Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Story Behind "Under the Rooster Weathervane"

Way back in the very late 1970s or very early ‘80s (the manuscript is not dated), my mother Barbara J. Thornsjo created a children’s book in collaboration with my sister C_____. At that time, my mother was somehow maintaining an impossible schedule, basically running the family farm while also being active in the antiques business and Making Art at a prolific rate. She sold her arrangements and Folk Art paintings at shows ranging from Maine to New York; at various times her arrangements were sold at B. Altman’s main store in New York City, while her elaborate hand-made Jack-in-the-Boxes (of papier-mâché and cloth and wood) were exhibited at toy shows and at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine (which has in its collection possibly the largest holdings in the world of work from the Wyeth family from N.C. to Jaimie). 

She did not really know what to do with the Children’s book. For years she nagged me to flog it around, as if I was an agent — ha! An agent has connections and knows what they are doing, which I emphatically did not… all of my efforts were focussed on getting my own writing into print, and it took literally years and years of work and persistence for that to happen.

On occasion she accused me of not flogging her book because I was afraid that it would sell, at a time when my own work definitely was not. 

But the fact is that the book was unpublishable in its original form. The text as written by my sister was, not to put too fine a point on it, bad — and had obviously been written by a fourteen year-old girl who had no way with words and no sense of how to tell a story. Another problem was that the illustrations had been created second in order to match the text, not the other way around… and so when the text just sat there, so did a few of the illustrations.

Beyond that, my mother’s drawing style was simple and folk-arty… not the sort of thing that was in vogue then or a long time after among children’s book publishers.

The book went on the shelf and became a family heirloom. 

When my mother died unexpectedly in May 2010, just days after her birthday, I made it a point to hang on to all surviving examples of her work. The book came to me as part of that… and when I looked at it, for the first time in years, I saw the potential that a little bit of re-working could bring out.

In 2013, changes in life, in me, in technology, and the way books are produced all came together to make the book’s publication possible — with extensive revision.

The first thing that I did was to throw out my sister’s worthless text (I had already thrown her worthless self out of my life entirely). 

The second thing that I did was to change the title. The original, Three Tales from C___ H___ Farm, dropped like a lead pipe. I decided on Under the Rooster Weathervane, which not only sounded better but also pointed me in a direction for the book. 

At first, trying to write the text separately in Scrivener, detached from the pictures, the work that I turned out was not much (if any) better than the original text! Only when I started to work with the text and pictures at the same time did it begin to come together. The text needed to be brought into the service of the illustrations, not the other way around. Structural changes needed to be made, and the only way I could wrap my brain around these was to physically push the illustrations around in page layout software. 

The original stories were re-arranged in order to create a more unified whole. The order of the illustrations as they appeared in the original stories was also somewhat changed. Even then, there were individual pictures that were too static, too pedantic in storytelling terms, because they had been created to match text that hadn’t accomplished anything in the first place. In those cases, the only thing that worked for me was to combine two pictures into one so that they actually told a story.

All together, including time spent just back-braining this book while I worked on other projects, it took me ten months to re-write and re-assemble the book into its current form. The result is a book that, I hope, has a little rhythm and a better shape — but also one that does justice to the elegant simplicity of the illustrations. I hope it’s a version that my mother would be pleased with, but more than that — more than thirty years after its original creation, I hope that the book is no longer just a family heirloom, but one that any parent and child can read and enjoy.

— Freder


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