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.
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.

1 comment:

  1. Such beautiful thoughts, and always timely! This is something I've learned for myself, but find I have to learn again and again. Thank you for sharing this with me, and helping me to remember. :)


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