Process Talk: Kao Kalia Yang on Generous Memoir and the Dance of Picture Books

For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page.

Kao Kalia Yang

Kao Kalia Yang is a poet, teacher, speaker and the author of three picture books written from the depths of her own experience as a Hmong American woman. Her debut children’s book, A Map Into the World is an American Library Association Notable Book, a Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book, winner of the Northstar Best Illustrator Award, and winner of the 2020 Minnesota Book Award in Children’s Literature. 

I encountered Kalia’s work when I had the honor of judging the McKnight Artist Fellowship in Children’s Literature earlier this year.

I asked Kalia to talk to me about her picture books, including her new one, with this jewel of a jacket image:

[Uma] Kalia, what’s the relationship between poetry and picture books for you? 

Photo courtesy of Kao Kalia Yang

[Kalia] I come from a strong oral tradition. From a young age, I was taught that words must be able to write on memory. As well, the Hmong language is a tonal language; every breath I breathe into the world carries meaning. In this way, my use of language tends to live on the poetic possibilities–the way words look and the way they sound matter. For me, the art of making the picture books is much like a dance, an orchestration of my words with someone else’s images. I lead. I follow. We move together across the page. It is the flow and it is energy we create together that constitutes the final thing; it is not until the music ends, when we are breathless and free from the movement that the work is done. The very best picture books have always been like poetry to me. They make use of the air in my lungs and take me into a seamless performance between words and images. 

[Uma] The structure of your stories is fascinating to me. They turn unexpectedly, and the patterns they create recur in interesting and surprising ways. Can you talk about using the story cloth image in A Map into the World, say, or the beautiful connection of the child’s hands on the grandmother’s feet in The Most Beautiful Thing? How did these images fall into place for you and how did they become so integral to the story’s structure? 

[Kalia] In A Map into the World, it was very important to me that I write a story about a Hmong girl and her life in America–not the story so much of how she got here. I love the story cloth because it is such an integral part of the Hmong culture as a way of documenting the past and dreaming into the future–so I knew I wanted to name my protagonist Paj Ntaub. The story cloth, in my conversations with my own children, emerge as a kind of map for being–not just where to go but how to go. These aspects were important to me and I wanted to preserve them in the book because they are true to our lives but also represent so beautifully the experiences of first and second generation immigrants and refugee children. The things our parents carried are the things we used to become, make sense of, and build with in  the new places we call home. My hands as a child held and hugged my grandmother’s feet. The way her skin felt and the way my skin felt were the early contrasts in our relationship. I wanted to honor these facts and also enter into them fully for The Most Beautiful Thing. Much of my relationship to structure is built on my relationships to the people whose very lives have inspired and compelled me to tell their stories. My hands knew the feel of her feet more than my words, thus I needed the image to fulfill those long ago but persistent memories.

[Uma] “A melt in the freeze of their hearts.” What a beautiful line that is, and how it makes that family a single collective voice in The Shared Room. The conventions of western children’s books push us toward seeking a single protagonist. Here, this family, together, are the character. They move us precisely because they hurt and heal together. Your thoughts? 

[Kalia] From my very first book, I was interested in pushing the form of the memoir to be a more generous thing than it has traditionally been in American and western literature. Traditionally, the memoir is a form that belongs to the rich and famous, the illustrious individuals whose lives were of supposed interest. For me, that could never be what memoir was. So, in my very first book, I wrote The Latehomecomer and called it a family memoir. In this way, The Shared Room, continues the work that I started way back when I was still quite young, 22 years old. In a more particular war, the book is a story of grief. Grief is a shared experience in a family. To be true to that reality, I had to call on the single collective voice of the family.

[Uma] Every book teaches the writer something. What did you learn from writing each of these books?

[Kalia] A Map Into the World taught me how to stretch the seasons and make them longer, make them last on the page even as I and my characters acknowledge and grow with their passing. The Shared Room taught me how to carry grief as a member of a community without caving in, how to weep in the world of the picture book with my characters and my readers. The Most Beautiful Thing teaches me that every elder is a treasure trove of stories and to untangle the threads of one leads necessarily to the other. Grandma’s stories are not done. There are no happy endings in a story where a child dies, but there are many reasons to nurture the fire she’d lit with her life. All the things we love and have stored in our hearts will be for others, in their moments of need, maps and story cloths for the life that is still here. The books have taught me in process, they teach me still now that they are in the world and in the hands of readers.

[Uma] What sustains you in this work?

[Kalia] It is a great joy to write for children. It is fun to travel through the layers of experience and the debris of the years to unravel for myself the magic of my own childhood, to open myself to the experiences of my own children and the world they are now living and growing in. To write for children is to offer up my imagination and my heart to the little stories that form the bigness of the world. It is a gift I cherish. 

Thank you, Kalia, for sharing your unique and stirring perspective.

Art as Voice and Journey

Fevzi Yazici is an artist. Until his arrest, he was design director of Turkey’s now-closed Zaman newspaper. He is also a prisoner, one of 47 Turkish journalists in jail, according to a 2019 Committee to Protect Journalists report. This account from the Washington Post shows how his arrest and confinement have led him to create image after image, each evoking an emotional state, each reaching for something both within and transcending that state. Yazici’s drawings and writings from prison have occasionally been published as ‘Free Notes of a Prisoner.’

In a letter Yazici commented on the design of the courtroom where he stood trial:

“Against seven defendants, who had pens in their hands, in the courtroom, there were seven armed soldiers. You know security is very important. I did not have the chance to ask them but was curious who they were protecting from whom? I had no idea, maybe they were just part of the decoration.” 

Pen, ink, brushes, and cut paper give Thao Lam the voice of her wordless picture book. It is a journey of shifting perceptions. The delicacy of the cut-paper art makes for incredibly moving images and invites the eye to linger on the frames. Fear is conveyed through gesture and the directions of tall grasses, the uniformed soldiers crouching low to the ground, the dark skies and the grey palette. Meanwhile the ants embark on their own journey in the titular paper boat folded by the girl.

From Paper Boat by Thao Lam. Owlkids, 2020–seen in e-galley.

The artist’s mother’s story, imagined here in pictures, invites young readers into a heartstopping journey made possible by the exchange of a singular gift. The quest for freedom, and a lesson in kindness.

Election Day

I can’t stand it. Take the real world away. I need to read a picture book! Duck–why not? And really, Max is a nice guy, much like Joe Biden. And of course, The Donald himself was picture book fare in 2016 in a little gem that still shouts out its insights. Why were the grownups not paying attention?

Childhood Book Memory

When I saw this edition of The Little Mermaid from North South Books, with Han Christian Andersen’s text, illustration by Bernadette Watts, and translation ascribed to H.B. Paull, I was at once eight years old again. It felt as if this was the very book I once owned and loved until it fell into tatters. It was, as I remember it, given to me by a relative who traveled to England and picked it out for me, feeling that it was time for me to read something other than Enid Blyton. I read it end to end and backwards, hundreds of times. It taught me that a book could make a person cry.

It turns out that childhood memories, no matter how vivid, may be notoriously unreliable. According to researcher Kimberley Wade, that’s especially true…

If you’re the sort of person who can read a book and become so highly absorbed that you no longer notice what’s going on around you… you may be more prone to memory distortion.

Well, that would be me. It was certainly me, back when I was eight. So who knows? Was it this edition? I can remember the palette, the blue-green of the water, the swish of the mermaid tail. But I can find no details of a book that looked like this, published around the time I was eight. I can’t exactly pull up contextual image of place that would nail that memory. It’s fuzzy, like a page on which water has spilled.

What about the words? I have gone back and read other Andersen stories since then. I read a few translations of Thumbelina including one by Paull, when I was preparing to write The Girl of the Wish Garden in response to Nasrin Khosravi’s fragile, beautiful paintings. But never The Little Mermaid. It was as if I didn’t want to touch that early memory of literacy, opting instead to keep it obscured, maybe protected, for decades.

Now, looking at those words, I felt as if a curtain had gone up and the light shone again on my young self. I think words go into a special place in memory. The farther back you store them, the more secure they remain. From my vault, as I read the first page of the North South edition, the opening words emerged, untarnished:

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep, so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.

At eight, or however old I was, living in India, I did not know what a cornflower was, and I was baffled about fathoms and cables. I’d seen a church or two, so I got that part. But I can still remember those words and how they invited me to turn the page. And I can remember that although the sorrow and the yearning were far beyond my understanding, they touched me in ways at once thrilling and frightening. And the pure injustice of the story? The unfairness to a girl, at once unlike and like every girl? I know I got that part.

So I certainly read the Paull translation, in a book with a blue-washed cover and gauzy images. And it certainly shaped my writing soul. As memories go, that will have to suffice.

The Genius of Book Design

First, a jacket image–ta da! Threads of Peace is finally becoming a reality!

Studying the first pass proofs of a forthcoming book is always a humbling experience. This time, it’s led me to questions about design in nonfiction books.

As a word-shuffler, I know very little about such things, so while I pondered questions of design elements and the use of archival photos, I turned to this beautiful memoir by Ashley Bryan from Caitlyn Dlouhy Books/Atheneum.

Look at this spread, with the sketches working as shadow and light.

The text on these pages is clear and direct, the artist’s voice speaking his truth and also speaking the truth about an iconic period of history from a much needed perspective.

And for a completely amazing design choice, look what we see on the facing page when the story loops back in the end to an anecdote about the children Ashley drew with in a vacant lot in Boston.

All that white space gives the reader space to breathe, to reflect, to absorb the impact of this moving story about the shaping of a generous life.

Guest Post: Meera Sriram on A Gift for Amma

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India, by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa, is out just this month from Barefoot Books. Just when I found myself getting used to staying put in one place, this book arrived to tug at my memories of India. Cabassa’s art conjures the deep, vivid palette of the region and the convoluted silhouettes of a south Indian cityscape. And then there’s the progression of colors in the concept-grounded text–all designed to evoke that visceral feeling of a vibrant, living city.

I asked Meera to tell me more about how she’d grown this book. Here’s what she said:

Just to offer context, in this story, a little girl explores many colorful items at a bustling street market in India while trying to pick a special gift for her mother. It is illustrated by Barcelona-based artist Mariona Cabassa and the setting is inspired by the vibrant street life in Chennai, the city in southern India where I grew up.

A book on colors set in India is almost like a low hanging fruit. So, I knew I had to push myself to make it fresh. Since it’s a colors concept book at its core, my target audience sort of fell in place. And considering their age group (around 3-8 years), I had two important aspects in mind: read-aloud and re-readability.

Lyrical and rhythmic text with fun sounds, rich vocabulary, and active verbs helped upgrade the read-aloud factor of the narrative. I “sang” every couplet (to a beat) as I wrote, to make sure it followed the rhythm. And I read the full manuscript aloud countless times! Introducing onomatopoeic words (achoo, ding-a-ling, clink ) paved way for a sensory experience and prompted me to include smells, taste words and textures. For richness, it was a light bulb moment that elevated the manuscript – I was using culturally iconic items to show color when it occurred to me that many of them were also color descriptors. Like saffron, vermillion, terracotta, and indigo – they do double duty as color shades and culturally relevant items. This gave the colors concept a fresh makeover. Lastly, I tried to “pull” readers into the chaos on the streets by including action on every spread – goats shoving past, rickshaw pedaling, peppers spilling, drums beating, birds pecking, buffalo stomping, and so much more. In the end, it was all about word choice – fun, strong, rich, active vocabulary – for sparse text to be able to grab attention, engage senses, and move the story forward.

At some point, I also introduced a traditional story arc celebrating a child’s love for her mother. This allowed for hook, tension, and a surprise ending in the narrative, all of which helped make it a story that young kids would hopefully want to go back to. Back matter for deeper understanding also boosts re-readability. More than anything, Mariona’s dynamic illustrations definitely give children enough reason to keep going back to the book.

It might seem like I knew exactly how to go about the narrative, however, that’s not true at all. The narrative only grew richer with many, many revisions, plenty of mistakes, lots of guidance from critique partners, and several insightful rejections. Picture book writing is fascinating because it really does take a village, and a very long time, to tell half of a story in a few hundred words. Every word counts they say, and they don’t say it for nothing.

Thanks, Meera! May we move ahead someday to a new tomorrow when cities can bustle once more.

Reindeer, Red Riding Hood and the Nature of Decomposition

When lightning killed 323 reindeer in a remote region of Norway, the park left them in place where they’d fallen, allowed decomposition to set in, so scientists could study it and see how it might change the arctic tundra ecosystem. One element of the Guardian article surprised me, and that was the use of the term, “landscape of fear.” The researchers talked about how solemn it felt to approach a place where so many lives had been snuffed out all at once. 

Excerpt: 

Over the years scientists observed the bloated, fly-infested bodies turn into dry skeletons. The latest paper, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in June, looked at the creation of a “landscape of fear”, as top predators such as wolverines, golden eagles and arctic foxes took advantage of the carrion.

But then, another surprise. Fear opened up to opportunity for other lives: first scavenger birds, then rodents, then insect-eaters–meadow pipit, northern wheatear, common reed bunting, bluethroat and lapland bunting.

And I loved the term they used for the insects, such as blowfly, that came to life on the carrion. A “bloom” of arthropods.

We don’t like to see rotting carcasses, do we? And yet, there are questions to be pondered in this event. What’s to be gained from letting nature take its course? What have we lost in a couple of centuries of hiding death away, refusing to see what we might learn from it?

In a way, this picture book about rewilding raises similar questions. It reverses the roles of humans and wild animals in a humorous fracturing of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. As in the field of dead reindeer, there’s a very real moment of fear, and it’s equally well earned.

The delightful resolution lies, as it should, in human hands. Wouldn’t it be great if we humans could step up as the child in this story does? If we could only do what’s necessary? Too me, it’s particularly gratifying that the joy of Grey’s book lies in her deliberately “de-composing” an old fairy tale trope, and then re-composing it to create newly possible realities. Slender ones, but still, blooms of possibility.

There may be no new stories, but it’s past time to begin decomposing the old ones.

What a Book Can Hold: Kyo Maclear’s Picture Book Biography of Gyo Fujikawa

A couple of months ago, I posted about Gyo Fujikawa’s work and how her bright, inclusive books, created all the way back in 1963, contained a subtle call to the world to become kinder and better, to treat all children alike.

Now Kyo Maclear‘s beautiful picture book biography of Gyo Fujikawa offers another loving tribute to an artist who was far ahead of her own time.

Consider the title. It Began With a Page: How Gyo Fujikawa Drew the Way.

It began with a page. That is how the book opens as well:

Look to the right and the eye falls on little Gyo, five years old in 1913 and sketching away as her mother writes a poem, rendered in sweet bare-toed concentration by illustrator Julie Morstad.

It’s a dual kind of looking–back in time to the story’s chronology, yet capturing the  immediacy of the child’s reaction to the events of her life. Yet somehow, in the space between image and word, the book manages to leap forward as well, showing by example how art can heal and illuminate. At the same time, it recognizes the family’s aspirations and disappointments and the enormous tragedy of the prison camps that incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II.

And then it shows us who that child grew into, and what imagination looks like:

At the library and bookshop, it was the same old stories–mothers in aprons and fathers with pipes and a world of only white children.

Gyo knew a book could hold more and do more.

It Began With a Page is a rich evocation of a life that offers direction in our own challenging present and reminds us that equality remains an urgent cause. As Maclear puts it:

…babies cannot wait.

Going Forward: What Else is There?

From Lahore, Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid writes on behalf of hope for humankind.

None of us is a native of the place we call home. And none of us is a native to this moment in time. We are not native to the instant, already gone, when this sentence began to be written, nor to the instant, also gone, when it began to be read, nor even to this moment, now, which we enter for the first time and which slips away, has slipped away, is irrevocably lost, except from memory.

Humans have always moved, Hamid writes, so why are we now divided into natives and migrants, and why must there always be a struggle for supremacy? Why do we have to accept a world of walls and barriers? Why must we buy the false notion that we can and should return to a better past?

Hamid’s eloquent essay reminds me for some reason of the E.E.Cummings poem, pity this busy monster, manunkind. Only I’m fairly certain the good universe next door is really our own “world of made.”

Of course, you know there’s a picture book for every existential dilemma known to humankind (or humanindifferent, for that matter) so here’s one particularly suited to our own precious, fleeting instant.

Little Hummingbird.jpeg

The great forest is on fire. Everyone is terrified, panicked, fleeing. All but hummingbird, who flies back and forth to the stream, bringing a drop of water back in her beak with every trip.

IMG_3201.jpg

This is simple enough for a child to understand, so what’s wrong with us?

Clear, sparse text with bold illustrations in black, white, and red, by Haida artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. An afterword from Wangari Maathai underscores the message. Do what you can. What else is there?

From Greystone Books.

 

Welcoming Vaunda, Remembering Sylvester

Vaunda Micheaux Nelson recently launched her new blog, The Book Itch, with a tribute to William Steig.

SylvesterHere’s a snippet:

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Winner of the 1970 Caldecott Medal, it was and remains truly deserving. In my 27 years as a children’s librarian, I shared it with thousands of story-time kids.

Oh, Sylvester! How many ways do I love that book? When my son was in pre-school, we borrowed a copy from the library, and then we borrowed it again, and yet again. On the fourth borrowing, it was clearly time to buy the book. Magic, coincidence, the dangers lurking in the world, the nature of happiness, the endurance of love–you could talk for hours about what this book means, all the possible things it could mean.

And now Sylvester is 50 years old! Thank you, Vaunda Nelson, for becoming an unlikely blogger and for reminding me of this jewel of a book.

More: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble was banned in 1977 because of the policemen (and others, but never mind that) being depicted as pigs.

steig-sylvesterStill more: Julie Paschkis remembers the beautiful picnic scene in Sylvester in her Books Around the Table post on summertime picnics. Look at those loving hooves resting on Sylvester’s back, and could anyone bring more purely loving parents to life in strokes of a brush and pen?