Dangerous Words: Reflections on Dave the Potter

I was at Kindling Words East earlier this year. KW is that wonderful organization that brings writers and illustrators and editors together to speak in community about the work we love. And I got to listen to Bryan Collier talk about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave–a book that earned him the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His presentation, weaving his own artist’s journey into the story of how the art for this book came to be, left many in the audience misty-eyed.

9780316107310The genius of the text of Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill, lies in its unwavering focus on the clay and the pots and the man who made them. Understandable to children, it nonetheless paints a picture of that most pernicious institution of American history–chattel slavery. Dave’s hands are dry and caked, his fingers chapped, the work unending, with the massive jar threatening to collapse, if not for the attention and skill of the man at the wheel. And yet, more than the massive pots, more than the life of the potter even, was a drive in Dave to add a final touch.

…before the jar
completely hardened,
Dave picked up a stick
and wrote to let us know
that he was here.

I wonder where
is all my relation–
friendship to all
and, every nation

This background from the New York Times review of the book:

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

The text of the book is clear and simple, while the art is rich, deep, and moody, opening up the history to spiritual dimensions, bringing into the reader’s heart the wide sweep of imagination that led Dave to reflect on his own scattered family and yet settle on friendship, extended far out of his reach, to “every nation.” What a tribute to the triumph of love over hate.

This book is an incredible dance of words and images–the words of a white scholar who has devoted the work of his life to the study of African American history, and the art of an African American illustrator who felt that history in his heart and brought it to the page.

Let ‘Er Buck: Congratulations, Vaunda Nelson!

“Ask any cowpoke…”

It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a fellowship of readers who get to see a gifted writer’s work in progress.  This cowpoke’ll tell you, boy howdy, did she ever learn from Vaunda Micheaux Nelson! Over several months, Vaun shared versions of Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion with our writing group, in which I am the long-distance member who Skypes across time-zones and borders.

We read and loved and questioned the text. Over and over. We quibbled over words and sequence, over where the story began, where it should end. We watched in admiration as the story grew stronger, took root, grew into itself as its subject grew into himself.

And in the end, here is that beautiful book. Let ‘Er Buck tells the story of African American cowboy George Fletcher. In brief, voiced text, it reveals layers of history, while raising questions about meanness and generosity, about competition and what it means to win.

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Interior page, Let ‘Er Buck. Image source:  http://vaundanelson.com

Look at this sample page. Young George’s playful determination is captured in the rousing illustration by 2018 Caldecott honoree, Gordon C. James.  Here are the words that point to this soaring image: “It was plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.”

The facing page, not shown here, picks up the rest of the text in an unpredictable manner, and seems to foreshadow what’s yet to come with the turn of the page. Those illustration choices raise questions of their own–why one action and not another? Grist for a whole discussion on picture book text and how emotional tone can be employed to invite illustration rather than to dictate its specifics.

More about Nelson’s beautiful new picture book on her beautiful new web site.

Illustrator Magic

I will confess it. I have illustrator envy.  As a picture book writer teaching other writers to write picture book text, I am painfully aware of knowing only half the form. So it’s always like seeing magic unpacked when I watch writer-illustrators in action.

Square+-+DebbieOhi-PhotoAnnieTruuvert-201807-flat500.jpgLast month at VCFA’s picture book workshop, Debbie Ridpath Ohi was a joy to behold. She was energetic, funny, honest, passionate about the picture book form, and more than generous in sharing her experience and knowledge with us.

And she was an empath! She managed to get at the heart and soul of what each student was trying to reach in every single manuscript, yet offered clear perspective on what was needed (or not needed) in each work in progress.

The questions flew. Light-bulb moments flared into being. We laughed a lot, talked a lot. It hardly felt like work to be digging this intensely into the form we all loved.

The day after I got home from residency, this arrived in the mail.

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What joy! My very own portrait, swirling yarn in the thought department, or maybe ideas, or both? I’ll treasure this gift.

And there will be more. Watch this space for a guest post from Debbie on thinking visually, the form of the picture book, and anything else that strikes her dancing visual and storytelling mind.

A Wordless Dance of a Picture Book

waltz-of-the-snowflakes-cover.jpgIf you’re a fan of wordless picture books, Elly MacKay’s Waltz of the Snowflakes lends itself to conversation with a child reader.

Or to a cozy turning of pages with a grownup page-turner and an attentive child listener, set to the  music of the titular waltz itself.

Layers of story, the gradually shifting emotions and the progression of color in the book give writers a way to access the illustrator mind–an essential kind of thinking if you want to write a picture book.

At Canada’s Edge, Trails of American History

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Review copy courtesy of Groundwood Books

The Africville of this heartfelt and beautiful picture book no longer exists as it did for 150 years just north of Halifax, Nova Scotia. That community, largely consisting of the descendants of Black Loyalists migrating north after the American Revolutionary War and Black Refugees fleeing American slavery, was torn down in the 1960s and its inhabitants forcibly relocated. Few know that Halifax itself was built with the labor of enslaved people.

Africville’s history is the background and context for Shauntay Grant‘s lovingly crafted picture book, illustrated with Eva Campbell’s lustrous oil and pastels on a textured canvas background. The graininess of the canvas gives the characters shadowy edges, blurring the borders between past and present. Imagining the community as it must have been many years ago, the young narrator leads the reader through details of landscape and sensory experience, from hill to field to pond and to the ocean’s shore. Infused with the tenderness of family and community, conveying the sense of stories kept alive, the book simultaneously embraces today’s child reader.

Africville may no longer be the thriving town it once was, the book suggests, but feel the stubborn love that kept its stories alive. There is much to this history. The residents of the community paid taxes but got no services. A railway extension cut through the village, destroying several homes. But wait. The story also includes an admission of racism, an apology rendered by the Mayor of Halifax in 2010, a replica of the orginal church built to house a museum, part of a compensation deal. Lyrical and healing, this picture book offers a window into a little-known past and suggests it holds deep relevance to the present.

What might America look like, I wonder, if healing from the past’s wounds could ever be made a priority? What would that mean for America’s children of every color? Compensation? Apology? What a concept!

A Textbook for the Study of Picture Books

Salisbury and StylesMore than halfway through 2018, I’m taking stock of my writing and teaching year. A novel draft half-done. A short story taking shape in my mind. Waiting for an editorial letter. Some travel. Some relaxation. It feels like a great balance.

The semester off from teaching stretches ahead, but I know it will rush past, so this is also a good time for a little advance planning.

I’ve agreed to teach the picture book semester when I return to Vermont College in January 2019, which reminds me that I need to decide on a common text, something that offers an overview of the form. I’ve looked at a few options and none of them is entirely satisfactory. Some are too market-driven, others offer formulaic paths to the intricacies of the form. One is brilliant, if dated–more on that in a minute.

And then there’s Children’s Picturebooks: the Art of Visual Storytelling by British academics Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles.

In my mind this book that offers a solid background to the picture book form wins hands down over the how-to manuals. While the historical section is arguably Eurocentric–where, for example, is Buddhist narrative art and Japanese scroll painting?– the account of contemporary books is optimistically international in scope, including American and British classics but also a number of titles that have gained recognition in Europe. My students will gain from thinking about how to extend this reading list by adding books in translation from Asia, South America, and Africa.

A chapter on how children respond to picture books offers an opportunity for questions and discussion. Material on the interplay of text and illustration will help writers find ways to decode the layers of meaning in picture books. Pictorial text, the widening of material deemed “suitable” for children, digital impact on art–these are all good places to begin a semester-long conversation about picture books.

I may still ask students to read the opening chapters of Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures and just skip the badly dated section on publication and production.  In all, however, Salisbury and Styles offer aspiring picture book writers a common vocabulary, a clear introduction to key concepts, and a contemporary framework for looking at this art form so central to children’s literature.

 

Nora Carpenter on Yoga Frog

Nora Carpenter author photo verticalI’m delighted to report that VCFA grad Nora Carpenter (my student!) has a new picture book out. A yoga book–with a frog character leading the way.

I asked Nora: Where did this book idea come from?

[Nora] When I first started teaching yoga to kids back in 2007, I searched the Fairfax County library system (I lived in Northern Virginia at the time) for a book that introduced a basic yoga flow in a way that was fun and simple without being simplistic. I found one kids’ yoga book, but it was written for older kids (10+), was incredibly wordy, and focused on minute details (“place your hand three inches from the end of the mat” kind of thing). There was no way it was going to help me teach preschool or young elementary children. Fast forward a few years to my time as a student in the MFA for Writing for Children and Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I decided to write the book I wish I’d been able to find in that library. My efforts produced a series of lyrical yoga poems, some of which I included in my graduate reading.

[Aside from Uma] I remember those poems. They were quite wonderful.

Yoga Frog clear cover.jpg[Nora] They caught the ear of someone who went on to work for Running Press, so RP reached out to me about writing a yoga book. It was one of those moments that was both super long in the making and also serendipitous. My poems didn’t get picked up, but if I hadn’t created them, I might never have gotten the opportunity to write Yoga Frog. Writing (and life) is weird like that.

[Uma] How much did it change along the way?

[Nora] My early story drafts featured a young frog who befriends Yoga Frog and learns from him. Then I reshaped it into a dialogue form. Then I changed the frame. At one point there were tween frogs in the book! In the end, the book worked best as nonfiction.

[Uma] What did writing this book teach you? A joyful moment? A moment of realization?

[Nora] It reminded me to have fun while writing. Creation is tough work, but at the end of the day, why do it unless you love it? I had so much fun writing this book! It also reminded me not to cling too tightly to my work and to experiment with different forms. I was really excited about the initial, story version of Yoga Frog, but my editor was like, “eh.” She liked it okay, but she really wanted the book to make it super simple for kids/beginners to learn basic poses. In those first drafts, the story had taken over. So I scrapped all those drafts and started again. Magic happens when you let yourself play.

[Uma] How did you decide on the combination of Sanskrit names and your own whimsical ones?

cat pose at Malaprops[Nora] I wanted interested readers to have access to the proper Sanskrit names, but in my teaching experience, more child-friendly terminology gets better results with young kids. For example, preschoolers can have a hard time conceptualizing a pose which literally translates as Half Lord of the Fishes. However, by calling it Caterpillar and giving it a specific kid-friendly action with sounds (searching for leaves to munch as you twist) it gives children a way to remember what they’re supposed to be doing in the pose. (Why are we twisting? Oh yeah, we’re looking for leaves.) Poses like Chair (Utkatasana) didn’t require a kid-yoga name because children have no problem imagining they’re sitting on an invisible chair or creating a chair shape with their bodies. At the end of the day, my goal was to help kids relate to the poses in the simplest, most fun way possible.

[Uma] I found your backmatter fascinating as well. If it’s hard to write books aimed at the very young, I cannot imagine what it takes to get a toddler into balasana. Talk to me about how you approach teaching yoga to very young children.

Tree pose at Malaprops[Nora] I make it as imaginative and interactive as I can. Adults sometimes don’t realize that kids’ yoga classes look quite a bit different than adult classes. Specifically with very young children, I’ve found that nothing engages them like imagination and pretend play. For instance, if I asked a group of toddlers to mimic me in Child’s pose (Balasana) and stay for five deep breaths, most of them are not going to stay in that position very long. They get bored, restless, and start rolling around or getting up. However, if, like I do in the book, I ask them to pretend to be hawks and fly down to protect their chicks for five breaths, almost every single toddler is able to do that. The pretend play element gives children something to focus on, whereas adults are better able to concentrate on the sound of their breath or counting. Plus, it’s just fun! The kids love flapping their wings and “flying” down to their nest. It gives them ownership of the movement so they’re not just doing something that a grown up asked them to do for reasons they don’t understand. Importantly, the results of kids and adult yoga are the same. While pretending to safeguard their chicks, kids’ bodies and breath are still slowing down as they relax into a resting, forward folding bend. That is the main function of Balasana, even in an adult class.

[Uma] You are so finely attuned to the sensibility of the young child, so essential in writing for the youngest readers and listeners. Maybe those poems will find a home someplace one of these years. Thank you, Nora!

[Nora] Thanks so much for having me, Uma!

Update: Nora Carpenter’s YA novel, The Edge of Anything, is slated for publication in Spring 2020. Here’s a preview summary:

Sage is a high school volleyball star desperate to find a way around her sudden medical disqualification. Lennon is a loner teen photographer with a guilty secret. As Sage’s carefully planned life unravels and Len’s past increasingly threatens her safety, the girls develop an unlikely bond, finding the strength to conquer their internal monsters in a place neither of them expected: each other. Set in the mountainous outskirts of Asheville, North Carolina, The Edgeof Anything explores the transformative power of friendship and how it can help you find yourself and the goodness in life, even when everything feels broken.

Congratulations, Nora!

Jacqueline Davies on Invisible Women Illustrators

The names we don’t mention matter as much as the names we do. Many of us know the feeling. A book conversation, and the names of the illustrious are among them. And after a while you start thinking, wait, something is wrong here. There are a lot of missing names.

Unknown.jpegIt’s especially ironic when the missing citations are of work that depends on its visibility, on being recognized on the page. It’s why the realization of writer Jacqueline Davies (The Boy Who Drew Birds, Nothing But Trouble) is worth paying attention to. She was at a lecture about illustration during which she had an experience, she says, similar to being infested by bed-bugs. An ickiness at an unpleasant realization:

About the presenter, she says:

He went to an elite art school. He studied. He learned. He graduated with distinction. He was consciously taught by the best of the best. And what he came away with after four years and $200,000—the knowledge he absorbed down to his cellular level—is that male artists matter and female artists hardly exist at all.

It’s an old story, right? Think about all the women missing from history as it’s typically been taught, their talents, when acknowledged, seen as inferior to that of the men they worked with.

Think of the missing women artists at MOMA.

The women whom science forgot.

But that was then, we might say. This is now. Where’s Wanda Gag on that list, and Beatrix Potter? Marla Frazee and Melissa Sweet and Suzy Lee?

If you made a list of gifted children’s book illustrators, who would be on it?

 

What? We’re Back to Hair Again?

waiyuuzeeIt’s a protein filament that grows from our follicles. It’s a defining characteristic of mammals. The part you see is considered to be, well, dead. Even so, whether you cover it or not, cut it or not, braid it or not–pick a spot in the world and hair (especially girls’ and women’s hair) has always been a matter of public opinion and social control. In my day it defined traditional and orderly versus contemporary and uncontrolled. And girls weren’t ever supposed to be uncontrolled, were they?

Now, it seems, American school administrators in Malden, Massachusetts, apparently newly inclined to worry about anything other than the Education Secretaryare weighing in once more. Maybe I’ll just go reread Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee by the wonderful Rita Williams-Garcia–and have a good cry. It used to be a charming childhood romp celebrating an African American girl’s hair. Now it seems to carry other, darker tones.