Book Festival

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Today’s post is a watercolor from The Survivor Tree, a book by Cheryl Aubin that I illustrated, which was released last year for the ten-year anniversary of September 11th. Cheryl will be presenting her story and we will both be signing books this coming Saturday, May 19th, at the Gaithersburg Book Festival.

Our family is excited that among the other presenters are Andrew Clements, a favorite author of my daughter, and local writer Sara Mansfield Taber, who recently completed a memoir, Born Under an Assumed Name, about growing up as the daughter of a covert CIA agent.

And perhaps we will see some of you there, too!

The Survivor Tree

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This summer I completed the illustrations and layout for The Survivor Tree, a book by Cheryl Somers Aubin, created to help children deal with the traumatic experiences suffered on September 11th, 2001, in particular, and with loss and the struggle to heal, in general. Here is a brief summary of the book.

A month after the collapse of the Twin Towers, workers on the site discovered a few green leaves showing through the gray concrete and ash. Clearing the debris, they found a badly injured Callery Pear Tree. She was rescued and taken to a nursery outside the city and put into the care of Richie, a City Parks worker. No one was sure if she would live, but the following spring, a dove built a nest in her branches, and new green buds appeared.

Over the years, the tree, although still bearing scars, grew tall and strong, and last year she was replanted on the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. This story imaginatively describes the experiences, memories, and feelings of the tree throughout her healing and her eventual return home.

The book is available from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. All profits from its sale go to charity.

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The gift of reading

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Today is the anniversary of the unexpected passing of my mother in 2006. I try to deflect the grey curtain that descends on my spirits each spring by recalling the many blessings she bestowed.

One of them was a love of reading. I grew up accustomed to the sight of walls and walls of books in living room, family room, bedrooms; books stacked on every table; books strewn about the car and gracing the bathroom. They were of nearly every genre: reference books and classics, of course, but also art, poetry, history, geography, science, humor, cartoon collections, and up-to-the-moment modern fiction. My parents also subscribed to about twenty different publications, from Life and Look (I’m dating myself here) to the New Yorker and Punch. Oh, the trees that were sacrificed at the altar of literacy. (When did my mother manage to cook and clean?) And, for good or ill, none of it was off-limits to us children, whether it dealt with the Gulag, the Holocaust, or bed-hopping suburban New Yorkers.

Here is my mother reading P.G. Wodehouse. Especially as she grew older, she really preferred humor to anything else. And that’s another of her blessings.

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A Capital Spring

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Today winter officially packed its bags and departed, and spring took the throne. It ought to come as no surprise, because we have seen it coming for weeks in the swelling tips of branches, the green points pushing up through the earth, the increase in morning birdsong that disregards Daylight Savings Time. Nevertheless every year it astonishes.

Much poetry and prose has been written in praise of spring, but if you have not yet stumbled across Louis J. Halle’s Spring in Washington, let this be the year. Beginning in the mid-1940s, Halle (1911-1988) worked in Washington, DC for about ten years at the U.S. State Department. Although Halle was a citydweller with a theoretically brief commute and could have dozed until practically the last minute, instead he had the habit of rising before dawn, hopping on his bicycle, and heading out for a ten or twelve mile exploration of DC’s wild green pockets and fringes before heading to the office.

No doctor ever prescribed a view of the open world for me, though it was the tonic I needed, rather than something to take in a glass before meals.

In 1947 he published Spring in Washington, an account of his wanderings. With wisdom, humor, an artist’s eye and a poet’s quill (well, in his case, a typewriter) he shared his observations and discoveries throughout the approach, unfolding, and departure of one expanded spring: January to June, 1947.

To snatch the passing moment and examine it for signs of eternity is the noblest of occupations. It is Olympian. Therefore I undertook to be monitor of the Washington seasons, when the government was not looking. Though it was only for my own good, that is how the poorest of us may benefit the world. A more ambitious man might seek to improve the President of the United States.

Each year I drag this book out and read aloud passages to my family. As I leaf through it now, searching for representative quotes, it’s difficult not to reproduce the book in entirety.

The muskrat swims and raises its young in the woodland stream beneath Connecticut Avenue, never knowing of the crowded buses and taxis that swarm overhead… Roaches Run is a marshy lagoon trapped between the National Airport, on one side, and the railway tracks on the other. Ducks and gulls and herons have remained faithful to it, despite low-roaring airplanes and smoke-breathing locomotives. They are accustomed to these dragons and these pterodactyls, regarding them not.

Halle moved on (his field was actually foreign policy), along the way publishing 22 books, eventually retiring to Switzerland. Plenty of hiking opportunites THERE. He made a visit to DC in 1988, to help launch a new edition of this book, the rights to which he had long ago turned over to the Audubon Naturalist Society (where his book can be obtained). While here he went birding and biking in some of the same old wild green places, which, remarkably (thanks in part to folks like himself), still survive for a venturesome bureaucrat’s early morning ramble.

In early March I look at the apparently lifeless skeletons of the elm trees on the Ellipse and say to myself that in two weeks they will be flowering, as the trees have flowered here for a hundred thousand years. In the middle of April I say that in another ten days the city will be full of singing wood thrushes, though there is none here yet. I know all this will be, but it seems to me so miraculous that I cannot take it for granted.

A few months later he made his own final migration to the great Beyond. Even if he had done nothing else on earth, this jewel of a book that resurfaces each spring, endlessly amusing, sensitive, and wise—an everlasting source of inspiration—would suffice. Happy Spring, Louis Halle.

(This sketch is from a family ramble through Rock Creek Park, mere minutes from our utterly urban home.)


Many happy cookies, and the flowers on a queen

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Today is the birthday of writer Shirley Jackson (1916-1965), born in San Francisco, California, but transplanted to the East Coast where she attended university and eventually settled with her husband in Vermont, raising a large family but all the while continuing, somehow, between PTA meetings and making hamburger casseroles, to write.

Many readers have probably been introduced to Jackson through her short story, “The Lottery,” once a classic of the high school English syllabus, which when it was published in the New Yorker in 1948 evoked overwhelming response exceeding that of any previously published New Yorker story.

Jackson came to my attention, however, through the books my parents owned: her collections of dark, evocative, seemingly plotless short stories that are typical to this day of New Yorker fiction (probably a contemporary literary parallel of Abstract Expressionism that nevertheless persists into the 21st century); and her similarly eerie, compelling novels. As a child, I was fascinated yet rather baffled by Jackson’s fiction.

What I really liked, however, were her memoirs of her children, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, which I read and re-read, the pages yellowing and held together with Scotch tape. Her unsentimental, low-key, definitely politically incorrect descriptions of ordinary daily life with her four bright, imaginative children, her hovering-on-the-fringes professor husband, and their cats and dogs, in their book-stuffed rural Vermont farmhouse, made me laugh again and again. When I grew up I read the books to my husband and offspring, and now they read them to one another. Into our common family vocabulary have effortlessly crept quotes from the various children (see title above).

This winter, when you and your family are all abed with the flu, read aloud the chapter, “The Night We All Had Grippe.” Laughter is healing. Happy birthday, Shirley Jackson, many happy cookies, and thank you ever so for the years of healing episodes.

Mother of Pippi

There are some people who give joy not only during their time on this earth but who continue to spread it after they have moved on. One of them is Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002), whose birthday is today, and whose fruitful 94 years brought forth so many literary offspring. Her best-known heroine, Pippi Longstocking, was an icon of my childhood, and then of my children’s, and she will undoubtedly bring smiles to the faces of my grandchildren, if I am someday fortunate enough to have them. But we also love Lindgren’s other books, including stories of the rambunctious Emil and Lotta, and Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, and especially the lively, funny and cozy Children of Noisy Village, which lets us pretend for a while that we are living in small-town Sweden.

I post this sketch of my own active little “Pippi” in honor of the day. Happy, happy birthday, and many thanks, Astrid Lindgren. I hope the afterlife resembles Noisy Village.

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Young at Art

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The National Gallery of Art sponsors a host of programs for school groups, families, and young children, hoping to inform and inspire the next generation of art-lovers, and we have availed ourselves of a number of them. From my sketchbook I post a visit made some years ago with my daughter for a program in the “Stories in Art” series, during which an NGA docent reads aloud a story, tours the museum discussing with the children paintings relevant to the book, and then leads them in a hands-on art project, which might be drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, collage. On this occasion, the children listened to the delightful story The Cow Who Fell in the Canal (Phyllis Krasilovsky/Peter Spier), toured the collection of 17th-century Dutch and Italian paintings of waterways, and then painted their own landscapes.