Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Midweek Musing #3—Julie Danielson and a pair of eccentrics

I'm delighted to have Julie (Jules) Danielson visit today—among her many accomplishments in the world of children's literature, she's the creator of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, and she has interviewed hundreds of children's book authors and illustrators there. I was a guest on "7-Imp" once, and it was one of the most interesting and fun interviews I've ever done (see it here). If you want to get a sense of who's doing what and what's going on in children's literature today, her blog is a great place to start.   If you're not a "7-Imp" devotee already, check it out.  You will be.  

More recently, Jules has teamed up with children's lit bloggers and commentators Elizabeth (Betsy) Bird, Travis Jonker and Philip Nel to create The Niblings, a sort of "Fantastic Four" of commentary, on Facebook and Twitter.  You'll find more links at the end of this piece.

Since I had so much fun preparing my answers to the questions Jules asked me, I thought I'd see if she would be willing to play along here.  She said yes.  Today she answers the Midweek Musings question:  who is one of your favorite characters in children's literature, and why?

Jules Danielson:  As a fan of the work of author-illustrator James Marshall, I’m fond of many of the characters he created. I could whip up an entire ode to Grandfather Stupid. I’ve shared before at my site my abiding love for him, primarily for this moment when the lights go out in the Stupids’ living room; they all decide they’ve died and must be in heaven; and then Grandfather Stupid comes flying into the living room on his motorcycle, saying, “This isn’t heaven. This is Cleveland.” Here’s to good old-fashioned common sense.

However, with apologies to Grandfather Stupid, I think my favorites of Marshall’s characters are the glorious hippos, George and Martha. In 1997, Maurice Sendak wrote an incisive tribute to these characters, as well as “the fertile genius” of Marshall, in the Foreword to George and Martha: The Complete Stories of Two Best Friends.  In it, he wrote that in the George and Martha stories there’s no “shticking, no nudging knowingly, no winking or pandering to the grown-ups at the expense of the kids.” It’s true. It’s one of the things I love the most about Marshall’s books.

Best of all, though, is the fact that George and Martha are such good friends. They have their arguments. Lots of them. There’s the day that George, a peeping tom, spies on Martha in her bathtub. He ends up going home with the bathtub on his head, Martha angrily shaking her brush at him and saying, “We are friends. But there is such a thing as privacy!” Collectively, they possess a whole host of neuroses, Sendak even referring to Martha in the aforementioned Foreword as “unstable.” (This makes me laugh; who among us isn’t at least a little bit unstable?) But they remain true blue friends.

It’s good to have at least one true blue friend in life. If you don’t like your friend’s split pea soup, for instance, and that is precisely what she’s serving for dinner, tell her as politely as you possibly can. Don’t pour the soup into your hippo-sized loafers under the kitchen table when your friend is out of the room. Also remember: If your friend is roller-skating to your house, falls, breaks his favorite tooth, and has to get it replaced with a gold one, tell him how distinguished it looks. Friends always tell each the truth, after all.

It’s also “wonderful to have a friend who knows how to make you laugh,” George tells Martha one day on his birthday. For this, their wry humor, as well as their sense of mischief, their follies, their kindnesses, their wickedness, their fun—all of which make these hippos very human—I tip my hat to George and Martha.


Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog focused primarily on illustration and picture books. Julie received her Master’s in Information Sciences, with a focus on children’s librarianship. She has juried for the Society of Illustrators’ Original Art Award, as well as the BolognaRagazzi Awards for the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy. She writes about picture books at Kirkus website, she writes picture book reviews for BookPage, and she teaches a picture book course for the School of Information Sciences' graduate program at the University of TennesseeWild Things! Acts of Mischief in Children's Literature, written with Betsy Bird and the late Peter D. Sieruta, will be published by Candlewick Press in August 2014. 

Twitter links:
The Niblings:  @TheNiblings4
7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast:  @SevenImp

Facebook links:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Midweek Musing #2— guest blogger Barbara O'Connor

Today's guest blog comes from a writer who always cracks me up—Barbara O'Connor.  She creates distinctly delightful and odd characters who could only exist in the American South.  They carry names like Earlene, Stumpy, Preacher Ron, or Miss Delphine, they compose earnest lists of things they should do (or painful lessons they've learned), and concern themselves with abandoned babies, spelling bees or one-legged pigeons.

And—full disclosure here—I've been in a critique group with Barbara O'Connor for many years, which means I've been part of a lucky group who gets acquainted with these characters before anyone else does (as those characters might say, thumbs in ears and fingers waggling, "Neener, neener!").

So here is Barbara O'Connor, answering the question, "Who is one of your favorite characters in children's literature, and why?"

One of my favorite characters? Easy! Cletus Underwood from Cynthia Rylant’s amazing Missing May.

[BL interruption:  for those who have not yet had the pleasure of reading Missing May, here's a brief synopsis from
When May dies suddenly while gardening, Summer assumes she'll never see her beloved aunt again. But then Summer's Uncle Ob claims that May is on her way back--she has sent a sign from the spirit world.

Summer isn't sure she believes in the spirit world, but her quirky classmate Cletus Underwood--who befriends Ob during his time of mourning--does. So at Cletus' suggestion, Ob and Summer (with Cletus in tow) set off in search of Miriam B. Young, Small Medium at Large, whom they hope will explain May's departure and confirm her possible return.]

Barbara O'Connor:  I’ve expressed my love for all things Rylant for years and have credited Missing May with being my ultimate inspiration.

While I certainly love feisty, determined Summer and dear old heartbroken Ob, Cletus is the dude who grabs my heart from the get-go.

I’m not going to call him “quirky” because that term seems too stereotypical to do him justice. More appropriately, he is unique, oddball, nerdy, smart, honest, whacky, and lovable.

Rylant’s skill is evident when she shows the character of Cletus through Summer’s eyes, yet the reader is able to see him more clearly and honestly. Despite Summer’s somewhat mean-spirited view of him, his goodness shines through.

Summer introduces him this way:

I swear. When Ob spotted him snooping around the old Chevy last fall I warned Ob to have nothing to do with him. I’d been riding the school bus with Cletus for a year, since his family moved up from Raleigh County, and I had decided he was insane.

How can you not love Cletus’s potato chip bag collection, his beat-up vinyl suitcase filled with photographs, his ability to create stories from Brylcreem ads, his hat with ear flaps, and his straight black hair that Summer calls “slimy.”

But most of all I love his heart. Summer worries that Ob’s belief that May is returning from the dead is going to make him “sick or crazy.”  But Cletus responds, “Least it gives him something to do. Gets him out of bed in the mornings.”

And while I loved Cletus from the minute he showed up snooping around that beat-up Chevy on the mountainside, it took Summer longer to see his true character.

In pure Rylant language:

The front door opened to us, and standing there was Cletus. And I knew, in an instant, that this was not the same boy who had been coming to us with his battered old suitcase all these weeks. This was a different boy, and I knew, even before I set one foot inside his house, that here in this place, he was a much-loved boy. It’s funny, how you can know something like that right away. How you can see in someone’s face the he feels completely safe and full of power and love, and suddenly things between you become so easy.

Sigh. Love that, Cyndi!!!!

And then, of course, Rylant ices the cake with this:

May would have liked him. She would have said he was “full of wonders,” same as Ob.

So there you have it: a character “full of wonders.” A character I adore in a book I adore written by an author I adore.


See Barbara O'Connor's blog on Cynthia Rylant: Greetings from Nowhere:  My Best Friend, Cyndi

Barbara O’Connor is the author of award-winning novels for children, including How to Steal a Dog, The Small Adventure of Popeye and Elvis, and On the Road to Mr. Mineo’s. Drawing on her South Carolina roots, Barbara’s books are known for their strong Southern settings and quirky characters. In addition to six Parents Choice Awards, Barbara’s distinctions include School Library Journal Best Books, Kirkus Best Books, Bank Street College Best Books, and ALA Notables. She has had books nominated for children’s choice awards in thirty-eight states. Barbara is a popular visiting author at schools and a frequent speaker at conferences around the country.

Learn more at her website:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ludwig van Bathoven, finished

Here's the finished painting of Ludwig van Bathoven, at last.
Most who knew Bathoven were familiar with his foul moods—but very few knew that his volatile outbursts
came from frustration at only being able to play two notes at a time.
With this piece, I didn't take any process images. . . because it was that kind of week.  I was busy getting used to Twitter (I'm @Brianliesbooks), and I was preparing for tomorrow's blog feature, the first guest blogger on Midweek Musings (come back tomorrow to see who it is!  Teaser:  she creates some of the funniest, quirkiest book characters I've met from below the Mason-Dixon line).  

OK, it wasn't all work.  I was also dealing with the loss of a 20-year-old dishwasher and haunting Craigslist for a drum kit.

For this painting, I began with my traditional burnt sienna and burnt umber underpainting (seen here in the piano bench).  Looking at my rough sketch, I decided I wanted to keep it very tonal with Ludwig's scarf/ascot appearing as the strongest color in the piece.  I also wanted to emphasize the pathetic nature of a pianist /composer playing with his thumbs, and the absolute black of the wing-bones creates a nice contrast against the sheet music to do that.  I also added one of Ludwig's feet in the final painting— the poor guy can't touch the piano's pedals, either.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Palette People—A Rorschach Roundup

Once in a while, you get shown the light / in the strangest of places, if you look at it right.
"Scarlet Begonias," The Grateful Dead

When I visit schools, I talk to students about learning to see stories in the world around them.  Everything can be imagined into something else.  You've just got to start noticing.

Sometimes it happens when you don't expect it.

While I work on the final paintings for a book, the glass palette to the left of my drawing board fills up with blobs of dried acrylic paint.  I scrape them off, and mix new colors for whatever I'm working on.

Over the years, I've noticed that some of the blobs take on the features of people.  Huh!  That one looks like a ------!  And then they're gone, scraped into the waste basket.

But because I was thinking about this blog while while working on the final paintings for Bats in the Band (coming in August this year), I finally decided I wanted to do something about these characters I saw in the paint.

So this time, I took photos when I thought I saw something in the paint, before I scraped it off.  From time to time, I'll post a paint blob, and the character I saw within it.

Here's the first one.  The paint blob:
That black/gray blob with the blue cloud above it?  Someone's there.
And here's the character I saw within it.  He's got a faintly Bill Gaines look (late of MAD magazine).

Wonder what he's thinking about?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Midweek Mullings #1—Stuff and Stuart (Little, that is)

On Wednesdays here at Getting Into Character, I'm going to start posting discussions about characters in children's literature.  I'm inviting writer and illustrator friends to stop by and talk about one of their favorites.  I hope you'll chime in on their posts!

I'm starting it off today by discussing one of the characters who first comes to mind when I think of the books I read as a boy.  But it's not necessarily one of my favorites.

When I was growing up, it was usually the main character who drew me into a story. But on occasion, what I really liked was the character's stuff, more than I liked the character.

Stuart Little was one of those books for me.  Everyone knows it's acknowledged as one of the children's literature greats, yet I've always been ambivalent about the story—as a kid, I thought it was really weird that normal parents might have a mouse as a baby, especially when their first child had been human.

I think the book has some large problems.  What would that have been like in the hospital—I mean, was he all pink and stuff when he was born?  Did they have to wait a few days for his eyes to open?  And gosh—what on earth did Mr. and Mrs. Little say to each other? That's a potentially awkward discussion I'm not sure I'd want to hear.  To me, the best part of the book was Garth Williams's illustrations, but even Williams couldn't blunt the profound and disturbing oddness that lurked under it all.

Stuart Little:  man mouse about town.
We first encounter Stuart in the illustrations as a sort of "“little man," all dapper in the blue worsted suit his mother has made, with a hat and a walking stick. . . when he's about a week old.  So, okay, he's a mouse, and he'll age faster than a human.  But he never seems to have had a real boyhood.

I was troubled with the idea of scale in the story.  Stuart's worsted suit has pockets in which he can "keep his handkerchief, his money, and his keys."  What did those tiny keys open? And what kind of money could fit in a mouse's pockets?  I was being very literal, but I've always been a stickler for logical consistency within the fabric of what I read.  One "yo, dude" in a historical novel, and the magic of the story is ruined for me.  And E.B. White is writing about what otherwise is a completely ordinary human world.  So my question about the cash rattling around in Stuart's pocket was "Wait—who's going to accept tiny money?"  In case anyone thinks this means I had no imagination as a boy, I can only offer up that I was perfectly willing to accept cartoon dogs playing tennis on top of a tree in Go, Dog.  Go!

The Wasp encounters a paper bag.
Now, on to Stuart's stuff.  What drew me to Stuart Little the most was what Stuart has, or is allowed to use. He has access to some wonderful things.  First, there's The Wasp, the sailboat he captains in the Central Park pond.  How great would it be to have a toy boat so anatomically correct that it could actually be steered with that miniature wheel?  He chats up the ship's owner, and is given its helm before they know each other's names.  A paper bag causes a collision which nearly does him—and the ship—in.  But it turns out the ship is owned by a certain Dr. Carey, about whom I'll write more in a minute.

The next great things Stuart gets are his ice skates, fashioned from paper clips.  They were just  plain cool.  But Stuart drops them into the ocean.  To the boy me, that hurt.  I know that he had to, because Margalo the "wall-eyed vireo" (or wren, or whatever) who was carrying him back to New York, was getting tired.  But still.

The skates go into the drink.

Stuart shows his prowess at portaging.
And then there was that great birchbark canoe, the Summer Memories.  I'd made toy boats before, and most of mine weren't very seaworthy.  So to have one which came from a store, and was stout and laced with sinew, and with which Stuart could show he was as good in a canoe as "a Canadian guide"— well, something about that resonated with me.  I wanted one of those.

Now, at the birch bark canoe part of the story, Stuart is set up on a blind date with a certain Harriet Ames.  I was confused and disturbed by the fact that another family had had a human-looking daughter the size of a mouse.  To the middle-school me, the idea of them dating was kind of icky.  When Stuart goes on the date with Harriet and he discovers that his canoe has been wrecked by what is assumed to be boys, I felt his pain.  But my pain was for the ruined canoe, not for the ruined date.

The most awesome car.
The best thing that Stuart gets to play with in the book is the thing which ultimately carries him off the stage, into what I felt was one of the least satisfying endings in any book I'd ever read:  the model car.  This is car which the aforementioned Dr. Carey, who is a dentist (I get it now, caries!) gives to Stuart.  It isn't just a miniature car. What makes this sporty little roadster so great is how detailed it is, the way The Wasp is detailed.  My own childhood toy cars had hard plastic seats and steering wheels which turned, but didn't turn anything else.  But this one has a gas engine.  A gas engine! It's a real car, perfectly mouse-sized.  And the dentist has built the car himself.  Stuart, after destroying the car and being given a rebuilt version, gets to drive himself around wherever he wants to go.  What child doesn't want that kind of independence?  But the car is also the device which takes Stuart into the book's sunset.

As an adult, I understand the hopeful upturn at the end of the book.  Stuart is off in search of his true love (OK, she's a bird, and that cross-species thing left me a little bewildered as a boy, too). He has a feeling that he's headed in the right direction.  That must make us feel uplifted, positive, right?  Not me as a boy.  I worried about whether he'd ever find Margalo, if he was headed toward unknown dangers, like the betraying, evil cat, Snowball. . . and even if he could find gas for his car.  I needed something more definitive.

To wrap up this Midweek Mulling, I'll point out that Garth Williams, for the most part, chose to show Stuart as a tiny figure in a normal-sized adult world, which is one way to depict Stuart's diminutive scale.  But wouldn't we feel closer to Stuart if we saw the world through his eyes, rather than the eyes of the "normal-sized" world?  This perspective diminishes him.  We don't see him close up, with a jaunty foot on the running board of his car, for instance, and the rest of the scene in gigantic proportion.  We don't see the world through Stuart's eyes.  Perhaps that's part of what created a sense of distance between Stuart and me as a boy, kept me from really identifying with him as a character.

Look closely—that's the book's protagonist near the bottom of the page!
There's no denying that Stuart Little is one of the giants among children's literature.  But I'll be curious to hear:  did anyone else experience the same misgivings that I did when you were little?