Karen Romano Young

From the desk: Doodlebug: My Novel in Doodles and Humanimal Doodles, a science comic in print and on the web.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Good Little Snakes

Today's post is a story written long ago for my children, and resurrected today for reasons you can read about on Interesting Nonfiction for Kids, a blog written by 25 nonfiction authors, including me. An interesting situation arose in my barn office this morning, precipitating a change in the topic of my I.N.K. blog, and leading me to give my old park ranger friend Noonie a jingle. In my mind, she's an expert on snakes. In her mind, I'm sort of an idiot about snakes. Well, you can decide for yourself. I hope you'll check out both stories.


Aunt Noon was here, sleeping in the barn. It was June, hot out, and she opened the door to let the air through, and pinned up some sheets to make a mosquito net. It looked like something from Aladdin. That was Noon, always making something.
It's why she was here, actually; she was making things. She was going to paint a picture for Uncle DB and Aunty Anne. They had a picture she had painted once, of a cat in the snow in the moonlight near a barn. They had asked her to paint it, even though they had just imagined the scene; they hadn't had a real place in mind.
This time the did have a real place in mind. The second painting was to show the place where Yogi went swimming. That's what they had asked for. We all agreed it was the most beautiful place, by the reservoir under the reservoir under the pine trees that the owls lived in, with a steep slope down to the water. Years later, when we walked there with Rosie, after Yogi died, we could still see Yogi in our mind's eye, lumbering down the hill to wade into the water, and we'd remember stopping to rest a minute here near the end of the walk, breathing hard, our hands on our hips, watching for the moment when Yogi walked deep enough into the water to suddenly start floating. The look on his face was what we loved -- he looked so relaxed and happy.
We kids had to go to school and Mom and Dad had to work, so we gave Noon directions so she could walk through the woods to get to the place where Yogi went swimming. Just to be sure, Yogi went along with her. She had her camera so she could take pictures of him, too. He saw going to be a swimming model dog.
When we all came back, there was no sign of Aunt Noon or Yogi. But this was what was on the dining room table: a cat food jug, made of white plastic. On the outside, in Sharpie, snakes and grass had been drawn along with messages:

SNAKES! Beware!!

We all watched each other see it. Nobody went near. What would YOU do with a cat food jug that said it had snakes inside: rush over and open it?
Mom unscrewed the lid, to prove to us kids that you shouldn't be freaked out by such things: plus, just in case the snakes came sizzling out of there like rockets, she wanted to be the one to get attacked, not us. (Sam says, "How heroic of you, Mom." But it is true! She's the one who bravely opened it!)
The snakes did not attack. They lay in a relaxed way along the bottom of the jug, fitting into the little grooves at the corners. There was some grass in there that Aunt Noon had added for the comfort of the snakes, and they were exactly the color of the grass.
There were holes in the lid of the jug, but it was pretty hot out, and we wondered if the snakes feeling a little bit limp from the heat.
"Leave the lid off," someone suggested. At least that's what Mom said happened afterward. She doesn't exactly remember WHO said it, and Bethany says that's because nobody actually suggested it to her; she suggested it herself, then tried to blame us for what happened afterward. "Way to pass the buck, Mom," said Emily.
She's the one who left the lid off. Those little snakes couldn't possibly climb up the sides of the slick plastic jug, that's what we thought. (We say it was Mom who thought it, not us.) She left the whole thing on the piano, where it was out of the sun. We all wandered away after a few checking sort of looks inside -- fewer from Bethany than from anyone else.
So guess what, big surprise, Aunt Noon came home all gaga and excited. "Did you find the wonderful snakes I left for you?"
"Yes," we said from the living room and kitchen and upstairs. "They're on the piano," we added. Nobody but the snakes was still in the dining room.
There was a second while Noon looked around. "With the lid off?" she said.
Uh-oh. UH-OH.
"There's only one in here," said Aunt Noon. "Has somebody got the other one?"
"As if," said Emily from the living room.
"I left the lid off," said Mom from the kitchen. "It's so hot. They couldn't climb out, could they?"
"Well, I think they might have," said Noon.
In we came, but not all the way in, from the living room and kitchen and upstairs. We stood near the dining room doorway and stuck out necks in. "Where could it have gone?" we asked.
"You have to think like a snake," said Noon. "You're in a big, bright, bare place. You like to be in a dark, protected place. What would be a cozy nook if you were a snake?"
"Oh!" Mom sighed, or whined, or almost moaned. It was a combination of sounds. We all looked at the piano. We had all seen it opened up and taken apart; Lenny the piano tuna had been here only a couple of weeks ago. We all knew the piano had more cozy nooks than you could count. At least there weren't snakes in all the cozy nooks, just one. But which one?
Oh, how gingerly and jittery we felt as we lifted the lid to the keys, but a glance showed no garter snake curled up on the keys. Darker and cozier nooks, then. We peered behind the music prop, where a velvet-lined groove would have made a good snake bed. Nope, no snake.
With dread we lifted the lid that led to the inner workings, the strings and hammers where a snake really could disappear forever. It wasn't reassuring not to see a snake there, not one bit reassuring, since the snake could so easily be hiding and might never be found until the next time Lenny came back to tune the piano. Poor Lenny! And what would the snake eat and do in the meantime?
"It could die in there," said Sam.
"Of starvation?" asked Emily.
"Or suffocation?" asked Bethany.
Hmm. Aunt Noon said, "Is the piano on wheels?" The piano was on wheels, so we all muscled in and pushed it out from the wall, letting Noon be the one to look behind it and see if a little green snake would be uncovered.
"One more foot," said Noon. We pushed again.
"Aww," said Noon. "Will you look at that?"
There, curled in the space at the back of the piano, down near the floor -- as dark and cozy a nook as it had been able to find -- was the little green garter snake.
"Poor baby," said Noon.
We all took a step back as she reached in to lift it out.
"Ouch!" said Noon. "He's chomping me!"
That was for sure. The snake's jaws were wide open, clamped on her thumb. That's how little its head was.
"Doesn't it hurt?" asked Emily.
"That little mouth?" said Noon. "Silly, he thinks he can swallow me." That was a laugh!
"Not poisonous?" asked Sam.
"Garter snakes are harmless," said wise Bethany, but she was standing the farthest away, and her eyes were the biggest.
"Stop doing that," Noon told the snake.
"Can't you shake him off?" asked Sam.
"If I hold still, he might think I'm dead and let go," said Noon. "If I shake he'll keep trying to eat me."
This was the way it was with our Aunt Noon. She said the most outstanding things!
"Who wants to come with me to take them back to the woods?" asked Noon.
We all went along with her, except Dad. "I will trust the rest of you to do it," said Dad.
Noon cradled the snakes together in her hands, letting them wrap around her wrists like Mom's silver bracelets. When we got to the place where Yogi swam, Noon bent down and let the snakes go in the grass. Bethany held Yogi's collar so he wouldn't get involved.
"They were mating when I found them," said Noon.
"Ew," said Bethany. "How do you know?"
"All the grass was waving. That's how I knew somebody was there. All that motion!" If you found snakes mating with lots of motion, would you pick them up and take them home? We wouldn't either. But that's Aunt Noon for you.
"You carried them all the way back from from here?" asked Emily.
"Sure!" said Aunt Noon.
"What did Yogi say about it?" asked Sam.
"Oh, he was all for it," said Noon. "He knew you all needed to see some good little snakes."
"Dad didn't need to see them, " said Bethany. "Neither did I, really."
"Well, there are some people who can't take snakes," said Noon coolly.
"Not us," we all said, even Bethany.

And here's a picture of Noon herself, in one of her natural habitats:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Look Inside My High School Journal . . . and Beyond!

This collaged notebook represents a watershed moment in my writing life.
Nowadays it's not unusual for teachers to have kids write journals. But in 1977, when I took three English classes at once and two of them required journals, it was very new. (I'm hoping one of my teachers will comment on this post and say what the thinking was.) I was a high school senior with a scary scientific paper term project (another assignment that had a major impact on my future writing and interests), trigonometry to survive, and lots of other senior-type things to do, so I asked the two teachers to let me write one journal that they both could read and grade.
I wasn't worried about the journal writing, just didn't want to have to write two journals. I had kept a diary since I was nine, and was a regular journaler. Sometimes I shared sentences or paragraphs of what I'd written with my aunt (just a year older than me), who also journaled. But this was the first time I'd ever written something that I knew for certain would be read by somebody else.

Mainly the journals were read for quantity; we had to write a certain number of entries, and one of the teachers (not the one I hope will comment) really seemed to just check it off. But under the eyes of the other teacher, Fran Kondziela, my writing bloomed and took off. A theater director as well as an English teacher, she was quick to point out that I needed an audience. Now, isn't that an interesting thing to find out about yourself? It makes sense, I guess. Like many who aren't physically confident, loathe getting up on a stage, and have palpitations about public speaking, I became a writer because I needed to express myself. Who was reading? Nobody -- until Ms. K.

My journal, Ms. K's comment

And that wasn't all: my writing improved when I had feedback, not just approval, from someone else. Ms. K. posed questions and made comments in my margins, and that led me to better, clearer, more thoughtful writing. Looking back at it, I also notice that I was forever drawing and doodling. Here's one example, J.R.R. Tolkien, from the back of my copy of The Two Towers.

Doodle: Tolkien and his ear

As ever, journaling has enormous value for me as a writer and as a human. It's fun and funny and educational to look back on the things I was worried about when I was 17, or 32, or 47. It helps me to see straight into those days as if I had a telescope taking the long view back into the dots on my personal timeline. So much is there, from the music I was listening to (and going to concerts of such as, in 1977, Eric Carmen, Loggins and Messina, and Peter Frampton).

I don't share my journal entries anymore, preferring to keep them private. But the journal begun for high school English in the spring of '77 taught me the value of working with a trusted reader or writing partner, someone who would confirm what was good and question what was questionable.

Nowadays I rely on the response of other writers, artists, editors, my agent, and my children.
For several years, I worked with a novels-only writing group that devoted hours and hours to each other's work -- and from which some truly beautiful novels emerged, and continue to emerge even though we have disbanded.

Without the responses of my daughter Emily and author/illustrator friend Katie Davis, Doodlebug would never have come to be, and writer/editor Ann Downer provides invaluable input about my Humanimal Doodles.

I've got to get to work, I really do. I've got a new writing partner, Gail Carson Levine, and she's expecting a new installment of the semi-graphic novel I'm working on. I'm inspired by the masterful revisions Gail has been doing on her own novel chapters, and reminded once again how important it is to have an audience that listens well, makes comments, and tries to follow my sketchy plots.

Sometimes it's difficult. Every time Gail and I meet she asks me a question that causes me to drop my head right onto the table in dismay -- something I'd blanked on, not thought of, done wrong, not considered. It's not easy, this writing job! But then I think of a possible answer, and Gail shakes her head, I think of another and Gail tilts her head to one side, considering. We talk about it a while. And then I get back to work.

Counting my blessings here, I'm very grateful. And that includes Peter Frampton.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Most Wonderful People in the World

At yesterday's Connecticut Book Festival, we talked about finding your doodling i.d. -- your icon doodle -- such as these I created for Doodlebug and Cootie Catcher, the main characters in Doodlebug.

For me, the most wonderful people in the world are those who love stories -- whether the stories are told in words or pictures or both, whether the people are adults or kids (or both?), and whether they draw or write themselves, or not.

Yesterday, at the first of what I hope are many Connecticut Book Festivals, I had a chance to meet such people. They included adults and kids (such as Sadie, who was one of the winners about the Letters About Literature competition), artists and writers, including the very wonderful Tony Abbott. And they seemed happy to be hearing about stories such as Doodlebug and my Humanimal Doodles, which are told in writing and in doodles.

One of the things we got to talking about was the trend in children's literature toward books told in a variety of visual styles. I mentioned Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Popularity Papers, and Middle School Is Even Worse Than Meatloaf. We also talked about the increasing recognition of doodling as a way some people learn (like me). And, if I'd only had time, I would have liked to share a few doodlers and doodling sites I've recently discovered.

• One comes from Carolina Pedraza, who used to be the head of youth and family programs at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgefield, Connecticut. I worked with Carolina to broaden the reach of the Draw On! program in our area. Now Carolina has gone on to use her art in news ways you can learn about at Wacky Shorts.

• Another great doodling destination is Wendy McNaughton's comic Meanwhile, The San Francisco Public Library, at The Rumpus. I'll race you over there, as I'm eager to find out more about it, but have already been soaking up Wendy's terrific drawings, which serve as visual proof of the immense value of libraries to the communities they serve.

• Do you know about the incredible art people have been doing in their Moleskines? Start googling Moleskine art and you will be astonished. For example, see if you can view this video that Paula Scher made of the fonts she invented in her Moleskine (the daisy petals are my favorite -- so simple and great-looking) without wanting to run out and buy your own Moleskine and doodle your own groovy new font. (Thanks to Judith Schwartz for posting this!)

• F'inally, do you know that children's book artists are auctioning their doodles and other art? Visit this one, in which Paul O. Zelinsky draws young authors John Green, David Levithan, Libba Bray and E. Lockhart (along with her character Stingray from the adorable Toys Go Out). This large, fine silent auction will benefit the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and will take place online and at this week's BEA (Book Expo of America). You can find out more about it here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A first for Connecticut, and me.

The Connecticut Book Festival, the first ever state book festival, which will take place this coming weekend, May 21 - 22, at the University of Connecticut's Greater Hartford Campus. The rain will stop, the sun will shine, owls will flap their wings in delight, and book people of all feathers will arrive to celebrate reading, writing, illustration, and yes, doodling.

The event's organizer, Kat Lyons, former director of the Connecticut Center for the Book, expects 10,000 people for the first Connecticut Book Festival, which makes me supremely happy, because I love books, but also gives me nervous butterflies in my stomach, because I'm going to be there to read from and talk about Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles.

Just to clarify: there is also a Connecticut Children's Book Fair, organized by the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, which celebrated its twentieth anniversary in November 2010. But this new festival is set up to bring together readers and authors of books for adults and teens -- and there will be children's events, too. As a young adult author, I think this is an interesting shift. As far as publishing goes, young adult books are generally part of children's books, and are stocked near children's books in bookstores. But they are often shelved completely separately in libraries (on a separate floor in my home library, the Bethel Public Library).

So what's going to be going on? Here's just a taste:
• FOOD (often food is last on the list, but let's get serious, okay?)
• Wally Lamb (She's Come Undone, I Know This Much Is True, and other novels. He's incredible, and I have shaken his hand.) Here's a profile of him on Teen Reads.
Wendell Minor, the only illustrator I've ever known to have his own billboard. Wendell's work is so beautiful. One of my favorites is this polar bear.
• A journal-making workshop led by the Amistad Center for Art and Culture (I encourage doodling in journals.)
• "Ink Passion," a performance by dancEnlight. (Having frequently done ink dances myself, I am intrigued.)

The Hartford Advocate published a complete discussion of the festival here, and I'd also like to refer you to Caragh O'Brien's blog. If you don't know Caragh's young adult Birthmarked trilogy, you should. And you'll have a chance when she takes part in a panel of young adult authors at the book festival this Sunday at 3:30.

Caragh's blog includes a picture from the lunch she and I shared with Kat Lyons and Billie Levy after Billie hosted us on her television show Children's Books: Their Creators and Collectors, where Kat, Caragh, and I talked about our work and shared our anticipation of the Connecticut Book Festival.
I'll be at the festival on Sunday, reading from Doodlebug at 2, and signing (and doodling on) books afterward. Please come find me! (If anything calms the butterflies, it's smiling faces. )
And if you're wondering how I'm going to read from a book that's done in doodles, you'll have to come find out. There's a giant book -- and some giant doodles -- involved.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Electrifying News About Humanimal Doodles

It's a rainy Sunday here at the Doodling Desk -- all the more reason to share the sunny, newest Humanimal Doodle in print, the Vespa Doodle. As with all my Humanimal Doodles, this one, just published in Odyssey magazine's May issue, covers news about what people are learning from animals -- in this case Vespa orientalis (that's its page at the Encyclopedia of Life, where eventually every known species will have its own page). Vespa orientalis is the Oriental hornet (or wasp). Scientists have discovered that its body acts as a little solar cell, turning sunshine into electricity.

But you know me: just say the name of a wheeled vehicle and I'm likely to drop it into whatever I'm writing or drawing. So of course when I realized that the source of the name for those nifty little motor scooters you see in European cities (and once in a while in New York or Boston or Bethel, Connecticut) was the Latin word for wasp, I jumped right on it -- on the doodling, of course, not the Vespa, alas. (I'd like a robin's egg blue one, although the orange one in that link is sweet.) I plopped a scooter right into the doodle. For me, that's part of the fun of doodling for me -- the freedom to free-associate in pictures.

I've been doing these Humanimal Doodles for almost a year now, since posting the Walrus Doodle during a trip to the Arctic Ocean. They've appeared in print and on the web (as on the World Wildlife Fund site in that Walrus Doodle link.) The Vespa Doodle is the sixth one that has appeared in Odyssey. In the works: doodles about mitten crabs, Alvin the submarine, and laboratory mice.

Here's the Vespa Doodle:

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Come On In!

From my desk in the window of my little house in the woods, I can see the pine tree in the front yard, which has a door nestled among the roots. My mother gave this door to me. This is typical, because she's the one who taught me to be whimsical, to anthropomorphize, to envision that door opening on a pine-scented spiral stairway that leads up the tree to the doodling workshop where I might sit, pen in hand, drawing stories, doodling pictures, writing text by hand, making up my own fonts.

Like the door to the pine tree, doodles may seem to be whimsical, unrealistic, the product of an overactive imagination. But, in the year since I began publishing them, I've realized the power of doodles.

I get doodle power from children who attend my doodling workshops -- such as the ones I did for the GRLS program in Boston last weekend -- who try out the black finepoint and gray brushpoint pens I give them, drawing constantly, telling their stories, lifting their heads only in curiosity about the pictures I'm creating as I tell them my own stories.

I get doodle power from the parents who tell me that my novel Doodlebug has gotten their kids reading at last, or that learning about my doodling has encouraged them in creating their own graphic stories.

I get doodle power from the teachers who tell me that my Humanimal Doodles have gotten their students talking about science - or arguing about, looking into, or trying their own science.

I get doodle power from the scientists who like how their stories are told, who comments and make suggestions and ask for more.

I get doodle power from the grownups who learned to read by reading comic books, and the librarians who recognize that any reading is good reading and the kids who realize that good reading doesn't have to be all typeset words.

I get doodle power from finding out how many other people -- just about all other people! -- doodle, and I love learning what they draw and why.

And this week I'm getting doodle power from National Doodle Day, tomorrow, May 12.  Neurofibramatosis, Inc., sponsors this celebration.  During their events this summer, they'll be giving away ten signed copies of Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles. For more about this, please click here.  

In this blog, I'll talk about some of my travels and experiences associated with creating and getting the word out about my doodles. And I'll talk about what's going on behind the workshop door, on the doodling desk.