On 5/17/16, Hello, My Name Is Octicorn will be published by HarperCollins imprint Balzer & Bray. This is a dream that goes many, many years back. But as my friend Dylan, an arborist here in Portland, Oregon, said, "Ideas are like seeds. They take awhile to grow into trees."
This book has taught me a lot about patience, about pursuing your dreams in a world that often tells you to play it safe and keep your head down, and it's helped me on my own journey of self-acceptance.
That this book means so much to others is the real reward.
When we self published this book a few years back, Kevin and I were humbled to see an outpouring of support for the character, book, and it's positive message, that it's OK to be different, in a society that's often subtly asking you to be like everybody else.
Reviews on Amazon poured in. And while it's never a good idea to read your own reviews, these ones touched our hearts.
"Love this! I bought it for myself, but will give it to my girls as a gift. Its a great story of a little guy who doesn't quite fit in, but realizes its okay to be different and not look or act the same as everyone else. Reminds me of my daughter on the autism spectrum (aspergers)." - review on Amazon
"I teach guidance/counseling lessons to kindergarten and 1st grade (among other things) and am going to use this book for a lesson...it's wonderful." - instagram comment
We even heard that this book, originally intended for children, was being used in an adult therapy sessions. Whoa!
Octicorn's first window was designed by Nena Rawdah of St. John's Booksellers.
With Octicorn stepping onto the national stage soon, it seemed appropriate to once again thank all the people who have helped make this happen. Dreams can come true with enough hard work, persistence, luck, serendipity (the list goes on). But you don't get there alone. And we've been blessed to have the support of our family, friends, and co-workers since the beginning. Back in 2013, 277+ kind folks with big hearts donated money on Kickstarter to help bring this project alive and that early support helped take Octicorn from a sticker once seen on the tip jar at the Portland, OR venue Doug Fir, to a book you could physically hold in your hands.
The book had many early champions, including designer Dani Guralnick who worked on it, Susan Sullivan - who kept me drawing, folks like Marni Beardsley, the Janet Champs, the Mary Zulegers, the Mike Folinos. The list goes on. Every project needs cheerleaders. The people who tell you to KEEP GOING! (And the more you listen to your own inner cheerleader instead of your inner critic, the more you will experience yourself moving forward instead of getting stuck.)
I must admit, when I started this LinkedIn post I didn't intend for it to sound like an Oscar acceptance speech, but have to admit, pretty sure the music is starting to play and I'm running a bit long.
THANK YOU: Elena Giovinazzo, Alessandra Balzer, Binny Talib, Dana, the folks at HarperCollins, Severin Villiger, Boys Fort, Powell's, Green Bean Bookstores, Moule, all our awesome Kickstarter backers...this dream is also happening because of YOU.
Music playing - they are walking me off the stage. This is awkward. This isn't even an award show.
I guess all I'm saying is: I'm excited. And grateful.
Hello, My Name Is Octicorn can be pre-ordered here.
For those in the Portland, OR area, a reading of the new book will take place at Powell's on Saturday, June 4th at 11am. A reading is also being planned that Sunday at Green Bean Books on NE Alberta St. Stay tuned for further details.
When we first read the query letter for the novel-in-verse that would become Somewhere Among, we were struck by the manuscript’s lyrical language and evocative feeling…and also with the author’s unique perspective. As a white American married to a Japanese man, raising their children in Tokyo, Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsu drew heavily on her family’s own experiences to tell Ema’s story—being “in two worlds,” sharing a small space with generations of family, and a national tragedy that tied her even more closely to her adopted home.
I didn’t set out to write about 9/11.
At the time of the earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, Japan’s 9/11, I was working on a middle grade prose novel set in Texas, my home state. The earth rocked our Tokyo house for months afterwards. The damaged nuclear plant threatened our air, food, and water.
Leaving Japan was not an option. We were living with in-laws, one child was in university, and the other was about to start Japanese high school. Who could leave and come back? Health issues, an aging mother-in-law, and pets made it impossible to go to the area to volunteer. I tried working on the Texas novel and sent out a lifeline by paying for a critique for it. Survival mode took its toll and I eventually had to put it aside.
I needed to ground myself in Japan.
I wasn’t able to write about the aftershocks, the fleeing foreign residents, and the radiation crisis of the nuclear plants. I couldn’t bear reading, hearing or seeing anything more about it. I had to disengage to lighten my heart.
In troubled times, we turn to family and relationships and, sometimes, to the past for comfort. I started writing tidbits, the observations and connections I had made over the years here, things that rooted me here, things about living here within a Japanese family for over twenty years:
the old wooden house Great-grandfather built after World War II that leaned in typhoons, jerked in earthquakes, but stood its ground;
the one-room lifestyle we had upstairs in the old house before we built a new house in its place;
the palm tree that soared above its rooftop but now watches over us from outside the dining room window;
the loving relationships my children had with all their family;
the experiences my children had in Japanese public school, and
the ease my children had in moving from one language and one culture to another (despite their limited English exposure.)
A dozen or more short pieces, poems and images quickly evolved into a fictional story from a child’s point of view. The first draft came fast, but I had to set it aside.
I was still dealing with the grief of the earthquake and tsunami. I kept thinking how glad I was that it hadn’t happened when our children were small. How were parents coping? Especially up north at the epicenter.
It was hard to trust the earth beneath our feet.
Hard to trust the roof over our heads.
Hard to trust the air we breathed.
The story did not turn out to be about any of that.
But it didn’t turn out light-hearted.
It had become Somewhere Among, a middle grade novel set in another difficult time, 2001. I shielded our children, then 9 and 5, from the TV coverage of the attacks, but the TV was always on downstairs at their grandparents. The nine-year-old actually created a tower made of yogurt bottles and bandages for the school’s November 2001 art exhibition.
Somewhere Among highlights the history, anniversaries, and tragedies my two families’ countries have shared before and during 2001. It is about reconciliation. About going on. About finding peace within.
It is built from research of events, weather, and NASA.
But we do appreciate sky watching. We’ve met more friends than bullies, and once, while exiting a train, a woman, seeing I was having a bad day, placed a peace doll in my hand.
It still brightens our hearts.
Annie’s debut novel Somewhere Among comes out on April 26, 2016. Find research for the book at anniedonwerth-chikamatsu.com, and read more about her life in Japan at Here and There Japan.
The collaboration that would become Maybe a Fox began many years ago in a freezing and dingy dorm at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where we were new both to the faculty and to each other. Alison’s roller bag had gone missing at the airport, and she remembers Kathi tilting her head in sympathy and offering, in that beautiful Texas accent of hers, to lend her a pair of pajamas. Kathi doesn’t remember that, but she does remember breakfast the next day, when the two of us loaded up our trays and scuttled to sit together at a small table between two huge pillars in the drafty dining hall, a table we sat at every day, three times a day, for each of the residencies we shared.
It was friend-love at first sight, and it was that very first week, when we were eating one of the many meals we ate together Between the Pillars, that Kathi suggested we write a book together.
“What kind of book?” Alison said.
“A book about two sisters,” Kathi answered.
Both of us had many other projects that occupied us, and the idea was tabled, although one of us would occasionally bring it up over the years. Then, about five years ago, Alison sent out a poem about a small red fox in snow as her Poem of the Week. Something about that little fox ignited both of us, and we decided to take the plunge and begin our book.
The ground rules:
- The book would be about two sisters who were somehow separated, and it would also contain a small red fox.
- Each of us would take on a new challenge in the writing, something she’d never done before as a writer.
- We would each write in a separate viewpoint, with chapters alternating between those viewpoints.
After considering the sister possibilities –twins separated at birth? Sisters each living with one parent? One sister in prison and the other not? One sister alive and the other not?—we left it vague. Sisters, separated somehow. We figured the fox would appear on its own terms, when the time was right, so we didn’t worry about that. As for the personal writing challenge, Kathi decided to write in first person, since she hadn’t before, and Alison decided to write in the voice of the fox, since up until then she’d stayed strictly with humans.
We began the book by trading chapters weekly, sometimes more often if the muse struck. We worked wildly fast, most of the time, and the story gathered ground and impetus week by week. Kathi was fascinated by the fact that some rare rivers disappear underground. Alison was fascinated by the idea of an animal that could sense things from a world beyond this one. We tossed ideas back and forth, tried them out week by week, abandoned them if they were dead ends, followed them as far as we could if they felt powerful.
Eventually we realized that we were writing a book about maybes, about the way we as human beings try to answer unanswerable questions –what happens when we die? What happens with grief too big to stand? What happens when you can’t find the answers to what you most need to know?—and that sense, of both possibility and heartbroken wonder, became the core of the novel.
We wrote an entire, unwieldy mess of a draft in half a year. With the ongoing help of our wonderful agent and the massive efforts of our beloved editor Caitlyn Dlouhy, we rewrote that mess of a draft countless (literally, we have no idea at this point how many times we rewrote that book) times over the next four years. What began as an alternating-chapter, alternating-point of view method turned into a we’ll-work-on-the-whole-thing-together method. Where Alison once was the sole writer of the fox chapters, and Kathi the sole writer of the Jules chapters, we can no longer point to any voice or passage or chapter as belonging to either of us. We moved from emailed chapters to simultaneous Google doc revisions to taking turns separately revising the entire book (over and over).
At one point early on, Kathi flew up from Texas and we sat on Alison’s porch in Minneapolis and took turns reading chapters out loud to each other, pencils in hands, marking up places to revise. We laughed. We cried. We talked through every aspect of plot and character. We never once, strangely enough, argued. Kathi flew back to Texas and the rewrites continued for another three years. At some point along the way we began sending each other fox totems: a fox necklace, a framed fox photograph, a felt basket with a fox on it, fox notecards. Alison now sees foxes wherever she goes; like the characters in Maybe a Fox, she considers them good luck.
Maybe a Fox is so much a part of our hearts and souls at this point that we privately admit to each other we have no idea if it’s any good or not; it just is. We do know that we still, each of us, cry when we read the ending. Just like Jules and Sylvie in Maybe a Fox, we consider ourselves sisters. Sister Kathi, Sister Alison. Our book is made out of wonder and longing and struggle and love. We hope it finds a good place in the world.
Bloom is the story of a confident, clunky fairy—she’s covered in dirt and has a tendency to break things too. Bloom leaves a trail of mud and footprints wherever she goes—it seems like there’s always a spilled bucket behind her.
She happily shares her magic in the kingdom she calls home, but like so many things we find magical at first, the shine eventually wears off . . . The kingdom grows tired of the mud and the glass shards. Bloom, to her credit, grows very tired of listening to the kingdom’s complaints.
Off she goes to find a place where her magic – and not her mess – is the story.
The trail of debris that Bloom leaves behind is nothing compared to the trail of dead manuscripts I left behind this book by the time it was finished. My agent, Holly McGhee, is the only one who was tortured more than I was by the endless, almost-there, not-quite there, and not-even close manuscripts that eventually (how many years later??) became Bloom. I have two young daughters and the idea for an unintentionally destructive and happily dirty fairy grew out of my own growing dislike (okay, rage) at all the tiny, shiny, pretty, sparkly female characters I was reading about with them.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being tiny, shiny, pretty and sparkly – if that’s you. But it’s not me. I wish I could say this was all about showing my daughters there are different ways to be – but some part of it was likely written for myself. Not all magic is tiny, shiny, pretty and sparkly. Some of it is loud, dirty, awkward, and dare I say, hard work. Sometimes, the magic you are counting on doesn’t even work (but I had such a good idea!) and sometimes the magic is just a spark that requires a tremendous amount of hard work and profanity to dig back out.
Make the dig.
Leave a trail, like Bloom—your mess lets us know you were here.
Let children remind us that they are here – with their voices, their dirty hands, their broken lamps, their songs, their soccer balls, the dry erase markers they used to color in the boring, white bathroom grout, and the pile of hair they just cut off their own heads with the good scissors when you weren’t looking. It’s part of their magic.
So bring a hammer, a shovel, your pen, your clunkiest shoes or whatever your tools are and break something. Make a mess. Leave a trail. It will make it so much easier to find you. Then, if you are extraordinarily lucky, someone will pour their own magic into the mix. Thank you, David Small.
I’m the newest Pip, at least on the office side of things, and the thing that I love best is the feeling of completely belonging to a team. Some days I feel like we should have team jerseys (but then I look around and see us all in dresses with jeans underneath and think maybe that’s our uniform).
Team solidarity is super important, and sometimes it reminds me of being part of a gang. A benign, 1950s musical gang. And if I’m totally honest, sometimes I sing some modified West Side Story in my head, “When you’re a Pip, you’re a Pip all the way!” (But then the analogy falls apart because no one smokes. But then it comes together again a couple of lines later, so don’t worry.)
You're never alone,
You're never disconnected!
You're home with your own
When company's expected,
You're well protected!
But it’s not just us in the office who belong to this team. There are dozens on Team Pip, and to celebrate this marvelous family, we threw a party this fall. I love a party. I’ve been known to invite 75 people to my studio apartment. So when Holly suggested we have a barbecue at her house for the Pips and their loved ones, excitement ran so high we sent our save-the-date about 3 months early. To me, it seemed like a magical moment to bring together all the authors and artists and incredible people I hadn’t met beyond email and phone calls yet, and also to integrate my own clients into the mix.
The planning began rolling around July. It’s not something we do every year, and this year felt like an eventful one with many new clients and lots of exciting awards and deals to celebrate. We had a lot of bestsellers, loads of starred reviews, and each one of those, we felt, deserved a toast.
And so we sent out an invitation to all of our clients, regardless of where they were in the world, hoping, of course, that everyone would be able to make it. We had a feeling those on the West coast and you know, Korea, wouldn’t come, but we were delighted when some did.
Why is food always the biggest sticking point of a party? I’ll tell you why: because what is served determines the feeling of the event, and determines the level of formality. Ideally, this would be a pretty casual affair. We started off talking about what we could each realistically contribute, potluck style, but when we got an eyeball on our guest list, eep. We’d have to close the office for a week to cook. We thought of a pig roast, but with Zeke Pippin as our mascot, that didn’t quite strike the right tone. Then Holly had a magic moment and hired a food truck, which would drive up, serve pork belly and fries and fish tacos and sliders and then drive the whole mess away again. It was perfect.
On the day of the party, we office Pips arrived early to set up. Assistant extraordinaire Courtney had special-ordered some beautiful weather, which arrived right on time. We had shipped lots of books, one or two to represent each client, and set them up in the dining room. The festive feeling grew. We strung lights, a giant speaker appeared and was wired up, a dispenser of Sea Breezes was mixed up. We set up nametags, because even the Pips who’ve been around the longest might not know each other.
We worked up until the very last second, without even a moment to toast each other and say, “great work, gang!” Because Holly’s beautiful house is in New Jersey, most people took the train from the city. And when the train runs on a schedule, the party doesn’t get a chance to ramp up, it just suddenly IS. One second we plugged in some pink string lights and hit play on the music, the next, the deck was swarmed with hugs and cheers and warmth and laughter.
When you're a Pip,
You're the top cat in town,
You're the gold-medal kid
With the heavyweight crown!
A few familiar faces appeared, and everywhere I looked was someone I’d wanted to meet for my entire career. I was in awe. More than one Pip pulled me aside to say how star-struck they were, and couldn’t believe they were in the same company as so-and-so. The newest people on our list shared stories with authors who’ve been at it for decades. Everyone’s kids ran around the yard, getting along like they’d known (and liked) each other since birth. It was enchanting. How did I get so lucky to be a part of this? I felt my good fortune couldn’t expand any further.
And then the food truck pulled up.
I cannot overstate the level of excitement and delight around the food. The staff were darling, and knew they were stealing the show. They put out a chalkboard menu, and aromas drifted up to the deck, beckoning revelers like a cartoon hand. One by one, people floated down and queued up for fresh corn, sweet potato fries, and mussels. Everyone ate standing up and most got right back in line for more.
Watching the conversation circles change based on who was in line together was my favorite part of the day. This was the whole idea behind the party. There was no odd man out. People shared everything: snacks, experiences, the knowledge that they were part of something unique and excellent. I’ve never been ashamed of how big a sap I am, and I’m telling you, at one point, I looked around and teared up a bit.
Just as abruptly as the party began, it was over. Everyone packed up and headed out to make their trains as the sun set. A few stayed until the next train, and it was great to hear who they’d met and what they loved and how they felt. The warmth lingered. After the last guests departed, Holly, Elena, and I got some time to sit on the deck under the stars and compare notes. We agreed that we didn’t get enough time with any one particular guest, but as with all good parties, that would always be true. The individual Pips had scattered back to their homes here and there, but The Pips as a team was stronger than ever. Everyone has everyone’s back. I may be the newest Pip in the office, but there’s a bond between all of us created by art and words and creativity and comradery that grows stronger with the occasional addition of barbecue and moonlight. There will never be a better gang initiation.
Here come the Pips: Little world, step aside!
Is it just me, or does it seem like there’s no better season for crafting than Christmas? The same thing happens every year this time, after the shopping is all done, the tree is up and decorated to within an inch of its life, the Christmas music on the record player, and the lights all strung and blazing. I no more get settled down to finally relax, when my fingers start twitching and I’m overtaken by the urge to fire up the hot glue gun, get out the craft supplies and create something truly unimaginable.
This year was no exception. Maybe it was the rum in that extra slab of fruitcake, the heady aroma of pine sap, the twinkling lights or Jim Nabors deep hypnotic voice droning on and on about the little lamb, but the Christmas crafting compulsion came upon me something fierce. While my glue gun warmed up, I looked around the room for inspiration. Everywhere I looked I could still see the evidence of the craft I created last Christmas: an ornament-crusted net that is fired from a bazooka, so you can decorate an entire Christmas tree in a single shot. That painful memory reminded me to set my sights a little lower this year. They settled on the old Nativity scene. It always looks a little sad – off in a lonely corner of the mantle or half hidden under the tree. It’s not helped by the fact that the wise men, the shepherd, even the animals – all look soooo serious and even a little morose. Heck, it’s the birth of our Savior – shouldn’t it feel more like a party?
All of which is to explain, if not excuse, how I came up with this year’s craft – a festive punch bowl guaranteed to be the center of your holiday party. You can fill it with your favorite beverage, or try the recipe for Tiny Tim’s punch at the end.
• A 12 quart punch bowl and ladle
• A vintage nativity scene, 11 pieces or so
• 18” Styrofoam wreath form
• Miniature pine trees
• 6-foot garland. I used holly.
• Assorted doll house ornaments and other knick knacks
• String of craft lights.
• Toothpicks – 8 or so
• A staple gun or pins
• Spray adhesive
• Hot glue gun
• Sharpie marker (optional)
1. Plastic 12-quart punch bowls (available at party stores or online) are about 14 inches in diameter, so the foam wreath form should fit perfectly onto your punch bowl. If it’s too large or small, maybe try a different bowl. Place the wreath form face down on your work surface, position the bowl upside down on the wreath form, and stick toothpicks into the foam, tight up against the outside edge of the bowl. Then remove the bowl and set it aside for now.
2. Turn the foam over so it’s right side up, then spray the top and inside of the wreath with spray adhesive, then dust it lightly with glitter. Let the adhesive set up for a few minutes, and then shake off the excess glitter.
3. Now arrange your Nativity figures and other ornaments around the lip of the bowl. Group most of the figures at the back to allow easy access to the punch. Once you get an arrangement you like, lift each piece, put a blob of hot glue on the bottom, and then stick in place. Arrange and glue any additional decorations, remembering to stay within the bounds of good taste.
4. Use pins to tack the garland securely around the outside edge of the wreath form. A six foot wreath fits perfectly around the outside edge of an 18-inch wreath. Once you have it pinned where you want it, tack it down in a few places with hot glue.
5. Carefully turn the wreath on its side. Hot glue the craft light battery pack to the underside of the foam. Remember the toothpicks mark the outside edge of the punch bowl, so keep the pack outside that invisible line. Now staple or pin the light cords to the underside of the foam. Finally, put a good-sized blob of hot glue over every pin or staple to keep it in place more permanently.
6. Make an elaborate bow from ribbon and pin it to the front edge.
7. As a final option, you could “Scripture up” your punch bowl by writing a bible quote on the ladle with a Sharpie. Something like Matthew 7:1 “Judge not lest ye be judged” might be a nice touch, and will come in handy later, as the punch begins to take effect. Now fill your punch bowl, turn up the Jim Nabors Christmas album and enjoy!
TINY TIM’S HOT GIN PUNCH
In Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, Bob Cratchit cooks up a batch of gin punch for his family, and they all toast Ebenezer Scrooge. Gin punch was a popular drink in Victorian England. There are many variations, both hot and cold. Basically any mix of gin, citrus, fruit and sugar will work.
• 4 cups Plymouth gin
• 4 cups sweet Madeira wine
• 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar, or more to taste
• Peel and juice of 2 lemons, or more to taste
• Peel and juice of 2 oranges
• 1 20-ounce can of pineapple chunks, or you can cut up a fresh pineapple
• 5 whole cloves
• 4 cinnamon sticks
• Pinch of ground nutmeg
Put all the ingredients in a pot and put on medium heat. Simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and add more brown sugar or more lemon juice if desired. Let the mixture cool until it’s just warm, and then pour into the punch bowl. Garnish with a couple of fresh lemon and orange slices. This is enough punch for a small group, but if you’re having a larger party, you’ll want to double or triple the recipe.
Seasons Greetings, and Good Cheer!
There are two stories inside every picture book. One is roughly 32 pages long—a glorious combination of text and images around which parent and child commune. The second is an oft-overlooked set of words gracing the front or back page.
I’ve been in love with dedications for as long as I can remember. Through them picture book makers draws us closer to one of their prized people—a muse, a mistress, a lost parent, a friend. They reveal a part of their life beyond the printed page.
I’ve always consumed dedications with as much care as I do the books for which they are written. The abbreviated dedications—little more than a set of initials—sit as a teasing secret. The verbose serve as a thesis statement of sorts. When they’re just right, they become a type of hint fiction—their own artful work worth remembering and savoring and sharing.
So when it came time for me to dedicate my very first picture book, I wanted to make it count.
This is the story behind my dedication. …
In BEYOND THE POND, Ernest D. discovers his pond has no bottom. He dives and on the other side encounters wonderful and frightening things. His experience opens his eyes to all the marvels hidden in the everyday. When he returns, his world—or merely his perception of it—has changed forever.
When I was twenty, I dropped out of art school because the band I was playing in at the time was, as they say, “making it.” We were filling venues and playing shows with some of our minor heroes. My dream was in a state of becoming. Everything was going according to plan.
And then, I met a girl. Cliche, I know, but it’s an important plot point in this story nonetheless.
We fell hard and fast. Nikki was funny and beautiful and interesting and interested. But she was also the mother of a 1 year-old boy. His name was Jonah.
There was no “oh shit” moment. No “just give me some time to figure this out” moment. It became clear my music dreams didn’t pair well with family dreams. It was that simple. They were worth it, so I quit and went back to art school.
The choice to exchange my dreams for him was the best decision I’ve made in my 32 years. He took me out of my old life and placed me neatly into a better one. He gave me all the obvious good stuff—that immeasurably big pile of joy and love and curiousity. Observing him made me more creative. Being with him made me a better artist.
When my career began to settle, and after Nikki and I became established, I set out in search of a new dream, one that fit neatly into the spaces between fatherhood, marriage, and work. That dream turned out to be picture books.
He gave that to me. He brought me here.
With every book, we picture book makers extract some piece of ourselves and pound it into pulp and ink and chroma and set it between two covers. It’s a serious business. The experiences we have and the people we love provide us with those pieces. We have them to thank for our stories, and it is through the dedication we express that gratitude.
The thought of revealing the “why” of my dedication scared me. Often times, it’s the mystery of it that makes a dedication so powerful. Not knowing who the person is or what experiences connect them with the author sets the imagination aflutter. In the end, as ever, Jonah—the thought of him—compelled me to do it. He’s a teenager now, and our family has grown. I became scared that I’d never find a quiet enough stretch of time to tell him.
I dedicated BEYOND THE POND to Jonah because I have him to thank for it. Jonah was my pond. To this day, I look at him and think, “all this was hiding in a child. How exceptional!”
So, when you open my book and read its dedication, you’ll know what it means. You’ll know who the person is. You’ll know how we’re connected and what inspired that short statement that just barely begins to describe how important he was to my life and that book.
“To Jonah, for showing me what lies beyond everything.”