Going Batty: On Illustrating

Mexican_free-tailed_bats_(9413220937)Mexican Free-Tailed Bats By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Mexican free-tailed batsUploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I made the decision to illustrate my trilogy for very selfish reasons. As a child, I hated it when there were pictures of the people in fiction. The illustrator almost always messed with my ideas of what characters should look like. My mother was an artist, though she would add a disclaimer, were she here to do so. (It is she who taught me to appreciate the way the light falls on leaves, the subtle colors in cloud formations, or the importance of a single red lady-bug in the garden.) I took some art classes in college and, as a gift from me to me, I took drawing at Teachers College, Columbia University while I was on the faculty in Curriculum and Teaching. So I figured it would be fun to do the icons for each chapter opening.

It has been. But there have been moments of frustration besides getting Big Red into a truck (see the June 24 post). The bats nearly drove me batty.

I should explain. In The Black Alabaster Box, Grace Willis visits The Alabaster Caverns, but we don’t hear about bats. In Book 2, The Red Abalone Shell, Ruby and Junior do encounter bats. Every spring, Mexican free-tailed bats migrate from Mexico to the Alabaster Caverns, near Freedom, Oklahoma to rear their young. The Mexican free-tail is one of several species of bats to inhabit the caves. They’ve probably been visiting the Caverns long before Ruby and Junior Swathmore got there. Ruby’s attitude toward bats isn’t too different from that of many people today.  We think, “Yikes!” or “Vampire bat!”or “Flying rodent!”or “They’ll get in my hair and it will fall out!”

When I did the research to illustrate the Chapter 6, in which bats appear, I learned a lot about bats.

I tended to see them as valuable insect gobblers. And they are. For example, every evening the bats fly out of The Alabaster Caverns to feed, each bat consuming anywhere from 600 to 1,000 insects in an hour. But I had no idea that they also pollinate some plants and distribute seeds. According to Bat Conservation International, the “African Tree of Life,”or the great baobab tree of East Africa depends on bats for pollination. (I fell in love with the baobab tree when we were in Zambia one summer when my daughter was a child. I can’t imagine an Africa without baobab trees–an unfortunate possibility as baobab trees are at risk–but another story.) Bananas, mangoes, peaches and guavas are pollinated by bats, too. Who knew? Not me. And I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that bats are the only flying mammal left. (Flying squirrels and lemurs actually glide, they don’t flap their wings as do bats.)

Sometimes bats get rabies. That’s pretty scary, but only a very small percentage. Children and their adults need to exercise caution if they find a dead bat just as they would when finding any dead animal. There are other diseases associated with bats that are identified by the Center for Diseases Control, with appropriate cautions.  Bats, in turn, probably have more to fear from us. They are endangered by loss of habitat, pesticides, misinformation, and diseases (the most deadly of these is apparently white nosed syndrome a wildlife disease that affects hibernating bats).

But back to the point: Illustrating.  My first attempt to depict the ribbons of bats that flyRAsCh6Batsa out from the Caverns every summer evening seemed heavy. I wasn’t satisfied.

Then I tried showing the bats more closely. But the chapter isn’t about bats and this attempt didn’t seem to be working either. I liked that little guy at the front, but I didn’t finish the sketch because I thought he was making a promise the chapter didn’t fulfill.

RASChBats

Finally, I cameup with the last sketch that was a bit more satisfying.  What I like about it is the suggestion of bats–a ribbon of bats just beginning their exit from the caverns before sunset.  RASChBatsFinal

 

If you want to know more about bats, there are some great resources. Most of them can be read by children, certainly with children. And the Bat Conservation International website has directions for building a bat house.  Here are a few resources:

Watching Bats The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s Wildlife Diversity Program offers the public the chance to watch bats on site near The Alabaster Caverns State Park every summer.  https://wildlifedepartment.com/wildlife/wildlife-diversity/selman-bat-watch

Bat Facts for Kidshttp://www.sciencekids.co.nz/sciencefacts/animals/bat.html

For a bit about the history of bats at The Alabaster Caverns, see: http://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=AL002

Common misconceptionsabout bats, https://www.theodysseyonline.com/common-misconceptions-about-bats

All Kinds of Cool Stuff About Bats can be found at Bat Conservation International’s website, http://www.batcon.org

Building a Bat House  http://www.batcon.org/resources/getting-involved/bat-houses/build

More About Bats can be found at The World Wildlife Organization, including more information about building a bat house. https://www.nwf.org/sitecore/content/Home/Garden-for-Wildlife/Cover/Build-a-Bat-House

Detailed Information About White Nose Syndrome and what you can do to help may be found at the White-Nose Syndrome website link above.

By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Mexican free-tailed batsUploaded by Dolovis) [CC BY 2.0  (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Somebody’s Grandmother?

Who’d want to read a book about some random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother?”

Last year when Katie Schmidt talked with her class about the prospect of piloting The Black Alabaster Box, this was a question one of the children asked. I had to laugh when my granddaughter, a member of the class, told me. “What did he think grandmothers should be doing?” I asked.

I’d like to think that children of today are growing up with positive attitudes about issues that have troubled us in the past, issues such as race, gender, age, conceptions of beauty. But we aren’t there yet as a society. We aren’t helping our children as much as we could were we to provide better role models. (And maybe better stories?)

As the grandmother in question, I do think about aging. Age isn’t always kind. I don’t ever want to be guilty of assuming that people who start to shut down when they reach retirement age  choose to do so. People have health issues that place severe limitations on what they can do physically and mentally. But there is choice, too. I’ve seen friends who just seem to quit. They don’t like what age is doing to them. They can’t fight it. They can’t fix it. They want to be young. They aren’t. They give up.

There are reasons we give up. Aside from the crushing experiences that life can deal out, we are surrounded by a culture that values youth and beauty. Our culture tells us at every turn that when youth leaves off, so does beauty. Maybe that is what drew me to Celeste, the character in The Black Alabaster Box who traded her immortality to be the most beautiful woman who has ever lived. Her goal in life is to stay young and beautiful—she has, for centuries. Not a wrinkle mars her perfect face nor does anything bulge in the wrong place. Isn’t that the message that we bump into everywhere we turn? Keep Young and Beautiful if you want to be admired, if you want to be loved.

After reading the draft of my book, one of my friends challenged Celeste. Why her? We already have Snow White’s stepmother and a host of her type. Why perpetuate a negative stereotype?   4rua60jaa87nxnI gave her comment a lot of thought. But Celeste would not be set aside. She demanded to be in the book, living out the message that says you don’t matter if you aren’t beautiful. If Mother Nature didn’t reward you with that advantage, you’d better do something about it. You have to be young to be beautiful, too. When the wrinkles appear, do something about it. “Beauty is your duty,” according to an old advertisement for the Success School.

I was thinking along these lines when I saw a short bit on the Teachers College website about Jacqui Getz, a student in my early years at the College. She was beautiful then. Now in her fifties and proud of it, she is still beautiful. Does she look like she did then? No. She looks as she is now, confident, purposeful, seasoned, full of life, and smashingly, gorgeously, beautiful. “Go Jacqui!” The blog about Jacqui is a message that challenges our dysfunctional view of beauty and of age.

Maybe that is why Celeste wouldn’t go away. She lurks in our deep places, telling us that retirement is an ending, not a beginning. She whispers that every gray hair and wrinkle is a blight, undermining our self-worth. We see her in the book and reject her, laugh at her. But she isn’t always so easy to laugh at when we look in the mirror.

So who does want to read a book about a random girl going West written by somebody’s grandmother? You, I hope. And this grandmother plans to keep writing. After all, grandmothers should be writing, and traveling, and gardening, reading, having adventures, doing what they love to do for as long as they are able, and looking in the mirror and giving Celeste the raspberry!

“Every Young Wife Must Make This Decision” from https://repository.duke.edu/dc/eaa/P0151

Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?

Gingerbread.jpg

Thursday was the book launch for The Black Alabaster Box. I read the SCBWI website  for children’s book authors and illustrators. I talked to authors. I hadn’t done a launch before.  When my academic books were published, I put the title on my vita, and the publisher did the rest. So all this launch and publicity, and marketing business is new territory.

One of the best bits of advice I had was: have fun. It turned out to be more fun than I expected! I suppose I was worried that the program wouldn’t work or I’d stumble over myself when I read from the first two chapters, or people wouldn’t like the gingerbread cookies after I spent a day making them. But once all the balloons were up and it got under way, it was all fun. Sarah VanTiem was a brilliant emcee. She led an interesting conversation with Katie Schmidt, whose class at Rodgers Forge Elementary School piloted the book last year. I didn’t trip over my own tongue and Jack VandenHengel’s “On the Santa Fe Trail,” and “Tumbling’ Tumble Weeds” (with guitar) had everybody so into it that by the time he got to “Red River Valley” people were singing along. It was really fun. And people ate gingerbread cookies much more delicately than either Ruby or Junior in the book–you’ll have to read chapter two for that story.

“Can you have a launch without gingerbread cookies?” Silly question isn’t it? So many people commented on them, though, that I thought I’d share the recipe. They were an important part of my launch! Here it is, my version of an old recipe.

Gingerbread Cookies

1/3 cup shortening (part butter)                    ½ tsp. salt                                                                   1 cup dark brown sugar (packed)                   ½ tsp. allspice                                                        12 oz. jar of dark molasses                              1 tsp. ginger                                                           1/3 cup cold water                                               ¾ tsp. cloves                                                          6 cups sifted flour                                              1 tsp. cinnamon                                                      2 tsp. soda

Cream shortening and brown sugar. Add molasses and mix thoroughly. Stir in water. Sift together dry ingredients and stir in 1 cup at a time. Roll dough to ¼ inch thick. Chill dough at least 1 hour or overnight. Lightly grease cookie sheets. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cut with cookie cutters and space about 1 inch apart. Decorate with sprinkles before baking (if you want to use sprinkles). Or, after baking, roll in powdered sugar while they are still hot or frost with powdered sugar icing when they are cool.

Bake 12-15 min. or until cookies are starting to brown on the edges.

GBCscutoutsStacks of GBCs

Mmmmm! Enjoy.

 

 

Continue reading “Can you have a book launch without gingerbread cookies?”

What’s in a Launch?

thumbnailWhat’s in a book launch? I’m getting ready for THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX Book Launch on April 5th so I’m thinking about it a lot. I think about launching a rocket—will it fly? I think about launching a boat—do we break a bottle of champagne over the book or over me? Children are invited, maybe no breaking of bottles!

I’ve read about other people’s book launches. A launch is about getting the word out. It is about selling books, marketing. But it is more than that for me. It is a celebration of girls and boys getting their hands on the book and liking it. It is a celebration of the many, many adults who have contacted me to say how much they like it. (That is a bonus. I’m glad for adults to enjoy it too.)

As an elementary school teacher, I always read children’s books along with my class. A good children’s book is a good book for anyone. Some of my best book recommendations have come from kids. For example, I remember when Jimmy put THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster on my desk.“Mrs. B. You have to read this!” (That’s not a type-o, Bolin was my married name.) A few minutes later he came over to where I was working with some other kids. “No, I mean you HAVE to read this.” I made it my business to begin reading it that night. Jimmy was right. What a great read.

When I was teaching elementary school, children loaned me books, gave me books, told me about books. I was always looking for children’s books to share with them, too. I’m still reading children’s books. I know how important books can be for children. So it was pretty thrilling when Isaiah, the first child outside the family to read a draft of THE BLACK ALABASTER BOX for me, said, “I really like your book!”

It was pretty thrilling when feedback came from the pilot classes, too. Students in Katie Schmidt’s public school class in Baltimore and Jon Dunlap’s independent school class in Arlington wrote to tell me how much they enjoyed it. Those were great moments. Now, as I prepare for a launch, I’m celebrating them. I’m celebrating the book being out at last, thanks to my publisher Dr. Shrikrishna “Krish” Singh at Auctus Publishing. I’m celebrating Liesl Bolin’s tireless effort in taking photographs, designing the cover, getting the word out. I’m celebrating all the people who have kindly posted on my Facebook page, shared the book on their Facebook pages, written reviews on line, or Tweeted about it to friends.

It takes a team to launch a rocket, or a ship, or a book.

The Black Alabaster Box is Ready!

Cover photoGood news! The Black Alabaster Box is now available in paperback, hard cover, and e-book. You can find it at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. I-Book, through Apple.

Here is the cover. The photograph and design is by Liesl Bolin. You can find out more about it on my web page. Like me on Facebook. Follow me on Twitter @fgschoonmaker