Friday, February 27, 2015

Size Matters -- or Does It?

I haven't posted about journaling in a while, so I thought I'd write about how I keep up my writing and drawing practice.

Last year, I started keeping a morning written journal where I spent 10 to 30 minutes writing freely.  This is different than the free write some people do, or the morning pages, where you write to loosen up and just throw the pages away.  I can't do that -- I horde words and stories.  I write about what's happening in my life and my mind, the details of the day before.  I also use that time for story beginnings.

During the day, I keep a visual journal for taking notes, practicing drawing, trying out painting techniques and giving myself a place to play.  Play is the best way to learn.

One of the things I've learned is that size matters.  Maybe.

I bought a little journal with nice paper that would be easy to carry. I could sketch discreetly.  It would be light and perfect.  Except I didn't really like it after I started using it.  It was too small. I resisted it for a while, but it was the only thing I had.  I only did one painted piece in it.  A loose tree:

 But I used it, nonetheless, and actually wound up with a few expressive drawings:

My husband at Salty's bar-- a fish was on the wall behind him

Church notes during a music service

Further church notes

Multnomah falls
I think if I'd liked the journal better, I would have gone back and painted a few of these, but looking back, I enjoy the simplicity and these drawings bring back memories -- simple visual language in a letter to my future self.

My next journal was a Strathmore hardbound 8.5 x 5.5" watercolor journal with cotton paper.  It was a little larger and that made a big difference.  However, it was hard to use that thick paper for light sketches and writing.  It felt like I was wasting it.  It had a precious quality to it.  It did force me to try more paintings and to work across the spread.  However, that didn't work out as well as I'd hoped.
ink sketch

Spirit Bird
I went on happily painting pages.  One thing I like is to use my leftover paint puddles to paint journal pages so I can draw or write on colored pages later.  This wonderfully absorbent paper didn't do so well with my wet techniques:

paint seeped through
I had some seepage problems with journals before, but not to this extent.
The sun got green ooze.
I had better luck with writing and illustrating, though the paper seemed meant for watercolor:
At the Tula's a gluten free pasty and coffee shop

At Sound Grounds after my first venture in my power chair on the bus.  I colored their logo the wrong colors
So now I'm back to an inexpensive Canson Art Sketch book, hardbound 8.5 x 5.5.  The paper is only 65 lb.  I've used it before and it buckles when I paint, but the buckles flatten out after a while and there's not the same kind of seepage.  It's great for writing and doesn't feel precious.

I'm most excited about trying my new Winsor and Newton inks:

I also have a big 9x12 Canson Mixed Media spiral bound book when I need to go big.  That means I'm now keeping 3 journals.  The morning write, the day and travel book, and the big journal.  I'm also considering keeping subject journals -- like one for Bridge Meadows Meetings, one for concerts. one for spring flowers -- I don't know if it'll feel as if I'm spread too thin or if it'll help me tell the story of myself to myself a little better.

I think the different sizes and different kinds of paper bring out different styles.  It was easy to do minimalist sketches in my little journal, easy to paint in the watercolor one.  It's fun to do collage and paint in the large journals.  But the humble 5.5 x 8.5 Canson seems to be right for everything at this point.  I wonder if I'll feel the same 50 pages from now?

If you'd like you can read my last post on journaling in 2014 here.

How do you keep your journals and sketch books?  What's worked and what's not worked?

By the way, Danny Gregory, who I blame for getting me addicted to visual journaling, has a new book out, Art Before Breakfast, which I'll review next week.  Check out his blog for inspiration to illustrate your life and to live better through bad drawing.  It works :)

Thanks for reading my blog.

I'm linking to Paint Party Friday, where you can find lots of enthusiastic and creative art bloggers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review of One Plastic Bag

I was sipping coffee in a lovely cafĂ© with glass walls, enjoying the light and feeling of openness.  I looked around at the sky and the winter trees, all bare of leaves, limbs like calligraphy against a gray sky.  Except the one on which a plastic bag was snagged.  It danced in the wind, an ominous trash dance.  Even though they’re banned here in Portland, Oregon, they’re still a part of our landscape.  They’re still used almost everywhere, all over the world, even in villages in Gambia.

One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook Press/Lerner Books, was just released and it brings to light the depth of the plastic bag problem, as well as the innovative way one group of women are dealing with it.

In Njau, Gambia, when the plastic bags broke or were no longer needed, people dropped them.  One plastic bag became two, then ten, then hundreds.  “The bags accumulated in ugly heaps alongside roads. Water pooled in them, bringing mosquitoes and disease. Some bags were burned, leaving behind a terrible smell. Some were buried, but they strangled gardens. They killed livestock that tried to eat them.”

But people got used to them.  We’re very adaptable, even to things that are ugly and destructive.  When I wait for the bus here in Portland, I’m amazed at how many people throw down their trash and how the rest of us wait amongst the litter and never pick any of it up.  Picking up trash is beneath us; we have other things on our mind.

But Isatou Ceesay wanted change and despite being ridiculed, she became that change.  She and a small group of women began to collect and clean the bags.  They cut them into strips and crocheted purses.  The purses were colorful and practical.  Isatou realized that the purses could be a way to help alleviate the poverty of the women in her village. 

This is a truly inspiring story and one of the reasons I keep reading “children’s books.”  There is hopefulness in them and many publishers, especially the small independent ones, are looking for unsung heroes to celebrate.

Miranda Paul’s writing is clear and lyrical.  She met Isatou while teaching and traveling in the Gambia.  Miranda is an avid recycler and conservationist.  This was a story she “had to tell.”
Her descriptions of village life are vivid and inviting.  You feel as if you're there.

The story is beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon.  Her luminous paintings bring the book to life.  She uses collage elements that enhance her backgrounds but also make characters more vibrant.  (She also illustrated The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, which I reviewed here.)  Her faces and hands are particularly beautiful and expressive.  You feel Isatou’s thoughtfulness and hopefulness through Zunon’s paintings.

Here's a link to a short trailer of the book, so you can see a bit more of Zunon's art, but of course, the best way to see it is in the book.  The screen does it no justice:  

The book includes bonus information such as a Wolof language glossary, timeline of actual events, and photos of the women of Njau.

It's a beautiful book about an ugly topic, with great art, a great solution to a trashy problem, and a great woman who proves one person can make a difference.  

Here’s a link to the book’s website which includes lots of links for teachers and families.  I could see this being a great book for a family discussion night on environmental topics and different cultures:

And here’s a direct link to a 15 minute video on the Njau Recycle Centre:

Here’s Miranda Paul’s website.  She’ll have another book out this year, Water is Water, and two in 2016:

And here’s Elizabeth Zunon’s website.  She’s illustrated a book by Nikki Grimes called Poems in the Attic, which will be out in April:

Both Paul and Zunon belong to the wonderful We Need Diverse Books campaign, which you can read about here:

What are you reading these day?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A Trip Through Time and Space: Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson

Sometimes life can seem like a lot of drudgery and sorrow.  These days we don’t only have to deal with the troubles of our own life, but we have instant access to troubles all over the world.  It’s easy to start feeling oppressed and depressed.  It’s easy to forget about the wonders of the world amid so much bad news.  You might even go days and days without really looking up, seeing the sky and realizing what a miraculous planet we live on.

Twice in the past month, when the conversation got too dreary, I took out the book Cosmigraphics and showed it to friends.  Even the cover made them gasp a little.  The wonders inside turned the conversation from the earthly to the cosmic.

Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, by Michael Benson, Abrams Books, 2014, is the story of how people have both imagined and documented our creation, the structure of the universe, and the earth’s place in the cosmos.  Benson is a photographer, writer, and filmmaker.  In the last decade he has staged a series of increasingly large-scale exhibitions of planetary landscape photography. He lives in Boston and Ljubljana, Slovenia

He works from the intersection of art and science, and tells the story of how we perceive the universe using illustrations, graphs and maps.  He has gathered beautiful works of art from the world’s great science libraries. 

The book take you on a journey through more than 1000 years of images, through humanity’s ever-expanding understanding of the size and shape of space.  From before the telescope was invented and people believed the earth was flat, to the most sophisticated maps and supercomputer simulations, all the beauty of our understanding comes to light. 

Sky Disc from 2000-1600 BC - the first known astrological instrument

This book is a literary gem, too.  Benson’s writing is lyrical and accessible, making clear the story of human thought and beliefs.  Chapters are divided into Creation, Earth, The Moon, The Sun, The Structure of the Universe, Planets and Moons, Constellations, the Zodiac and the Milky Way, Eclipses and Transits, Comets and Meteors, Auroras and Atmospheric Phenomena.  Each chapter starts with an essay from Benson on how our beliefs and thoughts about space have changed through the centuries.  Benson says:

“I have felt free to include material that would not necessarily figure in a presentation of exclusively astronomical images.  I’m interested in innovative approaches to the conundrum of how to present such a vast subject within the frame of a graphic image, even if they aren’t directly associated with scientific research and occasionally represent conservative reactions against astronomical findings.  I’m biased toward the striking and unusual, even if it restates a case that has previously been made with less visual flair.  While this isn’t an objective visual history of astronomy, I do believe that sometimes a subjective approach reveals cultural or historical truths better than a dutifully comprehensive method.”

He opens the first chapter on Creation with a quote from The Tao Te Ching:
There is something formed of chaos,
Born before heaven and earth.
Silent and void, it is not renewed,
It goes on forever without failing
It can be seen as the World-Mother.

He begins the last chapter, Auroras and Atmospheric Phenomena, with a quote from Robert Burns’ Tam O’Shanter:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis rays,
They flit ere you can point their place.

Depiction of Sun Dogs from 1533

I can’t overstate how beautiful this collection of graphics is.  Almost every page reveals a breathtaking look at the universe – from illuminated maps and manuscripts that illustrate early belief system, to a 2009 supercomputer simulation of a sunspot:  

The book is too big for me to scan pictures for you, but just Google the title and you’ll see what I mean.  That’s how I got pictures for this post.  This book has been praised in the New York Times, and hundreds of other sites, including Brain Pickings, one of my favorite book and culture sites, so you don’t have to take my word for it.  The publishers say this book “will be a revelation to space-struck Earthlings, art lovers, and readers interested in the history of science, the visualization of information, graphic design, and mapping.”

1979 geological map of the south region of the moon

I’m a big library user, but this is a book I feel you should own.  If for no other reason than to look at it with your depressed friends and take a little flight away from the tyranny of bad news into a universe of stunning mystery. 

Or for a stolen moment, when gravity seems to have you glued to the ground, to take a trip through space and time, and come back elated.   

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Somehow We Bloom - Review of The Lost Language of Flowers

“The morning of my eviction I awoke before dawn.  My room was empty, the floor still damp and dirty in patches where the milk jugs had been.  My imminent homelessness had not been a conscious decision; yet, rising to dress on the morning I was to be turned out onto the street, I was surprised to find that I was not afraid.  Where I had expected fear, or anger, I was filled with nervous anticipation, the feeling similar to what I’d experienced as a young girl, on the eve of each new adoptive placement.  Now, as an adult, my hopes for the future were simple:  I wanted to be alone, and to be surrounded by flowers.  It seemed, finally, I might get exactly what I wanted.”  -- Victoria Jones from The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

There are approximately 397,000 children in foster care in the United States.  When they turn 18, if they haven’t been adopted, they are “emancipated” and are put out of the system without a home, financial aid, or emotional support. 

The novel The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ballantine Books, 2011, follows Victoria Jones, as she navigates her dismissal from the system.  She was abandoned as a baby and has lived in 32 different foster homes in her 18 years.  Her plan is to live in a San Francisco park.  Her intense desire to be alone makes living and gardening in a secluded area of the park seem more like an emancipation than homelessness.  The first thing we learn about her is that she is obsessed with flowers.

Unsurprisingly, her little Eden doesn’t turn out to be safe or even comfortable.  She’s an expert at slipping into restaurants and taking tables just as someone leaves so she can finish their leftovers.  And she’s not above filching what she can, but she’s hungry all the time.  She needs a job.  She tries for a position with a florist and soon proves herself capable and hardworking, with a tendency to show up with leaves in her hair.

The florist, Renata, is as tough in her way as Victoria and they work well together.  Renata helps Victoria find somewhat better living conditions and soon their lives are intertwined.  She connects with a mysterious vendor at the flower market and begins to have a conversation in flowers with him.  She finds out she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them.  This gift stems from her education in the Victorian language of flowers, which she learned from the woman who almost adopted her, the closest Victoria ever got to having a mother.

The novel shifts back and forth in time, from her present struggle to survive, to when she was 10 years old and lived with the woman who promised to love her forever and adopt her, no matter what.  Elizabeth was a lonely woman estranged from her family who ran a vineyard and decided it was time to adopt a child.  Victoria was difficult and stubborn, but Elizabeth was used to difficult people and had a rough family history of her own.  She set up stern guidelines and nurtured Victoria as if she were revitalizing a neglected garden.  Elizabeth took Victoria out of school and taught her how flowers had meaning and were used to convey emotions and romantic intentions.  Honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, red roses for love, yellow roses for infidelity. 

We don’t find out until late in the novel what prevented the adoption, but Victoria learns early in her emancipation that the language of flowers is not consistent:

“Hours passed as I took in hundreds of pages of new information.  I sat frozen, only the pages of the books turning.  Looking up flowers one at a time, I cross-referenced everything I had memorized with the dictionaries stacked on the table. 
It wasn’t long before I knew.  Elizabeth had been as wrong about the language of flowers as she was about me.” 

This “wrongness” sets Victoria on a quest to make a definitive dictionary.  She has discovered her skill as a photographer.  She has let herself get involved with a man from her past.  She seems to be growing.  And yet she notices how different she is.  There is a core of damage in her that she believes she will never rise above.  While she helps customers use flowers to repair damaged relationships, she reflects:

“The conversations were sad, and amusing, and strangely hopeful all at the same time.  The relentlessness with which these women tried to repair their relationships was foreign to me; I didn’t understand why they didn’t simply give up.

“I knew that if it were me I would have let go:  of the man, of the child, and of the women with whom I discussed them.  But for the first time in my life, this thought did not bring me relief.  I began to notice the ways in which I kept myself isolated.  There were obvious things, such as living in a closet with six locks, and subtler ones, such as working on the opposite side of the table from Renata or standing behind the cash register when I talked to customers.  Whenever possible, I separated my body from those around me with plaster walls, solid wood tables, or heavy metal objects.

As she grows closer to the man who emerged from her past:

“My feelings for Grant, too, felt hidden, and I began to image a sphere surrounding my heart, as hard and polished as the surface of a hazelnut, impenetrable.”

Opening the sphere around one’s heart is a painful process, and not just for someone with no family who is trying to survive and make sense of world.  In this book, everyone has complex relationships with their families.  It’s compelling to see that the way people treat Victoria, the little kindnesses, make a huge difference in her life.  She does not heal easily, however.  Her inability to truly connect causes more grief and separations.  Her emotional distance remains a part of her character throughout the book, which made her seem very real. 

The intricacies of the flower business makes a nice counterpoint to Victoria’s character.  All the characters know that different flowers need different kinds of nurturing.  Victoria blows through their lives like a human air plant, unable to really understand what it means to be rooted.  Everyone can see that she’s smart, creative and capable of love, and of being loved – but she keeps locking doors or disappearing.

Since I mentor children who have been in the foster care system, I was impressed with how realistically Diffenbaugh wrote about Victoria’s life.  Her flower obsession is uniquely hers, but I know children just as smart with equally unique obsessions – these are the threads they hang on to in a world that is unstable and shifting.  Where one day they are in a group home, the next they are taken to a new family, and then, after varying times for varying reasons, they are taken back into the system.  Some become hardened and difficult, others too anxious to please.  It takes years of constancy to break through some of their shells.

Within those shells, though, there are bright souls.  I think Diffenbaugh illuminated one such soul and I’m glad the book became a best seller.

In writing The Language of Flowers, Diffenbaugh was inspired by her own experience as a foster mother and the stories she heard while teaching art and writing to young people in low-income communities.

She and Isis Dallis Keigwin founded The Camellia Network, a nationwide support organization for young people making the transition from foster care to independence.  The advance from The Language of Flowers was donated by Diffenbaugh to get it started. 

“Camellia Network harnesses the power of new technology to connect youth "aging out" of the foster care system with a community of resources, opportunities, encouragement and support. Youth have profiles on the site, giving them a place to express themselves, share their goals for the future and articulate what they need to be successful. Individuals and companies from across the country are able to collectively provide the support these young people lack by offering up doses of encouragement, career advice, professional connections, and financial support to help them navigate their way into adulthood.”

It’s an innovative way to help.  You can support a former foster child by helping them furnish their spaces (something as simple as a trash can) or help them pay for training to be a nurse, or go to community college.  Check it out here.

This book in no way reads like a plea to help foster youth.  It’s a compelling and beautifully written novel.  But I love that it’s a seed that started a network to help foster youth.  Camellia means my destiny is in your hands in the language of flowers.  We tend to forget that the destinies of those around us can be improved by little acts of kindness.  If we can simply learn not to pre-judge what it means to live in foster care, and what kind of person emerges from that system of support, then we can see the world around us a little more clearly.

I often mention that I live in Bridge Meadows, a community set up to support families adopting children out of the foster care system, so that they can have permanent homes.  Bridge Meadows is now in the process of building a small apartment complex for teens aging out of foster care.  It will be in the same neighborhood, and these young people will have access to the same elder network as the families who have adopted children. 

The Camellia Network and Bridge Meadows are innovative programs that can make life better for kids who are struggling to find their place in our society.  They serve as a way for us to connect, and sometimes that’s all it takes to give a complex story a happier ending.   

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.   

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