The business of story is waking up.
– Martin Shaw
The business of story is waking up.
– Martin Shaw
Children who have been told the truth about birth and death will know, when they hear about Kris Kringle and Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas and the little babushka, that this is a truth of a different kind.
The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book isn’t just that they are fun to write, which they are. They are sometimes enormously difficult, too, but still fun.
It isn’t that they are short, either, though short has its own blessings. And its own challenges. I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s apology for having written such a long letter. He didn’t have time, he explained to his correspondent, to write a short one.
The best and most satisfying reason for writing a picture book, though, is to win the privilege of riding piggy back on a talented artist.
The first time an actual copy of one of my picture books arrives at my door always feels like Christmas, even if I have seen the illustrations through every step of the process, which I sometimes do.
Here are my words! My words! And look. A person with talent beyond my richest imaginings has brought them to life on the page.
What a gift!
Winter Dance, my latest picture book, illustrated by Richard Jones, emerged into the world in October. It has garnered three starred reviews, from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. (A starred review singles out a book as one of the best of the season.) And it couldn’t be more clear that Richard’s illustrations are the primary reason for those stars.
I don’t say that out of false modesty. My words are charmingly simple and even lyrical. There is a touch of humor, too, something my work isn’t noted for. And the text conveys solid information about animal behavior in winter.
But it’s Richard’s winsome fox, his appealing landscapes, his entire winter world that captures anyone who picks up this book, including reviewers.
. . .it’s Jones’ soft-lined, textured illustrations that steal the show, as they cast beautiful forest scenes across the page, using a cool wintry palette against which the fox’s orangey-red fur pops. (Booklist)
Jones’ full-page illustrations, done in rich, muted earth tones, are stunningly designed and executed. (Kirkus)
Bauer’s verselike text pairs gracefully with smudgy and similarly understated scenes from British illustrator Jones: the text and artwork work in tandem to suggest the hushed onset of winter while carrying readers forward with the swiftness of a snow flurry. (Publisher’s Weekly)
This particular picture-book text required weeks—even months—of writing and rewriting. In fact, for reasons too complicated to explain here, I had to reconceive the whole thing after the editor had committed to my first version, a story about spring. The editor turned down my first two, three, four attempts to revise before she and I together came up with the idea of a fox and the first snowfall and before I finally found a way to make those elements work.
I haven’t asked Richard how long it took for him to create his appealing paintings, but I’ll guarantee that despite the length of my labor, he labored longer and harder.
The writer has to come up with the idea, and the idea is key, of course. But without the artist’s bringing another whole world of ideas to the page, the story would be only half born.
Thank you, Richard Jones, for your amazing work. And thank you to all of the illustrators who, over the years, have brought my picture book texts to life.
I love riding piggy back!
Language attempts, among other functions, to describe reality. But then, in a turnabout, it actively shapes and creates how reality is seen. Language limits the perception of reality.
There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery. The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love. A. Powell Davies
I posted this quote recently here in this spot. I posted it as I do all my quotes, because it captured my heart when I read it, so I wanted to pass it on. But on the day it sprang to new life on my website, I found myself pausing over it again. Not just admiring the words, the thought. Not just wanting to pass them on as “true.” But wanting to name the truth in my own life.
No mystery greater than our own mystery.
Every piece of fiction I have ever written has come out of “a thought [I] cannot quite think.”
I start with an idea that captures my imagination. There has to be struggle embedded in the idea. There is no story, at least in the traditional western sense of story, without struggle. But I start with something I pluck from the air or from a newspaper story or from something that happened to me when I was a kid just because it seems interesting. And if the idea is truly interesting to me, other ideas begin to fly to it, like iron filings to a magnet. It builds. And builds.
I never ask myself why I’m thinking of writing this particular story. Asking why would be a bit like slicing open a cat to see what makes her purr. I just keep turning the idea in my mind. And if it truly belongs to me—it keeps growing.
But I still don’t know what makes it my story. I just sit down and write it.
Sometimes I don’t know why I wrote this particular story until reviewers and readers begin to talk to me about it, to tell me what my words mean to them. And then, at last, I can say . . . “Oh! Of course!” Sometimes I begin to understand as I reach my story’s conclusion. (And interestingly enough, I always know where my story will end before I write the first word, but still it’s the writing of it that reveals its truth to me.)
My story becomes “the thought that lives in [me] without [my] being able to think it.” Which is precisely why I am compelled to bring it into the world as a story.
I wonder sometimes, have always wondered, whether someday I will no longer need to cloak my unknown self in story. Is it possible to become so transparent to myself that I won’t be compelled to search out my own mystery this way?
But then A. Powell Davis also said, “The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”
“That is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning.”
“And the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”
Where have I ever heard a deeper, truer expression of the way story lives in us?