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.

How High is the Fence?

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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.

Play Time

Today (after a tidy-up in the studio) I assembled all my pages and sketched a few more little owls fluttering their way up and down the tree. In the sorting of the storage area (not quite chaos) I found the remains of a block of drawing paper I had used for preliminary sketches for clients wanting a fresco in their ancient house some years ago. The paper is Fabriano 4, 220gsm smooth, and is about the weight I need; I have run out of the Bristol Board I was using in New Zealand. I thought I would try it with some Derivan Flow acrylic.

blog loosen up post

This isn’t an illustration for the book, but it was a couple of minutes of play time, exploring how much paint and water this paper will take, and loosening up my hand after some intense concentration in smaller, more detailed works. I think that the paper is going to be perfect for the light-weight acrylics, provided I drop my brush size down just a little to match. It doesn’t cockle (warp or wrinkle as it swells with the water) unless I use a very watery wash, and the acrylic slips and slides wonderfully on the surface. Best of all, it is available in my village, a two kilometer wander along the side of this beautiful mountain.

Can I build up an atmospheric background without it wrinkling too? Onwards…

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

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?

The Research Stage

Is it a case of ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, I wonder?

One of the things I aim for in my books is to educate, or to at least provide space for learning and discussion. Michelle and the Bumblebee is an example of this.front cover 2

When I agreed to write the story, I wanted to complement the true story with accurate pictures. I was surprised at how little I knew about the bumblebee. I had painted them from “life” (actually from corpses I had found in my garden) many years ago, but couldn’t remember the details. How many segments are there in the bumblebee’s legs? Which way do its ‘knees’ work? How many stripes does it have? Are the stripes all the same colour? Is it ‘bumblebee’ or ‘bumble bee’?

I enjoyed the research, which started a little like this:

bee details

As the story developed I also tried to give Mr Bumble Bee a persona. He became more of a cartoon sketch, his stripes became more random as his face took on more expression and his wings varied in size to create the effect I wanted. bee face

Despite this evolution, I kept the details of his body structure and legs accurate.

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The teacher in me also had the last word. I concluded the story with a diagram illustrating the pollination cycle, and gave the last illustrated page to a realistic bumblebee.

bee small for blog

All of the illustrations were fun, but this last one was the illustration I enjoyed the most.