Wednesday, February 3, 2016

This weird thing about time racing past

Chatting with a friend just now made me think: I am older than I expected to get. 
When I was a teen looking forward to the millennium change in 1999 I was disappointed that I'd be an old lady, barely able to enjoy it. The millennium change was 17 years ago. I enjoyed it JUST FINE. Ahem. 

What would my teen self think of me now? 
She wouldn't approve of my short hair or my body, but she'd like my studio and work. 
She'd want to be friends with my kids. 
She would think today's Charlie is a nice old guy, and the Charlie I fell in love with in 1980 was romantic. 
She'd like my dogs. 
She'd think it's weird that I eat vegetables for breakfast. 

She'd think it's cool but not groovy that I became friends with my siblings, 

that I have so many good friends in my life today, 
and that I'm this happy. 
All of this makes me plan what I'll be like in 2046. 
I'd better not disappoint me.

Have you entertained your 17 year old self lately? 

Or your 87 year old self?

This is a page from my sketch-journal when I was 17.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Thank you, teachers and librarians!! We love you!

Thank you, 
teachers and librarians and others who put books in kids' hands.

We appreciate you.

Taken from my sketchbook, this is me greeting Travis Jonker 
at Nerd Camp 2015. (He's not really that much taller than I am, I don't think...)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Jean Little Library! July 16 at Matheson Memorial Library in Elkhorn, Wisconsin

I first became aware of Jennifer Wharton's brilliant book reviews on the Jean Little Library blog a couple years ago, when she mentioned an Ellie McDoodle book and my awesome friend, children's book author Carrie Pearson alerted me.
It occurred to me, why not look up Jennifer's library and see if my travels would bring me near it sometime? And to my utter shock, I was indeed going to be within sketching distance in just a few months.
I attended my agent's retreat in Lake Geneva, and the Jean Little Library isn't more than a pebble toss away.

We drew penguins, owls, Ellie McDoodle, Ben-Ben, dragons, cats, dogs, ... all sorts of stuff.
Here's Ben-Ben:

I like to draw on a document camera and project it onto the wall so people all over the room can join in easily. We were in a big room, and that crowd really filled it up.
One girl gave me a drawing with an impressive use of spirals:

This is my favorite kind of event: connecting with enthusiastic kids. What a great author life I lead.

Thank you SO much, Jennifer and Jean Little Library!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Nerd Camp 2015! July 6 and 7

Wow, what a terrific event -- teachers and authors and kids and librarians and lots of talk about books of all kinds... and it's all FREE. Of course I carried around a sketchbook the whole time.

Here are some sketchbook pages from Nerd Camp 2015, our second year of participation:

These are the authors on our panel. Wow!! Big names!

After talking and sharing ideas with teachers for two days, we bring in the kids. 
Below, my group is drawing themselves as characters. Next they drew themselves as rabbits.
Then we started writing and drawing a story together.

In between sessions I got to hang out with fellow Bloomsbury author Erin Soderberg, creator of THE QUIRKS -- what fun she is!

Thank you so much to the organizers of Nerd Camp, especially Colby Sharp and his family.
Thank you to Bookbug, Kalamazoo's terrific independent bookstore, for handling sales at Nerd Camp. How great to see the overwhelming support for your store, from the crowd.
What an amazing resource this program is! I'm so happy to be part of it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

July 20: Potterville Benton Twp District Library!

On Tuesday we visited Potterville Benton Township District Library,
We brought an easel and drew bats, dogs, penguins, and my first-ever cat on a bike.
Before our audience arrived I showed off the art from Leopold the Lion.

Pictures from the event:

 We always draw Ben-Ben.

We brainstormed characters, then started a story.

Poor Lex the dog! Cat has swiped his bones and is getting away.

Can Lex's best friend the squirrel help?

Cat skids into a mud puddle. Will Lex stop to help him?
But what about those scary bats?

Librarian LuAnn helps with the easel pages.

Thank you, Potterville Benton Township District Library! 
That's a long name and you are long on hospitality, as always. We had a great time.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Drawing 100 lions (or maybe more)

When I ran a little advertising/design shop on campus a few decades ago I drew up a poster that said,
Before you decide on one, draw 50.
Under that headline was some line art: 50 thumbnail illustrations (and they were actually decorated thumbnails). The poster was to remind me not to settle on an idea too early in the brainstorming or drawing process. My best work doesn't usually come on the third try.

I'm illustrating a book about a lion.
The first task is to get to know that character inside and out: what's he like?
For a method actor the question would be, what's his motivation?
My best way to figure it out is to draw, draw, draw.
I don't just aim for 50, anymore.
Usually I aim for 100.

Eventually I figured out the lion. (After drawing 137.)

Now, on to the rest of the characters...

(And if I need to draw dozens more lions because I ultimately don't like the one I chose -- or the art director doesn't -- I won't be surprised. Whatever it takes to get my best work.)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"There's a book in this!"

Today my kid invited me to tag along on her Engineering group field trip to the local landfill. I've learned never to pass up that sort of opportunity because something useful will come of it. I was right!

I learned:
- it's a landfill, not a dump. Landfill people dislike the D word. In my state, dumps are illegal, and they offer no protection for earth, air or water. Landfills have strict regulations, and a lot of  engineering goes into meeting them.
- those plastic grocery bags are worse than I'd thought. They blow around at dumps. I already knew they're terrible for our lakes and oceans, they are unrecyclable, and they don't break down into compost like paper bags can. 
- There is beauty even at the landfill -- my daughter found a tiny perfect heart rock for me.
- my work-in-progress picture book about a (shhh, it's a secret!) needs more work, and probably more research.

Of course I took along a sketchbook. 

Our tour guide seemed a little nervous at one point when she noticed I was taking copious notes. I hurried to explain that I was writing a kids' book, and this was just research for it.
(The last Engineering group field trip was to a special top-secret facility where the kids had to produce picture IDs to enter and parents had to wait outside.)

She relaxed and said most people don't take notes on her tours.
If people knew what power the almighty pen wields, they might scrutinize children's book authors more.
But I am harmless, and she must think so too; she offered to send me a poster showing a detailed cross section of the landfill.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The eternal question: Talent? or self-honed Skill?

Note: I edited this post a few days after publication. Seemed like an awful lot of text. So I added more. Ha! and I added some indents and pictures.

On the RhyPiBoMo blog, an interesting question came up.
 I am posting it with my answer, here, with a couple words and line breaks added for clarity.


 Kristi said: I have a question for today’s guest, Ruth Barshaw. Is sketching something that one is just naturally good at, or can it be learned? 

I answered:

 Hi, Kristi! I’ve read varying opinions on this, and have talked to some famous illustrators about it too. Though some will argue against it, I’m not alone in my firm belief:
Anyone can learn to draw well. It just takes time and lots and lots of concentrated effort.

Some people say that it also requires talent. I say no.
Some people claim I started higher on the “talented” level — that people who draw well are somehow born with a special knowledge, or even just a predisposition that sets their work apart.
I am not sure if that’s true or not.
I’m not an expert on brain studies, but I am a researcher and have dug deep into this subject a few times.

I don’t have any of my early childhood art.
I do not remember being told by anyone that I had special talent for art until I was in third grade.
By then I loved to draw, maybe as much as some other kids loved to run, or loved to play baseball — things I liked, didn’t practice much, didn’t *understand* how to do better, and so wasn’t much good at — and so didn’t excel at.

Lucky for me, my art ability was recognized by a couple of teachers who asked me to draw things for their bulletin boards.
I’d drawn one giant cartoon of Dennis the Menace for a group project and one of the other kids begged to take it home.
Third grade is the first I can recall of anyone wanting my art.
I remember working really hard in second grade to develop my art (and also to grow my hair long).
The working hard on art part, I’ve done ever since. (Growing my hair long is still an issue)

I see amazing art done by very young children.
Maybe they really are specially talented.
Or maybe they just have smart people in their lives who value art and tell the kids why what they did is special.

I believe it’s learning WHY that makes one a better artist. And, of course, repeated concerted effort.

If you want to read more about how to become a better artist, check out Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
You’ll be astounded at her students’ growth in mere days.
But it shouldn’t be surprising: They have someone telling them how to see things differently, WHY certain things work and others don’t.

You can teach yourself how to draw.
You’ll learn faster with smart help.

(That's the end of my answer on the RhyPiBoMo blog, but I'm afraid I have more to say on the subject.)

          Many years ago a friend told me she had decided artists and people with special arts talent (musicians, poets, even people who deliver great lectures) have that information/talent/predisposition whispered to them by the dead masters.

 My kids are good at music despite me,
not because of me.

          I was a little offended: does this diminish my own hard work at developing my skill?

          Does this mean the first human was untalented?

          How do we explain the talented artist who doesn't use their art at all, who wastes what appears to be a gift from above? Will there be divine punishment? Or will Abraham Lincoln whisper brilliance to a number of potential thinkers, knowing some will ignore it?

          What about the kid who produces amazing art at a crazy-young age? Is someone whispering to him? What's a prodigy?

          Do we all have potential for percussion, but only some of us have parents who buy us drum sets when we're little, and even fewer encourage us?
(We won't get into elephants and monkeys painting, and what Art is. That's for another post.)

My 2 year old granddaughter's decorated cookie. 
Maybe she's not a prodigy. Or -- wait -- maybe she is!

          My friend's idea has spread widely. I've heard it many places. I still don't buy it.

          I still don't like the suggestion that I was born with something that others weren't, that what I have developed was whispered to me, that I am lucky instead of hard working. (I realize her suggestion doesn't automatically equate to all of these; I am extrapolating. Probably proponents of the idea would say I am both lucky and hardworking.)

          Brain science says once you think something, it's easier to think that thing later. Confidence or the lack of confidence can build from your thoughts.

          This is why people (like me) post affirmations on their mirrors and computer workstations: to repeat good thoughts, so they grow.

          If you are rewarded for something -- if a teacher nods in approval, says something nice, tapes your paper to the wall for others to see, shares it with the class -- you learn to repeat.

          If you're rewarded for innovation, you will innovate more.

          If you're rewarded for being quiet, for not coloring outside the lines, for drawing exactly the way you're told to draw, you might still grow up to be an artist but it'll take extra effort to push yourself to greatness.

          If you're punished for doodling on your page margins, for designing varied but barely legible handwriting fonts on your school papers, for creatively mixing things a teacher thinks shouldn't go together, for ::sigh:: depicting things someone thinks you shouldn't (yeah, all that happened to me), it might stifle your art instinct. Or it might merely send it underground, where you work on it quietly but only share it when you think it's really ready. That's what I did.

My sister and I were born one year and one day apart.
Mom made fanciful, beautiful cakes for our birthday every year.
Maybe my art ability *is* inherited.

          I believe time (and science) will show that we are all born with an infinite palette of possibilities. We paint our own futures. The colors are dulled or brightened by other people's intrusive praise and criticism, but we can undo their efforts, remix and repaint.

          WE decide if we'll be good at sports or art or science. Or all three.

          Case in point: My youngest kid. She's an accomplished athlete. And a very skilled artist. She has won a scholarship for engineering, which means she's really good at math and science. (All A's)

          Of course she was born brilliant. But she also had people in her life who helped guide and encourage her. And she worked very hard to develop her little proclivities into admirable skills.

          Everyone is born brilliant. Not every person has the cadre of encouraging family and friends. We ALL encounter disappointments and red herrings and false starts and obstacles, rising tension, conflict, villains.

          We ALL have the ability to work hard.

          We are the writers of our life stories.

          We choose the happy ending.

          We choose whether to succeed.


In any case, whether we inherit our talent,
or develop it because of good nurturing,
or develop it in spite of our home life,
we probably owe our parents thanks.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

It's RhyPiBoMo! Rhyming Picture Book Month -- time to rhyme!

My blog post is up!

This is RhyPiBoMo -- Rhyming Picture Book Month, designated and developed by Angie Karcher, author.

It's a month of blog posts about picture book rhyme -- written by authors who excel at rhyme (and then there's me, a newbie). You'll find lots of tips, ideas, how-to's -- really great stuff taught by people who know how to do it well. It's all free, of course!
So check it out!

Find my post here:

And then go read all the other days!

I'm thrilled to be included in RhyPiBoMo. I've written lots and lots of rhyme, tried many stories in rhyme over the years, and, after all that work, I have exactly one marketable manuscript in rhyme.
The story is about music.
I'm not really a musician. I play harmonica pretty well, but that's about it. I remember a little from organ classes, I know how to put together and hold a clarinet and make awful sounds come out. On days when my voice isn't husky from allergies or exertion, I can sing moderately well. I can sight-read music well, though slowly. I can figure out how to play a song I heard, on harmonica, after a couple tries. I'm in a band composed of authors, and we sing and play music -- much of it original -- at agency retreats. I'm no musician, though.
My husband sings beautifully.
Our four kids are all musical. Two sang on stage in high school. One's a real musician, performing for pay -- he and his wife play duets together, songs they write and sing with their own instruments. It's beautiful, heartwarming, inspiring -- intimidating. Seeing how well some people play with (and work at) music makes me realize how far behind I am.

When this idea for a music picture book hit me, I first wrote it down. Then I emailed my son and asked for his help writing the book (really, I wanted him to write it and me to illustrate).
He said no.
He said I could do the job, and he would send a few ideas. His ideas were really great, but I sure was disappointed at first. The story was too big for me to let drop or give away, so I started to tackle it. Piece by piece, stanza by stanza, line by line, word by word, image by image... The story came together. I'm very excited about its potential.
I'm working on the art.

Figuring out one of the characters:

These are early sketches. I have no idea how much of this will be in the final book.

Just like the writing, creating the art of this book scares me.

You never know what you can do until you push yourself, right?

My whole life I've done things that scared me.
It's always paid off.

My page on Angie Karcher's blog has my post and lots of great extras, collected and organized by Angie:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

New art!

As my brother said upon seeing these, it doesn't always have to be a doll or a stuffed animal...