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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

One North Star, Three Creative Artists

One North Star

Bet­sy Bowen’s book, Antler Bear Canoe: a North­woods Alpha­bet, has been a favorite alpha­bet book for the last 25 years, remind­ing every read­er about the things they love in their unique envi­ron­ment.

Now, a count­ing book will sit allur­ing­ly on the book­shelf next to that title. One North Star: a Count­ing Book (Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press) has been writ­ten by Phyl­lis Root, and illus­trat­ed with wood­cuts by Bet­sy Bowen and Beck­ie Prange. We’re so tak­en with the book that we asked to inter­view the inspir­ing team who cre­at­ed it.

Phyllis RootPHYLLIS ROOT, writer

Which came first, the idea for the illus­tra­tions or the idea for the text? They’re both filled with so much won­der and imag­i­na­tion.

The text came first.  The book began when an edi­tor at Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press was inter­est­ed in a count­ing book, and we decid­ed on one about the flo­ra and fau­na and habi­tats in Min­neso­ta.  Ever since I moved to Min­neso­ta years ago I’ve been fas­ci­nat­ed with the vari­ety of places, plants, and ani­mals in the state along with all the still-wild places, so the book was great fun (and, as it turned out, a great chal­lenge). When in my research I learned that the Min­neso­ta mot­to is l’Etoile du nord, the star of the north, the struc­ture of the book took shape.

This is a cumu­la­tive tale in that we count num­bers, begin­ning at one, “one north star,” and add oth­er north woods crea­tures or geol­o­gy or flo­ra until we’re count­ing back­wards from ten. Unlike many cumu­la­tive tales (think A Par­tridge in a Pear Tree), the words aren’t repeat­ed each time, except for “under one north star.” How were you able to include such a vari­ety?

Lots and lots and lots of research and lots and lots and lots of writ­ing and rewrit­ing. One of the chal­lenges was fig­ur­ing out what lived where at what time of year and what num­ber you might see. You prob­a­bly wouldn’t see ten moose togeth­er, for exam­ple, and even if you did, I couldn’t imag­ine them all squeez­ing them into a pic­ture along with nine of some­thing, eight of some­thing, etc.

Bog, One North Star

How did you go about orga­niz­ing this book? Choos­ing which flo­ra and fau­na you would include?

First was the research. I learned so much read­ing about all the habi­tats and what you might see there and vis­it­ing places to see for myself. (I’d nev­er been to the bog, for exam­ple, and fell in love with the Big Bog when I did visit—enough to write a book just about the bog.) Once I had an abun­dance of infor­ma­tion, I began fit­ting the plants and ani­mals into num­bers and also into sea­sons so that the book fol­lowed through the year. So it made sense that in win­ter you’d have few­er plants and ani­mals avail­able, while lat­er in sum­mer you’d have many dif­fer­ent ones to choose from. Also, I tried to include fish, amphib­ians, rep­tiles, birds, and mam­mals along with flow­ers, trees, and fun­gi. I want­ed the book to be as inclu­sive as pos­si­ble. The whole book became a puz­zle to fig­ure out. And when I had a draft I checked with a nat­u­ral­ist friend and found out just how much I had got­ten wrong (a lot) and had to reor­ga­nize again—and again.

How did you work on your active verbs and your adjec­tives to get them to be so evoca­tive of the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods?

I decid­ed that, just to make the book a lit­tle more chal­leng­ing (what was I think­ing?) that I would try to nev­er use a verb more than once, and I want­ed each verb to be as strong and evoca­tive as pos­si­ble, to work as hard as it could so that the book would be fun to read as well.

When you were doing your research, did you dis­cov­er that any of the ani­mals or plants would not be grouped in the num­bers you wrote?

Plen­ty of times. More times than I can count.

Were there any descrip­tions that the illus­tra­tors asked you to change because they would be too hard to depict?

There were descrip­tions I was asked to change because they were incor­rect, for which I’m very grate­ful. I learned a lot about phe­nol­o­gy from Beck­ie, what you might see at the same time in the same place, and I learned even more from my nat­u­ral­ist friends. I’m awestruck and delight­ed at how the artists solved the prob­lem of fit­ting so many images on the lat­er pages of the book. I count­ed up rough­ly 220 images depict­ing 55 dif­fer­ent species in the book itself. The art­work and the artists are beyond amaz­ing.

You have exten­sive back mat­ter, divid­ed by the type of ecosys­tem, such as Aspen Prairie Park­land and Bog, with descrip­tions of each liv­ing crea­ture or plant you’ve includ­ed in the text of One North Star. Did you have a set of cri­te­ria so you could be  suc­cinct with those short para­graphs?

Just try­ing to write spar­e­ly, some­thing pic­ture book writ­ers are always strug­gling to do. I also tried to focus on what was the essen­tial or most inter­est­ing fea­ture about a place or a species, such as north­ern prairie skinks being able to break off their tails to escape cap­ture.

What do you find most sat­is­fy­ing about adding One North Star to your deep list of books?

I love how beau­ti­ful the artists have made the book, and I’m very glad to have a book that cel­e­brates Minnesota’s rich nat­ur­al diver­si­ty. I hope the book will make folks want to go out and see these places for them­selves.

Beckie PrangeBECKIE PRANGE, illus­tra­tor and wood­cut artist

How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?

I was approached by a for­mer UMN Press edi­tor and was excit­ed about Phyl­lis’ con­cept for One North Star, and its scope.

When you work on a book like this, how much plan­ning goes into the illus­tra­tions before you begin to make your wood­cuts?

The amount of plan­ning and research is mas­sive. The for­mer edi­tor want­ed the illus­tra­tions to be real­is­tic scenes, which meant find­ing a way to fit all of the species into an image of what you could pos­si­bly see from a par­tic­u­lar view­point in nature.

For this book, there were two of you con­tribut­ing wood­cut illus­tra­tions. I know that you have been teacher and stu­dent in the past. Did that help when you worked on this book togeth­er?

Due to the quirks and tim­ing of life events I was unable to fin­ish the illus­tra­tion work on One North Star. There was a gap in the progress on the book after I had com­plet­ed most of the work on the draft illus­tra­tions. By the time we could get start­ed again, I had a full time posi­tion in a field I’m excit­ed about and found that I was unable to con­tin­ue as illus­tra­tor. I’m very thank­ful that Bet­sy was able to pick up so skill­ful­ly where I left off.

How did you work togeth­er to make the illus­tra­tions a cohe­sive whole?

All I can say here is that Bet­sy is total­ly awe­some, and did a beau­ti­ful job with the final illus­tra­tions with­out any help from me.

Was it chal­leng­ing to com­pose the chock-full, two-page spreads that includ­ed many crit­ters? How did you make deci­sions about where to place every­thing in the illus­tra­tion?

Cre­at­ing sin­gle scenes from one view­point which includ­ed all of the organ­isms Phyl­lis wrote about, while being faith­ful to those organ­isms’ habits and habi­tats was incred­i­bly chal­leng­ing. It was espe­cial­ly tough with the high­er num­bers, but there were chal­lenges with low­er num­bers too. For exam­ple, how do you put a noc­tur­nal crea­ture and a diur­nal crea­ture in the same scene and have it look at least mar­gin­al­ly believ­able? Lit­tle brown bats and rough-legged hawks just don’t hang out in the same space and time. I just had to play with it, and let it go until some­thing came to me.

Have you worked on projects before with this many dif­fer­ent objects includ­ed?

No! Nowhere close.

Number Three, One North Star

Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most sat­is­fac­tion?

I love all of them, but the one that makes me hap­pi­est right now is num­ber three, with the black bears, grouse and lynx. When I was draw­ing that one, I strug­gled with it. I could not get it to feel right. The per­spec­tive was both­er­ing me. I nev­er did solve it to my sat­is­fac­tion. Bet­sy trans­lat­ed what is basi­cal­ly the same lay­out into an image that real­ly works. It looks per­fect.

A big thanks to all three of you for shar­ing the way you worked on this book that all who are fond of the north woods will cher­ish.

Betsy BowenBETSY BOWEN, illus­tra­tor and wood­cut artist

How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?

This is my third book with Phyl­lis, and I real­ly enjoy her lyri­cal and infor­ma­tive lan­guage.  I also like work­ing with Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press.

When you work on a book like this, how much plan­ning goes into the illus­tra­tions before you begin to make your wood­cuts?

In this case, Beck­ie had made the lay­outs in pen­cil and water­col­or for the num­ber pages.  I joined the project lat­er on, and so I used her designs. I added ideas for the parts before and after the num­ber sec­tion. And then I made the final ver­sion of the art.  Plan­ning and sketch­ing is a big part of the work (and the fun!).

Was it chal­leng­ing to com­pose the chock-full, two-page spreads that includ­ed many crit­ters? How did you make deci­sions about where to place every­thing in the illus­tra­tion?

This was Beckie’s doing, I think it must have been tricky.

Illus­tra­tors often use pho­tographs to plan their com­po­si­tion or get the details right. Is it the same when you’re carv­ing wood?

I like to look at pho­tos to help inform the draw­ing, and study the way ani­mals and plants real­ly look.  That is if I can’t get the moose to stand still long enough …

Betsy Bowen woodcut for One North Star coverHow long does it take to cre­ate a wood­cut for one two-page spread?

The carv­ing took me a few days for each spread.

Do you make mis­takes? Do you have to start over with a fresh block of wood?

Most mis­takes I can fix with either Elmer’s Glue® or a Band-aid®. Rarely I do start over with a new carv­ing. I try to shake out the ques­tions in the drawing/design phase before start­ing the longer process of carv­ing and print­ing. It’s not very easy to just move some­thing over  ”just a lit­tle” once the whole pic­ture is made.

Have you worked on projects before with this many dif­fer­ent objects includ­ed?

These were detailed pages! I think all more intri­cate than I have done before.

Number Seven, One North Star

Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most sat­is­fac­tion?

The Sev­en page, view­ing from under­wa­ter, was tricky for me.  I would try to see how the light came through water while I was swim­ming at the local pool.  I real­ly liked the result more than I expect­ed.

3 Responses to One North Star, Three Creative Artists

  1. Liza Ketchum September 29, 2016 at 2:11 pm #

    How excit­ing! I can’t wait to hold and read this won­drous book and share it with my grand­kids.

  2. David LaRochelle September 29, 2016 at 5:33 pm #

    Such a beau­ti­ful book from such tal­ent­ed women. Con­grat­u­la­tions!

  3. Norma Gaffron September 30, 2016 at 12:31 pm #

    Phyl­lis, I love the way you’ve embraced Min­neso­ta and nature.
    Thank you for your words, and thank you to your tal­ent­ed illus­tra­tors to make this book anoth­er win­ner.

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