HOW I CELEBRATED NATIONAL CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK

You can spot Charlie’s Corner bookstore in San Francisco’s Noe Valley by the line up of strollers on the sidewalk out front. Five times a day they serve up storytime delights to an SRO audience of kids and their caretakers.

Our two-year old grandson is a regular on the mushroom stools there and each time we visit we are blown away by a program that includes books and puppets and music, usually led the proprietor, Charlotte Nagy aka Charlie. There’s this sense of community: storytime begins with a song that welcomes each child by name. And love of books: each book is read in “voices” that fully animate the text.

From a perch on a mushroom stool, I had dreamed that Little Wolf’s First Howling might someday be part of a Charlie’s Corner storytime. So I asked Candlewick, my publisher, if we could line up a reading when the birth of our second grandson prompted another visit to San Francisco.

Unbeknownst to me, Charlie had already picked up on Little Wolf’s scent. She was reading an advance copy at storytimes, howling along with kids to it several times a day. Charlie dons her own wolf headgear for the readings. She told us every howling session is different, depending on the “wolves” any given day.

My visit was smack dab in the middle of National Children’s Book Week. When I met Charlie, she greeted me with, “We love your book.” Turns out she had hoped that the author of Little Wolf would come to visit all the while I was hoping to be a visitor. We decided to split up the reading. She took the part of Little Wolf, reading his howls with gusto and panache.char corner_3

Charlie suggested we finish up with You are My Little Wolf (to the tune of You are My Sunshine). My grandson Emmett stepped forward to strum the ukulele as I played the chords. Yet another dream come true. Altogether my favorite celebration of Children’s Book Week ever. Thanks to all the Charlie’s Corner gang – Elise, Christine, Katharine, Jeffrey, and Tiffany, and most especially to Charlie herself – for a howling good time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Magic Spell

I have a new book out called Magic Spell.

Magic Spell is a book about spelling in all senses: the spelling of words, the spells of magicians, and the spells that people cast over each other.

I have always liked puzzles and wordplay. With a flick of your pen a word can change meaning completely – night becomes light,  a toy turns into a boy, a ball becomes a bell.

In 2012 I drew the character Aziz – a magician who was a mighty speller.

I wrote a story where Aziz performed prodigious feats of spelling. But it wasn’t enough. He needed an assistant. And the story needed a plot. Along came Zaza.

The story became about their relationship and their struggle.

In the beginning Aziz is the star, the main attraction.

He has all of the power and his beautiful assistant doesn’t even have a name. She does all of the dirty work – such as picking up fish, wrestling with a hose that had been a rose, or putting out a fire.

She goes along with this until he turns her wig into a pig. That is too much.

She lets him know her name, Zaza, and tells him that she can spell too. They fight over the wand.

A series of spelling battles ensue.

Aziz turns a bug to a rug to a rat to a cat.

Zaza turns his coat to a boat to a boot to a book to a rook.

They cast spells back and forth. The argument escalates and things get bad.  Beads become beans become bears.

Aziz and Zaza must learn to work together pronto.

And they do. TADA! A new show is born.

If a magic spell is done well it seems effortless. The same is true of a book. But with both (with everything) there is usually a lot of work behind the scenes. I rewrote Magic Spell many, many times in an effort to strengthen the story and to make the word transitions smooth. Before it was accepted for publication my critique group helped,  Linda Pratt gave advice and encouragement and Andrea Spooner gave helpful editorial feedback. After it was accepted by Simon and Schuster, Kristin Ostby and Liz Kossnar were wonderful editors. Art director Laurent Lynn added his magic touch including SPARKLES. Katie Johnson consulted to make sure that the spelling changes and word choices were appropriate for learning readers. Many people waved their wands and – voila – five years after Aziz fell out of my pen a book was born.

You can buy Magic Spell at your local bookstore or click here to buy it from Secret Garden Books in Seattle. I hope you will enjoy it.

Science Lit

On this eve of Earth Day, 2017, with marches for science scheduled tomorrow in cities around the US, I got to thinking about science books for kids, and what they’ve meant to me.

It’s important for children to see real worlds as well as imaginary ones. They can be equally wondrous. Children love stories. Science is the narrative of the universe.

Looking through my science books as a child, I dreamed of seeing cardinals, and fireflies, and the Northern Lights. A bright red bird, a bug that lights up, colors in the sky – they seemed like magical things, in spite of being real.

I still have some of my childhood science books, and I’ve added a few more. I continue to use them as reference for my work.

Even though I spent a lot of time making things and drawing pictures when I was growing up, I also loved reading about insects and dinosaurs and rocks (I lean towards biology and geology). My family and I went on rock hunting expeditions in the California desert. When asked when I was five what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said An Archaeologist. I did eventually go on to get a degree in anthropology (as well as art).

This is my parents’ fossil book that I poured over as a kid. Fossil hunting continues to be my idea of Big Fun.

There are wonderful books on scientific topics being published every year. My daughters both loved Cactus Hotel and Spoonbill Swamp, by Brenda Guiberson, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.

Douglas Florian writes and illustrates quirky poems about areas of science. I especially enjoy his Comets, Stars, The Moon, and Mars.

The Minor Planets

Sometimes known as asteroids.
Sometimes called the planetoids.
They always help to fill the void.
Tween Jupiter and Mars.

Named for sweethearts, daughters, sons.
Some are small as breakfast buns.
Others larger, weighing tons,
But none as grand as stars

Florian knows how to be both funny and informative without either getting in the way of the other.

Several years ago I bought a book on the work of Charlie Harper. When I first saw the book I felt a pang of nostalgia. He was an illustrator in the later half of the twentieth century and created the images for The Giant Golden Book of Biology. I must have read that book at some point, because looking at his work gave me flashbacks of being in grade school.

You may recognize Harper’s work from recently produced coffee mugs and calendars. I have bought fabric with his birds on it. He is having a posthumous revival of sorts. But some of his most beautiful and innovative images are his illustrations about science.

Science is a varied and expansive topic. That is good, as there is something to spark interest in just about anyone. I applaud all authors, illustrators, teachers and parents who find inspiring and creative ways to introduce young people to the wonders of science. Let’s make sure students  continue to have access to a wide range of scientific ideas, exploration and knowledge in the future.

Are You the One for Me

Author Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are “entities” that circulate out in the universe looking for someone to bring them to life. To Gilbert this isn’t a metaphor or a way to describe the collective unconscious or a shared cultural milieu. Here’s how she puts it in her book “Big Magic.”

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are disembodied, energetic life-forms…Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

I heard Gilbert speak a few weeks ago to a packed theater in Seattle. She’s a funny, entertaining and insightful speaker. Best known for the book Eat Pray Love, I was there to hear more about Big Magic, her book about nurturing creativity.

According to Gilbert, ideas are so eager to manifest that if you don’t take them up on the offer they’ll find someone else.

But even though, it’s a privilege for an idea tap on your door, you, as the one committing to a lot of hard work, have the right and, indeed, obligation to interview ideas to see if you and the idea are the right fit. As Gilbert says, “I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them, ‘I’m honored by your invitation, but I’m not your girl.’”

What she said about interviewing ideas struck a chord for me. Like many writers, I often have more ideas than I know what to do with. But, especially when I was beginning, I really had a hard time figuring out which ideas were worth the effort and which weren’t. And there were some ideas that I beat to death, so sure was I that I could turn it into something, even though the truth is it had come to the wrong door.

The way I eventually put it to myself was that certain ideas had “energy.” Certain story ideas somehow seemed to demand my attention and effort again and again. It was more intuitive than formalized. I just gradually began to recognize the ideas that were right for me.

I’d never thought to more actively interrogate the idea as Gilbert suggests, but it could be a fun and useful way to find the idea that’s right for you. And I thought about some of the questions I would ask:

 

 

 

Why do you think you’re the right idea for me?

What’s in your heart? Do you have depth or are you just a pretty face?

Do you have breadth? Is there room to move around in this situation or notion?

Do you have any surprises in store? (I want surprises.)

Can I do justice to this idea? Sure, I can research and travel and work hard and probably learn about just about anything, but am I the right writer for a spy novel set in Istanbul? What would it take to learn about international espionage and learn Turkish customs and culture and idioms and geography and so much more?

But even more important than that is the question: is this story “me”? Can I really see the world like Graham Greene or, another way to put it, is my understanding of the world genuinely expressed through a spy novel or will it feel fake in the end?

If a picture book idea comes to my door, I already have some questions that I like to ask:

Do you have a plot? In other words, are you a story or a concept book?

If you’re a concept book, do you have a different or new way to talk about colors or sounds or feelings or trucks? How much “concept” (as in high concept) is there to you so you can stand out?

If you’re an alphabet book do you have a word for Q?

If you’re a rhyming book, why are you a rhyming book? Do you have a good reason to be or do you just think that makes you cute and what one does in kids books?

Are you simple enough to be a picture book, but profound enough to be interesting to me and a reader?

I don’t overwork the question: will you sell? But I let it brush across my mind. How saturated is the market with stories about schools for kids with supernatural skills? Can you, Ms. Idea, or I bring anything new to the table?

Still in the end, probably the most important question for any idea is: Do you excite me? Do I want to do you?

When I mentioned I was writing about interviewing ideas, fellow blogger Julie Paschkis reminded me how fragile ideas are and that you can over-interrogate them. She shared this poem with me.

Shallow Poem

I’ve thought of a poem.
I carry it carefully,
nervously, in my head,
like a saucer of milk;
in case I should spill some lines
before I put them down.

Gerda Mayer

So don’t grill your idea till it’s sweating under the lights, or to really stretch a metaphor, till the milk curdles. But a few gentle questions could allow you to say “No thanks,” with no regrets. Or, “Yes, let’s do it!” more confident that this is an idea that deserves your love and hard work and that will, in turn, work hard for you.

 

A Few Thoughts about Competition

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Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing a piece, personality-wise. Well, I’m sure it’s many pieces, given how many go into any given personality and how often I wonder. If you put the metaphorical pieces end to end, would they stretch from here to the metaphorical moon?

But one piece in particular (better said, the lack of it) puzzles me, and that’s the piece governing competitiveness. I look deep, but I can’t find it. What happened to it? It must have snuck off in the night some time back. And I’m not bragging about this — it’s not like I’m so zen-blessed or Buddha-like that competition is beneath me.  It’s more like I don’t really care anymore about being the fastest, the best, the most. I can’t think of anything I would be driven to win at.

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When I was a kid it was different. On the playground I wanted to be the best at everything. If my friends and I ran around pretending we were wild horses, I wanted to be the fastest and the wildest horse. Playing tetherball or dodge ball, I wanted to beat everyone who challenged me – not just beat them, but crush them, and I did crush them.  Many kids thought I was mean.  I practiced yo-yo tricks so much it hurt, because I wanted to be the Yo-Yo Champion of the World. If I couldn’t master something (like the strategy behind games of chess) and knew I couldn’t win,  I simply didn’t engage in it.

How things change as you age, no? If I do something well now (write a good poem, for example) I’m happy, but I’m just as happy to have a friend write a better one. Nothing eats away at me if I’m not The Best – I don’t curse and tell myself I’ll win next time.

So, I’m really curious: Do most of you reading this feel that competition is healthy? That it shows energy and self-confidence? Even in an adult? My lack of competitiveness –  rather than representing a state of blissful Nirvana, does it only represent inertia? Even worse, does it suggest a lack of confidence and/or depression? On the other hand (lots of hands waiting for their turn) could a lack of competitiveness, seen by some as a problem, mean I’m ready for sainthood?

 

THE STORY OF LITTLE WOLF

Every book has its origin story. For Little Wolf’s First Howling, which launches April 11, that story begins and ends with collaboration and play.

In November 2014 John and I found out we were going to be grandparents. We bought a wolf puppet for the expected baby and were goofing around with it on the drive home when Little Wolf started howling with an Ella Fitzgerald-inspired vibe. We cracked each other up, so I tried working some of our play into a picture book text. John and the puppet were my first collaborators on Little Wolf.

But it is my sister Kate Harvey McGee whose name is beside mine on the cover. Kate gave the illustrations their luminous color. So I thought I’d give over my blog post today to some thoughts about what made our collaboration so much fun.

First, we have history. Kate and I are the third and fourth children in a family of five kids: four girls and (finally) a boy. We shared a bedroom most of our childhoods and spent lots of time coloring together, redecorating our room, making up stories with our stuffed animals and getting in trouble for laughing when we should have been going to sleep.

In the year I was a senior and she a freshman at Sonora High School, we worked together every week before home football games painting a huge Wildcat head that was leaned up against the goal posts for the football team to burst through as they took the field. That’s the last time we made art together.

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Until September 2015 when she agreed to provide the color for Little Wolf.

To backtrack a little — Candlewick Press editor Katie Cunningham and art director Heather McGee offered to publish Little Wolf in July 2015. Heather talked to me about the challenges of printing a book that takes place at night; a book with so much black. She explained that instead of the usual CYMK four plate process, this book would be printed CYMKK, two black plates. In other words, I would need to provide the black and the colors on two separate layers.

Since the artwork had to be in two layers, I knew just who I wished would do the color. About ten years ago my sister Kate turned her talents from landscape architecture to plein air painting with pastels.

I love her work, especially her sense of color and composition.

Little Wolf takes place at night in the wilds of Yellowstone, I could imagine how Kate would paint that light and beauty.

We made samples to show Katie and Heather what we had in mind. In November 2015 they welcomed my sister Kate on board.

One more hurdle: Kate and I would both have to learn Photoshop to make this work. (Much thanks to Kevan Atteberry for helping me with this.)

Five months of intense artmaking began. I created the black layer a conventional way, painting with white paint and black ink in gouache resist technique. This I scanned and adjusted in Photoshop, then emailed to Kate who lives near Corvallis, OR.

Also working in Photoshop, Kate created a pastel palette and “painted” the colors in layers under the black layer.

Every time she sent back a spread, I would open the file with bated breath. Every time it was a revelation.

Collaborating with Kate was fun because we trust what each of us brings to the table. We share a similar aesthetic. It was fun to be making something together and good to have each other’s advice to figure out when a piece was done.

Mostly we worked each in our own studios, but twice we met to work side by side. Once for a magical weekend at Arch Cape on the Oregon coast, where the nights were starry and the days sunlit. And once in Seattle as we wrapped up the project. We turned in the interior art April 2016.

Then began the design for the cover. Color proofs one and two. ARCs. Gratifying reviews (three stars!).

This story that began while playing with a wolf puppet grew to carry the truth about the importance of singing your own song – as well as the joy of singing with one you love.

YOU ARE INVITED

The launch of Little Wolf’s First Howling, Tuesday April 11, 7 pm at Secret Garden Bookshop in Ballard, 2214 NW Market St., Seattle. Come help us wolf down refreshments and howl along with family and friends to string bass accompaniment. Feel welcome to bring your pack.

Also – Special Storytime April 12 at 11 am. at University Bookstore, 4326 University Way NE, kids department.

p.s. One more collaborator — As part of my ongoing effort to include Izzi in as many blogposts as possible, here she is posing for reference for Big Wolf on the cover.

Pysanky

Pysaty is the Ukrainian verb for writing. Pysanky are decorated eggs: the decorations are written with beeswax which resists the layers of dye.

My family has dyed pysanky for years. My sister Jan and her husband Greg host an annual neighborhood egg decorating party. I was inspired by the party and the eggs to write a book about an eccentric hen (P. Zonka) who lays beautiful eggs. Here is a link to an earlier post about that.

Last spring I went to eastern Europe with my friend Ingrid. Her friend Vova took us many places, including a surprise visit to the Museum of  Decorated Eggs in the Carpathian mountains.

It was egg-mazing, egg-zilerating, egg-xactly the place to see pysanky: old, new, simple, intricate, subtle, colorful, masterful, plentiful.

Pysanky are rich in beauty and symbolism. To the sun worshippers, eggs were magical objects representing the rebirth of the earth. The colors and the patterns of the decorations all have symbolic meaning. For example: the spiral, or snake, is a strong talisman of protection. If an evil spirit enters the house it will get trapped in the spiral.

The Huzkuls of the Carpathian mountains believed that the fate of the world depended on decorating eggs. If not enough pysanky were made each year  a horrible monster named Pekun would break free from his chains and destroy the world.  So please do your part and decorate some eggs! Here is a link to a youtube video that shows how. Have fun (and save the world).

P.S.: Here is a  glossary of mouth pleasing egg words for those of you that are more interested in pysaty than pysanky.
Malyovanky: Painted eggs
Krapanky: Dot eggs
Dryapanky: Scratched eggs revealing white shell
Krashanky: Eggs dyed a single color
Nakleyanky: Decorations glued on
Travlenky: Etched eggs
Biserky: Beads embedded in the beeswax.

The Art of Pochoir

I bought a new book recently.

Pochoir is a technique for hand stenciling. I have been experimenting a lot with stenciling in my own work lately, but I had never heard the term Pochoir until a friend mentioned it a few months ago (thank you Jennifer).

Pochoir was used in the 1910s – 1920s in France as a way to colorize fashion plates in women’s magazines. By using rounded brushes, layers of watercolor or gouache paints are applied by hand through stencils, gradually building of layers of soft color. Usually the plates were printed with line art first.

I haven’t read much of the book yet, but I’ve spent plenty of time looking at the pictures.

The women all seem to be swooning or lounging.

Or smelling flowers.

Or in bad weather.

Their bodies are all long lines and arcs.

Many have very long necks.

They like birds.

Some are exotic.

Some possess mystery.

They have whimsy.

And a sly sense of humor.

What a wonderful era of illustration to peruse. Ooh la la.

Butterflies and Books

Illustrations depicting books and reading tend to feature certain animals over and over. Cats, cats and more cats is one motif. Birds show up quite a bit. And, I’ve noticed in my collection of images about books and reading, although insects are a rare element, there’s one insect that is clearly the favorite.

Winged, fanciful and echoing the shape of a book, it’s easy to see why artists choose the butterfly.

This week, I wanted to share some of the images I like. Most are simply pretty:

Illustration by Duy Huhnh

 

Illustration by Marco Palena

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No credit found

 

But some have a little more to say:

Illustration by Linda Apple

 

And after all that pretty, I like the vigor of my friend and co-blogger Julie Paschkis’s reading acrobat and his butterfly friend.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis

 

This one is intriguing to me because the butterflies are so flat. Were they flattened in the book and now are set free? Are they dead or artificial ideas even if they can fly off the page? Or just the play of thoughts for this absorbed reader?

Illustration by Jannike Vive

 

There’s one illustration I have to include. I say dragonflies are close enough and perhaps, as even their name suggests, they subvert the sweetness of the butterfly imagery. I love the mischief in this young reader’s eyes.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

 

 

Lady Curiosity

Well, I thought I would be posting today about the Boston Public Library. In my opinion, public libraries are the best thing about America – they are egalitarian, they encourage intellectual curiosity on a budget, they are the perfect institution for a democracy- it’s clear to me that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” need a public library.  I spend a lot of time in libraries; I take the library system into consideration whenever I look at a community and think about whether it would be a great place to live. Libraries are a big part of my life, and the Boston Public Library is gorgeous.

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Golden marble everywhere, big lion statues in the stairwell, painted murals twenty feet high, absolutely awe-inspiring. My husband and I visited it last week, during Boston’s mid-winter 60-degree weather (67 degrees in February? In Boston? Impossible!!) when we flew out from Seattle to visit our daughter and her family. I knew posting about the library would be perfect – our readers share my love of books and the buildings they are housed in. So, a post about the library….But then we went to Salem and visited the Peabody Essex Museum and its featured exhibition, The World of Wearable Art.

There was no way not to post about it.

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When I walked through it, I could just hear a voice in my head saying, “This is what happens when you think outside the box. This is what creativity is all about.” The wearable pieces on exhibit were all submitted as part of a world-wide competition, open to both professionals and amateurs.

My daughter asked us to choose one we would walk down the streets of Salem, Massachusetts, in.  My grandson liked the one you see (above) and took a photo of it (below):

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My husband liked the one made of wood (below) which was created for the competition by a carpenter. Not that my husband would walk down the streets of Salem in it!

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And my daughter chose the one you can see just behind it, made of wool flannel and silk. Up close, you can almost feel the heat of it because it seems to be on fire. Here’s a better shot of it:

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We all agreed that this lobster oufit was spectacular….

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…and that the one below, made entirely of leather, was unnerving – not sure why. Imagine the lobster or the horse walking toward you down the sidewalk.

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This one, also on the scary-beautiful spectrum, felt melancholy to me, as if it were moaning:

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The dress pictured below was my favorite, probably because in the back of it (as part of the bustle) it had a “curiosity cabinet” of strange items on display in glass jars.

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Designer Fifi Colston of New Zealand submitted it to the competition and titled it “Lady Curiosity.” You can read more about Colston’s work here.

One last favorite, part of the bras-only competition, was this one:

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The iguana is wrapped behind the wearer’s neck; under the animal’s clawed hands are the bra cups.

So I guess the tie-in with writing is this: It never hurts to think outside the box, push yourself, come up with something completely new. Put aside the traditional. Go for the innovative. Go for the jaw-dropping. Understand that being a carpenter can involve building a dress. Combine words, ideas and genres the way people in this competition combined textures and materials – a wooden dress, a horse’s head, a jar-filled bustle. Think flames, fables, lobsters, iguanas. Don’t be afraid to be different. When you write, be Lady (or Lord) Curiosity.