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!

Just Thinking...

Just Thinking will be a new post for me to share random thoughts, inspirational quotes, good news and ideas. For instance...

I was thrilled to see two friends celebrating book sales in this week's PW Children's Bookshelf! Congratulations to Rebekah Lowell and Shelli R. Johannes!

Congratulations to my office mates from the University of Glasgow, who are all starting to get their PhDs too!

I love this quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with success unexpected in common hours.”

What if sports no longer taught the binaries of winners and losers? Us vs. Them?

Howard McWilliam's D IS FOR DROOL

Before my summer hiatus, I had one more interview to share, which got a little delayed. So, without further adieu, Howard McWilliam stopped by to talk about the latest book in the adorable "My Monster" series from Flashlight Press, D is for Drool!

  
e: What was your creative process/medium, can you walk us through it?
Howard:
One of my favourite parts of working on a new book is creating the thumbnail storyboard, hashing out the rhythm and page layout of the story, roughly positioning the blocks of text and scribbling in the main characters and action. This is the stage that’s full of exciting possibilities, and also reveals the meatiest problems to work through. I work entirely on an iPad Pro these days, using the software Procreate. With some customised paper textures and brushes, this has all the functionality I need — from this initial storyboard, through detailed pencil sketches, colour roughs and on to finished paintings.

e: What was your path to publication?
Howard:
I took a rather unconventional route into illustration. Although drawing and painting continuously for as long as I can remember, I began my career (after an English degree) as a financial journalist in London. The editor of Taxation magazine, just over from my desk at Pensions World, was struggling for a picture idea for his cover one week. He’d heard about my artistic background from my editor and wondered if I might try something out for him. He liked it, so it was the first of many more. Before long the editors of other magazines in the building were coming to me when they too were struggling for ideas, and I began building a freelance illustration career on the side. One of my magazine illustrations, for an article on what was then called “sustainable and responsible investment”, was a monster standing on a chair, terrified of a mouse with a placard.
I put this onto the portfolio website childrensillustrators.com, and was delighted when it led the editor of Flashlight Press to contact me asking if I wanted to illustrate a book about monsters under the bed. It was my first picture book, and was successful enough to spawn several sequels, including the latest — “D is for Drool”. It also brought me into the world of children’s publishing, and led to work from the likes of Scholastic, Bloomsbury and Penguin RandomHouse.

e: Is there a unique or funny story behind the creation of this story?
Howard:
Not necessarily a unique story, but occasionally I can get so absorbed in experimenting and creating monsters that it takes my editor, Shari, to point out that I’ve drawn a configuration of shapes that perhaps resemble body parts we don’t want to depict or could otherwise be considered somewhat obscene!

e: LOL! What do you think makes an illustration magical, what I call "Heart Art” - the sort that makes a reader want to come back to look again and again?
Howard:
Perhaps the most important part for me is imbuing every character with a sense of personality and agency, giving them the right expression for each moment and making them seem “real”. With my usual style, that involves giving them a sculptural solidity, and to this end mood and lighting are also significant. I create quite a three dimensional environment, filled with real objects — details of which I hope children will enjoy looking at (otherwise it was a waste of time!). In the I Need My Monster books, the monsters themselves often provide their own lighting, and their colours lend a glow to the room. This was one way to give some variety when the story is often set in an unchanging location — Ethan’s room and bedside. But I think this sense of a colour glow may also give the characters a deeper appeal.
e: How do you advertise yourself (or do you)?
Howard:
I advertise in Workbook, the printed illustration catalog for art directors that comes out twice a year. Aside from that, my only publicity is my website and my instagram page (@howardmcwilliam), where I post my finished pieces as well as time lapse videos of their creation.

e: What is your favorite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Howard:
I particularly enjoy the constraints of the job: having to convey a message or story within a limited layout, be that around the headlines and design of a magazine cover, or alongside the words of a children’s story. Deciding on the key moments to show (before, during or after the described action?), arranging it around the text and making everything flow naturally from left to right. For me, limitations — including deadlines! — are a crucial part of creativity. It’s hard to be so prolific if left with blank paper, no brief and limitless time.
e: Is there something in particular about this story you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
Howard:
It may seem counter-intuitive that monsters could help you fall asleep, but they really can! It was fun creating monsters to personify “Yawn” or “Exhausted”, and I hope children may start to feel a little sleepier as they near the end of the book.
e: What are you working on next or what would be your dream project?
Howard:
I’ve just finished illustrating a children’s book by the retired U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven. It’s a children’s adaptation of his #1 NY Times bestseller Make Your Bed: Little Things that can Change Your Life… And Maybe the World — and features a Navy Seal (that is, the animal!) called Skipper. My dream project would be to illustrate a story I’ve written myself one day.

e: Best of luck to you - I look forward to seeing your future works!

Susan Eaddy's SIR DRAKE THE BRAVE

Susan Eaddy joins us today to discuss creative thinking and her new picture book, SIR DRAKE THE BRAVE, written by Joy Jordan-Lake for Morehouse Publishing.
The circle began as it often does, with my Mom. She had a kind of reverence for two types of people. One was a medical doctor, the other was a creative, especially artists and writers. My brother took the doctor path, art was a no brainer for me. Mom was always slightly envious of those who had a creative talent and she blew on that spark in me to fan it into an unextinguishable flame. Books were important and plentiful in our household and I was encouraged to use any talent I had, to spread joy. Both of my parents worked at unfulfilling jobs and I felt that following my passion for art was fulfilling a vicarious need for them too..
My childhood memories are still strong. So writing and illustrating children’s books has been the perfect outlet for my default mentality of a 10 year old.

It wasn’t hard to put myself into Drake’s shoes as he battled bullies, and nighttime anxieties. The author, Joy Jordan-Lake has a keen sense of social justice and wanted to have a limb different protagonist without mentioning his handicap in the text. Drake is a regular kid who has the same worries that other kids do. I spent a delightful morning with her inspiration, Kenbe, who refuses to be hindered by his prosthetic leg. He whirled around me for hours while showing off his considerable biking, basketball and skateboarding skills.
The problem solving needed to translate all of my sketches and research into clay is part of the creative process I enjoy the most. How will I create Drake so his prosthetic is not what defines him? How do I to show his worry and connection with his Mom? This is where I get to tie in my love of research with my love of getting my hands dirty. My love of drawing, of coloring, the tactile sculpting, photography, photoshop…clay does it all for me. Like Bartholomew Cubbins I get to wear as many hats as I can balance on my head.
And finally, the last part of the creative process… sharing it all with kids. School visits are like performance art! My talks always vary depending on the audience, the questions, the reactions and interactions. Often I do a clay craft together with the kids. And the circle carries on… with the hope that my joy and inspiration will spark inspiration for some fellow creatives in the under 12 set.
      Watch the trailer for Sir Drake on Youtube:


Michael G. Long's THREE LINES IN A CIRCLE

Here today is Michael G. Long, the author of the new picture book THREE LINES IN A CIRCLE (illustrated by Carlos Vélez for Flyaway Books.
     The practice of creative thinking invites us to pause in our everyday lives so that we can look deeply into the life that enfolds us.
      When we look deeply, we can see the hummingbird stabbing at the cardinal flower, the bumblebee buzzing the white phlox, or the cat chasing after the vole.
Creative thinking also asks us to use the rest of our senses in the same way -- to smell and touch and listen and taste with the purpose of experiencing life as fully as we can.
      This gets us to the fundamental question that fuels creative thinking -- “What is?”
      Deep sensing is the pathway to deep understanding -- of knowing life and love and suffering and death in detail -- and deep understanding is the root of the human ability to construct new thoughts. It allows us to identify new connections and to connect the previously unconnected. It grants us the opportunity to pinpoint new dissonances and to create friction where we need it.
      Deep understanding also encourages us to ask, “What can be?” Connecting and tearing asunder, we can see the strengths and weaknesses, the advantages and disadvantages, of our life together, and with this vital information, we can then imagine new possibilities.
     For me, creative thinking at its best is a moral practice with peace as its goal. Not a shallow peace. Not just the absence of unnecessary conflict. But a peace marked by justice and equality.
      The Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh -- who has written so much on these topics -- reminds us that the practice of deep understanding is essential to a peaceful life. It gives is the tools we need to empathize, to extend compassion, and thereby to build a peaceful life together.
      That’s what Three Lines in a Circle is all about. It’s an invitation to sense the peace symbol, to understand it, to empathize with it, and to share it with others in a way that creates a more peaceful life together.
      If we do that together, we will see that peace is not just a goal. It’s a way of thinking -- and living -- creatively.

Mary Jane Begin's PING MEETS PANG

I love this book about diversity and acceptance told through the viewpoints of a Giant Panda and a Red Panda by Mary Jane Begin. She stopped by to talk about Thinking Creativity:


FOCUS
By Mary Jane Begin

      I’ve always been an ambitious human, with goals, agendas and missions to accomplish. I could wall paper an elementary school with the lists I’ve made, crossed out one by one, and redrawn on a fresh sheet of paper. But nothing has pushed my lens into sharper focus than the pandemic. In every way, my reason for making, teaching and being my best human self, have become crystalline. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of alone time in the past year and a half, or maybe it’s because the world seems precarious, uncertain and a bit fuzzy. Whatever the reason, it’s time not to waste time, with ideas, people and projects that I don’t deeply care about. I want what I make to matter, both to me and to the world.

My latest book was accomplished in break neck speed (for me), a mere 7 months! I had the pandemic to thank, as I had so few interruptions, and the state of the world to thank for its theme of otherness, as I’ve watched people polarize and condemn one another for their differences. In this confluence, a story was born. My book, Ping Meets Pang is about two pandas- one a giant panda and the other a red panda- unable to see each other’s panda-ness. The story was inspired both by a trip to one of China’s panda sanctuaries, and by witnessing our incredible human ability to see differences in others instead of celebrating what we have in common. My hope is to open the smallest of eyes, and encourage them to see with a fresh lens and to focus on what binds us together, instead of what pulls us apart. I choose to celebrate my new found spectacles, rose colored and rainbow tinted, not alone in my house but out in the world as the sun starts to peek from behind the clouds of a darker year.


Coloring Page Tuesday - Flying Fish

     In my new theme of "Creative Thinking," I'm kicking off my coloring page offerings with a fish who has done exactly that!
CLICK HERE for more coloring pages.
     Remember, I create my coloring pages to draw your attention to my books! For instance, my board book Merbaby's Lullaby!
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Dear Highlights: What Adults Can Learn from 75 Years of Letters and Conversations with Kids

From Editor in Chief, Christine French Cully, on her new book:
Why/What/How does this book help readers do things or think about things differently?
This book offers a rare, honest look at childhood through the eyes of kids themselves. We adults often think we remember childhood clearly. But, for most of us, our memories are spotty or blurred. Sometimes we can be a little dismissive of kids’ everyday concerns. After all, because we have hindsight, we know that most of the time things work out fine. We don’t always see that these “problems” loom large in the child’s mind.

We also tend to think of childhood as idyllic or carefree. But childhood is a time of heavy lifting for kids! They are developing character, discovering their strengths, finding belonging, and building self-esteem. Even the best-intentioned adults sometimes make assumptions about how kids are managing the ups and downs of children. Encouraging them to share their thoughts and leaning in to listen is a no-fail way to learn something we can do to serve kids better.
We hope this book will elevate kids’ voices and remind grown-ups that the small act of listening can make a big difference in kids’ lives. We hope that this book will spark a movement based on this simple but powerful truth.

The letters we receive span the spectrum of childhood concerns, and, perhaps surprisingly, they have changed very little over the decades. Although the world has changed greatly, the way kids grow and develop have changed little. For the most part, kids write to us about the same fundamental issues as previous generations. Most of their letters deal with situations at school, at home, and with friends. Some of their letters touch on more serious problems, often adult problems kids can’t solve but must deal with. Reading these letters, you can’t help but admire children’s courage in reaching out. Hearing them talk about their hopes and dreams, worries and fears, makes it impossible to underestimate their interest in understanding the world around them and finding their place in it.
We estimate that kids have sent us more than 2 million pieces of correspondence over our 75-year history. Our long-held tradition is to write back to every child. They write to us as if we are a dear, trusted friend. We reply in kind, considering it an honor and a privilege.
And here’s what we’ve come to see as the most important takeaway: In every letter about almost every subject, there are implicit, overarching questions embedded within: Do you care? Am I loved? Hardwired for connection, kids crave more meaningful moments when the grownups they love are fully present. Kids reach out to be heard—and to be told that they are not alone. And that they are, indeed, loved.

Our mission at Highlights is to help kids become their best selves: curious, creative, caring, and confident. We believe that the most powerful motivator for kids are loving, stable human relationships, which begin and are sustained when we encourage kids to share--and when we listen to everything they want to say.