A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Just When I Thought I'd Seen It All...

I found The Blue Bead by Kate Boyan.

If you know kid’s books, you know that the illustrations can be amazing. Artistry, creativity, innovation, boldness, intricacy, subtlety – it’s all there.

Mediums of expression? How about paint (all kinds), ink, markers, crayons, photographs, collage, cut paper, torn paper, folded paper, fabric, embroidery, wood cuts, linoleum block prints, pressed leaves, modeled clay, computer-generated graphics, and combinations of all the above. (Did I miss anything? Probably.)

Until a few weeks ago, however, I’d never seen this: a book that uses beadwork for the illustrations.

Let me repeat that: each picture on every page is comprised entirely of beads. Take a look:

The author-illustrator, Kate Boyan, is a beader who lives in Homer, Alaska. As someone who has embroidered and done just a very little beadwork, I can only marvel at the work that went into this project. According to her website ( ) each of the 25 illustrations took more than 200 hours (or longer) to create. All together, Boyan spent ten years making The Blue Bead.

But the artwork here is not about impressing us; it serves the story, as all good picture-book art should. The medium is completely appropriate to the tale, which is about, as the title says, a blue bead. Boyan explains in her prologue, “It is the story of an 18th Century Bohemian, blue glass trade bead that survives its journey into modern day Alaska.” Readers travel through time, places, and history until the bead reaches the hands of a modern-day girl, beading a gift for her grandmother’s potlatch birthday celebration.

Raven steals the blue bead.
Has anyone else seen beadwork as illustration in children’s books? I’d love to hear about it!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Random Acts of Publicity Week

Michelle Houts, a new writer friend from the SCBWI conference, sent me a Facebook invitation for the 2nd Annual Random Acts of Publicity Week.

What is it? Simple. Borrowing from the idea of Random Acts of Kindness, during the week of Sept. 7 - 10 we all do our writer friends a favor by posting a review of a friend's (or friends'!) book on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or other favorite site.

This is a great way for writers to support each other, friends and family to support the writers in their midst, and readers to support their favorite books and writers.

It's easy to do. It helps to spread the word about good books and helps writers sell books so they can publish more. And I can assure you, there's nothing like reading a glowing recommendation for one of your own books to make a writer feel encouraged!

So writers, in addition to focusing on our own work, let's pay some attention forward. It's good for the soul and the writing community!

Thanks to Darci Pattison for the idea and spreading the word! For more info, see her webpage Random Acts of Publicity Week.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wasting My Talents?

As well as being a writer, I am a librarian. Last week school started around here, always a frenetic time for school librarians. But off and on, when I’ve had a moment to think, I’ve been considering something a neighbor recently said.

We were chatting at our local Farmers Market. When I mentioned that I was preparing to go back to work, she said, “You’re wasting your talents.”

The librarian side of my brain did a jaw-drop. The writer side did, too.

I’ve always had this professional split-personality situation. Even when I’m writing, part of me thinks like a librarian. When I’m working as a librarian, I’m also thinking – and using my abilities -- as a writer.

I consider both professions to be honorable and high callings with plenty of room for overlap. In my work as a school librarian, I get to read new books as well as classics in a variety of genres and formats. I also get to hear unvarnished reactions to these books, straight from the mouths of their young readers. Together we read stories, write stories, tell stories, share poetry, and seek out interesting (and reliable) information.

Am I wasting my talents? Come on in to my library when the kids are there. Observe them absorbed in a story we’re reading aloud. Witness their excitement at finding a new book by an author they love or about a subject they can’t get enough of. Listen to students insist that their friends Look at this! Watch them drag a buddy by the shirtsleeve to recommend a great book they’ve discovered. (Occasionally it’s even one of mine.)

These moments don’t just happen. I facilitate the serendipity by choosing good books, promoting them, and matching them with my students’ interests. I don’t make kids read; I make them want to read. (Okay, I do make them learn the Dewey Decimal System.)
Raven, Little Red, and Pinocchio enjoy
 a good book.

In my book (any of them), sharing my love for reading, literature, and learning is never a waste of my time and talents. It’s a joy.

Friday, August 20, 2010

New Book Alert!

Not many people can list their occupation as "adventurer." Pam Flowers can.

I've known Pam for decades -- I believe we first met in my small town's public library -- and I've vicariously followed her adventures over the years. After she completed her solo dog-mushing expedition from Barrow, Alaska to Repulse Bay, Canada (that's about 2,500 miles, give or take a few) she asked me to help her write about that journey. The resulting books, Alone Across the Arctic and Big-Enough Anna (illustrated by Bill Farnsworth), have won several awards and are still in print. (Yay!)

Since then Pam has authored two more picture books on her own, Douggie: The Playful Pup Who Became a Sled Dog Hero (illustrated by John Van Zyle) and now, Ellie's Long Walk: The True Story of Two Friends on the Appalachian Trail. This new book, also illustrated by Bill Farnsworth, takes readers along the famous trail in a gentle story that recounts both the beauty of the experience and the challenges. Above all, the story is about the relationship between Pam and Ellie, her dog.

Anyone who knows Pam knows two things about her. Once she sets a goal, almost nothing (even Mother Nature) will prevent Pam from achieving it. The only thing that can stop her is the second thing: her love for her dogs. It shines through in every adventure she pursues and every story she tells, including this one.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Great Kodiak Connection

I love it when I find an amazing children’s book when I least expect to!

Last spring I was sipping coffee in Monk’s Rock Café, my favorite Kodiak (Alaska) coffee shop, when my writer/librarian eyes lit on a small treasure – just 4.5” by 4.5” -- tucked into a display basket. The silhouette of a white chicken pranced on a yellow background. What could this be?

I opened the hand-bound pages of The Great Chicken Escape to find a simple but evocative wordless story in black-and-white about the adventures of a cat, some hens and some nuns.

Now nuns might seem like an odd component for a children’s book, unless you’re sitting in Monk’s Rock Café. The coffee house and bookstore is associated with St. Innocent’s Academy, a Russian Orthodox school and residential community in Kodiak. An author’s note in the back of the book explains that Nikki McClure, the author and artist, lived for a time with the nuns on nearby Spruce Island in a small Russian Orthodox monastery. McClure ends her note, which briefly describes daily life through the seasons on Spruce Island, with thanks for the community’s “immeasurable gifts.”

Perhaps it was the habits of the nuns that inspired McClure’s choice of color palette. In any case, her use of white and black space is creative and engaging, with some occasionally stunning designs. I particularly love the close-up of the cat stalking the chicken (below); and the beautiful final spread of white and black hens sleeping under a starry sky.

At first glance I assumed the art was of wood or linoleum block prints. Not being an artist, however, I wasn’t sure. Plus I was curious about this Nikki McClure: who is she? What does she do? So of course I searched her name online.

It turns out that Nikki McClure ( is a paper-cut artist who lives in Olympia, Washington. She makes posters, books, cards, t-shirts, and calendars, as well as designs covers for books and recordings. She also illustrates for magazines and – I knew it! – children’s books! Nikki has conceived and illustrated seven of her own stories, as well as illustrated All in a Day for Newbery award author Cynthia Rylant. (Follow the “Projects” link on her site to learn more about her books.)

I'm glad to see that McClure is using her paper-cut talents for storytelling. And gratified to know she finds inspiration, like so many of us do, in the beauty of the Northern landscape.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Burning Desire Meets Real Life

Is that a raven in L.A? Probably not. But as the only Alaskan
at the conference, I liked to think so.

Have you ever gone to a fabulous conference -- and then returned to harsh reality?

Recently I attended the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) annual conference in L.A. Even though it was 4 a.m. by the time I reached home (after the flight and the two-hour drive), I woke up the next day feeling flush with energy and a burning desire to write. (Spoiler notice: foreshadowing has just occurred.)

I did notice that the house needed vacuuming and dusting; the bathrooms, a good scrubbing. A stack of mail waited on the dining room table, which was crumby. What the heck, it could all wait until later.

Laundry couldn't, however. My suitcase lay open in the middle of the living room. I began pulling out dirty clothes but decided I needed coffee. In the kitchen I discovered that my dear spouse, who left hours ago for work, had drunk the last of it.

I made a fresh batch in the French press. Oddly, the press wasn't working quite right but filled with determination I forced the plunger to work, pushing down hard and steady, harder and steadier, until nearly-scalding coffee exploded all over the counter, the cabinets, the floor…and my tender inner arm.

I ran cold tap water on my arm, then cleaned up the mess.

Fortunately some coffee hadn't spilled. I drank it with my arm back under the faucet.

The burn hurt a lot. The skin was very red. I began to imagine that perhaps I had second or even third degree burns. (Or is it first degree burns that are worst? Something to look up.) I told myself to calm down; it wasn't that bad.

But it sure hurt.

I called my sister, the nurse, at work. She was surprised to hear from me, since I live three thousand miles away and don’t normally call her at the hospital. I explained the problem; she switched smoothly into nursing mode. “Watch for blisters,” she said. “Don’t pop them. Keep running cold water for up to 30 minutes. Go to the doctor if it still hurts in 24 hours.”

Twenty-four hours? Definitely.

I drank more coffee and ran more cold water.

When I started doing laundry I noticed that the dryer had moved an inch or so from its usual position. I ignored it.

I was starving, so decided to make breakfast. My refrigerator had gone Wild West on me: full of suspicious characters. I put on my tin badge and threw the moldy bums out of town. Now only wide open spaces remained. Thank goodness I'd stocked up on eggs before leaving.

I checked my email while I ate.

Guess what? A cousin I hadn't seen since my mother’s funeral 16 years ago was in the area and would like to stop by with his family, whom I may or may not have met. Of course I wanted to see him! After all, he’d never been to my house before because, like my sister and every other relative I have, he lives at least three thousand miles away.

Did I mention the house was a mess?

I called his cell, left a message and started unpacking. Shifted a load of clean laundry into the dryer and started another. Went back to unpacking.

Made phone calls. Moved the suitcase upstairs to finish putting clothes away. Progress!

Remembered there was another suitcase, still in the car.

Then I noticed a moist, laundromat smell. That smell meant only one thing: the vent from the dryer was disconnected. I turned off the dryer and looked. Sure enough.

I called my dear spouse. He had no idea what had happened or how. He hadn't noticed that the dryer had moved. He swore both innocence (dubious) and total ignorance (possible). He promised to look at it that night when he got home.

I looked at my mound of laundry and hoped that my cousin would be coming tomorrow, not today.

I wrestled with my misty moisty dryer until the vent tube thingies almost lined up. It was difficult to reach behind the dryer to fiddle with them because my scalded arm rubbed against the dryer in the narrow space. I resumed drying, opened the window for ventilation, and closed the laundry room door.

Sliding into flip-flops, I walked outside in my jammies to retrieve the second suitcase.

Since the moment I'd gotten out of bed, my desire to write had run head on into reality -- as it always does. Would I survive? Of course. I'd just met dozens -- no hundreds -- of writers, struggling like me. Sure, at least some of them must have nice tidy lives: spouses with good jobs and insurance; no distracting children, pets, or gardens; a housecleaner (sounds great!); or at least ready-made coffee in the morning.

But I also knew that most were returning to just as many hassles as I had. Quite possibly – though I hated to admit it -- even more. Because that's life: messy and unexpected, often annoying, sometimes even tragic.

The knowledge of shared struggle brings comfort; comfort brings strength; strength brings energy and that burning desire to write -- preferably with coffee in my cup, not on my arm.

I sat down to start this blog. Let's see where it goes! How do you deal with the on-going challenge to carve out time and energy for writing?

P.S. My cousin and his two beautiful daughters visited the next day. And I'm so glad they did!

 The incomparable Ashley Bryan, performing poetry that revives the soul.
SCBWI Conference, 8.2.2010