July 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

Books as Muses

One of the more annoying trends in YA literature is that of the artsy-craftsy teenager -- those teens, male and female, who dream of becoming artists, writers, rock stars, fashion designers, etc., protagonists who look moody, dress in thrift shop duds, and are woefully misunderstood by every adult in their lives. I longed to be a writer most of my life and can certainly see myself in the bookish teens who keep journals and work on poems, but that is rarely where these characterizations end. Keeping a journal does not equal slavish devotion to obscure music, dressing like the Olsen twins and determination to emulate Arthur Rimbaud (or Kurt Cobain). Laura Lee Gulledge's graphic novel Page by Paige is smart, sensible and achingly real, a look at a girl finding her way in a new city while exploring her desire to be an artist. Light on drama, the novel focuses on friendship and the dedication it takes to create art. Paige's questions and concerns are universal and Gulledge takes her through the steps from fear to confidence with aplomb.

When the story opens, Paige and her family have newly moved to New York City, cutting her off from old friends and awakening all sorts of insecurities. On the advice of her artist grandmother, Paige purchases a sketchbook and as she battles with her mother through a series of misunderstandings and adjusts to life as the new kid in school, Paige fills her pages with all her worries. The text is peppered with questions and challenges as she sets forth in her pursuit of being the most honest Paige she can be. These challenges range from bluntly taking chances to facing her fears, which includes dumping her "Jane Eyre Complex," as defined by Gulledge "when a plain ordinary girl hopes someone will notice her awesomeness and pluck her from obscurity." I love this term and definition so much I want to make a poster of it.

Ultimately, of course, Paige works it all out, making some good friends and becoming comfortable in her own skin. The journey really is the destination here and Gulledge does such an excellent job at pulling the reader into Paige's experience that she manages to make her story personal; it will likely resonate a great deal with teens who have found themselves on a similar personal quest. Finally, I can't say enough good things about the artwork. In a realistic style, Gulledge captures the characters with absolutely dead-on facial expressions and is particularly good at Paige's changing looks as she imagines herself in a variety of fanciful situations. There is almost a collage feeling to the artwork here, in the variety of ways Paige views the world and finds her answers. Far more philosophical than you have a right to expect, Gulledge is the real deal for all the teens who will embrace this book; I hope she's in YA to stay.

One thing I enjoy about personal blogs is getting a glimpse at how other writers live and work. (Terri Windling's excellent "On Your Desk" series is my current favorite example of this.) Chronicle Books has two new books out that tackle living the creative life in different ways and should both be extremely appealing to teens, regardless of their creative inclination. Lotta Jansdotter's Open Studios with Lotta Jansdotter peeks inside the workspaces of twenty-four artists in three locations: Stockholm, Tokyo, and Brooklyn. The artistic endeavors, which vary from textiles to jewelry to illustration and graphic design, aren't the point so much as where that work happens. In eight-page spreads the author conducts informative interviews and photographer Jenny Hallengren shows off the subjects' workspaces as well as some of their creations. The variety of spaces -- from country cozy to industrial chic -- is as different as the people and the work they do, but all of it makes for fascinating browsing. Even if you don't design women's clothing you can appreciate how the work is done and the space is organized, which is by far the biggest payoff here. Jansdotter is clearly intrigued by how people do what they do and her enthusiasm is infectious. Mostly though, Open Spaces just made me want to redo my office into something more user friendly and cool. For teens, this title will reassure them that the creative life is truly as professional as any other, regardless of what some adults may tell them. The fact that it's such excellent eye candy is just an added bonus.

Ivan Vartanian's ArtWork: Seeing Inside the Creative Process takes a look at everything from author Will Self's Post-it covered office walls to artist Tadanori Yokoo's gorgeous diary pages to Joan Fontcuberta's stunning artwork, workbooks and sources of inspiration in a title that shows just how varied the creative life can be. Accompanying the full color photographs are essays and interviews with the artists, providing readers with a more intimate glimpse inside creative processes. But it's the eclectic collection of subjects here that is really impressive -- there is someone for everyone and something different to take from each profile. Film director Wes Anderson's tightly written notebooks, graffiti artist Blek Le Rat's early stencils and sketches, and couture designer Yohji Yamamoto's dress designs reveal a tiny part of the creative process and how long and complicated and downright messy that process generally is. (Will Self's office is really a mindblower in that regard.) ArtWork is a book to make you think about your own process and can serve as a valuable resource when fear holds you back. When you get a look at what Dave and Mike Starn have built out of bamboo (and how on earth they accomplished it) then you truly will believe anything is possible. Taking chances are just all in a day's work for these folks, which, for an artist, is most certainly the right (and perhaps only) way to live.

In a more conventional design, Marthe Jocelyn has put together a solid collection of short biographies of female writers that will appeal to aspiring authors in "Scribbling Women": True Tales from Astonishing Lives. While some of the names may be familiar such as Nellie Bly and Mary Kingsley, the list is filled with women who did unbelievable things and wrote about them but have not gotten the sort of attention they deserve. From Margaret Catchpole, who was convicted and sent to a prison colony in Australia in the early nineteenth century, to Ada Blackjack, the sole survivor (along with her cat) of a failed "friendly" Arctic experiment in 1921, these are not lives commonly lived. Jocelyn shows a different side of the first domestic goddess Isabella Beeton and child author Daisy Ashford's success to remind one that not only stories of extreme circumstances are timeless.

There is nothing sensational about "Scribbling Women" unless you consider that it includes not only a North Vietnamese nurse killed by American soldiers, but an American legend in Bly and the mysterious Japanese author of The Pillow Book. The mix is quite startling but it shows that women who write, who feel compelled to record what they know and how they feel, have more in common then you might think. Across geographical, political and ethnic divides they are all, at heart, very much the same. Reading "Scribbling Women," I couldn't help thinking what a fascinating group of dinner companions these women would make, asking questions about themselves and the world, and endlessly willing to share what they learned. Do you have to ask why I think this is the best sort of book for any girl who wants to be a writer, or any grown up female author who wants to know the great company she is now part of?

Finally, if you really want to be inspired, look no further than Julian Spalding's The Best Art You've Never Seen. This wonderfully designed Rough Guide with glossy full color pages focuses on "101 Hidden Treasures from Around the World." Arranged in a series of chapter categories such as "Hidden by Hate," "Hidden by Collecting," and "Hidden by Place," the format showcases the artwork with a discussion of its relevance, the artist, or any mystery surrounding its creation on the other. The sheer breadth of what Spalding has discovered makes for hours of perusing (this a great small coffee table book) and while some predictable subjects are here, like Chauvet Cave in France, there is so much more than you can possibly imagine. My copy is covered in Post-it notes; I started flagging pieces I thought I would mention in this review and then found myself overwhelmed by the sheer number of treasures I wanted to learn more about, from "Triumph of Death," a fresco in Sicily that would have made a fantastic album cover for Iron Maiden to the sublime simplicity of "Tomb of the Diver," another fresco in Italy that is the sort of peaceful depiction of quiet power that I think captures Zen better than anything I've seen in ages. (If you're writing a book on that subject you need to check it out.)

You can read about the "Golden Bronzes of Pergola" discovered by two farmers digging a ditch in 1946 or Victor Hugo's "My Destiny," which reveals a lot about the author's emotional center or "Fragment of a Royal Woman's Face," a sculpture by an unknown artist, which is possibly "the greatest carving ever made of a woman's lips." It's also on the book's cover and I have to say it proves why Botox should never have been considered a beauty product. John Singer Sargent's Gassed is an oil painting of World War I that is both peaceful and gut-wrenching; a true departure from most of his works, and Norman Rockwell's "New Kids in the Neighborhood" is a complete surprise, not because of the subject matter but what it reveals about Rockwell and the end of his relationship with The Saturday Evening Post.

These are just a few of the pages that caught my eye but the book is full of so many more. The size and design keep it from being intimidating but the information is first rate. The Best Art You've Never Seen is the sort of book to give to a young artist who is thinking about taking on the world. It's a stirring example of how powerful art can be, even centuries after the artist is gone.

COOL READ: Teen artists should be perusing picture books on a regular basis for ideas and inspiration, and one of the most innovative I've seen in ages is The Tree House by father/daughter team Marije and Ronald Tolman. From the opening sweeping two-page spread picture of a polar bear swimming to a tree rising out of the ocean with a multilevel tree house placed in its branches, the wordless book is simple and gorgeous. The Tolmans add washes of color as more animals arrive including a brown bear, flamingos, rhinos, pandas, and peacocks. It's a happy group that parks itself in the tree to join the party hosted by the two bears who are depicted reading books, eating sandwiches, and drinking glasses of milk. In the end, seasons come and go, and the bears continue their idyllic life in the house, catching some snowflakes and watching the moon. This is a peaceful book, one that relies upon the imagination of the reader to embrace the playful world the Tolmans have created, and it succeeds on every level. The illustrations are beautiful, and while dynamic, they remain understated -- no Technicolor jumping off the pages from this duo. But it's the story the pictures tell that really makes The Tree House so effective. The animals are lovingly depicted (many with smiles on their faces), and while the notion of a polar bear reading in a tree house in the sea is obviously fantastic, there is a hint of realism to the world they inhabit. It's just a delightful title to lose yourself in, something worth sharing and studying and emulating in your own work. Marije and Ronald Tolman are geniuses; don't ignore the lessons their book can teach you.

Colleen Mondor can be found writing about literary topics of all kinds at chasingray.com.