Tag Archives: picture books

When Your Mind is Blank

Kelly Barnhill, author of this year’s Newbery winner, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, says her book began with a vision that literally stopped her in her tracks:

I was out for a run, and I had this image appear in my head, unbidden, that was so shocking to me that I had to stop in my tracks. It was of this four-armed swamp monster with a huge tail, and extremely wide-spaced eyes…and these big, damp jaws and it was holding a daisy in one hand and was reciting a poem…

That’s one way ideas come. A gift from the universe. And there are the good times when they seem to come crowding into your mind. But sometimes they don’t come at all. That’s what I want to write about today–what do you do when the ideas aren’t popping.

First, let’s get in the right frame of mind.

There are two types of brain waves associated with generating creative ideas, especially the kind that seem to come from nowhere. The ones that just rise up into your conscious mind. They are alpha and theta waves.

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. And they often rise into consciousness on that walk, in the bath, on a car ride.

A deeper state of consciousness is signaled by theta waves. It is also known as the twilight state–which we normally only experience fleetingly as we rise up out of sleep, or drift off to sleep. Probably most of us have been jolted occasionally by a sudden idea or solution or vision in these moments.

But how can we get into these creative states?

Artists through the ages have tried! They’ve called on the gods, made deals with the devil, called on love, passion, nature, drugs, alcohol and madness.

But actually those alpha and theta waves? They like certain conditions, especially alpha.

Your brain waves will tend to fall in with a dominant rhythm in your environment: a drumbeat, a heartbeat, the fall of your footsteps—they call it entrainment. So the creative muse loves rhythmic activity: music, walking, chopping vegetables, riding along in a vehicle.

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.”

It’s no coincidence that Barnhill’s vision of the swamp monster came to her during a run.

But let’s say, you’ve walked your feet off, bathed till your skin is a prune, chopped broccoli for hours, and you still got nothin’. There are also more deliberate ways to generate ideas. Let’s start with this simple formula for a story:

A (character) who (core trait) wants (goal plus hidden need).

The core trait is a simple, quick way to give your character a personality. It’s a good way to think about picture book characters who need to be developed quickly and simply.

So the formula for my book A Visitor for Bear might be: a bear who is grumpy wants to be left alone (but the truth is he needs a friend.) The formula for Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats might be: a couple who are old want a cat (but the true need is companionship or something to care for.)

Of course, these formulas are for books that have already been worked out, and A Visitor for Bear actually was one of those “just popped into my head” ideas, but let’s say you really are at a loss for an idea. So let’s look around and just grab something.

“A cat who is ugly wants to catch a mouse (and I don’t know the true need yet.)”

Okay, I truly did just grab this out of my head. Let’s see what happens if we work with it. I especially like to play with the core trait, because how a character is challenged or changed is what makes the story interesting.

1.Make the core trait conflict with the goal/need.

For example, in Millions of Cats most couples might look to have a child to meet that need to have companionship or something to care for—but their core trait is that they are old. Not only does this heighten their loneliness, it means having a child is not possible. It ups the stakes and means there will be obstacles to overcome in order to not be lonely in their old age.

2. Work with an unusual trait:

Rather than creating a character who is easily scared (a familiar trait), how about someone who loves to scare others?

Rather than someone who’s nice, create a character who’s grouchy (That’s my bear in A Visitor for Bear.) Rather than a child who is scared about the first day of school, a child who can’t wait! Rather than a child who won’t eat his vegetables, a child who is a vege fiend!

3. Combine disparate traits:

A gentle giant. A kind witch. A pacifist bull. A mighty ant.

4. Put two characters with conflicting traits together:

A cheerful mouse and a grumpy bear

You can also work with plot.

5. Set up an unlikely or improbable goal:

A cow who wants to be a ballerina. A horse who wants to drive a car. Your character can be fairly ordinary but there will be story conflict and reader interest because of the improbable goal.

So let’s start messing around with that idea about an ugly cat wanting to catch a mouse. Notice it’s a mundane familiar goal. Picture books have to be simple so if I combined an odd core trait with an unlikely goal it can get complicated. An ugly cat who wants to go to the moon. It might work, but it becomes unclear what’s the real issue of the story.

So I’ll stick with “ugly cat wants to catch a mouse” and start to play with the options. An ugly cat: well, that’s a bit unusual. We don’t often deal with an ugly character in a picture book. But the story immediately suggests humor and the character is not human, so we can have fun with it.

Does his core trait (ugly) conflict with the cat’s desire to catch a mouse? Maybe. Maybe he’s so ugly he scares away mice before he can even get close. Okay that seems funny to me. So I can go with that.

Since he’s always scaring away his intended prey, what does he do? Put on a mask? Put a bag over his head? Try to creep up on mice backward? Now I’m starting to see the obstacles that will make up my plot.

Can I take advantage of two unlikely characters together? Cats and mice aren’t known to be friends. Cats are the predators. Mice, the prey. Cats big, dangerous, brave, graceful. Mice, small, scared, hiding, weak. I could maybe play off those stereotypes or start flipping them in some way. A big mouse. A tiny cat. But I need to ground my story in that core trait. What the one thing I know for sure about my particular cat. He’s uncommonly ugly.

Is my mouse perhaps uncommonly handsome? Or is he the world’s ugliest mouse? Do they have that in common?

Since this is child’s picture book, I know I want to drive it to a happy ending (although if the tone is exactly right, you could perhaps have a more macabre ending like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. But that is a rare exception.) So now I’m liking the idea of the having the world’s ugliest mouse because I can see friendship there. That’s probably my cat’s true need—friendship or acceptance.

To really develop this story would take a lot more time and thinking. And, more often than not, you might find your story idea ultimately doesn’t work or doesn’t really hold your interest. But generating a story idea in this very deliberate way might get the story making machine inside your mind turning over again.

So grab a random character, a trait and a need and start walking!

 

 

 

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.

 

Concept book, concept book. What do you see?

Some of the simplest picture books are concept books. Books about sound, color, shapes, seasons… ways that we categorize the world that will be new to a toddler. Concept books might often seem like just random lists, but the good ones have an underlying structure that takes more planning than it seems.

A lot has to do with the order in which information is presented. It can be an order is natural to the concept itself such as the passage of seasons or the sequence of the colors in a rainbow, but often the author has to work to impose order. A lot of the pleasure of a concept book is to see how an author and illustrator do this.

A great example is the picture book Buzz by Janet Wong, illustrated by my blog-mate Margaret Chodos-Irving. It’s a book I’ve used in my writing classes long before I knew Janet or Margaret, because what could be a simpler idea than different things that buzz? But it’s far from a random collection of buzzes.

cover-buzz

In this case, author and illustrator explore the different buzzing sounds a boy hears as his household wakes up.

It starts with the single word: “Buzz.” as a boy sleepily looks out his window. Then a page turn.

buzz_morning-ws

“Outside my window a bee eats breakfast in a big red flower.”

It then moves through the boy’s morning. The buzz of the alarm clock in his parent’s room. Dad shaving. The sound of the gardener mowing across the street. There’s one “buzz” sound per page. And they are relatively peaceful, everyday buzzes. The language is mostly simple declarative sentences.

Then comes breakfast and something interesting happens. The activity level picks up and the language gets more complex:

Mommy grinds coffee Buzzzzzzzzzzz while I fly my airplane Buzzzzzzzzz over the oatmeal Buzzzzzzz and past the apple juice Buzzzzzzz—OH NO!

All this activity happens on one page quickening the pace of the story.

On the next page, there are no buzz sounds—just mild chaos. Airplane lands in juice, cup spills, mom runs to catch cup, toast pops up, clothes are tumbling in dryer and then the BUZZZZ of the dryer gets buzzing back into the story, but now with more urgency. Mom is on the move getting ready to go to work. Buzz goes her hairdryer. Grandma buzzes the doorbell to come baby-sit. Boy kisses Mom goodbye…

“so she can fly BUZZ outside”

(page turn and we see Mom hurrying off to work)

“like a busy bee.”

01Bee.tif

There’s plenty of structure here. The sequence of the buzzes matches the natural order of a morning’s activities. The pace and urgency of the story gradually escalate into mild chaos in the kitchen and Mom suddenly needs to rush to get out the door—this is the top of the story arc. Then the pace slows somewhat—not as leisurely as the beginning, but down off the peak and gradually we come in for a landing, with the closing image of the bee that perfectly rounds out the story at the same place we came in.

tickly-cover

A consistent pattern or rhyming scheme is another way to add structure to a simple book. I wrote a  concept book Tickly Prickly, illustrated by Shari Halpern (now out of print) about how things feel to the touch. It begins with:

Did you ever have a ladybug crawl across your finger?

How did it feel?

Tickly, prickly. Fly away quickly.

Every stanza that follows asks a question about how it feels to touch a familiar animal and answers that question within a consistent rhyming scheme.

Did you ever have a fish wriggle in your hands?

How did it feel?

Slippery, slickery. Turny and twistery.

Ending with:

Did you ever have a puppy cuddle in your arms?

How did it feel?

Velvety snug. A hugful of love.

Like Wong, I had to find an narrow focus for my book. I picked the feel of  animals—not the feel of a bedtime blanket or a snowball. And I picked familiar animals—bunnies, chicks, a cat’s paw—not a hippo hide or the beak of a stork. But I could have gone in those other directions. The main thing is to have a direction, a reason for the choices.

chick-tickly-prickly(By the way, the symbols at the top of this illustration are from an iTunes app that’s available for this book.)

There’s almost no build to the march of animals in Tickly Prickly, but the middle does feature perhaps the more interesting animals that might be in an average child’s world—a horse, a lake fish, a toad. And, it very deliberately ends with the coziest emotion, snuggling with a dog.

Ending with the coziest emotions is my favorite go-to for most concept books, but there are other ways to make sure you end in a satisfying place, including the ending of a day (a built-in cozy moment with a goodnight tuck-in or hug), the reward or result of that activity (the baked cake) or going full circle.

Taro Gomi’s, Spring Is Here is a perfect example of the circular ending.

spring-cover

Spring Is Here is so deceptively simple. The prose couldn’t be more straightforward. It begins:

Spring is here.

The snow melts.

The earth is fresh.

The grass sprouts.

Each line is a new, two-page spread.

the-flowers-bloom

But not only is there a lovely trick he plays with the illustrations (you’re going to have to get this one to see what he does. It’s worth it.) he, too, creates a build as we move from flowers blooming and grass growing to a little drama in the middle:

The wind blows.

The storms rage.

And then back down into the quiet harvest, falling snow and a hushed world. Before returning to:

img_2433

For more concept books to check out, I like this list compiled by the Contra Costa County Library (plus it’s fun to say all those C-words.)

http://guides.ccclib.org/c.php?g=43934&p=1046403

The Seattle Public Library also has this list:

https://seattle.bibliocommons.com/list/show/73413760__seattle_kids_librarians/85218609_seattle_picks_-_concept_books

And here’s this from Goodreads:

https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/concept-books

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

A long, winding book road

croccover

It began as a ditty in my head over 25 years ago:

There once was a Christmas crocodile

A crocka-a-crocka-a-crocodile

Who said with a wicked and cunning smile

“I shall eat the Christmas tree

unless, you see,

I get exactly what I want.”

Seven years later it had morphed into a prose story about a crocodile who eats up Christmas and begins: The Christmas Crocodile didn’t mean to be bad, not really. Alice Jayne found him on Christmas Eve under the tree. He wore a red bow around his neck. It was lovely. Except he ate it.

A few years later Simon & Schuster bought it. Caldecott-winning artist David Small miraculously agreed to illustrate it and in the fall of 1998 it was published. It got a big glowing review by Judith Viorst in the New York Times; it was read on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater and on the QVC t.v. shopping channel; and it sold out that Christmas season.

Unfortunately, it was also orphaned. My editor, Stephanie Lurie, left Simon & Schuster. And without an in-house champion, The Christmas Crocodile was out of print by 2004.

And that seemed to be that.

banished-crocodile

But I kept hearing from people how much they loved the book. That it was a Christmas favorite, a Christmas tradition at their house. I just knew it was a good book. It was illustrated by David Small, for heaven’s sake. It shouldn’t have died so soon.

So I tried numerous times over the years to get a publisher interested in a re-issue, but it’s an almost impossible goal. Publishers generally don’t like to re-issue some other publisher’s book. If that publisher couldn’t make a go of it, how could they? is the reasoning. For a while, Simon & Schuster even considered reissuing it themselves.

But it seemed like good old Croc was doomed to out-of-print status until I happened to be chatting with Nancy Pearl at an event[i] and she mentioned that she had a new line of “rediscovered” books coming out.

Nancy is probably the best-known librarian in the world. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. She has written a number of best-selling books, including Book Lust and Book Crush, recommending books she loves. Perhaps her most fun claim to fame is as the model for the Shushing Librarian action figure.

shushing-librarian

She also finds out-of-print books for Amazon that she thinks deserve to be re-issued. A few years ago she set her sights on out-of-print kids books. You can imagine how eager I was to tell her about The Christmas Crocodile. Nancy asked to see a copy; she loved it and it went from there.

So my crocodile lives again re-printed by Two Lions Press, a division of Amazon. The team there, headed by editor Marilyn Brigham, did a beautiful job of it. With David Small’s approval, they developed a new cover for it, and it features a couple pages of introduction by Nancy. But otherwise it’s exactly like the original.

new-crocodile-cover

It just came out this September and here’s hoping the book finds a second life!

By the way, if you have an out-of-print kid’s book and don’t have a chance of running into Nancy Pearl anytime soon, there is one press that specializes in re-issues of out-of-print kids books, Purple House Press.

Also, if you buy the book and would like a signed book plate, just let me know who you’d like me to sign it to and where to send it. You can contact me by leaving a comment here or by messaging me on Facebook.

[i] So this is a pitch for seemingly thankless tasks. Nancy and I were volunteer judges for the University of Washington Bookstore’s annual bookmark contest where kids design a bookmark. We judges pick the winners out of many hundreds of entries and these are printed up by the bookstore to hand out over the year. It’s fun, but one of those things that you don’t expect to further your career.

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part III)

w-crane-babys-bouquet-ringel-tanz-sketchWhen I wrote my last post, I had just left London for Seattle. I am over my jet-lag now and my cultural re-entry is underway. It is great to reconnect with friends and family on the same continent, but I DO miss London. What a richly laden place that is.

And the Victoria and Albert is a richly laden museum. As I mentioned in my first post about my visit to the V & A Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms, one of the objects I viewed that day was the original volume of Walter Crane’s designs for The Baby’s Bouquet, a companion to his earlier Baby’s Opera. Fifty-six pen and watercolour drawings in a bound, 7 1/4″ X 7 1/2″ booklet – created in the 1870s and published in 1877.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-cover-sketch

In my notes from that day I wrote,

OMG! This is the most beautiful thing ever!!! I can’t believe I am here touching this! I can’t believe it’s allowed!

Clearly, I was thrilled. It is truly exquisite. The illustrations appear to have been made contiguously in the bound book, with no correction fluid or paste-ins. There are some suggestions and notes for the engraver. Inside the cover there is a mini-mock up with a few endpaper ideas.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-inside-cover-sketch

w-crane-babys-bouquet-inside-cover-open-sketch

Preliminary pencil drawings can be seen under the watercolour. Crane’s touch with the brush (or pen) is light and confident. It is as though he never had a moment of doubt about any aspect of what he was doing.

W Crane-Little Cock Sparrow-sketch detail.jpg

I was curious to see a published edition of the book for comparison, but wasn’t able to until recently, when I joined Julie Paschkis and Jennifer Kennard on a book field trip to the University of Washington Rare Books Library. Jennifer made an advance appointment for us, and I requested to see their copy of an 1879 edition.

p1070129

The published version is beautiful as well, but very different from the original. Engraving was the technique that allowed illustrations to be printed with the press technology of the time. Each colour was cut into a different plate, then inked and printed separately.

Watercolour washes have variations in value and tone that are made when the paintbrush moves across the surface of the paper with varying amounts of pigment. Wood engraving is a form of relief printing from a wood block. What isn’t meant to print is cut away. A thin layer of ink is then rolled across the surface of raised lines. The image is transferred to paper through the use of pressure. Watercolour and wood engraving are extremely different techniques.

The engraver, Edmund Evans, based his prints on Crane’s drawings, but made many artistic additions of his own. I don’t know if Edmunds was someone Crane knew personally and worked with repeatedly, but one would think so. Crane must have been able to trust him to take his creation and transform it so dramatically. Either way, both books exemplify two artists and masters of their craft. I will show photos of Crane’s originals along with the prints so you can compare for yourself.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-frontespiece-sketch

w-crane-babys-bouquet-frontespiece

w-crane-babys-bouquet-title-pg-sketch

w-crane-babys-bouquet-title-pg

w-crane-babys-bouquet-contents-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-contents

w-crane-babys-bouquet-the-little-disaster-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-the-little-disaster

w-crane-babys-bouquet-buy-a-broom-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-buy-a-broom-sketch-detailw-crane-babys-bouquet-buy-a-broom

Some images are more different than others. Who do you think decided to add the target and turn the boy’s head?

w-crane-little-cock-sparrow-sketchw-crane-little-cock-sparrow

This image appeared in the original version, but was eliminated in the final.

w-crane-carrion-crow-sketch

This image was changed in format to become a two-page spread with a full-page image. Crane’s handwritten notes show below the drawing.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-the-north-wind-and-the-robin-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-the-north-wind-and-the-robin

w-crane-old-man-in-leather-sketchw-crane-old-man-in-leather

 

w-crane-babys-bouquet-the-four-presents-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-the-four-presents-sketch-detail

Some colours deepen from the original sketches.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-the-four-presents

Some palettes change more dramatically.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden

In this piece, you can see how a fairly simple painted background…

w-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden-sketch-detail

…becomes more complex when transformed into an engraving. There are four blocks cut and printed – yellow, red, blue and black. Notice how finely the lines are carved.

w-crane-babys-bouquet-gefunden-detail

w-crane-babys-bouquet-looby-light-sketchw-crane-babys-bouquet-looby-light

I think you will agree that both the drawn and painted sketches and the cut and printed final illustrations are beautiful. I leave it to you to decide which you prefer. You can dance Looby Light while you think about it.

 

Is There a Pattern Here?

Rob Gonsalves

Rob Gonsalves

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern.
Alfred North Whitehead

I collect images of books in art. And, just as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted, I love to find patterns and motifs among them. I imagine that’s the pleasure of most collections.

Recently I was looking at some of my images and noticed a type of illustration that is relatively unusual. I think of it as the surreal image.

There are tons of images focused on books and reading that are fanciful and unreal. They might be charming:

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Illustration by Beatrix Potter

Or metaphorical:

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Illustration by Rafal Olbinski

Or startling.

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

Illustration by Jacek Yerka

But they don’t quite have the quality I’m talking about. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe the word is “unsettling.”

Perhaps the forest is a little too encroaching, a little too dark.

Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Or the vines too silently creeping.

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Chris Van Allsburg

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

Illustration by Nom Kinnear King

With this one, I keep finding myself waiting uneasily for those eyes to open.

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Illustration by Frances Cochiacchio

Although not all that is out of place is ominous.

Illustration by Michael Sowa

Illustration by Michael Sowa

The  most classically surreal image I have (echoes of Magritte for sure) is mostly just amusing.

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Illustration by Patrick Desmet

Maybe what’s holding these together for me is the thing unnoticed. Something’s odd. Something’s off, but it’s only we, the observers, who are noticing.

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

Illustration by Rob Gonsalves

In fantasy literature, there’s a type of story that fantasy writer and academic Farah Mendelsohn calls liminal. It’s a type of fantasy that’s a little hard to define, but basically it involves a protagonist who doesn’t quite cross through the portal into fantasy, but stays on the border between the real world and the world of the fantastic. Perhaps these images aren’t so much surreal, as “liminal.”

To pull this post back into the world of writing children’s books, I’ll just add a couple links here. One of the questions that almost invariably comes up when I teach classes in writing fantasy and science fiction is where someone’s story “fits.” Like most of children’s literature, there are defined categories in fantasy that are good to at least be familiar with. As a writer you may choose to match those characteristics or violate them, but it’s good to know what rules you’re breaking.

Here’s a list of 10 good terms to be familiar with if you read or write fantasy. And the other is a link to a little information about Mendelsohn and her books. She’s good to know about if you’re going to go deeply into fantasy writing.

In the meantime, don’t turn too quickly to find out about the rustling from that bookshelf behind you. Perhaps it’s best not to know.

In The Study Rooms at the V & A (Part I)

W Crane-babys bouquet sketch fly detail

This morning, a moving company loaded our London belongings into a shipping container. For the next month we will be traveling while our stuff makes it’s way to our home in Seattle.

Since we decided to move back to Seattle from London, my sightseeing to-do list has become an imperative. At the top of the list has been scheduling a date at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Prints and Drawings Study Rooms.

The Victoria and Albert Museum of art and design (V&A) is a monument to humanity’s creative efforts, and for nearly two years it has been a short tube ride from my home. I have gone there numerous times, but never feel I have seen all that is on display.  I always look forward to discovering something new.

Inner courtyard at V&A

Scheduling an appointment was much easier (and less intimidating) than I expected. Rather than surly guardians of culture, the staff are like friendly librarians. I was afraid that I had waited too long and there would be no sessions available for months, but I got an appointment for the following week. The hardest part was deciding what to request out of the some 750,000 objects in the museum’s prints and drawings collection.

There were five of us waiting at the assigned meeting point outside the V&A National Art Library entrance that morning. We were led by a museum guard through a cordon into a wing of the museum usually closed to the general public.

into the V&A

We trailed behind the guard through hallways lined with boxes and filing cabinets, past offices and copy machines. We rode an elevator and climbed three flights of winding stone steps worn down to a curve from decades of traffic. The old plaster walls were chipped where displays had once hung.

V&A red stairways

The circuitous journey seemed designed to make sure we could never find our way back. One of the others in the group said something about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.

The study room itself is large and bright with several long tables. We checked our belongings into lockers before entering. Pencils, paper, computers, phones and cameras are allowed. NO pens.

V&A study room

The first item I had requested was waiting for me. The staff demonstrated how to properly handle the artwork. At first I was afraid to touch anything, but they assured me that the items could withstand my gentle examination.

Thus began one of the highlights of my time in London.

I spent the morning looking at an original textile design by C.F.A. Voysey,

CFA Voysey-birds and berries design

a box and sketchbook of Randolph Caldecott drawings,

R Caldecott-studies of women in coats

and an incredibly beautiful pencil and watercolor “dummy” for A Baby’s Bouquet by Walter Crane.

W Crane-Babys Bouquet dummy cover

I refreshed myself with lunch in the William Morris room in the museum café

V&A cafe Morris room 2

and repeated the convoluted journey back to the study rooms to continue with sketches for Winnie The Pooh by E. H. Shepard,

E H Shepard-WTP in tree sketch

and drawings by Arthur Rackham.

A Rackham-sketch detail

Whenever I go to the V&A, I feel happy and excited, but this day was special. This was a Thrill. I couldn’t get over the fact that, not only did I have the opportunity to look closely at drawings by some of my illustrative heroes that are rarely seen, but I could actually touch their work. It was amazing. I was on a high. For the next three days, anyone I spoke to heard all about it.

But that is all I will tell you for now. This is a teaser of sorts. I will continue this post in five weeks when it’s my turn again. By then I will be back in Seattle (just barely). In the meantime, you can peruse the 1,165,712 objects and 624,590 images from the V&A’s full collection online. Have fun!

 

 

 

 

A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia

The New Childhood entry poster House of Illustration

Last week I returned to House of Illustration to see their current show – A New Childhood: Picture Books From Soviet Russia.

It is an excellent, eye-opening exhibit. I snapped a few subversive shots to share with you.

Before the October Revolution of 1917, children’s books were beautifully illustrated but expensive. Only children of the upper classes were regularly taught to read. Children’s books were not for the masses.

bilibin feast cakeIvan Bilibin, 1895

After the end of the Tsarist regime, fairy tales were considered irrelevant. Children were reimagined as “builders of the new egalitarian future.” New children’s books would promote socialist beliefs and give practical instruction.

Galina & Olga Chichagova 1925-posterGalina and Olga Chichagova, poster design with text by A. Galena, 1925.

“The images of old storybooks. Out with the mysticism and fantasy of children’s books!! Give a new children’s book!! Work, battle, technology, nature – the new reality of childhood.

On the positive side, during this time there was a blossoming of creativity in children’s literature. The influence of folk art as well as past art movements and picture books from Europe converged in these new books.

Eduard Krimmer 1926-How The Whale Got His ThroatEduard Krimmer, How the Whale Got His Throat (Rudyard Kipling) 1926.

Illustrators explored new styles and techniques. The Soviet government lifted a Tsarist ban on Yiddish publishing.

Issachar Ber Ryback 1922-In The Forest coverIssachar Ber Ryback for In The Forest (Leib Kvitko) 1922.

Books were considered valuable tools in disseminating new ideals. Publishers flourished.

Eduard Krimmer 1925-NumbersEduard Krimmer, Numbers, 1925

Vera Ermolaeva 1925-Top Top TopVera Ermolaeva, Top-Top-Top (Nikolai Aseev), 1925

Absurdism proved useful in communicating the regime’s ideas.

Iureii Annenkov 1918-The FleaIllustrations for The Flea (Natan Vengrov) by Iurii Annenkov, c. 1918

Konstantin Rudakov’s work was humorous and zany, but considered “bourgeois dregs” by Nadezhda Krupskaya, noted theorist and Lenin’s wife. Some of his books were banned.

Kostantin Rudakov 1926-TelephoneKonstantin Rudakov, Telephone, 1926

Picture books would show children how to build the future.

Evgenia Evenbakh 1926-The TableEvgenia Evenbakh, The Table, 1926

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-ElectricianAleksandr Deineka, Electrician (B. Uralski), 1930

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Cow ShedTevel Pevezner, The Cow Shed (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Tevel Pevzner 1931-The Poultry YardTevel Pevezner, The Poultry Yard (Evgeny Shvartz), 1931

Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 1 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 2 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 3 Georgii Echeistov 1930-What It Carries Where It Travels 4Georgii Echeistov, What It Carries Where It Travels, 1930

Unknown 1934-First Counting BookUnknown illustrator, First Counting Book (F. N. Blekher), 1934

The circus was still popular, but the Lion was no longer portrayed as King of the beasts. Instead he was President.

Maria Siniakova 1929-CircusMaria Siniakova, Circus (Nikolai Aseev), 1929

Vladimir Lebedev 1925-CircusVladimir Lebedev, Circus (Samuil Marshak) 1925

Marshak quote

Some illustrators were still determined to show children at play and having fun. Some got away with it.

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-Unpublished illustration-Pictures For Little OnesVladamir Konashevitz, unpublished illustration for Pictures For Little Ones, 1925

Vladimir Konashevitz 1925-MugsVladamir Konashevitz, Mugs, 1925.

Others delved further into the new reality of childhood.

Aleksandr Deineka 1930-Red Army ParadeAleksandr Deineka, The Red Army Parade, 1930

The atmosphere of experimentation ended in the mid-1930s when “socialist realism” became the assigned aesthetic ideal. Children’s books could only support Soviet approved aspirations. State censorship was enforced. Yiddish publishing was no longer tolerated and high taxes caused many Russian publishers to close. Many illustrators continued to work but ceased experimenting. Some fled to Europe. Others were arrested.

I visited Soviet Russia when I was a child in 1970. What I remember most about Moscow was how bleak it was. Saint Basil’s Cathedral rose like a glorious fantasy out of the concrete. Everything else, including the people, was grey and heavy. Our guide was afraid to answer any of our questions. People spoke to us in whispers if they spoke to us at all. They were the children who had grown up under the Soviet regime.

For those of you who aren’t able to make it to London to see this show before it closes in September, you can look for the book, Inside the Rainbow, Russian Children’s Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful books, terrible times, which inspired House of Illustration to exhibit works from this collection.

Mixed Grades for Big Name Author Picture Books

Recently two big name authors of books for adults have forayed into picture books: Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie.

cover thunder boy

IMG_1930

So how’d they do? I’m giving Alexie a B+ and Smiley a C. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but adult novels aren’t the only works that deserve some serious critical attention.

Of the two, I started out inclined toward Alexie. Mainly because in an article in the New York Times, he said, “It’s maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” And he says the book Thunder Boy Jr. took about 70 drafts.

Jane Smiley didn’t seem find it so hard. Other than learning to let the images speak for themselves and cutting down a descriptive prose, apparently, for her the story was “a breeze” (although to be fair, those words are those of the New York Times reporter). Perhaps because as Smiley noted, “It doesn’t have a plot.”

If true, I’m afraid the difference in effort shows.

Alexie did a great job coming up with an idea and an execution that spoke to a univeral kid issue and, yet, was uniquely Native American, too. Thunder Boy Jr. was named by his father, Thunder Boy Sr. It’s not a normal name like Sam and Thunder Boy Jr. hates it.

hate my name

Little Thunder, as he’s called, wants his own name one that celebrates something cool that he’s done. He imagines all kinds of names for himself from Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth (after he touched a wild orca) to Mud in His Ears for his love of playing in the dirt.

ten thousand teeth

The names are fun and imaginative. And kids will love this part and I have no doubt will be coming up with a lot of great names for themselves, and, undoubtedly, less than flattering names for their siblings. (I’m betting Poop and Fart make frequent appearances.)

At any rate, Thunder Boy Jr. doesn’t want to be a small version of his dad. He doesn’t want to be exactly like him. He wants to be mostly himself. But he’s worried about how he can tell his dad because he loves him very much.

Not to worry, Dad suddenly announces that it’s time to give Thunder Boy Jr. a new name. It will be Lightning! And Little Thunder happily concludes that together he and his dad will light up the sky.

dad and son

The language is clear and graceful with a nice rhythm and pacing to it. The names identify this boy with both contemporary life and his Native American heritage. And, as mentioned, the basic idea of picking a name for yourself has a lot of kid appeal.

But I would have liked a more organic ending. Alexie does the classic no-no in children’s books, which is to have an adult solve the problem for the kid. Not only does Dad spontaneously offer to change Thunder Boy Jr.’s name, he is the one to bestow the new name. And, arriving at the name Lightning could have been more clearly developed. The litany of possible new names that Little Thunder runs through show an energetic little boy. He loves drums and being chased by his dog and old toys from garage sales, but this list doesn’t really make the case that Lightning is the name he should have or would have chosen for himself.

I don’t think any of this will make a difference to the success of the book. It’s already been named an Honor Book for the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards. And I think kids and parents will genuinely enjoy sharing it. It has a great, well-realized premise, and Alexie shows a respect for and an awareness of the particular demands of the picture book form.

Because Smiley seemed to find writing Twenty Yawns fairly easy, I have to admit I was less ready to like it. She’s right. There isn’t really much of a story here and what is there is pretty pedestrian.

dad in sand

Oddly, although the story is basically a bedtime story, it starts with a rather mundanely described day at the beach. Lucy covers her dad with sand and they “laughed and laughed.” Later, Lucy “rolled and rolled’ down a soft warm dune. Okay, I admit I have a visceral reaction to this particular wording in kids writing. Describing people who laugh and laugh, and animals who sit down and think and think, and kids who run and run just feels lazy to me.

The point of the day at the beach seems to be to establish that this has been a long, busy day, so tonight will be an early bedtime. So perhaps Lucy will struggle to sleep? There is a teeny bit of that. And for me the story starts about 12 pages in with this lovely arresting moment: The moon shone through the window, a silver veil that fell across the floor. Everything looked mysterious, even Lucy’s own hands on the bedspread. Suddenly, Lucy was wide awake.

IMG_1933 (1)

It even gets a little surreal or creepy: She looked around. Everyone in the pictures seemed to be watching her—Grandma, Grandpa, Aunt Elizabeth, Mom, and Dad.

So maybe the story will be about how Lucy deals with her unease? Lucy slips out of bed to get her bear, Molasses, but as she carries him back to her bed, the other toy animals are looking at her and seem lonely. So she takes them all to bed, snuggles down with them and everyone proceeds to yawn including the people in her drawings. And Lucy goes to sleep. That’s it.

IMG_1937

Smiley seems to think it’s okay that this is a book without a plot. And certainly there are picture books that don’t really have a story: board books, concept books, some of the more impressionistic books (like All the World). But there’s a difference between not having a story and not having a point.

Smiley doesn’t even really deliver on the promise of the title. There are indeed 20 yawns in the book, but there is no point to the yawns. Nothing is developed like perhaps number concepts or the different yawns different people or animals might make or a promise that no one can make 20 yawns without falling asleep. Surely something could have given this story some drive.

Bottom line: even if Thunder Boy Jr. was submitted by Anonymous Boy Jr., I think it would have been snapped up. If Twenty Yawns was the work of J. Frownly, I suspect it would have received those familiar words of rejection many of us know only too well—too slight.