HOME In The WOODS—AHA Moment #1

Writing….a process filled with so many questions needing to be answered, problems to be solved. One of the most frustrating things about the creative process can be the uncertainty, questions, puzzles, doubts, unresolved issues…which result in much banging of the head against a wall. On the flip side of that same coin are the most joyful parts of the creative process; those lightning flashes of insight and inspiration…the AHA moments that flood in, in random places, at random moments. 

It’s hard to forget them when they happen…I had several memorable occasions of these during the 7-year course of making my second book, HOME IN THE WOODS.  

One of my first big challenges in trying to write this story was that I found myself unable to figure out what to focus the story around. It was based on the stories I heard from my grandma and her siblings of their childhood; the years they spent living in an abandoned tar-paper shack in the middle of the woods. With so many story fragments and memories of that experience, I had a hard time figuring out what the connective thread was. What’s tying this story together? What’s at the heart of it all?

I followed the characters around their world and their routines. At first I took their story into adulthood, then I tried including more of a wider historical context. I had scenes of them at school, in town, interacting with other migrating folks. At one point I tried the story from the point of view of the animals in the forest. Then from the point of view of a teapot. It was all sounding pretty bad.

“This is my family

I often had to put the book on the shelf and spend months at a time away from it. I wondered if I would crack the story, and wondered if it was do-able. During this writing process I felt like one of those restless dogs; circling and shifting around a spot to try to get comfortable.

One night…on May 5, 2013…I was having a hard time falling asleep, so I slipped on my headphones and began listening to NPR’s ‘First Listen’, a program that features a full-length preview of a newly released album. The album that day was a beautiful soulful album by guitarist Glenn Jones called “My Garden State”.

As I laid in bed, awake in the dark, this track came on that started simply with rainfall,
and then the rumble of thunder,
the patter of rain on a windowpane,
and the s-l-o-w strumming of guitar strings.

It was quiet. It felt like what I was hearing was in the present of some lost past…
It transported me to the time and place of my story, in 1932, there with my great-grandmother and eight kids in the tar-paper shack. I could see the trees, hear the rain on the tin roof, and feel the air of the northern Wisconsin woods. And I suddenly knew.
I stumbled out of bed in the dark and scribbled this note…

At the heart of this story is the shack. Everything is centered in it, and around it, and the characters can come and go, but they always return to this place. That was the first big missing piece that I need to set the story on it’s right course. Thanks to that sleepless night, headphones, NPR, Glenn Jones, his great art, the gift of that AHA moment…
[Hear a preview of the song Alcouer Gardens here, and buy it here]

There were many more pieces of the puzzle to fall into place, and I’ll come back and share about more of those here soon. For now, I wish you some restful time to set those pieces of your project down, let them simmer, and allow a big enough space to open and let the answers seep in. 

HOME IN THE WOODS

I’m beyond thrilled to introduce you to my new book!

From the publisher:
This stunningly beautiful picture book from New York Times bestselling author-illustrator Eliza Wheeler is based on her grandmother’s childhood and pays homage to a family’s fortitude as they discover the meaning of home.
Eliza Wheeler’s gorgeously illustrated book tells the story of what happens when six-year-old Marvel, her seven siblings, and their mom must start all over again after their father has died. Deep in the woods of Wisconsin they find a tar-paper shack. It doesn’t seem like much of a home, but they soon start seeing what it could be. During their first year it’s a struggle to maintain the shack and make sure they have enough to eat. But each season also brings its own delights and blessings–and the children always find a way to have fun. Most importantly, the family finds immense joy in being together, surrounded by nature. And slowly, their little shack starts feeling like a true home–warm, bright, and filled up with love.

Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House
AGES: 5-8,  40 pages

Available to order now:
Buy HOME IN THE WOODS at your local indie bookstore
-or-
Order from Barnes and Noble here
Order from Amazon here

PRAISE

“Wheeler’s evocative fullbleed illustrations . . . draw readers completely into each page, creating a sense of personal involvement. The detailed imagery allows for the incredible efficiency of her poetic prose, which always finds the right note—striking a careful balance between melancholy and hope as the family rebuilds their life. Based on the childhood of Wheeler’s grandmother, the story feels warm without being sappy or overly nostalgic, successfully making a bygone era meaningful today.”—Booklist, starred review

*
 “Wheeler shares a poignant tale, based on her grandmother’s childhood, of a Depression-era family’s hard times. . . . Lovely ink-and-watercolor double-page spreads, in somber grays, sunlight yellow, and meadow green, evoke both the period and the family’s stark poverty. . . . Delicate visual details abound, from the sparkle of evening raindrops to Mum’s side-buttoned apron. Marvel’s ruminative narration takes occasional poetic turns. . . . A quietly compelling look at an impoverished family’s resourcefulness and resilience.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred revie

“Based on the memories of Wheeler’s grandmother, the story follows six-year-old Marvel, her seven siblings, and their mother. . . . The family’s ability to make do helps them survive the winter and greet the spring. . . . Wheeler’s story champions initiative, self-reliance, and familial closeness.”—Publishers Weekly

Work Spaces and Places

4th grade teacher Jennifer Keller sent out this fun tweet:


As I searched for a pic of my workspace to share, I saw many photos I’ve snapped of places I’ve written (or illustrated), so I pulled together a bunch more to share here! I’ve written and illustrated in so many locations over the past 7 years, usually due to traveling while under pressing deadlines, or at best, due to having a creative burst at some random time and location.

First workspace of note: my desk in the corner of our tiny 400 sq foot apartment in Los Angeles. We downsized from a 1 bedroom in order to allow me to go full time into illustration. Even though we out-grew it, I loved that little place…all my books before WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE and HOME IN THE WOODS happened there! 

Desk in the corner of my Los Angeles 400 sq ft studio apartment

Then there are the classic alternate work-day locations: Coffee shops (must have good Hygge) and historic library spaces (also must have good Hygge). Apologies to the architects in the room, but The Muse has a harder time visiting in new modern spaces…

Coffee shops! [left] Beautiful library rooms [Right: LA Central Library]

Speaking of modern spaces, when absolutely forced (i.e. on deadline) I’ve written and illustrated in airports, on airplanes, while waiting for delayed trains in train stations in England, and even in the car while moving across the country from Los Angeles to Minnesota.*

Planes, trains, automobiles

When I was doing visual research in England for the picture book art for JOHN RONALD’S DRAGONS: STORY OF J.R.R. TOLKIEN, I was also on deadline for another book project, so I spent the days collecting visual research and the nights working in hotel rooms.*

Hotel rooms in England (2015): The Plough and Harrow in Birmingham, and The Randolph Hotel in Oxford

*this business of working while traveling might look romantic, but I should be honest in saying that in reality it’s quite difficult to get real work done, and it’s downright exhausting

Possibly the most incandescent place I’ve ever worked was at Scotch Hill Farm, owned by the late Maurice Sendak, for the month-long Sendak Fellowship Retreat. Once of the desks in my studio space there was the same one on which Maurice illustrated ‘Where The Wild Things Are’!

Scotch Hill Farm 2017: desk in bottom-left pic was Maurice Sendak’s work table

Last summer I spent a week collecting visual reference in the Brule River state forest—close to where I grew up in Northern Wisconsin—for my book coming out on Oct 1, 2019, HOME IN THE WOODS. I camped and hiked the North Country Trail, writing and sketching along the way.

While house-sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s lake home recently, we had a great thunderstorm so I set up a work spot in front of the windows.

While it’s been helpful to learn to write anywhere, I have to admit I never feel as creative or productive as when I’m in my own designated workspace. These days I have my very own room for a studio space, with an open and closed sign to signal welcome or unwelcome interruptions (very important for co-habitants!):

I get to watch the seasons change from our 3rd floor windows. Things get super messy when deadlines get intense. But I can close the door on the mess and the work and keep it separate from the rest of life, and that’s a luxury I appreciate more for not having had it for so many years.

I live up the street from two beautiful lakes in Minneapolis—Lake of the Isles, and Bde Maka Ska—which are these gems of nature right in the middle of the city. They call me down to work by the water often when I feel breezes coming in or the light of a sunset glowing in the distance.

ALA Conference 2019

I’m headed to the American Library Association conference this weekend to meet librarians and sign give-away copies of books. Maybe I’ll see you there?

Sat JUNE 22, 2019:
—————————-
9-10 am Signing my not-yet-released pb HOME IN THE WOODS (+art prints!) at the Penguin Random House booth (#1805)
12-12:30 pm Signing the board book of WHEREVER YOU GO at the Little Brown Books booth (1137)

Interview on Picturebooking Podcast

It’s a rainy spring day in Minnesota–very good for podcast listening.

I love the in-depth conversations with children’s book makers on Picturebooking Podcast, so I was extremely honored to be invited on! Nick Patton and I have a long talk about WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE, my coming second self-authored book HOME IN THE WOODS, and, always my favorite topic, process. Listen here>>
https://picturebooking.libsyn.com/eliza-wheeler-living-in-your-illustrations

And if you’re like me and like to listen to a few in a row while you drive, work, or clean, here are two more:
1. Another great Picturebooking podcast episode with a dear pal of mine, J.R. Krause. Listen here>>
https://picturebooking.libsyn.com/jr-krause-dragon-night

2. This interview with author Pat Zietlow Miller and Matthew Winner on The Children’s Book Podcast is so lovely! And I’m not being biased (even though they pay me some sweet compliments), I really enjoyed this conversation.
Listen here>>
https://lgbpodcast.libsyn.com/pat-zietlow-miller