Books in the Wild

Stan and I recently visited my picture book buddy Ashley Belote and her husband up in lovely Davidson, North Carolina for lunch on the banks of Lake Norman on a beautiful fall day. Afterwards, we headed to Main Street Books, of course. After browsing for a while, Ashley and I were happy to see that her new picturebook, FRANKENSLIME, was proudly displayed face out.
Only to realize moments later, that my board book, MERBABY'S LULLABY (written by Jane Yolen) was also face out, just a few feet away!
What a fun discovery that was!

Shepard Fairey in Rock Hill

You probably know Shepard Fairey from the Obama HOPE poster. It turns out, he has a Rock Hill connection. So, before the pandemic, he was supposed to come to town to paint a mural downtown, and maybe even stop by Winthrop to see the "Get Out the Vote" mural my students painted two years ago. Then the pandemic hit, and all the plans went to scrap... for a while.
     This past weekend, Shepard came back. The city threw a private party at the newly renovated Mercantile building and several faculty and students from Winthrop were invited to attend. Original pieces were on display (and for sale for a hefty sum). Here are my dear friends Paula and Myles drooling over the artwork.
The party was a bit of a who's who in the Rock Hill art scene, so it was exciting to be included. It also felt like a rebirth of the arts social scene that's been asleep almost since I moved here as a result of the pandemic.
I had so much fun doing my butterfly thing, running around meeting people, and talking with friends. I met several local muralists who have been creating wonderful artwork in Charlotte and Rock Hill: Osiris Rain, Darion Fleming, Frankie Zombie, and a few others doing fantastic work on the Mural Mile in Rock Hill. And since my students were there, I was intent to make sure they met the man. Here are Erin, James, and Adam (all Illustration Majors) with Shepard himself.
     Adam is also a brave soul. He asked Shepard if he needed any help on the mural. Without missing a beat, Shepard said, "Sure, show up about noon tomorrow!" So, that's what they did!
     I dropped by to take pictures. Here are Griffin (Fine Arts Major), James, and Adam getting directions on what to do.
Shepard kept an eye on them for a short bit, and was obviously happy with what he saw.
Soon after, he was down there with them.
He wasn't just giving them busy work - he had them cutting and painting, the real deal. What an incredible experience. I sat and watched for the longest time. There was a crowd there doing the same thing - it was quite entertaining to watch! It was such a beautiful day and I was just silly happy that my students were getting to experience this. Before I left, I heard Shepard tell them he was ordering them all pizza for lunch. Cool!
     It was also fascinating to watch how Shepard works. The design was printed out onto large sheets of paper that his crew used as a template for spray paint. Moving scaffolding got them from the top of the building to the bottom.
I was surprised by the method as it wasn't all that different from what I came up with for our "Get Out the Vote" mural. Although, I was told that different muralists do different things, such as projecting an image, or even free-handing it.
     This mural was a massive undertaking, but the templates made sense with all the bold shapes. After watching the students work on the hair for a while, I understood why they were so willing to have people help - that was the hard part! I'm pretty sure my students went back the next day, as there was no way they finished that day. Here's the mural so far.
I'll get a picture when it's done and share that too.
     Overall, what an amazing treat this was to see and be a part of.

Eugene Yelchin's THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE

I'm thrilled to have my friend, Eugene Yelchin, here today to talk about his latest book, THE GENIUS UNDER THE TABLE. It's the story of his childhood in St. Petersburg, Russia, and it is a unique and moving history - I didn't want it to end! So, without further ado, here's Eugene...

     Let’s talk about naked mole rats.
     A colony of hairless creatures, nearly blind, loosely wrapped in semi-transparent skin. No holidays, no weekends, and no rewards for their endless labor in the gloom of the subterranean tunnels. Try to argue against such oppressive condition, and you’re as good as dead. The enormous queen, the naked mole rats’ ruler, is keeping her vigilant eye on you. But what is there to argue about? If you are a naked mole rat, the dull and dreary life is all you know.
     And yet, in every generation, one naked mole rat comes along who does not accept what it was born into. Somehow, inexplicably, the fellow is curious: is there another life beyond this colony, life free of terror, free of mindless labor, subterranean darkness, near blindness?
     The curious mole rat is so unlike the rest of its colony that even the punishing queen looks the other way. To admit the presence of someone so different from her serfs is to admit that her colony is not perfect. Thus, left alone, shunned by its compatriots, storing fat for the arduous journey ahead, the mole rat is planning its escape. And so one fine day, its head pops out of the hole, blinks into the unbearable light, sniffs the air, and when the cost is clear, the courageous fellow flees to freedom.
     But why is that mole rat so different from the others? The scientists will provide you with learned explanations, but I have my own silly theory. I suspect that the fugitive mole rat is an artist. It is curious as an artist. It is imaginative. Its point of view is unique. It is driven by creative passions. Its only responsibility, as the Russian American author Vladimir Nabokov would say, is to be irresponsible.
     Like it or not, this is a way of an artist, but also that of an immigrant. I happened to be both. I am an artist and a refugee from the former Soviet Union. As a result, the naked mole rats were on my mind as I was puzzling out my recent memoir, The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain published by the Candlewick Press.
Writing this book was far from easy. To begin with, it is different from any other book that I have written up to now. It is not a work of fiction, for example. Names, characters, events, and incidents described on its pages are not the products of my imagination, not by a long shot. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is certainly not coincidental. I relied on my memory, lengthy conversations with my brother, and the family lore. The question that I have attempted to answer was this: how and why I had been able to shift from the obedient mole rat to a risk-taking, passionate, and, ultimately, irresponsible artist.
Irresponsible, because the truth of it is, I wrote this book for myself. It is highly personal, embarrassingly so. Its chapters are filled with questions. Why was I different from my peers? What made me curious? Where did my imagination come from? How did I become an artist? And most importantly, were my imagination, curiosity, and passion for art the reasons that helped me to escape my own colony, the former USSR?
Eugene's studio is below - click to see it larger in a new window.
Whether I have succeeded or failed is not for me to decide. I hope the readers will like it in part because the book turned out to be funny. But more than anything I wish to smuggle my memoir to the naked mole rats’ colony. I wish the mole rats could read it. I drew so many pictures for this book, they could easily follow the story. What will they think? Go on with their dreadful chores as before? Or rebel against the oppressive queen? Naturally, I hope for the latter.

Rebecca Gugger and Simon Röthlisberger's THE MOUNTAIN

Today, I'm pleased to have Rebecca Gugger and Simon Röthlisberger stop by to talk about Creative Thinking and their new picture book for NorthSouth, THE MOUNTAIN. While a fun read with luscious imagery, it also imparts an important message for our time. Welcome both!

Rebecca and Simon: We are interested in questions about life, everyday questions, but often with a deeper meaning. Views on life, on living together, the behavior of us humans among ourselves. In our own life and work, such questions play an important role. For us, it is important to deal with philosophical topics without claiming to be able to answer them completely. We are more interested in raising additional questions, in rethinking our own opinions and behaviors. How can such topics be treated playfully, with lightness and humor? In the adult world, we are often interested in clearly defining, narrowing down and trying to explain things. Often we are stuck in our patterns of viewing and thinking. In these we have been trained over the years. Children look at the world with different eyes. Curious, fresh, unfamiliar...Our story should bring up and inspire new perspectives. Without wanting to lecture, the picture book The Mountain takes up one of the fundamental themes of positive coexistence, with a pinch of humor.

The Mountain explores the themes of tolerance and openness to other opinions. The mountain as a three-dimensional form becomes a pictorial metaphor and illustrates, visually simplified, how a topic (belief, view) can be viewed from different sides. Depending on where I am standing, on which side and at what height, the mountain looks physically different. My environment, in which I stay or live, has different characteristics on my side than the opposite side. These different views are all "correct" from their respective point of view. When you look at the big picture, however, they are put into new light.

The book is intended to encourage people to leave their own, sometimes narrow, point of view and to try to put themselves in the positions of others. Allowing this change of perspective also helps to rethink one's own convictions. To meet the other with openness and tolerance and to let different opinions stand is an elementary part of the story. Because, outside of one's own world, there are many other facets.


In relation to the mountain, all the different views add up to the whole. The questions—where does the mountain begin and what must a mountain have so that it is what it is—are presented in the book in an understandable and humorous way. This consists of many parts, and all are needed to make up the mountain. To look at one thing (in this case, the mountain) from a distance can help us understand others better and to reduce our own prejudices. The realization that—in addition to my own way of thinking, which has its right to exist and is just as important as others’—there are also other opinions, people, points of view, promotes a benevolent attitude towards the new and different. This also means that my opinion becomes relative in relation to the whole but not negated. Rather, the overview makes one aware of its tremendous diversity.


Rebecca Gugger and Simon Röthlisberger were both born in Switzerland and live together in Thun, close to the forests, the mountains, and the fresh air.


Rebecca is a freelance illustrator and graphic artist, studied at the HKB (Bern University of the Arts), and likes to have her head in the clouds. Simon is a trained graphic artist, is currently working as an art director, and likes sailing.



Gary Golio's SONNY ROLLINS

Born With Creative Bones
by Gary Golio with illustrations by James Ransome

      When I was a kid in the 1950s, there were lots of people telling you what to do. That's the way it was then - culture was pretty conformist, and you were expected to follow the party line in how you dressed, thought, and spoke (see: Joe McCarthy). Well, that never sat right with me, and I was often in the principal's office as a young boy, getting yelled at by neighbors for climbing their shed roofs, or being put down by teachers for always doing things the wrong way. Because it really seemed there was always a "right way"--the expected, normal way of doing things--and when trying something new or unusual, I often heard, "That's not how it's done!" or "Nobody's done it like that before - you think you know better?" or "Why do you think you're so special?" These folks were upset that I wasn't doing what I was told, and therefore wasn't correct in my approach to living. My willful creativity, in other words, was threatening to the status quo. Unfortunately for those people--and perhaps for me, given the trouble that ensued--I only became more resistant to following directions and advice as a result of their criticism, which was often very personal. But that's how it is in life at times - either you succumb to GroupThink, or you end up striking out on a solitary, personal path, especially if you've got creative bones. And I was born with creative bones.
So when I dropped out of a prestigious college (where I was studying classical Greek in hopes of becoming an archaeologist) and ended up at a radical new arts school (in the Visual Arts department), people were not surprised. My parents--to their credit--were fine with my being an artist, perhaps because my father was a gifted amateur artist and completely self-taught. Both my parents, in fact, had dropped out of high school after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (my father entered the Navy for 6 years, and my mother a war factory), and they ended up with tough, low-paying jobs after the war. But they never saddled me with expectations about prestigious career choices, and asked only that I do good, honest work in my life. And this was very freeing, because I had nothing hard or weighty to live up to. I also did a lot of physical work as a young man, which taught me about how a great many people earn their bread in this world, and how work is valued depending on who does it and how society views it.
Since that time, I've worked as a high-tension electrician, a museum exhibitions-installer, a landscape painter, a clinical social worker and addictions therapist, an arts teacher, and most recently, a children's book author. Yet in many ways, all this work is the same, because it reflects who I am and what I believe in. And while some folks still get upset when I do something different or unusual (editor: "You can't do a book for kids on Jimi Hendrix - that's just not right!"), I've found a rhythm to my life and work. And Life is a lot about personal rhythm--knowing when to listen to that still small voice inside--and finding a balance of work-career-family that's satisfying. As a result, I try to keep a very open mind about creative choices, to allow space for intuition and unexpected ideas, and to keep pushing on the boundaries--however subtly--in my search for what's fresh and exciting.
"Ransome's illustrations convey character, mood and setting to great effect, matching the spare, effective text with energy and vibrancy that tempt readers to seek out Rollins' sound. This meditation on music, art, and integrity offers inspiration and food for thought."
Kirkus, *starred review*

"Based on a true story, this charming picture book captures and shares the spirit and rhythm of Sonny's playing. The free verse text makes nice use of figurative language...and Ransome's gorgeous representational art, richly created with watercolor and collage, expands the story beautifully ."
Booklist, *starred review*

"The creators' deliberate lines and detailed visuals sing like music themselves as they pay homage to an artist who finds a way to ring out loud and clear."
Publishers Weekly, *starred review*

Video: "Hear Me"

I LOVE this ad from Blue Shield of California, "Hear Me" - beautifully filmed, beautifully said, and featured at Communication Arts. It speaks to me on a personal level as well. As a woman of a certain age, with certain issues, I have reached the end of medical knowledge on so many fronts. It's amazing how little is known about female physiology, and how few options there are for women when things go awry. We are not simply men with boobs and tubes. Hear us!

Stay at Pooh's Corner!

I love that you can now stay in Winnie the Pooh's house on "Bearbnb"! Click the image:
From the creator:
You can live like Disney’s Winnie the Pooh in the original Hundred Acre Wood to celebrate his 95th anniversary.

During your stay at the house, you will be taken on a guided tour through the original Hundred Acre Wood, play Poohsticks on the iconic Poohsticks Bridge and enjoy locally sourced, hunny-inspired meals.

I brought Pooh’s house to life taking inspiration from the original decorations of E.H. Shepard, with exposed tree branches wrapped around the house, “Mr. Sanders” inscribed above the doorway, shelves stocked full of ‘hunny’ pots and bespoke wallpaper that I have designed."
I learned about it (and more about its creator) at GoodNewsNetwork.

Shannon Hitchcock Celebrates Appalachian Treasures

The Joy of Visual Storytelling
By Shannon Hitchcock
(with process photos by illustrator, Sophie Page)

      How I approach my life and the craft of writing took a dramatic turn during the pandemic. I realized I was on a hamster wheel—working, working, working, and only happy when I had either just signed a contract, or was in the process of launching a new book. I wasn’t enjoying the process, only the results.
I took a step back. I gave myself permission to sleep later, to pour more creative energy into my cooking, to read not only for research but for pleasure.
My reading focused on Appalachian people and traditions. Though I had previously been a novelist, I signed up for Tara Lazar’s Storystorm and The Writing Barn’s Courage to Create program. I became a student again and played around with writing picture books. I found renewed passion by switching gears. I wrote a manuscript about quilting, which will be published by Reycraft next year.
Picture books require more wordplay than novels. I spent time thinking visually about what an illustrator might draw to complement my words. Probably the biggest gift was the brevity of writing picture books. As the pandemic raged, life in general seemed so out of control that it gave me a measure of satisfaction to focus on projects that were easier to complete.
During our current Covid crisis, I have launched two picture books, Saving Granddaddy’s Stories—Ray Hicks, the Voice of Appalachia and She Sang for the Mountains—The Story of Jean Ritchie, Singer, Songwriter, Activist. Both these books are picture book biographies about mountain people I wanted to honor and introduce to the next generation. I feel an immense sense of satisfaction when I hold these books in my hands and see the way illustrator, Sophie Page enhanced my words with her art. Our books have a folk art feel to them. Sophie is a mixed media illustrator who crafts her images in two and three dimensions using paper, clay, fabric, and wire.
I hope readers of Saving Granddaddy’s Stories are inspired to listen to the stories of the older adults in their lives and to also tell stories of their own. As for readers of She Sang for the Mountains, my greatest wish is they’ll learn more about mountaintop removal and feel a responsibility to take care of our planet.
In a time when there is so much wrong in the world, my picture books have brought me joy. To quote Mother Teresa, “…no one can do great things, but everyone can do small things with great love.”

Just thinking... September 2021

Just Thinking is where I share random thoughts, inspirational quotes, good news and ideas. For instance...

I just love this silly post at BuzzFeed comparing MetGala outfits to book covers.

My friend Vicky Alvear Shecter turned me on (ahem) to this fantastic review of Magic Mike XXL: Magic Mike XXL Is Basically “The Odyssey,” But With Butts. I'm currently using The Odyssey in teaching my "Heroes and Anti-heroes: Creating Graphic Novels class. This is relevant: "...dad stories are stories about doing things the correct way because this is the way things have always been done, about accepting traditions as correct, about achievement that gains validation and praise because it fits into the systems that already exist. Most heroes are dads because most heroes uphold the status quo. The heroes of Campbellian narratives seem to be rebels, but they are usually only the central figure in a story meant to teach us why the king is the king."

The article in the Atlantic is soooo interesting: Colleges Have a Guy Problem. It's being driven by K-12 influences, bottom line. So, what messages are being sent to our young men? We better figure this one out quickly!

I also really appreciated this article from The New Yorker: The Frustration with Productivity Culture: Why we’re so tired of optimizing our work lives, and what we should do about it. It talks about the work-life balance I've been shouting about lately, and how the onus has fallen to the individual to be more productive, when the individuals are tapped out. The onus should be on the companies once more.

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this article about passive characters and how they feed into the patriarchy: Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy by Kelsey Allagood at Writer UnBoxed.

Olympian gold-medalist and friend Joe Jacobi brings up some great thinking points, right in line with where I'm taking my blog right now, at A Full Deck of Questions on Medium (you can also subscribe to receive his thoughts directly to your in-box.

BTS - We Don't Need "Permission to Dance"

I love the new song by K-pop band BTS - it speaks exactly to what I was saying in my last post.



Their message is the same, as they confirmed when they recently spoke to the United Nations. “Every choice we make is the beginning of change, not the end,” said RM, the band’s leader. Read about it HERE.

Thoughts on Permission


I am constantly caught off-guard by my students who ask "Can I do that project this way?" or "What if I want to try this?" It's usually in reference to how they meet the requirements of an assignment. Of course, I explain the guidelines; but how a student inevitably fulfills those guidelines is really up to them. So what if they want to do it their own way?
     Studies have shown it's the "C-students" who best succeed in life. They are the ones willing to take chances, to push new ideas, to fail. We need people who are willing to go in different directions and try new things if we're to improve the messes we've made of this world!
     Now, certainly, not doing an assignment at all should lead to a zero grade; and doing an assignment differently from the guidelines may indeed lead to a lower grade; but in the end, if the student will learn more or have a better experience from doing an assignment differently, as long as they are putting in the effort, I'm okay with that. (Financial assistance obligations aside.)
     It makes me realize how much we all worry about consequences that aren't really of very much consequence. We all seem so desperate for approval from our parents, peers, bosses, it can compltely stimy the expression of our own voices, our creativity, but especially the evolution of good ideas. I'm not saying that irresponsible actions shouldn't have negative consequences; I'm saying, we overrate the permission we need from others to stay true to ourselves or to seek innovative solutions.
      Even as a faculty member who is not yet tenured, I feel the pressure of needing permission to be the brash, vocal 50+ person I now am. But I also now feel a responsibility to be that brash, vocal person with tons of experience and education to possibly put some good ideas into the world, even if they aren't terribly popular in my immediate circles of influence. Don't I owe my ideas to a future that needs to be better than the world we have now? Don't we all owe our ideas to that future?
     Status quo is what has led to many of the world's problems; and yet, the status quos we tend to treat as immovable, typically do not have very much history behind them. The passage of a generation or two seems to be enough to make folks believe "it's always been done this way." But that is simply not true!
     Cities have been designed around cars only for about a hundred years. Industry has only been pumping pollution into our environment for about 200 years. In the scope of human history, neither is very much time. So, why can't we pivot? Why can't we go in different directions?
     Let's stop asking for permission to maintain the status quo, to abide by behaviors that haven't been around very long, or to compromise our future by thinking we need permission to change it!