Saturday, 6 November 2010

Being quietly attentive – Dianne Hofmeyr

It was lovely to be back in New York after 15 years. I was visiting my editor (for the US editions of Eye of the Moon & Eye of the Sun which were complete rewrites). The city seemed gentler and Barnes and Noble seemed to have shrunk (maybe Waterstones has just grown bigger!) but B & N covered a huge range of picturebooks. So I would say the picturebook market is flourishing in the US. I hope it bodes well for co-productions with the UK

In the Scholastic Bookshop in SoHo (yes… a publisher with its OWN bookshop and huge at that!) I found some Jon Muth’s I’d been looking for. He’s known primarily for his giant panda character Stillwater, who won him the Caldecott Honour Book with a book called Zen Shorts. Jon Muth, from the website of the Allen Spiegel Fine Arts Agency has this to say…

‘My work in children's books really grew out of a desire to explore what I was feeling as a new father. At the time, I was working in comics -- a natural forum for expressions of angst and questioning one's place in the universe. With the births of my children, there was a kind of seismic shift in where my work seemed appropriate -- it became important to say other things about the world.’

Zen Shorts came from wondering, "What it would be like to live down the street from a Zen master... who happened to be a Giant Panda?" My stories often come from questions, "Why is this so?"... "If this, then why not that?"... and of course, "What if...?" Sometimes words come first and sometimes an image will prod a story out into the open.’

Stillwater, the giant panda, tells stories about peace and love and taking the moment as it comes and not letting insults get you down. He suggests that adversity turns around when you are quietly attentive and aware of your surroundings. Stillwater has dark panda eyes that show no expression. Yet they somehow do… as I page through the book I feel he is imbued with the presence I need.

I picked up Zen Ghosts too which at first appears to be a book based on Halloween. But Muth is full of surprises and he weaves into it a story that was recorded long ago by Buddhist monks about duality. He says he offers it to children because at a very young age children come to recognize that the ‘me’ they are with their friends, is different to the ‘me’ they are with their mother. It poses the question who are they when they are with both their friends and their mother? Do they act differently?

There is a wonderful stillness to Muth’s illustrations that almost begs you to slow down as you are looking at them. The quiet calmness of them manages to echo not just the story but the cadence of the story. There are no right or wrong answer to these ancient Chinese questionings. One of his books is called The Three Questions, is based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. Another, for younger readers, City Dog and Country Frog, depicts friendship and loss.
Perhaps why I’m writing about him so specifically is because I’m trying to be still and in the moment and accept that even though he was suggested as a possibility to do one of my stories, it all fell away through complications when an editor was made redundant. So I’m being quietly attentive of my surroundings.


Joan Lennon said...

The pictures are beautiful, and perhaps the moment when you work together just hasn't come yet.

Joan (trying to sound Zen-like and totally failing!)

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you for telling us about Jon J. Muth and these books, Dianne. Such beautiful pictures, though the thought of the book that never was must still cause you a pang.

Wishing you good thoughts in your stillness.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks Joan and Penny. I'm not too fussed about it. But his work is so lovely...thought the images worth sharing. We get so few US picturebooks over here.

michelle lovric said...

They are beautiful pictures and ideas. Thank you for sharing