May 31, 2014

Making Every Minute Count: A Minor Philosophy

I was not yet a teen when a cousin of mine died suddenly- spinal meningitis- in her senior year of high school. I recall vividly hearing the similar comments over and over: she never got to live her life; she should have had the time to finish college, marry, have children. 
And I vividly recall thinking, as much as I understood their pain and sense of loss,  "No, she had the life she was meant to have. If it ended then, it is all she was ever meant to have." 

I was a strange kid, I guess. I saw no reason to assume that I would live to be thirteen or eighteen or eighty.

I  decided at that stage of my life that none of us are promised a minute more life than the moment we are living. Whatever opportunities or challenges you face - to do good work, to solve a problem, to help a friend or stranger, to lighten someone's day, to savor the present experience - may never be there again. Do-overs and second chances are never promised. What we are doing right now may be the last thing we'll ever do.


Accepting honorary doctoral degree at UConn.
Recently I shared a small sampling of the work of  the prolific and illustrious illustrator, Wendell Minor. He certainly has more reason than I did to arrive at a similar conclusion. His reasons for such an approach to life began at birth and continued throughout his long life.  
In an interview with me earlier this year he described having multiple heart surgeries. The first two where when he was twenty, in 1964, while still in art school. The last was life-saving surgery for an aortic aneurysm eight years ago at Yale-New Haven Hospital.  Throughout his life he has lived with the restrictions and knowledge of his continuing vulnerability to sudden death. He attended school before such labels were commonly applied, but his school career suggested patterns of dyslexia and other academic challenges. Yet his naturalist, environmentally aware father instilled in him a deep understanding and appreciation of the physical world surrounding him. That, and his undeniable artistic talent, allowed him to find his place in the world.
FROM OUR INTERVIEW:
WM: "My heart surgeon just wrote a book called Extraordinary Hearts, profiling ten patients of the ten thousand he has operated on, about how individual patients have changed his attitudes about life. I was one of those. I always say adversity is  something that  gives you a gift at the same time. An awareness of  mortality at an early age was reinforcement of the idea that I couldn’t waste my time doing work that I didn’t  want to do. But I knew at fourth grade that for some reason, since I couldn’t go out for sports, that I could garner attention with my artwork. That became the replacement for me excelling at sports."
Berkley Trade Paperback, April 2014



Again, from the interview:
WM: "Coming from a blue collar background- my father worked in a factory. It was hard for people with that background to imagine a living being made from something so far outside their experience. Parents want kids to have security.

When I hear parents and teachers advising young writers to choose majors that are “safe”, I urge them to help their child explore possibilities that would allow them to relate, to work in the fields that  they love."

During his career as a cover illustrator he first met Jean Craighead George. Her writing has been a monumental expression of her dedication to preservation of nature through science and the power of story. (Brief biography here.)  Wendell and his wife Florence came to be very close friends with Jean and her family, collaborating on numerous projects, some of which I've written posts about earlier.

Jean's very long life ended two years ago while still working on a middle grade historical fiction and leaving a wealth of unpublished manuscripts on which to draw. I'm currently reading ICE WHALE, that last work in progress that was lovingly and knowledgeably completed by her adult children, Twig and Craig George. Wendell Minor is completing work on her picture book text about Crowbar the Crow, a member of the menagerie that made up Jean's extended family at various points in her life. Crowbar's story appeared earlier in Jean's non-fiction book, A TARANTULA IN MY PURSE, which chronicled many of the animals who shared her home over the years.


It was the recent (and quite sudden) death of Maya Angelou at age 86 that triggered these reflections. Whether we have ten years or eighteen or eighty-six, making each moment matter, treating it as our last chance to do something worthwhile, to be our best selves, is a choice. No one states that better than Dr. Angelou herself in her reading of one of her most famous poems: I RISE

What does all this have to do with picture books? It reminds me of the commitment, the incredible talent, wisdom, and life's work that go into creating the best of the best in children's literature, very often in picture books. It's about the incredible potential of using a very few minutes in the present moment to share that beauty, inspiration, humor, information, and wonder with readers of any age. It's about allowing readers, writers, artists, at their earliest ages, to find themselves in such works and experience curiosity, humor, understanding, and motivation to read, to write, to explore, to draw, to investigate.
It's a plea to seize every opportunity to share picture books and the stories of those who create them.
That's what it has to do with picture books.

May 25, 2014

Memorial Day Flashback

I've been considering what to include in the Memorial Day weekend post. 

My thoughts automatically turn to my dad, who lived through World War II despite his participation in the Battle of the Bulge, among other European theaters of combat. Recently I compared notes with some friends who also had WWII veteran dads. In all cases we agreed that our dads had shared very little about their experiences  as we were growing up. But when the fiftieth anniversary of the end of WWII brought it into the spotlight in 1995, it was as if a door clicked open. In bits and pieces and sometimes artifacts, letters, and  other memorabilia, their stories began to trickle out, often building to a stream of stories and details we had never heard.

Before  I started to address these reflections, I went back to my prior posts about this particular weekend. After rereading it,  the post I prepared during the first year of this blog (May, 2012) struck me as worthy of re-airing. In fact, It outshines any thoughts I was assembling at present.

That's because Memorial Day, in my opinion, should remind us not only of the individuals who served us so well over so many different conflicts. It should remind us of the need for all of us, as a HUMAN race, to realize that wars don't just "happen", that the choices, actions, opinions, and emotional tone we adopt on a daily basis all contribute to an atmosphere that is MORE or LESS conducive to war, to violence, to hatred.

The legacy we inherit, the responsibility we can accept or deny, what we OWE to all those who served and sacrificed, is to make ourselves aware during every moment of our lives that each person matters. That WE matter. That we can shoos how we interact with others while so many others are no longer around to make those choices.

To find some recommended titles that might help us understand our place in this Memorial Day, I hope you'll consider reading it here.

May 21, 2014

Nothing MINOR About This Exhibit: Time's Running Out

Things have been pretty hectic in my life lately, in a very good way. 


Published by Norman Rockwell Museum, 2013

Still, I'm compelled to take time to remind readers to get to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts before it's too late to view WENDELL MINOR'S AMERICA. He has enjoyed forty years of success in the very competitive arena of illustration, but the exhibit  celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of his picture book art. The exhibit concludes May 27, so the clock is ticking.
Here's a description from the exhibit site:

"Wendell Minor’s America celebrates the artist’s four-decade career, highlighting his twenty-fifth anniversary as a preeminent illustrator of children’s books, each inspired by his love of history, art, science, and the natural world. More than 150 artworks gleaned from his expansive visual chronicles, and commentary reflecting on his collaborations with our nation’s most prominent authors, scientists, and historians, showcase a quarter-century of unforgettable picture book art."

I was lucky enough to have an extended interview with the artist a few weeks ago and will share some of his remarks about the exhibit here, with more to follow on other topics in coming weeks. After discussing his childhood, art training, and early years in commercial work, he described his earliest days in New York City:

WM:  "When I left for Manhattan I had a portfolio and a lot of dreams but I had no idea what was in store for me. Within three weeks I got a job. I got paid for forty hours a week and worked a hundred hours."


Further into the conversation he discussed the current exhibit of his twenty-five years as a picture book artist:

WM: David McCullough came (to the museum) to deliver the opening lecture for my exhibit and we did an open seminar the next day. He asked if I would walk him through the gallery before it was opened for the crowds. There are three major galleries for this show, with 350 major pieces. 
He said to me: How do you have time to do all this? 
And I just said: Look who’s talking. (Link here for more about David McCullough.)

Painting is a Zen experience. It’s a universe you can get lost in and almost be unconscious of the world around you. When I looked at the exhibit with David it was one of those seminal moments when you look at your own life and say: My God, look at all this work, and this is only the tip of the iceberg!

But, you know, you get one day at a time, and you get X number of hours in that day, and depending on how you utilize that time determines what you can produce.
I do think my obsession with work is legendary, but I have only a fixed amount of years on this planet and I want to make the most if them.

SB: I can certainly see why, given your medical history. It must be on your mind often. (Earlier in the discussion he had described the limiting conditions of his congenital heart defects, surgeries, and more recent aortic aneurysm surgery.)

WM: It is in my mind every minute of the day. I have an artificial heart valve now, too, … so I’m like an old car- (laughs) I had my valve replaced and my hoses replaced, but I keep chugging along.
I’ve become very health conscious and do everything mentally and physically possible to take care of myself and last as long as possible. 

...Extended discussion ensues on other topics...

WM: I like to tell kids- whatever you can imagine for yourself,  don’t take no for an answer. If someone else tells you that you can’t, it’s only because of their limited perspective in not being able to see the possibilities that you see for yourself.

The interview was full of wise advice, laughable anecdotes, and personal reflections. I look forward to sharing more in future posts. It's obvious this retrospective and related lectures, appearances, and interviews have Wendell Minor reviewing his life in detail. In fact, an autobiography is under consideration, and I sincerely hope he makes that come to pass.

If you, like me, are limited by location and schedules so that you won't be able to attend, at least read through Anita Silvey's Book-A-Day Almanac post on the commemorative book published (for adults) in connection with this exhibit. (Buy it here.

The very good news is that arrangements are underway to allow the exhibit to travel to major art venues around the country. Stay tuned for more about this as plans are released. 

And a huge thanks to Florence Minor, for first introducing me to Wendell, and to Wendell Minor for the generosity of his time and the dedication of his talent to the world of picture books.


May 14, 2014

Celebrating the Norwegian Spirit: Yo, Vikings!




In this post on my website blog, I wrote about a fantastic yet true-to-life book created by Judith Byron Schachner, of SKIPPYJON JONES fame. 
Original, 2005, the first of many.

As the weekend approaches and I load books and supplies for my signing in Stoughton, Wisconsin on Syttende Mai, Norwegian Constitution Day, I'll share the post here. Judith was a featured faculty member at our Fall Wisconsin SCBWI (writers/illustrators) conference last October and shared her story about creating Yo, Vikings! She's as entertaining and genuine as a speaker as she is a talented author and illustrator. Sometimes, though, life drops a story in your lap. This appears to be especially true if your lap resides in Judith's household, apparently, and if the lap happens to be hers. I hope you'll enjoy reading more of what I mean, and of the true Viking/Norwegian spirit this book portrays.

It’s another new year.
Rather than reflect on resolutions, plans, and goal-setting, I’m taking a different tack. This is only one of many (MANY) new years I’ve welcomed in with well-considered, constructive resolutions. Truth be told, that’s worked out well for me over the years.
Writing has always figured prominently among those plans. With resolutions to guide me, I’ve managed to write more, write in wider genres, learn more about writing, develop professional associations, find writing partners, and share my writing with wider audiences, including social media.
No regrets there. All of the above, and more, have led me to where I stand today, anticipating the release of Odin’s Promise in just a few months. Actually, MAY 17, Saturday!
But…
What if I had been bolder, more imaginative, and even a tad foolish in the scope of my earlier intents?
What if I had been more  like a Viking?
vikings250
Or at least like the daring protagonist in Judith Byron Schachners picture book, YO, VIKINGS!  My previous methodical resolutions led me to become an active member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), including attendance at conferences. At our  October Wisconsin gathering I was privileged to hear Judy speak about her work. In the course of a lively, informative presentation on her process, her inspirations, and the irrepressible SkippyJonJones, she shared the family story behind YO, VIKINGS!
Click here to read about her bold and imaginative daughter Emma, and to view a news video of the real thing- Emma, Judy, and their backyard Viking ship!
This book is a treasure on many levels: compelling characters, vibrant and richly detailed illustrations that extend the text, delightful language, and the most improbably true story you’ll ever read.
YO, VIKINGS! nudges me outside the comfort zone of my previous resolutions. Meeting Emma in the pages of this book inspires me to imagine beyond the “reasonable” or even “possible”  and set my sights on the vast unknown. Emma didn’t hobble her dreams to methodical steps, nor wait for Star Trek Captain Jean Luc to “make it so”.  She spoke her dreams publicly, she recognized the hand of fate when it showed itself, and she took its hand eagerly. The results were beyond even her wildest dreams.
The fact that Emma’s imagination happened to land in the realm of Vikings is my signal that fate is offering me opportunities and adventures this year that could lead beyond my annual steady pace. Rather than approaching 2014 with plans and persistence, I intend to follow Emma’s lead. I’ll keep Judy’s book propped on my desk as a reminder to sail into this year with true Viking bravado!
There. I said it publicly. Watch me.
Crispin Books, 2014

Back to now. Saturday I'll be facing large crowds of people who are strangers, not the welcoming smiles of friends and writing colleagues at the book's birthday party. Granted, they'll arrive with a strong interest in all things Norwegian, but with no predetermined interest in Odin's Promise or in me. But I'll be there, proud to share my own admiration for Norway's history and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. 
Odds not unlike those facing bold little Emma Schachner when she first called out, 

Yo, Vikings!


May 3, 2014

Illustration Celebrations: Introspective and Retrospective

Crispin Books, April, 2014
I can't help feeling guilty about neglecting this blog for the past couple of weeks, even though I posted a warning I'd be focusing on my author blog at www.SandyBrehl.com/blog for a month or two in conjunction with the release of my middle grade historical novel, ODIN'S PROMISE.
Click to the blog above later to find links to giveaways from various blog tour hosts.

I've been busy in the best possible ways, but never too busy to feel guilty when it comes to letting my attention to picture books slide. Let me assure you that I have been working on material for this post and for several future ones, and now the calendar demands I procrastinate no longer.



The reason for my return is to extend my own celebration to two worlds of illustration. The first was triggered by the arrival of the March/April Horn Book Magazine in my mailbox, a special issue on illustration. I particularly loved this quotation from Roger Sutton's editorial on the unique value and function of picture books in literacy development:
"To echo another social media meme, Leave the Kindergarteners Alone! It's our job to read to them; it's their job to look at the pictures; it's the pictures' job to join the story with the imaginations of those who read it and those who hear it. As the many examples in this special issue demonstrate, that job continues to be performed admirably."

A quick glance at the titles and authors of the articles in the Table of Contents (here) should convince you to get to a library or bookstore and read it cover to cover. Where else could you enjoy (over and over) the wisdom and insights of so many masters of the art of illustration in a single sitting. That's what I did, even though it meant I had to let a few important to-do items wait.

If you absolutely, positively can't read it now, it will be there waiting for you when you get to it, but GET TO IT, as a favor to yourself. 

The more important reason for getting back to posting here is that some things won't be there waiting for us if we miss them now.This is an event I will miss out on, but you don't have to.
Wendell Minor, “Heartland (Red Barn Flag),” 1989.
Cover illustration for “Heartland” by Diane Siebert,
Thomas Y. Crowell, New York. ©Wendell 
Make it a point to get to the Wendell Minor retrospective exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum, celebrating 25 Years of Children's Book Art. The exhibit began November 9, 2013, but the clock is ticking. May 26 is the final day to see this incredible collection, entitled Wendell Minor's America. No excuses, folks, take a few minutes to click the link above and view the embedded video in which Minor describes his early years, the forces behind his development as an artist and nature lover. and his professional assignments prior to and related to working on picture books. His reflections on the role of illustrations in picture books is in perfect harmony with Sutton's comments.


Norman Rockwell Museum Composite,
Wendell Minor Retrospective

In the video he says: 
"The unique thing about a picture book is that they aren't just 16 or 20 pictures together, they all have to relate together, to flow together.In a good picture book you should be able to not read the words and still get the message through the pictures, and the words add that extra dimension."

I would add that this is true not only for story picture books for the very young, but for the most sophisticated non-fiction subject matter. Even when the text has demanded huge amounts of research and sophisticated knowledge, illustrations such as Minor's reveal nuance, intricacy, and dynamics that text alone can never fully describe.

Harper Collins, April 2014
Minor recently indulged me with a lengthy phone interview. I'll return in a week or two with another post sharing some of the many things he spoke about in that interview, including spotlights on just a few of the many picture books he has created alone and in partnership with remarkable authors. In my last post I reviewed his latest release, GALAPAGOS GEORGE, written by Jean Craighead George. He has several new works scheduled for release in the coming year which will be previewed in that post. 

In the meantime, if you are anywhere in the vicinity of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, get there before this exhibit ends. Minor's art is impressive enough in the quality pages publishers use to best display his work, but an opportunity to view the original art should not be missed. Sadly, I will not be able to get to the coast during this exhibit. If you've been there, go back and take my virtual eyes. By all means, add comments about your experience there. 
Go ahead, rub it in. At least I have many of his books to console me, and a signed catalogue of the exhibit, which I cherish.




Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.