Jon Klassen

Windows to the Feline Soul

Because they are nocturnal hunters, cats need to be able to soak up any available bit of light, and so have evolved the ability to open their pupils crazy-wide. Then when the sun is out they go the other way, constricting the openings down to razor-thin slits. The full range conveys mood and attitude very discretely; if you’ve ever had or lived with a feline, you’ve probably become practiced at reading between the lines.

Mike Malbrough’s cat Marigold, in his picture book debut MARIGOLD BAKES A CAKE, is a cat with a lot of big feelings — all of which are telegraphed by his delightful eyes.

To the degree that eyes are the window to the soul, Marigold’s soul hangs out in all its glory — which is a huge part of his charm as he struggles with repeated disruptions to his happy-place activity of baking elaborate cakes.

 

Marigold’s soul is full of passion. But his real world counterparts rarely display the range of emotion that he does: irritation, frustration, joy, panic, delight. He would not be a good poker player.

That Marlbrough has rendered his eyes to look more human than cat-like is a liberty well taken: they and the feelings driving them are totally relatable.

Marigold got me thinking about other great picture book eyes too: I’ve always been in awe of the volumes of unspoken and subconscious goings on in Jon Klassen’s HAT trilogy characters’ understated eyes. If you have a minute, weigh in: what are some of your favorite picture book eyes?

Meanwhile, prepare to meet the fabulous Marigold (and his eyes) in Mike Malbrough‘s MARIGOLD BAKES A CAKE (Philomel) on July 18. (Fans of cats and/or baking can follow Marigold on twitter too @TheRealMarigold.)

Holey Books!

 

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yellow bellied sapsucker photo by Cameron Rognan @ allaboutbirds.org

Recently I’ve been reading about sapsuckers and — given their feeding habits — this naturally got me to thinking about HOLES. Children’s books about holes (and digging them) have long had appeal. And there have been some great ones.

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Ruth Krauss nailed it with the line “a hole is to dig”: holes, like so many things kids make when they play (block buildings, fairy houses, etc.) are totally transient. In addition, they are completely immaterial (a hole is made of nothing, really, but space or air). If you spend all this time making something that won’t last, and that thing is really, essentially nothing, then it stands to reason that the joy of it is less in the product than in the process itself: digging or poking or even pecking.

Books with pages that actually have holes have great appeal too. And why not? What little kid doesn’t like to stick her fingers into them? The first book with holes that always comes to mind for me is Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It sports plenty of holes — 20 of them by my count — all the same size and running at the exact same latitude on every page where they appear.

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Carle’s holes are left by a hungry caterpillar eating his way through everything and anything, and there is actually something oddly comforting about their consistency and regularity and singularity of purpose.

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Simms Taback’s Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, proffers crafted and ever-shrinking holes that move around the pages and track the transformations of an ever-useful (and ever-shrinking) piece of fabric. Like Carle’s, they work beautifully from both sides of the page. (Taback’s version of There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly uses expanding holes nicely too.)

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In Oyvind Torseter’s more recent The Hole, a hole appears in the same spot on every page — as if someone ran a drill through the center of the book. I really wanted to love this book but it didn’t happen for me: while the hole never moves, the narrative twists and turns around it in ways I couldn’t keep a grip on.

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There seem to be a number of board books that offer the toddler set holes too — like the Funny Finger Board Books (by Mark Shulman, illus. by Jenny Harris). The finger-sized holes in these books — and others — lets kids turn their digits into all manner of goofy, wiggly appendages.

It shouldn’t have surprised me to learn (here) that Herve Tullet, master of the interactive book and devotee of toying with notions of book-as-object, has played with the idea a lot — in The Book With A HoleThe Game of Finger WormsThe Game of Lets Go, and The Finger Circus Game..

I managed to get my hands on a copy of The Book With A Hole. More an exploration of what a hole might be than a narrative like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Joseph Had A Little Overcoat, The Book With a Hole is a sort of graphic list. Tullet’s clever illustrations lay out numerous possibilities for paper holes and the things you can do with them:

  • you can put things in them (fingers, faces, hands and feet are especially fun!)
  • you can pull things out of them
  • you can look through them
  • you can imagine what’s in them
  • you can jump into them
  • you can jump over them
  • you can circumnavigate their edges
  • you can toss things into them
  • you can string things through them
  • you can use them to focus your attention
  • you can live in them!
  • and you can sit, and wait, and watch what emerges from them

All these propositions are rife with opportunities and ideas for more books with holes. And why not? Holes are empty vessels — containers of nothing just waiting to be filled. Which means they are full of possibilities.

Back to my sapsuckers though: the neat rows of holes they peck into the bark of trees initially give the birds access to sap. Once the sap oozes out and starts to get sticky, other insects show up to feed too, and get stuck, and so become but another, more protein-rich sapsucker meal.

Which means that holes can also be:

  • magnets, or
  • traps, or
  • feeding spots

The possibilities really are endless…

Muck-Out Monday: Making Room

(‘Muck-Out Mondays’ = sharing inspiration from the backlog of blog posts in my inbox. Check here and here for previous Muck-Out Monday posts.)

My old friend Liz’s one-a-day poem for National Poetry Month last Friday was a ‘Poem of Apology’, from the POV of a sticky tag. It followed the form of William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say”.

Reading (and thinking) about that particular poetic form made me think (again) about This is Not My Hat — and (this time) about how that book could be understood as one giant apology that doesn’t want to be said. The little fish builds this crazy, untenable, underwater house of cards rationalization not for why stealing the big fish’s hat was ok, but for why he will actually get away with it. Somewhere in there — if you really dig, and you maybe project a little bit too — you may find a misshapen mea culpa.

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I love the dodgy little dance that the text and images do in This Is Not My Hat: the images both undermine and compel the narrative at every turn. So, instead of writing, I sat at my desk Friday perusing various other amazing choreographies of text and illustration — like Julie Fogliano and Erin Stead’s If You Want to See A Whale.

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Two recent blog posts — perfectly timed for thematically-aligned distraction — focus on the making of a new picture book and the author/illustrator dance: one from an author’s perspective and another from an illustrator’s.

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Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad’s This Is Sadie is due out May 12. Pat Zietlow-Miller and Eliza Wheeler’s Wherever You Go was released last week. Danielle Davis interviews Sara O’Leary about her writing process for This Is Sadie at thispicturebooklife.com, while Eliza Wheeler guests posts about the journey of illustrating Wherever You Go at picturebookbuilders.com.

Here’s a bit from the Sara O’Leary interview:

TPBL: Was the fox your idea or did Julie Morstad add in the fox on her own?

Sara O’Leary: There was a fox in the first draft of the story–a line about how when she grew up Sadie might get married and how she might marry a fox or a tin soldier but that she was in no hurry. And then the idea of her little fox family came in later. And then once Julie had added that into Sadie’s imaginative world I found that we didn’t need the line of text anymore. That happened a few times.

My favourite joke in the whole book is when the text says that Sadie is quiet in the mornings because old people need a lot of sleep and then we see Sadie merrily hammering away. My second favourite is when she “tidies her room” and we see everything madly stuffed underneath her bed. That sort of friction between the text and image pleases me inordinately.

It’s very strange because this is my fourth book with the fabulous Julie Morstad but it’s the first that really and truly feels like a collaboration rather than a co-creation. It’s partly a product of working with Tara Walker who is an absolute genius of a picture book editor–an Ursula Nordstrom for our times. It’s also partly a product of knowing Julie and her work so well that I was kind of writing the book for her this time and imagining it as a way of showcasing just what she can do.

And from Eliza Wheeler:

An awesome thing about Pat’s text was that it was completely open; no character descriptions or even specific story-lines. It allowed the story to be told in the pictures, which is a dream scenario for any illustrator.

The take-away for me, at my desk, avoiding writing but thinking about how I would write if I was writing: leave room for those fabulous illustrators.

But: how to leave room? Maybe, as Wheeler describes, you have to leave things out to make space for illustration. But you can’t leave so much out that you create befuddling gaps and holes. Perhaps it’s more about making room, as opposed to leaving it: about opening doors and leaving them ajar, offering up poetic language that is rich and suggestive without being overly prescriptive. Which means: you have to write.

Wherever You Go is about roads and journeys. At the book’s start, Pat Zietlow-Miller writes:

Roads give you chances to seek and explore.
Want an adventure?
Just open your door.

Writing is its own adventure. So: point taken. The first steps to writing-and-leaving-room: open the door; hit the road; write.

And off we go…

Beyond Expectations: when a writer and an illustrator collaborate

“There are no wrong roads to anywhere.”

-Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

 

Norton Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth, 1961) is really an Architect. As the story goes, Juster won a Ford Foundation grant to write a grown-up, architecture book about urban perception, but ended up penning The Tollbooth instead. He shared drafts with his upstairs neighbor, cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and the two ended up partnering on the book.

Last weekend was homecoming weekend at the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my Masters in Landscape Architecture, and where Juster completed his architecture studies in 1953. In honor of the weekend Penn’s School of Design invited alumni to a screening of the documentary film The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations.

Part animation, part comedy and part buddy film, Beyond Expectations is filled with the two men’s smart conversation, as well as interview chat with historian and critic Leonard Marcus, author/illustrator Eric Carle (who’s Museum of Picture Book Art Juster designed), New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik (read him on the Toolbooth here), actor David Hyde Pierce (the inimitable reader of the audio book version), and a trip of un-named kids. Throughout, Juster and Feiffer’s conversation flows with the push and pull of an old married couple’s: their stories and quips unfold with hilarity and impeccable timing — and a beautifully rich sense of shared history.

Post-screening, Juster was joined on a panel by the film’s director, Hannah Jayanti and (at Penn for the second time in as many weeks) Leonard Marcus, who’s The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth was released in 2011 in honor of the book’s 50th Anniversary. At some point in the discussion, Juster responded to a question about how his architectural education influenced his approach to writing by describing how, in design school, you learn a method of breaking down and working through a design problem from many angles — as opposed to simply looking for an answer. His response shared a thread with one common read of The Phantom Tollbooth as a paean to the virtues of a liberal arts education. The book is very much about the journey, not the destination, and Juster is clear about his distaste for educational approaches that assume there is one right way of doing things.

The film and subsequent conversation also conveyed a powerful sense of both the idea and the fact of an intense, working relationship between author and illustrator. The physicality of the illustrations’ relations to the text, as well as the import of the geographic proximity of the two neighbors as they worked — are all captured sweetly in the film’s affecting animated sequences.

Juster and Feiffer clearly have tremendous respect for one another, and at the same time harbor no delusions about each other’s imperfections — instead finding real joy and humor in them.

WhetherMan

Feiffer’s illustration of The Whether Man — based on Juster

In an interview with Alex Stadler at the Free Library of Philadelphia in 2011 that I since came across, Juster describes his and Feiffer’s dynamic as they worked on the book saying,

It developed into a kind of a game where he would try to subvert the illustrations and I would try to make things he couldn’t draw. Near the end there’s one group of demons called the ‘Triple Demons of Compromise’, which I invented just for him. One is short and fat, one is tall and thin, and the third is exactly like the other two.

That most illustrators and authors don’t collaborate directly is something of a surprise to most people outside the industry. (At some point during the film, one of the interviewees — I forget who — quips that editors nowadays don’t let the illustrators and authors of picture books work together because they need to make sure that they (the editors) still have something to do.)

It’s hard to talk about it from the position of never having published a picture book. But seeing a dynamic like Juster and Feiffer’s, I wonder about the opportunities missed by the full separation of the jobs — and the personalities. At the 2014 Winter SCBWI conference in New York during a picture book panel discussion, either Peter Brown or Oliver Jeffers — again, I can’t remember which — lobbied gently for more openings in this relationship. I remember being struck that the comment was a real push against the tide. (In my notes from that panel discussion I did find the words of editor and moderator Arthur Levine, who, on the subject of author-illustrator collaboration, declared “Fits are entitled to be thrown,”  implying that the potential for creative conflict and drama might be a deterrent for editors.)

There are contemporary pairings that seem possibly to defy the preferred order — like Lane Smith and Jon Scieszka, or Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett. (Anyone have any good links or references that talk non-PR-ish-ly about the nature of those partnerships?) And Ursula Nordstrom’s letters, compiled and edited by Marcus in Dear Genius, offer plenty of reminders that separation wasn’t always the norm, feeding — like the Sendak in the Sixties show — nostalgia for that great, bygone era in children’s book publishing.

 

The Soundkeeper

The Soundkeeper

One last, wonderful quote from The Phantom Tollbooth — which I can’t resist sharing:

 “Why, did you know that there are almost as many kinds of stillness as there are sounds? But sadly enough, no one pays attention to them these days. Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

                                                                                                                            -The Soundkeeper

Despite silence, there is still so much for the senses to take in in the moments described and, yet, words fail to really capture them. That Juster is both a synesthete and a great lover of language and word play gives special poignancy to this particular passage. And, too, it speaks aptly to our era of relentless sensory onslaught.

Page Turns and Curtain Drops in Picture Books

When I took my first stab at writing a children’s book — as my Master’s thesis at Bank Street College  a million years ago — one of the “precedent books” that I studied was Esphyr Slobodkina’s Caps For Sale (NY: William R. Scott Inc., 1940). I love how Slobodkina’s peddlar handles the frustration of not being able to retrieve his caps from a band of theiving monkeys — flapping his hands, stamping his feet and making indignant demands — so much like the 2 to 6 year old set that has long adored this book.

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My favorite sequence begins on the fourth spread, when the tired peddlar goes to sleep sitting upright against the base of a tree, checking first that his wares are all neatly stacked atop his head. The illustration is direct: peddlar, hats, tree.

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You turn the page, and on the next spread a sun smiles down on a flower through a blue sky that is empty save for three small clouds. There is no peddlar and no tree. The text reads simply “They were all there. So he went to sleep. He slept for a long time.”

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You turn again and find the peddlar still leaning against the tree. But this time, his eyes are open, he is stretching, and there are no hats save for his own. The text does not suggest that anything is amiss: “When he woke up he was refreshed and rested.” If you are reading aloud to an audience of small people, at this point there are howls of “The hats are gone!” and “Where are his hats?!” But the illustration doesn’t offer any clues. You have to turn the page again before the peddlar realizes they are gone, and then two more times — with suspense building — before he (and we) can see that they have, in fact, been commandeered by a band on monkeys.

There is much anticipation in each page turn after the peddlar wakes up, and the sequence offers great reminders of how the turning of the page can extend pauses and gaps, shifting the rhythm of a story and heightening suspense.

Jon Klassen’s amazing This Is Not My Hat (Candlewick Press, 2012) got me thinking about Caps for Sale again recently. Klassen’s two fish — the thieving little one and the aggrieved big one — are physically self-contained in comparison to Slobodkina’s peddlar and monkeys: they swim straight ahead, left to right with the turning pages mostly, their bodies rendered solidly and simply. There is no wiggling or diving or darting. That they are moving (or not) is communicated by their bubbles: in streams when they are in motion and in columns when they are not. Meanwhile, their eyes are quite active: snoozing, popping open, looking around, squinting with determination and — interestingly — directing our attention forward and to the right as we turn the pages. The narration is a long monologue that we get drawn into; it is the story that this little fish tells himself (and us) as he tries to justify having stolen the big fish’s hat and to convince himself that he won’t get caught.

The familiarity of his string of rationalizations — and the way that the illustrations undermine them — carries us along until the key moment in the 13th spread when the big fish, hot on the trail of the little guy who has stolen his hat, dives into the same thick bed of plants that the little fish has swum into before him — the place “(w)here the plants grow big and tall and close together” he says, and (his final words) where “Nobody will ever find me.”

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You turn the page and find yourself looking at a wall of plants. No fish, just a thicket of plants.

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On the next spread, the big guy swims out of the plants, leaving us not quite certain about what has gone on.

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Klassen’s wall of plants functions just like Slobodkina’s blue sky page: implying the passage of time but obscuring what is happening during those moments. In trying to understand this device it occured to me that one rule of ‘the page turn’ may be that you can’t have some pivotal event happen between two spreads, while the page is turning. It is probably like a jump cut in film: it jars people and the logic falters. But the blue sky page and the wall of plants, like dropped curtains (or dimmed lights) in a play, tell us that something is happening without letting on what. In Slobodkina’s book, we’re left with a mini-mystery to solve. Where did the hats go? In Klassen’s: we may be spared a visual of the food chain in action — or maybe not. The spread introduces a smidgen of ambiguity, which I appreciated (though when I realized that the narration ends right there, the little fish’s fate seemed more certain.) In both cases, it is a device used to nice effect.

It was only while I was writing this post that I realized that both Caps for Sale and This Is Not My Hat are books about headgear theft. Hopeful that this might be some interesting, under-reported strand in children’s literature, I wracked my brain for other stories that could be lumped in under this heading — and that maybe even use a ‘curtain drop’. All I came up with was Tomi Ungerer’s The Three Robbers which, while it features both stealing and some spectacular millinery, doesn’t technically fit the bill. Although it, too, is a great one.