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Essays:


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THE TREE IN ME

Dear Reader,

For many years I’ve wanted to write a book about the ways in which we are all connected. 

This desire has its roots in a book I read in 9th grade, PEACE IS EVERY STEP, by Thich Nhat Hanh.  In the book he talks about learning to look closely at things in the world around us—things like an orange, or a table.  And he guides the reader through a kind of deep looking that starts with the table, which is made of wood and nails.  But once you start looking, you see that the table also wouldn’t exist without the hands of the carpenter that built it.  And so the table is part carpenter, part wood, part nail.  Then, if you look even deeper, you can see that the table is also made up of the wind, rain and sun that fed the tree.  And also the factory, the workers, the miners who contributed to building the nails and tools that it took to build the table.  And if you look even more deeply, you will see the mother and father of the carpenter. You will see the farmer who grew the food that fed the carpenter.  You will see the carpenter’s teachers and friends and grandparents, and the grandparents of all of the people who influenced and supported the life of that carpenter.  All of these elements, all of this life was necessary to make a simple table.  In this way, when you look deeply enough, you can see clearly that the entire world is connected.

As a young person, this story, this practice of looking deeply, changed the way I saw the world.  And I’ve carried it with me ever since.  Now that I am an author and illustrator of books for young people, I think about this perspective shift, and try to zoom out in one way or another with every book that I make.  Whether writing about mistakes or difficult emotions, I see connections.  And where I see connections, I also see love. 

These days when I think about the big picture, I also think about the kinds of books that I’d like to make.  And I’ve always thought that someday I’d like to make a book about this practice of looking deeply. This is a big idea, but also a small idea.  It is an idea that starts with small connections, and it is something that I believe children understand. 

But it’s one thing to think you’d like to write about a topic, and another to find the idea, story or poem that can support it without feeling didactic. And so, for more than twenty years this idea has been on the back burner. Over the years, I’ve tried a number of different approaches, but nothing felt like it could carry this message while still honoring the intelligence and spirit of the reader.

And then one day I was thinking about trees.  And I jotted down some notes in my pocket notebook… “What is a tree?  a tree… is water & wind & dirt & sun…a tree is a seed…a seed is a tree... a tree, is you and me…we is tree.  Tree is we.” The word-play goes on for seven tiny pocket notebook pages.  I am circling an idea. And then, at the bottom of the last page I wrote, “The Tree in Me.”  And I put a box around it.

Once I wrote that sentence, I knew I was onto something that had a life of its own.  After that box I wrote “the tree in me is part sky, part sun, part earth-air-wind…it is shovel & time…& seed.” And it was in these lines, that another seed existed. The seed of my next book.

The poem took many turns from there, but with time it became the text for THE TREE IN ME. And isn’t this how it is with most seeds?  You plant them, tend them, and then wait. For certain seeds, it can be years before the conditions are right- the right amount of sun and rain, the right nutrients in the soil, the right environment for a seed to be able to grow up and out, so that one day it may release seeds of its own.

I believe it also works this way with seeds of kindness, compassion, and peace— seeds that will always need to be tended and nurtured in the world.  And I believe that our children are capable of understanding this, and of becoming caretakers, water-ers of these seeds.  One of the first steps to becoming this kind of care-taker, is learning to look deeply at the world, learning to see the web of connections that exist between every single one of us. 

I also believe there’s a great deal we can do— as parents, teachers, guardians, friends—to help water these seeds in our children.  And I believe it is our responsibility to do all that we can to help the next generation see these connections, to see all the ways in which we are connected to the people and places that we might see as “other”.

When I started to approach the art for THE TREE IN ME, I knew I wanted to make something joyful and light. I didn’t want it to feel like a heavy message kind of book, even though, or perhaps precisely because this message is so important to me.  I knew I wanted this book to feel like a celebration— of our world, of life, of each other.

This book was a joy to write and a joy to illustrate.  I hope it might, in some small way, bring a little joy to you as well.

Corinna Luyken, January 2021

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NOTHING IN COMMON

Dear Reader,

 

When I think about my most recent picture book collaboration, NOTHING IN COMMON, written by Kate Hoefler, and when I am asked to describe the book, I have found myself rambling on a bit.  Not entirely sure how to describe it.  Certainly, it’s a book about two kids, an old man, and a dog.  There’s also a hot air balloon, and a hint of magic.  But ultimately, when I think about the book, I think about a question: What does it mean to not have something in common with another person?

Structurally, this is a story about two kids, introverts perhaps, who go out looking for something that has been lost.  But also, this is also a story about two kids who are very good at something. They are good at noticing.  Noticing other people.  Noticing strangers.  Noticing the world around them.  And as the story unfolds, it turns out they are both very good at something else— caring.  Caring about other people. Caring about strangers, and in this way, caring about the world around them.

Ultimately, this is a story about commonality and about finding connection— in unexpected ways.  It is about our assumptions about other people, but also, our assumptions about ourselves—and how they can be wrong.

To me, this is also a book about how, sometimes a lasting connection with another human being can sneak up on you.  It can happen quietly, slowly.  And when it happens, in many ways, in can be NOT about you, NOT about what you are like or what you do like or even what you dislike.  We have this misperception, sometimes, that commonality is about liking the same things or being interested in the same activities.  That this gives you something “in common.”  But more often, I think, caring is the true common ground.  And caring can connect us in surprising ways.

In this book, caring about someone else’s suffering (that of an old man and his dog) is enough to unite two children who seem, at first glance, to have nothing that connects them.

As I pay attention to the world around me these days, I am struck by how Kate has written such a timely story. In a country where we find ourselves more and more deeply divided, focusing on what we don’t have in common with the people around us, the people we share our country and our planet with; the people whose children will inherit this country and this planet just as ours will… I wonder. 

I wonder about our belief systems.  I wonder about the future our children are inheriting.  I wonder about how we are, collectively, with everything we do and say and don’t say, handing a worldview down to our children.  My hope, and I think Kate’s hope, is that this book is a doorway into the kinds of conversations that we need to be having with our children— as parents, as teachers, as librarians, as friends— if we want to create a better, more connected, common future for us all.

Corinna Luyken, November 2020

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MY HEART

Dear Reader,

The first time I saw a collection that took my breath away, it was on a small island in the San Juans, on the mantel of a fireplace at a friend’s mom’s house.  It was an assortment of rocks that had been gathered and gifted over many years.  There were different sizes, colors, and textures with one thing in common: they were all hearts made of stone.

I was enchanted by the collection, and the idea that it had grown slowly over time.  Each heart shaped rock held a specific memory of place, friendship, love, but also— of something bigger than itself.  Each rock pointed to the existence of a larger community, a community of notice-ers. A community of people walking around in the world, paying attention.  There was something about this collection of stones gathered by many people over time that made me feel hopeful and a little less alone.

But it wasn’t until almost a decade later, when my husband and I moved from the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains back to the WA coast, that I started my own collection. It began to grow quickly once I became pregnant with my daughter (and could no longer surf), and then, when my daughter was old enough to join me in the walking and looking it really took off.

Fast forward quite a few years (seven near the ocean, and five more near the Salish Sea) and our collection has grown immense.  It includes a few shells, driftwood, gravel, even one or two dried leaves; but mostly, it is stone.  Stones of various sizes, colors, textures, with one thing in common: their shape. 

While this collection grew, a story was also growing in the back of my mind.  The story started as a poem that I wrote many years ago, put away, rediscovered, put away, and then rediscovered again. It was odd, the way I kept coming back to this poem over the years.  For one thing, it rhymed.  And though I love rhythm and repetition, though sound is often my way IN to a poem or a story, I rarely write in rhyme.  Also, this poem was sweet. This poem was something that the serious writer in me would (seriously) be worried about sharing with other serious writers— for fear of it being dismissed as overly sentimental.  But this poem, which began “my heart is a window/ my heart is a slide/ my heart can be closed, or/ opened up wide…” refused to let go. 

Somewhere along the way, amidst revisions to the poem and a growing pile of heart shaped rocks in our living room, it occurred to me that this poem might want images. And so I started paying closer attention. It started with noticing heart shaped leaves on a houseplant by the window, then on a vine along a neighbor’s fence.  I was still looking for stones whenever we went to the beach, but I was also finding heart shaped chunks of gravel in a driveway on the walk home from my daughter’s school (four in one driveway over the course of three days!)   

Soon I was noticing hearts everywhere: in a rotten lemon; in a piece of torn paper on my studio floor; even on the sidewalk where one day— there was bird poop, in the shape of a heart. 

The thing about hearts—whether in stones on the beach, clouds, fences, puddles, leaves—is that they are like small everyday kindnesses: once you start looking, they are everywhere.  Like love. And the more you look, the more you see.

Until, some days, you see it everywhere.

And so this search occupied my mind and heart for the 5 plus years of writing and illustrating MY HEART.  Only now that the book is out in the world, in the hands of readers, there is a new layer. Now, when I visit bookstores, libraries, and schools to talk about the book, there is always at least one person—a student, a parent, a teacher—who waits around afterward to tell me about their own collection of heart stones.

Because of this, I see the rocks scattered throughout my studio in a new light. Somehow, this thing that I did mostly in solitude (writing, illustrating, noticing) has connected me to a larger community.  A community of notice-ers. A community of people walking through their days looking for small signs of love in this world that we share.

Corinna Luyken, 2019

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THE BOOK OF MISTAKES

Dear Reader,

I never planned on moving so much. For almost twenty years, my husband (and eventually our daughter) and I have been moving every few years.  To a new house, a new county, a new town.  All the while trying to figure out which, of all these places, to call home.  We weren’t locals anywhere, not really.  And often, just as we started to make friends, to really put down roots, we were up and moving.  Again.

There is a certain kind of beauty to be found in moving so much— each place you live becomes a part of you.  And so my home now is wider and more varied than I could have imagined twenty years ago.  In retrospect, there has also been continuity—as every place I’ve lived (from the Willamette Valley to the San Juan Islands; from the Olympic Peninsula to the Methow Valley; from Grays Harbor and the Washington coast, to the lower Skagit Valley; and finally to the base of the Puget Sound)— has been in the Pacific Northwest.

**

My very first job was working on a trail crew that travelled throughout Oregon and Washington. We built and fixed trails, mended fences, and planted trees.  It was then that I learned to love the staggering beauty, the wildness, and the incredible variety of the Pacific Northwest.  I dug trails in the thick grey dust of Mount St Helens’ flank; I planted trees in blazing hot clear-cuts in central Oregon; and I built fences to protect riparian areas along the Oregon coast. It was some of the hardest, most physically and mentally challenging work I’ve done.  But as the season passed I grew stronger. And by the end of the summer, many things that had seemed physically impossible were possible, even easy, to do.

And so I began to see how the limits we place on ourselves are not always true.  That job changed the way I saw myself, and my place in the world.  I was stronger than I thought.  More resilient.  And more importantly, I learned that I could grow and change.  And that changed the way I saw the world.  

Which has been a good thing, because when I draw— I make mistakes.  Often they are small. But even the smallest mistakes require an adjustment. First, in my head, then on paper. 

Recently, I was making an ink drawing of a lady.  She had thick, dark, arching eyebrows.  I thought the ink was dry— but it wasn’t.  And when I went to add more detail to the drawing, my hand rubbed over her face, making an enormous streak across her forehead.  My first thought was “oh no!” but my second thought was “hmm,” and my third thought was “what can I do with this?” And so I turned that streak and those dark, arching eyebrows into dark, arching glasses.

A large part of creative work is this—retraining yourself, changing the way you think, and in turn, the way you see. This is something I do constantly when I draw.  And when I work with kids (as well as adults) this is something I try to share.  

**

My second job was in a bookstore— where I learned to love and appreciate a different kind of beauty.  At Grass Roots Books, in Corvallis, OR, I discovered the poetry of William Stafford, who wrote about the very mountains, rocks, rivers and birds that I had experienced on Trail Crew the summer before.  From Stafford I discovered Naomi Shihab Nye, Adrian Rich, Basho, Issa, and so many more. I fell deeply in love with poetry.  And then, one day, my manager handed me a copy of George Saunders’ and Lane Smith’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip.  She told me I would love it, and she was right.  That book was staggering and beautiful in an entirely different way.  That book made me want to write and illustrate books for children, and their grownups.

Many years later, when I was writing The Book of Mistakes, I lived in La Conner, WA; a small fishing town on and around a small outcropping of rock. It sits beside a tidal slough, surrounded by tulip and potato fields.  All around the town are mounded hills, which- if you squint your eyes and look at them from a distance, could almost be heads coming up out of the ground.  La Conner also has a skate park, near the elementary school, and beside it… an enormous, gorgeous, tree. 

I didn’t necessarily see the connection then, but I wonder now how The Book of Mistakes was influenced by that place. There is a girl’s head near the end of the story that shares La Conner’s silhouette. And there is a tree featured in the book that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one near the skate park. Could I have written The Book of Mistakes, or would it look anything like it does now, if I hadn’t lived in that small town?  In fact, how much do I owe to Corvallis, Twisp, Port Townsend, Lopez, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Westport, (and now, Olympia)? Each of these towns has shaped who I am and how I see the world.

So, in many ways, The Book of Mistakes was born here in the Northwest— in the mountains and in a bookstore, almost twenty years ago.

All of which makes this award, from the PNBA, feel very much like coming home.

Corinna Luyken, 2018

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THE BOOK OF MISTAKES Q&A 

1. What was your inspiration for The Book of Mistakes

 

It started with a series of mistakes. 

For years I drew with pens because I liked the fluid feel of ink on paper. I liked how, with pen, a line can take on a life of its own. But often that life would lead to shapes and marks I hadn’t intended and couldn’t erase. Because I loved to draw—and loved to draw with ink—I learned to deal with those accidents. If I messed up something in a face, I’d add glasses. If I didn’t like the way I’d drawn a hand, I might add gloves. And somewhere along the way I learned to enjoy how each mistake forced me to find a new way of looking at the world. And I began to wonder if celebrating mistakes was something that could be taught. 

In my years working as both a teaching assistant and artist in residence in elementary schools, I started to notice a pattern. In every class there would be one or two kids who, within minutes of starting to draw, were raising their hand asking for another piece of paper. They didn’t like what they were seeing. They wanted to start over. They wanted to make it perfect. It became my job to help them see the possibility in that mistake, to see how they could keep going and transform their drawing or painting into something that they still might love. 

This all came home for me when my daughter was four years old. At that age she loved everything she drew. She didn’t see mistakes, only pattern and line and color and texture. And she LOVED to draw. Then one day, while drawing, she burst into tears and threw her paper on the ground. She had made a mistake. She couldn’t fix it. And it broke my heart. Not yet, I remember thinking. Not her. Not already. Not now. 

So I wrote this book. For her. For them. For me. For anyone who has ever made a mistake. 


2. Which artistic materials do you most like to use? 

 

I’ve always loved to draw with ink and watercolor. But through the process of working on The Book of Mistakes I’ve fallen in love with pencil as well—especially the smudges and streaks that are left behind when you erase or draw over pencil with ink. While I’ll sometimes use a lighter pencil to sketch out a face, I like dark pencils that are hard to erase (from 5B to 8B) for the rest of the body. That way, I never completely get rid of the history. The energy of those first marks and thoughts will always be visible in the background. I love that. 


3. What do you hope readers will take away from The Book of Mistakes

 

I believe the best books leave room for each reader to have their own experience. I really don’t want to tell anyone what that should be. That said, for me, this book is about perception. And possibility. 

And maybe some questions—How do you see yourself? How do you see the world? What do you see when you look at other people— do you see their imperfections, their mistakes? Do you see their possibility? Can you see both, simultaneously? 

And behind those questions, other questions— How do we change how we see? How do we move from the mistake into a place where transformation can happen? How do we learn to see potential? How do we access a vision for what could come next? 

And finally— can that change in perception be taught? I think that is a very interesting question! 


4. Have you ever made a mistake that turned out to be good thing? 

 

Almost every time I draw, I make a mistake. Often the mistakes are small, but even then they require an adjustment. First, in my head, then on paper. 

Recently, I was making an ink drawing of a lady. She had beautiful, dark, arching eyebrows. I thought the ink was dry— but it wasn’t. And when I went to add detail to the drawing, my hand rubbed over her face and made an enormous streak across her forehead. So I turned her beautiful, dark, arching eyebrows into beautiful, dark, arching glasses. 

This is something I’m doing constantly when I draw. When I’m working with kids and they get upset over a mistake I always tell them to turn it into a bush. You can turn almost anything into a bush. Or a tree! 


5. What first made you excited about art? 

 

I’ve always loved to watch the emergence of something from nothing. To explore the shape of what is possible, but still unknown. It’s a dance. And it’s endlessly fascinating to me. Also, I love color. Mixing color, for me, is pure play.