April 26

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On Building a Picture Book: Failure and Finding Your Voice by Vern Kousky

I first came up with the idea for The Blue Songbird during a trip to the Japanese galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a place I often go when I have a spare moment or two. The rooms are generally quiet and dark and much of the work there has an illustrative quality that seems to me both modern and timeless. On this particular visit, a collection of books from the 18th and 19th centuries was on display. These books were wordless, composed entirely of woodblock prints, and centered around a distinctive theme.  In short, they were the picture books of their time. One such book was The Korin Album by Nakamura Hôchû. The page to which the book was turned showed a flock of birds in flight. All save for the last had their beaks open as if in song. As I examined the print, I began to wonder about this last little bird. Why was she silent? And would she ever sing?

The Korin Album (image from the NYPL Digital Gallery)

Stories generally come to me this way—as a question to be answered or a mystery to be explored. When I returned home that day, I set about trying to satisfy my curiosity, and, in doing so, perhaps tell this bird’s story. This part of creating often flows quickly for me, almost automatically. Rather than lead my characters to a destination, I try instead to follow along, and often I am as surprised as a reader might be as to where they end up. (Or where they get stuck. My studio is cluttered with half-born oddities.) In this case, however, I was fortunate. I soon had completed a rough draft and began to think about how I would set these words to pictures.

Given that a woodblock print was the inspiration, I envisioned the book as an homage to Japanese printmaking—each spread would be based on a classic print. I was most excited by this idea not only because it was a way to explore an art form that fascinates me, but also because this process could be easily (or so I thought) adapted to the modern tool of Photoshop.
Yet when I placed my initial illustrations alongside their models, they seemed merely copies, and far inferior ones at that. I soon realized I was imitating a process I only dimly understood. Stubborn by nature, I spent the next year and half trying to hone my skills, and while the illustrations did improve, they were still not nearly as interesting as the originals. The songbird in particular never appeared more than a lifeless puppet. I was, to put it mildly, extremely frustrated and questioned (as I still on occasion do today) whether or not I was cut out to be an illustrator.

 


lower: Katshushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa (from the Met online), upper: my blue songbird imitation

The way out of this impasse came in the form of a happy accident. While making the colors for the illustrations, I kept a piece of scrap paper close at hand to clear my brush of excess ink. One day I happened to notice that the blots and stray marks on this paper seemed more alive than anything in my illustrations. What if, I wondered, I were to construct a new world out of the rubbish of the old?

 

 

And so I threw away nearly two years of work and started over. I began making shapes with anything I could find—brushes, sponges, eyedroppers, masking tape, paper towels—often not knowing what role they would play in the final image. Sometimes, a cloud would become a tree, or sky would become water. In doing so, the process was no longer tedious and carefully planned, but something more like play. I would endlessly arrange and rearrange these shapes until the scene they formed resonated with me. For the songbirds as well, I made hundreds of improvised blots and chose only the ones that seemed most alive. Over time, the songbird and her world slowly began to take shape. Looking at this world today, I can still see the ghost of my love of Asian art, but I also see a more private love, something born of interests that are mine alone.

While I didn’t notice it at the time, it seems now almost comically obvious that the songbird’s journey has been my journey as well. She starts by trying to imitate what she loves, then despairs at her failure. Even during her travels she initially believes the answer will be given to her by other birds, will come from somewhere outside herself. But the music has always been there inside of her. Her experiences simply provided her the key to unlock it.

 

How is it that I failed for so long to learn from my protagonist? I’m still not quite sure. I think, however, that it’s never easy to leave the familiar behind, to let go of our loves and the safety of a comfortable nest and chart our own course. Such is the struggle not only of childhood, but of life itself. We all have a unique world living inside us, the product of thoughts, feelings, and dreams that are ours alone. No matter our age, sharing this world can be a daunting task, so much so that it may, at first, remain locked inside. If I’ve one hope for this book, it’s that it encourages us, regardless of our failures or our fears, to persevere in the quest for expression, to keep searching and searching until we, like the blue songbird, find for ourselves that very special thing—a song that only we can sing.

 

Vern Kousky was born in Seattle, Washington, and grew up in Pennsylvania. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, where he works as an adjunct professor of English for Touro College. His first book, Otto the Owl Who Loved Poetry, was released by Nancy Paulsen Books in 2015 and received Frostburg State University’s CLC Book Award as well as a Parent’s Choice Award.