This essay was published in May, 2017 by Skirt! Magazine. I've been doing some website maintenance and realized that the link to the May 2017 publication is no longer active. I love this piece, originally written as a supplement to a scrapbook page that I made for my daughter, so I'm reprinting the essay here. I hope you enjoy it.
May is the month of of longer days, blooming flowers, and my mother’s birthday.
My daughter was two-and-a-half months old when my mother died in a car accident. I was still reeling with the aftermath of her death, closing accounts and returning library books, sorting a lifetime of possessions, when I found the grandparents book I had given her while I was pregnant. It was a book of prompts to help grandparents write the memories of their lives for their grandchildren.
My mother grew up on a farm, learned to type on a manual typewriter, and went from the age of radio to television to the internet. She moved to Alaska when it was still a territory, voted for statehood, and experienced the 1964 earthquake.
I wanted her to tell the stories of her life in her own words: about growing up in a town so small it didn’t have a schoolhouse; about working as a waitress at the Woolworth’s lunch counter while putting herself through business college; about the only vacation her family ever had, to Yellowstone National Park. And most of all I wanted her to tell the other stories: the ones she never thought to tell me, the ones I never thought to ask about.
But my mother died and her stories died with her.
For a few months before her death my mother had complained about shaky hands. She feared the Parkinson’s disease that her uncle suffered from was stalking her too. But she wouldn’t go to the doctor, no matter how much I pleaded or cajoled.
When I opened the grandparent’s book, it was empty, except for a few pages with post-it notes on them. On these she had written brief notes with a shaky hand. Her once beautiful Palmer script was practically illegible, even to me who knew her writing so well.
There were no stories there to give to the tiny baby sleeping in the other room.
Because I could not give my daughter her grandmother’s stories, I decided I would have to give her mine. I went through my mother’s photographs and slides. As I viewed each one I hoped a story would surface, some long-forgotten memory that my mother had shared with me. Instead, they raised questions.
When was the picture taken of my mother on horseback? I wanted to know more about this young woman smiling broadly at the photographer. I put a copy of the photo in a scrapbook. It has been ten years and I still don’t know what to write on that page.
I found another slide, a picture of pansies. According to the note penciled on the cardboard frame in beautiful, legible cursive, it was taken in the garden of her apartment in Durango, Colorado, where she attended business college.
There was pansy that grew by the front door of my childhood home in Alaska. The front door stood in the middle of a rectangular post-World-War II tract home that was not my mother’s first choice. She wanted the house in the other neighborhood, closer to church, with better schools, but this one was affordable for a single, working mother in an era when those were not so common.
A broken concrete path led to the front door. On each side of the door was a narrow flower bed that stretched to the end of the house. The one closest to the driveway was mine.
Every year, when the calendar promised a spring that the weather belied, we would go to the store where I would linger over the seed packets, choosing the annuals that would go in my flower bed once the weather agreed with the calendar. My mother always had pansies on her side.
After we had made our choices, we took our carefully selected seed-packets home and planted each seed in a thimble-sized plug of dirt in plastic seed trays, each tray becoming a miniature greenhouse when its lid was reattached. These we placed on our kitchen table, and as the grey remains of winter snow melted slowly in the cool Alaskan spring, our seeds sprouted. We nurtured our seedlings until finally it was time to set the tender plants in the ground and hope they survived the transition from cozy plastic greenhouse to the earth outside our front door.
Pansies, like all annuals, must be newly planted each year. But one of our pansies was a perennial. It surprised us one year by surviving the winter, hugging the foundation of the house just next to the aluminum screen door. After it survived the second winter we accepted that it would be there every year, bearing velvety blooms with deep violet-purple centers.
“There were always pansies,” I wrote on the scrapbook page I made for my daughter. Then I wrote the story of our perennial pansy on the page and added a picture from my mother’s garden in Durango. What made those pansies so special to my mother that she took their picture? I would never know.
I showed the page to my daughter and I told her the story of the pansies.
When my daughter was in the third grade, she was given the assignment to paint a picture in the style of Georgia O’Keefe. She painted a pansy.
“Because it was your mother’s favorite flower,” she said.
That’s how my daughter often refers to the woman who never had the chance to become a grandmother to her. I understand this, because I referred to my mother’s mother this way. Like my daughter, I know my grandmother only through snippets of stories.
I am named for her, but not directly because she hated her name, and so Ella became Elisabeth.
Her favorite hymn was In the Garden.
She was “almost seventeen” when she got married.
She was living in a nursing home as a result of injuries from a car accident when she died the day before I was born.
On my windowsill there is a small plastic tray with a lid, a miniature greenhouse with plugs of dirt where we have planted seeds. When they have sprouted, and we are sure the spring weather is here to stay, we will transplant them into flower pots next to the front door. Each year when we go to the store to buy the seeds, I ask my daughter,
“Which plants shall we choose?”
“We have to have pansies,” she says.
For more than two years, I was the lead planner, along with SCBWI Switzerland Illustrator Coordinator, Monika Baum, and SCBWI BeNeLux Regional Advisor, Melanie Rook Welfing, for the 2019 SCBWI Europolitan conference. The conference is a joint initiative between four SCBWI European Regions (France, Germany/Austria, BeNeLux and Switzerland), and the location rotates between the regions, with the Regional Advisor for the host region serving as the lead conference planner. The inaugural conference was held in Paris in 2013, with the following conferences being hosted in Amsterdam (2015) and Brussels(2017). The 2019 conference was hosted at the wonderful Youth Hostel in Zürich (Wollishofen).
We hosted an outstanding faculty of publishing professionals from the US, UK and Swiss children's publishing markets, including editors, literary agents, authors and illustrators (you can check out the entire program here). We were particularly excited to feature participation by local publishing professionals including the Swiss children's book publisher NordSüd (NorthSouth Books/USA), and the world-renowned author/illustrator Marcus Pfister, best known for the internationally best-selling Rainbow Fish books.
If you'd like to read more about the conference, you can check out some of these blog posts by participating faculty, and SCBWI regions:
Author/Illustrator (and faculty member) Elizabeth Dulemba's blog posts with photos about the conference and the open house at NordSüd
SCBWI Switzerland conference round-up blog posts with lots of photos (Day 1, Day 2)
SCBWI German/Austria blogpost with photos
Photo above: The Zürich airport was in a New York state of mind as I was leaving for the 2019 SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City.
It's always rewarding to spend time learning about the craft of writing and the publishing industry at the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City,, but spending time with my fellow creators tops even that for me. This year I didn't leave on Sunday evening (the day the conference ended). Instead, I spent another day in the city exploring with one of my good friends (who is also an amazing writer and critique partner) who is a native New Yorker. Next time I go to the winter conference, I'm hoping to stay even longer and spend more time in one of my favorite cities.
Usually, when I post an update about an interview, it's because I have been the interviewer. I love asking people about their creative processes and their involvement in the world of writing and illustrating for young readers. But this time, the tables have been turned!
Colleen Jones, Regional Advisor for SCBWI Ireland (and my roommate and fellow volunteer at the SCBWI Booth in Bologna) interviewed me and two of the other volunteers about our experiences at the fair. The interview is up over at Cynsations. Hop on over to see photos from the fair and to hear our thoughts about working at, and visiting, the fair..
This was my second visit to the Bologna Children's Book Fair. It was wonderful to be back in Italy to help staff the SCBWI booth. We had a variety of activities at the booth, including a celebration of our Bologna Illustration Gallery winners, portfolio reviews, illustrator showcases, and six different iterations of the every-popular Dueling Illustrators.
This year we added a new twist: the manuscripts that were read out were the top 6 of those entered in the inaugeral SCBWI Dueling Illustrators Manuscript contest, which was judged by editor Emma Ledbetter. It's always a delight to see how two illustrators interpret the same text, and under time pressure! They have only two minutes to illustrate each passage of text that is read out.
Here are a few photos from the week (click on the photos to see bigger versions). It was a delight to speak with so many illustrators, writers, editors and publishers at the fair. I've come back inspired by the number of people who believe in creating and publishing stories for the children around the world.
How quickly the time flies! Seems like not long ago that I was visiting the beautiful Italian city of Bologna. I wasn't just there to drink coffee and eat gelato. Bologna hosts the world's only fair dedicted solely to publishing for the children's and young adult markets.
Every other year the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators has a booth at the fair to promote the work of their PAL members. Once again I'll be visiting the fair to help staff the booth, and to do some networking on behalf of our SCBWI Switzerland region with publishers who have a presence in the Swiss market.
So watch this space for news from the fair and photos from beautiful, historic Bologna!
Most of what I write is for younger readers, but every so often I like to write the occasional creative non-fiction or travel piece. I'm thrilled that my essay "Always Pansies" has been published in the May 2017 edition of Skirt Magazine. You can see it online here*. I hope you enjoy it!
* link removed as the essay is no longer available on the Skirt! website. I have reprinted the essay here on my website.
Winter has been putting up a concerted effort but today when I walked the dogs, there was a chorus of different birds singing, the crocus, snowdrops and primroses have been joined by the first tulips and daffodils, and the first robotic law mower has emerged from its winter hibernation.
Later this spring I'll be in Belgium for the third Europolitan conference - the joint conference hosted by five SCBWI regions that is held every other year in one of the five countries. Since I didn't get to the SCBWI New York conference this year, I'm looking forward to the Europolitan with even more anticipation.
I love the Europolitan - its small size creates a very different experience than attending conferences with 10 times more attendees. It's a lot of work to plan, but tremendously rewarding to see that planning come to fruition in a weekend of inspiration and focus on the crafts of writing and illustration.
In the run-up to the conference in May, Cynsations will feature a series of interviews related to the Europolitan. In the past I've been the interviewer, but this time, in a first for me, I was one of the interviewees! Ever wonder what my writing desk looks like? You can check it out along with all the behind-the-scenes information about the Europolitan over on Cynsations.
Is it spring yet? The calendar says we’re well on our way to summer but the weather has been actively disagreeing with that for weeks now.
Whatever the season, it has been busy!
In February I spent a week in New York City. First I met my best friend who traveled up from Texas to join me for some awesome sightseeing - we packed as many museum visits, Broadway shows and fabulous meals into our days as possible. Then she flew home and I switched hotels to attend the SCBWI Winter Conference. This was my third conference so when I enter the Hyatt it feels like my home-away-from-home, complete with my creative family.
This year, in addition to working behind the scenes and attending wonderful breakout sessions and keynote addresses, I had another commitment on my calendar: a planning session with SCBWI’s Team Bologna.
SCBWI has a booth at the Bologna Children's Book Fair in even years (the next time SCBWI will be there is 2018) and this year the booth was double in size from past years, complete with fabulous new banners that showcased not only the organization, but the artwork of some of our members, including the winners of the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery. (For many more pictures of the booth, including our duelling illustrator events, click here).
At the end of 2015 I decided to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair to experience for myself the world’s largest rights fair focused exclusively on books for children and young adults. I learned so much from attending and helping with the SCBWI booth. Patti Buff, Regional Advisor for SCBWI Germany-Austria, and I were joining the team for the first time and what a fun and rewarding experience that has been!
So what did I think of Bologna, both the city and the fair?
The gelato is amazing. The city is beautiful.
People tend to think about the Bologna book fair as an event primarily for artists, and there’s no question that the famous walls, covered with promotional postcards, as well as the portfolio review opportunities available at the booths of many publishers, are tremendous opportunities for artists. For writers, I think the value is in the programming. There are talks, panels, and discussions happening throughout the fair every day. My critique partner was visiting the fair with her artist partner, and she really enjoyed the programs that she visited.
While I didn’t visit any panels (but my critique partner is going to share her notes with me :-), on a few occasions I did walk around some of the buildings (I never did make it into all of them!) and I especially enjoyed networking with the publishers and agents based in Switzerland with the hope of bringing some of those professionals to future programs in our region.
I spent most of my time at the SCBWI booth, talking with booth visitors about SCBWI. Some of our visitors were already members and I know of at least two SCBWI members who visited the booth who have since been connected with critique opportunities with other members, thanks to their visits to the booth. Others were not familiar with SCBWI and we were able to tell them about how being a part of this professional organization could help them grow in their careers.
It was amazing to be at the booth as publishers stopped to talk to an artist or author and artist from SCBWI during their one hour personal showcases, and realize that deals were being made!
Publishers really do go to this fair looking for material that they can introduce into their market. Not everyone was able to travel to the fair to have a personal showcase, but many other authors and/or illustrators were part of the SCBWI showcase. It was a great feeling to gesture to the books on display and tell people that they represented just a fraction of SCBWI member books published in the last two years.
One day I was standing near the books and noticed two people very excitedly looking at a picture book. When I introduced myself and asked if they had any questions, one of them said “I am a translator. I am here on behalf of my friend who is a publisher, and I WANT THIS BOOK!” Each book in the showcase had a label on the back detailing the rights that were available, as well as contact information for those interested in the rights. I was able to direct her to another stand at the fair, with the names of the persons to ask for, so that she could talk to them about acquiring the rights for that book. As she walked away with one of our promotinal postcards that had information about and links to the online showcase where all the same rights information is listed for each book, I got a thrill from knowing that I might have just helped an SCBWI member’s book reach a wider audience.
And that’s what Bologna is all about.
My interview with the third judge of the SCBWI Bologna Illustration Gallery is up at Cynsations. I hope you'll take a few minutes to get to know Naomi Kojima. I love doing interviews because they give me the opportunity to get to know so many people I might not otherwise have talked with. Naomi is an author and illustrator of picture books as well as the Illustrator Coordinator for SCBWI's Japan chapter and it was a delight to interview her..
You can find all of my interviews at Cynsations here.