Writing for your true self

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

When an author sits down to write a book, whom are they writing for: their readers or themselves? Are their central characters entirely made up or are they mildly disguised versions of themselves? Would they find the book that they are writing as interesting to read as they find writing it?

In children’s literature, these three questions hold true but there is an additional dimension that authors of picture books and chapter books contend with. That is memory and forgetting. How do authors remember themselves when young? What did they read then? Who were they? And what have they forgotten?

Carl Jung remarks that we are not who we think we are, we are who we really are. We are our own true self when very young. We have very original personalities and characteristics. We have selves that are separate and apart from the world and apart from what we will become. In growing up, that true self is about to undergo a great amount of changes, learning, joys, suffering, victories and losses. We will be sad and happy. Our true selves are about to experience a great adventure. Life will expect us to let go of a certain amount of that truth and originality. How much do we really let go of? What do we give up so as to take hold of our adulthoods or growing up? What do we forget? In the end, would we even recognize ourselves and would we even be able to write about them?

Writers of literature for young “true selves” somehow reach back into their own true self and create something new, for a new audience. Author/illustrator Antoinette Portis claims, “I would say that I write as a child. My writing teacher, Barbara Bottner, suggests that we each have an age we connect to the most, and that it’s productive to write from our point of view at that age. Not every book comes from my 6 year old self—Not A Box certainly did. I put myself back in my 6 year old self, and feel what I felt then.”

At the same time, other kid-lit authors admit to not consciously writing about or for their childhood selves. Author/illustrator Sergio Ruzzier put it this way, “I usually don’t think about what I would have liked as a child, when I write. I think I write for myself, meanwhile hoping that other people, including children, will enjoy the same things I enjoy. It’s true that my taste as a child and my taste now are not that different.” Who is that self? Mr. Ruzzier in 2015 might not be all that different from the little Sergio that he was.

To put down a new idea for a book or story, it always seems brand new at the beginning: coming out of thin air. But the true self has had to learn the clever art of hiding out in a grown-up world. Author Jill Davis writes, “When I write for children, I feel someone buried emerge–my private funny youthful storytelling self. And it’s trying to grab attention in voice and attitude that can wink at a child and also entertaining, and make them think about something in a different way.”

I like the expression that Ms. Davis uses “someone buried emerges”. This is very spot on as it sums up the notion that there is something to unearth to be freed to create something new and original. Writing something new does not have to always be an unearthing of the true self but perhaps that the reason why authors write and want to write for young people, is that they have not forgotten their own distinctive truth.

Author/Illustrator Tracy Dockray had a slightly different twist on it. She writes, “I write something that I’d wished I’d read when I was young. Something that would transport me in an emotional way, or something that would make me not feel alone with a situation.  Reading about someone going through the same experience as myself, sibling rivalry, not being the best in class.”

The experiences can even resemble adult truths, such as ambition, doubt, success or failure. “In Kid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads, I wanted to make an absurd book that pointed out how stupid grown-ups can be.” writes author/illustrator Bob Shea,  “I like the idea of giving the kid protagonist the power since kids are so powerless. It has more to do with what I have learned as a grown-up rather than anything young Bobby Shea experienced, as cute as he was”

Are they reaching back to their true selves and handing over a lesson that they have learned? Are they proving that they have not forgotten what they wanted to learn? Perhaps. But then again they know that they were once children and aren’t all children the same? Matthew Cordell, the author and illustrator of the poignant book on a very adult theme of disappointment and hope titled Wish admits, “I suppose I must, on some level, be thinking of myself as a child when I make my books, though. I can’t completely NOT be doing that! It just doesn’t seem a priority in my thinking for whatever reason.”

Whether authors think specifically about who they were or not, they are thinking of questions and bewilderments from childhood that they can now answer for the new reader (and most likely for themselves). As an adult reader of kid-lit, the opposite experience occurs. When I read a picture or chapter book and am very conscious that I am reading it as an adult but am I really all that grown up? A picture book or chapter book is automatically a special portal to that true self. I cannot say for certain that I am not my true self reading a book, looking for a reminder or answer that the author has considered. Is it my adult self or my child self that is engaged when leafing through a book created for children? I do not actually become young again, but I almost forget everything I have learned and start anew.

Therefore, is writing any different from reading? Have we let go, on an unconscious level, of who we have become to return to who we truly were?

Matthew Cordell goes on to say, “And I also think a lot about how my books will affect the adults that read them. Because I think all great picture books will satisfy these two different audiences (vastly different!) because both adults and children will be reading them.” In fact, those books that express a deep felt truth affects the different readers the same way, be they small or grown. It might be that kid-lit authors write books as adults for children when in fact we are writing books as children for adults.

In conclusion, the case may be that writers have drawn a difference that does not really exist. They have convinced themselves that they are creating something brand new that never existed before for a new audience that has just come along. But wouldn’t every author of books for children love the chance to sit down with their young true selves and watch as they page through the books that they themselves would be writing some day?

Writer Judy Katchke sums it up very well, “When writing books I don’t quite think of it as writing for children. Instead I write for the part of me that’s still very much a kid.”

Wouldn’t that be the finest experience for writers to have their true childhood selves offer their honest opinion as to whether or not their grown-up self is telling the truth or not?

Fun on the Donut Planet

I bet you did not know that there was a donut planet floating in between Mars and Saturn. That is where I have been for six weeks, while I have been illustrating the history of the doughnut for Houghton Mifflin! I had a blast. The art is a new paper cut style, similar to the work done on Gingerbread for Liberty! The book titled THE HOLE STORY OF THE DOUGHNUT will be out in the Spring of 2016. But until than I am back on Earth and getting to work on new projects!

An artist must try new things No.2

In the mid-1980’s I was working mostly on book jackets for adult fiction and non-fiction for such authors as Joyce Carol Oates, Luigi Barzini, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few. All the while I was increasingly fascinated by German expressionist woodblock prints and wanted to try my hand at black and white line art. As a young artist in high school, I spent endless hours working on linocut prints. I loved the texture of the ink on paper. I loved the splotch of colors.

In an art store in Cambridge Massachusetts, I discovered scratchboard, bought some sheets and went home to experiment. This is one of my first scratchboard images.

There were several more in this very controlled application until I accidentally spilled some ink on a piece of scratchboard. I quickly dabbed at it with an available piece of tracing paper. Intending to toss the scratchboard, I first used it as a practice piece. But as I worked I noticed that the splotchy patches of ink had the quality of the expressionist’s woodblock prints that I loved so well. I believe this is that practice piece:

I immediately got to work to figure out how much ink to spill and simplified my lines. I let go of trying to control the ink. This was one of those experiences where the making of the art was like fun and games in kindergarten art class. I put together a wide array of samples to create a portfolio. The images were very simple to start.

At the time, I was designing posters for theaters in NYC, Boston and the Berkshires, so I used this new “inkblot” style, as I came to call it, for a poster of an Athol Fugard play Boesman & Lena at the Huntington Theater Company. When they printed it, they printed it poster size and suddenly I was looking at my very own expressionistic poster. This is that image:

Before long, these inkblot black and white images were appearing in the Boston Globe and other newspapers around the country. It was a very happy accident. My advice, if the ink spills let it lead you in a new direction.


“To Paul, who bakes with love”

One of the best things about working on books is the chance to dedicate the books to friends or family. It is such a unique opportunity to show them just how much you admire them. It is like a great big valentine! Well, as soon as the editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt sent me the manuscript for GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY!, I knew who I would be dedicating it to: my friend Paul Jeromack. We have only know each other for a few years but it is as though we never did not know each other. We met through a common friend and I quickly discovered that Paul was very good at being a friend and he immediately became one of my best.

I thought I would ask him a few questions about his love of baking to share with you. Here are the questions I asked and his answers. Oh, he once made me a three-tiered cherpumple cake for my birthday a few years ago. My friends, who were at the party, are still talking about it. It was unforgettable. See for yourself, google cherpumple cake! Anyhow, here is our conversation:

How long have you been baking?  I can’t remember when I wasn’t baking! I’d have to guess since my early ‘teens. One year, my dad asked me if I wanted a baseball glove for my birthday, and I answered “No, thanks. I want a cake decorating set!” And I got it – and I still use it.

Did someone teach you or did you teach yourself?  I had Betty Crocker’s Cookbook for Boys and Girls which taught me the basics. But my mother did not like it when I lit the oven – she must have been afraid I would blow up the house or something.

What is your favorite thing to bake?  Cakes! Particularly layer cakes and birthday cakes. I love having the opportunity to break out the ol’ cake decorating set.

Have you ever thought of becoming a baker?  Oh yes!  I used to imagine it would be so much fun. Then one year I got a summer job working in the kitchen of Cooky’s Steak Pub, which was a small chain restaurant on Long Island. Cooky’s was known for their banana bread, and I could not wait till I graduated from chopping up carrots and celery by the bushelful from macaroni salad to banana bread duty. Well, after days of mashing hundreds of bananas, chopping dozens of bags of walnuts and scrubbing huge piles of used bread pans in a hot kitchen with industrial stoves, baking seemed less like fun and more like mindless drudgery. And they had the worst music playing on the radio….

 Do you have a favorite bakery to buy baked goods?  Yes – Wall’s Bake Shop in Hewlett, Long Island. They’ve been around since the mid-1950s. I grew up with their cakes, pies and cookies. No other bakery in the New York Metropolitan area compares to it.  Every other month or so, I take the train out there to get a monthly supply of cheese danish I keep in the freezer.

What is the most adventurous thing you ever baked? What is the most disastrous thing you ever baked?  Both of these questions can be answered by one cake. A few years ago was asked to make a cake for a friends engagement party. Of course, I could not possibly make an easy  sheet or layer cake, oh no. I had just bought a set of four vintage tiered pans for a wedding cake at the flea market so I thought I would make a slightly smaller pre-wedding cake with three tiers. Of course, the top tier needed one of those plastic column platforms to raise it high. I got everything together, I was so excited to bake this…and just about everything went wrong. The largest cake came out of the pan in several pieces (I forgot the parchment-paper liner. One thing I won’t forget again!) , so I had to make another one. Then the icing wouldn’t beat properly because of the humidity that day (Always remember: never attempt buttercream in the summer) so it was runny like yogurt, and the decorating icing came out even worse – the scrolls, shells and flowers I had planned came out of the pastry tube in colored rivulets of blob. No matter how hard I tried to fix it, it looked like a nuclear meltdown.

I did the best I could, taxied it over to the reception, then as I was walking to the reception table, the top layer skid off the raised plastic platform and went SPLAT on the  floor. The funny thing was…it looked like such a disaster, it was actually pretty funny, a scene right out of I LOVE LUCY and even I saw hat. To my relief, the hosts and guests did not seem to mind. And the cake itself – the two layers that remained – tasted great.

 Do you like gingerbread cookies?  I do, but the funny thing is I never had them much when I was a kid because my mother hated the taste of gingerbread. It was only until I moved in with my partner in the mid-80s that I began to bake them.  Gingerbread cookies are are a bit of work. The dough is denser and harder to roll than sugar cookies, while molasses in the gingerbread dough makes them stickier and harder to handle and cut. You need deep, sharp cookie cutters for gingerbread. And the shapes should be simple. Elaborate shapes with lots of details like reindeer antlers or thin angel wings are almost impossible to get out of a cutter.

 If you could have a gingerbread cookie in any shape what would it be?  A gingerbread girl, and I’ll tell you why. Gingerbread boys don’t wear pants…but  gingerbread girls always wear long, flaring dresses – which means with girls you get more gingerbread per cookie.

Thanks Paul, you make the world a sweeter place!

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