Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Delights of Pettson and Findus

There’s nothing more delightful than finding a storybook that is visually engaging, tells a funny story, has great characters and a good plot.  Findus Disappears! (The Adventures of Pettson and Findus) by Sven Nordqvist, published by NorthSouth Books, 2014, is that book.  Nordqvist is a Swedish writer who wrote and illustrated a series of books about Pettson, a forgetful and eccentric old farmer and his cat, Findus. 

Findus Disappears! tells the story of how Findus came to be Pettson’s companion (he’s so much more than a pet.)  Pettson’s a lonely old farmer.   His neighbor suggests he get a wife, but Pettson is daunted by that thought: “I’m too old now.  A whole woman – that would be too much.”  So the neighbor brings him a kitten in a box labeled “Findus Green Peas.”  Pettson names the kitten Findus and thus begins a charming story filled with humor and magic.

The illustrations are astonishingly imaginative and beautifully executed.  In Pettson’s world there are strange creatures peeking out of cups and hanging from lampshades.  His house and farm are furnished with unique objects like nails hanging on a clothes line, melting pencils, giant teapots and tiny teacups.  His bed side table has skis.  Chickens roam the house.  The salt shakers is hung by a rope under the radio. 

Findus seems like a normal enough kitten until he sees a clown in the newspaper that Pettson is reading.
Findus looked for a long time at a picture of a clown in big striped pants.
“’I want pants like that,” Findus said.
Pettson stared at him.  These were the cat’s first words. 
“Then you shall have some,” the old man said.  “I’ll sew you a pair of pants right away.”

These were the kitten’s first words but not his last.  He becomes a chatty, playful friend to Pettson and fills the emptiness in his life.

That kitten is everywhere!

Findus explores the house and sees creatures -- mumbles, they’re called -- that Pettson can’t see.  (The mumbles hide Pettson’s socks and move things around.)  Findus gets more and more brave about exploring the farm, but one day he gets frightened by a creature he’s sure is looking for kittens to eat.  He has to hide, and then he gets lost.

When I read this story to kids at my community center, they kept scooting closer and closer to me, they wanted to see everything and they wanted to know what was going to happened next.  They asked that the book be passed around so they could see it up close because the illustrations are so compelling.

A tender and expressive illustration of  Findus's fear 

Nordqvist’s said he is inspired by the delights of everyday life and that delight is very present in the details of each page.  Each time you look at one, you’ll find a hidden world – steps going up the stem of a plant, giant apples, and mumbles hiding everywhere. 

Nordqvist also said these stories were inspired by his loving observations of his two sons when they were younger.  His appreciation for childlike antics and nature and imagination all shine forth in his work.  

NorthSouth Books plans to publish a whole series and I look forward to reading them.  And so do the kids I read to.  This story is a pleasure in all regards.

NorthSouth Books publishes beautiful books by international authors and illustrators.  Check out their catalog here.

Thanks for reading my blog.  I appreciate any comments.

Monday, January 19, 2015

First Comes Love, When Comes Marriage?

In 1959, Alabama Senator E.O. Eddins tried to ban the book The Rabbits’ Wedding by Garth Williams in his state’s libraries and schools.  Garth Williams was the beloved illustrator of such books as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little and the Little House series.  His book The Rabbits’ Wedding, written for children ages 3-7, showed the marriage of a white rabbit to a black rabbit.  Senator Eddins and the White Citizens’ Council of Alabama were outraged that it promoted interracial marriage.  Librarians, great heroes all throughout history, fought this.  While the fear mongers didn't succeed in an outright ban, the book was put on special reserve shelves.  Williams was surprised by the controversy and said, "I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque." 

At the time, there were 17 states where it was illegal for people of different races to marry.  

Nevertheless people of different races were falling in love.  In 1958, Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter did so in the little town of Central Point, Virginia, one of those 17 states.

Their marriage and their determination to live in Virginia as husband and wife is the subject of The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko.  It will be released for by Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic books on January 27th, but many booksellers are taking pre-orders for it.  Everything about this book is compelling.  It’s marketed to ages 4 to 8, but it’s really appropriate for all ages. 

Richard and Mildred got married in Washington, D.C., but when they came back to their hometown to live, they were arrested – pulled from their bed – for violating the state’s law against interracial marriage. 

They moved back to D.C. and took the state of Virginia to court.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before Virginia’s law, 9 years later, was found to be unconstitutional.

I think, as a nation, we don’t like to acknowledge the more troubling aspects of our history.  But the stories therein are full of heroics.  A clearer picture of who we are as Americans is buried in the places we’re afraid to bring to light.  The more we know about and talk about our history, the more we understand the problems and tensions we see around us.  Only then can we appreciate the true beauty and complexity of life.

The Case for Loving is a celebratory story of a strong family.  The expressive illustrations are strewn with hearts and flowers.  The power of love, kinship and family comes through in every page.  Racism shows itself to be strange and alien and unfair.  The writing is subtle, but you can tell what a strain the fight was on the Lovings, because they were so afraid they would lose the case, they stayed home when it was presented to the Supreme Court.  

But they did win.  And although there are still people who talk about the need for “the purity of the white race,” cases of love keep breaking out everywhere.

The author and illustrator, in fact, are an interracial couple. 

I wanted to review this book on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, because it speaks so eloquently to King’s dream.  I'm a white woman who was born in Memphis in 1960 and saw the changes that took place in our divided city because of King and the people who believed in his dream.  His assassination didn't stop that dream.  In 1972, I was bused to an all Black junior high school.  I had amazing teachers, wonderful friends, and learned a lot of new dances.  It was such a liberating thing.  I heard lot of racist talk from my white relatives, but NONE of it was true.  I know we have a long way to go until people are willing to see across the colorline, but I’m not caught in that kind of fear. 

I’ve been helped so much by African American doctors, teachers and friends.  And I know it’s because every day heroic people like the Lovings helped move our legal system forward.  And heroic leaders like King gave us all a dream.  And people like Alko and Quall are celebrating stories and illustrating how we can all learn to live and love together. 

Back in 1959, in the midst of the storm over the book The Rabbit’s Wedding, Garth Williams said, his story was not written for adults, who "will not understand it, because it is only about a soft furry love and has no hidden message of hate."

Both children and adults will understand The Case for Loving’s strong message of hope.  It's a book that makes it easier to understand the world as it is, and the power of love.

Selina Alko is the author and illustrator of several acclaimed books for children, including Daddy Christmas & Hanukka Mama and B is for Brooklyn.  Sean Qualls has illustrated many celebrated books for children, including Giant Steps to Change the World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee, Little Cloud and Lady Wind by Toni Morrison and her son Slade.  He received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Before John was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford.  They live in Brooklyn with their two children.

You can find Alko’s website here.  And Qualls website here.  You can read a Publisher’s Weekly interview with them about the book here.

Thanks for reading my blog and let me know what you think. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Personal Space and the Need for a Hug

A few days ago, my 6 year old neighbor, Karishma, wanted me to help her with her homework.  We did a little math, a little letter and word recognition, and a little reading.  She wanted to read her new favorite book, Hug Me, by Simona Ciraolo, published by Flying Eye Books, 2014.

I read it to her a few weeks ago when she was here with her 12 year old sister.  The sister didn't think she’d be interested, but as I started reading, she sat beside us and wanted to see the pictures, too.  She was moved enough by it to say, “Awww,” more than once.

Hug Me is a remarkable book that tells a complex tale in charming drawings and poetic prose. “Felipe was descended from an old and famous family who liked to look good and always behaved properly.”

It’s the story of the universal need for affection and friendship, even if we are somewhat prickly.  Using a little cactus as the main character puts an interesting spin on it.  He’s prickly because of he descended from a prickly family.  Who hasn't felt estranged from their family of origin?  Who hasn't felt at least somewhat trapped by their ancestry?

I live in Bridge Meadows, a community made up of blended families that are adopting children out of the foster care system.  Some families have all adopted children.  Some have adopted children in addition to their birth children.  I live in the senior housing component, and we elders serve as helpers to the families.  I mentor kids, teach them art, and read with them. 

She sounds out all the words, even "uaahhh."
I've read this story over a dozen times in the past few weeks to kids from ages 2 to 12, and they’re all gripped by it.  I now keep it in the book-bag I carry with me when I’m in the community center or else I'm chastised for not having it.  
Since many of the kids have been in foster care and counselling, they love that the Ciraolo uses the term “personal space.”  Many have had their personal space violated in the past, but they still want to be close to family and friends.

They love that in the end, Felipe knows exactly what to do.  His past loneliness has made him a better person.  (In his honor, a few of the kids and I may start a cactus and rock  garden this summer.)   They also LOVE the pictures.  It's amazing to me, too, how much expression Ciraolo creates in her characters.  Even a simple dandelion has a personality in this story.
Karishma happens to be one of the children who has been with her birth family for her whole life.  She has foster sisters and her mom had a baby a little over a year ago.  When we read the book together, I asked her if she ever felt like she needed a hug and didn’t get one.  She first said no.  Then she flipped through the book again, and said, “Well, since my sister was born.  Sometimes she won’t hug me and sometimes everyone hugs her and forgets me.”
I told her the same thing happened to me when my little brother was born.  Now I know how important hugs are. 
“Me, too,” Karishma said.  “That’s why we’re so happy.”
I’m pretty sure if you read Hug Me, you’ll be happy, too.
Hug Me has been on numerous best book lists of 2014. You can read more about Simona Ciraolo on her website here

Flying Eye Books is based in England and publishes innovative books that introduce children to great graphics and compelling stories.  They published the inspiring Welcome to Your Awesome Robot by Viviane Schwarz, which you can read about in this blog post.   

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you'd like, leave a comment.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Hole Story

What happens when you drill a hole through your book?  Oyvind Torseter has done a remarkable thing and made a hole a fully developed character in his charming book The Hole, published by EnchantedLion Books (2012).  It’s an almost entirely wordless book, but Torseter’s visual storytelling creates a page turning adventure.  Most of the pleasure is seeing where the hole has got to – because even though it's in the center of the book, in the illustrations it moves around dramatically.  My scans don't do it justice, you really want to see this book up close and personal.

In deceptively simple line drawings, Torseter introduces a character moving boxes into an apartment.  When he sits down to dinner he discovers a hole in the wall. 

When he investigates further, he finds the hole has moved.  This hole is a little devilish.

Suddenly we're in a surreal world where there are people who can help with renegade holes.

After the hole is captured, it has to be transported to a lab. 

Our innocent man thinks the hole is safe in his box, but the hole is having its own adventure. Page after page shows the hole touring around the city and having a great time.

It continues to do so, even after it’s been studied by experts.

I’ve shared this book with some young friends in the Bridge Meadows community, and they, too, were amazed by the way the hole seemed to move around.  The story is loopy and unique and inspired great conversations about how art can play visual tricks on you.
Reba's amazed by the hole's trickery

It's a well bound book that lies flat and invites investigation
This is a great book for all ages – although it’s marketed for children, it’s really a book for anyone who loves illustration. It sparked our imaginations about what the hole would do after the book was closed.
Lydia studies the drawings and tries to figure out how the hole gets around so well

Both Lydia and Reba thought it was cool enough to want to read it again.  We loved that a complex story could be told in this unique way. 

When I read it, I thought of artist Paul Klee’s statement that “a line is a dot that went for a walk.”   This hole goes for a walk and a ride and it takes flight. My sense of wonder took flight, too.

√ėyvind Torseter is a Norwegian artist, illustrator, comic book artist, and author. In addition to his own books, books illustrated by Torseter include the beautiful and poignant My Father’s Arms Are A Boat by Stein Erik Lunde. During his career, Torseter has emerged as one of Norway’s foremost illustrators.   We hope his books keep getting published here in America.

Enchanted Lion publishes unique and amazing books from all over the world.  Check out their website to find great books:

The most intriguing hole you'll ever look through
Thanks for reading my blog.  I welcome any comments. 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Journaling Toward The Light

14 Art and Writing Journals of 2014
Last year, I made a resolution to write in my journal every day.  I’m proud to say I succeeded.  I must have written almost 1000 pages.  I began by writing in bed first thing in the morning, before I was truly conscious.  I only wanted to write about 15 minutes, just enough to get access to my imagination and the part of my brain that puts life into language.  It worked pretty well, unless I urgently had to go to the bathroom.  I resolved that by taking my notebook with me to bathroom.  No interruptions there!

I think the key in getting a writing practice started, is aligning it with something that’s already a habit.  I usually wake up.  The notebook’s right there.  It’s easy to pick it up and start.  It took about a month for it to get easy, but now it’s a habit and I feel weird if I don’t get to write first thing.  Luckily, I’ve only had a few days when I didn’t have the time or privacy to get it done in the morning. 

I don’t really do a free write, though sometimes it’s pretty close.  I make a conscious effort to remember stories and events that I want to record in my journal.  In the coming year, I want to use my 15 minute burst of writing to capture more details, and more stories and poems.  Now that the habit is firmly a part of my life, I can start directing the writing energy a bit.  

Around August, I decided I was wasting too much good paper to keep writing in my sketch books, so I switched to cheap lined composition books for the morning write. 

Two things happened.  The first was a good thing.  I was able to write more freely about things I wanted to be private about.  I carry my sketchbook journal with me everywhere and I show it to people, so I didn’t feel as free to write about many things -- most of the pictures here are from the sketchbook visual journal. 

The second wasn’t so good.  I felt like I was leaving part of my memory at home.  I’ve used my journals over the years to help me with my inability to remember things consistently.  It took me a few months to get used to keeping two separate kinds of journals, but now, I like it. 

My writing partner and I discovered the book Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson.  If you want to start or improve your writing practice, this is a great book.  It has very useful ideas on how to keep up with the information in our journals, and on using journals to reach creative goals.  The first step is finding a way to access all that writing.  Johnson has suggestions that I used to make a simple index for my composition books.  On the last few pages, I divided it into section, and marked each with a letter of the alphabet.  
Keeping it simple is key to getting it done

When I finished my writing session, I made a note in the margin on what it was about, put a square around it, and then wrote it in the index, too.  Some days I had one subject, some days I had several.  Now I feel like I can find what I need in them – stories, notes, dreams – without too much trouble.  It worked so well, I began to number and list my sketchbook entries, too.  Looking over the indexes, you start to notice what’s most important to you, what threads to follow.  It makes a map of your creative life.
Well, my square around my subject is usually wonky

These little ring tabs are perfect for putting a date on spiral bound journals and notebooks.
My challenge this coming year is to read through my old journals and index them.  I want to glean them for stories, poems and insights.  I also want to see how much stupid blather I’ve produced.  I’m not as afraid of that as I used to be.  I’ve found that stupid blather helps the stories grow.  When the itty bitty shitty committee in my head tries to shame me, I just remind it that every garden needs fertilizer.  I ask the committee to help me find the best stuff instead of focusing on the worst.  And sometimes, it works.

As I read back through this year, I see again and again how keeping a journal and sketchbook has helped me through difficult challenges.  I made it a practice years ago to be honest about things like depression, chronic health problems, and heartache, but not to give them more attention than the things that make me happy and the goodness that’s all around me.  When I scrape myself up off the floor after a bad day or week or month, I see that I’ve not focused on the shadows.  I write to the shafts of light that peek through the seams and cracks of my darkest moments.  

A recurring theme!

Tolstoy spoke of enlightenment as “the increase of light in oneself and attention to what it shows.”  In this coming year of 2015, the year I will turn 55, I plan to pay more attention to that light and speak of it in the language of art as often as possible. 

If you have creative goals for the year but have a lot of resistance, I urge you to read Art & Fear, Observations on the Perils and Rewards of Art Making, by David Bales and Ted Orland, which I reviewed here. 

I’ll end this last blog post of the year with my favorite quote of the year, by choreographer Merce Cunningham:  “Falling is just one of the ways of moving.”

I’d love to hear your comments. I'm linking this to the Paint Party Friday site where you can find a plethora of artists following their dreams.  Have a happy new year.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Dreams Grow Despite Droughts

I found the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, from a display in the children’s department at the library.  It’s where I find a lot of the books I love.  I was enticed by the illustrations.  Zunon captures so much emotion in the faces she paints.  The collages of textured paper of her backgrounds give life and motion to the illustrations, they seem rise from the page.

This is the true story of how William Kamkwamba, a fourteen year old boy built a windmill to give his family electricity.  What’s more remarkable is that he did this on his own after having to drop out of school because of a drought and famine.  

He lives in Malawi, Africa, and his family was down to one meal consisting of one handful of food each day.

William loved school, so he was despondent about having to drop out, and then he remembered his village’s small library.  He checked out and pored over old science textbooks, painstakingly teaching himself English.

He fell in love with the idea of a windmill and decided to build one. 

Ever resourceful, he began to gather materials from the junkyard.  His two friends helped him, but almost everyone in the village thought he’d gone a little crazy.  Even his mother was alarmed.

But William persisted

 and brought forth the electric wind. 

This is a hopeful story and is a window into life in Malawi.  We know so little about Africa here in America.  This is a great introduction to one small village.  It’s also a great book for showing how even the fiercest obstacles to your dreams can be overcome. 

I have to add that the pictures I've posted here don't do the illustrations justice.  Zunon's work pops from the pages and adds magic to the story.  You can see more of her work at her website by clicking here.  I'm looking forward to seeing her illustrations for Miranda Paul's One Plastic Bag.

I was so impressed with the story that I wanted to find out how much of it was truly true, so I
got the other book called  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Currents of Electricity and Hope by the same authors.  It’s Kamkwamba’s memoir of how he survived the drought and built the windmill.

Kamkwamba gives insight on what it’s like to believe in magic, how it feels to have a village chief, what it means to have a good father, and how hard it is to survive a famine.  

If you ever wondered about the individual lives of people you see on the news stampeding for a bagful of rice or flour, this book takes you there.  The humanity and desperation becomes more real.  The famine forced people to sell things they’d worked for all their lives--from household possessions to the roofs off their houses.

Kamkwamba’s parents kept track of how much they ate and how much they needed for literal barebones survival.  His mother sold small bits of  food that very poor people could afford and with that money she bought enough flour for the family to survive one more day. 

There is corruption and brutality, but through it all, most of the villagers remain civil and try to work at whatever jobs they can.  I was amazed to read of the family’s first corn harvest after the famine, because even though people raided the cornfields, there was enough left to harvest.

Each morning we walked the road that bordered our field and found it littered with green leaves and dowe (ripe corn) gnawed to the pith, as if a battalion had feasted all night.

“Horrible stories of revenge soon began circulating in the trading center….

“Later that night, I asked my father how we should punish those who stole from us.

“’Should we kill them?’ I asked. ‘Perhaps call the police?’

“My father shook his head.

“’We’re not killing anyone,’ he said.  ‘Even if I call the police, those men would only starve to death in jail.  Everybody has the same hunger, son.  We must learn to forgive.’”

William Kamkwamba and his parents and grandparents

The story is compelling and engaging.  It’s a classic tale of triumph over adversity, but with a modern twist.  A respected teacher became interested in Kamkwamba, a radio station did a broadcast about his windmill, a blogger wrote about it, and the next thing Kamkwamba knew, he was giving a TED talk.  

It was touching to read about his first airplane ride and his first impressions of city life.  He’d never used a computer or had the luxury of an indoor bathroom.   The publicity brought in contributions and he was able to build a windmill to power a water pump.  His family could irrigate crops and would not starve again.  He also found himself the happy spokesperson for education in Africa.

His friend Erik Hersman, one of the first people to write about Kamkwamba on his blog Afrigadget, said, “Africans bend what little they have to their will every day.  Using creativity, they overcome Africa’s challenges.  Where the world sees trash, Africa recycles.  Where the world sees junk, Africa sees rebirth.”

This book is a great antidote to what we hear in the “news” about Africa.  It’s warm, human and full of hope.  It’s honest about the problems that plague the continent but very clear that Africans are working hard to solve them, and finding renewable resources in the process.  Kamkwamba graduated from Dartmouth College and is engaged in projects to help Malawi prosper. 

Kamkwamba is a gifted storyteller, though he had help with these books from writer Brian Mealer. In the acknowledgements, Mealer says, “First of all thanks to William for never giving up and for allowing me to help him share his uplifting story with the world.”  Mealer is the author of All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of War and Deliverance in Congo.  He’s a former Associated Press Staff correspondent and his work has appeared in Harper's and Esquire.  Mealer thanks his wife, too, in the acknowledgements, who, he says “shared my joy of finally coming home from Africa with some good news to tell.”

I suspect there may be lots of good news in Africa, and in the world, waiting to be told.  I hope that we readers seek it out.

You can keep up with William Kamkwamba on his website.  He has links to his original TED talk and the one he did a year later.  He writes that there will be a feature length documentary about his project soon.  

Keep you light shining.  Thanks for reading my blog.  Your comments are appreciated.