Monday, August 3, 2015


I frequently visit a shop here in Portland, Oregon, called Paxton Gate, “a store known for its magical mix of neo-Victorian delights, eclectic animal and plant ephemera, taxidermy, exotic plants—including the carnivorous variety—framed and mounted insects, jewelry, unique gardening tools, affordable art, vintage scientific instruments and more.”  

from Paxton Gate Website

I love looking at the shells, insect specimens, plants, fossils and rocks.  They also have a collection of animal taxidermy.  I’ve asked about them and found that they are part of modern ecological ethics and taxidermists use reclamation from institutions and zoos as a way of keeping dead creatures around for study and aesthetic pleasure.  I’m not drawn to it, but I was glad to hear that there are standards for such things.

I took some friends there once to show them the great collection of plants, science toys, and weird art -- they have knitted dissected frogs and animal skeletons in Victorian dress.  I think of this as typical Portland weirdness, but they also have splendid scientific prints, books, inks and journals. 

Both of my friends expressed some distress at the taxidermy.  They thought I was naïve to think that the taxidermy didn’t come from thoughtless killing of animals. 

So I was much relieved, when I got the beautiful book Biophilia, the art of Christopher Marley, published this year by Abrams Books, to find a few page dedicated to “Reclamation and the Pursuit of Karma-Friendly Taxidermic Experience.”   His father was a breeder of Australian parrots.  He began to use specimens from his father’s collection that had died of natural causes.  Then:

“I suddenly realized that my dilemma of wanting desperately to work with organisms of all kinds but not being willing to kill them had found a limited solution….After months of methodically working through all of my years of accumulated contacts, I was over joyed to find that there were other individuals and institutions, breeders, aviaries, aquariums, sanctuaries, and zoos that had similar practices.  The opportunity to preserve rare and exotic birds, reptiles, and other vertebrates was suddenly becoming a reality.  I was ecstatic.”

From Christopher Marley’s website:

“Specimens are reclaimed, bred or harvested from dozens of countries on every inhabited continent. Our vertebrates are always reclaimed organisms that come from institutions and breeders here in the U.S. after they die of natural or incidental causes.   My work preserves for generations what would otherwise be discarded and lost forever.  The invertebrates are sustainably collected in their various countries of origin – offering local catchers a powerful financial incentive to protect and guard their habitats to ensure the continued survival of the very species they collect.”

Whether I’m naïve or not, the artwork of Marley is exquisite and inviting, it honors nature in a way I’ve never seen before.  He uses actual specimens, preserves their structure and color, arranges them, frames them and brings them back to life in a way that only art can.  Though he is working with their bodies, he captures their spirit.  And like when I spend time at a natural history museum, or in a garden, I always come away from his art wanting to draw.  

Biophilia means love of life, “an instinctive kinship with the rest of the living, breathing world.”  Marley says: 

“As human beings, we are at the top of the food chain in every ecosystem that we inhabit, yet we retain an innate affection for the rest of creation.  I have never met – indeed, I cannot imagine – a person who does not derive stimulation and fulfillment from some form of life apart from our own species, one who cannot and does not appreciate a single plant or single nonhuman animal species.”

I like that he works with bugs, spiders, and reptiles, because so many of us find them creepy.  We’re afraid of them.  In Marley’s art, they are presented like jewels and a sense of awe over takes fear.  He has work that combines the colors of insects with the colors of minerals and gems.  I realize how fear interferes with our ability to see the beauty around us. 

I think as we teeter toward our own extinction, we're learning that we're part of a larger ecosystem and even these humble creatures like beetles and urchins are a part of the health of our planet, the health of each of us.  We need ways of being less fearful.  In Biophilia, Marley frames a new way for us to see beyond fear and find wonder.

Christopher Marley is an artist, designer and photographer.  His first book, Pheromone, focused on his artwork with insects.  He maintains design studios in Oregon and Kuala Lumpur.  You can see more of Marley’s work at his website:

You can see more about Paxton Gate by clicking here;

You can see more of Abrams wonderful books here: 

And remember, as Bill Waterson said, "There's treasure everywhere." 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Beetle Planet

One of the 10 year old boys in my neighborhood came over for an art lesson recently.  He was a little glum.  At first he said he was fine but then he said he’d had a fight with his older brother and lost.  He really just wanted to play on his game device.  I asked if he’d like to see the new book I got first, The Book of Beetles.  Then he could play on his game device if he wanted.

Much to my delight, we spent the next hour looking at beetles and marveling at their strange shapes and beautiful colors.   

I remember seeing such collections at the natural history museum when I was a child

Did you know that one out of every five creatures on earth is a beetle?  There are over 400,000 known species and it’s estimated that there millions more to be identified.  The Book of Beetles, edited by Patrice Bouchard, published by the University of Chicago Press, presents 600 beetles in all their glory.  The beetle family, Coleoptera, includes all sorts of bugs, from the firefly to the aptly named Goliath beetle. 

Each entry features a distribution map, basic biology and information on the cultural significance of each beetle.  Crisp, beautiful photographs show the actual size of the beetles and enlargements show the exquisite details.

This book isn’t written for children, it’s for anyone who is interested in beetles, science, and the natural world.   It's a beautiful book, with care taken with the binding.  

The title page

Front of the book, under the jacket
Back of the book

I know not every child is going to choose browsing through such a book to a video game, but for some, at a certain age, a book like this can open eyes to the wonders and dramas of the natural world. It’s a good book to have around the house for just such a day.  And for me, it’s a reminder of the strange beauty that exists on this planet.  We are finding out more and more that all species are interconnected.  Developing a respect and understanding of insects is important in understanding the complex web of life.   

On the University of Chicago Press website, they say:
When renowned British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane was asked what could be inferred about God from a study of his works, Haldane replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”

You may find yourself with this same inordinate fondness, too, after reading this amazing book.  My young friend and I are both now hoping to one day see the Western banded glow worm and we’re keeping our eyes open for any interesting beetle that may scurry through our lives. 

Patrice Bouchard is research scientist and curator of Coleoptera at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids, and Nematodes. He is the coauthor of Family-Group Names in Coleoptera and the award-winning Tenebrionid Beetles of Australia. Bouchard serves on the editorial boards of The Canadian Entomologist, ZooKeys, and Zoological Bibliography.

The University of Chicago Press is printing a wide variety of great books.  You can read more about them here.

Thanks for reading my blog.  Keep your eyes open. There’s wonder all around.

Beautiful endpapers, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Gardener of Delight

Karishma, my 6 year old neighbor at Bridge Meadows, was delighted when The Little Gardner by Emily Hughes was published.  Hughes’ book Wild is one of Karishma’s favorite and she helped me review it here.  Now she has another favorite book.

The Little Gardner is different from Wild on the surface, but it still shows the affinity children have with nature and wild things. It features a very small boy who lives in a very big garden.  He works and works in the garden.  

It’s his home and from the garden he gets everything he needs.  He is friends with worms and snails.  He tries to tend to his beloved plants and they depend on him, but he can’t manage on his own. 

The one thing he seems to have the most success with is a flower, a magnificent zinnia, which isn’t something he can eat, but it brings him happiness and gives him hope.  It means everything to the little gardener.

A big girl notices this flower.  She lives on the edge of the garden and she sees that the garden needs help.  Inspired by the beauty of the zinnia, she begins to tend to the garden, too.  This help is the bit of magic that the garden needs to flourish.   

Children are often faced with tasks that are too difficult for them, no matter how hard they try.  This story subtly validates the experience of failure while keeping a sense of hope blooming.  I’m very impressed at how Hughes addresses the deep feelings of insecurity children have.  In The Little Gardner, she shows how the efforts little ones make, even if they don’t entirely succeed, inspire those bigger than they are. 

In her book Wild, Hughes brought out the idea that keeping a bit of wildness in your soul may not be such a bad thing.  In The Little Gardner, she shows how befriending nature and tending to a garden keeps hope in your heart. 

Karishma and I both loved this book.  The illustrations are of dense and we notice something new each time we read it.  We like that the girl who helps save the garden has dark skin.  As in Wild, Karishma likes to read the last line of the book first, and see how important a little gardener, or any little person can be.  It helps her navigate a sometimes confusing world.  It's also inspired her to water and talk to plants during this hot summer.   She can’t wait to see the next book by Emily Hughes.

This book was published by Flying Eye Books and is beautifully bound, with a flower printed in white on the red binding.  You can see more of their books here.  

Here’s a video about my community Bridge Meadows in Portland, Oregon, which is set up to help children get adopted out of foster care: 

Thanks for reading my blog.  Now go read a book – in a garden if at all possible.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Carnival Book

I love it when I find a book that pushes the book form in a new direction.  I love pop-up, accordion, lift-the-flap, die cut and all manner of interactive books.  I also love books that introduce different cultures.  Visit the Bhil Carnival by Subhash Amaliyar and Gita Wolf satisfy both loves and is a pure delight.    My pictures do it no justice, but you can get an idea of how much fun it is.

The book opens to a folded page.

We're in invited in.

When I read it to one of my 6 year old foster grandkids, she was amazed that so much story and so many illustrations could be found in the one fold out page.  It sparked conversation about when she went to a fair and helped her remember all the fun she had.  We also talked about the many ways stories can be presented.

This fold out ferris wheel pops out when you lift the top part of the page.

The distinct nature of the illustrations are bright and inviting.  Everyone is lit up like a carnival ride.

The exuberant art by Subhash Amaliyar is created in the style of the Bhil people of central India.  The Bhils live on the edge of the forest and work hard at farming, fishing, and gathering firewood.  The Bhagoria carnival takes place in July.  It’s a time to celebrate, connect with friends and family from other villages, and have fun.  Two children, Neela and Peela, are at the fair on their own for the first time.  Everything tempts them, they buy balloons, ice cream, and ride the ferris wheel. 

Tara Books has always been a stellar book publisher, introducing the world to the traditional art of India.  Many of their books use handmade papers, traditional printing techniques and hand sewn bindings. 

This book combines the features of a map, a pop-up and a secret story book, with the text in a little book in the corner of the fold-out adventure. 

You can read more about Tara books on a post I wrote on them here.  Their books are like art galleries that fit on the bookshelf.  You can visit their website here

This book is a delight in every way both for children and adults, for anyone who celebrates life, stories, and books.  Join the fun!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Pablo Neruda The Dreamer

July 12th is the birthday of Pablo Neruda, a poet I’ve loved as long as I can remember.  I don’t remember how I came to find his poetry.  Maybe it was from my 8th grade Spanish teacher.  Maybe it was from browsing the library’s poetry section. Back in the 1970s, they had a bi-lingual anthology of Neruda’s work that I checked out over and over again.  I think I made a few pencil marks in the book, faint reminders to my future self, and to any other library patron, that I was moved by an image. 

Now, each year, on his birthday, I try to buy a book of poetry.  Because I have a limited budget, I often use the library or buy used books.  But I want to support the writers somehow.  I especially want to support poetry because it’s such an under-appreciated art form.

This year, I decided to buy The Dreamer, by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Peter Sis.  It’s a fictionalized novel of Neruda’s childhood.  I say fictionalized but that seems limited – it’s an illuminated, poetic, intense, magical story of Neftali Ricardo Reyes Baoalto, the son of railroad manager, born in Parral, Chile, in 1904. 

His father was a stern man who could barely tolerate his son’s dreamy ways.  Neftali changed his name in his teens when he began publishing poetry he knew would embarrass his father.  Neruda became one of the most beloved and most read poets in the world.

Ryan’s book is about how Neftali grew up able to capture words and images and create poetry.  She was enchanted by a story Neruda told of a mysterious happening when he was a child.  He was playing alone along a fence of an abandoned house.  A child’s hand passed a toy through the hole in the fence to him.  He returned the gift with a marvelous pinecone he’d found deep in the forest.  Later, when he searched for the child, he found the house still abandoned, no sign of the child or any living being.  

Ryan says: “That anecdote captivated me and lead me to Neruda’s essays and memoirs, which led me to his forays into the rain forest and his trips to the ocean, and to the story of the swan….  Ultimately his poetry led me.  And I discovered The Book of Questions.  Neruda’s spirit of inquiry was contagious and inspired me to create the voice of poetry and the questions in my text.”

This book reads like narrative poetry.  The story slips in and out of dreams and imagery.  Young Neftali collected shells, seed pods, keys, beetles -- any little spark of a thing that he could manage to carry home.  Though he stuttered and had little success in communicating with his father, he collected words.  He copied new ones onto slips of paper and kept them in a drawer.  

“Neftali grabbed a book from the bedside table.  Even though he did not know all of the words, he read the ones he knew.  He loved the rhythm of certain words, and when he came to one of his favorites, he read it over and over again: locomotive, locomotive, locomotive.  In his mind it did not get stuck.  He heard the word as if he had said it out loud – perfectly
Neftali climbed out of bed, retrieved a pencil and paper, and copied the word.  
He folded the paper into a small square and put it in a dresser drawer already crammed with other words he’d written on tiny doubled over pieces of paper.  Then he crawled into bed.
Father’s question from yesterday found its way into his thoughts.  “Do you want to be a skinny weakling forever and amount to nothing?”
The words in the draw shuffled.  The drawer opened.  The small pieces of paper floated into the room and arranged and rearranged themselves into curious patterns above his head. 
Neftali sat up, rubbed his eyes, and looked around the room.  The words were no longer there.  He slid from the bed, tiptoed to the drawer and opened it.
All of the words were sleeping.”

The Dreamer’s layout and typography is poetic in its own right.  The illustrations by Peter Sis are breathtaking.  They have a whispery quality, like poetry’s insistent whisper in Neftali’s life. 

There are the usual full page illustrations, but Sis’s style influences the layout of the story itself.  The results are visual poems.

The never ending rainy season played out in words

“The words he had written wiggled off the page and escaped from the drawer.  The letters stacked themselves, one on top of the other.  Their towers reached higher and higher until they stood majestic and tall, surrounding Neftali in a city of promise.”  The following page: 

I’ve read this book several times, checked it out from the library often, just as I did as a teenager with Neruda’s poems.  His images strengthened me in times of struggle, made me notice what I would have otherwise overlooked.  Ryan illuminates how nature and words strengthened Neftali, despite his father’s relentless bullying.  There’s true redemptive magic in the world, but it’s often hidden in small gifts from nature, simple and complex at the same time.  Ryan weaves this story well and Sis expands it into infinity.

We are all that heaven, don't you think?  We hold lost stories.  Poetry helps us find them.

The Dreamer won the 2011 Pure Belpre Award for fiction. 

Pamela Munoz Ryan has written over thirty books for young people, from picture books for the very young to young adult novels, including the award-winning ESPERANZA RISING, BECOMING NAOMI LEÓN, RIDING FREEDOM, and PAINT THE WIND. She is the National Education Association’s Author recipient of the Civil and Human Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Award for Multicultural Literature, and is twice the recipient of the Willa Cather Literary Award for writing. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, and now lives in North San Diego County with her family.

Her latest book, Echoes, is the tale of an enchanted harmonica, which I’ve read, loved, and will review soon.  You can read more about her here.

Peter Sis is an illustrator and author of many gorgeous books.  He is a MacArthur Fellow, a Sibert Award winner, and three time Caldecott Honoree.  His picture books include Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, The Red Box, and The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain.  His most recent book is The Pilot and the Little Prince: The Life of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, another charming must-read. He lives in New York.  You can find out more about him here.

(There’s a great picture book about Pablo Neruda for children of all ages.  Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown, illustrated by Julie Paschkis.  Maria Popova of Brainpickings did a wonderful review of it and you can read about it here.)  

All of this celebration of Neruda prompted me to find my oldest copy of his work.  It’s $5.95 paperback that fell to pieces when I took it off my shelf.  

It’s been mine for about 30 years and was used when I got it.  I browsed through crumbling pages the color of graham crackers, that smelled of libraries, suitcases and dust.  I thought about how much Neruda treasured old things that bore the imprint of nature as it transforms us all to her bidding.  I think I’ll try to keep it another 30 years – along with my other Neruda books and my new copy of The Dreamer.   

Fill your life with meaningful words and images.  Thanks for reading my blog. 

Monday, July 6, 2015

Draw What You See: Benny Andrews

I got to hear the artist Benny Andrews speak in the 1980s in Memphis, when the Brooks Museum of Art had an exhibition of his work.  His art is so vibrant and unique, the elongated characters practically walked off the canvas, shook your hand, and told you their story.  

I’d first seen his drawings when I read books written by his brother Raymond Andrews.  Raymond was the author of a series of books about Black communities in central Georgia, and their close but dangerous relationship with the White community.  Benny's line work was amazing -- simple but expressive with a narrative all it's own.  

Benny and Raymond were from a family of 10.  Their father was a sharecropper but also a painter who sparked a creative fire in his children.  Benny told a story about his father painting practically everything in the house.  His mother had to hide her Sunday shoes to keep him from painting them.

Kathleen Benson, Project Director at the Museum of the City of New York. has written a wonderful picture book  Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews, (Clarion Books, 2015).

As a child, Benny drew his family members and the life around him.  He went on to become a major influence in American art.  

The book opens with a story of Benny as an adult teaching art to children who lived in camps in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  The story then moves back to his childhood.

“In grade school, Benny was always the class artist.  He copied the comics from the daily newspaper.  He drew the stories he heard on the radio and the stars in the movies he went to see in town on Saturdays. 
“After school, Benny worked carrying water to the laborers in the fields. At planting and harvest time, he didn’t go to school at all.  None of the black children in Plainview did, because they were needed on the farms.  Their school year was only about five months long.”

Though most of his friends left school to work in the fields full time, Benny longed to go to high school.  His mother prevailed upon the farm’s White boss to allow Benny to go. 

After high school, he joined the air force.  When he got out, he had the means to go to art school.  He’d traveled all over the world, learned new ways of looking at things, but, “Home was always in his heart.”  He was inspired by the people around him.  “With lots of practice, he became a master at capturing movement on the still canvas.”

I love that he emphasized that you draw what you see because his vision was uniquely his own.  He couldn't stay confined to absolute realism.  He saw things with imagination and style.  He saw the vibrancy of open spaces.  He added texture to his work by sticking paper and cloth on to the canvas.  

He was a “people’s painter.”  He taught.  He shared art.  He illustrated children’s books.  He opened doors for other underrepresented artists.    

 Draw What You See is a gorgeous book.  Without being didactic, the story makes it clear how difficult it’s been for Black people to get an education and to pursue art.  Benny wanted to make it easier for all people to become artists.

Unlike many pictures books about artists, this one uses Andrews’ own art work.  Kathleen Benson and Benny Andrews worked together before.  He illustrated her book John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement, which won the NCSS Carter Ge Woodson Award. 

This is a great picture book to introduce kids and aspiring artists to the work of Benny Andrews.  

It's a delight to look through no matter what your age.  It’s like having a little gallery of Andrews work at hand, work that welcomes you in to the beauty and mystery of his vision.  There’s excellent additional information and a time line of his life in the back pages.

If you’d like to learn more about Benny Andrew, The School Library Journal has an excellent interview with Kathleen Benson here

You can learn a bit about his brother, writer Raymond Andrews, and life in Plainview for their family here.

Follow your vision and thanks for reading my blog!