Everyday Art

In my classroom there are long rows of hanging shelves containing multiple copies of different novels for my kids to read. Next to my little brown desk, however, I keep single copies of various books that I am reading with students one-on-one or, in my “free” Time at the suggestion of various students. My little stack of books is a colorful sculpture, an homage to the conversations I have with the wonderful young people who come through my door every day.

My and Thing1’s health situations have necessitated close adherence to the “stay home“ directive. I am treating this time at home as training for retirement when, again, there will be infinite time to write and paint as part of a last career. I’ve inaugurated a daily schedule of writing in the morning and drawing practice in the afternoon (chest pain from pneumonia still makes painting impossible).

Writing is a conversation with the zeitgeist, but, despite efforts to focus on the sparkle in the solitude, the conversation seems a bit one-sided lately. I can’t do much about the solitude, but, looking to put some sparkle in the conversation and, at least mentally, reconnect with my kids at school, I’ve started a new book sculpture next to my/Princess Jane’s fuzzy blue chair.

What do you have in your book sculpture these days?

Tell Me a Story

Word Art

I’m a geek for historical literature.

I don’t always love the language — some 19th century authors seem to go out of their way to use 25 words where 2 might suffice — but I love seeing day-to-day lifestyles through the eyes of people who lived them. I’ll happily wade through six hundred pages of Vanity Fair because it’s a window into what the author actually thought about the early 1800s in 1847. Ditto for Tolstoy and Chekov.

The stories that give me the best time-travel value, though, are the ones written by women. So few history books describe the lives of women (not too many led armies or signed treaties), and, until recently, few women authored history books. Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, however, gave us windows into their daily lives. How did they manage a household? What rules of the day did they follow in spirit or to the letter? What did they actually think about the business of marriage?

What did they think?

It’s a question that popped up for me earlier this month as I was gathering readings for Black History Month. A number of retailers were already sending marketing emails with book suggestions, but they were often books by white writers telling the history of African Americans, books that had been ‘redecorated’ for Black History Month, or, the perennial classroom favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I love Harper Lee, and she will have a place in class sometime this year, but the initial idea offerings seemed uninspiring.

The first week was drawing closer, and I stumbled on an anthology of Langston Hughes’s writings. His poem, “Let America be America Again” has been enjoying renewed popularity on the internet in the last few months. I thumbed through the volume, marveling at the breadth of work he had generated in a relatively short life, thinking how he had set a great example of how varied a writing career could be.

And then it hit me (you can say it, that took a while).

I’d been looking for a way for my predominately white students to learn what African Americans thought and think about the American experience.  I, obviously, can’t speak about that experience as anything other a sympthetic observer. The kids are also quick to point out that English class is for English not History, but behind the grammar and the literary devices, English class is about learning to understand stories. 

It’s about understanding who’s telling the stories and why.

And for me, teaching literature is also about showing the kids where to find the windows into other people’s ideas and lives — and, then, why they should.

To do that this month (and beyond), I decided to lean on the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a great excuse to introduce favorite writers and poets  and artists from that era, connecting the kids to them through poets and rappers from this era. And, in the end, deciding to shut up and let the authors and artists who lived and still live Black History do as much of the storytelling as possible may have been the easiest and best way to get the kids to hear it.

Charting the Course

TrollsPage

 

One of the fun things about self publishing a children’s book is that in addition to the many hats you get to wear (I love hats) as writer, illustrator, layout girl, and official chocolate tester, you learn a lot about the rules that govern the creation of many books your own kids read.

Did you know, for example, the standard length for children’s books is 32 pages? The standard was established by Beatrix Potter and her publisher Frederick Warne as way to get the most pages out of a single sheet of paper. It was an economic decision that stood the test of time.

As a writer, illustrator, naturalist, and well-known rule-breaker, Beatrix Potter has been an idol of mine for some time, and as I’ve been laying out the Truth about Trolls, I had to decide whether or not to follow Beatrix’s guidelines, or make my own rules for the modern world. Remembering that my own kids never argued about a story lasting longer, I ended up deciding it was better to stretch the text over a few extra pages and pictures.

I’ve read many books to my kids over the years, never thought to check the word count. The modern word count is about 250 to 1000 words depending on the age of the kid. Many of the classics such as The Giving Tree or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble are much longer, settling on a word count was a tough decision. In the end, I trimmed it down to as close to 1000 words as possible, and, as the illustrations take shape and help tell the story, the word count continues to shrink.

Ultimately, walking the line has been less about following or breaking rules and more about listening to the story. Hopefully it’s what, in 2017, Beatrix would do.

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Hand Puppets

elly-web

I met this week with mentor extraordinaire and best-selling author Jon Katz to work on editing and cleaning up my first full fledged book, “A is for All Nighter”. The fate of the book is in flux as we are still working to find an agent for it and for me. I’m finding the advice of a good mentor like Jon is invaluable as I weigh the options of immediate gratification through self publishing or delayed gratification by trying to find a publisher.

So “A is for All Nighter” continues on the next step of the journey, and a new friend came to find me last week. Her name is Élly.  That accent over the E means you pronounce her name “Yelly”.
she’s kind of a loud little troll, and we had a lot to talk about last week. You see, like most people, there’s a lot more to Élly than meets the eye.

The revelations from the presidential campaign that inadvertently focused the national conversation on latent misogyny and consent brought up unpleasant memories for many women I know and for me as well.  Some people are able to talk about those memories, but sometimes, candor carries too high a price. 

Secrecy also carries a high price, however.  In secrecy there is depression and retreat from the blessings in your life.  There is a constant mental rerun of the memories that encourage self-loathing, and, in my case I began to look in the mirror and see a horrible, ugly, little troll.

That’s when Élly showed up.  Apparently she’s been lurking in the inner world I began building when I was two. She’s been just waiting for the right time to set me straight with some truth about bad things that happen in life and about trolls, about whom there is also much misinformation (they live under bridges, they have bad tempers).

So, like a kid talking to a hand puppet in a psychiatrist’s office, I told her why I felt like a troll and she told me why that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She talked to me about her life and about the strength you find walking through the tears and emerging on the other side into a life you love. 

Élly was so helpful getting me back on track, that we decided to work on my next project together.  She even helped me find it by suggesting that we work to set the record straight about her kind.  Élly’s doing most of the writing, and I’ll be doing the illustrations, and we hope that in a few months we’ll have a kid-friendly book called The Truth About Trolls

So far she seems happy with the first portrait.

 

You Never Need To

I’ve said it to my kids. I’ll bet you say it to yours, and I’m pretty sure your mom has said it to you, but no matter how sappy it sounds each time, it’s true.

“You don’t need to get me (insert image of your mom talking here) anything for Mother’s Day (or any other day).”

But just in case you feel like getting your mom a little something, A is for All-Nighter is on sale on Amazon prime – to get there in time for next Sunday, or you can order a signed copy with 2-day shipping here by clicking the Pay Pal button below.