Polka Dot Penguin Pottery

It’s usually a good sign when the cover of a book on creativity is oriented so that it opens bottom to top rather than right to left. Once I opened the cover of Polka Dot Penguin Pottery by Lenore Look/illustrated by Yumi Heo, I kept waiting for the page where the text would shift to traditional format, but the entire book continues in this way. And what a testament to the creative process it is. And how refreshing that is addressed in a picture book for children.

Though it’s been floating around our house for awhile, I read it for the first time to my six year-old last week – a day or so after reigniting my love affair with writing my young adult novel. How fitting that I should find this story at that moment in time. The “author”, an eight-ten year old girl, introduces herself by her nom de plume, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee, stating that she writes stories “about monkeys and elephants, aliens and robots, and sometimes, about me.” She goes on to elucidate the writer’s process in the way only a child can. I sniggered to myself that I could’ve used this book a few days previous; if only I’d had the secret to finishing a story!

 

Illustration by Yumi Heo; image from George Shannon 

Alas, even with this fail-proof plan, Aspen Colorado Kim Chee Lee falls prey to the dreaded writer’s block. Her grandparents suggest some ‘chill-out’ time and take her and her baby sister on an outing. On the way to Polka Dot Penguin Pottery, Aspen continues to make lyrical observations despite her writer’s block. “The wind lick[s her] nose and whistle[s] in [her] ears.” Once she enters the shop, [her] words are swirling around . . . and [she] cannot catch them.” A potent reminder of the fact that we are always writing – even when we walk, stare, converse, dead-head blooms in the garden – not just when we sit at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, the crippling malaise of writer’s block transfers to Aspen’s pottery painting project. Luther and Ivy, who sit nearby, tell her “you have to stay super-still and wait for something to happen.” The shop owner suggests she relax and have fun. When she makes a blotch on her ceramic egg by accident and thinks the project is ruined, her creativity soon blossoms because she realizes she has nothing to lose. “You can only make a masterpiece if you’re willing to make a mess,” says Ivy.

Taking risks and keeping at it are the true key to the creative process. Following your monkey mind even if – perhaps especially if – you don’t know where it’s leading.

“And this is the story that began with just hanging out,” Aspen finishes her narrative with.

All too often, I think writers, at least me, are crippled by the blank page or screen. I may have ideas zipping around my head like crazy, but once the word processor loads that blank screen, I feel a constricting band around my throat. Unless I can ‘not think’ like Aspen in this story. When she wasn’t looking for it, the story found her.

 

Some additional notes about this book:

  • While the format is landscape, find the spreads that have different views depending on which way you turn the book. For instance, the page where Aspen and her family walk the street; her family in relation to the words and the shops and other people on the street.
  • Search for whimsical details like the squirrel 🙂
  • Consider sharing this with other writers in your life – especially those who have trouble living the simple truth it conveys!
  • Expect to enjoy it perhaps more than your children. I don’t know if I love its value to children or the fact that it’s a kids’ book that introduces the concept of the creative process. I sometimes wonder if authors create some picture books with the adult who will be reading it aloud in mind. (Thank you!)
  • Another picture book I’ve come across addressing the creative process is Begin at the Beginning: A Little Artist Learns about Life by Amy Schwartz
  • It is not a coincidence if you find parallels between the creative process and life.  We could all adapt such useful lessons to our benefit.

 

 

 

Bluebird

I hate books with sad endings.  But I love Bob Staake’s.

The Donut Chef is in heavy rotation in our house.  I cannot eat a donut without proclaiming, “There’s nothing quite like glazed, I think!”

So when I spied a new title, Bluebird, on prominent display in my child’s library at open house, I couldn’t resist removing it from its perch for a peek.  My first grader came home with it a few weeks later much to my delight.

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Every workshop on children’s writing I’ve attended, particularly those on picture books, says you must have a happy ending or at least end on a positive note of some sort.  Kids need to know they will prevail in some fashion.  Lately, I‘ve been finding many books that are heartbreaking!  After reading Bluebird, I have to say, my excitement in finding a new Staake book was quelled somewhat by the poignant moments at the end of it.

A lonely boy begins a new school year.  Two bullies have him pegged from the moment the class queues up outside.  After school, he heads in one direction, the rest of the children, the other.  He is all alone save the bluebird that has been quietly watching him all day – from tree branches and windowsills.  Immersed in his solitary confinement, he does not notice the bird flit along beside him, until she swoops in low over his head and engages him.  With a fun mixture of tag, hide-and-seek, and follow-the-leader, the two become friends as they move through the city.  These are the only times we see the boy smile.  As he floats a boat in the park, the bird perched upon its mast, drawing the attention and friendship of a nearby boy and girl, readers rejoice with the boy and finally relax.  He will be okay.  He has found happiness, even if one bright spot of it.

And then he passes under the bridge – where three bullies want not friendship, but his beloved toy boat.  At first, the bird hangs back, watching from atop the bridge.  I wanted the bird to rescue him, but the workshops have also taught me that protagonists need to solve problems for themselves.  Still, I was angry that his new friend was seemingly hanging him out to dry.  But when the situation turns dire and the boy truly needs him, she swoops in.  She blocks the blow the boy would’ve received from a stick thrown by the bullies, but sacrifices her own life in the process.  To their possibly redeeming credit, the bullies are appalled by the result of their actions.  A flurry of rainbow-hued birds lifts the boy and the bluebird into the sky for the spiritual denouement.

His friend dies?  He finally has someone that makes him smile and she’s dead?  This is not the gooey goodness of a glazed donut!  But it does adhere to that positive tenet of children’s literature: through the process of nurturing this friendship and finding what makes him happy, the boy can now fly on his own.  The bluebird has taught him how to find happiness on his own.

The plot of this book is riveting and transcendent.  What is astounding is that there is no narrative text whatsoever.  Staake tells this incredibly intricate and rich tale with nary a word.  It is a true testament to his amazing graphic skills.

This book may not have been what I was expecting, but happiness rarely is.  Bluebird joins Bob Staake’s catalog as another superb example of children’s literature.

The Scar

The title drew me in.

The way the red background swallowed the illustration of the small boy on the cover.

I was in tears by the time I was partway through the book.

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The Scar, by Charlotte Moundlic, is the story of a young boy preparing for, experiencing, and ultimately surviving the death of his mother.

This leaves a metaphorical and literal scar on him.  When he falls and scrapes his knee after his mother’s death, he remembers how she used to soothe him.  When the scrape starts to heal before he does, the boy keeps scraping at it to keep the comfort of his mother alive.

It was around this point that I really started crying.

Death, loss, self-mutilation – what kind of children’s book was this?

For the child who’s lost a parent, exactly the kind that needs to be written.

There’s no shielding those children from the pain, the hurt, the ugly truth.  They live the nightmare.

I was reminded of a man in a writer’s intensive that I took who told the story of student with special needs who found nearly every task throughout his day difficult.  He wanted students like him to read a story about them.  Even though it might be a difficult story to tell, a difficult story to read, there were children who needed a narrative to which they could relate, a way to know they weren’t the only ones to have experienced this.  They were not alone in the universe.  Maybe there were even people who overcame their difficult obstacle.

And while extremely poignant and slightly heartbreaking, The Scar does end on a positive note.  The boy, though always sure to miss his mother, allows the scar to begin to heal.

So what on the surface once seemed revolting, is now something we can look at without cringing – and, for some children, is absolutely essential.

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