NAEA 2018 Preview: A Return to Picturebooks through The Land of the North

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Next month, my friend Amy Brook Snider and I will be sharing the latest installment in a series of presentations we’ve given at the National Art Education Association Convention. The subject of our presentations has spanned a range of enduring topics of interest throughout our relationship and conversations on the telephone.

“Indivisible: A Consideration of the Picturebook, Past and Present” will include a slide show on some great moments in picturebook history. We’ll share criteria for identifying great picturebooks and some of our personal favorites. We hope our session will remind art educators of how the picturebook functions as works of art, one readily available to children and worthy of attention in the art room.

Preparing for this session has led me, quite happily, back to the picturebooks section of the library. As I shared in the fall my daughter (and co-captain in life the past seven years) Cora’s attention span for listening to stories is astounding and she will sit for hours being read to from chapter books. As her capacity to listen longer and her hunger for more complex and developed stories developed, we largely moved away from picturebooks. But as Amy and I reaffirmed through our conversations and investigations, great picturebooks are not just for children, and everyone in our house is happy to have them around again.

This fall, Amy reminded me of the D’Aulaires, a couple who emigrated from Europe to the U.S. in the early 20th century and went on to write and illustrate more than two dozen books. Their books were also included in a classical homeschooling curriculum we’re playing with this year. Cora and I started with their Book of Greek Myths (1962). (Note: We also LOVED Aliki’s Gods and Goddesses of Olympus (1994).)

The D’Aulaire’s storytelling is vivid and their detailed illustrations are captivating. They captured the most essential aspects of their plotlines through detailed drawings that could stand on their own as works of art. First depicted through 4-color lithography and later layered drawings on acetate echoing that process, these images are sure to stick in readers’ minds.

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We currently have at least half a dozen of their books out from the library including Norse Myths (2005) (initially published as Norse Gods and Giants (1967)). We started reading it on a snow day last week (which felt appropriately hygge) and have been devouring it. We are having fun using the glossary to pronounce the Norwegian names. And we’re findings lots of characteristics in the Aesir that mimic the Greeks and other literary characters we know.

While my days with Cora have been filled with Odin and the Aesir, my nights have been spent watching Game of Thrones. The parallels are astounding.

I was not the kind of kid who read fantasy growing up. I never collected crystals or played Dungeons and Dragons. As an adult, when friends first started talking about Game of Thrones I tuned them out. But as a parent, I’ve been given a second change to engage explorations of good and evil through more recent mythologies like Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings. 

Game of Thrones is intense. I didn’t have any idea what we were marching into when I suggested to Dan that we turn it on a few weeks ago. I was immediately drawn to the costumes, settings, and characters, at the same time that I was repelled by most of their behaviors. But reading Norse Myths, their intense embrace of all parts of life, death, war, sex, food, etc. makes more sense. The northerners in the story are clearly designed after the Norse, such as that depicted in this story of Odin’s heroes. After fighting to their deaths in Odin’s name, they were granted flown to the world of the gods by beautiful maidens to an afterlife full of all out feasting and fighting (and quiet time with women when their mood allowed).

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The D’Aulaires’ share stories that have formed the touchstone of many Western literary and artistic projects. I’m grateful to be reading them so closely now, wishing I hadn’t waited so long.

[Note: Apologies to loyal readers who have missed updates from me through this space these past months. I have thought of this project often, but been pulled in other directions. In case I fall off the map again, come look for me at overthefenceurban.com and http://www.redoakcommunityschool.org/rocs-blog/]

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Creative Connections: The Kitschy Kat Alphabet Book

Last summer I met Nancy McKibben when she was assigned to write a story about my urban farming project – Over the Fence Urban Farm. During our time together for interviews, Nancy and I shared our mutual interest in picturebooks and she shared her plans to put together an ABC book made of postcards, for children to create with the help of loved ones far away.

In the fall Nancy sent me an invitation to support Kitschy Cat Alphabet Book on Kickstarter. (It’s now available on Etsy.) With a four-year-old at home in Ohio and family all over the country, there was no reason to refuse. For my donation towards the project’s start-up costs, I received the full set of postcards.

I love perpetuating the idea of snail mail, and am trying to give Cora ample exposure to the joys of writing and receiving handwritten notes. I think it’s catching on. And why shouldn’t it. There’s little more magical than sealing an envelop, sticking it in a box, and then receiving a letter from the recipient in response. One of the projects on my to do list this spring is to create a mail station for Cora per recommendations from Playful Learning. Kitschy Cat will have a special place in the setup.

IMG_9031I sent the postcards to my mom along with 52 stamps and the introductory note Nancy included for participants and then we waited. Mom let me know when the package arrived, told me I didn’t have to send the stamps, and proceeded to laugh as she apologized in advance if somewhere along the line she forgets about the whole thing. But then the postcards started coming. And her notes are thoughtful and clever!

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photo 4I love that she is referencing where she lives, asking about where we are, telling stories from the past, and making suggestions for the future. Previously, when I asked my mom to write to Cora it didn’t always happen. No shame, no blame. She’s just not that kind of grandma. The point is that the parameters and creative starts offered by the alphabet themed cards gave her the encouragement and support she needed. Suddenly I was seeing this as a creative invitation for my mom, perhaps even more than for Cora.

Of course we’re trying to find ways to extend the activity on our end. Using the letter of the day as a prompt for writing practice. . .

IMG_9045And drawing invitations. . .

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R is for Rabbit

In addition to my mom, I’ve been trying for what seems like forever to get my niece, who is in first grade and has the sweetest penmanship, to write to me with little effect. But my mother brought some Kitschy Cat cards along last week while she was visiting my brother and his family last week and guess who signed the last two letters we received?

photo 2I’m grateful to Nancy for sharing this project with us. For me, it’s turning out to be so much more than the sum of it’s parts. I’m not sure what we’ll do when it’s over.

[Postscript: Art educators might get inspiration from Nancy’s project for exchanges within their districts – I can imagine elementary and high school students exchanging cards, for instance. They can also draw inspiration from mail artists like Ray Johnson and On Kawara or contemporary correspondence projects like Post Secret. And then there are sites that offer mail art challenges you can join with or without your students. (Honestly I didn’t even know how active the postal art community was until just now.)]

 

 

 

Serving time in the StoryCorps

While this makes two posts in a row that feature George, he and I haven’t had a lot of quality time together lately. So, it was with great excitement, and some anticipation, that I told to him about our invitation to participate in the StoryCorps project last weekend.

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I was excited because I LOVE StoryCorps – a ten year-old “independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Over 50,000 stories have been recorded so far, most archived at the Library of Congress. Excerpts from select stories are aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on Fridays. Some girlfriends and I routinely listen and then send each other text messages with our reactions. Some are funny, others endearing, many heart-wrenching.

I was anxious because the interview would be 40 minutes long, and I couldn’t remember the last time George and I spoken for that long. Couple that with the fact that our appointment was for 9 a.m. on a Sunday and George is 14 years old, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, George was intrigued by the idea: “Cool! We listen to NPR everyday,” he said cheerfully. Hearing we were among a small group of folks who were invited to participate in this series of recordings at the Columbus Museum of Art also appealed to him.

StoryCorps sent representatives to the museum as part of their award for winning a National Medal from the Institute of Library and Museum Services. George and I were invited because of a project we participated in last fall called Dispatchwork. (You can read about that here.) I thought we would be talking about that as part of our interview, but upon arrival and introductions, we learned we could talk about pretty much anything we pleased. We were given a list of questions on a range of subject to help keep our conversation moving.

George and I went back and forth asking one another questions and sharing our memories, ideas, and lessons for life. We both asked questions the other wasn’t prepared to answer, including some I have been harboring for a long time like, “Do you ever imagine what your life would be like if your mom and dad stayed together?” and “Do you ever wish Cora wasn’t around?” Perhaps, now that the door is open, we’ll revisit and respond to these queries in the future.

I don’t think our interview will ever make it to the radio, at least not on a national level. But I’m so grateful for this opportunity to practice the art of conversation with George. I know he will never forget this encounter with oral history, and who knows, perhaps someday his great-great-great grandchildren will listen to our conversation on a trip to Washington, D.C.