Monday, September 29, 2014

Shaun Tan's Astonishing Worlds

If you haven’t yet read the works of Shaun Tan, do yourself a favor and get to the nearest bookstore or library and partake of the feast of stories and images he offers. He is quite possibly my favorite writer of illustrated books.  I hesitate to call him a children’s book writer, although that’s how he’s marketed.  But like many writers pushed into that category because markets are so narrowly defined, he is a storyteller for all ages.  
I think as we age out of picture books and take on the allegedly more serious task of reading only text, we begin to lose some of our visual literacy.  We become blind to the images and wonder all around us.  Adults watch television and movies, we play video games and read on-line reports rich with photographs, but we deny ourselves the “childish” pleasure of reading picture and illustrated books.  Fortunately I never saw picture books as any different from any other visual delight.  Except for a brief time in my teens, I never gave up reading them.

I did give up book collecting for awhile, but last year when I “read” Tan’s wordless tale of immigration, The Arrival, it re-awakened a desire to own books.  I want to see these images again and again.  They reveal new things at each reading.  The Arrival is the tale of a family immigrating from a land infested with some unnamed evil.  The father goes first and discovers a sort of utopia, filled with strange and bewildering things. 
It’s also a land filled with other immigrants and their stories unfold in deft complex graphite drawings.  It’s the best visual storytelling I’ve seen and is definitely a good read for adults.  Tan lives in Australia, where his father immigrated from Malaysia.  The Arrival, though, is about the whole experience of immigration and the thin line between chaos and order.  In a world filled with distopian stories, though, this one fills the reader with hope and a glimpse at utopia.

Then I saw the amazing film The Lost Thing, which is an animation of his story by the same name.  It won an Academy Award for Best Short Film.  (You can look it up on Youtube for a preview of it.  My attempts to embed it here failed. ) 

Next I read Tales from Outer Suburbia and it immediately became an old friend and companion.  I often reach for it in the middle of the night and let myself be transported.  The charm of Tan’s stories is that they aren’t so much an escape from this world, but a way of looking at it with new eyes.  There is boredom, depression, fear, loss, and loneliness.  His gift is his ability to refocus readers on the bits of wonder floating around outside those feelings, and the wondrous landscape in which these things come to life.

Tan’s language is spare and complex – rich with imagery and wry insight.  He has a gift for integrating the lyrical quality of dreams into waking life.  In Tales from Outer Suburbia, he tells stories of aliens, stick people and ghosts.  

Fear is muted by the delight he takes that such things exist on the periphery of our horizons.  His insights into the complexities of our desires for love, home, family and adventure are astonishing.  His stories can amuse, but they can often break your heart open to reveal hidden chambers that glitter with magic and redemption.  The illustrations and stories work seamlessly together, advancing the tales in a way words can’t. 

On his blog, Tan says, “Even the word illustration is a little misleading, because the best illustrations do not actually illustrate anything, in the sense of describing or illuminating. My own narrative images, and those of my favourite artists, are actually far more concerned with deepening the uncertainty of language, enjoying its ambiguous references, exploiting its slipperiness, and at times, confessing its inadequacy.”

I found his book The Red Tree to be an accurate and moving portrayal of the way depression changes and skews your vision.  The economy of language and depth of the images told the tale in a way I'd never before imagined.  I was delighted by the simple way he told of how when depression passes, the whole world seems to glow with color.

 The book he illustrated for Gary Crews, Memorial, is an eloquent look at how war affects generations and the natural world as well.  It shows how man's desire for progress often destroys what is best about life, in this case a beloved tree that 3 generations of veterans have felt was an homage to their service, and their home life. 
It's a poetic and beautiful book that is unfortunately out of print in the United States.  It's at the Multnomah County Library, though.

In his most recent book, Rules of Summer, Tan exploits the slipperiness of language and images with charm and grace.  An older brother has given his young brother certain rules of caution about how to proceed through the vastness of summer.  Full-page paintings have one-sentence rules, such as “Never leave a red sock on the clothesline.” The painting shows the two boys hiding behind a fence while a giant red rabbit glares at a single sock drying on the line. 
The rules conjure up their own reason for being.  Each sparse rule becomes a catalyst for a visual journey.  The Rules, for me, are a direct passage back to childhood, when the world wasn’t entirely understandable or safe, but anything could happen.  It restores a sense of the largeness of life, of our imaginations, of our hearts.

Tan is very generous with his images and time on the internet.  There are interviews with him on Youtube and he has a website, and a blog where he posts paintings he’s working on.  Go explore his world.  You’ll emerge from it with treasures that will enrich you forever.
Thanks for reading my blog.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A New Season of Blogging

It doesn't seem like it's been since July since I last posted here.  Two things kept me away from blogging.  I was in the lull of summer.  The heat just does me in.  It was particularly warm here in Portland, Oregon, and the heat held until yesterday.  Today a soft rain is falling, it's 69 degrees and I feel a renewed sense of energy.

The other thing was a bit of post-ARTum depression. Do you ever get that?  You finish a big project, you're happy with it, and you're glad it's done. Then you sink into malaise and can't focus on anything.  I finished writing the 12 Lessons for Greatness and had a great list of things I wanted to do.  What I wound up doing, though, is reading like crazy.  It's such a good way to cure that feeling of being drained.  I need to plan for that period of malaise and restoration after each project.  There's no need to rush into another project without properly resting and refilling your creative spirit.

Although I've written the material for the 12 Lessons for Greatness, it's inspired a new interest in helping parents find resources for teaching their kids values.  The word "values" has been politicized so much in the past decades, and yet we yearn for intelligent creative ways to teach our children lessons that will help them as they grow and work.  Fortunately, the YuhuHugs company is committed to making it easier to find playful ways for children to learn.  I'll be posting news concerning that effort soon.

For the blog, I will continue to post my own experiences with my community, Bridge Meadows, where I work with kids who have been adopted out of the foster care system. 

I'll also post stories and illustrations as I create them. I'll share links to cool websites I find.

I had stopped reviewing books for a while because I had too much going on.  I keep reading great things, though, and will be re-starting book reviews.  I'll lean towards reviews of children's books -- from picture books to young adults.  I also have a fondness for books from independent presses. I love illustrated books of all kinds.  I'll be reviewing old books, too -- even out of print books if I find a particularly lovely gem.   If you have a book you'd like to see reviewed on my blog, please let me know.  Almost all of the books I review will end up in the Bridge Meadows community library, so it will be appreciated by many.

You can read some of my previous book reviews here.

For now, it's a rainy afternoon, and I must get on with my reading.  I'll write again soon.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Dream Hut Stories

Since January, I've had the pleasure of working with a the makers of the modern playhouse, the Dream Hut:

It's an indoor playhouse, designed to unfold and then fold back up. It has a great European design and can be converted into a desk and wardrobe.  It has magnetic scenes that can be changed, a tablet portal as well as a chalk board. It's both modern and traditional and has a bit of the magic wardrobe feel to it.  It was also rated one of the best playhouses in the US:

The part I played was in helping write stories and essays on values that are a free download for anyone who wants them.  The stories are a part of the 12 LESSONS FOR GREATNESS, that they want available to help families teach values, and also to encourage families to spend time together reading.  The 12 lessons are on optimism; curiosity; patience; imagination; courage; enthusiasm; honesty; a sense of humor; adaptability; idealism; knowledge; and communication.

They've written about the project on their blog.   Since we're down to the last two values, they've started doing some promotion, so I thought I'd share this link with  you:

Yuhu and Hugs are characters with boundless imaginations but who also have to deal with real world challenges like being sick, not getting their way, and being deceived. The essays give parents a way to promote family values; and the stories show how the kids put values into action.  And they have fun doing so.  The values are not dogmatic or religious -- they are what we need to live better lives and achieve our own personal greatness.

For the stories, I’ve gotten feedback from the children I work with at Bridge Meadows on the adventures of Yuhu and Hugs.  From these stories, and the children in my neighborhood, I learn over and over again the beauty of the motto, Play more, be more!

I am working on our last two values.  Meanwhile, you can start getting your downloads here:

Here's a video of how the Dream Hut works:

Thanks for visiting and let me know what you think :)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Stand By Me

I got to see a short concert by the Bravo Youth Orchestra this morning.

The orchestra is from Rosa Parks, the elementary school a few blocks away from Bridge Meadows, where I live.  The orchestra started last year with an intensive music program and now the kids are performing in venues all over the city.  The kids have various levels of mastery, but they're all living better lives because of the Bravo Program.  Here's their Mission in their own words from their website:



BRAVO transforms the lives of underserved youth through intensive classical music instruction emphasizing collaboration, promoting self-confidence, and creating a community where children thrive.


Inspired by El Sistema in Venezuela, BRAVO will establish in Oregon a network of youth orchestras for social change serving both urban and rural communities with a high concentration of poverty.


  • Inclusion: Embracing racial, cultural and economic diversity by honoring the unique contributions of each child and family.
  • Equity: Improving academic and social outcomes of underserved children.
  • Excellence: Pursuing the highest musical standards through rigorous education.
  • Social Responsibility: Encouraging children
    to participate in their communities.
  • Joy: Strengthening the spirit in all that we do."
That's professional bassist Andre St. James who helps with the orchestra.  It hurts and astounds him that these orchestras aren't in every school. 
Can programs like this really work?  I can see the success in the shining eyes of the children as they tuned their instruments, and again as they concentrated on the sheet music.  The best part was when they closed their eyes as they were swept up in their own playing.  The orchestra has professional musicians, teachers and college apprentices to help unify the music.  The children hear excellence and rise to the occasion.   They sing the parts they can't quite play yet and the sound of their young voices was a delight.

They played a variety of pieces, including Stand By Me, the beautiful old song by Ben E. King.  The conductor said some of the children found out the teachers got the more difficult parts of the music, so the kids took the the sheet music home, practiced more and were ready to play along for the whole song.  Other members sang the lyrics and it touched my heart to hear I won't be afraid, I won't shed a tear, as long as you stand by  me.

We so need to stand by our children, offer them the instruments and the education they need to grow to their
Quick sketch of equity, excellence and joy
full potential.  Programs like this shouldn't be rare.  We are a wealthy nation and yet our children are experiencing poverty and neglect at alarming rates. I see the way neglect breaks children down -- and it's not just the poverty.  Poverty is a manageable fact of life.  It's the social neglect, underfunding of education, and very real lack of safety nets for many families. It's seeing wealth all around them.  It's the shame and derision we heap upon those who are poor. That wears down the resilience of us all.  It keeps the souls of children from flowering.

But this group nourishes parched souls.  No matter what else happens in these children's lives, they will have music.  They can turn back to it again and again.  We all stood to sing We Shall Overcome with them.  How very moving to hear the voices of the elders of this community, the children we mentor, and these young musicians join together in the spirit of that song.  We are among the very lucky.  Deep in my heart, I hope to see that luck become common. 

"Music Changes Everything" was written on the back of some of their T-shirts. If you'd like to see more of that change, check out their website:

You can see a news segment about the origins of the orchestra here:

Keep a song in your heart and thanks for reading my post.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Bones of Art

I teach art for all ages at the community center in my neighborhood Bridge Meadows.  Most of my students are children.  I try to make an easy going place for kids to express themselves, learn to deal with mistakes, and have a good time.  I do minimal instruction but give guidelines.  I also try to get them the best materials we can afford because I think the the kids deserve it. The better the materials, the less frustration.

One of my youngest students is Tomas, who is 4.  He's loves to paint.  He doesn't want crayons, markers or pencils.  He wants to slop around with watercolors. 

I hold class from 4:30 til 6 on Monday.  Children come late sometimes, but Tomas came with his brothers and mom at 5:45 and wanted to paint.  All the other kids that day were working with markers, oil pastels and colored pencils.  I didn't want to get everything set up for him to paint when he was going to leave 10 minutes later.

"Let's just draw today," I told him.

"No I want to paint!" he said.

"But you need to draw sometimes, too.  You know drawing is like the skeleton of painting.  It's the bones that hold paintings up.  You  know, like your bones hold you up.  Drawing holds up painting.   It's the bones of art."

He looked a bit mystified. 

"Not if you're a snowman," he said.

And that's one of the great rewards of  working with children -- they put things in perspective for you.

Mixing colors
Tomas' Monday Masterpiece

For more posts on life at Bridge Meadows, you can click the tab in the heading.  You can read my latest post about it here:  Living the Rich Life.

I appreciate your comments, likes and shares.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Drawing Perseverance

One of the great things about keeping a sketchbook is that you can work out ideas before you try a Big Important Work.  Often when I get my best paper out for a Painting, I wind up with a big disaster.  In the sketchbook, I can only make little disasters and they are easier to cope with.  It's like the writing process -- you write a terrible draft, then start revising and then you can sometimes make a decent story.

I want to paint koi fish so I found a nice photograph and drew and painted.  The result felt stiff, not like the fluid fish I was trying to capture.

I read about koi and looked at some more photos and decided to do some more sketches.  I let go of my desire to be accurate and then I think I got a more accurate picture of the spirit of koi.

If I have the perseverance to practice drawing for 100 years, maybe I'll be given some great magic, too.  Until then, I'm content to make whatever discoveries I can on the journey.

Thanks for reading my blog.

I'm linking this to Dion Dior's Friday Sketches.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Living the Rich Life

Now that school's out, every time I leave my apartment I'm accosted by a kid who wants to do art with me.  I offer an art class every week for kids in the Bridge Meadows neighborhood.  For a few kids, I also have weekly one on one time to work on art and books and stories.  But it's not quite enough now that summer is here.

I know I've had this opportunity to become popular with kids because of my unique living situation here at Bridge Meadows.  We are an intentional community organized to support families adopting 3 or more children out of the foster care system.  On our city block in Portland, Oregon, we have 9 single family homes, and apartments for seniors who provide support for the families. We seniors get a sense of purpose; the children get a sense of permanence.  There are about 30 kids under the age of 16 here.

In any other neighborhood, I might not know any of them, but here, I am welcome to form bonds with all of them.  Their parents know I've been vetted -- I've passed a criminal background check and gotten training on how to work with children with challenging backgrounds.  I've been here over 2 years now and I've seen children grow from being distrustful and anxious to being playful and creative.  It's an amazing transformation and I feel so blessed to help open creative channels for them.

My life has become richer than I ever imagined.  When I think of how I haven't manged to "make it" as a writer, that I'm living on disability and occasional freelance jobs, at times I feel a sense of despair.  I'm well into my fifties.  Will I ever get my work finished and out into the world?

That I'm poor isn't a surprise.  When I first started writing poetry in my teens, I knew there wasn't going to be much money or prestige in the writing life.  I quickly figured out that if I was dedicating my life to the arts, I was essentially taking a vow of poverty.

When I was younger, my plan was to have a day job for money, and to write in my off  hours.  I'd already
Typing poetry at age 19
started having health problems but I still had that fire that young people are blessed with.  Even though I had epilepsy and muscle deterioration from transverse myelitis, I felt these were minor problems that I could easily manage. I could have a family, work, write and be constantly creative.

After a certain age, though, it just wasn't possible to keep that up.  And now, even though I no longer have a job, I still struggle to find the energy to get my creative work done.

When I moved to Bridge Meadows, I committed to volunteering at least 7 hours per week to the community.  The obligation is loose enough that things like sitting in the courtyard talking to the kids is considered supporting the community.

One day an 8 year old girl asked, "Can you sit on a bench?"

I said I could indeed.  She wanted me to sit in the courtyard and watch so she could play outside without her mother worrying about her.  I have to say, my bench sitting abilities are astounding.  

What I found was that working with the kids was energizing.  My productivity has increased.  My imagination is constantly stimulated by these little muses.  There are many days when the pain of arthritis would keep me from venturing out of the apartment if I weren't looking forward to showing some kids how to capture their imaginings through stories and art.

I'm helping Noah build a robot costume out of cardboard boxes and we're making a book of dragons.  I'm
helping Monica and Karishma create a book about Marshmallow Land, where if someone eats your marshmallow head, it spontaneously grows back.  Lily is creating a series of one line stories about animals. The latest was about a clownfish named Steve.  I tell stories.  And sometimes I teach journaling for all ages.

Community living has it's drawbacks.  Being involved with so many families means you share their grief and sorrows as well as the good times.  I still have limited energy and can't do all I'd like.  I still hurt and am plagued by fatigue.  But, like when I was young, these now seem to be problems I can manage and carry on.

Once, before I even moved here, a teenage artist who came to an art show I was in, asked me if you could make a good living at art.

I had to say no.  But, I added, you can make a good life.  It deepens your sense of your surroundings.  It pulls you out of your anxious mortal life and lets you dream, imagine and create.

And here I am, a rich, rich woman.  I am in this rich place because I was financially poor enough to qualify for the affordable senior housing.

No matter what else happens in my life, I know I've helped these children turn a page in their young lives.  They have a restored sense of wonder -- and so do I.

For more on Bridge Meadows, watch this PBS story.

I'm linking to my friends at Paint Party Friday