When your cat tells you it’s time and she means it … a tribute to BJ

I’m not writing about literacy today. I’m writing about BJ the cat, the subject of my first children’s book, “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.” It’s been a few weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to write this tribute until now.

The eighth grader who lived down the street found the tiny black kitten in the fields by the high school 22 years ago. She brought the cat to her mother’s home and named the little cat, Bonnie Jean ─ Marilyn Monroe’s real name. They called her BJ.

I knew none of this until I met the cat. There’s quite a story ─ covered in the book that I hope you will read. But today is about the end of her life — the last three days of her life.

She had been slowing down for months. Her kidney disease had been progressing. There were months of supplementing her diet with baby food to quell the vomiting. And for months, a ravenous appetite, as if she couldn’t pull enough sustenance out of her food. And so much water drinking ─ from bowls placed strategically throughout the townhouse: third floor bathroom, next to her food bowl, and by the front door. She especially liked to lap warm water from the shower stall floor after I ran the hot water for her.

Now she wasn’t interested in eating. The doctor told me this was a sign to look for. She started napping behind the curtains in my bedroom. And tucking herself against the wall in the corner of the bedroom.

Following one especially long stint of sitting on my stomach and gazing intently at me one night while I watched television in bed, she folded her small body under the crook of my left arm and didn’t move all night. She was warm–but not a comfortable warm. And she was moving slowly when she woke.

That was the day I noticed she was not vocalizing. She was moving back and forth between two new spots I never saw her in before ─the back of my bedroom closet behind the laundry hamper, and next to a metal file cabinet in the back of the closet in my son’s old bedroom.

It was night time when I searched for her and opened the door to my son’s closet. She answered a quiet soft sound to tell me she was there. But she wasn’t coming out.

We never had a family pet die naturally. Euthanasia seemed the better way to help our pets when their diseases took hold. But I planned to let BJ go naturally. I had been coming home from work at the end of each day wondering if she would be alive or dead.

In a consult with the veterinarian, he advised me to rethink the plan. When the kidneys stop working, she’s going to feel nauseous, he said. And this is painful. She’s already retreating; this is the herd reaction, to protect herself. You probably have only a week, he said. Don’t let it go too long.

I thought we would have more time. I thought we would have a full week.

But she spent two nights in the closets. It was two nights since she left her place next to me, where she had slept for so many years. She was telling me it was time. She quietly, so quietly, made the most awful decision for me. I had to agree.

She was 5 lbs. the last time we went to the doctor weeks earlier to have her sharp nails trimmed. She was down then more than 1 lb. from two months earlier. And after her nights in the closet, not eating, she must have been down more. She felt light and limp.

The last night she’s tucked into the closet in my son’s old room. For a moment I wonder why she doesn’t want to be near me but I know this is not about me. This is about taking control of her waning life according to cat rules, herd rules.

There’s no complaining, no loud crying which she has done for so many months earlier, unwilling or unable to sleep well at night ─ impelled to hunt fur mousies–carrying them around the house, crying plaintively and yowling at them and at her aging predicament perhaps. Then, you would have thought we lived with lions.

She lost her hearing two years ago. I could yell her name behind her head and she would not turn around. So I knew it was quiet inside her head.

This last night, I kneel by the closet where she’s resting. Slide open the door enough to see her and confess to her that my heart is broken. I don’t want her to be old and sick. She’s awake and listening. I share the plan with her. In the morning Noah’s coming over and we’ll give you a sedative – a pill crushed into honey – and press it along the inside of your mouth a couple of hours before we drive to the doctor’s. I don’t want it to be too dark for you tonight ─or for me ─ so I’m putting the light on in the hall so you can find your way if you want to move around. I’m putting a little bowl with baby food and water outside the closet if you get hungry. Then I apologize for crying because I don’t want to scare her. And ask if there’s anything I can do to help her. She doesn’t answer. So I tell her I love her and will come check on her during the night, which I do every hour.

The pillow she always sleeps on next to me is empty. This is the Tony Little pillow with the microballs in it that I purchased from the Home Shopping Channel because my neck was hurting so much. After I purchased the pillow ─ that really helped my neck by the way ─ BJ immediately started sleeping on it. So I gave it to her and purchased another for myself. For years, her Tony Little pillow has sat next to mine on the bed.

While she rests in the closet that night I tuck her pillow into the cat carrier so she will be comfortable on the last trip. While we wait, I write some words to try to remember this night.

The diminishing cat at 22 is readying herself to pass

She cannot keep up with the herd running inside her

She is safer behind the laundry basket in the closet

I cannot help her through this waning she tells me

It is best to be still she tells me quietly

At dawn we press the honey sedative against her gum and she is calm, so calm. After a while we drive to the veterinarians.

It is 8 a.m. when the assistant ushers us into the examining room. Usually the cat would be straining to get out of her carrier. She is so still now. Her favorite veterinarian, the woman, is with us today. I gave her the BJ picture book for her children years ago, so she knows her early story.

There’s the next sedative shot – and the cat doesn’t stir really. We have already slid the Tony Little pillow, with her nestled into it, out of the carrier and she is exposed on the examining table. Black fur on a stark white pillow.

The doctor kindly assures us BJ isn’t feeling anything as the little electric razor shaves away fur on one paw where the IV will be attached for the final dose.

I take the little piece of fur to add to the fur pieces saved from other pets – Mister Boogie, Dolly and Pepper.

Then in goes the final fluid to take her away from us.

The doctor asks what we want to do with her body.  We want her ashes.

Then she asks about the pillow─ do we want the pillow to take home? We decide to keep the pillow with her body.

The doctor lifts the Tony Little pillow with little BJ gone now, and leaves the examining room as I wonder where her precious cat spirit has gone.

We leave with the empty carrier case, knowing it was time because the cat told us it was time.

To our beloved little BJ:  We learned many important lessons from living with you for 22 years. Especially, if you don’t like the home you’re living in or the situation you’re in, get out and find something better. And when your vulnerable time comes and you can’t keep up with the herd, find a safe place and wait for those who love you to help you. You will always live safely and with great love at the Z house.


Paperback – July 19, 2012

How many homes does a cat need? A bold black cat sets her sights on moving into the Z house, where Mom Z and her son, Noah live. Mysteries unfold as the Z family tries to get to the bottom of the young cat’s puzzling behavior.

Blog for mom on her 99th birthday ─ why I wrote a “how-to” book for children

My fifth children’s picture book (How 7 Fish & 2 Ponds Landed in the Z House Backyard) came out a few weeks ago. Shortly after, the book landed gift-wrapped in a big box of gifts headed to mom for her ninety-ninth birthday. Yep, 99! After she read the new book, she remarked on the phone with surprise, “It’s a how-to book.” I agreed.

I’ve been mulling over her comment for the last few days. With full intention, I did write a how-to book, hoping a child would get the gist of how a pond can be built. And hoping too that a child would get ideas like ─ ‘o look, the boy really likes fish and he wants to learn how to build a pond.’ And ‘look at all that dirt they had to dig up.’ And ‘look at the different colors fish come in.’ And ‘wow, fish can grow big just like children do and what happens when they get so big that they don’t fit in their home anymore?’ In that sense, I was also writing an “informational storybook”─ a book that uses a story to convey information.[1]

And I hoped too that children would get that they can dream up an idea and then try to realize it like Noah did in the book. All of this dreaming things up – creativity, thinking and planning ─ can start early. It must start early.

Reading for information is a critically important tool in the child’s literacy development toolbox. Children need to learn early that asking questions is great ─ and learning by watching others do something is great─ and that reading is a main way they are going to acquire information vital to their lives.

21st century children are facing huge challenges in literacy – not only learning to read and how to apply reading in many formats ─but how to retrieve information from rapidly changing technology tools to access knowledge. How to question computers and pull out credible information are “survival skills” in their lives. “The amount of information available doubles every couple of years; some futurists predict that in two decades, available information will double every two to three months. It is no surprise that instructional books constitute approximately one-half of the books in most libraries’ juvenile collections. Instructional books help satisfy natural inquisitiveness and spark new curiosity.”[2]

Nonfiction informational books are central to literacy development. These types of books include the “how-to” books ─ as well as the related “how does this work” books.[3] “A child uses informational and non-fiction books to assemble what he knows, what he feels, what he sees, as well as to collect new facts.” [4]

Here’s what distinguishes information books from other types of books (or “genres”) out there.[5]

Info books for children …

  • Have a main purpose to provide in-depth explanation of fact-based material.
  • Are literature and considered trade books.
  • Are nonfiction but not textbooks or reference books.
  • Inform by attention to facts and capitalizing on children’s wonder at all that is out there.
  • When most effective, suggest a wealth of information, stimulating a wish to know more.

Info books for children …

  • Include the “how-to” books.
  • Contain interesting details and lesser-known facts.
  • Use expository language (writing that explains, describes, informs).
  • Are organized using a logical presentation of information.
  • Include photographs or illustrations to provide authenticity.
  • When the main purpose is to inform but contain entertaining elements of fiction are called informational stories ─ informational storybooks use a storyline to convey information.

Children benefit from info books in many ways …

  • Experience “authentic learning” as they investigate their own questions/topics of interest.
  • Inquire and solve problems ─ and foster critical thinking skills.
  • See connections and interrelationships among content and concepts.
  • Learn about faraway places, past times, and new ideas and concepts.
  • Begin to view the world as changing and evolving.
  • Acquire new vocabulary and broader background knowledge.

It’s not too early for young readers to know that there are many categories of books out there to provide different types of information. Trips to the library, for example, should underscore the many categories of books including story books and informational books available to them. The latter will include categories such as history; understanding peoples and cultures; nature; the arts; discovering how things work; and the how-to books.

Schools, of course, play the major role in guiding children to develop their reading and information retrieval skills using reading and critical thinking. Children begin the earliest grades now (including pre-school) using an array of technology tools because they must become familiar with them early to master their uses. They will have to know what “information retrieval” processes are and how and when to use them. Their vocabulary will need to include terms such as key word search, queries, web search engines, FAQ (frequently asked questions), tutorial, user guide, database, and apps. Without this level of literacy (reading and information literacy), they’re not going to be able to fill in words within a search box to access online applications for school, employment, and do their taxes someday.

A sample lesson plan from two teachers posted at Scholastic[6] underscores the types of lesson plans teachers are encouraged to incorporate in the early grades.[7] The lesson is aimed at pre-kindergarten through grades 1 and 2. The aim for the lesson is that “students will be able to identify nonfiction how-to books, discuss the ways how-to books are used, apply their knowledge and create a how-to book of their own.” One of the recommended activities is that the teacher will “ask parents to place focus on nonfiction procedural books that they use and will be using at home.” Scholastic offers some wonderful titles of books in the how-to category for teachers putting together these lesson plans.[8] Of course, parents can pick up these books and many other books in the nonfiction informational category too in order to help their children learn about the ways of acquiring new information.

Here’s the bottom line. Living in the 21st century is a journey increasingly in acquiring and processing new knowledge as things change around us. Reading early to develop these skills is key. So let’s help all our children develop their reading skills; teach them that there are many types of books out there and that they represent how knowledge is divided up ─ and that one of their important missions in life is to acquire knowledge. When young learners acquire the tools of reading and information retrieval ─ and understand that the knowledge they need is shaped into categories accessible through these tools – they can advance their journey as a learner, learning from autobiographies, poetry and how-to books alike. At an early age, children can and should do key word searches ─ type them in a box or speak them into a voice recognition system in their smart phone, tablet or computer; or tell the librarian at the library what the topic is they’re interested in – even if they don’t have technology tools right now ─ so they can watch the librarian start the information retrieval process and know that they soon will be doing this for themselves …

Pond.Front cover.21764715_High Resolution Front Cover_4728367_1 (2)


[1] Another Z House book that falls somewhere between informational storybook and how-to is How the Dog Came to Live at the Z House. It tells the story of a boy’s getting his first dog but also describes the many steps to adopting a dog through the local animal shelter.

[2] http://web.gccaz.edu/~rbarstac/291Fall08/InformationBooks/InformationBooks.htm: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[3] http://web.gccaz.edu/~rbarstac/291Fall08/InformationBooks/InformationBooks.htm: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[4] http://web.gccaz.edu/~rbarstac/291Fall08/InformationBooks/InformationBooks.htm: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[5] Drawn from: http://web.gccaz.edu/~rbarstac/291Fall08/InformationBooks/InformationBooks.htm: Children’s Non-fiction and Informational Books Part 2

[6] Scholastic (NASDAQ: SCHL) was founded in 1920 as a single classroom magazine. Today, Scholastic books and educational materials are in tens of thousands of schools and tens of millions of homes worldwide.

[7] http://www.scholastic.com/teachers/lesson-plan/how-books: Lesson Plan How-To Books by Alexandra Savvas, Naomi Randolph

[8] Scholastic publishes several books that fit into a lesson plan where the teacher (or parent) could follow up to make these items in class as follow-up activity. Examples: Tomatoes to Ketchup by Inez Snyder; Milk to Ice Cream by Inez Snyder; Wax to Crayons by Inez Snyder; Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie De Paola; Benny Bakes A Cake by Eve Rice; Building A House by Byron Barton; Bruno, The Tailor by Lars Klinting; Beans to Chocolate by Inez Snyder.

Can your dog or cat help a child learn to read better?

Early this morning ─ really early ─ BJ the cat[1] sprawls across my collarbone peering into my face, “vocalizing.” Her meows grow louder which can only mean one thing: “get up, I’m hungry, can’t you hear me?” BJ is mostly deaf from advancing age. I’m convinced she has no idea how loud she is. As she tunes up the MEOW volume, I shuffle downstairs to get the food bowl ready ─run water in the faucet until it’s hot enough to mix with her canned food to make warm gravy. She watches quietly next to her tan placemat on the kitchen floor. As I put the food bowl on her placemat, she vocalizes soft mewings that I interpret as, “I’m happy to just about be getting my food.” Then there’s quiet while she laps the gravy. Next, a visit to the water bowl followed by stretching. Finally, a trip to the window seat where she waits for the sun to stream in for a morning sunbath.

BJ is 20 years + some months old. In her senior years, she seems to have more to comment on than ever before ─she did not vocalize much when she was younger. She never has been the kind of cat who might sit and listen contentedly, for example, to a child reading out loud. Why you ask would I even expect her to do this?

Well, I learned recently that some cats do –that animal therapy teams throughout the country are joining forces to listen to children read. So I’m looking at BJ through new eyes. Could we be a therapy team – go to schools and libraries and help children learn to read better? Nope, not BJ the cat and me. And truth be told, it’s primarily dogs who participate in these programs. I learned this from looking at the pictures of therapy teams posted on the Internet – from animal assistance reading programs in Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Delaware, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Puget Sound.

So now I’m wondering how to get my therapy team together ─ join forces with a dog (or mellow cat) to participate in one of these programs because the data shows they are really helping children learn to read better. And children, schools, and animal therapy teams alike are saying it’s fun!

What do these programs look like? In an article for The Bark, [2] Anita Stone explains: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read. Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.”

Stone provides some good history about these programs. “Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library … and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading.”

Many other programs around the country have followed suit. For example, a psychologist volunteering with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance program called BARKS (“Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety”) in Durham County, North Carolina. By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and the demand from schools waiting to participate has grown significantly. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children. “Helping Paws International” has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and many teams are now operating in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

“Sit Stay Read!” was established in the Chicago area more than a decade ago by an owner of a dog training school. The Chicago program worked with teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts to establish a program focusing on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. One volunteer team (human + dog) works with groups of four children. The program started with four schools but quickly found some 40 schools were on the waiting list. The results have been really positive. Fluency test results show reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus 9 words per minute for children not involved with the program. And both the attendance of children and their attitude in the classroom have improved.

The Reading With Rover![3] literacy program places volunteers in the schools, bookstores and libraries of the Puget Sound area of Washington State to help with literacy programs. I especially enjoyed the testimonials (“woof” reviews) at their website. Here are a few:

  • It’s always been a struggle to get my child to read each day. I’ve never seemed to be able to find the right topics to draw him in. Reading with Rover has been a HUGE help! My son will read almost any kind of book during Reading with Rover, and he wants to read for the entire hour! This is so different from how he is at home. I highly recommend this program for any child who is not a fan of reading! ─ Jessica
  • My granddaughter is in love with your program! And when I was first introduced to it at Third Place Books last month, I totally understood her delight and enthusiasm. In the 40 years that I’ve been involved with education, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more exciting and rewarding program. I had tears in my eyes as I walked around and watched the various children read to these wonderful dogs! I have told anyone who will listen about it! I applaud all of your special efforts to make this so magical! ─ Jennifer C
  • Wow, was it a hit!!! Nate had a blast. Read to 5 dogs and finished 2 whole books. He was so proud of himself. He talked about the dogs all the way home. He is also trying to figure out how our unruly dog, Norton, could be a Reading with Rover dog. When we explained that Norton didn’t behave well enough to be around all those other dogs, he kept thinking. He’s now convinced we can start our own Reading with Rover at home with the neighborhood kids! I had to laugh. That should be funny. Thank you  ─ Shay H

All of these programs (there are many described on the Internet) report success in helping children learning to read. The biggest problem they seem to share is how to find more animal assistance teams.

So, what does it take for a dog (or cat even) to make a good therapy animal? These programs generally require registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. And training for the human that accompanies the dog for the reading sessions is needed as well; for example, what to say to the child when Rover falls asleep while the child is reading to him.

A report on these types of reading assistance programs by ABC news a few years ago[4] highlighted researchers at the University of California, Davis, who confirmed that children who read to a dog really do perform better. They found that young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement. For young kids, one of the big challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. Reading to dogs provides a simple solution — a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who “listens” and takes the pressure off a child as he stumbles.

So, with the research suggesting that animals can help children learn to read better, I’m hoping that other lovers of animals will look into these programs to help meet the growing demand for animal therapy teams.

I wish that BJ the cat could listen to children read but she’s doing too much of her own talking to be a good listener these days. My plan, therefore, is to look for a dog with the right temperament to be my partner in one of these programs in the future.


[1] Subject of one of the Z House stories: “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

[2]“Reading” Dogs Help Children Learn By lending an ear at story time: http://thebark.com/content/reading-dogs-help-children-learn

[3] http://www.readingwithrover.org/

[4] Report: Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort to Students. Study: Reading to Dogs Helps Children Learn to Read. http://abcnews.go.com/WN/study-dogs-children-learn-read/story?id=11428770


How a medical clinic incorporates the “Reach Out and Read” program

I‘ve always believed that each one of us can make a difference with our contributions of service ─ but when groups of people come together toward a common goal, they can go so much farther and deeper. The Reach Out and Read program is a great example.

Reach Out and Read (<http://www.reachoutandread.org/about-us/>) is a nonprofit organization of doctors and nurses who promote early literacy and school readiness in pediatric exam rooms throughout our nation. They give out new books to children and share advice to parents about the importance of reading aloud. The organization got its start 25 years ago with a first program at a medical center in Boston. By its twelfth year, the model was operating in 50 states and some 1,500 sites ─ distributing 1.6 million books per year. Today, Reach Out and Read partners with nearly 5,000 program sites distributing 6.5 million books per year. The “reach” in its name is well-deserved ─ the program currently serves 4.2 million children and their families and more than one-third of all children living in poverty in the U.S.

What is so unique about this program and its contribution to child literacy? First and foremost, it recognizes that there is a truly special relationship that develops between parents and medical providers (e.g., doctors, dentists, nurses) in the early years of a child’s development. The research shows that most children and their families visit medical providers some 10 times over those early years – and medical providers are viewed as trusted, knowledgeable people in their lives. When medical providers speak to families and children about the importance of reading and literacy development, this can have a tremendous impact. The evidence collected by Reach Out and Read truly bears this out:

  • Reach Out and Read families read together more often.
  • Their children enter kindergarten better prepared to succeed, with larger vocabularies and stronger language skills.
  • During the preschool years, their children score three to six months ahead of their non-Reach Out and Read peers on vocabulary tests ─ and these early foundational skills help start children on a path of success when they enter school.

A win-win all around.

Impressed by this evidence, I recently contacted Reach Out and Read to see if I could donate copies of my children’s books to their program. I knew from the program’s website that major book publishers like Scholastic[1] provide books to Reach Out and Read but wondered if one children’s book author could contribute books as well. Reach Out and Read gratefully accepted my offer of book donations and referred me to one of their programs near my home ─the Trinity Free Clinic.

I didn’t know anything about the Trinity Free Clinic but learned from its website that it provides free medical, health and dental support to the uninsured and low-income residents of our county entirely through a volunteer professional staff of doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists, and others (some 500 people volunteer at the clinic). The clinic also focuses on linking families to needed community resources through social services, and providing health education. Since 2000, the clinic has served over 23,000 patients and now serves some 4,000 patient visits per year.

I wondered how important a Reach Out and Read program would be at a clinic that provides an extensive array of medical services (e.g., Medical Clinic for adults and children; Pediatric Clinic; Eye Clinic; Foot Care service; Asthma/Allergy Clinic; Women’s Health Clinic; and Acute Dental Clinic). When I visited the clinic to drop off my donation of books, the very welcoming staff made sure I got the full tour. And I learned that the clinic is committed to coupling medical services with needed community resources through social services and health education. For example, the police department donates car seats to the clinic so families can outfit their vehicles for baby or child car seats. And literacy is a key component of their services as well. Several windowsills on the big windows in the waiting room sport free books for adults donated from the public library or other sources. And there’s a dedicated room for children at one end of the waiting room, which includes books, toys, and child-friendly seating. There’s even a big rocking chair just calling for a reader to read to children.

I viewed first-hand how the Reach Out and Read program is an essential service among the many medical and health education services at the Trinity Free Clinic. Children and their families receive a new book to take home at each visit and medical providers advocate for the importance of reading aloud. This reinforces for me my two views ─that each one of us can make a difference with our contributions of service, and that when groups of people come together toward a common goal like building the Reach Out and Read Program or the Trinity Free Clinic, they will go so much farther and deeper to meet peoples’ needs.

Holly Zanville donates copies of her two latest books (Summer at the Z House and Sadie Cat’s Close Call) to the Reach Out and Read Program at the Trinity Free Clinic in Carmel, IN.  Zanville (seated); right to left: Debbie Truitt, Reach Out and Read Volunteer; Dina Ferchmin, Executive Director; Camille Nelsen, Volunteer Coordinator; Cindy Love, Medical Operations Director.


[1] Scholastic is the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world, publishing more than 600 new titles a year for readers ages 0-18, in a variety of print and digital formats.

Developing verbal & visual literacy skills─murals & children’s picture books

Visit some art-minded cities in the Pacific Northwest (hint─Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington) and you’re likely to look up during one of your walks through the cities to see some awesome art on building walls. Mural art is growing in popularity (some world-famous murals can be found in Mexico, New York, Philadelphia, Belfast, Derry, Los Angeles, Nicaragua, Cuba and India). Two artists making a difference in the Pacific Northwest are the Z House Story illustrators, Jon Stommel and Travis Czekalski. They’re making their mark ─ literally ─on the landscapes of city buildings.

Though they live now in Portland, they moved to the Pacific Northwest just a few years ago from the Midwest. I met them in Indiana shortly after I moved from Oregon to follow a job change. So I feel a certain kinship – we literally switched places, them to Oregon and me to Indiana.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, it doesn’t matter where we live. I can send manuscripts of my children’s stories to Jon and Travis and they can send me back completed illustrations. And now that they’re living in the Pacific Northwest, they easily portray the scenes of the “Oregon Z House,” the setting of the first five stories in the Z House series. So I don’t have to explain how green the landscapes are and what the mountains look like. A win all around.

Jon and Travis attended the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. They graduated with BFAs and began working together to bring their shared vision to art projects in the genre of murals and public art.They have collaborated on painting wall murals for restaurants (4 Mellow Mushroom Restaurants), libraries (Columbus Metropolitan Library), schools (Sacramento Elementary School), government buildings (Ohio Environmental Protection Agency), and several nonprofit community organization offices in Ohio, Oregon and Washington. And they’ve been winning awards. In summer 2012 they took first place in the Clark County Mural Society’s Summer of Murals Program (Vancouver) for a mural honoring the Chinook Native American Tribe.They recently finished painting the wall for the Clark County Mural Society 2013 summer competition (theme Vancouver Farmers Market) and again their mural took first place.This summer they painted a mural celebrating bicycling in Vancouver.

Their biggest project has been 10 murals completed for the grand opening of a new downtown Target in Portland (City Target PDX). Each canvas measures 7 feet by 8 feet and has images inspired by the five districts in the city.  Following an open call for the community to submit instagram images of local images the artists could include in the paintings, Jon and Travis selected several peoples’ instagram submissions for imagery in the final paintings. It took 13 long days for Jon and Travis to paint the 10 murals! Now they’re displayed inside the new Target building. Some of my favorite murals are highlighted at the end of this blog. If you want to see all of themand Jon and Travis’ other outstanding workcheck out their website, Rather Severe: <rathersevere.blogspot.com>

Since 2011, Jon and Travis have been working with me to illustrate my children’s picture books.There are three out in book stores now, and they’re currently working on the fourth. And yes, the fifth is coming.         

So why am I writing about Jon and Travis? First, this is a tribute to Jon and Travis because I truly treasure my working relationship with these two highly talented artists. Second, this is a tribute to the many illustrators who make books come alive for children with their art work. Clearly, artwork is such a vital part of children’s picture books that picture gets in the title of the genre. All this is leading to a questionis there a best mix of pictures (illustrations) and words in books to foster the development of children’s literacy?     

A couple of weeks ago I visited the local public library with the goal to look at children’s books for the “words-to-pictures” mix. A row of award-winning books positioned on top of the stacks in the children’s section caught my eye ─ because they had won prestigious awards and because of their appealing art work. As I leafed through them, some were books telling stories solely or primarily through illustrations ─ some had no words, some had very few words. I’ve been thinking about this since my visit to the library. How is a parent best to read to the child art only or art-heavy books? Do parents try to interpret what the pictures are depicting to the child, putting their own words to the story told through the illustrations? Is the child best to figure this out on his/her own? And is this a good thing in either case?

To inform myself more about these questions, I consulted Perry Nodelman’s book, Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books (The University of Georgia Press, 1988). Nodelman includes an interesting analysis of “wordless picture books” on pages 184-192.  He notes that “the mere existence of such books [‘books with no words except their titles’] disturbs some adults, who fear that these books will encourage illiteracy ─that, like television, they encourage a visual orientation at the expense of a verbal one.” Nodelman  dismisses the TV worry by noting, “Television is a highly verbal medium whose pictures by themselves communicate next to nothing ─ a fact easily discerned by anybody who makes the experiment of watching television with the sound turned off …. In fact, television is like most picture books a medium dependent upon the interrelationship of words and pictures.” (185-186)

Then Nodelman offers several views on the question of “how well pictures by themselves can depict events that we can recognize as stories.” (185) 

  • One view is that children are ‘prewired’ to see plots in pictures but not in writing. An opposing view is that children are just as prewired to see plots in picture books with words.  (186)
  • Another is that when children tell in their own words the stories that only pictures suggest to them (‘translating visual experiences into verbal ones’), this practice likely aids in the development of literacy. (186).
  • A related view is that the “vagueness” of wordless picture books is a plus because they allow children to come up with their own interpretation of the pictures, and this helps develop creativity in children. (190)
  • A concern is that “if we encourage children to misuse wordless books in their attempts to find stories in them by ignoring details the pictures actually do show, then these books will indeed be the threat to literacy that some commentators believe them to be.” (190-191) The worry is that unless the child is really looking carefully at the details of the artwork (e.g., searching for clues among “apparently disparate bits of information,” such as clues about mood and atmosphere, meanings of gestures and facial expressions, meaning of dress and furniture, significance of the relationships among figures and shapes), the child may be making up stories that are not informed by the art and, therefore, will be missing out on important cognitive development that builds “visual story-making competence.” (190).
  • Another concern is that the stories suggested by pictures alone can be told by many different children in many different ways since there are no words to focus attention on “meaningful or important narrative details.” (186)  An implication is children are not able to learn new information about different cultures then, etc., due to their own limited experiences.
  • A final concern is that storytelling resulting from translating visual only experiences into verbal ones will not be as rich because “wordless picture books can easily depict actions [but] not so easily communicate feelings or meanings.” (190)

With these views in mind, I’m coming down on the side of both/and: 1) both verbal and visual information will help children develop verbal literacy, and 2) developing visual literacy is important as well (helping the developing reader learn how to decode visual information).

No doubt, different children’s picture book writers and publishers of children’s books have their own desired formula for words-to-illustrations (or scenes needed to tell the story). For me, the preferred formula is art work on every page. I don’t believe I can tell the Z House Stories well without lots of great illustrations. And for that, I have Jon and Travis to thank.

But I’m wondering what they think about all thiswhat they think about when they do art work for children’s books vs. telling stories through pictures (murals) on building walls. In the second part of this blog, I’ll be talking with them to share their views. 

 Some favorite murals from the Target project …