Tuesday, August 18, 2009

tales from the book trail

I've spent so much time producing my wee little book that the idea of actually reading it to children and selling it was a not on the tip of my tongue. Before I'd even finished redoing some of the art (originally done back in 2002) I had an invitation to Stories in the Garden at the Friends School of Portland.

I picked the very last date available so I could get my book printed in time. As an illustrator for almost 30 years, I'm used to meeting deadlines, at the last moment possible. Unfortunately, the printer's binding machine busted and I discovered the night before my reading that I'd be empty-handed. But, islanders are nothing if not resourceful. I decided to bring my book dummies (I made several) and read my unbound proof, while talking about the making of a book. Kids always want to know how and why things are done. We all do, but they are best at asking the questions that adults are often reluctant to. Who wants to look dumb asking "what's a dummy?"

I made a tiny pencil dummy in the Picture Book class I took at Maine College of Art with Judy LaBrasca. I highly recommend this course. So many of us carry around a story in our heads: this class gets it on paper, and turning the pages of a mock-up is a necessary step in making it all tangible. After doing two in class, I did another in the weeks after it was over. Then I decided to go whole hog. I wanted to get into the children's book market at the time, but had only editorial and corporate clients. I methodically did all the art and printed my own copies on my studio printer. Had them bound by a bookmaker in Portland.
My vintage dummy is faded (on left) compared to my brand new shiny proof(in the bottom right corner.)

Located on Mackworth Island, the Friends School is an independent Quaker day school for children in grades K - 8 that promotes inquiry, reflection, and action. The reflection piece is something too often missing in educational models. So much emphasis on task-oriented success and not enough on the idle moments to process all that's going on around children these days. As I drove across the causeway to the island, my jitters at being not ready for Prime Time blew out the window. I would be sharing my book for the first time on an island among Friends. Perfect!

I felt at home right away.

The weather was buggy, but not raining, a rare moment in an otherwise wet July. My audience was attentive, curious, and engaged. After the reading, I invited the kids to draw with the pastels and papers I brought. This is usually the best part of any interaction, as children have no hesitations around art materials. They grab, and they create. Just stand back in awe. Love the graphic qualities of this drawing by a young artist in synch with her palette.

And this artist made a bold statement about her favorite season and all that comes with it.

This artist really got into the materials. She was ushered to the bathroom, wearing as much pastel as she put on paper. Such gusto comes in handy in all walks of life.

I love the emphatic energy of her marks, but she didn't like her drawing, leaving it behind. How do kids become their own severe critics? Sadly, we model for them, by being a culture of perfection and success, forgetting the happy process of getting messy, getting lost, getting to have fun just making something.

I tell my students to keep their unfavorite pieces, to make mistakes faster. Leonardo di Vinci said, "Art is never finished, only abandoned." I need this lesson, one who left a book idea idling in a drawer for about 6 years, after only a mere 10 rejections from publishers!

My next reading opportunity was home base: the Peaks Island branch library. My literary guides and librarians Priscilla Webster and Roseanne Walsh helped pull together a great gathering on an evening once again threatening to rain. This time, I had books.

Then, the power went out.

Only for a few minutes.

Once again, the better part of the evening was engaging with children whose sparks have been lit. I'd made some blank dummy books for children to make their own stories to bring home. Stand back, they know what to create. The younger ones dictated their story to a parent, and dove into the pastels with a vengeance. One young artist crumbled a pastel stub in his fingers, sifting the color onto the page. Another boy, Jameson, wrote a story about Ghostie, an imaginary friend (a ghost) who keeps getting into trouble, and almost dying AGAIN! It was hysterical. His cousin, Parker, wrote about his favorite activities on the island, drawing a fantastic bonfire. S'mores, anybody?

I realized I need to build in the time to read their stories before the end. Everyone has one, and sharing them brings everybody onto the same page of making a book.

Don't know why I sat on mine for so long, but now that it's out, I'm lovin' it. It is now available at my favorite ferry stop, Casco Bay Lines.

So get on board!

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