Monday, August 31, 2015

Once upon a time...the art of reading a picture book

This summer I read aloud "My Wilderness" to many groups of children. It is always the last part of my children's program presented at each sitting. This simple act, of reading my own picture book to a living, breathing audience, makes a great and personal impact. In one neat and tidy seven minute interlude, it boils down why I write and create books for children. It's me, the book, the child, and imagination. Period. In fact, I don't believe a book is fully alive until the author reads it aloud herself to kids. The act of reading, and being read to, has to be one of the top most human experiences.

Reading out loud however is not as easy as I assumed. Here's some practical advice on reading to kids as a picture book author.

1. The Established Storytime Hour

Many storytimes I read at are scheduled, weekly event slots in book stores or libraries. This is great for good attendance, but these audiences tend to be a wide age-range. Scanning the crowd a few minutes before reading helps me to define the medium age and if I'll need to paraphrase some of my text. I want everyone to get something from the reading if I can. I don't want to dumb-down my work but when the group is mostly wriggly toddlers, it pays to keep it short and sweet and let the pictures do most of the talking.

2. Let's get physical! 

I had eyes like an eagle until a few years ago, but now I succomb to wearing glasses when reading. I realized at one of my first storytimes how difficult it is to read out loud while holding a book for the audience to see, especially wearing bi-focals. The words tend to blur out at this side-ways on angle! I felt like a flamingo bird trying to bend my neck to ensure the book could be seen but I could still read! I've now memorized more of the longer stretches of text, which helped improve my timing and expression and frees me from having to look at the book as much. It is also note-worthy to say practicing reading aloud is beneficial.

3. Props to you

I've alway been on the shy side regarding public presentations, so I enjoy a good prop or two to hide behind! Revelent objects to share help me and the story gain connection with the kids before I read.  For "My Wilderness", a "real" Squirlie  (the beloved stuffed animal in the story that I have a replica of), accompanies me to help illuminate my words and my research process.

4. Know Thy Own Work

Every picture book is different of course, but assessing what particular book you've created in audible terms is worth contemplating before reading (even before writing!). "My Wilderness" is historical fiction, rather long (about 1000 words) for a picture book, but narrative in flow, with several "suspense" page turns. I now anticipate what I've indentified as the "good spots" of the book at each reading. The kids always love the question-answer page turns, where Rocky "sees" potential dangers that turn out for the best. Kids also predicably love the "naked" page, where the characters run out sans clothes to bathe in snow! I also get a surprising reaction when I read the page about a pair of ladie's boots Rocky had to wear out of necessity. One young man defended Rocky quite indignantly at one reading, calling out to me "Well, they were the ONLY boots he had!!!".

I loved that moment. Rocky had made a friend in the front row.

4. Relax!

There can be an awful lot going on in a 20 minute program for kids; potty breaks, melt downs, severe cases of the wiggles, complete and utter boredom, even parental indiscretions (cell phone use or talking!). All can distract from the cozy reading experience I had in mind. Go with the flow. I'm always amazed at what kids will pipe up and share about the story afterward that remind me that my young audience is used to absorbing through white noise. Just do your job and have fun even if it gets rowdy!

With every reading, I learn something about myself, my work and children as readers. It has opened my eyes to how stories are absorbed. It makes me hungry to create more stories. It makes me hungry to hear them, too!

From "My Wilderness".

Monday, June 15, 2015

My Wilderness takes a tour!

If you're in Seattle or around the Anchorage area, please stop by one of the venues listed below. I'd love to meet you!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Growing books

Crazy summer days... not my favorite studio time. I'm distracted by my garden and the in-and-out vacation schedules. But work continues to flow and deadlines get accomplished along with staking up iris and sowing sunflowers and seeing new places and connecting with family.

Sometimes, publishing timing gets a little crazy, too. I have one book I'm currently promoting (My Wilderness, An Alaska Adventure/ Sasquatch), one book at the printers (North Woods Girl/ by Aimée Bissonette, Minnesota Historic Society Press) but poised for fall release, and another book (Creekfinding/ by Jackie Briggs Martin, University of Minnesota) to work on. That's three book-kids that need different sorts of attention any given day!

North Woods Girl is pretty quiet right now. What's done is done, on my part.  I can't wait for people to see and read it. The subject is lovingly written and demonstrates the bonding power of nature, a continual theme through my own art work. I'm proud of this one.

Creekfinding is in the early stages of sketching. Such a heady time, as I try and express this fine story  of environmental restoration through my illustration. At sketch stage, I often feel lost and agitated, then suddenly seeing the light and having the pages start to feel cohesive. It is both exciting and frustrating, as most creative processes feel.

My Wilderness continues to journey forth. I'll be visiting the Seattle area and Alaska later this month and do some signings and readings. It's nice to see Rocky's story being appreciated.

And so, on this sunny June day, sometimes by combining my passions, by illustrating out on the screened-in porch (nearly in the garden!), with a quick breaks pulling weeds, everything gets done eventually!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Heavenly Picnic

Rochester Cemetery

One recent sunny May morning, 
at the Rochester Cemetery, Cedar County, Iowa, 
just me and three good friends, a variety of native prairie and
 oak savannah plants, 
a few very old Iowans, 
a picnic, a million gnats, bird call,
and Enchantment.

Earth to earth

Pushing up, well, you know...

wild geranium

A rare lovely

Find out this one's name!! Camo-moth...

My Elysium

To the picnic spot

Cemetery salad (a spinach, snap peas, avocado, red pepper, roasted pecan nut conglomeration),
Heavenly Olive Bread, Rhubarb pie, Prosecco...

Pie with Dairy Queen, eaten in the CRV to escape the bugs! (coffee too; it was cozy!)

Three friends- Jackie Martin, Me and Anne Ylvisaker

So long, good-bye

Friday, May 8, 2015

Happy Childrens' Book Week!

Often after programs, I’m asked about my favorite picture books. Oh, there are so many that stand out! Every year, I pick my own winners and bestow a personal Caldecott. The titles I grew up with I have loved the longest and have a special place on my book shelves.  In general, I am prone to love picture books that involve nature, and of these, books that show nature big and people smaller really win my heart. I also like underdog stories, a plot that involves a triumphant return. And Virginia Lee Burton’s “The Little House” hits this mark for me. Burton both wrote and illustrated “The Little House”, first published in 1942. It won the Caldecott that next year. “The Little House” continues to turn up on Top 100 Best Picture Books Ever list. I still look to it for inspiration.

As part of Children’s Book Week, here’s a few lines on “The Little House” and why I love it.

“The Little House” is about well, a happy little house, built with love on a beautiful spot in the country. She sees the seasons come and go in a happy rhythm of life. Time passes. Children grow up. Owners grow old. The countryside around her changes until the once distant city now engulfs the Little House. There she remains for a long while, unnoticed and unloved by the throngs of people that rush by. At last, she is recognized and rescued by a family member who moves her out to a new spot in the country. A happy ever after ending.

The things I love about this book? Certainly, as a conservationalist, the cautionary message of urban sprawl resonates. Since we moved to Iowa City 22 years ago, our city has grown and changed, and not all for the good. Not that growth is all bad, it’s just that the instigators need to keep mindful of not only what we gain with every new build, but what we loose. And we’ve lost of lot of natural habitat to new development. Native birds and animals are really pinched to find large enough areas to live and prosper. Iowans truly see our wildlife and lands as a special part of our region’s identity. We should consider this before another meadow is plowed under for condos. The Little House reminds us to cherish open space, to learn and grow in. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for every developer and builder in Johnson County (and beyond!) to keep a copy of “The Little House” on their bed-time nightstands.

I love the sense of the cycle of life in “The Little House”. Everything is circular. Beginnings lead to endings that lead to beginnings again. What is old can be new. A gentle sense of the impermanence of things also part of the Little House cycle. It reminds us that we come and go.
Burton does a brilliant job of using the four seasons as structure in her book. The seasons are human kind’s original organizer. Before we had iPhones and Blackberries to help us out, we looked to nature to say “Hey, it’s time to harvest our food, or gather wood, or plant the beans, or move” So simple and connected!

Lastly, Burton’s illustration style has always talked to me, as a visual artist and writer. I admire the strong sense graphic design in her work. The round, sturdy compositions include the words as part of the whole visual image. I also like how she personifies the Little House in a subtle, not an overly sweet and cartoony way. The Little House’s contented look comes from her upturned window eyes and her front porch smile. Her sadness comes from her broken out window eyes and her sagging porch. There is an easy lesson in empathy here. The Little House's gaze still warms me after all these years.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Spread the Word...

Keep Garlic Mustard from spreading!

Just a little public service announcement, illustrated of course. Garlic mustard is an invasive that's choking out a lot of native plants. It's flowering right now, so if you see a stand, pull the plants up by the roots and dispose of in your regular garbage.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Post Haste

April is flying by and the world is slowly greening outside my studio doors. I long to take up my sketch pad and draw SPRING with abandon for a few days, but duties and deadlines call.

Meanwhile, here is a quick post to pass on a sweet review written by a little girl for the San Francisco Book Review about "My Wilderness".  Honest and lively and gets to a few cherished details I hoped kids would connect with. Thank you Liesel for the 5 stars!

There are these two people, a father and his son, but I don’t remember their names. They want to go to an island called Fox Island. It is in Alaska. No one else lives there. There is a storm coming, and then the son is afraid that they are going to tip in the blackness because they are in a boat. But, they get to the island safely. On the island they do a lot of things, like have snow baths outside, naked! That sounds pretty cold! The boy meets a lot of animals and the dad paints. He likes it there, but then he has to go back to his home. I like the pictures, especially the animals that the boy plays with. He sees porcupines, foxes, bald eagles, and even whales! My favorite picture is of the boy playing in the snow, but I like the father in the storm picture, too, because he doesn’t look the same. I like to think about living in Alaska with this boy because it looks like he has so much fun.
Reviewed by Liesel, Age 4

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Launched!

It seems like a book has many births. One from the studio, as manuscript and art are truely finalized. One, as it gets shipped off to the printers. Another, when you finally hold the advance copy in your hand. One, the official "Street Date", when it hits bookstores and online shopping sites. But the best is a book's public birthday, usually marked in the author's home or library or other gathering space.

In Iowa City, we are lucky enough to have one of the best Indie bookstore's in the country. Prairie Lights is an icon. It holds significant personal connections for our community and the general international writing and book-loving family. I was delighted "My Wilderness" could have it's birthday book launch there last weekend, and overwhelmed by the enthusiastic audience that showed up! I enjoyed giving a program on my research; it feels like a gift to myself to share some of the details of the book making journey. Otherwise, so much get boxed away without others ever knowing what goes into a book based on non-fiction topics.

So thank you for those that joined me at Prairie Lights. I love that Rocky's story is getting out there and connecting with you! I've also had some wonderful emails from parents. They express a connection and maybe a longing for what the Kent's experienced on Fox Island those may decades ago. And that is the purpose of Story.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The building of picture books...

My good friend Jennifer Black Reinhardt writes for a blog that celebrates picture books. She included a nice interview about "My Wilderness". I am grateful so many enjoyed learning about scratchboard and the research behind this latest project. Here's the link to the story, and to a very inspirational blog!

My books and their friends...

Friday, March 6, 2015

One Book Two Book, my book, your book!

If you are in the neighborhood, I'm part of a fun book fest, One Book Two Book downtown Iowa City tomorrow. I'll have fox masks and book marks to give away to readers!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Happy Birthday, My Wilderness!

Today is the official Release Day of My Wilderness. Last year at this time, I was eye-deep in the final art. I'm relieved to know it is at it's final destination (well, penultimate destination, as I hope copies disperse to libraries far and wide, personal and pubic alike).

Recently, I had a thought about art and writing. It's not really the act of sharing an image or a story that is the most important thing. It is that perhaps it will inspire other people to share their own works in a never ending cycle of creativity. I like I'm part of it!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Picture Book Trailer!

A new short video to share, three weeks before "My Wilderness, An Alaskan Adventure" comes out.

I love the look of so many picture book trailers, my favorites being short and sweet and not too highly animated.  I worked with my tech-genious father-in-law Charlie, who patiently converted my storyboard plans into reality. We made lots of edits and did the whole Ken Burns thing on my little illustrations! The background music choice was important, too. One of the characters in the picture book (Rockwell Kent, father and painter) brought his flute and played it on the island.  I found a Vimeo music store piece with great solo flute that fit the mood I wanted (you can purchase limited copyrights for small buisiness needs) called Arctic City by composer Jonathan Geer. I think it captures what I hope the book does; the mystery, and energy of the setting of this Alaskan wilderness island.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Rockford File

Such a dark cycle of news, my soul is weary of listening to the usual radio programs. But freelancers need company. And voices are comforting to hear. So what to do. I thought about my earlier studio days when my drawing board was pivoted towards the old TV in the corner. I sometimes used to watch it when deadlines weren’t so urgent. Daytime even ran old re-runs, mostly old detective shows like Perry Mason, Columbo or Quincy. They had simple, predictable plots but somehow they were satisfying and stood in nicely for colleagues.

Times changed and when Lucy arrived, I needed to focus when I had precious studio time. The old TV died and I let the noon TV habit die out, too. 

Recently, my husband reminded me about The Rockford Files, another noon show I liked with the mild-mannered Private Eye Jim Rockford, solving cold cases from his in his beat-up trailer by the sea. James Garner, who played Rockford, had such an easy smile and manner. A friend who worked on crews in the “movies” once met him and said he was the real deal, a really nice man. Hmmm, my husband said, maybe I should pay Rockford a visit again…

So now, for awhile, courtesy of Hulu, it is me and my lunch in sunny LA, circa 1960’s, watching Rockford chasing down the bad guys, always ending up on some desert road getting shot at, or hauled into a police station.  I like Jim a lot; he could have been one of my uncles in looks. He'd make me feel safe. I’d hire him in an instant, if I ever needed to get out of a pinch.

The late sixties is my kid-hood era. The episodes are full of nostalgia. The fashions in particular just kill me. The men’s jackets have the fattest lapels and the ladies all run around in slinky polyester shirts. The businesses on the streets- 76 gas, small mom and pop take outs, etc., all belong to a long ago time. And the sound of a telephone almost makes me weep in mourning for a world that used to move so slow.

Don’t call me at noon for awhile. I’ll be in LA with Jim. Maybe we’ll fish for yellow-tail on the dock close by his trailer, or have a beer and a hot dog with his old dad. Or take a walk on the beach in the sunset. My deadlines can wait.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Can't see the forest for the trees

My post title comes from a common expression suggesting that if we focus just on parts or details of a whole, the meaning of the whole can be obscured. That can certainly be the case in illustration, where detail work can temporarily bog down the main visual idea. All in good time each leaf is drawn, each bough is sketched in, each bunny finds it's place nestled in the under-story. It can sometimes take longer than I'd like!

Right now, I am deep in the forest, the North Woods of the upper midwest to be exact, and have had my share the last few weeks of drawing trees! I am ready to experience and share the landscape as a whole, as the characters in this new picture book soon will. I'm anxious for "the girls" to wander over moss softened pathways, smell the clean scent of pine, hear the chitter of chickadees above, feel the rough birch bark, taste a good picnic sandwich under shady summer canapy... All in good time. But for today, it is back to twigs in trees...

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

XXStudio breakXX

Yes, our long cruel winter is usually nothing to brag about, and the last snow fall was quite a doozy. But one great upshot is being able to literally cross country ski out my studio door for a quick break! How nice to clear the brain cob webs away today under brilliant blue sky and white-fringed tree limbs.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


Recently, I was asked a bunch of random questions about my childhood. "What were you afraid of as a child?" through me. Nothing sprang to mind. There are a zillion things I am scared of now, but as a kid? I'm not sure if I had any real fears. There are some old photos where I appear worried, but maybe that was just my natural expression that I still carry around with me today!

I was wildly blessed to have a smooth, calm childhood. I was warmed and loved and felt secure, which gave me freedoms that I wince at with some guilt, as I know now it is not every child's experience. It was also a different time, when society and the media confined bad news and dark issues to places not as accesible to younger eyes. It was easy to be a carefree kid.

My 85-year-old mom may not remember every detail of a day she lives in right now, but she can tell you about going to the market with her mother in 1940 with perfect clarity. So I enlisted her help. Does she recall...Was I afraid of the dark? No. Was I afraid of clowns? Not really. Was I afraid of being alone? Oh, she said. On the contrary. In fact, I scared HER by wandering off on my own in my early years quite often. She recalled a time at a busy English seaside, when I left the family gathering of chairs and blankets and disappeared into the crowd without a trace. She and my Nanna leapt into search action when it was discovered I was missing. About ten minutes later, I was found down the beach, enjoying a puppet show on my own. Another time, at an agricultural fair, I again vanished, only to be found happily looking at an animal display a few fields over. I do recall one occasion, as I blazed a trail through the woods at a local state park, quite content on my own, how my mom seemed to pop up out of nowhere. I remember thinking "How did she know I was here?"!! I think my mom got the message quickly on, that I felt comfortable exploring on my own. She must have stepped up her vigilance! I am quite proud of the adventuresome young Claudia. "Alone but never lonely"is how Beatrix Potter phrased it and I agree.

This bit of self-history intrigued me in view of the main character in my picture book "My Wilderness". It is the story of a boy who was not afraid of many things you would have thought he would be, like deep water and bears and darkness and aloneness.

Maybe I would have been okay as a kid on Fox Island, too.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Hello Blog!

Feeling like I am juggling many plates right now.  Just a friendly peek from behind my drawing board! Hope to catch up soon.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A new book warms the winter...

 It may be an Iowa winter howling outside my studio door, but it's sweet and gentle summer in the Upper Midwest North Woods on my drawing board! I've been steadily working on illustrations fora  new book project since the fall and am currently tackling the cover. The title is North Woods Girl, a forth-coming publication of Minnesota Historical Society Press/Borealis Books. Written by a very talented Minnesota writer- more details on her later!- I know readers will love this story of how the love of nature can pass from generation to generation.

I love drawing all the new animals to me, as I did my in my last project set in Alaska. Bunchberry, birch, sweet scarlet tanagers, red fox, shy hare, sleek merganser...all and more will have cameos along side the two plucky human characters as they walk their way through the North Woods seasons.

Now back to the drawing board as they say.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A New Year takes root

Happy Holidays! A green Christmas has given way to a greener New Year, which is rare in these parts. Kind of nice though, as it gives an opportunity to see nature in winter in different light and form. Especially some trees, bare of their leaves and poised against dramatic January twilight.

We saw a film over the break where one of the characters explains to his daughter his life-long search for a 'Soul Tree', a tree that reflects how he views himself interiorally. The character's tree ends up being a giant oak, with a massive double trunk, split while quite young. It fits. The character hints of a dark event that happened when he was a child but he grew up strong and productive in spite of this. The daughter we learn struggles with demons of addiction. She searches for her tree and also succeeds in finding hers, a twisted loner on a barren scrubby hilltop, but beautiful and "wabi-sabi" in complexity and shape.

This year, I will start my look for my tree. "You'll know it when you see it" is the only advice the film characters give. I've found contenders already, but I think I'm still in the search.

Do you have a soul tree? Perhaps you will find it in 2015!

This tree spied while on a walk this past Christmas Day at Squire Point, outside of Iowa City. It's a young burr oak, holding fast to the limestone at its roots. It seems to be looking out onto the water in observation. I was drawn to it; is this my tree?

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