BY JUDITH WALCUTT
All photos by the author
May 3, 2017
I am just back from Kansas City, where I was minding the sky over the kind of skyline I don’t get to see very often: tall buildings in geometrical juxtaposition; railroad cars passing between buildings while appearing to disappear around a corner like a Harry Potter train line; urban pocket parks nestled among and alongside the main thoroughfares and highways, like a bit of Oz sequestered in the concrete. The sky had many flavors, having been heavily weighted toward rain with threats of flooding and possible tornadoes, arriving at sudden patches of blue before breaking through the layers of moody pearly-grays, then going crazy with the city lights on at night.
I was there on an exploration of possibilities, triggered by a conversation I had the last time I was in Kansas City. At that time, I met up with one-half of the dynamic duo that created what was reputed to be the best children’s bookstore in the Midwest, if not the country, and possibly the world. The Reading Reptile, which Pete Cowdin and Deb Pettid started more than twenty-five years ago, was a hub for creative engagement in the world of children’s literature — for both readers and authors, who would appear there on a regular basis. The bookstore closed more than a year ago, and the founders are pursuing a new vision: It’s a big one.
Their idea is to create a fully immersive museum dedicated to literature for young people — and by fully immersive, they mean a life-size, walk-through of the book itself. Their organization, The Rabbit Hole, is hoping to have a building soon in which to build their dream: the world’s first Explor-a-storium — and a national center for the children’s book.
Always a sucker for people with big ideas, especially big, beautiful, creative ones, I took a meeting with Pete, who I met through the Whidbey magnetosphere of interconnections. Anyone who has experienced it knows what I mean: fortunate encounters in unexpected circumstances, all pointing back to Whidbey. Know the feeling?
Anyway, over coffee in an esoteric cafe, we concocted an additional dream to aid and abet this magical museum, which would provide a future home to Harold and his purple crayon, the princess with her paper bag, Babar and Madeline, and don’t forget the all-too-curious George and the man in the yellow hat. They will all be there, along with so many more. I can’t wait for it to be built, so I can go to it and literally get lost between the pages!
The additional dream (and here’s where I come in) is to create a national program for radio and podcast that is the audio extension of a magical place that’s dedicated to the art and expression of imagination fostered by children’s literature. To be truthful, this is the kind of show I have wanted to create since the beginning of my career in radio some 35+ years ago, so it didn’t take a very hard sell to get me on board this circus train.
Since my very first teeny, tiny radio play production in which children participated, I have intuited and anecdotally witnessed the wondrous stirring up of imagination that even the simplest form of oral storytelling can cause in young minds. Seeing the pictures in your head, making them your own, with your own inner imaging powers — it seems so obvious, but necessary, to point out that this is a good thing for creative engagement and stimulation of the mind at any age. Making something absolutely magical for young minds, instigating a love of books, literature, reading, and most importantly from my point of view, a love of listening — well, that’s all I ever really wanted to do in my whole radio-phonic career. No time like the present!
To begin implementing this big idea, I felt I needed my own kind of immersive experience, which involved coming to an event organized by The Rabbit Hole, called “LitfestKC.” In collaboration with the Kansas City Public Library, The Rabbit Hole brought six top-tier children’s authors and illustrators to Kansas City to present to an audience of school children on the first day and to an audience of interested adults the next.
It was my fortunate job to just be there, imbibe of the energy, and have ideas of what and how to do the next thing.
What I saw and felt is what anyone does when witnessing the pulse of intensely creative people. I felt uplifted and tickled inside; I felt inspired and in awe of the innate talent of these certain persons whose special powers include the use of a simple pencil as a magic wand, turning the blank page into a world as intricate as the one inhabited by Hugo, in the ground-breaking, genre-bending, Caldecott-winning graphic novel, “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”
Brian Selznick, the author and artist, shared his backstory from inspiration (the films of George Méliès) to realization (many tiny thumbnail sketches, leading to tiny versions of his later book, drawn larger after he got the sense of picture-story of the whole), to translating into another medium when his book was made into the movie directed my Martin Scorsese. This proves there is hope for those who wield a number-two pencil as their primary medium.
Three of the six artists present have made huge contributions to the larger field of children’s literary offerings by focusing on heroes, stories, and images inclusive of children of color and families of all kinds. It is a great relief to know about the good work such artists are doing in broadening the reach and scope of picture books while engaging young minds in the reading community.
Javaka Steptoe is a second-generation children’s book illustrator and author whose most recent book “Radiant Child—The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” won the 2017 Caldecott. The book focuses on the biographic story of the young artist Basquiat with illustrations demonstrative of and inspired by the unique style of his original work, using collage and symbolic images that the artist created as a personal iconography. The final result is a book that captures the beauty and the sadness of the early artist’s life, hinting in an important way at all the varied circumstances that bring a person to choose the artist’s path.
Nina Crews, also the daughter of children’s book authors and artists, created her own style, manipulating photographic images creatively and re-contextualizing nursery classics in “The Neighborhood Mother Goose” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” in diverse, urban environments. She tells a wonderful story using a fabricated action figure that, in true-to-small-boy fashion, has many unauthorized adventures, whether dropped under the stairs in “Below” or stuck in a tree, with “Sky-High Guy.” They are clever and enchanting books that offer clear and positive messaging to the full range of children who live the city life.
Shane Evans has illustrated many, many books in the course of his career. He tells important stories about historical events such as the underground railroad in his picture book “Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom” or figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth with artwork that is both original in style using a combination of mixed media techniques and evocative of a deep African-American connection. He has also taken on important issues of racial identity with his books “Chocolate Me” and “Mixed Me,” written with his friend, the actor Taye Diggs, in a way that is straightforward, uplifting, and rewarding to all who read and share them.
In the case of all three of these author and illustrator talents, one cannot help but feel the importance of the work they are doing in broadening the offerings, the images, and the inter-cultural connections that children’s literature needs to generate to encourage a longer, broader view of the importance of literature for children. Literature that includes all children, all colors, all places, all kinds, all capacities — so that from a very early age, young minds will be nourished with the message that all lives matter.
Sophie Blackall and John Bemelmans Marciano are both writers and illustrators in their own right. Sophie has illustrated more than 30 books in the course of her career and most recently won the 2016 Caldecott for her book with Lindsay Mattick, “Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear,” which is the tale of the actual brown bear who inspired the writing of Winnie the Pooh. John is the grandson of Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the Madeline books, whichJohn picked up the thread of and continued on a limited basis.
The two of them have joined their considerable talents to create a new series of books, “The Witches of Benevento,” which are set in a little town in Italy, famous for its witches and spirits known as “janera.” The first four books can be read in any order and have hidden interconnections that readers (young and old) will find delightful in the discovering. Hint: look at the pictures!
And what can I say about Jon Scieszka (whose last name is not as hard to pronounce as it looks) except to say that the author of worldwide bestsellers “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” a well as “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” and many engaging series such as “The Time Warp Trio” and the “Frank Einstein” books is, in fact, as hilariously funny as you might imagine him to be based on his books. Which is a relief. You’d hate to discover that the author of theautobiographical “Knucklehead” is actually a goody-two-shoes kind of guy only pretending to be subversively humorous in a true subversively kid-like way to get attention like a kid might.
No, to the contrary, Jon is every bit the guy who sits in the back of the room and suddenly, out of nowhere, makes the whole class crack up with one quick quip. And what a relief it must have been for the kids in his classes and what a trial for the adults who may have tried to curtail his spirit. Thank goodness, he survived intact — still kid-funny after all these years. (Scieszka rhymes with Fresca, but begins with “ch” instead of “fr.”)
What did I learn in these two days of attentive time under the spell of these particular and particularly talented magical beings? Well, for one thing I learned that, perhaps, their most special shared power is the one that allows them to hold on to and communicate from the center of their child-like vision and sensibility, the one that lets them see the world with something fresh, but determined to find and illustrate the truth at the heart of a story. How do they do that with just words and pictures on a page, making you feel on fire with an idea, like you have ideas popping out of your head? It is some kind of extra-sensory skill, to be sure! That super power, which those action-hero-author-artists practice with their pens and papers and paints and all things colorfully inspirational, can affect generations of children with the desire, the yen to want to read a book and then another one, and another one still, and maybe, someday, even write one! In these days of digital scatter and fragged attention span — that is truly magic!
Judith Walcutt is a writer and multimedia producer living on Whidbey Island for nearly 30 years with her husband David Ossman, their cat Catkin Coal, and the occasional return of now-grown children who loved to read and be read to as young’uns. She is the director and founder of Otherworld Media, a non-profit 501(c)3 educational multimedia company dedicated to producing quality programming for young people and a family-friendly audience.
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