Tag Archive for How Do You Feel? Rockwell

On Emotional Literacy, Community & Quilting: A Conversation with Author Lizzy Rockwell

There is not a single person in all of children’s literature who I admire more than Lizzy Rockwell. She is everything a children’s book artist, and citizen of the world, should be. Lizzy has not only dedicated a lifetime to making books, she connects with readers and community members and quietly makes a difference in the universe. She does it without fanfare or ego; Lizzy simply puts her head down and goes to work. I invited her over to chat about her latest book, How Do You Feel?

Hey, Lizzy. I’ve been thinking about your book, How Do You Feel? It features a repetitive structure, with just four words on a spread. “Deceptively simple” would be one way to describe it. And maybe that’s true of a lot of your work. There’s much more at play than immediately meets the eye.

Hi Jimmy! Happy winter. How are you? No, I mean it, tell me, how do you feel? Deceptively simple question, right?

I’m fine, thanks. But, actually, now that you ask –- hey, I see what you did there!

I guess the whole point of the book is to take a moment to just ask the question, “How do you feel?” with sincerity, and then really listen to the answer. I think so often we ask questions in a way that suggests what we want the answer to be, not necessarily what the answer actually is.

There’s a subcategory of books I like to think of as “talking books.” That is, the book, in the right hands, serves as the starting point for valuable conversations. How Do You Feel is very much that kind of book.

Yes, the whole point of art is to elicit a reaction or a connection with the viewer or reader or listener or watcher. So I do like works of art that are very open-ended and ask more questions than they answer. I write a lot of non-fiction, and even there I don’t feel my job is to just provide information and facts, as much as to spark curiosity and exploration. I often use question marks somewhere in my non-fiction texts. This is the first book where I use only question marks.

 

As adults, we assume we’re supposed to be the suppliers of the answers. We dispense the info. We’re big and we know stuff. But a better gift is to help readers learn the right questions.

Yes, I totally agree.

One of the reasons why I love your books –- why I have so much respect for your work –- is that you have a clear sense of who your books are for. You work with intention and purpose. It strikes me that you know these young children, and you know exactly what you are attempting to do with this book. How do you stay in touch with your audience?

I think young kids are just the most interesting people in the world. No offense Jimmy, you are very interesting too, especially for a grown-up.

It feels like there’s going to be a “but” in this.

But —

I knew it!

— three-year old kids absolutely fascinate me because they give great insight to the human condition. They are emotionally honest and very insightful. Even though they can’t easily regulate emotions or even name them, they feel them and notice them in others much more readily than we do. And the world is wide and fresh, and language is this new superpower, so they have a knack for articulating big existential truths and questions. I find them quite philosophical. I think some of these powers will be diminished and replaced by new ones as they become more verbal, and more social. I just feel it’s a privilege to chat or play with these little people and get a window into that profound point of view. I have some young friends, I have a vivid memory of being a mother to young children, and I spend a lot of time as visiting reader and workshop leader in preschools.

Tell me about that role, visiting preschools. How does that work? 

I volunteer to read at preschools in my community, whenever I can. For three years, 2015-18, I was hired as an artist-in-residence to teach literacy workshops with three and four-year-olds in the Head Start preschools in Bridgeport, CT. I ran about twenty-four sessions a year. On a given day I would visit two classrooms and work with the kids, with staff support, for 40-minute sessions. I would read a book of mine, model a drawing on the easel, then they would “write” and illustrate their own little booklet which I made from folded and stapled copier paper. Each booklet had brightly colored card stock for the cover, and stickers for writing the book title and author name.

What have you learned about emotional literacy? Are young children confused about their feelings?

I think that kids are searching for the words to name their feelings, because words are powerful, and being listened to is powerful. But I think they are better at actually feeling emotion and expressing it than we are, or they will be by the time they get to middle school. But they do need to be equipped with the language and strategies for managing feelings. I read Marc Brackett’s book, Permission to Feel, and it gives excellent actionable guidelines for making schools, homes and businesses more emotionally supportive, and filled with more serene and connected people. I love that this is becoming a high priority in public schools. By focusing on the emotional lives of these little people, we give them lifetime skills at a crucial moment of their development. While doing so, we learn how to be better and more emotionally aware people.

Was your manuscript always this sparse? Did you have that vision from the beginning?

I had tried writing emotional wellness books in the past. They were all terrible. Since being a mother of young kids, and writing books about physical wellness (Good Enough to Eat: A Kid’s Guide to Food and Nutrition, and The Very Busy Body Book: A Kid’s Guide to Fitness), I wanted to write a book promoting emotional health. And, like those books, I wanted to write in a tone that made this self-care stuff seem like the reader’s idea, not mine. But my texts for the emotion books just kept sounding like greeting card copy. I finally realized, when I saw these great Level A, four-words-on-a-spread books from the Holiday House I Like to Read series, that I could approach this theme best, by saying almost nothing at all.

  

Yes, the writer clears out of the way for the illustrator to tell the story.

Most of our emotions are expressed not so much with words, but with body language, facial expression and tone of voice. And most emotions are triggered by events outside of our control. So by focusing on the visual narrative, I could show the most variety and nuance. By capturing a crucial moment in time, I could provide the opportunity for my reader to step back, study the clues and act as emotion detective. By leaving the explanatory language out, I kind of demand that someone else fill in that missing piece, which gets kids talking.

In improvisation, in music or comedy, that’s called leaving space. You aren’t filling in every gap, thereby giving your creative partner — in this case, the reader — more room to enter.

Oh, I like that term! 

David Bromberg, the musician, talks about that. He’s widely considered a gifted and generous accompanist. He says that the key is to know when not to play. In other words, to leave space. That resembles your process, which is often a stripping away, trying to get down to the essence?

Oh yes definitely. But I think this is true of most of the art I love. What’s there is precisely what needs to be there. What’s left out, in between the spaces, is up to me to ponder.

I appreciate the way you are connected with your community. Tell us a little bit about your quilting projects.

For the past twelve years I have been making community quilts with a bunch of wonderful people in Norwalk, CT, where I lived when I started the project in 2008. (Now I live a couple of towns over in Bridgeport.) We are an intergenerational group of senior citizens, adults, and kids (elementary school to high school). We meet in the community room of public housing complex for seniors, and almost every Friday after school till dinner time, we roll sewing machines, cutting mats, boxes of unfinished projects, snacks and a quilting frame out of a tiny closet and set to work. We make quilted objects for personal use and as teaching samplers, and simply as an excuse to get together and have fun.

We have also made seven, to date, quilts that hang in public places. For these installation quilts, I design them on a theme, with areas of the quilt which will showcase fabric art made by a variety of individuals. Once on the quilting frame we sit around and hand quilt them at our meetings, and they go on tour for pop-up quilting bees in public places like schools, libraries, and festivals. I have two public quilts in the sketch stage right now which will be unveiled in the fall (yikes!). We are a big family. We are called Peace by Piece: The Norwalk Community Quilt Project.

Any new books coming out in 2020?

The All-Together Quilt is being published by Alfred A. Knopf in October 2020. A labor of love all about a labor of love.

Fun fact: Lizzy is the extremely proud daughter of Anne Rockwell, author of more than 100 titles and a pioneer in nonfiction for very young children. Anne passed away in 2018. Lizzy Rockwell lives in Bridgeport, CT, and can be found on the web at lizzyrockwell.com. She’s kind of my hero.