Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

3.04.2014

A Conversation with Steve Floyd

I've always noticed August House books whenever I'm searching through bookstores or libraries for children's books on mythology or folk tales. The distinctive label always stands out. So it was pretty cool when I got an e-mail last year from Steve Floyd, the president of August House, asking if they could start sending me free stuff. I thought it would be interesting to pick his brain:

How did you get involved in publishing?

Unlike most other publishers, I came from decades of work in developing media using new communications technology. I'd co-founded and sold three multi-media technology companies, but knew little about the print business or the challenges of distributing books.

After 9/11, I felt the need to do something more meaningful with my life, to somehow make a lasting contribution.

I'd grown up as a voracious reader myself, and found myself frustrated with the state of children's content – in print, television, online, etc.- which was available for my young sons. Most stories seemed devoid of a substantive plot line, and lacked any meaningful content. Sometimes they were fun, but the majority were nothing more than junk food for a young child's developing mind.

I'm not sure I share your disdain for the overall state of children's literature, though I only became a father in 2005, so perhaps I wasn't as attune to it before then.

It wasn't disdain. It's more like I was frustrated with the sheer numbers of books and other media vs. the quality of children's literature, especially since we were "bookaholics" and our children's bookshelves were full of many of the same titles that my wife and I had loved as kids.

At the same time, the number of independent book stores was decreasing rapidly and the large chains were stocked with "safe" products with high turnover and staffed by too few people who neither cared about books nor had the time to guide thoughtful customers.

It was during that period of discovery that I ran across Howard Gardener's groundbreaking work in Multiple Intelligences and stories. I was captivated by his theories and the important role that stories play in developing young minds.

One day, I had lunch with a successful actor friend, Rob Cleveland, with whom I had worked with before producing corporate sales video for Coca-Cola. He told me how he had extended his professional repertoire by performing Bible stories at Churches and Synagogues. First, he did it as a stand up routine, and then as the congregation was having fun, he would explore some of the deeper meanings behind the stories with them.

As Rob was telling me how much fun he was having reinvigorating these classic stories, it hit me that folktales could have a huge impact on children if they were authentic and offered in multiple formats: animated, online, in books, on television, performed live and recorded for audio.

That must be the same Rob Cleveland who wrote How Tiger Got His Stripes.

At the same time, I was also looking at how to launch a business with another friend, Graham Anthony, that could not only be meaningful but also have an impact by leveraging the power of Flash technology to position a product or a company.

After all, these timeless stories had originally been passed along orally, so they should be relatively easy to package for other media. And if they weren't great stories, they wouldn't have survived for the centuries. Plus, they were originally used by tribes or villages to pass on important life lessons and character values, so they clearly had a purpose.

My quest of meaning went into overdrive! We could do the something similar for children's stories as I had for Fortune 500 corporate clients. Just as I had put together sales materials and marketing information in multiple formats using a range of media, we could likewise package these folk stories with lesson plans and learning activities.

So Rob, Graham and I started looking for folktales that we could adapt and package in multiple formats. We spent about a year researching, prototyping stories and testing them with children and educators in different formats and with different support materials. We wanted to provide stories that could be experienced actively by young children in any format.

A strategic aspect of our business plan was to create a series with PBSKids. They patiently explained how Public Broadcasting worked, that we needed to line up corporate sponsors and then produce the program with a local PBS affiliate. So we contacted YAHOO, Chick-fil-A, Coca-Cola and Wachovia. Each company gave us almost an identical response: we love the concept but why would we risk an established brand on a start-up?

So, back to the drawing board. But we were still convinced that we were on to something worthwhile.

We contracted with an investment bank to help us plan our next steps. As we researched stories from the oral tradition, we kept running across books published by August House; the collection was filled with a wide range of award-winning picture books, resource books and CD's recorded by leading storytellers.

In a meeting with bankers, someone raised the point that, "Its always easier to buy something and build on it, rather than start from scratch." We immediately gravitated back to August House.

August House not only focused on publishing authentic folktales from the world's great oral traditions, it had also built a very credible and trusted brand with librarians and educators. We recognized that they could serve as a corner stone for our model of publishing great stories in multiple formats.

Was August House for sale at the time you made the offer?

Not at the time. Our Investment banker called the original owners out of the blue.

Six weeks later, we signed the purchase agreement and suddenly found ourselves in the publishing business, an industry that contrasted dramatically with the rough and tumble chaotic world of technology start-ups and that didn't operate at the whirlwind speed of internet businesses.

Because the company had its roots in storytelling and the oral tradition, 90% of the authors since the founding of the company were also professional storytellers. The fact that these stories were great performance pieces that had been honed by professionals meant that when we went to market, we could be confident that we had a set of stories that had already been beta tested with the toughest group – young children. 

Then if children were actively engaged with the stories, the stories could also be useful as reading supplements, they could be used in social studies to learn about other cultures or shared to explore character values, etc. We loved the flexible nature of these great, timeless stories that can still be used in so many ways and for so many different purposes.

Since that dramatic moment, almost 9 years ago, we've evolved and learned a lot through our mistakes but fortunately, the industry is now embracing our original business model of distributing titles in multiple formats: in print, as digital books, ebooks, animated stories, audio books, in video with leveled reading and lesson plans aligned to education standards, etc.

If money were no object, what do you fantasize about the ultimate August House multimedia product being?

The ultimate product would be cross media or integrated platform beginning with an animated PBS series featuring Maynard Moose hosted by Willy Claflin that was supported by a highly interactive web site with all kinds of entertaining ways to explore and experience the story.

In addition, a supplemental online educational component would include interactive learning activities (for children in 2nd thru 4th grade) based on their skill levels and correlated to the Common Core Standards.

In addition to that, a writing and storytelling contest for kids to make their own Maynard Moose fan fiction and invent their own versions of his exploits in the Piney Woods. The event would include online as well as regional story festivals featuring Willy and Maynard celebrating the creative work of young writers in 3rd-5th grade – the Maynard Moose Story Project Hosted by Willy Claflin. Complemented by a series of 50 Maynard Moose adventure books available in print and as ebooks.

All of these components would use the same assets or objects - they would be tagged and integrated across media formats - in different ways for different stories with different purposes (entertainment, education, reading skills, games, etc.). 

So, an integrated platform with great entertainment and educational value – for kids of all ages 8 to 80. We would offer multiple opportunities for kids to experience and explore these stories in any way they wanted to develop their own relationships with Maynard.

That pretty well sums up why we got into this business and where we would ideally like to go with Maynard Moose and - in fact - all of our folktale properties. We would love to develop these timeless stories across the board in multiple formats. You can see the archetype for this model at  http://www.storycove.com and selecting "Sample Story." 

The challenge is securing financing with sponsorships which we have attempted over the years with a variety of corporate entities. Everyone loves it, but no one has bitten. 

Do you still feel frustrated by the overall state of children's content, or do you think it's evolved over the years as well?

Now I'm able to appreciate how difficult children's publishing is as a business. Creating a good book is one thing, but getting people to care about it and want to buy it and then share it is another issue that offers it's own set challenges, especially in today's increasing volatile market place.

Since there really wasn't much of a children's publishing industry until the 1950's and 60's, I actually think that we are seeing more good writing and illustrating in the last 15-20 years than ever before. 

Today the greatest challenge in publishing is distribution and discoverability. As a result, sites like yours are more important than ever to discerning readers, new authors and independent publishers.

The metadata about a book, including author bios, BISAC headings, page count, etc. is also more important than ever, as are online aggregate review sites like Netgalley and Goodreads. They all play an increasingly important role for people who want to discover meaningful, engaging content, regardless of the genre.

But there are also more distractions than before and the sheer volume of books in any genre is overwhelming, not to mention the ease of access and availability of other media like apps, iTunes, video-on-demand, games, etc. Whether we're talking about discovering an Indie rock band or a launching a new author, discoverability is more challenging for educators, parents and content publishers than ever before. 

Another challenge for both readers and publishers is that customer reviews on Amazon are just as credible - if not more so - than "professionals" who review books, such as librarians or reading teachers who bring a depth of perspective and years of experience to their reviews. For example, if you had 5 reviews from highly respected professional journals, it might not be nearly as impactful as 25 reviews (positive or negative) posted by consumers. Consumer posts are very helpful but they can also be misleading and sometimes it is hard to judge the experience or perspective of the person who posts the review.

Since publishers are also playing the role of curator, it is a challenge to present a product in the best light to the target demographic.  As publishers we are also biased about the quality of a product that we have invested in financially and with many hours of work when it is finally released in the market. 

Children's publishing is a combination of intuition, quantitative analysis of data and subjective opinion since the decision makers and influencers are ultimately only part of the sale process. Ultimately, whether I like a book, an expert reviewer likes a book or a librarian loves it, a professional book buyer thinks it will sell, etc., it doesn't really matter since we really aren't the audience that counts.

Depending on the target market, if a 7 year-old doesn't like the illustrations, or a 5 year-old thinks the story is boring, then our analysis and opinions are meaningless and we failed at some level. As a very insightful mother told me years ago when we were test marketing some folktales for Story Cove, "I'll buy the first one, but if my son doesn't like it, then that's it." So the challenge is we have to be discovered by librarians, teachers and parents serving as gate keepers and then the book will have an opportunity to bring pleasure and enjoyment to a child.

So it is a complicated and challenging business, to say the least.

1.14.2014

A Conversation with Betty Clark

Excepting a love of stories and mythology, I don't think Betty Clark and I could be more different. I met her after she posted some numerologically-soaked end-of-the-world predictions on a facebook page I have been known to frequent and offer my own skeptical rebuttals. She liked my picture book site, though, and let me know.

I thought I'd have a go at picking her brain.

Hold on. It's a wild ride.

Do children's stories foretell the end of the world?

In the global archetypes branded upon civilizations as "mapping" - aka genetic memory - childhood stories are based on oral folklore in every culture. Understanding that creates a life, death, resurrection theme in all global teachings, passed down from parent to child.

Alice down the rabbit hole is a burial scene, her journey through Wonderland is her survival. Also, Dorothy from Oz, confirming there is no place like home.

The Native American perspective surrounds the child with death, rebirth and the seven fires of the world's ending, to bring about cleansing, to allow a new world.

The answer to your question, simply, is, "Yes."

Do all stories have hidden meanings? What of a story as seemingly innocent as, say, Goodnight, Moon by Margaret Wise Brown?

The "goodnight" to all things and to nobody is a New Age way to suggest a god, in place of actually saying 'god.' It has a covert premise, suggesting that a "goodnight" is a death, an ending versus a normal sleep.

The truth of the author's hidden message is the image of the red balloon in the story. This object is the primal fears floating over the sleeper. The remainder of all the 'missed' forgotten items that did not get said "goodnight" to.

Wow. What about, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff?

If an adult told me they considered this plot an expression of their archetypal selection of characters they identify with, I would use the iconic image of the mouse holding the crayon to write his name. I would ask the adult why the mouse selected a green crayon.

Okay, why did the mouse select the green crayon?

In primary colors, green is neutral. It is a mid-range balance. The selection of the green crayon by the teacher mouse to train the student is suggesting that the author of the story is rooted in moderate opinions, neither liberal nor conservative. Green you are growing, ripe (red) you are rotten (ole say'n). Green grass, trees, frame the scenes of nature so other colors have an opportunity to stand out and become noticed.

What was your childhood like?

I had a near death drowning at age nine. Previous to that angelic experience, I had a guardian angel I named Dawn.

Dawn was an actual entity?

Dawn was my guardian angel. The term 'entity' is applied to ghosts (which are unsaved souls stolen by demons).

By first grade, my family was sick of my talk of Dawn, so I was told by my mother that Dawn could not come to the dinner table anymore, and that it was time to say goodbye to her.

And when did you first become interested in the hidden meanings of stories?

Archetypes (codes/patterns/parallels) within global religion really became a serious hobby in 2005, but since 1999, a dream instruction boosted my desire to assemble the puzzle.

I started evaluating patterns, parallels and secular images globally. These years of my research have involved codes, encryptions, pictograms and engravings.

What I believe, Jonathan, is that the foundational characters in childhood stories blend into concept principles of secular standards about life, ancestry and moral choices. I believe that archetypal characters exist in the human global brain memory. It is called ancestral memory mapping.

For example, it is my belief that Victorian nursery rhymes are nothing more than ancient global expressions, that became pictorial morality stories revamped and/or re-packaged.

By cross-referencing Hebrew totem clan material - the Benjamin Wolf clan, as an example - the parallel in the Native American Cherokee - whose Wolf Clan name is Aniwahya or Aniwaya - is interesting, because the migration of the Amerindians from Israel seeded the Benjaminites into North America via Cherokee bloodlines.

The continuance of the wolf theme to express anti-Semitic morality codes is best known in The Three Little Pigs. Pork is not part of a kosher diet, however the Wolf eats Pig One and Pig Two, and the story concludes with the redemption of Pig Three.

Pig Three then eats the Wolf. This exchange of ingestive actions sets a moral code to the reader. That code is branding the carnal mind to become adequate to withstand the temptation, or challenge. If you are not adequate, and your home is straw or wood, you will be defeated.

So, in this case the Wolf (trickster) is the archetypal figure who trespasses a kosher diet and Pig Three (aka, Greek/Gentile) outsmarts him. The brick house cannot be penetrated, so the Wolf uses the chimney. The roof is a code for above earthy thinking (heavenly) and the chimney distributes the Wolf into the Pig's cauldron (Hades).

And why three pigs and not two pigs? Because '3' in Hebrew is a survival code. The story shows us that making two bad choices can cause the Next Event to destroy us. Breaking rules will cost you your life.

Digging into stories like this seems almost sinister.

It's just like a renaissance artist commissioned by the Roman Catholic Church to spend years impregnating walls with images approved in their dogmatic creeds, so that the artist distorted (adjusted) their thoughts or beliefs in encrypted musings integrated into wall murals.

The underbelly of folklore and storytelling was to iron brand our learning curve, to jump-start an agenda about historical/political/religious unrest/debate. Even Lewis Carroll was injecting symbolic disgruntals in his Alice writings.

Have you ever seen the David Lynch film, "Inland Empire?"

I have not. But the reason you are pointing me to this film is not my mention of the rabbits from Alice in Wonderland (which I have written about many times as an illuminati plot device), but because you are a voyeur with S&M fantasies.

Come again?

The director of this film picked Laura Dern for the star role, due to her father, Bruce Dern, who played in the former Tattoo voyeur film years ago. This urge to witness others in pain, distress, is caused by a demonic entity that has captured secular thinking.

I just asked because it reminds me of some of these things you're talking about. It's a complicated film filled with strange symbolism, as all Lynch films are. My own theory about its plot involves the rabbits representing what you refer to as archetypical characters, and how their disjointed narrative eventually spirals into larger disjointed narratives the further one gets from the source.

Your conjecture is true. Some people go mad as they engage archetypes, due to certain demonic control using these images to create a delusional reality.

The film is about a movie script which is cursed, and which is apparently based on an old folk tale. One of the actors of the film-within-a-film, played by Laura Dern, goes insane during its production and enters this strange labyrinth. At the center of it are these rabbits whose dialogue seems non-sensical.

My thinking was, what if in some meta-reality, the big bad wolf and the three pigs, for example, actually exist, but they're insane, and now, in our reality, any attempt to recreate the story of the three little pigs likewise results in madness for all involved?

Yes, this is powerful and true. Many have explored this and ended up as cases of murder/suicide.

I was interviewed by the Psy-Detective Show, a branch of CourtTV. I get precognitive information about cold case files and I submit info that sometimes re-opens cases and solves mysteries. I also worked on a precognitive case from TV show, Unsolved Mysteries. I have experienced the mind of both the killer and the victim.

In the serial killer's mind, they destroy what they hate in themselves by murdering the thing they hate. These people use archetypal characters to separate normal day-to-day routine from wishful thinking. Boredom, disappointment, failures, etc. causes people to create images toward which they can aspire.

Like your website. If you're not cautious, you could be staging your own suicide, by seeking approval from people (including me) that injure your ego.

Or, I might accidently not demonstrate respectful appreciation for your site, then under the stress, you might kill off the storybook characters to cause your foundation to be unstable.

What's true is that an individual soul sets up an image in their mind, that can become a focus, an obsession. That image in its purest form may be harmless, however when an image becomes a personal archetypal branding with desires to dress like that image, or talk like that image or - as many artists that write about characters will tell you, if they are not liars - that certain images become fetishes, if the artist is unstable.

Do you think the website is a positive thing, or a dangerous thing?

It promotes stories. It is harmless. But it is true, when secular thinkers get attachments to a character's image, and that image is killed off, the weak-minded may become depressed. It's like Tony Soprano living on, even though the actor in real life died. That is a reversed example.

Also, to walk a mile in someone else's shoes, to feel their struggles can become an 'empathy' burden. Hero complexes to retrieve the lost dog. I am guilty of this.

In life, I am learning to focus on assignment souls, from God. I am not appointed to save the world. I am learning to help others also examine these story book characters and cross reference the adult parallels. It's a learning curve. Most adults avoid getting in touch with their child 'selves'.

Your site helps people get in touch with this, their wounded child selves.

11.05.2013

Conversation with G. Brian Karas



G. Brian Karas has been writing and illustrating children's picture books for over 25 years. The New York Times describes his work as, "...depicted in a childlike style that belies the sophistication of the drawings. Exquisite and moving in it subtlety."

I met him after I reviewed his most recent book, Young Zeus. I was very impressed by how true to the original myths his re-telling was, while still being able to appeal to children (my son loved it). I was happy to have the chance to talk with him about it, and to find out more about where his ideas come from.

In my review of Young Zeus, I had mentioned the contrast between the front cover - which is fairly benign - with some of the interior artwork which is... perhaps less benign. Certainly much more interesting and involved than I would have at first suspected. Going back to look at some of your previous books - such as the High Rise Private Eyes series with Cynthia Rylant, the contrast seems greater still. Do you feel that Young Zeus marks a significant change for you as an illustrator?

I do feel like I've pushed the content further than I do with most books. Artistically, my work didn't change, only what I chose to show young readers.

One of the earliest images I worked on was the picture of Cronos eating one of his children. I remember seeing Goya's painting, Saturn Devouring his Son, when I was young and being changed by that image. I'm not looking to traumatize children, but also didn't want to alter this detail about how horrible Cronos was. Otherwise, there would be no story. That more or less shaped the tone of the whole book.


Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son
From Young Zeus, Cronos Devours His Children

I usually think of Zeus as being kind of like the Greek stand-in for Yahweh. As in, Zeus is the Primary, most powerful god who ever existed, an unmoved-mover and all that. In your book, you also tell the story of his father and his grandfather - which narratively must have been tricky to pull off.

According to the Greeks and depending on which version you read, in the very beginning there was only Chaos. Not chaos like we know it, more like nothingness. From Chaos was born Erebus (night) and Gaia (earth). Somehow Gaia gave birth to Uranus, the sky, who in turn became her husband. Together they had twelve children, the Titans, including Cronos and Rhea, Zeus' parents. As far as I know, Zeus was the first god to have relations with humans and that's when the line between myth and history becomes blurred.

We imagine the Greek gods as being the most human of all deities - what with their jealousy and arrogance and lust.

It was exactly the humanity of the Greek gods that allowed me to play a little bit and imagine Zeus as a normal kid! I was intrigued by the question, "How did someone like Zeus get to be such a powerful god?" What was his childhood like? Was he godlike right from birth, or did he grow into it? There was nothing I could find written about the idea.

There is a sense in the story that we're really reading an origin story, the likes of which I associate with Superman... or perhaps Jesus? The same sense of a young child with amazing, godlike abilities, and how he came to understand them.

What goes into the making of greatness? Is it something you can see in a child's eyes or hear in their words? What were Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Martin Luther King or Jesus like before their genius was noticed and nurtured by adults? Or for that matter, what about monsters like Genghis Khan or Stalin?
The Underworld

The reminds me of a book about Hitler written several years ago. The cover was just an old, black and white photograph of this wide-eyed baby with its mouth hanging slightly ajar.

Well, I'm not planning on a Young Genghis book anytime soon. But imagine a young child who believes - no matter what their circumstances - that they can become someone who can literally change the world. I'll never forget a brief interview I saw with a young African-American child when Barack Obama had just been elected president. Up until that moment, he had never dreamed it could be possible for a black person to reach those heights. He started to say that it meant maybe, someday, even he might... and he trailed off, choking up, unable to finish saying what was before then unimaginable. Every child has the right to believe there is greatness within them.

You've mentioned before that you had wanted to work with mythology for a long time. Do you have other myth-themed books in the works? Young Prometheus? Lil' Hercules?

I have given thought to writing more "Young" books. Basically, whether or not I like working on sequels boils down to the story. If the story is solid and there's a good reason to say more, then they can be fun. I'm not being critical of artists or authors that make a career on one theme, but personally, that would be a slow death for me. That's one reason I like doing stories written by other authors. When I'm out of ideas, it's nice when one lands on my desk!

Speaking of which, I saw that you have a book coming out this year written by Norton Juster! For a lot of people, he's a pretty huge figure.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, and they plan to release Neville at the same time. Nice coattails to be riding on!

How important do you think picture books are - not just as an entertainment for children - but as an artistic medium?

The stories have evolved and resemble the real world more than their predecessors. There is still and always will be a place for books that are comforting and reassuring to children, but there are now more titles than can help children understand a more complex world that often doesn't have happy endings.
Tomi Ungerer and an angry squirrel

I recently heard Tomi Ungerer speak at the Eric Carle Museum about his vast body of work, most of which is banned in the US. His strong belief that children should be respected and not shielded from harsh realities is present in all of his work. That level of honesty is not only visible to children, but appreciated by them as well. Sadly, it is that presence in his work which keeps it from being published here..

I approach my work with the same belief and have authors and artists like Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl to thank for blazing that trail!

9.13.2013

A Conversation with Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

"Roland Humphrey is a fictional version of a real boy; a boy having a happy childhood that doesn’t fit into a conventional box of what others may expect of a boy. He’s not constrained by what he wears, what colors he likes, and how he plays with other kids. Watching a beautiful child grow up, we are seeing how our Roland Humphrey is running into other people’s expectations of how he should behave.

I wrote this book for other children who meet the Roland Humphreys of the world to question the rules we seems to operate under that tell us what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl."

-Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

A few months ago, I received a copy of Eileen Kiernan-Johnson's book Roland Humphrey is Wearing a What? published by Huntley Rahara Press. Simply put, it is the story of a boy who feels more comfortable wearing girls’ clothing than he does in boy’s clothing.

She doesn't make it any secret that it is written about her own son, so it is clearly a very personal subject for her.
Shortly after I posted my review of Roland Humphrey, a site that I follow, Mombian, put out a call for LGBT-friendly bloggers to submit links to their recent blog posts. I posted my review of Roland Humphrey. It's on their list at #93.

Afterward, though, I wondered how appropriate that was, just as I was unsure about listing Roland Humphrey in my list of Same-Sex Relationships Picture Books, along with And Tango Makes Three, and King and King.

What do you make of that categorical distinction? Is Roland Humphrey necessarily an LGBTQ book? Is that how you intended it to be read?

I did very much intend for Roland Humphrey to be read - and marketed - as an LGBTQ book. It is decidedly and proudly LGBTQ oriented and friendly. But that gets to the issue of specificity versus universality of the narrative, which is something I struggled to balance.
It is intended to speak to boys who don't conform to gender norms, whether they are - or later identify as - gay, trans, or merely "pink boys." Society seems to be just beginning to recognize that the strictures around boys' dress and play are impossibly narrow, and that the consequences for boys who stray beyond acceptable boundaries can be great. I wanted to make a little more space for all the boys who don't slavishly adhere to these strict norms to be themselves.

At the same time, however, I wanted the message to appeal more broadly, because almost every child can identify with the befuddlement of trying to master an unwritten set of "rules" that govern us all and the unkind treatment from peers that ensues when we fail to follow those rules. The book seeks to embrace its LGBTQ identity while also trying to speak to children about a larger set of shared struggles.

There is a dearth of children's picture books featuring - much less celebrating - gender nonconforming boys.
P
My own son adores sparkly shoes and swishy skirts and beautiful things that our culture generally assigns to girls. He looked for characters like himself in picture books, and didn't find many. While The Princess Boy and 10,000 Dresses were meaningful in his and our family's experience, we couldn't find male analogues to the celebrated tomboy. That initiated a conversation about gender norms that resulted in Roland Humphrey.

How does Roland Humphrey differ from those other books?

My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Suzanne DeSimone is the seminal gender nonconforming/pink boy children's picture book. Written from the perspective of a mother lovingly parenting a boy who adores tiaras and sparkly accessories, it conveys the pain that both the child and his accepting family feel when he is ridiculed for not adhering to gender norms. It gently but pointedly asks questions of the reader about how they'd treat a princess boy that they might encounter in their own experiences. Importantly, it presents the protagonist as a little boy who wears dresses very matter-of-factly. It is powerful in a very soft, approachable way.

The book was tremendously meaningful for my son, who finally saw another little boy who shared some of his affinities, but because it was written from the mother's perspective, it was difficult for him to identify fully with the narrator.

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewart and Rex Ray is a fabulous book about a transgender child named Bailey who dreams of a magical staircase lined with fantastical dresses. The book is delightful and imaginative and doesn't turn the spotlight on gender issues in the same explicit way that My Princess Boy and Roland Humphrey do.

Both of those books are amazingly strong anchors for kicking off children's picture book conversations about gender nonconformity. There is so much ground to be covered in kid lit, and I think that children are savvy readers, appreciative of crisp prose that challenges their burgeoning vocabularies but also fierce evaluators of narrative, pretty skilled at calling out stories that ring false or are too generic to pique interest.

I wanted to add to that conversation by raising some issues that I hadn't seen addressed about the inequities between the latitude girls have to be tomboys and the incredibly cabined approach our society has taken to how boys may express themselves. I wanted people to pause to notice that imbalance and ask why that is and why we're so slavish to the impossibly narrow parameters that somehow have come to govern who boys can be.

I hear you, but sometimes I fear that books which are designed to have positive lessons can actually inadvertently do an injustice by heightening kid's awareness of the social structures that the book itself is trying to get them to work around.

That strikes at the heart of things I have agonized over most post-publication.

In particular, I have worried about the notion of introducing the "rules" to blissfully unaware - and wonderfully so - children, and thereby tainting in some way their experience of what it means to exist among their peers. I struggled mightily with that piece, and I’m not sure I got it right. But ultimately I concluded that there is so much information that children - and all of us, really - passively receive and digest, and I wanted to name some of it.

It became clear to me that many young children I encountered - not least of all my own - absorb these pre-received narratives about gender and clothing and color and play and the scope that is allowed for all of these things, so I decided that given the messages I was ultimately trying to send, the greater danger lay in not pointing out and laying bare these inequities.

To a degree, that piece was also directed to adult readers, who often unthinkingly reinforce these norms.

But yes, I fear hearing that a child reader who was blissfully floating along in a gender blind way was rudely shocked into some of the ugly realities of the world by reading my book.

pink boy
I'm always morbidly curious about the negative feedback authors of controversial books must receive. Has Roland Humphrey managed to incite any spiteful comments? Was that something you were expecting, perhaps bracing yourself for?

I've been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback. No doubt there are detractors, but they've been remarkably silent, so far. I wasn't sure that I'd get any feedback, positive or negative, so it wasn't something I thought much about in advance, but once I started getting some response, I did gird myself for negativity.

For whatever reason, this time the lovers have been far more vocal than the haters!

What about with other children?

I've done lots of readings at schools and bookstores, and the experiences have surprised me. I did wonder if I'd encounter kids who'd roll their eyes at the story or make snide remarks. Perhaps because I've been reading to younger kids - elementary age - that hasn't happened.

What has happened, and which floored me at first, was that the floodgates opened.

Usually there are a few shy comments about how "my brother likes pink," or "my brother likes to wear girls' swimsuits," etc.( and it has been kind of amazing to hear about how many of these little "pink boys" are out there) but usually it segues into a very broad conversation about the small and large unkindnesses children endure no matter what they wear and how they present themselves.

Kids pick up on the universality of the acceptance themes and seem to be really hungry to talk about the slings and arrows that have bruised their small hearts. It has been a tremendous honor to be trusted with some of those stories. I was expecting more narrow questions about why Roland liked girls' clothes etc., but these kids have been so savvy and have just honed in on the heart of the story and message and have been really honest in sharing how their own experiences have resembled the character's. It has been an unexpected privilege to hold those stories with the kids.

Were you a writer before you came up with the idea for doing this book?

No, I practiced law for 10 years but always appreciated good writing, whether I was trying to do it as a brief or motions writer or as a reader evaluating petitions and motions for Colorado's state supreme court, which reinforced in me a general commitment to equality and social justice.

Did you or your husband have any experiences as children that help you realte to your son now?

The context is different, but my husband had experiences which allowed him to not really care about how our son wanting to don a dress looks to others, but to focus on how things felt. He himself understands the pain of being different.

He was born with microtia, a congenital deformity where the outer ear is underdeveloped. He went through numerous surgeries to have an ear (non functional) constructed, and he arrived at his first day of kindergarten with his head swathed in bandages. Needless to say, he endured years of incredibly painful taunting. As an adult, he recognizes that he earned much of value through the ordeal, namely tremendous empathy and independence - not caring about what others think. Through a wrenching early experience, a remarkable human being was forged.

As for me, I always felt the weight of others' plights very acutely. I was a very sensitive child and took it very personally when the mean girls of my school would ridicule my clothes, which were inevitably 10 year old hand-me-downs from cousins and sisters since money was tight and we couldn't afford fancy new duds.

I noted that you choose girls as the primary antagonists in the story. Why was that?

That was motivated by what reflected my son's experience at the time I wrote the book. In the end phases of his preschool life and just before he moved into kindergarten, it was striking to note how girls uniformly called him out on whichever ways - small or large - that he didn't conform to gender norms. At the time, the boys he knew either didn't notice or didn't care or perhaps handled their disequilibrium in a way that my son didn't notice.

As I was writing the book, I wondered whether I should change one of the antagonists to be male, because I didn't want to malign all girls. Most of them, frankly, have been fabulously supportive. But as I was writing, I wasn't sure that the book would go any further than my son's nightstand, and so I wanted it to reflect what had been true of his experience at the time. With the benefit of hindsight, I would make that change if I had to do it all over again.

Your most recent blog post is bittersweet. You talk about how – due to peer pressure - your son has now decided to not dress as flamboyantly at school, and now desires to fit in. You write:

I’m trying to remind myself that perhaps a gentle awakening into the realities of the world is not an altogether bad thing, because the truth is that while the world is changing, the space that sparkly little dudes can occupy is still so very damn small, in spite of the efforts of so many of us to expand it.

What are your feelings about that as a writer? Does that take away any of the fire behind the Roland Humphrey book?

My own approach as an author isn't altered by my son's experience. At least, I don’t think it is. If anything, it strengthens my resolve to raise questions and crack apart latent assumptions since they reach children so early, and writers have some power to open minds to new ways of thinking. So for me it doesn't take away any of the fire behind Roland Humphrey, but as a writer I haven't figured out where it takes me next - my in-progress works predate the blog post. As both a writer and mother, so much is in flux at the moment.

I think that these feelings of unease and discomfort give rise to interesting questions that I hope I am able to mine for future work. Much of this takes a while to settle, in either role. I guess the question of what direction my future work will take is an open one, and hopefully it'll evolve organically and in response to what I see in the world.

pink boy

8.26.2012

A Conversation with Willy Claflin

I have now posted reviews for three Maynard Moose books, all written by the great Willy Claflin and illustrated by James Stimson. But who is this Willy Claflin, you have no doubt wondered all throughout the series.  His website informs us that he was born before television, but I felt certain there had to be more to him.

Willy is a professional storyteller first and foremost, who has only recently ventured in the realm of picture books. For me, that immediately made him interesting, and I became curious about the relationship between storytelling and storywriting. 

But first, I thought I'd start with Maynard.

Maynard the Moose has been telling stories to children and adults for the past thirty years. He's very popular at the National Storytelling Festival, even at the late night cabaret; and is always featured in my performances for children. Although I'm not really a puppeteer, I'm a storyteller. They heard Maynard, and came to think of me as a "puppet guy." 

How has he evolved over those thirty years?

Well, the puppet was a lot smaller than the current one. He had a major growth spurt in the mid 90's, when he began performing for larger audiences! And listening to Maynard's older recordings from the 80's and early 90's, I can also hear how his voice grew much deeper as he grew.

His repertoire has also expanded. He used to do only fractured fairy tales; but in the last few years he's taken to Greek Moosology, epic doggerel Mooseboy Poetry, and tales of Moose life in the Northern Piney Woods!

Now how did the notion to do picture books first come about? Was it something that was put forward to you, or something you actively sought?

It was something I'd often thought of, but up until a few years ago, we couldn't figure out how to do it, given Maynard's unusual use of language! Then I teamed up with artist James Stimson, and I felt that he captured Maynard's spirit very well. We decided to add audio CD's, to help the readers understand his personality, and included the Glossary of moose words at the beginning to make his meanings clear. It's interesting to see how James imagines the characters, and the collaboration has been fascinating.

The advantage of having pictures, though, is also the disadvantage. I mean, when you tell a story, everyone in the audience is imagining it in their own way. This is the magic of storytelling: the audience helps create the tale. With books, that particular magic is lost.

However, when the illustrator is someone as good as James, much is gained. For instance, in Rapunzel, when the dwarfs charge all the animals 25cents to see her, and set up the Punzel museum...I never imagined anything near what James created - an entire Punzel Amusement Park! And James has his own set of visual jokes and surprises to match Maynard's turns and twists of phrase.

Sounds like some real symbiosis. I’ve heard that in other cases, the writer and the illustrator barely interact.

It is indeed an interesting collaboration, and I am very lucky. He is also helping me see that these tales need to be changed subtly to make them suitable for children's books. The stories have, over the years, become quite ironic, full of adult humor, and often have no conventional resolution at the end. James helped me re-learn what is satisfying to children, especially when it comes to tidying things up at the conclusion, so everyone can live "happily for never afterwords."

In Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs you make a very specific point that Maynard can’t quite figure out what the moral of the story is supposed to be. It sounds like maybe you yourself were likewise struggling to shape it into a conventional resolution.

Well, Maynard is a very different persona from Willy. Willy is opposed to morals at the end of stories. Rather strongly opposed, in fact. I feel that putting a moral at the end of a tale narrows and limits its meaning.

It seems to me that true works of art, from simple children's stories to great symphonies, express our humanity, in all of its complexity, with all of its contradictions, revelations and conundrums. A moral at the end of a story, from my point of view, turns a minor miracle into a didactic tool, radically diminishing its significance. If you live with a story for years, and revisit it from time to time, new meanings are constantly emerging. In fact, I would go so far as to say that didactic art can't really be art at all. Art exists for the sake of itself, to reveal who we are.

Maynard, however, comes from a Moose culture that highly values moral lessons. According to him, mooses say that "a story without a moral is just mindless entertainment - might as well just stay home and play video games."

So part of the odd humor is the difference between me and Maynard, especially to those who hear us live. The morals to Maynard's stories are always quite bizarre. [For example, the moral of the story Turtle and Bunny from his live CD is: "The fastest person wins the race."]

Except in the case of The Uglified Ducky. In the original oral version, there was no tidy summing-up at the end (everybody is a beautiful something or other, etc.) Instead, it closes with the humorous observation that some us do, indeed, feel as if we've been born into the wrong family.

Yes, there is a lobster in his pocket.

I lost the battle over the ending here, as I did in The Bully Goat Grim. Typically, I wanted the old (bizarre) Moose Moral from the oral version: "Learn to recognize a double negative - it could save your life!” But James fought for - and won - a pointed comment at the close: "Demember - nobody likes a dubnoxious beasty."

In other words, I had to drop my focus on an ironic 'adult' sort of joke at the end, and go with something that would give children a sense of closure and fair play.

Do you think there’s a sense that the picture book medium – just by virtue of being a physical product - is limiting the story?

It is a little like putting a butterfly in a glass case. Stories are like living things, and the old ones feel almost like autonomous spirits, making their way down through the generations.

I have often thought of jazz and storytelling as very similar in certain ways. Not only are tales and tunes different every time they're performed, but live performance allows for a whole variety of solos. The best tellers, in my book, are the ones who can go off on extended tangential asides--ad lib observations, riffs and extensions of the material, eventually bringing things back to the narrative melody. Obviously, that's lost in a book.

The other issue, of course, is the pictures. It's great to have a talented illustrator - a wonderful thing! But does it compare with the hundreds of individual illustrator/animators in the minds of a live storytelling audience?

But I have finally made peace with what happens when the spoken word becomes the written word. They’re just different.

Do the stories you've turned into picture books continue to live and change in your storytelling?

Yes, but they don't morph quite as much with the telling as they used to, and I now even occasionally go back to the book and see if Maynard is telling it "right."

What’s the future for you and Maynard?

I've thought of other projects. Worked on a TV pilot, but nothing came of it. I also have a side career as a singer and guitar player: Traditional roots music, especially a capella ballads from the British Isles and Appalachia, which I often sing together with my son. And there are other oddments and detours, some of which are mentioned on my website…

For Maynard, his Piney Woods world will be the entire setting for the fourth book in the series, The Little Moose Who Couldn't Go to Sleep.

Who knows how many Maynard Moose books there will be? There are two dozen tales in his repertoire, so we'll see... The future is impenetrable, as my Buddhist friends say.

Watch Willy and Maynard in action in the video below!

5.20.2012

Education is a Story: A Conversation with Stephani Sarnoski


Stephani and some of her children following
a Stone Soup neighborhood walk.
"Storytelling is the heart of everything. Education is a story. It's not about isolated events or cardboard cut-out tests, it's about the story." -Stephani Sarnoski
.
Epiphany Community School - located just outside the city limits of one of the greatest places in America, Flagstaff, AZ - was the brainchild of Stephani Sarnoski. "Our educational philosophy is grounded in an inherent respect for each child as an individual and diverse learner," she writes on the school's website. "We are inspired by the philosophies of Free Schooling, place-based education, Montessori, Expeditionary Learning, Waldorf, Homeschooling, Service-Learning, Inclusive education and the idea of democracy in education."
.
What does all that mean, exactly? And what does it have to do with a blog about stories and storytelling?
.

I first met Stephani about ten years ago when she showed up at the Grand Canyon International Youth Hostel, where I was working at the time. She had moved to Flagstaff to finish her degree in Special Education and took a job tending bar where I became a regular fixture, little suspecting that one day we would live thousands of miles apart with families of our own and having a conversation about storytelling.

.
What role does storytelling play in the development of a child?
.
Storytelling is as key as imaginative play, and in the same developmental framework. Some children truly struggle with it and I think every early learning center should understand its importance in helping children develop social and emotional competence into adulthood. Storytelling/Imaginative Play is learning, period.
.
The San Francisco Peaks!
We have  a fun activity called Storytelling Yoga we often do after our Quiet Rest period of the day. We start with an animal position, for example: Camel pose. There’s a die that has ‘Who,’ ‘What,’ ‘Where,’ ‘Why,’ ‘When,’ and ‘How’ written on each side. We roll it to help extend the story and act it out as we go. We often use pictures as prompts for stories or sit outside with the goats, llamas, ducks and chickens, sending them on adventures with our imaginations.
.
Those are some more organized activities to help extend and isolate skills, but I'm always amazed at how children are just natural story tellers even without prompts! Just sitting and listening to them play while building, painting, running or drawing can be enough to inspire a litany of picture books! As the year goes on, the storytelling in their play becomes more complex and directed. It has been amazing to watch.
.
.
What about picture books, what role do they  play in your classroom?
.
They are integral, and they play many different roles in my classroom. Sometimes they are the inspiration for an art exploration, or even some cooking or snack lessons!

Picture books tell a story in a non-threatening way that allows for children to process what might be considered a stressful situation much in the same way as pretend and imaginative play.  For example,  we read The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia to discuss the cycles of life and death as the seasons changed and the leaves fell.
.
Grinding corn into flour. See Epiphany's blog for more!
Stories can also give the children another perspective, whether it be about the challenges of making new friends or the uniqueness of their feelings and struggles. One of my students who happens to have some learning challenges chose to repeatedly listen to Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus and I think it helped him gain perspective.
.
We also use them to teach about cultures, celebrations and different religious customs as they come up.  Is there anything picture books can't be used for?
.
Ah, speaking of cultures and customs, there's a definite Native American presence in Flagstaff. How has that aspect of your community influenced the school?
.

There is such an abundance of rich cultural history in Flagstaff – specifically Navajo and Hopi - that incorporating it into the school's curriculum through literature, music, food, and activities comes naturally. We grow a Hopi variety of blue corn at the school that the children helped to care for, dry, harvest, and eventually grind into flour.  
.
The summit! See Epiphany's blog for more!
We also regularly use a version of Navajo Peace Making to help the children resolve the inevitable conflicts between children in a way that focuses on them strengthening their relationships with one another and find peaceful resolution.

I don't know how we could call ourselves a community school that promotes a social justice curriculum, and neglect to actively introduce children to such an important part of their community!

.
In addition, our outdoor classroom provides a clear view of the sacred San Francisco Peaks and we often discuss their tribal significance. On one of our recent hikes up to Caves Crater, the students and I sat under an Alligator Juniper and were introduced to some of the stories of Kachinas while we ate our lunch over looking the mountain.  On that same adventure we were also lucky to discover pottery shards and explored a few of the 70-80 rooms/caves that were the home of the ancient Sinagua from about 1250-1300.


Exploring the dwellings of the Sinagua tribe.

Wow, I can hardly imagine being exposed to those sorts of concepts from such an early age. Do you find that being exposed to these sorts of concepts is getting your kids to ask deeper questions about themselves and the universe?
.
Kids do have a logic and many times that logic is a lot less scrambled than the "adult" type. I've learned a great deal about myself and my own belief system by listening to their conversations with each other. To be honest, they have taken it all in with stride and none of them seem to have nearly as much trouble taking it in as an adult would. To them it's often just the way things are- different for everyone.
.
That's not to say they don't ask questions. Asking questions is integral to learning and being in a space where it is safe to ask questions is the key to a healthy classroom environment. The students all have different belief systems and family traditions that they share with one another
.
One of the reasons I like our community investigations so much is that we bring a list of questions for them to ask and they always expound upon them once they get going.  The questions they asked the vet when we when were there were amazing. ("How do animals get sick? What happens if you can't fix them?")  They were also filled with questions about the caves at the top of Caves Crater ("Do you think they were comfortable here? Where did they go? Why aren't they here anymore?")
.
Feeding the goats outside the school.
During the winter holidays, we spent a good amount of time reading about the different cultural traditions of that season. One student explained that it was Jesus' birthday for him and his family. That started a whole discussion between the students about why they chose to celebrate this particular person's birthday, why was he so special? What did Jesus have to do with Santa?  Was he friends with Jesus or was Jesus his mom's friend?  These questions were asked in such a simple and innocent way. It made me wonder if an adult conversation about the topic would have been as cordial or productive.
.
What was your own early schooling like, and how do you reckon that evolved into Epiphany?
.
I started out in public school for K-1st grade. I clearly remember not being allowed to eat lunch with the other students because I was constantly being sent to the Principal's office. I had to eat my lunch most days on a bench outside the office and wasn't allowed to go to recess because I couldn't sit still or keep my mouth shut during class.
.
I was transferred to Catholic school by the 2nd grade because my parents were incredibly religious and felt that the nuns might be able to instill some discipline in me. In other words, I think they hoped the nuns would break my spirit! It didn't work and I continued to spend a good amount of time explaining my impulsive and passionate actions to the principal. I got nearly straight A's in my classes, but D's in conduct. Catholic High School was basically a repeat of that situation, only there was no recess to take away from me anymore!
.
I was offered little-to-no opportunity for hands-on activity throughout my schooling. My classes were lectures that resulted in me spacing out or putting my head down, and then getting into trouble for it.  I was an honor student with a GPA close to 4.0, so I think that caused a good amount of frustration amongst my teachers. I would memorize for the test the night before and forget it all within a week.  School to me wasn't about learning, it was about a hoop to jump through, good grades, and approval from an external source.  No one wanted me to think outside of the box- I was punished whenever I tried, so I stopped offering it. Creativity wasn't valued, but test scores and being quiet were. 
.
Hanging out with llamas.
Had I grown up in a different time, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD ( I was later, as an adult) and been provided some accommodations to help me adapt to the teaching situations presented to me. Maybe I would have been able to knit (that's how I got through college lectures) or been allowed to move around or take a walk. Punishing me didn't help, and neither did excluding me from recess! I've never understood why teachers force the kids who can't stay still or focus to stay inside. It doesn't make any sense! I probably would have been more focused if I had been given more opportunities to move.  
.
As an educator and director I'm constantly thinking of my schooling and often trying to unlearn how I learned to teach from my teachers growing up. Looking back on it made me ask a lot of questions. Why do we want to teach our youth to sit for most of the day? What does that teach them to do as adults? Why is innovation and creativity not valued? How can we educate instead of "school" children? Why don't youth have choice and direction over their learning?  What kind of adults would they become it they learned to analyze the world and be part of it, instead of passive participants looking for approval? 
.
Epiphany is a huge step in the other direction from what I grew up - it's my attempt to answer and resolve those questions. It is my opportunity to offer something different and to teach children they are valuable to our communities. Research has proven how developmentally inappropriate it is to expect young children to sit and listen for long periods of time. My Master's in Special Education convinced me that learning is individual and all education should meet the needs of the student, not the teacher.
.
Rock on!
For that to happen, though, we need to get youth invested in learning, we need to get them excited about it! School shouldn't just be days filled with kids doing things they don't want to do. How can we expect our youth to spend their lives in a dictatorship and grow up to live successfully in a democracy?  We have a democratic system here at Epiphany and the students are part of the decision making process. They have control and a say in their lives and they know it. It not only involves them in their education but it extends beyond any classroom. Learning about the world and how it works is invigorating - so why can't education be more individual fun, exploratory, and creative? 
.
I think there are benefits to every type of education. I don't disagree with lecture based or more linear styles of education at the older grades for some students. I just don't believe in a "one-size fits all" philosophy at any grade. We all learn differently.
.
You first began envisioning having your own school when you were ten. To what extent does Epiphany resemble that initial concept?
.
I didn't have as many details, but in my young mind Epiphany was a safe haven for kids like me. It was a place for the "misfit toys," so to speak, a place that never turned anyone away and appreciated the unique gift of every individual who entered it's doors.  Even as a kid I had the dream of starting  a school where kids had a choice and were a big part of deciding what happened there every day. I was a huge proponent of democratic education even before I knew what the word meant!
.
My original plan had been to buy a block of abandoned homes in Detroit and turn it into a school that provided cheap or free housing for families who want to be actively involved through teaching, gardening, caretaking, or repairs. I've always felt that school and family should be more intertwined and that our busy work lives little time for families to spend with their children.  I'm just waiting for someone to fund me. ;)
.
School shouldn't be a building, but a community that expanded out to children participating in service-learning projects and being actively involved in their community. Education isn't a place-it's a well-written story-kind of like a good book.


Storytelling is the heart of everything. Education is a story-it should be unique and individual and a beautiful process, not an end product. It's not about isolated events or cardboard cut-out tests - it's about the story. That's what makes it real. Without the journey, it's meaningless.


Learn more about Epiphany.


Flagstaff sleeps.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...