Kindness is a Wonderful Thing

This morning I received a Christmas greeting from a lovely illustrator of children’s books. It was unexpected, and most welcome. It reminded me how easy it is to reach out across the world with a kind word, and I wondered why we don’t do it more often.

As I sit here in my winter, behind with my projects and trying not to beat myself up for not getting my owl books finished for the Christmas stockings, her message from summery New Zealand lifted me and in some quiet way turned my thoughts back to my projects with a lightness I hadn’t felt for a while.

Later in the day I was tidying my large assortment of papers, trying to weed out a few of the older ones. Was it coincidence that among those papers was a delightful, but long-forgotten, greeting card from the same illustrator, sent on a very different occasion? lisa allen card

I enjoy her illustrations. They are whimsical, light, good fun. They can be touching, poignant, memorable. Somehow, even when the books are as diverse as “Anzac Day Parade” and “A Hot Cup of Chocolate” the illustrations still show her distinctive hand. It got me thinking about how, when we are being true to ourselves, things are cohesive; everything fits together well.

Lisa, who sent me both the card and the Christmas message, is also a kind and generous artist who has willingly given her time to discuss – at some length on the phone – the technical aspects of illustrating with me. So, this dark and foggy evening, my post is not about what I am doing, but about what we could all be doing. It’s about sharing kindness. Sharing a little kindness is not difficult. A message that takes you a few minutes to write might just be the sunshine in someone’s day.

And yes, Christmas is nearly here, but is not too late to add more books to the gifts under the tree. And if they are illustrated by Lisa Allen, you are sure to have fun with them too.

Social Media – Friend or Foe?

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I have been multi-tasking recently. Nothing new, you might say. Multi-tasking is the norm. But multi-tasking plus social media is a complicated new dimension.

Authors and artists, even with conventional publishing and galleries, are now required to do a large part of their own marketing. This has advantages and, in my opinion, many disadvantages. If your primary focus is creating, then any time spent marketing is time off-task. Nor is it as simple as division of time. There is so much to learn before marketing can begin. Often writers and artists lack the skills for, or interest in, marketing their product.

Self published authors know from the outset that they will need to do their own promotions. The growth of the internet, of online marketing and sales, and the dramatic growth of the self publishing industry has sent authors scrambling to the web to research marketing. There are many avenues to choose from, and it is difficult to select from the different types as recommendations vary widely, but choose we must.

According to Tim Grahl there are six different types of social media. It is not simply a matter of choosing between Facebook or blogging. There are social networks (like Facebook and LinkedIn), bookmarking sites, social news systems (like Digg and Redit), media sharing (would Youtube work for you?) Perhaps you enjoy the immediacy of microblogging? (Microblogging uses media systems like Twitter). Blogging with comments and forums is another popular form of marketing and communicating.

What kind of social media will work for you? How much time will you invest in it? Will you learn a new system to achieve your goals? Should you put all of this into the hands of someone who is genuinely interested in marketing and how social media works, and put your own time into doing what you do best?

Facebook is a platform I know reasonably well. Yes, I can use it, but the danger is that I will become distracted and soon be off task. Pinterest is another useful mine-field. How does one research without following all those delightful pathways? Social media becomes detrimental to productivity – Foe. But wait, surely that seductiveness is exactly the reason we are investing time in the social media – Friend?

Friend or Foe? Using social media should be a part of any business plan, and have an allocated slot in the working week. Social media is potentially the marketer’s Friend, but too many times has become the creative writer/illustrator/artist’s Foe.

How High is the Fence?

blog corn pic
Today as I drove through beautiful Italian countryside towards the town of Pontecorvo I passed a field of corn. It is two weeks since last saw it and thought to myself “It wont be up to the top of the fence by Christmas”. Today I thought “three weeks until Christmas, and yes, it is almost high enough”.

I smile as I make these apparently ridiculous silent observations, all the while calculating how far we are here in Italy, now in June, from the equivalent growing season in New Zealand. The fact that this Pontecorvo cornfield has no fence around it at all is totally irrelevant. In my mind it is growing fast towards that goal, racing to reach the top of the imaginary fence in my relocated “Christmas” marker of time.

Why is it important that the corn (or maize, as I knew it) be up to the fence by Christmas? Well, apparently – at least for the cultivars planted when I was a child – the crops that had reached fence height by Christmas would almost certainly be mature enough to harvest, and store in the cribs with netting to keep out the birds, before the bad weather arrived. If the plants hadn’t reached the fence by Christmas then there was the risk that the corn wouldn’t dry out and keep, or, worse still, the risk that it wouldn’t be harvested if the rains came and the heavy machinery became bogged in the mud.

How is this relevant to a book blog? It struck me this morning that the phrase “up to the top of the fence by Christmas” had become a part of who I am, how I think. As a child I noticed the crops, the fence tops, and the season. Things we learn in a nurturing environment stay with us.

I thought then of the other associations that spin out from this: happy memories of sitting in the crib turning the cobs, ostensibly making sure that they were drying right through, but in fact savouring the colours, the silky feel of the smooth grains of corn, and enjoying being up in the crib which was like a tree house to me. Happy memories also of the books I read, and the colours in the illustrations that reflected my childhood. Phrases from some of those books stay with me too. Who could ever forget the Little Red Hen, or Henny Penny with poor Chicken Licken as the sky began to fall? Childhood memories shape us, if we let them.

I enjoy revisiting memories from my childhood; always happy ones. But, oddly enough, when I look back at these memories now I often see them in pen and wash, as book illustrations, as fictional things. I am blurring fact and fiction; smelling the dust at my feet and the dogs in the kennels nearby, feeling the sun on my skin as I pull myself up into the maize crib, looking back to only the golden weather.

I would love to sketch the children clambering up into the maize crib. The image has come before the story. I am beginning to think that the best books for very young children are those that are firmly grounded in reality, a secure place from which they can reach out and explore. Is there a book in that “rich garnered grain”?

I doubt that I could easily locate an old maize crib with corrugated iron roof and the birds hovering around. There my memory will have to suffice. It is not too difficult to find a crop of corn to draw; like Christmas, the season is approaching. I do wonder, however, “How high is the fence?”

From the Studio

view from studioToday in glorious weather the view from my studio on Monte Asprano is distracting. This morning began with a brisk 6am walk. This afternoon I was high up on Colle Abate, a rocky but not too difficult climb. The heat of the sun was eased by a fresh and welcome breeze. Tonight the fireflies will entice me outside again. Two little dogs love being nearby, keeping me company as I work. I am counting my blessings and feeling grateful for my interesting life.

Photograph: early morning vista from my studio window.

Do Book Illustrations Have Gender?

I took a gentle wander through some recent photographs looking for one to post here today. It hit me that even photographs seem to have a gender bias. One folder of lovely wisteria against salmon coloured walls looked far more feminine than other folders of photographs. The observation surprised me, and set me thinking about gender bias in books.

I see this photograph as being feminine, yet the photograph could well have been taken by a man. Is it the colours that make me think this?

blog wisteria

When I took the photo I was looking at colour, depth of field, composition, but not thinking gender at all. Am I influenced by the feminine gender words bella vista, bella panorama, perhaps? Would I see it as less feminine if I had composed it differently, and thought of it as a great view?

I looked for another photo from that day. Is this one more masculine? It’s certainly of a great view.

blog wisteria b

I ponder this because, as I choose colours for my illustrations, I think it is something I need to be aware of. My drawings and paintings will match the stories that I write, but will there be an inherent gender bias in my choice of colours? Is that something I should consider, or doesn’t it matter at all?

I was an avid reader as a child and devoured the Biggles series of books as much as I did the Katy series. Did these books have a gender-specific target audience? If they did, I certainly ignored it and read every word with equal pleasure.

I Can Do That

blog drawing linesWhat is perfection, and should we aspire to it? My illustrations show action, colour, empathy, but never perfection. It is not my aim. It is important to me that my art for children is ‘accessible’.

I like to imagine that with pencil, paper, pen, paint and water, they too could begin to illustrate their own stories. I imagine a classroom teacher saying to the little ones “Can you see the pencil lines? What do you think she did next, after drawing the picture?”

I could remove all the pencil lines when the paint holds the form. In fact, I did remove most of them, but then added some again. If you look closely at the image you might see where some have been lightly erased, where the wrist and the sleeve meet. It is a calculated choice, what to leave, what to erase, what to put back more strongly to be read in the picture. It is this kind of interpretive interaction that brings out the creativity in little ones. And, perhaps, in the big ones too.

Once the brain engages with a process, or with imagining what might be in a space, the imagination is captured and brought into play. I don’t think that happens quite so much when everything is perfect; you are more likely to look, appreciate, and move on without actively engaging with the creative process.

As with all art work, illustrations have at least three aspects; what the artist intends, what the viewer sees, and what happens in the space in between. In shared reading there is yet another dimension, with the reader leading the discussion. I have considered putting in a page of discussion starters at the end of my stories, and more educational facts that I find in my research, but so far (apart from in the true story, Michelle and the Bumblebee) I have resisted this temptation. The readers will find what they are ready for, when the time is right.

But I digress. Back to the illustrations. In this digital age I think it is important that young children look at original art, and at the process of creating art. Art that is not ‘perfect’ with every line defined, every colour and shading transition smooth. I would like children to see my construction lines, and to think “I can do that”.

jamie helping Nonna blogSharing the process with a young reader. Quality time for both of us 🙂

Thanks Also to You

A lovely message arrived in my in-box. Here is a section of it.

“Gosh (grandchild) and I have enjoyed your books, they evoke so many questions, you have added so much detail and she doesn’t miss a thing.”

One of my aims is to have my books read to children, and with children, ideally snuggled in with time to enjoy. It is a time that I love myself, and must have enjoyed as a child. It is more than reading; it is physical contact, sharing, exploring new things together, revisiting old friends, and wandering off into an imaginary world in a safe way. So a big Thank you 🙂  This made my day.

And a response to my “Discipline Required”  post on Facebook: “That picture makes me want to be in Italy SO MUCH!! But you should work, because I had to read “The Lost Happy” about 6 times in a row to D and J yesterday!!!”

Here is a little tease from Fluff and Scuff, while you are waiting for the next books, D and J.

From page 7:

Scuff scampered and scurried and hurried up the tree, branch by bendy branch, twig by wobbly twig.

Don’t fall off, Scuff.

Page 11:

Wind looked all around.  What did he see?

He saw baby owls asleep in the tree. 

But by Page 25:

Fluff was looking up at a big, yellow… 

What was Fluff looking at, I wonder?