.
Phillis Gershator


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NOTES

Thoughts on

reading,
making picture books,
illustrations
and retelling tales.



READING


I need to read. If I don’t read, I get antsy, edgy, uncomfortable. Even if everything in my life is fine, and I’m not simply turning to a book for consolation or escape, I still feel the need. If I don’t read, I don’t feel like myself.

Sven Birkerts speaks to who we are and the connection between the sense of self and reading. He asks if our adaptation to the “circuit board future,” when we are unable to give full atte
ntion to reading (or anything else), will leave us without a core sense of self. “Reading, even though it proposes an elsewhere, gives me that self--gives it to me most fully and purely when I am most deeply possessed by the work.”

So reading is demanding. It is also comforting. Having books around the house is comforting, too. If one wishes to speculate on how that feeling of comfort began, why not go back to babyhood? For a baby, a book is a comforting physical object. A baby can manipulate it, “use” it, stop using it, and return to it again, always with the assurance that D will follow C.

Beyond toyness, a book offers the elemental experience of story. At first, like the toy-book, the story provides constancy. It can be repeated, memorized, mastered. It is unchanging in an otherwise unpredictable and puzzling world. Even if the story sets up a problem, conflict or tension, which most stories do, the story becomes familiar once repeated. And repetition and resolution are comforting.

Older children say they like a good story, meaning plot, characters.... A good story will cast a spell, allowing a reader to slip into another world, to watch the characters and become part of their lives. Readers enter into a kind of “virtual experience” where they can control the pace and imagine the scenes, unlike a movie, for example, which is not as interactive and which can sometimes be assaulting.

Scholars have theorized that the immersion or escape into a book may bring readers closer to that which comforts us, even if those specific elements in the story that do so can’t be isolated. I’m reminded of all the times I re-read The Secret Garden. Why? I wonder. I’m still not sure.

And another question: how exactly do we learn to read? If someone had a one size fits all answer, wouldn’t everyone be a reader? I can’t remember how I learned. Did it just happen? Kids forget. But those who love to read do not forget one thing--the pleasure.

Part of my work as a children’s librarian was turning kids on to books, and the best way for me to do that was to share the pleasure through storytelling. What makes a good story to tell? Again, no single answer. Librarians spend a lot of time choosing the best stories--it’s called “book selection” and “collection development.” Some stories are time tested--retold and perfected over years. The Mende people of Sierra Leone, among the greatest African storytellers, know what makes a good story. They expect it to contain:

1)  fun, laughter, humor
2)  imaginary incidents (“The story is a lie, we just arrange it.”)
3)  song: the opportunity to sing and shout
4)  information, a proverb, a moral.

A good story may not meet all four criteria, but it must be entertaining. In other words, it must offer pleasure.

The sources of pleasure can change over time. I can’t recapture the response I had as a child to the books I once devoured. Nancy Drew books were engrossing, scary, thrilling; now they’re dull and transparent. Some books that were once howlingly funny are now mildly amusing or not funny at all. Some that were emotional, tender, and deep now seem overwritten, florid, cloying. I dare not go back and re-read some of the books I loved the most! Michael Dirda struck a somewhat tongue-in-cheek but familiar chord
in Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life: "To this day, I remember a certain Saturday afternoon, a paper bag of candy corn, and the sun streaming onto the glorious pages of Tom Swift in the Caves of Nuclear Fire. Life has been downhill ever since." And the words in Diane Setterfield’s novel, The Thirteenth Tale, almost seemed my own, only more eloquent:
I have always been a reader; I have read at every stage of my life and there has never been a time when reading was not my greatest joy. And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same. Books are, for me, it must be said, the most important thing; what I cannot forget is that there was a time when they were once more banal and more essential than that. When I was a child books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books.
As an adult, I guess I’m more critical, more stressed, more easily distracted. It’s harder for me to give myself over to other worlds, to let the author carry me out of this one. I came across a wonderful article by Francine Prose, commenting on the question: "Is it harder to be transported by a book as you get older?" (The New York Times Book Review, June 12, 2016). She concludes, "As a child, I loved it when a book took me somewhere else. I still do, but I'm more surprised and grateful now to be transported by words on a page from one world to another. Perhaps because, as grown-ups, we value what is harder won." I, too, feel lucky in that many books still do the trick.

I can’t forget the impact, for example, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Midnight’s Children––the sense of discovery, coming to those books without expectations, just picking them up--and being blown away. More recently, I've been passing the word along about The Lacuna,
Cutting for Stone, And the Mountains Echoed ...beautifully epic, absorbing, bighearted novels.

Some children’s books also blow me away with their brilliance and heart, The Music of Dolphins, for example, which restored my faith in what a contemporary children’s novel could be. And I was so glad that the success of
Harry Potter made fantasy profitable, allowing old and new fantasy to flourish again, because, as artist/writer Betsy James put it, “Fantasy is the melting pot of the soul.” (Check out Betsy's site and blog for many other soulful thoughts!)

First books––those cozy “lap” books a parent reads to a child, often at bedtime––are flourishing, too. Despite all the aggressively marketed electronic distractions books have to compete with, as Eden Ross Lipson observed in The New York Times, “one thing that has not changed is the pure pleasure of reading with toddlers and preschoolers.” Among the benefits of reading to a child, beyond pleasure, is that “you are giving a child undivided attention.” Maybe the core sense of self that Sven Birkerts described starts out with the parent-child bond––and a book!



MAKING PICTURE BOOKS


When I was working as a children’s librarian, we’d physically examine picture books at book selection meetings. We’d look, read, discuss. Picking up a book, I sometimes felt a tingling in my fingertips. That’s when I knew something special was going on: book magic! Everything in the book had come together perfectly––text, illustration, design, type, endpapers. The book was a keeper, a read-it-again book, a book that was great to look at. It didn’t have to be elaborate either. The Carrot Seed comes to mind as a perfect––and simple––book.

Now that I’m involved in making picture books myself, I realize how complicated the process can be. It’s a long process-––sometimes it takes years, and there are a lot of variables at work. Magic isn’t easy!

According to an artist friend, good art cannot save a bad story, but a good story can survive bad art. So it makes sense that most picture books begin with the text.

For me, once a manuscript is accepted for publication, it’s like sending a child out into the world. You hope you can continue to guide her, but you know, in reality, you no longer have much control. So you tell yourself, I did the best I could. And now you’re cautious, warning yourself, I don’t want to make the mistake of being too involved in her life––suffocating and overly protective. But I need to keep in touch, don’t I? I have to make sure she’s not in trouble.... How can I stop being a mommy? A worried author?

Your child’s teachers, lovers, friends influence her life, and so it goes for the manuscript. Everyone influences the final work: writer, artist, editor, printer, designer. A picture book is a group project, a collaborative creation, and better yet, a creative collaboration.

Once, when I was on a writer’s panel, the question came up: “If you can’t choose the illustrator, what happens to your vision?”

In my case, I try to convey my vision to the book’s editor in the form of a written description or a little mock up of the book (a “dummy”). The editor may share my thoughts with the artist, but more often than not the artist would prefer to imagine the book herself, letting her own imagination respond to what she sees in the text.

I do have a strong conceptual or visual idea as I write. The visuals I have in mind even dictate the text, especially if I’m writing verse. But I know that sticking to my vision might be limiting, closing the door to other valid, possibly better visions. Picture book magic might take place when two or three imaginations add up to equal more than the sum of their parts, and not necessarily when the writer’s vision dominates. So I TRY to let go a little bit, both as a parent and as an author!

When and if the editor shares the artwork-in-progress with me, I comment on it and make suggestions. I always try to step back, as though I had nothing to do with the book. I put on my book reviewer bonnet and library-lady hat so I can be as critically objective as possible. Then the text editor and art editor get back to the artist with their own critiques––and maybe mine as well.

We all want the same result, a wonderful book, hopefully a magic one. Revisions are always part of the process. After all, didn’t E. B. White and Garth Williams go back and forth until they got Charlotte exactly right? Once a writer and artist establish mutual trust and appreciation, they might communicate directly with each other. They might spark each other creatively. They might even immortalize each other. Consider White and Williams, Kraus and Aruego, Minarik and Sendak––magical picture book collaborations. Happily, the list goes on!



ILLUSTRATIONS

What kinds of pictures appeal to children? I grew up in the heyday of The Little Golden Books. I loved those books, with illustrations by Mary Blair, Gustaf Tenggren, Tibor Gergely, and Feodor Rojankovsky. The only illustrator I remember disliking was Eloise Wilkins. I didn’t care for the illustrations in my Dick and Jane readers either.

Both my parents were artists, so I was exposed to all kind of art from the beginning, not only in picture books, and I was given lots of art materials myself. I think my background was atypical, and that most kids find picture books their first and only source of quality art. It could also be that my parents' own response to the books we read filtered down to me.

When I worked as a children's librarian, I noticed that some children couldn't stop looking at a quality book, as though the art were a revelation. I’m thinking in particular of a kindergartner in St. Thomas. He lived with his family in the back of a bar. He was kind of a wild child, probably chronically overtired, and he wasn’t up to par as a student. But his appreciation of beautiful book art was extraordinary and intense. He was totally absorbed in it. He couldn’t tell me WHY he liked it, and I could only wonder: Where did this feeling come from, how did it arise? Was it instinctual?

Some educators argue that a child's instinctual response isn't enough to help them appreciate high quality art (ie, no exposure, no understanding) and suggest guidance be provided as to what to look for, along the lines of an aesthetic treasure hunt––or exploration using a "common vocabulary of art" (The Painter's Eye: Learning to Look at Contemporary American Art by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, Delacorte, 1991, p. 8). And it seems to follow that children who have hands on artistic experiences will be more observant and react more appreciatively to book art––and recognize media they've used themselves: collage, paint, chalk, modeling clay.... But still, can we answer the question, What appeals?

Some have written that cartoonish and representational are a child’s favorite styles. Yet one child told me he didn’t like seeing faces pictured in books. He’d rather imagine them. Another was frightened by the lack of faces in my book Tukama Tootles the Flute (Orchard, 1994), illustrated by Synthia Saint James, On the other hand, the artist’s bold, almost abstractly conceived pages appeal to a wide audience, including the visually impaired, as I was gratefully informed by some parents. Given anecdotal evidence, there aren't any rules about what appeals to everyone or, in fact, what works best with a specific kind of text.

A story of few words might require more than simply designed, graphic illustrations. More complicated and detailed illustrations might carry the narrative above and beyond the text. When I’ve looked at picture books with older kids, I got more articulate responses about why they liked a certain book’s art. (One nice thing about working with children in the Virgin Islands––there is no stigma attached to reading picture books, while on the mainland I’ve heard them described disparagingly as baby books, even by parents.) These children delighted in visual narratives, including contradictory ones, surprises, and hidden treasures. On the other hand, once again, books read as readalouds in a group might benefit from bold images rather than detailed ones. And contrary to expectations, a very young lap book might benefit from detailed illustrations offering take off points for talking about things other than the story,  including objects, numbers, colors.

The popular psychologist, Penelope Leach, in her book Your Baby & Child: From Birth to Age Five (Knopf, 1989 edition), says that babies are entranced “by big, clear, illustrations of babies and older people doing familiar things” (p. 257), that toddlers’ attention will be held by “big, detailed illustrations of familiar scenes” (p. 360), and that a somewhat older child, “reading” pictures, is also preparing for reading words later on. “Try to find him books with big, colorful, detailed illustrations,” she advises, “rather than the sterile conventional A is for Antelope type” (p. 453). I was a little surprised to find her taking a stand, and such an odd one, regarding quality. In my experience alphabet books are more often artistic showcases and conceptual tours de force than sterile exercises! What I think she’s really intending to speak to is a certain level of visual storytelling and artistic quality that goes beyond the ordinariness and predictability of the dictionary.

Dr. Leach’s recommendations are broad, but specific studies HAVE been done trying to analyze children’s subject and style preferences. I found one old interesting document on-line: in 1941 thousands of children were asked what they would like an artist to paint for them. MOMA held a competition, and the winning artists of “pictures for children” would receive a princely $25. (To see the themes, check out this site.)

Judging quality and impact is a more difficult task. Judgments can be informed, based on knowledge and experience, but can also be elicited by an undefinable combination of nature and nurture. I say this because of the realization that came to me while sharing art preferences with my husband and with colleagues whose taste and judgments I respect. We almost always disagreed! That proved to me just how subjective a response to art can be, which led me to the view that judgment must go beyond education and to some sort of gut based, mind/body predilection.

"Kid appeal" aside, we’re now well beyond the point where children’s book art is viewed as second class or “only” for children. Original art from children’s books is being curated in museums and sold in galleries as its own art form, along with “fine art” and “graphic art.” Sometimes the distinctions seem fluid, just as literature crosses the boundaries of specific genres. If the text comes first, which had been a criticism of illustrations––that they were not Art with a capital A, isn’t it true that art historically served a story––most often a religious one?

Knowing the story, for most of us, enhances the art. The story helps us to understand the use of symbols, form, and color, and conversely, the art helps us to understand the story. The fact that picture book art, as part of its mandate, is aimed at appealing to a wide audience and confined to a specific format and storyline doesn't prevent it from being considered for its artistic values, above and beyond the text. Some contemporary picture books even reference the wonderful children’s book art of the past to add richness and wit to a story--Brian Lies in his terrific Bats at the Library (Houghton Mifflin, 2008), for example, and Marjorie Priceman in my book, This Is the Day (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), with her echos of Madeline. The new sophistication extends to the use of artistic styles ranging from the Naive to Renaissance, Surreal to Retro....

Professor Kay E. Vandergrift offers pointers on discussing and reviewing picture book art, a bibliography on children’s book illustration, as well as notes from her own and other books. The quotations are fascinating and offer food for thought. But in the end, I’m glad that scholarly research hasn’t been conclusive on the question of child appeal. If it had, we might never get to see such a great variety of artistic styles and pictorial voices in children’s books.

Aesthetic appreciation is still a mystery. After all, however incomprehensible it is to me, millions of people loved the work of Eloise Wilkins. And Dick and Jane have their fans too. Good grief, they’ve even made a comeback in the 21st century!



RETELLING TALES


People always ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” My answer:
from real life, dreams, a word or phrase--and other people’s stories.

Someone else’s story might grab my attention and beg me to retell it. I’m attracted to certain themes: loss, struggle, transformation, magic, overcoming, good vs evil––the stuff of legend and folktale. I’m drawn to the topics of food, family, art, music, and love. When I come across a story that comes after me, I want to “fix” it, or recreate it to reflect my own experience and values.

Nobody minds when a writer refashions a fairy tale. If the ogre is sympathetic, the prince turns out to be a bum, the princess is not helpless after all––that’s perfectly okay. But when it comes to adapting folktales from other cultures, questions arise. Questions about source, accuracy, multicultural sensitivity....

For example, can a non-African retell an African folktale? I believe there is such a thing as cultural “radar,” but I also believe that there are more differences within a group than between the empathetic of two different groups. We are all part of the human family, and we all have antennae, if we choose to wave them around a bit, that can provide us with good information. We can empathize. We can inhabit. We can imagine. In fact, sometimes it takes an outsider to reveal the value of a culture insiders may take for granted, or denigrate, or even try to suppress.

Besides, I like the idea that all writers are free to write about what touches them, no matter what their backgrounds may be. This isn’t to say I’m not interested in being true to the cultural source of a tale that pulls me into its orbit; I always research its setting and origins, and salt and pepper it with some specific, telling cultural details, but I need to make the story my own, too. And while that may mean the story is no longer completely authentic culturally, the process of adaptation is culturally authentic.

For Native Americans, a story has an independent life, to be nourished and to nourish. In Africa, the Hausa people say, “A story, a story, let it go, let it come.” Individual Ahamba storytellers reenact each story creatively, even to the extent of altering the ending. And as Ruth Finnegan wrote in her book, Limba Stories and Storytelling (Oxford, 1967), “There is no ‘received’ or correct text of any traditional story. Limba story-telling is a living art and the traditional themes and motifs find their realization in the actual performance, embellished on each separate occasion with differing dramatic devices, emphases, and wording, or with episodes or references peculiar to the occasion.”

What is most powerful in these tales is their universality; the same basic story and character type can be found in nearly every culture. But the variants make each one unique. They reflect particular cultures and a real, concrete sense of place. Turning that principle on its head, I have sometimes taken my favorite tales from childhood and placed them in a brand new cultural context, with a new twist or two. For instance, “The Fisherman and His Wife” became “Reina Sardina” (Spider, 3/2004), and “Stone Soup” became Kallaloo! (Cavendish, 2005; Little Bell Caribbean, 2013).

If I’m guilty of sanitizing a story, altering its trajectory, or making the characters more likable, as I did in Only One Cowry (Orchard, 2000), it’s not only because I’m writing for children, but because I’m writing a story I’d like to read myself. The source may be a traditional story that grabbed me, but it also has to become a story that satisfies my somewhat moralistic storytelling impulse. In the case of Only One Cowry, a trickster tale evolves from one of outright selfishness to one of sharing the wealth––and still keeps its tricky nature.

Retelling a story, I try to dust it off, shake it up, and make it fresh, or as Ezra Pound put it succinctly, “make it new,” as good a rule as any for creative interpretation, to which I’d add “make it your own.”