Art is not the bread, but the wine of life.
— John Paul Richter
Art is not the bread, but the wine of life.
genre / form: historical picture book
age range: 4-8 years
Jeanne Bowman’s website
Please tell us about your book.
Charlie Russell and the Gnomes of Bull Head Lodge, written by Emily Wilson, is a story about the famous western painter Charlie Russell and his search for creativity.
Charlie Russell (1864-1926) was known as “The Cowboy Artist” because he started painting while he was working as a cowhand in his youth. He loved to paint the working men and women of the frontier, the Native people of the plains and mountains and the wildlife that lived in the beautiful country stretching from New Mexico to Montana.
This story is an interesting look at a small slice of his life. Charlie owned a small cabin in the middle of Glacier National Park. He spent summers there with his wife and friends, including his fellow artist and student Joe De Yong. Not many people know that Charlie also loved to make sculptures out of found objects. This story focuses on the life he infused into such creations, and how they helped to stir his creativity within the awesome backdrop of Glacier National Park.
What inspired you to illustrate this story?
The South Dakota Historical Society Press (SDHSP) approached me to illustrate this story. I was interested because of the gnomes, and because of the little bit I knew about Charlie Russell from my art history classes in school. I love all things magical and mystical, and what is more mysterious than a forest filled with gnomes and art?
This story was a fantastic excuse for me to spend more time researching Charlie Russell and the time period in which he lived. I have lived in both New Mexico and Montana and it gave me new insight and appreciation into the history of both states as well. (Although this story only takes place in Montana, Charlie made many trips to the south and made many paintings of the Navajo People, which were present in the biographies I used to research for this project.)
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
I began this project by reading biographies about Charlie Russell and Glacier National Park. Here are two of the main texts I used to work on this book:
Charles M. Russell, The Life and Legend of America’s Cowboy Artist by John Taliaferro and People Before The Park, The Kootenai and Blackfeet Before Glacier National Park by Sally Thompson, Kootenai Culture Committee & Pikunni Traditional Association.
I also took a trip to The Glacier National Park to photograph the landscape the book takes place in. This is not possible for every book, but luckily I live just 10 hours away (and my best friend lives near the park).
I was also lucky because the author of the book, Emily Wilson, is also the curator of The C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls so she and the wonderful Art Director at SDHSP sent along many fantastic photographic references of the real gnomes Charlie had made.
I also utilized the wonderful digital archive of photos from The Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa Oklahoma to learn about what Charlie’s home in the woods looked like.
As an illustrator, what I am looking for mainly is photographic reference. Charlie’s life luckily overlapped the invention of the camera and his family was fond of taking many photographs. What I found most interesting in my research was the lifestyles of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes that live in the park. The way these people lived off the land in a sustainable way, moving with the seasons to harvest food, and acting as stewards of the land was very inspiring. It was also incredibly sad because of the way they have been displaced and mistreated. This was not something that I was taught in school and it offered a whole new perspective about living in the West that I had not considered before in depth.
What were some of the challenges you faced in illustrating this unique story, with it’s historical setting and characters, but fictional narrative?
Consistency is the hardest part of illustrating a picture book. Making sure that the characters look the same from page to page, especially if they have different emotions or are placed in a different perspective, is quite tough. Since Charlie and Joe were actual people, I needed to make a simplified version that still looked like them and that I would be able to replicate over and over again. In addition, I needed to find ways to create an image that told the story without repeating it, or that added something more through emotion or atmosphere. There are some pages within this story where I feel like I accomplished that, and some where I feel like I could have pushed it further. I hope that works overall. I am still really new at this and am learning with every project how to do it better.
The truly hardest part was painting all the TEN MILLION LEAVES! I have a tendency to over detail things, and it came back to haunt me when I needed to paint everything. I use watercolor and gouache. I paint by building up layers in glazes and it felt like it took an eternity, even with all of the stylistic shortcuts I took, to finish this book.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
This book has some wonderful overlapping topics. Charlie Russell and Joe De Yong were great artists in their own right. There is also the history of Montana and Glacier National Park to consider. I highly recommend looking into the life and history of the Salish, Kootenai and Pend d’Oreilles tribes that live in the area. There is a fantastic museum in Polson, MT called The People’s Museum that would be a great resource to learn more about this topic. You could even use this book to discuss art, artistic process, inspiration and the concept of the artist’s muse. (This book has three of them!)
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
The Four Winds is an unflinching look at life in the Texas panhandle during the Dust Bowl era. Part Steinbeck, part seventies meaty historical saga (those big, fat books I devoured as a teen) but with a literary slant, it is epic in scope and very ambitious. Author Kristin Hannah pulls it off masterfully. She’s an author who means business: intensity, sadness, and ultimately hope are central to her books, I’ve learned as a reader. I love me a good “bleak but hopeful” book (I’ve written a few myself — see below!), but wow, this one did me in. And you know what? I loved it! I found myself ready to plunge into Elsa Martinelli’s world every chance I got. What a character and what a story. There were beautiful and complex mother / daughter relationships in these pages. An up-close look at how deeply individual lives were changed by a climatic and man-made disaster like no other in the midst of the Great Depression. A reminder that humans can be downright awful and that kindness is what sustains and bolsters. And the most beautiful thread woven through these dire pages was the reminder that “hard times don’t last. Love does.”
Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen
In the early nineties, I was fascinated by Henry Kisor’s What’s That Pig Outdoors?: A Memoir of Deafness, about a journalist making his way in a hearing world. Train Go Sorry (an ASL expression meaning “missed the bus”), a story of NY’s Lexington School for the Deaf, was written around the same time. While incredibly different, both books grapple with many of the same issues, primarily the best approach for teaching deaf children: Vocalization or sign? Mainstreaming or special schools? Deaf teachers or hearing? Hearing aids? Implants?
The school, which opened in 1864, has been through a number of changes as over time educational practices have shifted. I was glad to see Lexington’s still going strong. Leah Hager Cohen, the hearing daughter of Lexington’s then hearing superintendent, grew up in an apartment on campus, submerged in the Deaf community and longing to be a part of it. I loved the chance to look over her shoulder as she shadowed two Lexington students. This book is a glimpse into a rich community, the complexities of and challenges facing education, identity, and equality, and the undeniable truth that schools both expose deaf children to their own culture and become a second family.
May B. by Caroline Starr Rose
This is a weird one to include here, I know. But reading Reem Faruqi’s verse novel Unsettled about a girl uprooted and placed in an entirely new setting made me think of my May Betterly. May was only fifteen miles from home but an entire world away. I haven’t picked up May B. since a quick read on an airplane to Atlanta in 2012, when I was cramming for school visits and wanted to be sure I knew my own story. It’s hard to read your own words and get any sort of distance, but nine years later, I was able to. Sure, there are parts more familiar than others (the ones I’ve shared at readings over the years), but other sections felt entirely new. For the first time, I was (almost) able to read the book as a stranger would.
Here’s the thing. I still love it! The metaphors are fresh! Of course there were words here and there I would change if I could. I’d like the chance to fiddle with some line breaks, too. May cries way too much (I now believe what Nathan Bransford does, that a character should cry once, maybe twice in a book), but my word, that girl went through a lot. I’ll cut her some slack. She was so strong! And brave! My favorite line is still Wolf, / show your face.
I was told when May published it was an evergreen book, and I’m happy to say it still holds up.
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
I read this for the first time in college and have memories of laughing while reading on the shuttle from the parking lot to campus. It was a treat to re-read with my Dead Authors Society book club. I was again taken by the creation of a fictional author from a fictional land (S. Morgenstern from Florin, which once was between Germany and Sweden) and all the backstory and asides Goldman provides throughout the story. A line from the introduction caught my eye this time around — “How much can the truth be manipulated in the name of art?” Indeed!
It was fun to be so well acquainted with the movie that I could see places Goldman gave a line to another character, for example, (the “life is pain” line is something Fezzik’s mother told him during his youthful wrestling days!) or veered a bit from the original text. I’m curious about the decisions Goldman made in writing his book as a screenplay. What further changes did Rob Reiner make with edits of his own? If you’re a fan of the movie but have never read the book, you MUST. It’s an absolute treat.
What have you been reading lately?
I’m ten days out from turning in my last Miraculous edits. (I have a release date — July 5, 2022!) I’ve simplified and streamlined, my editor Stacey told me. Now is the time to connect the last dots.
A few months ago, I’d read through the draft and found a few holes I needed to fix. I had ideas! Plans! But each time I tried to work through them, those ideas felt convoluted and dumb. I was forcing my characters to do what I needed, working from the outside in, moving them around like chess pieces in service to the story.
Don’t look for the answers in the plot, Stacey said. You’ll find your answers in understanding your characters. I knew this. I know this. I’ve written lots of books! But, wow, hearing these words with this book at that moment opened up so much to me.
So this time through, I’m staying close to what’s already developed on the page. The answers are there! I don’t need new hoops for characters to jump through. I don’t need to invent new steps; I need to trust my characters to lead.
This is my absolute favorite part of the writing process, when I can (finally) grasp the whole story in my head and everything is coming together. After this, it’s on to copy edits and then first pass pages. I should have a cover to show you in the next month or two.
Friends, I can’t wait to introduce you Jack and Cora and Dr. Kingsbury and all the people of Oakdale. Soon!
Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving-kindness, human understanding, and peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers in the forms of domestic and civil violence. Art and literature are antidotes to that.
— Susan Vreeland
“An effective story mirrors life – our inner life that is – which is precisely why we turn to it. Thus it’s imperative that the protagonist, all characters in fact, have brains that operate the same way ours does. Story is built into the architecture of our brain, and so it must be in theirs.”
Still Crazy After All These Years by Lisa Cron :: Writer Unboxed
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
James Baldwin on Writing :: Instagram
“For anyone who is feeling the hard edges of your limitations up against the high hopes you have for your work, I hope you will remember creative spirits have always hovered over unquiet waters. My hope for you is that you can learn to trust that you are not alone in this process, and let up the pressure on your own creative genius to perform on demand.”
This one is for the writers who are hitting a creative wall :: Slant Letter
I enjoy Instagram, but I’m only okay at it. Twitter not so much. You know what I really like? This blog! Thank you for reading here and being a part of the community.
Passion Can Be Platform :: Medium
“Ultimately, a picture book text isn’t going to exist as a text on its own. If a text feels fully complete without any accompanying images . . . it may not be a picture book. Now to be sure, a text can be wonderful, but the purpose of illustrations is not merely to render the text in visual form. The pictures should add an additional layer of meaning.”
Editor Carol Hinz Talks About Picture Book Pagination :: Picture Book Builders
This is good! Author and former agent Nathan Bransford walks readers through a piece of writing, each time focusing on a different type of description (setting, characters, placement of objects within the scene, etc.).
How to Write Clear Physical Description :: Nathan Bransford
A wonderful article about my dear critique partner, Vaun! “Nelson writes like a poet, and her language sings. Dolls and lawmen, booksellers and civil rights activists, enslaved people fleeing for freedom, ordinary people marching in Washington D.C. — all of them come alive in her books.”
Vaunda Micheaux Nelson: Voices from History :: Bookology Magazine
And another about dear Uma! (I get to write with some pretty remarkable authors.) “So what, I thought, do I know? To this, Caitlyn said you write this thing as if you were writing a novel—in scenes, with characters. You make it speak and sing and shout as if it were a novel. Take all the big chunks of exposition where you’re basically saying this happened and then that happened and trace it all with cause and effect. Tell the story. Throw out everything that doesn’t belong.”
Aimée Bissonette is the author of numerous books for children including NORTH WOODS GIRL, MISS COLFAX’S LIGHT, DRAGONFLY, and HEADSTRONG HALLIE. Her picture books are inspired by her love of nature and stories of resilient women. Aimée lives in Minnesota and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where she hikes, snowshoes, and hunts for agates. You can learn more about Aimée’s books at www.aimeebissonette.com.
What typically comes first for you: a subject? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
To date, all of my historical nonfiction has involved biographies of women who intrigue me and whose stories I want to share with young readers. I often come across my subjects by happenstance. I learned about Harriet Colfax and her work as our nation’s longest serving lighthouse keeper one summer while reading The Women’s Great Lakes Reader by Victoria Brehm. I learned about Jerrie Mock (and ultimately Joan Merriam Smith) when I read Jerrie’s obituary. I was amazed that I didn’t know anything about Jerrie and Joan despite the fact that their historic flights occurred during my lifetime. I came across Hallie Morse Daggett’s story while conducting unrelated Internet research for another project. Gail L. Jenner’s wonderful blog piece on Hallie hooked me immediately.
In all three cases, I couldn’t put the women or their stories aside. These lesser known “everyday heroes” were smart, persistent, confident, and resilient. They seemed to be great role models for young readers. I conducted additional research – scouring libraries and online sources – to confirm that was the case. In each instance, it was and I felt I had the green light to explore further. (Occasionally, additional research provides details, and in some cases red flags, that reveal a subject is not the best candidate for me. My published biographies at this point are all picture books and some things that could work for an older audience have to be off limits for the younger crowd.)
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
Over the years, I have gotten much better at collecting and organizing data – a direct result of learning the hard way! I now know that I need to be able to say where and how I came across every piece of information I include in my text. There are no “free passes” just because I’m writing a picture book. Nonfiction picture books need to be as accurate as books for older readers and copy editors will rightfully demand to know the basis for every statement made.
I don’t use specific software when collecting data, but I do track all of the sources I consult and I faithfully back things up to “the cloud.” For each new project, I create a separate folder of Internet bookmarks in my browser so the sites I deem most helpful will always be at my fingertips.
I also create a master document in Word, in which I list all the sources (print, online, photos, etc.) I have reviewed, annotating each listed source with notes about what I found and why I think it’s helpful. (I also make a separate list of sources I have consulted that are too peripheral to the subject or otherwise not helpful so I know if I have already ruled out a source if and when it comes up in later research.)
Lastly, I create a timeline. I plug in details about my subject’s life, as well as important cultural and world events that occurred in my subject’s lifetime. When needed, I even add fashion details. Details like these provide context and make stories richer. Harriet Colfax, for instance, was impressive for what she did not only because her work was difficult and dangerous but because, unlike her male counterparts, she had to do it in petticoats and button boots!
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
My favorite sources are first-person accounts. What a window they are into the souls of my subjects! First-person accounts not only convey facts about my subjects, but how my subjects viewed things that happened when they happened and how they were personally affected. First-person accounts also are marvelous for showcasing societal views and the language of the time.
In researching Harriet’s story, I was elated to learn that a volunteer at the Michigan City Old Lighthouse Museum (on the site of the lighthouse Harriet tended) had painstakingly transcribed Harriet’s entire lighthouse keeper log. Years and years of entries in Harriet’s own voice were available to me – wow!
Likewise, newspaper interviews of Hallie Morse Daggett provided Hallie’s true view of her life as a “lonely” fire lookout (she loved the solitude) and the “scary” electrical storms that shook her tiny lookout cabin (she found them “simply grand”).
Jerrie Mock and Joan Merriam Smith both penned firsthand accounts of their “race,” which provided innumerable facts about flying and the difficulties each pilot faced, as well as a glimpse into the rivalry between them.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
How long I research varies with each project. Sometimes it takes a long time to retrieve sources. (I cannot thank my local library enough for the work they do helping me obtain academic articles and texts that are only available from afar via intra-library loan.) Sometimes I go down “rabbit holes” involving related people and events, only to surface weeks later with the realization that none of that added research is critical to my story. And sometimes I just need to hit the “pause” button on researching while I wrestle with finding a way into the story. That was the case with Aim for the Skies. I tried so many times to figure out the right structure for what I thought was going to be a biography of Jerrie Mock. It took me a couple of years to realize that my story had to include Joan Merriam Smith, too, and the incredible race between them.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching and writing historical nonfiction?
I have learned so many fun facts while researching my subjects – even the subjects who I later decided were not right for my picture books. But one of the truly joyful things for me about writing historical nonfiction is connecting with other writers who share my excitement about my subjects – so much so that they, too, have devoted months or years researching and writing about them! For instance, Laura Deering is a writer who contacted me after Miss Colfax’s Light was released to share information about the other Harriet Colfax (my Harriet’s sister-in-law who served as a Union nurse during the Civil War and afterwards continued her life of service in the Deep South and in Minnesota). Tiffany Ann Brown is a writer I’ve been trading emails with recently. She wrote her own book on Joan Merriam Smith titled Fate On A Folded Wing, from which I have learned so much. Researching and writing can be an isolating endeavor. It’s always fun to meet a kindred spirit.
I keep a notebook for each book I write. I thought it might be fun to share some of those pages with readers through a series of posts. Today’s post, the fifth in the series, will focus on my second picture book, Ride On, Will Cody!: A Legend of the Pony Express.
After visiting the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colorado in 2012, I knew I wanted to write a story about this larger-than-life showman, but I wasn’t sure where I’d focus. As often happens when I research, my reading started out as broad exploration. I trust I’ll stumble on something I want to study more deeply. When I found out Cody claimed that as a teen he’d taken the third-longest ride in Pony Express history, I knew I’d found my story.
Like Over in the Wetlands, there were rhyming words, rhythms, and refrains to play with.
Here I am getting closer! Some of these stanzas made it to the final book with little alteration. This one’s my favorite:
This book’s publishing journey was much like Will’s ride: three years on submission parallels the Pony Express’s third longest ride. Twenty editors read (and rejected) the manuscript. It was editor twenty-one (like Will’s twenty-one horses) who finally took the book on.
Whew and hee-haw! A journey indeed.
genre / form: contemporary verse novel
age range: 10 and up
Joanne Rossmassler Fritz’s website
An insightful exploration of a girl’s inner tickings.
Maddie’s quiet courage shimmers like the flash of a butterfly’s wing.
—Caroline Starr Rose, author of May B.
A lyrical novel that makes you feel the chill in your bones but also gives you hope and beauty and lightness, like watching Maddie’s beloved butterflies open and soar.
—Kathryn Erskine, National Book Award–winning author of Mockingbird
Today’s post is a full-circle celebration story. Joanne and I have known each other for years from the blogging world. She read May B. when it released — the first verse novel she’d read that she loved so much, she wanted to try to write her own. Joanne began work on her own verse novel and a few years ago sent it to me to critique through my Writing One-to-One editing service. That book sold! It’s a beauty! I got to blurb it, too! Let’s celebrate EVERYWHERE BLUE!
Please tell us about your book.
Everywhere Blue is a novel in verse for middle grade readers, about a 12-year-old girl named Madrigal (nicknamed Maddie) who plays the oboe in her school orchestra, excels at math, and loves everything in its place.
When Maddie’s older brother vanishes from his college campus, her carefully ordered world falls apart. Nothing will fill the void of her beloved oldest sibling. Drowning in grief and confusion, the family’s musical household falls silent. After her parents fly out to Strum’s college to search for answers, Maddie is left in the care of her sixteen-year-old sister, who seeks solace in rebellion and ignores Maddie.
Though Maddie is the youngest, she knows Strum better than anyone. He used to confide in her, sharing his fears about the climate crisis and their planet’s future. So, Maddie starts looking for clues: Was Strum unhappy? Were the arguments with their dad getting worse? Or could his disappearance have something to do with those endangered butterflies he loved . . .
Scared and virtually on her own, Maddie picks up the pieces of her family’s fractured lives. Maybe her parents aren’t who she thought they were. Maybe her nervous thoughts and compulsive counting mean she needs help. And maybe finding Strum won’t solve everything–but she knows he’s out there, and she has to try.
What inspired you to write this story?
I played the oboe in school and grew up in a family who listened to classical music. We all played the piano too. I’ve also suffered from anxiety for most of my life (and didn’t seek help for it until I was in my mid-20s, which I don’t recommend doing! If you have issues, please seek help!).
In 2014, my husband and I went to St. Maarten for a vacation and visited The Butterfly Farm. Seeing those blue morpho butterflies struck me. I never forgot them.
But the similarities end there.
As I began to write the earliest version of this story in 2015, I realized I needed a conflict. A real-life missing person case inspired me, but to protect the family’s privacy, I’ve changed all the details.
And of course, the climate crisis is all around us.
In the end, many different subjects came together and fell into place to create EVERYWHERE BLUE.
Could you share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
Because it had been decades since I’d played the oboe, I decided to buy a used one on Ebay in 2016 and learn to play it all over again. That was fun, although I didn’t become very good at it. The first time I tried to play a note, no sound came out of the oboe at all! Eventually, I could play a wobbly version of the Duck’s Theme from Peter and the Wolf. Getting the feel of the keys and the reed again brought back a lot of memories, though, which was my goal. However, my second aneurysm rupture in Sept 2017, put a stop to that. I haven’t touched the oboe since.
And I thought I knew a great deal about the climate crisis, but I had to do quite a lot of research. One interesting tidbit I learned was about frozen methane hydrates (sort of like icy cages holding the methane) in the Arctic sea. When I first started researching methane hydrates in 2015, the prevailing theory claimed that warming Arctic seas would soon melt the methane hydrates, spewing methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, worse than carbon dioxide! But by 2017, scientists had realized the frozen hydrates would need centuries of warming to melt and release the methane, not just a few decades. So I deleted any mention of that in the book.
What are some special challenges associated with writing a novel only in verse?
As you know, yourself, Caroline, when writing in verse, authors have many fewer words to work with! It can be a challenge to fit in enough characterization and description in only 25,000 words, instead of 50,000 or more that a prose MG novel might have. I worried that the reader wouldn’t get to know my characters very well, or be able to picture what was happening. The version accepted by Holiday House was 20,000 words and my editor worked with me to add 5000 more.
Another special challenge with this particular verse novel was the character of Strum, the older brother who vanishes. My editor, Sally Morgridge, encouraged me to write more flashback scenes, since the reader only gets to know Strum through the other characters’ memories of him. Her suggestions made the story richer and fuller. Siblings don’t always get along! And before Sally suggested it, I’d never thought of adding a few poems to show that Strum and Maddie didn’t always have a special bond, especially when Maddie was little. I hope Strum comes to life as much as the other characters do!
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Everywhere Blue explores several themes, including mental illness, family issues, and the climate crisis.
Maddie’s growing awareness of the climate crisis would be a perfect jumping-off place for middle-school students who are learning about it themselves. What can kids themselves do to help our planet? This is addressed in Everywhere Blue. I also mention endangered species, rising seas, and the disparity between the wealthy countries that produce the most carbon and the poorer countries that suffer the most effects.