Decoding the process of writing

Thursday, June 28, 2007
Marie Rutledge, 9, watches as author and illustrator Jenny Whitehead signs her book, while 6-year-old Sam Polk waits in the background for his own autograph.

Creativity is a mysterious process, and Jenny Whitehead, poet and illustrator, offered up clues to writing and creating companion art work to a group of 90 local children in the Nevada Public Library's summer reading program on Wednesday.

Whitehead's books are brightly illustrated volumes for children, one of which contains 80 poems and took more than six years to create -- five years to write and illustrate, plus a year's worth of pre-production collaboration between Whitehead and her editor.

This latest installment of programs for "Get a Clue," the theme for this year's summer reading effort, particularly caught the attention of 7-year-old Maria Rutledge, who was one of the first in line to get her book, "Lunch Box Mail," signed by Whitehead at the end of the presentation. These are just the kind of books she likes, and so far, she's an avid reader. The soon-to-be-second-grader has already read 50 books -- 20 in kindergarten, and 30 in first grade. Perhaps, she nodded, 40 are in store for second grade. One is sure to be Whitehead's books.

Whitehead says she draws on her own experiences, things she sees and hears, things other people do, and so on, to create the mostly light-hearted poems in the book. Some of the poems are actually reminiscent of poetry by the author she most admires, the late Shel Silverstein. She even incorporates images and items relating to her own family into the illustrations. Things like daughters Bailey and Chelsea, even a drawing of her husband can be found in the books.

As the children listened -- many looking through fun goggles through which the students look for clues -- Whitehead shared some of her creative secrets. First, she keeps a few special tools around. There's a rhyming dictionary that helps her find just the right word -- that, and her lucky thesaurus, a reference she's had since seventh grade, when a teacher truly inspired her to write creatively.

"She truly made our minds open, and taught us to write in many different ways," Whitehead said.

Years later, she turned her experiences, memories, feelings and imagination into the poems that were to become "Lunchbox Mail." In it are stories about baseball, the rush to try to catch the ice cream truck, and even a bug motel. In "Bug Motel," the bugs caught in a jar are speaking to the front desk (the child who's caught the bugs) and request fresh air, vegetation instead of balogna (she used the colloquial "baloney") and a safe trip home in the end. The balogna, she confides, comes from a childhood experience. Her sister "loved, loved, loved balogna, so she figured the bugs would love, love. love it, too. So I decided I was going to try to work that in there," Whitehead said.

Another secret, she said, is, "whenever your friends or your family does something wierd, you laugh. Then you get your notebook, and you write it down. Or you sketch it. You never know when you'll use it."

Oftentimes, a man with a bizarre hat, funny words overheard at a restaurant or even something the children do or say ends up as part of a poem or drawing.

"You use your eyes and your ears a lot more than you use your pen or your paint," Whitehead said.

Another book, "Holiday Stew," has a poem for almost any holiday around the year -- even Friendship Day, Aug. 3, and her next project is illustrations for a book about punctuation. Whitehead showed the audience the work in progress, showing the steps from conception to print, then challenged the readers to a creative project of their own. Each child received a drawing of a bug hotel, and she urged them to draw the funniest, silliest bugs they could. "Anything with wings and antennae could be a bug. A tire, a cucumber anything."

Whitehead's presentation was the fourth of the series that caught the interest of students for a variety of reasons. Nine-year-old Tayvia Meek liked a presentation by a magician held two weeks ago the best, because she's interested in magic. She said that if there were no summer reading program, she'd probably be sleeping; and she acknowledged with a smile that the summer reading program is certainly more fun than sleeping. She said she's enjoying the program, and is a first-time participant. Bret Snead said he enjoyed last week's presentaton on animals the best, and admits he'd probably be at home, on the computer if he weren't at the event. Snead joins the summer reading program every year. Participants also said they had probably read books they wouldn't have read if they hadn't been in the summer reading program, as well.

The group will not meet next week, but the program will resume on July 11 with more mysterious fun.

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