Thursday, February 20, 2014

Esprit d'Escalier

JANICE:  French for Wit from the Staircase: Meaning, as you leave the party in a friend's apartment and start downstairs, you think of the perfect answer to someone's remark, too late to say it. Which is one reason I write books. It gives me time to think of what my characters need to say.

I remember working on A MARE FOR YOUNG WOLF at our dining room table (before I had a real studio). Young Wolf has just been thrown off his horse in front of two other boys. What does he say or do? He's angry and humiliated. Maybe he curses, I thought. But what words? Suddenly they came. "Oh, buffalo chips!" I had a good laugh. As did my editor at Random House, Mallory Loehr, and her colleagues.


At the end of A PEDDLER'S DREAM when Solomon, a peddler, finally realizes his dream of having an elegant store of his own, he and his beloved Marie host an opening party. When the musicians begin to play, Solomon takes Marie's hand and asks if she will dance with an old peddler whose dream has come true.

What meaningful words could she say? What was this story about? I asked myself. It's about a dream, making a dream come true. I put myself in her place, looked up at Solomon's expectant face, and my answer came. "A peddler with a dream is more than a peddler."

They danced and so did we.


Solomon and Marie
Janice and Tom















Now for COMANCHE SONG, my historical novel set in the Hill Country of Texas in 1840. This is the story of  a Comanche boy, son and grandson of peace chiefs. 

We are in a council meeting where the tribal leaders are discussing how to deal with white man's invasion. After the peace chief has proposed establishing a line between them and making peace, the war chief says, "The tejanos will stop at no such line. The only way to show them the land is ours is to kill any man who steps upon it!"

It is Grandfather who replies: "We have a saying among our people that the brave die young. But I say, the wise grow old." The corner of his mouth twitched, and he paused. "When the young stop listening to the elders, they run blindly like buffalo and follow one another over the cliff to die."

I love it.

And finally some words from SOPHIE'S WAR, another historical novel set in the Hill Country, this one during the Civil War.  Sophie is the daughter of German immigrants, many of whom were Unionists in a state that had seceded from the Union. They were called traitors and persecuted by Confederate ruffians who burned their cabins and hanged their men. Sophie's father is an editorial cartoonist who expresses his Unionist views and thus is in danger. Sophie must find a way to save her family.

She comes home from school one day and finds Papa at work on a cartoon about the death of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston in a battle with Unionists. Boldly she grabs the cartoon from his drawing board and tears it in two, saying he can't send it to the newspaper. 

"I'm afraid the Vigilance Committee will come after you."
Papa laid down his pen and stood. "I have been patient with your fears, Sophie, but this is going too far." He reached out his hand. "Now, give it back"
I shook my head.

What can Papa say? He brought his family to Texas so they would be free to speak their minds. After going downstairs, I thought of his reply. And it involved William Tell.

"Sophie, do you want to let the Vigilance Committee rule the world? If so, go ahead, tear the cartoon into a thousand little pieces, and I'll cower at their feet. Is that what you want - a coward for a father?"
I shook my head. Oh, what did I want?
"Do you think I'm not afraid too?" Papa asked.
"I don't know, Papa. Aren't you like William Tell?"
"I try to be, but he was afraid when he was forced to shoot an apple from his son's head. Remember how his arm trembled?"
"I remember."
"But he did what he had to do. And I will do no less, even if I have to draw the cartoon again. In times like these we all have to do what we are afraid to do."

He did and so did Sophie.





Monday, October 21, 2013

I, Papa Haydn

JANICE:  Tom's illustrations for our picture book biography, I, Papa Haydn, are now finished and sent to the publisher in Seoul. Since it will be published in Korean, you may never see the cover with an English title like this one — but you might. Hopefully an American publisher will buy the foreign rights because we need to keep up with those Koreans!



















And here is the full wraparound cover painting. It shows Haydn performing for his patron, Prince Esterhazy, at his summer palace in Hungary. We visited this palace on a cold winter's day and found it closed. If you want to know how we managed to get in, see "Research Adventure," posted here on January 24, 2010. Tom took photographs of the Music Salon where Haydn and his orchestra performed for the prince, his family, and friends.

The illustration below shows Papa Haydn and his orchestra performing the "Farewell Symphony" in the Music Salon. One year Prince Esterhazy stayed so long in his palace that summer turned into fall. The musicians, who were not allowed to bring their families, were anxious to return home to Vienna. One of them asked "Papa" Haydn to tell the Prince it was time to go back. Haydn said, "A servant does not tell his prince what to do. But maybe I can think of a way to hint." And he did — with music.

He composed the "Farewell Symphony," and the orchestra performed it. One by one each musician's part ended. He blew out his candle, tucked his instrument under his arm and walked out. You can see the man carrying his cello out of the salon to the right, while Prince Esterhazy and his wife look at each other, wondering what is happening.  Finally only Haydn was left at the piano and the symphony ended. Prince Esterhazy understood, and the next day they left for Vienna.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Becoming an Architect and Artist

TOM:  One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor, watching my mother paint in oils. She was inspired by scenes of Venice by William Turner, and here is one of the results.












Growing up in Seattle's rainy climate, I had plenty of time indoors to draw, paint, and cartoon for my school newspaper. I was always drawing, sometimes in class when I was not supposed to.  One of my favorite subjects was horses.














Fortunately I had a very wise teacher in the fourth grade, Miss Pearl. She once sent me out in the hall, not as punishment but to paint a Thanksgiving mural. Drawing became my ticket to social acceptance and good grades, especially when encouraged to illustrate my reports. I got an "A" on a report about Marco Polo for which I made a cover illustration of him standing at the bow of a ship, his hand shading his eyes as he looked forward to his great adventure.

Our home was blessed with a library of beautifully illustrated editions of the classics such as The Boy's King Arthur, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I knew the stories through the pictures before I read them.







On my ninth birthday I received a set of Compton's Pictured Encyclopedia. I remember opening one of the volumes to a picture of the Temple of Karnak on the Nile River and marveling at the mighty columns that dwarfed the man standing between them. Then on Career Day in high school an architect showed his drawings of beautiful buildings, and I, still dreaming of the Temple of Karnak, decided to use my artistic talent to become an architect. My attorney father was relieved that I would not become a "starving artist." As it turned out, I am now both.

During my travels here and abroad I have never been without sketchpad and painting tools. When Janice and I married, we took a year-long honeymoon trip around the world via freighters. I sketched and painted the whole time. Here I am relating to the Meows, a tribe living in the mountains near Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. They did not want their photograph taken, but delighted in my sketches of them - so much so that Janice managed to snap one quick photo. Many of these drawings are included in Janice's travel memoir,  Honeymoon Hobos.














We continued this writer-illustrator collaboration in children's books. While not working on a book, I paint scenes that inspire me, such as "Capitol Guardians." I was overwhelmed by the view from the Congress Avenue bridge of our graceful old Texas capitol "guarded" by such powerful new structures.
Since I could not set up an easel in the middle of the Congress Avenue bridge, I took photos when the traffic let up. Back in my studio I made a small pencil sketch, a few color studies, then had the sketch enlarged to full size, transferred it to watercolor paper, and painted. Whew!







Occasionally I do plein aire painting from start to finish, especially in Venice, as you can see in this photo. That way I'm not a tourist - I'm part of the scene.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Little Free Library

JANICE:  On my early morning walks in our neighborhood I had long admired a fancy mailbox across the street at curbside. It looked like a miniature wooden house with a glass door, brown walls, and green polka dots. Since I assumed it was private, I had not taken a closer look. But one day curiosity lured me across the street, and I discovered that above the door was written, Little Free Library! And through the glass I saw books! The door had a flowered porcelain doorknob so I opened it and found a whole world. "Take a book, return a book," a sign said.


To my surprise I found a treasure, an old edition of Otto of the Silver Hand, written and illustrated by Howard Pyle and first published in 1888. I took it home to read. As a lover and author of children's books, I had read about this classic but had never seen a copy. This one is in near perfect condition, a beautifully designed book telling a sweet but violent story set in Germany during the Middle Ages. After Otto's mother dies in childbirth, his father, Baron Conrad, takes him to a nearby monastery to be raised by the monks. Otto is a gentle boy who at the age of twelve is suddenly thrust back into the violent world of the Baron when he comes for his son.


Howard Pyle is not only a fine storyteller, his pen and ink illustrations are powerful, like this one that shows the Baron bringing his wounded son back to the monastery. Pyle taught N.C. Wyeth who did full color illustrations for Robin Hood, Treasure Island, and other classics. It is easy to see Pyle's influence in Wyeth's illustration for The Boys King Arthur, below.


Thank you, neighbors for the opportunity to read Otto of the Silver Hand. I shall return it as well as add some of my own books. Perhaps one day on a visit to your library I will meet you. Meanwhile I have discovered that there are Little Free Libraries all over the world with the purpose of creating communities that share books and reading. You can learn more on their website: www.littlefreelibrary.org





Thursday, May 23, 2013

Immortality and the Memoir

JANICE:  Immortality. We all yearn for it, and one way to get it is by writing a memoir. As the saying goes, "Write yourself into existence." I decided to do just that.

I began by reading other people's memoirs. My favorite was Rosemary Sutcliff's Blue Remembered Hills. She is also the author of Eagle of the Ninth, a historical novel of Roman Britain that I keep on my desk at all times for inspiration.


















Next I read books on writing a memoir, and the one that set me on fire was The Autobiographer's Handbook, edited by Jennifer Traig with an introduction by Dave Eggers. His first book, a memoir titled  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He said, "You should write your story because you will someday die, and without your story on paper, most of it will be forgotten." The Handbook is like a panel discussion among expert memoirists on all the elements of writing an autobiography.



















As with any creative project, the hardest part is beginning. But as Goethe said, "First you must begin and then the mind grows heated."

I think the best way to begin is not at the beginning but with a vivid memory of an event in your life. Write it down. Each day write a memory. Chronology doesn't matter, just write what comes to mind. Doing so will bring up more memories day after day. When you have emptied your memory bank, read through them and look for a theme to learn what your memoir is about. I found that my story was about searching for the life in me.

As I began to put the pieces of memories together, I felt the need to bring them alive with dialogue - not that I always remembered the exact words people spoke, but I remembered the event and the characters
involved, and I invented dialogue. Suddenly the memory came alive, dragged out of the past.

William Faulkner said, "The past is not dead. It is not even past." And with a memoir as with historical fiction, the past becomes the present. It took me a year to put memories together, then another year to get the book published. Now the story of my life from birth to Tom is told in a bound hardcover book. It's not for sale anywhere. I made it for family and friends so that my story would not be forgotten.



















Becoming Alive  is a prequel to Honeymoon Hobos, the story of our yearlong trip around the world. For more about this travel memoir, which is available to the public, see my 2011 blogs on September 1st and 23rd.


















I intend to continue my life story in a third memoir while continuing to write children's books. So now, back to work!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rewards

JANICE:  Writing and illustrating books is hard but joyous work and has enormous rewards. The best reward of all is hearing about a reader relating to the story and being affected by it.

There are many other rewards and we recently had two. I was inducted into the august company of writers in the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL) They have decided that children's books are literature. Hooray!

Out of 15 new members I was the only writer for children. Each of us was asked to read from one of our books, and I chose I, Vivaldi. Tom stood beside me and showed his illustrations. If only the organization was called the Texas Institute of Letters and Illustrations (TILI), Tom would be a member too.

I must say those august writers seemed to enjoy our picture book biography. It is indeed a book for all ages.


Even better was our experience at the Texas Library Association Conference in Fort Worth. Tom and I donated an original illustration from I, Vivaldi titled "First Lesson." It was raffled off at $5 per ticket to raise money for the Texas Library Disaster Relief Fund. Fortunately and unfortunately it will be used to help libraries in West, Texas, recover from the recent explosion tragedy.

Tom drew the winning ticket onstage before 4000 enthusiastic librarians. The illustration was won by Willie Braudaway, a library consultant. Congratulations and farewell "First Lesson."

First  Lesson
After the drawing we were ushered to front row seats for Neil Gaiman's speech that he titled, "What the Very Bad Swear Word Is a Children's Book?" a charming, thought-provoking performance by the winner of the Newbery Award for The Graveyard Book.

During the conference Tom and I signed copies of I, Vivaldi in our publisher's booth, Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, with the help of editor Kathleen Merz. All very rewarding!




Saturday, February 23, 2013

Love Story

JANICE:  We recently received a letter from a teacher in Pocatello, Idaho, that brought back warm memories of a school visit Tom and I made a few years ago. It turned into a love story between a boy who did not like to read and a book, between an author and illustrator and a reader, and between two cultures.

 Never could I have imagined what would happen when I answered a letter from a fifth grade Shoshone boy in Pocatello named Samuel. He said our three books about Young Wolf "are the first ones I loved." Could we please write another?


Yes, we could. We called the next book Son of Spirit Horse and dedicated it to Samuel as a surprise.








Then it was our turn to be surprised. Through Samuel's teacher, Kaye Turner, we were invited to Pocatello for an author-illustrator visit to schools in the city and on Fort Hall Reservation. There we met Samuel, his parents, grandmother, and great grandmother, matriarch of the family.

As a culmination to our visit we gave a public presentation at Idaho State University. Samuel invited the tribal spiritual leader to play the drum and sing tribal songs as an opener for our program. After explaining the meaning, LeeJuan sang a song in Shoshone, paced by his drum, asking the Creator to bless the education of their young people and keep them on the "good road."

There is still hatred and prejudice between the Shoshone and whites in Idaho. Sadly, the Fort Hall Reservation had the highest suicide rate in the country. I had been told that the Shoshone never shared their language with whites. It is the only thing we have not taken from them. To ask how to say a word in Shoshone is to risk offending.

I decided to take the risk. After the drumming and songs, I began by saying "good evening" in every language I know bits of - Japanese, Italian, Greek, Spanish, French, German - as a way of introducing my theme of learning from other cultures rather than clashing with them. Then I asked if anyone knew how to say good evening in another language. LeeJuan spoke up and taught me the Shoshone words right there on the spot.
Todd (Father), Syrina (Mother), Samuel, Janice, Tom

So, here's to Samuel's future. May he stay on the good road. He did not like to read and now he does.  It is a thrill to be part of such a transformation. And it is a thrill to connect with another culture.