April 01


The Joining of the Inner and Outer Worlds by Mark Karlins

On a cold New Mexico night I walked down the driveway, the sky huge with winter stars. At the mailbox I pulled out an oversized envelope, my author’s copy of Kiyoshi’s Walk. It was a picture book I had worked on for years, a story which begins with Kiyoshi asking his Grandfather Eto “Where do poems come from?” Grandfather answers by suggesting they go for a walk. It is that answer which gives the book its structure. Step by step, Kiyoshi learns from his grandfather and the haikus his grandfather writes that poems come from careful seeing, from listening, from imagining. He realizes that poems are all around us in the commonplace things of the world. They can be found if only we are mindful. But Kiyoshi’s Walk is not only about mindfulness and the loving relationship of a grandparent and grandchild. It is a book that teaches children how to create poetry.

I hurried back to the house, asking a question similar to Kiyoshi’s. Where do books come from? What was once ephemeral, a story-idea floating around in my head, was now a solid, touchable object, a book. It’s cover was alive with a scene of Kiyoshi and his grandfather walking through a city in search of poems. The book had weight. It had form and the smell of newly printed upon paper.

But there was more. As I looked at the illustrator’s depiction of the two main characters, painted by Nicole Wong, they were deeper and more complex than my words by themselves had made them. There were expressions on their faces as Grandfather Eto pointed out to Kiyoshi a flock of pigeons in flight, a pile of oranges at a fruit stand, or the mystery behind a stone wall. In the text I hadn’t mentioned their expressions. Nor did I mention the season with its pink blossoming trees or the many other details that now make the book what it is. Not a bit of this was in the manuscript. Or was it?

Beneath the words, waiting to be unearthed by the illustrator and book designer, was a richer book than what I had written. Their imagination and craft lifted what was invisible to me to the surface. Blossoming pink trees, cats looking out the windows, people picnicking in the park, a design which emphasized the horizontal and thus the sense of the walk of the two main characters. These were all new to me and yet felt as right as if a more visually capable me had created them. What such creation must call for is a strong empathy for someone else’s story, an empathy which manifests itself in image and design. Through their empathy, the illustrator and designer had given me a gift, a book I didn’t know was there. And isn’t that precisely what Eto was doing with his grandson, showing him ways to empathize with the world and thus to see with clarity?

I was reminded that the text of a picture book is as much about what is not said as it is about what is said. Writing is about trust. This is particularly true in the writing of a picture book. I trust that the illustrator and designer will be faithful to my words and vision, but I also trust that they will see beyond my words and allow their own visions to take their proper course. It is a curious alchemy, the collaborative process.

At the end of his journey with Grandfather Eto, Kiyoshi becomes who he wants to be, a boy who can write poetry. His poem, as Kiyoshi himself says, is a joining of  inner and outer worlds, of what is in his heart and what is around him. The book too is such a joining—of the words which emerged from inside me and the world outside as seen in the work of the illustrator and the designer. When I held Kiyoshi’s Walk on that winter night, in my hands was something both tangible and as ephemeral as a petal from one of the illustrator’s flowering trees.

Of course in some ways, the book’s journey has just begun. It will be shared, altered. The voice of a parent, a teacher or a librarian will shape the words, and the reactions and questions of children will add a layer of meaning. These will become as much a part of the book as Grandfather Eto’s lovely poems or Kiyoshi’s moment of realization that poetry comes from being fully in the world and from sensing it with a loving and empathetic heart.


Mark Karlins is the author of six picture books, two books of poetry for adults, and a number of reviews and essays on poetry. He runs poetry workshops for children and teenagers and has also taught at a number of colleges, including the MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can find him on the Web at markkarlins.com.