I have been painting nature and children’s portraits, as well as making children’s books, for many years. Viewing nature as a gate to the spiritual realm is a thesis running through all my work. This spiritual theme evolved from a portrait series, entitled souls, faces of children lost in the Holocaust, which I began in 1997 as a healing ritual. Over three years, the early products of the simple exercise of “bearing witness” (the most I could offer then) slowly matured, becoming, ultimately, glorifications of the eternal force of energy and love which is a soul, which is creation, which is growth itself. Which cannot be lost. The faces are narrated with text from sacred writings as well as secular nature writing, and often incorporate images of animate beings - the buzzing, tweeting, singing divinity so concentrated in nature and its creatures. My paintings and icons that followed the portraits, featuring trees, birds, butterflies, leaves, and water, have continued to express my devotion to this theme.
Working with children and nature, and the sacred therein, led inevitably to making books written in children’s voices, frequently dealing with spirituality and nature, and always with growth. The past year has been an intensive period of children’s book-making, and my vision of this art form has grown and deepened. I see the 32-page picture book as no less an art form than the traditional painting on a rectangular two dimensional surface. These books seem to grow, quietly, inside me, and then send out a shoot, a title or a last line maybe, to let me know they are ready to come up and seek the sun. As I'm working on a book, I have to remember to forget much that I read in how-to articles about children's books, to un-learn what I was taught in art school. What I have to remember is to "allow" the book to develop from its original insight, to fulfill itself through its own process. Art alone can teach us, but we have to listen closely.
Some people have observed that my books aren't stories, that they have no plot. And they are right. But I ask you, can you tell me the plot of your yesterday? I think of my books as "experiential." Love Me Later covers a little boy's uneventful summer afternoon. Even though one can't point out a defined plot, there is a kind of growth, an arc, a "quiet revolution" which happens almost imperceptibly; yet somehow you know something you didn't know before the afternoon began, before you opened the book, even if you can’t name it.
I like to think of my books as family books. Read-aloud books. I picture a parent or grandparent, a teacher or friend, sitting next to a child in a quiet corner. The two are reading together, looking at pictures together, talking more between themselves even than reading the text that's printed on the page. I hear questions being asked, and thinking and musing taking place. I want my books to encourage that read-aloud relationship. In many situations, pictures help draw people into subjects that are hard to face. My book, Lilly Looking, for instance, deals with sibling death. Readers can see themselves in the pictures, and thus may allow their hearts and minds to soften and to open. They may learn something - not something the author is teaching, something in themselves they discover they already know.
I try to not illustrate the text literally, nor to narrate the pictures literally. There is a powerful dynamic between words and pictures that many children’s book author-illustrators have written about; the two should complement each other. This is Randolph Caldecott’s legacy. Every child to whom I've ever read has loved to look for surprises in the pictures, and when he or she finds something new, something outside of the words he's heard read, there is a great feeling of discovery, and there is more to talk about with his reading buddy. Picture books have the unique opportunity, spread after spread, to develop parallel stories, introduce non-verbal ideas, provoke questions, provide answers. Read-aloud time is sacred, soul-building.
For many years I received laudatory rejections from publishing houses of all sizes. “Your work is beautiful, haunting, deeply moving. Your pictures are dynamic, unusual. Your book made me cry. I read it to my children and they loved it. BUT: your artwork is too sophisticated for children. Too colorful. The pictures are too busy. Your stories are too subtle, nothing happens...” I have long resented this undervaluing of children’s understanding, this dismissal of children’s visual sophistication, on behalf of children. I am singularly dedicated to raising the level of “art” in children’s literature.
I think kids are smarter and deeper and more open than adults, and I revere their intelligence. Children are very brave. It's an honor to make books that kids will open, and maybe drool on or spill juice on, and spend time with. A book is held in a child's hands. It is opened and studied with intention and a developing consciousness. A book is a living experience in a child's life. I take that seriously.