Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I Love Myself When I'm Laughing...

Zora Neale Hurston - celebrated novelist, journalist and folklorist was the source of my inspiration when I visited Ron Brown Middle School in late October as part of a mini residency with the Kennedy Center.

The book edited by Alice Walker I Love Myself When I'm Laughing... But Then Again when I'm Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neal Hurston Reader title was used as a writing prompt.

I approached my workshop differently this time, by starting with the art and then using the art as a bridge to the writing. The 12 and 13 year-old boys and girls jumped head first into the art. Collage is such a great medium for children. It's so non-intimidating and accessible. I rarely allow my students to use pencils and encourage them to work big and bold, cutting out large shapes to make their expressions like American artist Romare Bearden.

The next day we used the cut paper collages to come up with words that described themselves. I read a passage from Angela Johnson's children's book Song of Faith about a girl Doreen and her brother Bobo growing up in the mid 70's. In the book Doreen had to come up ten words to describe herself in school. One of the words she used is square. I asked my middle schoolers to come up with their list. They were then encouraged to weave these words into their narratives using contrasts like in the title of the Hurston Reader .

I liked the attitude displayed in many of the collages. The children liked juxtaposing positive aspects of their character with other less favorable aspects. They left that second day feeling a sense of accomplishment and quiet satisfaction.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Seasons of Hope

I led bookmaking, cut paper collage and writing workshops for women at a correctional facility in Maryland yesterday through the non-profit Project Youth ArtReach in Silver Spring, MD. that places professional artists from around the world in correctional facilities for arts programming. We talked about our theme "Season of Hope". I read from several children’s books including my book Grandma’s Purple Flowers that takes readers through four seasons and explores the hope found in a blossoming flower after a difficult and icy winter. I also read books by Eric Carle and a rhyming book by Mem Fox. The women always seem to enjoy being read to and exploring the art found in picture books.

I asked the women to close their eyes and identify themselves with something in nature. They did some free writing and came up with key words to describe themselves and the object and wrote imaginative first drafts of poems and stories. We discussed how rhyme and rhythm works in a story and how some writers claim that children find comfort and predictability in rhyme. Using blank sheets of paper and oil pastel, they planned the sequence of their stories.

Later, using bright papers that they painted in an earlier session with paste and tempera paint, they began to dutifully illustrate their stories and poems, step by step, cutting out large shapes and gluing them down. Bright red, green and orange patterned and textured papers were used to illustrate tropical birds, flowers, gypsy moths and chipmunks that they identified with. These illustrations will be later matched up with words in an accordion book that they will construct in a later session.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Grandma Returns

My children's book Grandma's Purple Flowers is now out in paperback. I'll be signing books and reading on Saturday, Oct. 18 from 2 til 4 p.m. at Pyramid Atlantic's new store in Silver Spring, MD (821 Wayne Avenue) as part of downtown Silver Spring's Fall Festival.

Grandma's Purple Flowers celebrates the affection between a young African American girl and her favorite Grandma through the seasons, with simple lyrical text and lively cut paper collages. When Grandma dies one day something surprising comforts her during her time of mourning.

This has always been a special book for me, since it was the first one that I both wrote and illustrated. It draws upon childhood memories that I had of my paternal grandma, Annie Kate, who traveled by Greyhound bus from Georgia to visit my siblings and I in Chicago. The words of the story however, grew out of my sense of loss from not having my mother around when my youngest son was born.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Rhythm and the Rhyme

Celebrated Australian children's book author Mem Fox spoke along with noted English illustrator Helen Oxenbury at the Washington Post on Monday, October 13 in honor of their newly released picture book, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. Talking with energy and animation, Fox discussed the secrets of writing for children, to a group of about 200 book lovers.

Both presenters gave a captivating behind-the-scenes look at the book's origins and offered insightful answers to questions fielded by the audience. Fox has written 30 picture books for children, many having sold more than a million copies.

When talking about the secrets of writing successful books for children, Fox noted that kids want to be assured that they are loved. "They love rhyme, rhythm and repetition", she said "because it's predictable. It makes them feel safe," she added. When adults write for children, Fox claims, they must get the rhythm right. One way to get it is through reading aloud. Mem Fox is the author of Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever.

The reception was sponsored by several DC area non-profits including The Children's Book Guild of Washington, DC; Reach Out and Read; DC Learns, The Reading Connection and The Women's National Book Association, who among other things supports the role of women in the community of the book.