July 9, 2019

Sometimes it begins with a toy

“Which came first, the words or the pictures?” Author-illustrators are often asked this question about their creative process, to which I would resoundingly answer that, for me, it’s the images!

A child’s plaything is often both a gateway and a companion for imaginative adventures. Such adventures often begin even before encountering a playmate.  When a child rocks a rocking horse, they ride into a different world. When a child picks up a vehicle—a car, a train, a boat or a plane—it travels in the room, then further, into a world of their imagination.

Of course, most of us are familiar with the stories where a plaything, such as a doll or stuffed toy animal is a main character.  The Velveteen Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Raggedy Ann and Andy are classic examples. Some modern titles include The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Thomas the Train, Calvin and Hobbes, or Oblivion Island.

As I stitched appliquéd figures on a futon for a friend’s expected newborn, I imagined the child-to-be going on an adventure with his toy Chinese dragon, catching fireflies to light their way. The parents had recently moved to New York where fireflies still glow on hot, summer evenings. When the child’s mother mentioned she had been sewing a little toy rabbit for her baby, I wasn’t surprised because I had imagined that the child and his toy dragon encountered a lost toy bunny on their firefly search. The rest of the story, I wove on my mind’s canvas as The Lost Bunny.

One year when the boy’s mother was on a sabbatical, researching locally at the University of Washington, I drove over for a visit. On both ends of my trip I saw a crow sitting in the rain atop a lamppost. I noticed the little boy’s wooden train was set up for play. Later, at Christmas I gifted the little boy a small station to add to his train set. When I saw a photo of him playing with his train set included in a letter of thanks, a story chugged into motion for Follow the Crow (which I called Ride the Train in the early dummy and draft). I couldn’t wait to paint a boy begging to stay up past bedtime to play with his train and his toy dragon, and then receiving a surprise visitor through the window—a crow!

On a summer visit, I gave the boy a toy wooden sailboat to float in the nearby tide pools.  This toy, too, features in a story about a determined boy and his toy dragon searching through the dark house at night to locate his missing pirate book.

Several years ago when tending a gift booth at the Obon Festival, I bought a couple of tiny toy rabbits which had been dressed festively in cotton happi coats. They sat in my studio, as if watching while I painted. I even named them after the printed chrysanthemums, and the snowflakes printed on their respective happi. Kiku and Seppen seem to be asking for their own story. I am currently weaving together Obon Bunnies, a story in which two children, separately, purchase these two bunnies during dance intermission. I wondered whether Kiku and Seppen would ever reunite, and under what kind of circumstances.

So for me, four times a story has begun not just with an image, but with a toy! I guess you can tell I still like toys.