Monthly Archives: March 2016

Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising

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My interest to date in samurai has been close to zero, my tolerance for violence and gore minimal (Game of Thrones had me running in the opposite direction), and being a pacifist I usually find books with endless descriptions of battles and war plans tedious. Yet all of this went out the window when I started Pamela S. Turner’s Samurai Rising. Immediately I was besotted, eager to return to it when I was forced to put it down to do other things,  fascinated by the topic, taken by the exciting storytelling, appreciative of Turner’s way of addressing the issues of research; all in all it was a riveting read.

The very real story of a famous Japanese samurai,Yoshitsune, Samurai Rising is also Turner’s journey as she sifts through all the stories to see what is true and what is not; it is the story of pride and vengeance, of politics; it is one view of Japan in the late twelfth century. Turner does a remarkable job making a complicated story accessible to young readers (not to mention much older ones like myself). Aware of just what will be confusing, she works to help distinguish similar-sounding names, provides the bricolage of setting, elegantly slipping in “surely” and “probably” when necessary to both show there is no way to know for sure and to still provide the story of small tidbits of information to help the reader imagine what things actually looked like and felt like.

One of the many things I liked about the book was Turner’s way of slipping in wry and pithy comments here and there to clarify.  Say on Page 19 when after a paragraph culminating in a quote describing the military brilliance of Yoshitsune’s great-grandfather, she had a short one sentence paragraph: “No pressure, Yoshitsune.” Or how about on Page 127 when she writes, “You know strife has gone on too long when even the samurai are sick of violence.”

The end notes are fascinating as Turner uses them to not only indicate her sources, but to add in more information that she couldn’t squeeze into the main narrative. There’s a lengthy bibliography and even more information on Turner’s website, including some very interesting videos for those that want to get a sense of kendo and the dance done by Yoshitsune’s lover as described by storytellers and then Turner in the book. There are maps throughout the book to help readers get a spatial sense of what is happening, a helpful cast of characters at the beginning, and an index. Finally there are Gareth Hinds’ dark and brooding illustrations, capturing the movement and drama and ominous nature of the history being told.

One of my favorite books of 2016 so far, I recommend it highly.

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David Denby’s Lit Up

Finished David Denby’s Lit Up yesterday evening. Denby spends his time observing English classes in several different high schools and hones in on what happens as gifted teachers lead students grappling with difficult texts. While it is mostly on the more traditional approach to literature instruction (a class tussling with one book, mostly so-called “canon” ones), Denby is very appreciative of one school’s focus on individual reading, writing glowingly of Penny Kittle’s work and with respect for Dick Allington’s research. In his bibliography he’s got works like Jeff Wilhelm’s Readacide. Also Tracy Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren of which this reminded me — both being explorations from the perspective of nonfiction writers, not educators. Denby writes movingly of the kids’ backgrounds, what they are dealing with, their teachers too. The latter is especially interesting in terms of their different approaches and methods in their classrooms. What came through for me wasn’t so much the individual books studied as much as the passion and efforts of the teachers and the effect on their students. Denby is cranky in spots about devices, genre works like The Hunger Games, and isn’t necessarily in love with the specific 24 books of the subtitle (I am not of his opinion that they are necessarily so life- changing), but overall this is a thoughtful and worthwhile read.

Originally posted on facebook and goodreads.

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Juba

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John Jeremiah Sullivan in his fascinating New York Times piece ‘Shuffle Along’ and the Painful History of Black Performance in America‘ about the forthcoming Broadway show (that I just saw and loved this past week), mentions the 19th century dancer Juba, reminding me of Walter Dean Myers’ posthumously published novel of last year, Juba! A Novel.

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Children’s Literature and the Censorship Conversation: A Conference

Censorship-Flyer-(final)

On Saturday, April 16th The Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature is hosting a conference on banned, challenged and censored books for young children. Led by experts in the field, the conversations will revolve around the experiences of those who have been censored, the development of controversial works and the viewpoints of authorities on books, produced in 2015-2016, that have been challenged or censored.

Speakers at the conference will include Robie Harris, author of It’s Only Natural (Candlewick) who will be a discussant on the panel, “Developing Challenged Children’s Books: Authors and Their Editors” moderated by children’s book historian, Leonard Marcus. Pulitzer Prize recipient, David Shipler will lead a panel entitled, “Why Are Young Adult Books Challenged?”with panelists including Pura Belpré winner, Meg Medina. Bank Street College of Education’s Children’s Librarian Allie Jane Bruce will be a panelist on “Context and Controversy: Banned, Censored and Contested Books for Children Today” moderated by Elizabeth Levy. Joan Bertin,Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship will deliver the closing keynote speech. In between panels, attendees will have the opportunity to network with presenters. Books by authors will be available for purchase from the Bank Street Bookstore

For more details and to register for this important conversation go here.

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Another Take on Privilege

A decade ago I wrote the following Letter to the Editor in response to a New York Times article, about a wealthy US do-gooding family (“In Niger, Using a Vacation to Help the World’s Poor”). Not only is this sort of thing still happening, but it has become big business. And so I was glad to see Jacob Kushner’s article in Monday’s Times, “The Voluntourist Dilemma.” If you really want to help, as I wrote a decade ago give money or better yet, as Kushner concludes, make it your career. (Similar to what I feel about teaching:)

To the Editor: Regarding Claire Spiegel’s ”Niger: Using Vacation to Help the World’s Poor” (Journeys, Aug. 20): if readers have $4,500 per person (not including air fare) to spend on a two-week vacation helping the world’s poor, then I would suggest contributing most of that amount to a reputable nongovernmental organization and then going on a more modestly priced vacation to help out.

Monica Edinger
New York, N.Y

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Reviewing When We Think We Know or A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing

A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Alexander Pope

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the conundrum that happens when reviewers think we know, but don’t. My friend Roxanne Feldman addressed this beautifully in her post, “Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 3: How Can We Know When We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know?,” focusing in on the reviewer’s difficulty when:

DKDK One is unaware of one’s lack of knowledge in a particular area. More often than not, one also believes that he/she actually has solid knowledge about the matters at hand. This often makes it difficult for anyone to obtain actual knowledge.

Roxanne then goes on to unpack two examples. The first is her evolving response as a Chinese reader to The Five Chinese Brothers. Writes Roxanne:

I myself have engaged in several discussions over the years on the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters in children’s and YA books.  I always do this with much trepidation: since there is no way that I can truly be the spokesperson for an entire (and extremely complex) culture, even if it is considered MINE.  (I am now even more aware of the differences between Chinese and Chinese American Cultures.)

Having defended the book some years ago against others who saw the illustrations as racist, Roxanne now feels:

I have also come to realize how much I also DKDKed! My insistence to support the use of yellow for the faces is based on my personal experiences: as a Chinese girl growing up in a homogeneous environment, proud to be a member of the “yellow race,” and never having to contend with my ethnic identity.  It is a highly biased stance (and I wanted to break the connection of Yellow=Undesirable, what an naive idea!)  I disregarded the real experiences of Chinese and Asian American child readers.  Just because I don’t find being labeled “yellow skinned” hurtful does not mean that there are not many who are indeed hurt.  In this case, I believe that their views are more valid than mine.

Roxanne’s next example is from the Kirkus review of my book, Africa is My Home. Before the book was published, my biggest anxiety was that a reviewer would catch something that I or the illustrator had overlooked and managed to get glaringly wrong. It hadn’t occurred to me that a reviewer would do so inaccurately as happened in the Kirkus review, a case of the reviewer not knowing what he/she didn’t know. Do read Roxanne’s thoughtful research and unpacking of the “flaw,” the lack of variety in skin tone in the illustrations.

How do we review when we worry about what we don’t know? Take my favorable New York Times review of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil. As someone who is passionate about how the continent of Africa is represented, I wanted to do right by the book while recognizing that my knowledge about the Dafur conflict and its people was limited to news accounts. I did some research and fact checking for my review, but there was no way I could do enough to be absolutely 100% certain that all was correct. In the end it came down to trust, that Andrea with her stellar reputation — having done her own copious research and reached out to some seemingly excellent experts — had gotten it right.

Or how about when we are of the ethnicity or culture represented in a book, but have polarizingly different responses to the way it has been represented as happened last year during the discussions around The Hired Girl? My background as the child of secular German Jews probably had something to do with my enthusiasm for the book. Yet devoted and practicing Jews with very different backgrounds from mine did not see eye to eye, some loved the book while others did not (a range of these responses can be seen in this Heavy Medal post) . What are we to make of these varied responses in lieu of our concern about equity? What to think about what we Jews knew in or didn’t know in terms of that book as it represented our culture? Did we assume and trust too much? Or not enough?

Having been brought up by German parents and spent years in Germany as a child, I am sensitive to representations of things German. This has made my reading of books set there to be perhaps different from someone without my background. In a recent book set in 1980s East Berlin, little errors kept pulling me out of the story, say a bratwurst sandwich (these are eaten with rolls, not in an American-style sandwich), a stove described as too small to roast a turkey (not a usual part of German cuisine), and so forth. In another forthcoming book of a similar time and place I found that the author was more successful with the  German stuff, perhaps because, unlike the previous writer, she had spent significant time in East Berlin during the time in question. In this case, something else specific to my experience caused distractions — the child American main character’s ease with the German language based on seemingly minimal previous experience. As someone who spent time in Germany as a child, some of it in German schools, my experience was significantly different. Now does it matter? The story is not about the child’s experiences in the schools, after all. And understanding German is critical to the plot. I doubt any reviewer is going to give any thoughts to the boy’s remarkable ability with the language unless they’ve had experiences that will alert them to it. Presumably reviewers have and will assume sufficient familiarity with German culture and history to do justice to such books.

So what do we do as reviewers? I think we can only be as aware as possible, be open to corrections, to be conscious that we probably don’t know as much as we think we know, and try to go beyond that dangerous “little learning” about which Alexander Pope is so scathing.

 

 

 

 

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Forthcoming on Broadway: Shuffle Along

This past weekend I was wowed by Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed. Written and directed by the legendary George C. Wolfe, with jaw-dropping choreography by the awesome tap dancer Savion Glover, and show-stopping moments by a stellar cast that includes Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, this is one unique and mesmerizing show. A complex one too — both elements of the original 1921 musical as well as a piercingly blunt history of it as well. Music, race, racism, joy, pain, artistry, talent, complexity, fame, and more — all are in this fabulous show.

To learn more check out this recent NPR piece,  these interviews, and the video below.

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Children’s Africana Book Awards, 2016

Congratulations to this year’s winners!

 

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BEST BOOKS

Young Children Older Readers
Nigeria Kenya Ethiopia Africa

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Nnedi Okorafor  Mehrdokht Amini

by
Franck Prévot
Aurélia Fronty

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Elizabeth Wein

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Beverley Naidoo
Piet Grobler

HONOR BOOKS

Young Children Older Readers
Nigeria Ghana South Africa
double
by
Atinuke
Lauren Tobias
naname
by
Kathy Knowles
Edmund Opare
mayihavethisdance
by
Connie Manse Ngcaba

NOTABLES

Young Children
Ghana The Gambia
emmanuelby
Laurie Ann Thompson
Sean Qualls
oneplasticby
Miranda Paul
Elizabeth 
Zunon

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New Horn Book Podcast

Because I’m addicted to adult titles for my listening pleasure, I tend not to follow podcasts. That said, I do keep NPR going as I work at home and definitely explore the occasional podcasts that receive a lot of buzz (e.g. Colby Sharp and Travis Jonker’s The Yarn). The other day I noticed that Roger Sutton and Siân Gaetano, on a new Horn Book podcast series, were discussing topics of importance to me and so I took a look (listen?).  I can say the two episodes to date are interesting, lively, and offer real people behind the often-contentious text-based discussions led by Roger at the Horn Book site. Whether you agree with them or not, they are worthwhile if difficult conversations; these podcasts enriched them for me and I definitely plan to continue to listen to them.

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Mind the Gap: Entering the World of Shana Corey and Chris Sickels’ The Secret Subway

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(All sketches and images, unless otherwise indicated, credited to Red Nose Studio)

Last week I was honored to premier Shana Corey and Chris Sickels’ (aka Red Nose Studio) trailer for their delightful nonfiction picture book The Secret Subway. Now, as promised, I’m back with comprehensive interviews and images. Thanks to Shana and Chris for taking the time to answer my questions so comprehensively. I urge you to read every word and pour over every image — just as you are certain to do with the book itself.

Here’s Shana!

Where did you learn about this secret subway in the first place? And once you did, was it easy to figure out how to tell the story? Did you know it would be a picture book from the start?

When my sons were little, their favorite place was the New York Transit Museum which is a paradise for anyone interested in transportation. It’s housed in an old subway station and filled with antique subways (and even a bus). We spent a lot of time there and I fell in love with their “Building New York’s Subway” exhibit, which showcases what a monumental and inspiring undertaking it was and how much of the subway (like much of our infrastructure) was built by immigrants (it’s a permanent exhibit, so you can still check it out if you’re in NYC). Being a subway-riding family, we had lots of wonderful picture books about the subway; My Subway Ride by Paul Dubois Jacobs and Jennifer Swender,(which we read so much I can still recite it by heart) and The Subway Story by Julia Sarcone-Roach were favorites, but I also wanted a nonfiction picture book that would translate the history of the subway and the wonder I felt looking at that exhibit to vehicle and construction obsessed kids like mine.

While I was researching how the current subway system was built, I came across a footnote about Alfred Ely Beach. Beach was an inventor and a maker and the coeditior of Scientific American Magazine. He was also interested in pneumatic power and long before the existing New York subway was built, Beach hoped to use pneumatic power to power a subway. But he didn’t JUST have an idea-he actually built a block long pneumatic subway under Broadway (between Murray and Warren Street!)—WITHOUT official permission from the city! He did have the city’s permission to build two small mail tubes and using that as a cover, he built a working subway that he unveiled in February 1870—more than 30 years before the subway we now know opened in 1904. It was a huge feat of engineering and just amazing to me-talk about a change maker! As I researched, Beach started taking up more than his share of space in the general subway history manuscript I was working on, so I eventually put that away and wrote a new manuscript that focused entirely on Beach and his pneumatic subway.

What sort of research did you do? What were some of the most surprising things you found? Were there things you learned that were dying to include but couldn’t for one reason or another? (I’ve got so many from my book:)

I started by reading the books that already been published on the New York City subway system. I spoke to an expert in NYC sanitation history (because what could be more interesting than that?!). I made pilgrimages to the site of Devlin’s Department store and to Boss Tweed’s grave in Greenwood Cemetery. And then when I read everything I could find in print, I headed to Brooklyn’s Central library and began researching and reading period articles so I could have a more on the ground sense of what it was like while it was happening-what people were saying and reading about Beach and his subway as it was being built. There are wonderful articles about the opening of Beach’s subway and first-hand accounts of tours journalists took that detail what it looked like and how it was built and the public’s reaction to it. Beach himself published publicity pamphlets that were fascinating to read. Even more helpful than those primary sources, I was also lucky to come across the brilliant and incredibly comprehensive research by Joseph Brennan of Columbia on the Beach Pneumatic-he goes into much more detail about the very complicated layers of NYC politics and the nuances behind Beach’s subway than earlier work on it had and that was really interesting since most of the earlier work had relied entirely on Beach’s version of events. I revised with that in mind (among other things, losing that workers were shocked when they found Beach’s subway in 1912, that the fountain was still there untouched, and softening Boss Tweed whose role is much more nuanced than Beach had suggested which I also talk about in the author’s note)

What do I wish I could have included? New York City’s so fascinating and there’s so much backstory and so many interesting details I wish I had room for! Part of what prompted Beach to suggest his subway (and the debate about public transportation at the time) was the terrible state of NYC streets in the 19th century. We think traffic is bad today-but it was so much worse then. There was no alternate side parking and hardly any street cleaning, the streets were filled with trash and manure.  There were no traffic lights so it was really every vehicle or pedestrian for his or herself! It was so bad, that not long after Beach’s subway, there was even a whole police squad, the Broadway squad, whose job it was to help people across Broadway! I touch on it very briefly, but honestly-the garbage in the streets deserves its own picturebook!

I also love primary sources and the quotes from early articles are just delicious. There are somewhat hilarious editorials about how awful New York City traffic and public transportation was before the subway was built as a solution. A much quoted 1864 New York Herald article says of the state of omnibus at the time: “Ladies are disgusted, frightened, and insulted. Children are alarmed and lift up their voices and weep.” That image of children weeping over the indignities of their ride has stayed with me for years. Several of the primary source quotes did make it into The Secret Subway, but my wise editor reminded me that I wasn’t, in fact, writing a thesis and so we pruned many of them with that in mind.

What was the writing process like? Was it an easy book to write or did you need time to figure out how to tell the story?  Was your intent at the start for it to be a nonfiction picture book? Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about how the writing went? Any thing about the editorial process?

When I started this project, Brooklyn’s Central library still used Microfilm and that’s how I did the research. But by the time the book was being copyedited and I went back to check all my sources, the library had moved all their microfilm into the basement and all of those quotes and primary sources that I was so proud of digging up, were online and very easy to find which is both great for research and a little bit of a reminder of how quickly things change.

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How did Red Nose Studio end up the illustrator? Did you have any imput into the selection? As we know, illustrators and writers tend not to communicate. Was that true in this case? If not, what sort of communication did you have?

My very smart editor, Anne Schwartz suggested Red Nose Studio the very first time we spoke about the book and I think he was and is a perfect choice. He was booked for some time, so Anne asked if I would be okay waiting for him and I said definitely! Chris takes what could be dry history and ups it to a whole new level. And knowing he would be the artist influenced my writing because his characters have so much personality, I wanted the narrative voice to feel just as big and distinct, so I went back and rewrote again-this time giving the narrator a much more conversational, showman type voice and breaking the fourth wall a bit which I’d never done before and which I ended up having so much fun with. So Chris’s work definitely influenced just not the look, but the tone of the book.

Red Nose Studio and I didn’t communicate directly at first, but began to as the project got further along. Before that, Anne and our art director Lee Wade showed me sketches and occasionally asked questions (for instance, Chris needed to know what the modern day signage looked like at City Hall station, and since I’m in New York, I went on a field trip to take pictures and report back). And then more recently we collaborated on a book trailer (and by collaborate, I mean I mostly cheered him on) and to come full circle, we’ll be presenting the book together at the New York Transit Museum on March 13th.

Is there anything else you want to relate about the true story, the creation of the book, or what you are working on next? The floor is yours!

I’ve always found history thrilling. I usually write about women’s history (my most recent picture book was Here Come the Girl Scouts about the founder of the Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordon Low) , but I also love New York City history. When I first moved to New York many years ago, I used to spend a lot of time at the Union Square Barnes and Noble reading all the New York City memoirs I could find and looking at guide books to map out walking tours to take myself on. It still amazes me to live in this city where there’s so much history and so many stories packed into such a small space.You never know when you’re walking by Margaret Wise Brown’s house or Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, walking over a long buried creek or even a forgotten subway.

Oh-and there’s a song about Beach’s subway-Sub-Rosa Subway by the band Klaatu!.

 

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Here’s Chris!

What attracted you to this story in the first place? What made you want to illustrate it?
Alfred Eli Beach’s drive to solve this transportation problem and how self-motivated he was to accomplish it, was what grabbed me from the get go. I was drawn to how he had to bend the rules a bit and outsmart the decision makers, especially in today’s environment where kids are hovered over by parents that are afraid of their kids not doing things by the rules.

What sort of research did you do?
There is a terrific publication online by Joseph Brennan on The Beach Pneumatic Transit Company. That publication was my starting point, Mr Brennan’s research and insight shed a bright and overreaching light onto the world of A.E. Beach. After that I ventured into the depths of the New York Public Library, where they allowed me to roam the locked cages of old papers and books to dig up Beach’s patents and other documents. After that I was consumed with devouring any material from the 1860’s that allowed me to see how people dressed, lived, got around and what their environments looked like.

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Originally published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper Feb. 19, 1870

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What decisions did you make regarding materials, style, and scene choices? For instance — there is such a sense of movement in the illustrations. Was that a priority? Were there other influences that inspired and directed you. (I seem to remember that you use actual “garbage” for the earlier book, for instance.)
Scene choices where made based on the written material and how I best thought the page breaks could work through the story. Movement is the overarching theme of the book, right? I mean Beach not only wanted to move people he literally had to move earth, secretly at night to make it happen. I love that he even designed the machine that was used to dig the tunnel. Once the sketches were all approved then the materials start to play a role. That’s when the found objects come into play. For instance, that tunneling machine was built using old type writer parts.

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The book trailer is fabulous — how did you make it? But before you answer, let’s look at it one more time!

Every time I have made a book in the past I always had this thought that if i animated each scene before I struck down the set, i could accumulate enough footage to create an extension of the story. Well with The Secret Subway I was determined to give it a go. I would spend about 2-3 hours at night and shoot a few seconds of stop motion animation with the characters on the particular set that was set up. In the end I had accumulated about 3 minutes animation, it didn’t really end up being an extension of the story, but I did see that it had some potential as a book trailer. I presented the animations to the author, Shana Corey and we talked about how we could add silent film cards to help introduce the story of the book. Then the talented Dempsey Rice stepped in as editor and trimmed the fat to create the trailer.

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It is so cool this book is coming out just months after your “Blowing Bowler” animation went up at the Fulton Street Station. Was there any overlap in your thinking about this work and that for The Secret Subway

The Blowing Bowler wasn’t conceived until after the art for The Secret Subway was completed and sent off to the publisher. When the MTA approached me about the subway art card and the Fulton Center installation, I was drawn to the story of how the design of the subway cars have evolved over the decades. It was then that I decided I wanted to pay homage to A.E. Beach and his magical pneumatic subway. By forces that were out of my hands the two projects ended up being released very close to each other. The stars definitely lined up this time.

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What are you working on now? And is there anything else you’d like us to know?

I am currently pitching a wordless alphabet book called Duet: An Impersonation of the Alphabet where two characters perform each letter of the alphabet by contorting their bodies together. The story also has a perspective illusion aspect to it that i am excited about.

I am creating a new series of wine labels for Blasted Church Vineyards.

There is also my traveling stop-motion animation workshop where I visit universities and conferences and try to break down some of the preconceived barriers that folks have about stop-motion animation. Allowing folks to have a hands on animation experience with a readymade stage along with some of my characters.

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