Margaret Chodos-Irvine on FB, @margaretci on Instagram) and include this hashtag: #newusflag

You may also include the following hashtags if you like: #newflagsforinterestingtimes #whatwouldbetsyrossdo #whatwouldbetsyrossthink

Yours in creative solidarity,

Margaret Chodos-Irvine

applepiecatspot

Noise to Avoid

img_2264

With the recent re-issue of my book “The Christmas Crocodile,” I’ve been doing a few readings and suddenly I’m having to deal again with a big scream that happens in the middle of the book.

I remembered a little essay I wrote at the time, which I submitted to the SCBWI national newsletter. It didn’t get accepted, but I thought it would be fun to put here:

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out how to get published, it’s easy to forget that someday you may actually have a book. You may actually have to read it to others, not once, not twice but potentially hundreds of times.

Having put a loud scream into my picture book The Christmas Crocodile, illustrated by David Small, I learned a few things the hard way. Here’s my handy-dandy list of what not to put in your story if you want to ensure read-aloud ease:

– Do not put in weird sounds you really don’t want to make in front of 100 people such as loud, drawn out screams. (see above.)

– Do not put in alliterative names that are used each time you mention that character.  Rodney the Rickety Rabbit gets real tiresome about the twentieth time you have to say it in full.

– A corollary is to avoid overly elaborate, difficult to pronounce character names. Oonaqaurklypomadorio is going to be a source of regret.

– Do not put in word choices that are tongue twisters.  Beware. These are not always obvious.  One line in The Christmas Crocodile reads:  “He waved his tail farewell.” “Tail farewell” does not trip off the tongue and one quickly wishes they’d written “waved goodbye.”

– Avoid big long sentences with numerous dependent clauses, descriptive phrases, qualifiers and just plain meanderings that looked so good on paper and made you feel literary, but make your eyes bulge and have you gasping for breath when read out loud.

– Be sparing with repetition. Repetition is the spice of children’s books and sometimes you just have to write some variant of the “House that Jack Built.” But you will find yourself beginning to sound like a radio ad disclaimer as you try to speed read through the ever-growing, ever more tedious list. “’This is the mouse that swallowed the house that ate the pig that sat on the rat…’ Oh, hell, boys and girls, you know the rest!”

– If you’re picking a selection to read from a novel, try for at least one readable scene/section that does not require a longer explanation than the reading itself.

– Be sparing with foreign phrases you actually don’t know how to pronounce or dialog requiring accents you can’t do—unless, of course, you want to sound like Pepe LePue.

– Beware of jokes, unless you are an expert in comic timing. Sometimes the audience doesn’t laugh. Sometimes there is dead silence. Sometimes you start to really sweat.

And that’s when you wish you’d written a nice little bedtime book, instead of this one about who can fart the loudest.

P.S. The way I solved the big, long, loud scream I didn’t really want to do was to realize (brilliantly, if belatedly) that I could prompt the kids to do it. They love it, especially within the hushed halls of schools and libraries.

new-crocodile-cover

 

 

The Idea of “Surprise”

SONY DSC

What just happened????

Sometimes life surprises us, right? Unexpected things happen – both good and bad. We win a raffle. We get a call in the night – someone we love is sick, and the world goes upside down.  We hear from an old friend we thought we had lost.  We read a headline that doesn’t seem to make sense, not according to the way we believe the world works.

headline

We assume one thing, another thing happens. My sister and I have talked a lot about the idea of an “assumptive world,” and about how wrong we can sometimes be, how surprised we are (and, oddly, continue to be) when illogical things happen. Of course, it would make sense to adjust our assumptions. Why don’t we? Maybe the question is, can we? What sets our assumptions in cement from a very early age?

surprised-baby-3

I don’t believe it.

Here’s a definition: “The assumptive world is an organized schema reflecting all that a person assumes to be true about the world and the self on the basis of previous experiences; it refers to the assumptions, or beliefs, that ground, secure, and orient people, that give a sense of reality, meaning, or purpose to life.”

As writers we might consider how important it is for us to understand the assumptive world of our characters. What are their guiding beliefs about the way the world works? What beliefs “ground, secure and orient” them? Of course, not all their beliefs will be rosy – even writing for children, we might create characters who believe that life is basically unfair and chaotic. They might believe that people are intrinsically selfish.  They might believe that the world works not the way it should  – rewarding hard work and dispensing privileges accordingly – but in a way that always leaves them personally disenfranchised and broken.  Or they might believe, as Anne Frank wrote, that people are fundamentally good and decent.  I usually believe people try their hardest to be good. Sometimes they get exhausted and do crazy things.

If we can determine the overriding belief system of our characters (and our fellow citizens, actually) then we can more gracefully and successfully describe and understand how they respond to events that unfold. Which hopefully adds a degree of truth to our writing.

hillary-supporters

trump-supporters-winSurprise can come at us pleasantly or unpleasantly. Michael Moore, in a recent opinion piece said that liberals would be surprised by the most recent election results because they “live in a bubble.” That bubble might be as simple as an economically privileged state which narrows a person’s experiences. But it could also be a bubble of assumptions about how people in different circumstances will behave in general. How do we sometimes read the world so incorrectly? I was ashamed to be wrong about how the election would turn out. It felt like I lacked the imagination to understand a huge number of Americans. Could I have been one of the clueless characters in Saturday Night Live’s skit about election night? Yes, I could have.

If someone were writing a story about me, he or she would need to know that I assume the world is a logical place. I usually look for logic, plain and simple, which means I spend a lot of time confused, because life is not plain and simple and mathematical, and I usually find the world’s lack of logic and its inscrutability staring right back at me. “Why does this happen?” and “How does this happen?” are questions that come up a lot in my life, about all kinds of things.

two-plus-two-equals-four-school-apple

Even the apple seems logical.

I’m comforted by scientific explanations  (“This tree was hit by lightning because of the following facts about lightning”) but made uneasy by luck (“The poor guy standing under the tree was hit by lightning  because the gods felt brutal and playful.”)

Yes, I’m drawn to the illogical, but that’s because I just don’t understand it. Faced with mysteries – whether beautiful or brutal or both – I ask a lot of questions, annoy some people, and write many poems.

sluice-pond

Nature’s beauty – how does an image of light and shadow evoke “home”?

hurricane-katrina-001

Nature’s brutality – Hurricane Katrina

I long to understand how people and nature behave, and I’m curious about my own failure to figure it all out. Why do I even have or want an “organized schema” of how the world works if there is nothing organized or schematic about it? Maybe, if an author created me, I would be a difficult character in a book – constantly befuddled. Befuddlement – yes, that’s what I’ve been feeling since Tuesday. That’s where my assumptions left me. I’m either tremendously wrong about logic being in charge of the universe or I’m stubborn – I don’t want to admit that luck or playful gods have anything to do with making Life’s rules. I want two plus two to equal four, for heaven’s sake. But I hear a little voice in my head whispering, “Surprise!”

two-plus-two

surprised-baby-2

 

Imagery and the Election

THE NIGHT before the Big Election we slept at Inverness, a beach enclave north of San Francisco that is right smack on the major San Andreas faultline.

(Gotta love the hint and nudge of the objective correlative: earthquake possibilities and the election side by side.)

Election day bloomed sunny. News sources predicted that the earliest time Hillary Clinton would be declared winner was 5:30 PST, so we walked out across the dunes to Kehoe Beach to watch the sunset.

I noted details that might tell the day’s story: the miles-long empty beach, washed clean, as for the fresh start of the first woman president; the moon slashed by a jet trail, like a giant ballot mark, a celebratory green flash as the sun sunk into the Pacific.

beach1

When, in the wee hours of the morning, Donald Trump was declared the next president of the United States, I realized I had made a big mistake in choosing metaphors. I should have noted, instead, our long slog through mud and sand, the putrid corn chip smell along the marshland trail, the huge breakers five and six layers deep that pummeled the shore. And the signs along the beach: “Riptide Warning” and “Beware of Sneaker Waves.”

WE FLIPPED on the TV Wednesday and heard our president Barrack Obama remind us again how we are One America. He said Donald Trump had spoken to him of the same intent: for America to be whole again. Obama used the analogy of the presidency as a relay race, stressing the importance of the handoff of one administration to the next.

It has been hard to sleep. Each time the heater switches on, it sounds like a distant siren. A simile of danger. But, as Obama told us, life goes on. The sun comes up each morning.

THURSDAY we hiked on Point Reyes North Beach, the outermost western edge of continental America. The horizon was lost in thick fog. A young couple walked near the breakers. He had a baby on his back. She led a dog on a leash. They held hands. I need this hopeful image in the face of the unknown.

On the radio, political experts talk about how this election pitted those who want change at any cost against those who want the status quo. They say the election reveals a deep division in America.

Children’s books can play a role in addressing this gap. As children’s books become more diverse and better represent the vast variety of human experience, young readers will come to understand our great commonality as well as our differences. Understanding leads to empathy.

When we drive from Inverness back to San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge we pass through a tunnel on each side. One tunnel is named for World War II General Douglas MacArthur, the other for comedian Robin Williams. That’s a pretty big divide, right?

Yes, it’s a bridge we’ll be needing. A Golden Gate. Maybe children’s books will help build it.

.