Category Archives: MOJO
The Room of Wonders by Sergio Ruzzier
Pius Pelosi. That’s him on the cover. He’s a collector. Being a collector is his gift. He collects things that inspire him, even if they’re otherwise ordinary things. In fact, his collection is his life’s work. A work of art.
Pius has a room of wonders.
“Pius’s entire collection was exhibited here. There was a baby’s shoe, a dried leaf that looked like a dog, a toy soldier who had lost his gun, a glass eye, a button, and thousands of other treasures.”
But the object most special to Pius is the one visitors find to be the most simple, the most boring. It’s a gray pebble. Eventually, Pius listens to what the others say about it. He throws his prized pebble in the river.
Pius feels lost. He empties his room of wonders. Nothing makes sense without that pebble.
Sergio Ruzzier is an artist. He was a Sendak fellow too. When he was a child, he’d pick up pebbles and rocks to keep in his pocket. His early creative influences are apparent in his work. As a kid, he read comics by Charles Schulz, E.C. Segar, George Herriman, and others.
“I knew I would have liked to be like them. At the same time, I was starting to appreciate medieval and early renaissance art, which I would see in museums and old churches. The two things combined made me dream that I could one day create my own pictorial universe. Once I found the materials that were right for me, pen and ink and watercolors, I began to build it.”
This book feels so much to me like creative process. You start with this core thing that inspires you. You build up a collection or somehow expand it. Maybe people tell you stuff that doesn’t resonate with you, but you listen. Or you get lost all on your own, which is pretty easy too. Through comparison, through doubt, discouragement. Or maybe you just get plain old stuck. You let go of your pebble. You feel directionless and empty. You must find your pebble again! That thing that got you started in the first place.
images: Sergio Ruzzier
Sergio Ruzzier no longer has pebbles in his pockets, but he does have strategies for when a project isn’t flowing:
“Sometimes, if I’m really stuck, one thing I do is take walks, to try and clear my mind up. That can help. I also like to use tools that are beautiful, at least to me. My old glass pens and inkwell stand are very comforting, for instance.”
A lot of life takes creativity, and not just the creative fields. Parenting, jobs, teaching, solving problems, etc. We can lose our way with any endeavor. It’s helpful to have a so-called pebble of our own to remind us why we got on the path in the first place. To put us back on it.
I, too, take walks when stuck. There are a couple of picture books that I definitely think of as pebbles. And, then there’s one of my favorite creative memoirs: Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up. Me and a million other people are big fans of his. (But to prove my devotion, I’ve gone to see him play banjo, and he’s amazing.)
“I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years. Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success.”
Thinking of this book helps me stay on my own creative path. It details his journey, which was made up of development, practice, and honing his craft. He started his career at 15 at Disneyland and went on to Knott’s Berry Farm and then lots of unpaid gigs at lots of clubs. Surely, he must’ve had a pebble in order to persevere. It’s pure speculation of course, but perhaps it was his arrow through the head he became famous for. Or his banjo, which he used in his act and still plays today. Or maybe it was something we could never guess. Maybe even a tiny gray pebble in his pocket.
The Room of Wonders is sadly out of print. So if you can’t get your hands on it, I recommend Amandina also by Sergio Ruzzier. It’s captivating. Plus, he’s got a brand new book out too: Bear and Bee!! I agree with the reviews!
Okay, guys, what’s YOUR pebble? A book, an object, a memory, a ritual, a piece of music you revisit? Do share!
You can view this one through the lens of the real life Virginia Woolf (two o’s) and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. Or you can view it completely on its own.
Sometimes the doldrums can leave you feeling downright wolfish. You might hide. And growl. And be generally precarious to be around. That’s what happened to Virginia. Her sister, Vanessa, tried to help. But nothing could get Virginia to come out of bed.
Virginia’s silhouette is simply genius. Her shadow looks just like a wolf. Until the spell of her wolfish mood breaks and she’s a little girl again. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.
images from Isabelle Arsenault’s website, with permission
Vanessa paints a mural on the wall of Virginia’s bedroom containing all the perfect things Virginia wishes were real. A destination she’d fly to, if she could fly. It’s luscious and colorful, full of whimsy and bloom.
images courtesy of Kids Can Press
That’s how things go from gray-blue to yellow, sunk to lifted, upside down to rightside up again. Vanessa transports her sister through her mural and the whole house goes from gloom to glad. Whew.
Here’s a roundup of ways to transform your walls to transport yourself should you find yourself in a wolfish mood or any mood at all.
GO TO OUTER SPACE (by Colorful Childhood).
TO A WORLD OF SUNSHINEY POLKA DOTS (by Sunshine Decals).
Or, my personal favorite, HELLO KITTY LAND (by Fathead).
Finally, take a wall from ho hum to a lovely lush LIVING one with Woolly Pockets. You might just think you’re in a garden, a forest, or a jungle when actually inside.
It’s hard to quantify how inspiring this one has been for me. It belongs to a small category of very special picture books, ones that are deep and strange and sad but always end with hope.
Leave it to Shaun Tan to pull all that off.
THE RED TREE BY SHAUN TAN
The first page reads: “Sometimes the day begins with nothing to look forward to.” We see a girl, in a room. The colors are muted and she looks sort of doomed. She doesn’t even have lips drawn in, her expression is so despairing. In the following pages things get worse, dark, confusing. Troubles and waiting and terrible fates.
There are natural and mechanical phenomena throughout the evocative illustrations that are baffling or harsh or ominously gloomy. And anyone who’s experienced depression will recognize the feelings the images capture.
But if you’re really good at noticing, as children usually are, you’ll see one red leaf somewhere on each spread —a little hint of the title’s red tree to come. Tiny bits of hope during the most lost and dark times. When the illuminated red tree does appear at the end, we finally see the girl’s mouth drawn in. It’s just one line and it’s turned up in a smile.
While there are not necessarily easy answers to the doldrums, the girl in the story is patient. And she notices that red sapling when it arrives. Or maybe she even imagines or conjures it into being.
My husband told me about a science project he did in elementary school in which kids chose a patch of dirt and took note of everything they observed. Did you ever do that one? At first glance, it was just dirt with some grass. But the longer students looked, the more they saw: bugs and worms and details. I love this idea of quietly noticing and how our noticing expands the more we pay attention. I think it helps. Makes us more mindful. Even calms us down.
So of course I had to do my own little patch of dirt census.
Here’s what I noticed:
- grass, different kinds
- spiny, round seed pods
- dried, crumply orange leaves
- a puddle of water from the sprinkler
- little flying bugs
- rocks and shards
- tiny hairs on stalks
- exposed red roots
- sounds of birds
- yellow and black butterflies
Here are two other kid-friendly projects you could do this summer (or anytime!) that may take you and yours to new heights of noticing. They’re also citizen science to help do some good.
Behold the Great Sunflower Project. You pick a sunflower (or any plant) you know. Record your time and place and count the number of pollinators who visit the flowers. Then enter your data at the project’s website. It’s that simple! And the results help scientists figure out what’s going on with the decline of bee populations. Those buggers are the ones responsible for pollinating a whole lot of food we eat. Summer peaches and watermelons? Check and check!
Similarly, through Project Budburst you pick a plant and take a good, long look. Then you report your observations. You can do it one time this month or several times over the course of a year. This data tells the team behind the project what’s going on with plant populations as seasons and climates change.
Lucky for me, California Poppies are one of the 10 most wanted plants and there’s this patch of them growing next to a sidewalk I stroll most days. I’m going to have to stop and take note!
I leave you with this quote from Shaun Tan about The Red Tree (from Lost and Found, afterword):
“…important things in life are not always immediately visible, and can’t always be named, or even fully understood. Others still are entirely imaginary—like a red tree growing suddenly in a room—although this does not make them any less real.”
One of my strategies for dealing with the doldrums is to read a stack of picture books from the library. Of course, right? But it’s true. And it usually works.
Picture books that explore darker subjects are some of my very favorite ones. I’ve got three examples that give insight into the doldrums and how to beat them. Or at least work with them a little. Here’s the first and stay tuned for the other two.
MRS. BIDDLEBOX BY LINDA SMITH, ILLUSTRATED BY MARLA FRAZEE
Mrs. Biddlebox is quite a character. And she has a very bad case of the doldrums. Everything about her day contributes to her bad mood, from annoying birds to bitter tea. But in the course of this enchanting, good-humored book, she gathers and twirls the ingredients that are giving her the grumblies. With the help of her goose companion, she works with the stuff of that bad day as though it were dough.
When she’s finally done in the kitchen, she eats her freshly baked CAKE. The magic of baking allows Mrs. Biddlebox to transform that “dreary little funk” into something far far sweeter in this amazingly charming picture book.
(Marla Frazee’s interview at Cynsations about her process and the author who passed away before it was illustrated is definitely worth a read too.)
illustration images: courtesy of Marla Frazee
Miss Cakehead in the UK has a related project in the oven. The Depressed Cake Shop pop ups will sell gray treats only. That’s right, gray cakes. It’s a depressed cake shop, after all. The beauty of it is the treats may be made by someone who has personal experience with depression. The proceeds will help fund a mental health charity, ideally even go toward baking therapy sessions to help ease those still suffering.
cake credit: All Mine Patisserie
Those gray cakes might contain a kick of color inside! They’re edible metaphors. A dark, sad surface, but inside, something full of joy and pizazz. Just waiting to be discovered.
cake credit: Two Little Cats
cake credit: Miss Insomnia Tulip
Aren’t they gorgeous?
What is it about baking that helps beat the doldrums? Creating something? Working with your hands? The process? The senses involved? The comfort of the finished product? Getting to share it? Focusing on each step by step by step?
So many people bake to soothe grief, loss, doubt, feeling stuck, or being at their wit’s end. They bake to beat the doldrums, like Mrs. Biddlebox. Do you?
Just looking at those cake creations makes me feel better already.
Here’s some final inspiration from INKY CO on etsy. Printable posters of the baking variety: