In the summer my front yard is a huge body of water, a playground for boats, swimmers and fishermen.
In the winter that water gets a hard shell of ice and becomes an entirely different playground, a brand new piece of “land” where we can walk, skate, and even drive snowmobiles and pickup trucks. Fishermen set up their shanties, forming cozy little villages.
As children we skated here with our mom and dog Lumpy.
When I illustrated my 1st book in 1983 I remembered times spent skating with my dog.
Cardinals in February from A Year of Birds by Ashley Wolff
During this Christmas break we got some lovely light snow and my sister and I set out to make this our new front yard.
We walked across the lake, following coyote tracks, and noticing where a bird landed, leaving wing and tail marks in the snow.
As a Picture Book Month Ambassador I was invited to write an essay explaining why picture books are important to me –and how they can change the lives of child readers.
I chose to talk about my favorite book from childhood
The Story of Ophelia by Mary Gibbons and Evaline Ness. The straightforward prose is long by today’s standards, but tells the story clearly. What I found most thrilling were the pictures of the one-eyed, ravening fox. Those really scared me, and seeing Ophelia survive his attack and prevail were very satisfying to good little girl me.
Please enjoy my essay and tune in every day during PiBoMo this November to read the essays by the other ambassadors.
Once upon a time I was a good little girl and picture books helped me express my inner, rather blood thirsty heroine.
Whenever I hear an editor or art director caution “ You can’t say/show this or that—that’ll give children the wrong idea. They’ll want to try it themselves,” my favorite childhoodbook: The Story of Ophelia, by Mary Gibbons and illustrated by Evaline Ness, comes to mind.
As a child I identified completely with Ophelia: a skinny, rebellious little lamb, with six, fat, goody-two-shoes lamb siblings and a wise, tolerant sheep of a mother.
When cautioned not to, Ophelia disobeys, enters the dark woods, is chased by the hungry fox, and with the help of the friends she made outside of the sheep paddock, escapes the fox. He is killed by a big bird right there on the page—a thing that never happens anymore in picture books. And surprise-she is not scolded for being naughty. Instead, she is rewarded with 4 new, red socks and a reputation as a fox killer!
Adults devour thrillers and adventure stories, and, if I was typical, so do little children. I craved that large, heroic, adventurous life that was nothing like my own, and, at various ages, I found it in stories as varied as Blueberries for Sal, Puss in Boots, and The Little Red Lighthouse and the Big Gray Bridge.
Picture books give young children a safe taste of other worlds: travel to distant lands, peeks into the past, or future, and the satisfaction being able to find their heroic self in a book. Through Ophelia, a human/animal character, or as I call her a ‘humanal,” I had a vicarious adventure that was far more exciting and life threatening than anything I’d ever experienced.
Please comment and tell me the book that most influenced YOU as a child.
along with this amazing company: Kwame Alexander, Kevan Atteberry, Phil Bildner, Elizabeth Bluemle, Alyssa Satin Capucilli, Laura Gehl, Matthew Cordell, Pat Cummings, Doug Cushman, Erzsi Deak, Josh Funk, Marita Gentry, Paul Hankins, Verla Kay, Lester Laminack, Minh Le, Adam Lehrhaupt, Sylvia Liu, Ralph Masiello, Laura Lowman Murray, Carmen Oliver, Todd Parr, John Parra, Jan Peck, Alexandra Penfold, Jeanie Ransome, Isabel Roxas, Jodell Sadler, and Andrea Pinkney.
In company with these friends and fellow creators, I’ve been invited to speak my mind about the importance of Picture Books.
On my day the theme is School! My PiBoMo essay isn’t about school-it’s about risk taking.
But I have plenty of thoughts about school too, since I’m probably best known for illustrating books by Joseph Slate about a talented kindergarten teacher named Miss Bindergarten, based on my 1st border collie Pumpkin.
It’s always been easy to be enthusiastic about the kindergarten year of school.
I believe it is where a child learns to love school-a good year can set the stage for a great school career– a bad one can make a child wary.
While illustrating these books I studied the traditions and common elements of modern kindergarten very closely, which led me to wonder how long kindergarten, as we know it, has been an institution.
It was created by the German born Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) Kindergarten in Froebel’s vision meant both ‘a garden for children’, where children meet with environment and also ‘a garden of children’, where they play together and express themselves in a smaller garden world by means of play with their age group.
He believed that “children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.”
My dad, born in Germany in 1916, carried a leather “rucksack” on his 1st day of school.
His class of 19 appears to have all the same kids you remember: the Class Clown, little Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, Mister Hyperactive, the Inseparable Buddies and the Teacher’s Pet.
Kindergarten was a great idea and spread around the world, including to the US in the 1850s.
I went to Mary Hogan Elementary School about 100+ years later. My teacher’s name was Miss Vondle. Kindergarten is so important in a child’s life that I bet most people can remember the name of their teacher.
My sons went in the 1990s.
My, how many things have changed, and how many stay the same!
The cover of a 4 page brochure about photographing children created by my paternal grandfather Dr. Paul Wolff.
Paul Wolff using a huge view camera, before he was introduced to the new, hand held Leica.
My grandparent’s wedding in 1914. Helene is 2nd and Paul is 4th from left.
Paul Wolff published at least 6 books of his photographs. They are mostly written in German, so I have not read all his commentary.
Paul Wolff took fascinating photos of a huge range of subjects. Thorsten Overgaard wrote an essay about one of his photos that is great reading. My favorite quote from this article makes my grandfather come alive for me.
“In his book “My Life with The Leica” Walther Benser recalls the period where he would assist Dr. Paul Wolff. Benser was a Leica employee who had gone through the full technical training in Wetzlar and later spent many years traveling with the Leica Slide Show. He recalls:
“Dr. Paul Wolff had skills which I found myself envying. Without any optical aid from the Leica viewfinder in the new (Telyt) reflex housing, he could dissect the surroundings with his naked eye in the search for a suitable subject and position. He invariably picked out the perfect spot for taking the picture with the focal length he had already selected”.
“He was a master at keeping his photographic intentions undetected for as long as possible. He never carried the camera in front of his body in the usual manner but kept it, suspended on its strap, hidden behind his back with his right hand. This had become second nature to such an extent that he kept his right hand behind his back even when he was not holding a camera”.
I’ve chosen just a few of my favorite images of his to share, focusing on ones that remind me most of the way I, too, see the world.
I can see where I’ve acquired the habit of framing a view with foreground objects, and my fascination with close ups of nature.
I love the shallow focal field in this photo of my Dad at play as a child.
This one-lit by car headlights-is my all time favorite. Oh, to have snows like this again!
I never knew my grandfather. He and my grandmother divorced and he and my father became estranged. I did learn that he went on to marry a fellow photographer Annette Beiger and they had another son in 1943. If anyone reads this and can put me in touch with my half uncle Stephen Wolff and his family I’d be grateful.
I grew up with a fold-out frieze of Noah’s Ark running around the top of the walls of the room I shared with my sister. Gazing from my pillow on the top bunk, I studied every detail of those animals. I’m sure that must have influenced my choice of subjects to this day.
Last summer I painted a fantasy mural of a clearing with a pond, horses and some little houses for my grand niece Julie Anna. Her family had a new baby on the way and this summer, 7-month-old Karla got her own fantasy mural.
To prepare, we set up lamps and a worktable, and draped the room with sheets.
I began with an spongey oval to echo Julie Anna’s Pastoral scene, but I decided to go underwater this time.
I added a sandcastle in the background and built up turrets and windows and seaweed until I was happy.
Now it was time to introduce the star–a fat, little mermaid with long dark hair.
Of course she needed an entourage of sea creatures,
including a whale for Julie Anna, a dolphin for Karen, and an octopus for me.
My other favorite bits now are the pearl in the oyster and the eel in the cave.
Karla seems pleased. No smiling for the camera this time–she only wanted to pat, pat, pat her little mermaid.
If you enjoyed this post, please like Ashley Wolff Art on Facebook, visit my webpage here, my Etsy shop, or follow the blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at the top of the sidebar.