Remember Corduroy, the bear who lost a button and found a friend? When Don Freeman, creator of the much-beloved little bear, died in 1978, his wife, Lydia worked with his former editor on a book Don had left unfinished: The Sparrows of Stonehenge. The project never made it to press, but Don’s son Roy Freeman picked up the work and it’s in print now. It’s a time-capsule of sorts, offering a misty, somewhat haunting view into a picture book creator’s mind. There’s the allure of the henge itself, of course, standing in its green Wiltshire meadowscape, raising questions in the minds of viewers.
The delight of this book from out of the past lies in the fact that it does one thing that picture books do better than any other art form. That is to say, it endows the world’s smallest denizens with the ability to answer our biggest questions. We turn to sparrows in this book, starting with Farrow the First, the ancestral sparrow whose descendants still swoop and chirp around the stones.
The collective third person viewpoint of the sparrow family drives the story, which includes the lovely little conceit that the sparrows directed the building of the henge. They even name it. If this places us present-day humans in the peripheral role of slightly confused witnesses to history, while small avian participants sing their hearts out—well, really, that’s not so far from the truth.
And if it all feels as if it’s come straight out of a sketchbook, it has. Of interest to Freeman fans and children’s lit enthusiasts.
[Uma] You began this part of your reply to me with a question: Where do stories go when no one reads them? Where did this one go and what happened when you sent it out into the world?
[Mark] When I sent Kiyoshi’s Walk to publishers, no one wanted it. Difficulties, people say, make you stronger. Tell someone that when they’re in the middle of a difficulty. I didn’t touch the story for several years.
[Uma] But you also said there was a story before the story. So what was that?
[Mark] The arc of the writing of the story actually began before I wrote the story. Elements from my life that made their way into Kiyoshi’s Walk had been brewing for years.
The story begins with a reference to “the wise poet Eto.” When I was in college, I was searching for a mentor, a wise poet, someone like Eto. I remember the black and white photo of the poet, Robert Kelly, on the back cover of one of his books. He was walking out of a misty forest, his long beard flowing. At poetry readings, his voice was deep. I remember thinking of it as a river.
The grandson Kiyoshi is a central character in the story. Can writing spring from unknown desires? I wrote Kiyoshi’s Walk, a story that’s about a child learning how to write poetry and also about the relationship of a grandfather and grandson, years before Jesadha, my first grandchild, was born. Was I delving into and exploring a relationship I wish I had? Kiyoshi’s Walk is, among other things, a love story, a story about the love of a grandparent and a grandchild. Jesadha is now the center of my life. He makes me feel alive.
[Uma] And there’s no Basho now. No boats. How did that happen?
[Mark] Eventually, the story was picked up by Cheryl Klein at Lee & Low. Cheryl, a great editor, can make you see things in a different way. What, she wondered, would the book be like if it took place not in 17th century Japan but our contemporary world? She also discovered, during an editorial meeting, that Basho never had any children, let alone a grandchild.
I tried a new draft, placing the story in a contemporary city rather than in rural Japan. I thought about and tinkered with the two versions, showed them to Mary Lee and to my friend and colleague Uma…
[Uma] That would be me.
[Mark] …who said I should give the modern version a try. I sent both versions to Cheryl.
I asked her, “Would you just pick one of them for me?”
By the time I had finished the “final” draft, there was no Basho, no river in Japan, no paper boats sailing towards the stars. Yet draft after draft, image after image, I still felt that the first story was there, a shadow story informing the versions. Now the story is contemporary and takes place in a small American city.
[Uma] Or a Canadian one–let’s say it looks like somewhere in exurban North America. But then the story changed some more?
[Mark] The story didn’t go where I had originally planned. It took on more of a life of its own, with the help of others. There were surprises in the writing. During the process I lived in ambiguity and uncertainty, which is an apt description of my creative act and its long arc.
After the book is published the arc continues.
When I read the published book out loud, when others read it, when children look at the illustrations, the story continues. What I wrote in a room by myself becomes a performance piece. It becomes interactive, child and adult sharing, each of them weaving the story, in some way, into their life.
[Uma] That’s the beauty of the picture book! Congratulations, Mark, on a joyful, lovingly crafted book.
Happy Book Birthday to Mark Karlins on Lee and Low’s release of Mark’s picture book, Kiyoshi’s Walk, illustrated by Nicole Wong. I sent Mark a couple of meandering questions, since I was lucky enough to stroll alongside during part of this book’s journey. Here’s our conversation.
[Uma] I’ve been thinking about the arcs of writing projects—how some take odd turns, or become something entirely different from what we imagine they’re going to be. Will you talk about the arc of this project—how it came to you, how it changed, and some of its unexpected turns?
[Mark] I started by not knowing where I was going.
Nine years ago I wrote a few words and then a few more. I was on another of the meandering walks I call writing. After a few misturns and a patch of muddy ground, I found myself in a seventeenth century Japanese forest. The poet and wanderer Basho and his grandson, Kiyoshi, were beside me.
“Where do poems come from?” Kiyoshi asked.
“Come,” said Basho, “let’s walk.”
They walked past deer, birds, cottages with windows lit by kerosene lanterns. Basho wrote. Kiyoshi wrote. Their poems were haiku that came from what we now call Mindfulness. They saw clearly, they listened, they let what was in their hearts join with what was in the world. Their poems blossomed.
[Uma] And then you wrote to me that they folded their poems into paper boats and set them on the water.
[Mark] Each boat was the length of a small child’s hand. On an inside wall of the boats, a poem. The river was dark. The sky was dense with stars.
[Uma] That’s poetry right there. And now can we go back to the long arc?
[Mark] The long arc of my writing depends upon images.
I’ve always been attracted by images. They speak to me deeply, like lampposts lighting the way. During the writing of Kiyoshi’s Walk, the boats were central, radiant images that kept me writing.
There were also other images in the writing of the story. A deep pond sounded with frogs. A pair of cranes appeared. When I was stuck at one point, I opened an art book and found what I was convinced would help lead the story in the direction it needed to go:
In my book, Basho and Kiyoshi would hang their poems in spring blossoming trees. The poems would also be boats. Was this too much? Was I falling in love with images and not giving the story its proper structure? After all, a satisfactory structure is one of the pleasures of reading a picture book.
[Uma] But your story didn’t embrace structure readily, is that right?
[Mark] For years the story drifted—a new line written here, another line taken out there. I read the story over and over—to my wife (my longtime and always first reader), to myself, at a night of faculty readings at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I wrote haiku under the personas of Basho and Kiyoshi. I wrote haiku for myself. I read about poetry and Japan. I wondered why I was so attracted to this story.
[Uma] Kiyoshi’s obviously still in the book, but there’s no Basho present now, and the setting has changed. Yet that orginal vision of finding poetry in everyday observations has found itself. In a starred review Kirkus described the book as “a meditative walk,” saying it “unleashes the power of poetry.”
More soon from Mark about the publishing journey of this beautiful picture book.
Meera Sriram and Praba Ram are the co-authors of a loving picture book portrait of a woman in a cowherding community in western India and the majestic large cats that share her world. I asked Meera to talk about the writing process with this book, as it compares to the writing of fiction. Here’s what she wrote:
Almost a decade ago, my first book for children was released in India, titled Dinaben and the Lions of Gir. I had co-authored the book, which follows the lives of Maldharis, a dairy farming community living in the interior of the Gir forest in western India.
Fast forward, and my debut picture book in the U.S came out in March last year. The Yellow Suitcase is a story about the emotional trajectory of a little girl, Asha, who travels with her family from the U.S to India to mourn the loss of her grandmother.
When Uma prompted me to compare and contrast the writing process that went into the two projects, I was excited to analyze them because, while Dinaben and the Lions of Gir is creative non-fiction, The Yellow Suitcase is fiction based on real-life incidents.
Looking back, I can see that the ideas for both stories sprouted from personal experiences. Raising kids in the U.S where we bought dairy products off shelves got us wondering if our kids knew where milk, yogurt, and butter really came from. This concern was magnified because, growing up in India, we often watched cows milked on the street and mothers turn milk into curds and butter. It was this fragment of thought that kicked off our research and later introduced us to Maldharis and their incredible forest ecosystem. Similarly, Asha’s grief story was inspired by my family’s loss, when my kids lost their first grandparent in India. Interestingly, whether we write fiction or non-fiction, very often we draw inspiration from our own experiences.
While both books were written for the picture book format, their target age groups fell into different bands within the spectrum. Real-life photographs corroborated facts in Dinaben and Meera Sethi’s beautiful art added authentic details to the fiction in The Yellow Suitcase. The biggest challenge was driving home the takeaway – presenting environmental conservation to preschoolers was as tricky as fleshing out grief stages for elementary kids.
In Dinaben, we wanted to talk about a forest dwelling community and the endangered Asiatic lion in a way that will inspire little kids to think about our forests. A fiction toolkit greatly helped with this. Creating a main character, Dinaben, her family that milked cows and churned butter, and a setting that included a quiet household in the woods where the lions roamed, offered an engaging fictional framework. And what enabled telling Asha’s story? My family’s trip from California to India in 2010, all the emotions we share as people, and the truth that death is inevitable and universal.
Well, sometimes storytelling helps us present facts and at other times facts help tell a story.
But it doesn’t do any good to get into a pickle about what’s going on in the natural world. We still need to put one foot in front of the other. We need to try to deal with the present, as grim an outcome of past mistakes as it might appear to be. Maybe we can treat it instead as a kind of seed of what we’re trying to become.
When you’re looking for hope, open a picture book. Bird Count by Susan Edwards Richmond documents the counting of birds by a young girl learning to be a citizen scientist in her communty. The tally, which grows down the side of each spread in a clever design feature, depends on young Ava’s sharp eyes and ears, both of which she puts to good use. At least two other people need to hear or see each bird, and no bird should be counted twice. Young readers not only learn how the annual Audubon Bird Count works but also get to identify a nice array of birds.
An additional touch in Stephanie Fizer Coleman’s digital illustrations is that both Ava and Mom are brown-skinned, while Big Al, their team leader, is identifiably white with a weathered face and a carroty beard.
So there. Count those birds. Plant a garden. Compost. Do what we can do and write the stories that matter.
Frog, Mouse and a bunch of homeless animals figure in this woodland setting that easily stands in for anybody’s everyplace. In a world that increasingly feels devoid of welcome and kindness and the shared building of community, editor and writer Patricia Hegarty‘s warm comfort tale offers a simple code that lies at the heart of all peacemaking.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
Artist Alvaro Enciso has made it his goal to remember and honor the lives of the thousands of migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert, trying to cross into the United States, trying to get to a new life. Every week, Enciso goes out with a group of volunteers from the Tucson Samaritans to place crosses at the exact location where the remains were found.
This is the narrative behind a brief Arizona Public Media documentary, Where Dreams Die. The question is, if we’re to be honest, if it were any of us, if our lives and our children’s lives were at risk, would we care about borders or would we cross them recklessly, wherever we could? And there are other factors at play. With the immediate reality of climate change, there will only be more refugees. They will not care about borders and how can we, in conscience, blame them?
I wish we lived in a time when we didn’t need to write and publish books for children about these horrors visited upon children. But since we live in this dreadful reality, I’m grateful for books like Diane de Anda‘s beautiful Mango Moon.
There’s a full moon out tonight and Maricela misses her father. He’s been taken away from the family, and he’s facing deportation. The hole in the family and the community is made palpable through simple, text and through Cornelison’s tender illustrations. The book ends on a note of hope that comes, not from reality (real life, alas, is all about detention and razor-wire). Rather it comes from a child’s imaginings and from the moon, symbolically helping Maricela to hold her Papi in her heart.
For more children’s books on families crossing at the US-Mexico border, check out this list at Erin Boyle’s Reading My Tea Leaves blog.
The idealization of reality has long been a technique available to children’s writers and illustrators. When the world spins in dangerous directions and you try to remedy that in a book for adults, you run the risk of seeming either disingenuous or naive. But when your audience is still tender and young, sorting that world out, learning to live in it, it seems only fair to right its wrongs on the page, to show what might be. In the end, we may hope, those signposts to the very young can imbue them with the energy to nudge that world in a kinder, better direction.
No one knew this like Gyo Fujikawa. Born in 1908 to Japanese immigrant parents, she studied at the Chouinard Art Institute, today the California Institute of the Arts. She wrote and/or illustrated over 50 picture books. She also designed promotional materials for Disney and six United States postage stamps.
In 1941, she was sent to New York, to work in Disney’s studios there; in early 1942, her parents and brother, along with many Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, were sent to internment camps. The Fujikawas were sent to the Santa Anita racetrack, where they lived in horse stalls, and then to a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Fujikawa visited them there and found what she described as “barbed wire and a sentry walking around the wall with a bayonet.”
Here is the first book that Fujikawa both wrote and illustrated:
The babies are lovingly drawn, capturing the expressive emotions of the very young–and there’s more.
This little board book exemplifies something that was subtly characteristic of Fujikawa’s art. She didn’t beat you over the head with it, but Gyo Fujikawa was perhaps the very first American illustrator to render a diverse array of children in her books.
Here, she seems to be saying, is an Asian child, a child with ginger hair, a black child. Here they are, all children, doing what children do, being in the world the way all children are.
Like the best picture books, there’s a huge takeaway from this one that isn’t spelled out in the words. It’s there in the images without explanation and it’s all the more powerful for that lightness of touch.
This is the way the world ought to work, the book seems to be saying with quiet authority. In these pages, this is how it is. So here, toddler whose eyes fall upon these pictures, put that into your heart. Carry it out into the real and precious world you will inhabit.