Monthly Archives: May 2013

Trip Trap Trip Trap Trip Trap – Thoughts about Imagination

Three Billy Goats Gruff - Alison Edgson

Three Billy Goats Gruff – Alison Edgson

I have to admit that the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff provoked a lot of anxiety in me when I was little. Number one, a couple of those goats betrayed their siblings – “Don’t eat me; if you wait, you can eat my meatier brother,” they said, which smacked of murder and cowardice and tragedy to me. Number two, it was about goats, and goats are strange. Never completely domesticated, they are head-butters with horns, devil-like and beady-eyed.  I heard they ate tin cans. Tin cans? What eats tin cans? I heard Bill Grogan’s goat could cough up the shirts he ate and flag down a train. Strange and wonderful and terrible things, goats. Cute, yet not cute. If they didn’t really exist and you created them for a work of fiction, people would praise you for your crazy imagination.

Goats: Cute Yet Not Cute.

Goats: Cute Yet Not Cute.

In that story about the three goats, there was also something else that was strange –  the word “gruff” – which made my throat itch and eyes water when I heard it. I had no idea at the time what it meant, but I could imagine:  It was something akin to “rough,” but front-loaded with a hard “g” to make it even rougher.  Grrrrrr-uff. Wild. Undomesticated. Bearish. Goatish.

And there was another weird word /weird thing about that story: a troll. “Troll” was a word I associated with my dad and grandfather when they went fishing out on Elger Bay, in Puget Sound –  and I vaguely understood it to mean fishing while drifting along in a small boat with a sputtering motor, and hoping to catch something wonderful for dinner.  The word “troll” in the folktale worried me – it was a creature I imagined could (and would, I had no doubt) pull me over the side of a bridge one day, catch me and eat me for dinner.

Goat-Stalking Troll - Unknown Artist

A Goat-Stalking Troll – Unknown Artist

Troll, growl, gruff, grrrrr – all those r’s rolling around.  R’s like those in the word “terrible” and “horrible.” Is it possible that words themselves are powerful enough to be scary?

I don’t remember being a scaredy-cat, but now that I’m an adult I have a good long list of things that scared me when I was a kid. “Trip, trap, trip, trap, trip, trap” sent me down a long & winding road where I fell asleep imagining what might be under bridges other than water.  Having an active imagination sometimes serves us well as writers, but sometimes torments us as children. Sendak was tormented by his imagination, so maybe it’s not a completely bad thing, torment.

A real bridge with no goats trip-trapping over it (and no trolls – only water  – under it) fell into a river north of Seattle the other day. The superstructure buckled when an extra-wide load on a big truck clipped it, and somehow the roadway underneath it – all four lanes – simply pancaked into the river with several cars on it. It made local news first, then quickly state news and national news, and then friends of ours called from Australia to ask if everyone we knew was okay. Miraculously, there were no serious injuries, but this bridge constituted a section of the main north-south freeway which runs from the Canadian border to Mexico, with no stops other than during occasional traffic jams in L.A., San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. 71,000 cars and truck pass over that bridge every day. I travel across it whenever I visit my mother in Bellingham. I crossed it twice last week, the last time just two days before it collapsed.

Maybe you're looking at the tulip fields, and suddenly there's no road beneath you.

Maybe you’re looking at the tulip fields, and suddenly there’s no road beneath you.

Imagine at 70 mph – the roadway simply falls out from underneath you. You are maybe glancing at the frigid river just before it happens – the  Skagit River, running strong with a late-spring snow-melt from the Cascade Mountains to the east. Maybe you’re thinking the river looks high, you’re thinking it might flood soon…or maybe you’re looking out toward the tulip fields of the Skagit Valley and imagining the lovely fringe of color around the parrot tulips you bought last year…and suddenly, there is no road beneath you.

The imagination – so necessary for writers, so necessary for readers, such an instrument of delight and torture for both children and adults.  Sweet tulips, swift rivers, trolls, goats, devils – all trip-trapping through your brain. It’s a wonder you can drive with all that going on in your head. And then suddenly you can’t drive. There’s nothing under the tires.

I’ve been imagining that for days. What would that be like, the first instant you realize the road has disappeared. Right before you fall – the moment of suspension. It’s hard to imagine, but it sounds like a metaphor for some other things that happen in life.  I might try to capture it in a poem soon, or it might capture me in a nightmare.  Trip-trap-trip-trap. The imagination – can’t sleep peacefully with it, can’t write well without it.

Study of Troll - Justin Gerard

Study of Troll – Justin Gerard


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Gone to Mars

Last Saturday my daughter became an Iron Man.

We could talk about obsessions, healthy and unhealthy. We could talk about whether extreme training does more physical harm than good. We could talk about what problems she might be avoiding.

Let’s not. I’ve had those conversations with myself many times over the past year. Right now, I’d rather talk about what happened Saturday morning when I found out that Kelly had finished the swim, and something strange began to come over me.

I was on the faculty of an SCBWI conference that day. At first, I had trouble tracking Kelly’s progress on my iPhone; a young artist taught me how. By my mid-morning coffee break, Kelly was out of the water and a third of the way through the 114-mile bike ride. By my lunchtime, she was halfway through.

I worried most about the bike. It’s Kelly’s weakest event, and people get aggressive. They elbow you, they force you into potholes. Kelly had brand-new racing wheels; she wasn’t used to them and was technically too light for them. The bike shop guy had said, “With these wheels, you might pop off the bike.”

When I finished leading my afternoon workshop, there were two messages on my phone: one from John, my son-in-law, and one from my husband.

I called John first. “She’s running,” he said.

Running. Her event: the marathon!

I called my husband. I said, “Our daughter has gone to Mars.”

What I meant was that neither of us had ever remotely stretched ourselves that far, never pushed beyond the pull of Earth’s gravity into outer space. I mean, we’ve done some stuff. But nothing like this. What I meant was that a year ago Kelly couldn’t have begun to do an Iron Man. But bit by bit, by following her workout schedule every day, she had transformed herself into someone who maybe could.

Stephen King once said, “What problem would ten pages a day not solve?”

Truth is, with writing, it’s not just about page count. Creating something new is a delicate thing requiring patience and grace; it’s way more than iron will and discipline. And yet I wonder how much of finishing this book and then the next one is making up your mind to do something really hard and then settling into the daily work.

Turns out, the marathon part of the race was rougher than Kelly had anticipated. It was 90-plus degrees in Houston; she’d had stomach flu a couple of days before; she got a little disoriented. I didn’t know any of that yet. I tracked her on my phone from checkpoint to checkpoint; I saw that she was slowing down. At the conference, word of the race spread. Some people were pretty dubious about the whole enterprise; I get that. The most fervent supporter was a woman who had run her first marathon in her fifties. By the time Kelly headed into the last leg of the race, everyone at my dinner table was rooting for her; when she crossed the finish line the whole room cheered.

The fifty-something marathoner emailed me the next day. She’s training for a triathlon.

Lately I’ve been writing without a deadline, and some difficult personal stuff has put me off my writing schedule. But now it’s time to recommit.

Mars, it ain’t. But finishing the best novel I know how to write is really hard and also satisfying.  I can be content with the moon.

Kelly 3


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Here Be Dragons: Placing the Story


For me, story begins with voice, a voice that fairly soon after I first encounter it, shows itself to come from a specific place. Once that place surrounds the voice, the character comes alive and moves in it. Without setting, voice and character float away. Setting anchors story in a specific place and time, in sounds and textures, expectations and surprises.

On some medieval maps, dragons or other fantastical beasts were drawn about the edges, in the open sea, in the explored regions of the world. In that terra incognita—uncharted, unknown lands—who knew what might lurk there? In those mysterious unknown climes there might dwell beasts, sea serpents, and even dragons.

What magic and mystery, what dragons and surprising creatures have come into our lives and become real through story! Think for a second of each of these places: Narnia, Hogwarts, Transylvania, Treasure Island, Cold Comfort Farm, Mr. McGregor’s Garden, Earthsea, Pemberley, Jordan College, Goldengrove, Camp Green Lake, The Garage on Falconer Road, Middle-earth, The Underneath, The House of the Seven Gables, The Night Kitchen, at Sea in a Pea Green Boat, The Hundred Acre Wood, The Road, Toad Hall, Elsinore Castle, Troy, a Raft on the Mississippi River, Sleepy Hollow, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, the Boat with Two Wise Eyes on the Yantze River, Outside Over There, Wuthering Heights, a Kingdom by the Sea, The Forest Primeval.

THIS is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight….

When my youngest daughter was only about three years old and her sisters around six and fourteen, their father and I took them camping high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between the Spanish Peaks and Trinchera Peak just below Bear Lake and Blue Lake in Southern Colorado. The Cucharas Creek burbled alongside our tent site and branching trails led through the forest up to the lakes past beaver dams that formed smaller ponds along the way. We’d hiked high into the glacier valley when, just after noon, a thunderstorm rumbled in over the mountain. We ran for camp, father and two older sisters faster than the three-year-old and I could go. As the thunder got closer Stephanie and I entered the wooded part of the path with the others far ahead. Soon we lost sight of them and at the fork in the path stopped to try to figure out which way they had gone. I knew that both paths ended up back at the campsite, so we took off along the left hand path. Soon we could see a bit farther along and the rest of the family was nowhere in sight.

Stephanie wanted to go back and take the other path, but I told her, “This path will end up right where we started. You’ll see just as soon as we get out of the forest.”

She stopped still and pulled back on my hand, then she moved close to me and gazed all around at the huge looming pines and into the dark patches of shadow, fog, and mist between them. “Is this the forrrrresst?” she said. Her little eyes reflected all the mystery, magic, and terror of all the fairy tales she’d heard by that time in her young life.

We were in THE FOREST and who knew what dragons, fairies, gnomes, witches, and other beasts of terra incognita might meet us along our path? Thunder and a little rain were nothing compared to the adventure we entered in that moment when physical “real” place intersected with story. I have to admit that through her reaction—and her imagination—that wooded path became THE FOREST for me, too, and transformed into something more magical and a little more terrifying than it had been when it was just a real place on a real mountain in very real Colorado thunderstorm. It was as if the glaciers had reformed behind their mounds of stone rubble and reabsorbed the lake water back into themselves. The wind blew colder and the rain turned to sleet and we entered a time long lost to the others on that mountain. We were in the forest primeval.

As writers, we sometimes think of setting, as Eudora Welty calls it in her essay, “Place in Fiction,” in The Eye of the Story, “one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction,” but she also says:
…so irretrievably and so happily are recognition, memory, history, valor, love, all the instincts of poetry and praise, worship and endeavor, bound up in place. From the dawn of man’s imagination, place has enshrined the spirit; as soon as man stopped wandering and stood still and looked about him, he found a god in that place; and from then on, that was where the god abided and spoke if ever he spoke.

In our stories, setting and place are determined by character and character’s reactions to them. Character is affected by place in a wholly and even, perhaps, holy way. Voice, character, place, all bound together, inseparable—where the god abides and speaks, if ever she does speak.

Mtn Lake


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The Invisible Dancer

My daughter, Maddy, is a choreographer in London with her own company, Tempered Body Dance Theatre. There’s a link to a brief sample of her work listed below. In preparing new pieces, she will often have her troupe or a portion of it perform segments at events called Scratches: evenings of performance work in development, a chance to put the piece on its feet in front of an audience, followed by a Q & A. Recently, she was going to take a duet to one of these events and the day of the performance the male dancer phoned to say he had food poisoning and could barely get out of bed, let alone dance. So Maddy phoned the Scratch organizer and told him that she wouldn’t be able to show the piece that evening. Had it been a piece for two females, she could have stepped in, no problem, but there were a lot of lifts and it would just not be possible. The organizer disagreed, saying that this was exactly the kind of thing Scratches were about. She was scheduled to show a seven-minute piece and that’s what she was going to show. 

So Maddy got together that day with the female dancer and worked the piece into a solo. There was no mention to the audience, before hand, that it was supposed to be a duet. And it went over very well. People were excited afterwards, wanting to talk about it. One woman said it felt as if there was an invisible other presence in the piece. Maddy smiled and, having checked with the organizer, explained what had happened, news that was received enthusiastically and precipitated a lot more debate.

I love this story. I love that invisible dancer. It reminded me of a score I once saw for a piece of music written for the violinist Yehudi Menuhin. There was one note in the first bar; it was not to be played; Menuhin was supposed to think that note and then play the notes in the next bar. So, an invisible note. Would anyone in the audience realize that Menuhin was thinking that note when he played? Perhaps not but I firmly believe in the effect that un-played note might have on the piece – kind of like a gravitational tug, invisible but there none the less. 

I want to include invisible dancers in my writing. And, if you think of it, that’s exactly what a really good lyric does or the text for a picture book. The power of the piece is not its completeness but just the opposite. The power comes from how the text entices the prospective composer or illustrator with gaps and pauses, as if… well, as if there was this sense of yearning in the words to be lifted and spun around and danced with.


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The Patterns of Spring


Baby hummingbirds just before they fledged from their nest outside my friend Samara Louton’s Seattle kitchen window.

A couple of months ago our bookclub decided that we’d each memorize a poem. I chose Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins. I taped it to the bathroom mirror so I can work on a line or two as I brush my teeth, (while standing on one foot, I might add: trying to improve balance and memory along with good dental care).

 Pied Beauty
 Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

This splendid poem is called to mind everywhere I look this spring: in the pink petal-pocks on the patio around the cherry tree, the checkered frittilarias nodding in woodland shade, striped tulips, and notched and patterned butterfly wings. And, not least of all, in the sweet spots on our springer spaniel.


Never miss an opportunity to include a photo of Izabella.

Once you start looking for it, you catch the quirky rhythms of pattern everywhere: yesterday in the decorations on Margaret Chodos-Irvine’s front door, today in the tiny deep blue pearls that circle the centers of the anemones we are arranging as we figure out table decorations for my daughter’s wedding.


I love the images that this poem puts so succinctly before me. And the awareness of dappled-ness that it awakens. As I come to own each line, patting it into my memory to the buzz of the toothbrush, I have come to appreciate the texture of the words and the pattern of the lines. It is, in itself, a pied creation.


More patterns, along the driveway at the Captain Whidbey Inn.

– Laura Kvasnosky


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From the Heart’s Land

I have a fairy book-daughter.  Her name is Laura and she lives with her family in Indiana.  The heartland.  And that’s appropriate because Laura is at the very center of my heart.

Kathi with Laura

Kathi with Laura

I first discovered Laura several years ago when one of my faculty mates, Rita Williams Garcia, told me about a young girl who had started a blog, “Laura’s Life.”  Like her mother before her, Laura had made a decision that she was going to read every one of the Newbery Award books, plus the Honor books, and then write about each one on her blog.  Soon enough, she finished most of those Newbery books and branched out into current titles.

Laura with her mom, Rylin.

Laura with her mom, Rylin.

Laura is a discerning reader, the kind every author dreams of.  She wrestles with books, reads between the lines, sets aside the ones that don’t speak to her, loves up the ones that do. If ever there was a reason to write for children and young adults, Laura is that reason. In fact, there have been several moments in the middle of writing a story when I’ve stopped and wondered, “what would Laura say about this?”

But last fall, I noticed that her blog entries had become fewer and farther between.  Laura was quiet.  Too quiet.  If you go to her site, you’ll read that she has mitochondrial disorder, a condition that sometimes catches up with her.  Last fall it took over.  Laura was fading.  And there seemed to be no answers, no solutions.

How in the world do we consider a loss like Laura?  I couldn’t even contemplate it.  There had to be something the world could do.  At least, that is, the world that Laura had become such an integral part of—children’s books. So, with the permission of her mother Rylin, I sent out an e-mail message to several fellow children’s authors and illustrators and invited them to send Laura an autographed book.  Within days books began to arrive.  They flew in from every state in the nation, from Canada, from Australia, from everywhere.

The message was forwarded, and more books were signed and dropped into the mail.  Then the inimitable Betsy Bird—a fairy book-mother if there ever was one– posted the letter on her School Library Journal website, A Fuse 8 Production, and more books found their way, each one personally autographed, along with cards and notes, all filled with good wishes.  Imagine it!  Books and books and books.  Wishes and wishes and wishes.  More than a hundred books winged their ways into Laura’s hands.  Katherine Applegate even sent her a stuffed gorilla to go along with a copy of The One and Only Ivan. 


Laura got better.  I know that modern medicine deserves recognition, not to mention the love and support of Laura’s immediate and extended family and friends.  But I believe that those books, with their attendant wishes, played a role.  After all, haven’t every one of us, at some time or another, been saved by a book?  By a wish?

What Laura doesn’t know, and what I want you to know, is that this simple act by the members of the fairy book-tribe also saved me.  Last fall brought with it my own host of health issues, along with a heartbreaking disagreement among members of my family, all balled up with the increasing frailty of my mother-in-law.  As it turns out, need is never a one-way street.

So, this past weekend, I finally got to meet mom and daughter and to have dinner with them.  Let’s just say that love-beams were copiously exuded.  And then, much to my surprise, I received my most important medal!

2013-05-06 15.36.39

2013-05-06 15.36.50

2013-05-06 15.36.57

I promise to wear this wherever I go. I will wear it on behalf of all fairy book-people, not only the ones of you who sent books to this full-of-life girl who loves them so, but to all of you storytellers and artists and editors and agents and publishers and bookstore owners and librarians and teachers, all of you who participate in the wonderful making and distributing of children’s books.  I will also wear it in honor of our readers. What is our purpose without them? It reminds me that we can, each of us, live in the land of our hearts. We can, when all is said and done, save each other.  We can.


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An apple a day

Doctor’s orders, right? An apple a day. Evidence supports the health benefits.

We have all heard about the 10,000 hour thingie. Want to get good at something? Do it. Do it over and over and over. Yet deep inside, many of us continue to believe in the idea of pure talent. Raise your hand if you’re one of the many.


I am here today to bare my soul and show you the fruit, as it were, of doing something over and over. Of practice. Of a whole bunch of hours. Not quite 10,000 yet, but I’m just getting started.

 I have for years wanted to take a watercolor or drawing class, but for almost four decades I had extremely full-time work. Last fall, at last, I tootled off to our wonderful art store, the Drawing Board, and plunked down a lot of assorted bills. (I will spare you the gory details.) In exchange, I went home with cool paper, some brushes, and an intriguing selection of watercolor tubes, all of which remained a total mystery to me. What does a person do with such tubes? There was method to my madness: I had signed up for a class.

My supportive husband, who does most of our grocery shopping (even though he could live on cereal), began to bring home vegetables and fruits for me to paint. (Note: checkout clerks often commented on his colorful assortment. They probably thought he was eating them. By the time he/we did, they weren’t quite as colorful any more.)

 I became obsessed with apples. Apples, for me, were impossible. Mine didn’t look round. The colors were all wrong. Sometimes they looked like pomegranates, which in turn looked like very unfortunate Christmas ornaments. Nobody else in class was having any trouble. Obvious Leda-like conclusion: I had no talent. Temptation: give up.


 (Possibly my first attempt. Had to add colored pencil to this mess.)

 Surprising myself, I didn’t stop. I kept painting apples and seeing more. Stems, colors, shape, values, highlights, light. An apple actually tells a story–how it grew, whether it rained, where the sun hit it, etc.–and mine began to look a wee bit like apples.

Because you will probably demand proof, and because I live to serve and am brave, I’ve included samples.  I am learning, and I am starting to love my apples.


 (This one is graphite and is all about values.)

 Painting/drawing isn’t the same as writing. One example: what I want to paint is right in front of me. But both require commitment, and there’s no waiting around for inspiration in either discipline. While I don’t expect to reach apple nirvana, I do expect to keep painting and drawing.

I love doing this work. I enter a flow state where hours can pass before I know it.



 (Getting better!)

 Unlike publishing, nobody else gets to make decisions about my attempts at art (though I did have, temporarily, a gentle advisor. Thanks due to Susan Bull Riley, brilliant artist and teacher, and to the congenial women in our class.). And I do not yet know how this will inform my writing. You have probably already made all the obvious connections, you smarty-pants folks. But you may have missed a wonderful essay by John McPhee (hero) in the April 29 New Yorker,  which is not entirely relevant but can be squeezed to fit.

If you lack confidence in setting one word after another and sense that you are stuck in a place from which you will never be set free, if you feel sure that you will never make it and were not cut out to do this, if your prose seems stillborn and you completely lack confidence, you must be a writer. If you say you see things differently and describe your efforts positively, if you tell people that you ‘just love to write,’ you may be delusional.

There you go. Back to my apples.


 PS: the colors are better and the images sharper in real life, if I do say so myself.

PPS: I have also used many now-digested Brussels sprouts as subjects. Fun to draw. Highly recommended as both subjects and victims.


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