Saturday, December 17, 2011

Making Snowflakes!

Last November, I was invited to present at the North House Folk School's Winterer's Gathering in Grand Marais, MN, one of my most favorite places on earth! I led the family event, reading from both of my winter books, Winter is the Warmest Season and Snow, and as the snow fell outside on Lake Superior and the town, we made shiny, glittery paper snowflakes inside. It has been my experience that once you start cutting paper snowflakes, you cannot stop at just one.
Demonstrating the art of cutting a six-point snowflake.
Most people think cutting a snowflake from paper is just a matter of folding the paper into quarters and cutting designs from there. That is fine for a lace-like doily, but when I illustrated Snow I studied snowflakes. I learned that most snowflakes have six sides. Some have twelve, but never four or eight! I also learned that a snowflake is not a frozen raindrop-- it is an ice crystal that forms from water vapor in the air and it takes about fifteen minutes for a snowflake to form as it falls to earth. It takes about the same amount of time to cut out your first six-sided paper snowflake. 
Sometimes a little help is needed to cut snowflake designs. 
Last week I hosted a gathering of CMLS (Circus Mom's Literary Society) at my house. This group of friends is famous for good food, wine and conversations about books, but this time I added making snowflakes to the mix. Scissors and shiny square origami papers were all the ingredients needed for a fun activity. I think active hands make for lively conversations.
Conversing and cutting snowflakes
Shiny origami papers make shiny snowflakes!
Buster and snowflakes.
It is mid-December in Minnesota, and believe it or not, there is NO SNOW! At least not in the Twin Cities. We had a paltry few inches a couple of weeks ago, but nothing since then and there is no forecast for snow in the next ten days! So what do you do when there is no snow? Make snowflakes! 

Snowflakes fall in my window, even with no snow outside.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Magical Literary Party!

When magic happens, sometimes you have to keep it a secret, because no one will believe you if you told them. But sometimes when it happens, you have to tell everyone in order to share the magic and hope that it inspires more magic! Sunday night I was invited to the house of a children's librarian. It is no ordinary house. There are quotes from books on the windows, a Narnia train that travels from the kitchen to the living room bringing your beverages and if you are lucky, a letter in a miniature mailbag!
A letter from Narnia!

The people invited to this literary dinner party consisted of book writers and readers, painters and composers, wood artists, and philanthropists, who all had two things in common: we were all children once and we all loved to read, especially children's literature! As we toured the house, there were two bathrooms, one dedicated to Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, by Bernard Waber and the other to the Frog and Toad books, by Arnold Lobel. In the lower corner of the Frog and Toad bathroom is a small mailbox and if you are lucky, (and we were that night!), there might be a package for you inside!
A package in Frog and Toad's mailbox!
Letters written by frogs and mice are lovely to read, but sometimes you might need a magnifying glass!
Reading a letter from a mouse.

The guest room in this house is where I want to come and stay awhile. It is painted purple and is dedicated to the book, Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. The walls are painted with magnetic paint, so you can move pictures around and make your own decor for the night! 

Everywhere you look in this literary home are hundreds of references to children's picture books! Even the wall sockets are decorated with illustrations from picture books! 
Using a magnifying glass to examine the illustration in the wall socket!
Because one of the guests was the wonderful author/illustrator David LaRochelle, who LOVES contests, there was a literary contest played before and after the meal. With pens and questions with fill-in-the-blanks, we combed the house, racking our brains to figure out who was in the picture over the stove and what book was it from? And what book was the quote on the studio window from? There were framed illustrations on the walls to identify, runes on chairs to translate, and pictures on a clock that referred to specific times in specific books. It was hard to stop for dinner! But stop we did and conversation flowed about books of course. Books we were reading and books read when we were little. Books we were writing and books we were illustrating. It was a magical night! And who won the contest? I did, with the help of my husband! Our prize was a miniature dollar bill with miniature coins, in a miniature green envelope from Frog and Toad!
Party gifts and contest forms from the magical Literary Party!

I have not had so much fun at a party in a very long time. Truly a magical evening. I hope this post inspires you to have your own literary party and share the magic of bringing books to life!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Time Travel

I have become a time traveller. It began with the Wild West, walking the dusty streets of Dodge with Wyatt Earp and galloping to the next boomtown in search of gold, then with the beginning of NaNoWriMo, I found myself in 18th Century Venice, floating the canals and listening to the music of Vivaldi, and now suddenly I am thrust into early 20th Century watching rehearsals of The Rite of Spring in Paris!
The Wild West and Circus Juventas!

A view of Venice by the artist, Guardi

Dancers from The Rite of Spring, 1913

How is this time travel possible, you might ask? Imagination helps, but research is the key. Immersing myself in library books, internet sites, art books, Westerns, movies set in Venice, fiction and non-fiction, I am swimming from one century to the next. Why am I time traveling? All fall I have been writing the script for the next Circus Juventas summer show. The theme this year is the "Wild West". Finding characters, hearing conversations with a cowboy twang, envisioning the locale, and determining a plot are possible only through lots of research- books on the West and movies, lots of Westerns!

I was sick with the flu for nearly three weeks in October and when November 1st rolled around I decided to amuse myself in bed by trying NaNoWriMo for the first time. A story set in 18th Century Venice had been knocking around in my head for over a year, so I took this opportunity of being housebound and joined the thousands of people who take the pledge to write 1600 words a day for the month of November and begin my first novel! Books and music filled my days as I asked questions of my characters, made up conversations, and began to determine a plot. I managed to write 105 pages by the end of the month. I didn't win the NaNoWriMo medal, but I have begun a story I love and that is what counts! However I have to put it away because I have a new deadline for a new picture book set in Paris in the early part of the 20th Century. Now I find myself rehearsing with the Ballets Russes and listening to Stravinsky's outrageous orchestrations through books, CDs, and documentaries, then making sketches for the illustrations inspired by all that I see and hear. I think I will stay in Paris for awhile now, though the Wild West will undoubtedly lasso me back from time to time.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Baking and Books

My daughter Ruby was just home from college for the Thanksgiving holiday. She has her own vegan baking blog so she spent much of her time in the kitchen baking, then taking photos on the back porch to catch "just-the-right-light"; tough to do on these gray pre-snow days in Minnesota. On Black Friday she went shopping at Trader Joe's for baking supplies to use in her small college kitchen. Trader Joe's was not offering any midnight deals, in fact the  person at the cash register was quite happy to be enjoying a relatively slow pace compared to the Thanksgiving rush just the day before. Canola oil, cashews for vegan cheese, and almonds were on the shopping list. I threw in a box of "Candy Cane Green Tea" to help her through finals to the holidays. 

When we got home Ruby scoured the attic, basement, and closets for small plates, cups, saucers, pieces of cloth, doilies and anything that might serve as background and props for photographing her baked goods. Where did she get this amazing ability to bake delicious things to eat?  I have my theories... but I think it all comes down to books...
Ruby photographing pumpkin pancakes, watch for the recipe on her blog! Delicious!
Both Ruby and my son, Cooper grew up with books. Everything books! I think it all began with cookbooks. Our favorite was Pretend Soup by Mollie Katsen. "Bagel faces" and "Bright Pink Fruit Dip" were two of our favorite recipes. We also loved trying recipes we found in stories, such as: How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World by Marjorie Priceman, or our favorite spring read: Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco. (Tomatoes in chocolate cake are really good, but strange.) And though I don't remember a real recipe in the book, we always had to eat pancakes after reading this.

The season of baking is fast upon us. We just dropped Ruby off at the airport, but she will soon return home for winter break and more baking. We are all looking forward to her vegan versions inspired by this childhood favorite!

Portrait of the Baker as a Young Girl. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Great Find...

I love bookstores. Especially small ones... independent ones... ones that are more likely to be called "Bookshops" than Bookstores. Last weekend I was in Grand Marais, MN~ my favorite small town on the edge of Lake Superior. Whenever I visit Grand Marais I have to visit Drury Lane Books. A small white historic house on the edge of the lake filled with books! What could be better? What I love about small independent bookstores is that each one has a unique voice when it comes to the books that fill the shelves inside. Drury Lane has shelves of books to choose from that I would never come across in a large bookstore chain.  When I walk through the door I feel my excitement rise with the anticipation of finding the perfect book.  I take off my winter coat and make myself comfortable, knowing I can easily spend several hours or more perusing the fiction section alone, then make my way to the travel and nature shelves at the back and finally over to the history, politics, and current issues sections. Sometimes I sit on the small painted chair in the children's book section. Sometimes I sit in the rocking chair at the back of the store where I can talk to whoever is working at the store, maybe Lee, maybe Bruce, sometimes even the owner, author, Joan Drury. They all know books, so very soon I have gathered before me a pile of books to consider. This is when I make my way to my favorite spot: the window seat in the front room. There I can look out at the Bay occasionally while I curl up and look through each book, hoping to find the one that feels "just right."

Last weekend I made a great find! It is a small perfectly shaped book and every page I have read so far stirs my imagination. Set in 16th Century Venice the story takes place in an island monastery where Fra Mauro works on a map of the world in his small enclosed cell. His map grows and changes based on the stories brought to him by explorers, pilgrims, and merchants returning from their world travels. It is one of those books that I could read in one sitting, but I deliberately go slow in order to savor every page.

Never able to choose just one, I also bought this book. It is gorgeously illustrated by my friend Betsy Bowen, a marvelous artist of books, paintings, and much more, who lives in Grand Marais. Should you find your way to the North Shore of Lake Superior, I recommend visiting Betsy's studio and of course, Drury Lane books.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Smiley Library Family Day!

On October 1st, I was the featured author/illustrator at the Smiley Library Family Day in Redlands, CA. The sun was shining and so were all the families, books, and activities! Opened to the public in 1898, the A.K. Smiley Library is truly one of the most beautiful libraries I have visited. Along with a bountiful collection of books and research materials and a welcoming children's book room, the library features stained glass windows, a private garden, and the Lincoln Memorial Shrine with a remarkable civil war museum. Even Abe Lincoln himself was greeting folks!

Entrance to the Smiley Public Library

It was a day of celebrating reading. As the featured Author/Illustrator, I presented a slide show, starting with a musical slide show of THE PRINCESS AND HER PANTHER, with the author, Wendy Orr, reading the story. Then I told the story of how I write and illustrate books, showing lots of pictures of course, because I love stories with pictures! At the end of my presentation everyone folded an origami frog with a very big mouth that just might whisper a poem or story into the folder's ear.

Abe and me outside the Lincoln Memorial

Craft tables were set up all over the back lawn with activities inspired by some of my picture books. Children made Princess and Panther masks after reading THE PRINCESS AND HER PANTHER. Nests and tide pools were created at the CASTLES, CAVES AND HONEYCOMBS table.

Making animal homes inspired by Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs

And snowflakes flew with glitter and glue despite the heat of the sun. Books inspired everyone's imagination that day. Books are amazing like that! When you read a book called SNOW on a hot, sunny day in California, your skin may get goosebumps and you may find yourself wishing you had a cup of hot chocolate and a pair of mittens to wear!

Snowflakes in California!
I am back in the golden glow of October in Minnesota, but what a warm and welcoming Family Day in California!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Origami on a Stick!

Folding origami on a stick with fair-goers

Summer in Minnesota does not feel like summer without a visit to the Minnesota State Fair. This year I was one of the twelve featured authors at the Alphabet Forest at the Fair. I was given  a beautiful large blue ribbon to wear, (my first!) and a table with seats all around it that were rarely empty! If you have never been to the Minnesota State Fair, then you have no idea what it is like to walk all day through rain and sun among thousands of other people eating Pronto Pups, cheese curds, and french fries, but just imagine it, and once you have imagined it, then look for a lovely little wooded corner strung with alphabet letters and activity tables and you will want to sit and rest there awhile. There is even a library to sit and read for as long as you like!

The perfect place to rest and read a book at the Fair!

I spent the day celebrating my book, FOLD ME A POEM, by teaching origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. We folded snakes, frogs, penguins, dogs, birds, and roosters~ and since we were folding at the Minnesota State Fair where everything is on a stick, the final addition was a stick:"Origami on a Stick"! The stick element made for some fun puppet shows.
Can you guess what this fair-goer's favorite color is?
The Alphabet Forest was an idea conceived by this author. There are alphabet crowns, word-finding games, fair letter necklaces, and a photo booth with fair letters from this book. What a wonderful addition to the attractions at the Minnesota State Fair! What an honor to be the Author of the Day! And what does an author do after spending the day in the Alphabet Forest? Why wander the rest of the fair of course! I saw the giant pumpkin, the butterheads, the bees, seed art, and bonsai exhibit at the Horticulture building, ate a delicious five bean fajita at Juanita's Fajitas, listened to "Boiled in Lead" at the International Bazaar stage, and people-watched as night fell and the lights of the fair began to glow.
Alphabet Forest and its wonderful log cabin!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Origami Frogs Speak in Poems

Basket full of origami frogs!

What to do during the rainy month of April? National Poetry Month? If you have a pile of square sheets of colored paper try folding poems!

Last week I received a photo of a basket full of frogs. Origami frogs! It came from Ms. Wolf and her class of second graders at Valentine Hills Elementary in Arden Hills, MN. Along with the photo were poems written by Ms. Wolf's students.

 In her email, Ms. Wolf wrote: "Although I had read Fold Me a Poem in the fall, I reread the story and then we made frogs and wrote poems about them... I had the frogs "whisper" secret wishes to the kids, which they then wrote on pieces of paper and rolled up into the frogs mouths - something I saw you do at the IRA conference a few years ago." 

When the author, Kristine O'Connell George wrote the poems for our book, Fold Me a Poem, she was inspired by observing a young boy folding paper animals all on his own. The sound of the paper folding, the different shapes the animal took as it was gradually folded into life, and finally the personality it took on with the help of the boy's imagination, all became the voices of her poems in the book. When I illustrated the poems, I had to teach myself to fold origami by checking out every origami book at my local library. And I will tell you, when you fold paper animals, the paper does indeed whisper to you if you listen! If you are interested in folding paper frogs or a dog, a rooster, bird, or snake, go here. And if you are interested in learning a little more how to write a poem to go with your paper animal, go here. Or you can read the poems below from Ms. Wolf's Second Graders. Enjoy!

Origami Frogs!
(Poems by 2nd graders in Ms. Wolf’s Class )







By Leo

* * * * *

If my

frog could

talk it

would say,

“hi my friends.”

By Rotho

* * * * *

Origami Frog

I was

just a

piece of

paper and

now look

what I am!


Thank you

for making me.  A

piece of

paper into

a frog!

By Anna

* * * * *


I’m a

paper frog

with my

paper frog


By Hannah L.

* * * * *

A Piece of Paper

I’m a piece

of paper.

I do not

do much.

All I do

is sit



I’m a frog!



By Katie

* * * * *

Fast Frog


I’m a

real frog!

I’m jumpin’ ‘round!




By Michael

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Luck of the Buttons and National Library Workers Day!

Today is the "Release" day for The Luck of the Buttons, a new middle grade novel by my friend, Anne Ylvisaker. I have had the honor of being privy to its process since its inception. It was born on a sunny day in May several years ago when I was invited to join The Tall Grass Writers on their annual picnic to the oldest cemetery in Iowa where original prairie still grows beneath spreading oaks. After a delicious lunch complete with champagne, we wandered between lichen covered headstones, reading the epitaphs still visible despite a hundred years of rain, snow, and sun. Anne spotted the name "Tugs Britton" on a headstone and loved the name so much she took a photo of it. (Anne is a great photographer and a camera plays a big role in her new novel!) You can read more about how "Tugs Britton" became "Tugs Button" here.

When you are lucky enough to get your hands on a copy of this book you will find yourself hankering for a slice of pecan pie and a trip or two to your local library. "Miss Lucy", the librarian in The Luck of the Buttons, plays a pivotal role and since today is National Library Workers Day, what does an author of a newly launched novel do on this day? She bakes chocolate brownies and heads down to her local library with a copy of her new book to donate and a plate of brownies to say "Thank you!" I join Anne today in saying thank you to all Library Workers and I join Anne today in celebrating the birth of Luck of the Buttons!

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Set model for Cinderella's Castle

I spent the morning yesterday painting the upper panels of Cinderella's Palace. For the past seven years I have been one of the designer/ painters of the theatrical sets for Circus Juventas' Summer Shows. Each year has a different theme, and this year is titled "Grimm" and weaves five stories by the Grimm brothers in and out of the spectacular circus acts. Since I also work with the artistic director, Betty Butler, writing the script I am very familiar with the set and prop needs to make certain the storyline is clear. This year our story begins with Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their cottage researching and writing their fairytales late into the night. Books lying everywhere, oil lamps burning, candles melting and large feathered quills scattered about will create the setting of a wonderful opening scene! Beyond their cottage lies the village and marketplace as well as the elegant palace on the hill. Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Cap, and Rapunzel are the five stories interwoven throughout the show and the familiar characters from each of these tales live their everyday lives in the village, palace, or nearby woods. We have written lots of surprises into the script and added comedy and humor to offset the intrinsic darkness of the original Grimm stories.

Jacob and Wilhelm's cottage is nearly done and the palace is beginning to sparkle. By day I paint picture books using a very small brush in the quiet of my studio, by nights and weekends, I paint sets letting arms fly with large brushes while all around me kids, ages 2 to 21 are flying through the air or tumbling over mats. The script and the sets are just guidelines and atmosphere~ it is the wildly talented performers and their choreographers and directors who bring the show to life. I can"t wait!

For photos and stories of set production of past Circus Juventas shows visit my website.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Library of the Early Mind

I recently attended a screening of a new documentary on literature for children called: Library of the Early Mind. It was shown for free at my local library in downtown Minneapolis and after the film there was a panel discussion which included the director of the film, Edward J. Delaney, a school media specialist, Julie Reimer, (also the author of the blog, Extended Self Life, see my list of favorite blogs below!), and three authors, Catherine Thimmesh, David LaRochelle, and John Coy. The panelists were excellent and added to the experience of the film, which interviews twenty creators of children's books. There is humor, clarity, and intensity in the stories of each of the artist/authors being interviewed. The film begins with the voice of Chris Van Allsburg telling the story of how the idea for the book, The Polar Express came about. After drawing the headlight of a train in the woods with steam glowing in the night he asked himself: "If I were a child and a train could take me anywhere, where would I want to go?" And from there the story evolved. Later in the film, the author Natalie Babbitt says "The best children's stories are wisdom dipped in pictures." I loved this!

One point that the panelists discussed was how picture books become the "wallpaper" of our lives, meaning, how our favorite books we read when we were little, stay with us the rest of our lives. John Coy made the point that it wasn't just "wallpaper", but that the books he remembers from when he was little actually changed his life-- they did not stay in the background. And since today is my birthday, I thought I would list the books that are not only wallpaper decorating my life, but also changed the way I thought, the choices I have made, and who I am now and at different ages and stages of my life. After reading my list, if you are so inclined, please leave your list of favorite books from your childhood, the one's that still remind you who you are. During the panel talk, the director of the film, Edward Delaney, said the one book he remembers that made a difference in his life was: The Human Comedy by William Saroyan. I have never read this book, but I went to the library yesterday and checked it out in order to add it to my library of the aging mind!

My List of "Wallpaper" Books, favorites from when I was little:

  • Millions of Cats

  • The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

  • The Ugly Duckling

  • The Little Engine That Could

  • Little Bear

  • The Phantom Tollbooth

  • The Secret Garden

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Three Cats

Three Cats, Franz Marc

I live in a big house with three cats: Lucy, Buster and Indigo. They are my amusing muses and appear in many of my books, especially Buster, as he is likes to pose in my studio. I have always lived with cats, sometimes whole litters of cats, thus, naming my blog: "Artist and 3 Cats" seemed just right.

I met the author, Joan M. Wolf, at a book signing just a few days ago who also has three cats. She calls them her "Literary Cats" and writes extensively about them on her website including lots of wonderful photos. (She has a chicken too, but that is not the name of my blog.) Three seems like a perfect number for cats~ Art has always provided me with answers and reassurances in times of wondering why, so when I came across the painting "Three Cats" by the artist Franz Marc, I felt even more certain of the title for my blog.

Franz Marc has always been one of my favorite artists. His paintings curve and move, explode and soothe with line and vibrant expressive color. He mostly painted animals; blue horses and leaping yellow cows. He was born in Munich in 1880 and died much too young in 1916 in WWI. I always look at the art of other artists to give me ideas-- take me to places I may not even imagine. When I was illustrating my book, Castles, Caves, and Honeycombs, I had pictures of Franz Marc's paintings of animals all over my studio walls.
Two Cats, Franz Marc

Saturday, March 26, 2011

I Love to Read Month!

Folding origami all together!
February is "I Love to Read" month, the month when I visit the most schools as an author/illustrator! I want to highlight a wonderful visit I had last month with Baxter Elementary School in Baxter, MN. Organized by two extraordinary media specialists, Sandy and Jennifer, I was welcomed by over 600 students who had read all of my books and were ready to learn how they were made and ready with great questions! My first day was a day of large presentations: slides showing my process from thumbnail sketches to final art. A movie of my newest book, The Princess and Her Panther was featured, narrated by the author, Wendy Orr, with music by my husband, Matthew Smith. At the end of my presentation we all folded origami frogs, inspired by my book, Fold Me A Poem, written by Kristine O'Connell George. This is always a great accomplishment when there are over a hundred kids folding at one time! It makes for wonderful papery-whispery sounds which just might inspire a poem! (Origami became very popular during my visit~ the second morning, Jennifer was leading "flower" paper-folding lessons to all the early arrivals in the library before the bell rang. I wonder how many paper animals are running around Baxter Elementary these days?)

Snowflake Poems!
Media Specialists Extraordinaire!

During my second day I visited several classrooms for smaller workshops. Students learned about storyboards and pagination, dummy-books and how to tell a story within the story in pictures. In my kindergarten and second grade classrooms we wrote a group poem inspired by my book, Snow, written by Cynthia Rylant. Then we cut out snowflakes with six points, never eight! and arranged snowflakes and poems on a double-page spread.

Each day I had lunch with a group of students who had written essays and poems about why they wanted to have "Lunch with the Author". During lunch we shared what we liked to write about and what sort of pictures we liked to draw. I even led a spontaneous drawing lesson one day, shoving our lunch trays aside for space to move paper and pencil.

It was hard to leave Baxter Elementary at the end of my two-day visit. I felt as if I was just getting to know everyone! A week after I arrived back home I received a packet of the most beautiful thank you cards! Thanks Baxter Elementary!
Making books in the classroom.