Artist Jérôme Couëlle died this week. He was an especially lovely man and a regular at the café I worked at as a teenager. My best friend Nancy just sent me his obituary, which ends with these wonderful words: “Should you wish to honour him, be kind to nature and look for beauty in all its forms.”
My father reporting on July 31, 1960. (Taken from the CBC Archive for the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)
“Everywhere, there are cranes. Hundreds of the folded origami paper birds are massed on strings in patients’ rooms at Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb Hospital, tokens of good luck for people who are sick and dying. Fifteen years after the bomb, increasing numbers of people are suffering from leukemia, or cancer of the blood. As CBC reporter Michael Maclear tours the hospital, he learns that between 40 and 50 people are still dying each year of complications from the atomic bomb.” —CBC Archive
I have mentioned this before but in my twenties I worked for five years for a graphic designer. I had come across a series of very smart, pretty books that he had designed, and being a bookish person, I walked into his studio one day and offered my services. The problem was that I had no skills to speak of and I had never designed anything. I was not a trained architect like a few of the studio staff. I was not an I.T. whiz. I knew a little bit about art and I was good at listening and reading, but beyond that I had nothing specific to offer.
The designer must have been having a good day because he took me on. As an added bonus, the studio sat atop a bakery. The bakery and the studio both grew much bigger a few years later but for a while they were both small and improvisational. The bakery, as it tried new things, often made mistakes and fallen cake tops would be delivered upstairs to the studio. I remember eating many cake tops.
We worked on a variety of interesting projects as a studio: a movie, a museum show, a book, a manifesto, and a font generator. We collaborated with architects, dancers, composers, filmmakers and visual artists. The designer introduced me to the work of John Cage, Brian Eno, Claes Oldenburg, David Byrne—artists whose roaming adventures took them to the collapsing cliffs of old disciplines. I made good friends. We laughed a lot. The designer was (for the most part) a friendly and funny man, admirable qualities in a boss if you ever need to have one.
Of all the things he made, it was the designer’s approach to book design that really changed the way I thought about form. In each book he made, he aimed to create an object that wasn’t merely an illustration of the content, but rather a model of it. For example, if he was making a book about the city he set out to create something that performed and behaved—with abrasiveness, typographic density, collisions and jumpcuts—like the city itself.
This past year I had the incredible good fortune of working with two book teams that seem to have taken this philosophy of ‘modeling’ to heart. The Specific Ocean (illustrated by Katty Maurey, designed by Karen Powers, and edited by Yvette Ghione) feels, to me, like a dazzling incarnation of the ocean. Opening its pages I can almost smell the salty surf and feel the warm breeze. With its sun-bleached palette and slow visual tempo it fills my heart with seaside happiness.
The (soon-to-be-published) second project, The Good Little Book, is the genius creation of Marion Arbona (uber-illustrator), Scott Richardson (master designer/novelist extraordinaire), and Tara Walker (beloved editor.) I adore the look and feel of this book. When I hold it in my hands I have the sense of an object well-worn and loved over time. It immediately transports me to the used bookshops I frequented as a teenage thrift-shopper. From the crowded name-plate to the doodly marginalia to the textured tinge of multiple readings, a whole world of old and lost books is wonderfully evoked.
Tomorrow is the publication day for The Specific Ocean—a book born of travel and memory, water and salt, ease and grit. The title came from my youngest son during a stay on the Pacific Ocean. (He took to calling it the Specific Ocean after mishearing its true name or maybe after deciding that he knew its truer name.) I hope you enjoy it.
A few thanks: to Katty Maurey whose art fills me with big, big feelings and captures so beautifully the tone and tempo of the ocean; to Karen Powers, Yvette Ghione, Michaela Cornell, Naseem Hrab, Jude Kahn, and all the amazing people at Kids Can Press for bringing this book so gracefully to shore; and, finally, a huge THANK YOU to the bloggers and readers who help keep books afloat.
(Photo: My mum and I on the Pacific Ocean.)
“Mother’s Day was that weekend and the teacher told us to make something but she didn’t specify what. All she said was “make something your mother would like” (she wasn’t very helpful) so I thought for a while and then I thought my mother likes cute things. So I settled on this idea. I took such a long time to think that everyone took all the art supplies and all that was left was an acorn, a few beads, a pinecone and some felt. But that was all I needed to make Oscar.
Here is how you do it:
Step 1 take the cap off the acorn
Step 2 glue the acorn cap onto the bead
Step 3 draw a face
Step 4 glue the bottom of the head to the pinecone
Step 5 cut the felt into a rectangle
Step 5 wrap the felt around the pinecone
Step 6 glue the felt on
Step 7 enjoy!
To conclude my mother loved the gift. She said it was adorable.
(p.s. This is a true story.)”
Bill Viola once spoke of “falling” or faltering as the optimal state for making art. John Baldessari said, “Art comes out of failure.” Some artists take pride in striving where they risk failure. Samuel Beckett: “To be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail.” Bas Jan Ader: “All is falling.”
In May, one night, while thinking about ‘falling’ I came across a funny and melancholy dance by Pina Bausch on YouTube. A short way into the performance (“1980—A Piece by Pina Bausch”), a woman begins to skip around the stage in a large circle, waving a white handkerchief. “I am tir-ed, I am tir-ed,” she chants in a lilting rhythm while Brahm’s Lullaby plays in the background. Round and round she continues, until she teeters on the edge of collapse. She exudes weariness as her chant grows halting, her steps clumsy. Her arm quakes with the effort of holding the handkerchief in the air…
Excerpted from a longer piece I wrote for Brick Magazine, which can be purchased here. Images from “Fig”. (Steidl, 2007), a book of photographs by the London-based artist team of Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin. (With thanks to Martha Baillie.)
This morning I finished my second and final year as a Writer-in-Residence with the Toronto District School Board. It has been, without question, one of the highlights of my writing life. I want to thank the coordinator Ruth Hall and all the spectacular teachers, librarians and students who have made me feel so welcome.
I have always said that what makes my day is visiting a school group of racially diverse students who don’t think I look like an “author” when I arrive but who are quite sure that I do (and they do too) by the time I leave. I know that many of the children I meet are being steered away from the arts by ﬁrst-generation immigrant families that want, and often need, their children to acquire social legitimacy and financial stability through their professions. I know that many of these children feel the roar of parental expectations and I hope that I (and others) can represent another path.
Today, nearly half of the 150 kids I met said they want to be writers one day. This makes me feel very hopeful (even if they were lying)! We need more diverse writers just as we need more diverse stories.
MOYERS: Is writing books like this something like guerilla warfare?
SENDAK: Yes. That’s well said. Because you’re really fighting yourself
all the way along the line. And I don’t know… I never set out to
write books for children. I don’t have a feeling that I’m gonna save
children or my life is devoted.
I’m not Hans Christian Anderson. Nobody’s gonna make a statue in the
park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won’t have it,
okay? So, what is it… and I got a clue. I was watching a channel on
And they had Christa Ludwig who was a great opera singer back… I saw
her in Europe. She’s now retiring.
And then, she had a surprising interview at the end of the concert
where the guy… she said, “It’s so good now.”
And then, he said, “But, why do you like Schubert? You always sing
Schubert.” And he sort of faintly condemned Schubert. “I mean, he’s so
simple. He’s just a Viennese waltzes.” And she smiled. And she said,
“Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that
looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and
explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in
this miniature form.”
And I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do
children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in
the ’50s and ’40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the
totem pole. We didn’t even get invited to grownup book parties at
MOYERS: And men didn’t do. I mean, it was a woman’s world, wasn’t it?
SENDAK: It was a woman’s world.
MOYERS: Yeah, men were not supposed to enter the child’s…
SENDAK: And you were suspect the minute you were at a party, “What do
you do?” “I do books with children.” “Ah, I’m sure my wife would like
to talk to you.” It was always that way. It was always. And then when
we succeeded, that’s when they dumped the women. Because once there’s
money, the guys can come down and screw the whole thing up which is
what they did. They ruined the whole business. I remember those days.
And they were absolutely so beautiful. But, my thought was… that’s
what I did. I didn’t have much confidence in myself… never. And so,
I hid inside, like Christa was saying, this modest form called the
children’s book and expressed myself entirely.
I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I
wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where
nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerilla
warfare in my best books.
Bill Moyers PBS interview with Maurice Sendak.
When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne
When I was six and visiting family in England, my Grandpa Hugh gave this book to me and it has remained on my bookshelf ever since. Milne’s use of repetition and beat make it a perfect read aloud. Also perfect: Milne’s blend of melodrama and humor that manages to both respect and send-up childhood fears. When I was little I often felt an acute sense of responsibility for the wayward adults around me so I particularly loved James James Morrison Morrison who was all finger-wagging, laying down the law, and searching for control in an uncontrollable universe.
The wonderful Danielle Davis of This Picture Book Life invited me to write about three books that I liked as a child that continue to shape me as a picture book writer. This is a new feature on her blog and I can’t wait to read what other writer’s say. You can see my full list here. (With thanks to Sara O’Leary)
So happy and heartened to be one of 600 authors taking part in the inaugural “Canadian Authors for Indies Day” this coming Saturday. I’ll be at TYPE Books from 12-2PM and Another Story from 4-5PM. Please support your locals!
As TYPE puts it: “The goal is to simultaneously promote independent bookstores across the country. This day is about revelling in our national devotion to bookstores, and the people who shop in them.”