“Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question authors hear, and I’m no exception. Starting this month, I’ll be offering a weekly blog called “Backstory,” in which I’ll share the origins of each of my books, as well as the funny, quirky things that happened during the process of creating them.
In 1988, I joined a team lead by visual artists Gene and Marylou Totten on a performance tour of China. Originally, I was only intending to write some of the dramatic monologues members of the team would perform on the planned tour. However, several times during the course of working on the scripts, the director encouraged me to audition for the team that would make the trip. I pooh-poohed the idea, but eventually decided to audition on a lark, never expecting to make the cut. In fact, I invited several friends who were actually performing artists to audition themselves. I figured I’d tag along, for fun, and maybe one of them would make the team. As it happened, none of my friends made the team, but I did! Somewhere, God was laughing. Before I knew it, I was packing my bags for Beijing.
Years later, I drafted a collection of poems from my reminiscences of that journey. When I sent the manuscript to my agent, I included photographs I’d taken, as well as maps and an itinerary of the tour, thinking they might be useful as inspiration for the illustrator, whomever that might be. (I never expected the publisher to use a photograph of me on the cover. I cringe every time I see it! Ugh.)
I sold the manuscript and the search for an illustrator began. I had an artist in mind, but I had no real hope of securing him. I suspected he was incredibly busy, knew that he would be expensive for the publisher in question, and wasn’t certain he would even be interested. I mean, what were the chances that I would get the great, Caldecott-winning Ed Young on board?
I needn’t have worried. Some things are simply meant to be.
I ran into Ed at a conference, told him I would love to work with him, someday, and learned that—gasp!—the feeling was mutual! I wasted no time in telling him that I had a particular project in mind, though I didn’t specify what it was. “I’ll have my publisher send it to you, if that’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll see where it leads.”
It led to something pretty special. Ed signed on to illustrate Tai Chi Morning and took on the job of designing it as well. Incorporating the photographs I’d taken, and adding his own sketches, Ed designed the book as a travel journal. How perfect was that? As it turned out, Ed was in China about the same time I was, and many of his sketches matched or complemented the scenes in my photographs. Can you say serendipity?
Oh, and did I mention that Ed is a Tai Chi master? I think I had him at the title!
God has a great sense of humor.
On the plane to Beijing, we were treated to the movie The Last Emperor. It was a perfect introduction to the ancient land we were about to explore, first hand.
The poems in Tai Chi Morning are my attempt to capture some of the once-in-a-lifetime experiences I had in the land of the Forbidden City. In fact, one of my favorite poems in this collection was inspired by my visit to that very place. I’ll close with that. If you’d like to read more, I hope you’ll find this title and share it with the young people in your life.
“The Forbidden City”
The Forbidden City
where royalty was once
hidden from view
is a place to tiptoe.
I follow the buzz of bodies
swarming over acres
of paved walkway
and greet a bronze lion
guarding the ancient temple.
I pat his burnished head,
close my eyes and hear
the footfalls of the last emperor
echoing through the courtyard.
His ghostly shape
waltzes in front of me.
He lifts a wavy finger
to his royal lips