Land of Legends

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one of my all-time favorite stories. On some basic level, it’s one most American’s know; it’s the story of a headless horseman who chases some doofus-looking guy named Ichabod through the woods. It’s legend has become our own and it’s a staple of the fall nostalgia routine and any decent Halloween movie marathon.

Most of us are probably familiar with the various film adaptations — most notably Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad, a 1949 animated musical narrated and sung by Bing Crosby, and the 1999 Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie — and personally, I enjoy each of them. I love how Disney nails Ichabod’s strange proportions and beak-like nose, and I welcome Burton’s gore, witches, and dreamy, withered sets. Still, the story itself is what I love best, though it’s much quieter and much less about heaving jack-o-lanterns than the films would have you think, as I discovered reading it for myself the first time, standing behind the counter at Books of Wonder on a particularly slow fall afternoon. The text is full of descriptions of people and New England, of Ichabod’s strange visage and massive appetite (“He was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda”; one of my favorite lines), and the quiet, “drowsy, dreamy” Dutch community with it’s atmosphere of whispered rumors. It’s just a little bit about a crazy Hessian riding around with his own decapitated head on the pommel of his saddle, and even less about tossing said head like a mother elfin’ shot-put. The edge-of-your seat rustle of excitement as Ichabod and his scrawny horse Gunpowder navigate the woods at night, startled into the worst kinds of thoughts by the snapping of branches and screech of an owl, is short and comes at the very end. But you need that calm before the storm to really enjoy the chase when it happens, I think. Besides, Irving’s language and observations are so enjoyable; so funny and perfect in their concise understanding of fear and love and idleness, I hardly care what happens at all, really. And so I pick it up at least once a year, every year, around Halloween-time and love it all over again.

A beautiful edition of the book is a must. I’m a big fan of my Arthur Rackham illustrated hardcover Books of Wonder edition with glossy full color plates and tons of black and white drawings throughout. The Rackham illustrations are beautiful in an spooky fairytale way, though not a literal depiction of events for the most part. Instead the art matches the story’s mood, with witches and devilish imps are sketched into the landscape and trees that come alive in monstrous, contorted ways and seem to follow beak-nosed Ichabod about town. They give a definite sense of foreboding… …but why am I talking about Arthur Rackham before sharing my own illustration? That’s not an act I wanna try and follow, and my own interpretation was, in fact, quite literal.

All of this is to say that I love fall, and I love New York and the Hudson River Valley, and Washington Irving, and pumpkins and Halloween, and book covers, and especially this story, so, so much. So I thought I’d have my go at illustrating a poster or hypothetical cover. I sketched and made notes while reading to try to clear my mind of movie images and focus strictly on Irving’s own descriptions, and I based my bridge on this photo of the purported one from the story. And… well, here it is…

Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in this stirrups and in the very act of hurling his head at him.

So what am I doing with this bad boy? Well I’m trying to get it on a Threadless t-shirt and I’ll need your help. I’ll post a head’s up when the shirt is open for voting, but in the meantime I welcome you to view my design on the Threadless website, and “like” the beegeezus out of it! The background is slightly altered so to stays within the color budget for printing. You can check it out here.


Matilda and Other IMPORTANT Books

About this time two years ago, wonder librarian, School Library Journal blogger, and certainly my most referenced and trusted children’s book reviewer, Elizabeth Bird, posted poll results for the Top 100 Children’s Novels and Picture Books on her blog, A Fuse #8 Production. The outcome was fun and interesting, as polls tend to be, but they were also researched. She included a timeline of covers, and quotes from readers about why they love each book, amongst other details. It’s a really excellent list. And now she’s gearing up to do it all over again, with a new fangled ratings system. If you, your kids, students, etc. want to cast votes, read how here. Submissions are due before midnight on April 15th.

Making my own list got me in the celebratory, love-o’-reading spirit, so I decided to illustrate a quote from my personal #2, Matilda by Roald Dahl.

In her call for entries, Elizabeth used the word “important”. Important books. While I’m limited by what I’ve read, I didn’t approach the task of choosing my top ten children’s book from the perspective of “which ones are my personal favorites?” If I had, the list would have consisted of the same top three plus anything by Frances Hardinge, Joan Aiken, or Polly Horvath. And those Nicholas books I’m always going on about. Great books that I wholeheartedly recommend you read, but that aren’t necessarily what I’d pack any random 10 year’s overnight bag with for a desert island stay of indeterminate length. Entertainment value is important, good writing sets stories apart, and lasting power counts for something as well. With all that in mind, I asked myself which had the most overall value; which ones make you think or make you better for having read them, and are still absorbing or beautiful or fun? Which dispell the greatest, most lasting truths and still make you want to keep turning pages? If you told me to pick 10 books for a kid to get them through life (or at least middle school), this is what I’d give them:

  1. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne – There is no point in life when this book isn’t funny and touching and perfect.
  2. Matilda by Roald Dahl – The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The Witches would all make great introductions to the work of Roald Dahl (and Quentin Blake), so why Matilda specifically? I mean, aside from the fact that she’s one of the smartest, kindest, bravest girls you’ll ever encounter? Because this book kind of has it all. It has the customary humor and bits of vileness that all of Dahl’s children’s books have that make them so fun and so true to life. It has loveliness and celebrates knowledge and reading. It has enthralling writing that you just want to devour and wonderful illustration. But most of all it has somebody to cheer for. Yes she has supernatural power, but in the end it’s Matilda’s sensibility and thoughtfulness, it’s just doing the right thing that leads to the take down of a horrible villain and encourages all the kids around her. She’s someone to root for. And it’s like eating candy, reading this book. One of the best storytellers of all time. You must read him, so why not start here?
  3. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling – the first book is one of the most generic in a series that becomes increasingly (and rewardingly) complex in it’s study of humanity, but it’s an essential beginning, and still a great one. Seeing Hogwarts for the first time is as satisfying in rereads as it was the first time around. Harry Potter is a pleasure that, once having, you never want to give up.
  4. Wonder by R.J. Palacio Put this in every school library everywhere, please! Every library anywhere, really. A story about an otherwise average 10 year old boy with severe facial deformities attending school for the first time. It succeeds in teaching empathy without being overly sentimental or Beaches-style manipulative in pulling your heart strings. What I think it does best though is create a magnifying glass that shows us how we react to difference through the frank and honest perspective of various kids’ voices. It’s a bit shaming at times, but with the power to change and open minds. It’s very readable and the rotating narrative adds perspective and keeps things moving.
  5. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – I still remember the day I finished this book, laying on my parent’s family room couch on a bright, sunny summer day. I would have been playing outside in the sprinkler had I been able to put it down. Instead I was SOBBING on the couch as Aslan died. I finished it and read it again. And again. I don’t always think the oldest, most classic version of a tale is the one that kids should keep rending. If someone else comes along and does the tale better, by all means, let’s read that one… but has anyone done this better?
  6. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead – This is a book you can give to any kind of kid with any kind of interest and they will probably like it. Adults too. It’s such a strange but expertly written sci-fi meets mystery meets… something else. It’ll also make you scratch your brain a whole lot thinking about destiny and free-will.
  7. Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai – One of the greatest lessons in empathy a kid can read, yet the protagonist is feisty as hell. When I think of what it means to be an IMPORTANT book this one quickly comes to mind. Especially crucial story for American children. We live in a nation of immigrants. We all need to understand what it feels like to be foreign and unaccepted so that we can better understand how easy but silly it is when we misjudge the person and intelligence of others because of a language barrier. Plus it’s written in a really approachable style of poetry.
  8. Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder – My inclusion of this one even surprises me a bit. I admit to being bored out of my wits by Little House on the Prairie, but I also remember devouring Big Woods in a truly bonnet-head (see The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure) fashion, and being a bookseller taught me the unbridled love kids have for this series. They transport you. Curled up in a blanket reading this I fantasized what it would be like to be barricaded inside that little cabin, playing with corn husk dolls instead of Barbies. A story that will always be fascinating in the way it details a past way of life in America while at the same time being a sweet and funny tale of family life. There are few examples of historical fiction (or nonfiction) that have turned so many kids on.
  9. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh – There are certainly dated elements, and elements that are so NYC-specific that I think my fifth grader brain must have rolled right over them when I first read it. Even so, there isn’t a girl who could read this an not immediately want to grab a notebook and start up her own neighborhood spy route. There’s a lesson about gossip and secrets and friendship and just plain old growing up at it’s heart, but’s it’s Harriet’s self imposed “job” that’s so thrilling. Harriet M. Welsch was a take charge gal, and I wanted to be just like her. I think, or at least I hope, kids still feel that way reading it today.
  10. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt – A beautiful story about mortality. Gets you thinking without being morbid.


  • The Real Thief or Abel’s Island by William Steig – It seems a shame to leave him off the list when he produces sentences like “One by one, Gawain’s friends took him aside to ask his forgiveness, and he freely forgave them. He was able to love them again, but he loved them now in a wiser way, knowing their weakness.” (From The Real Thief). I know he’ll make it on to my Top 10 Picture Books list though, and that relieves me of my guilt.
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – Friendship and sacrifice and humor. This remains one of the first chapter books many kids concur on their own, which only makes it more memorable.
  • Holes by Louis Sachar – I just think this is one of the most undeniably fun books you can read. If you can get kids to read it when everyone’s already seen the movie. Hmph.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman – It’s just good old fashioned scary nonsense. And I love it. And kids love it.
  • The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by MaryRose Wood – I haven’t had the pleasure or reading the third installment in the series (just released on Tuesday), but it’s quickly become one of my favorite series of all time just in the first two books. It’s main protagonist, a young governess to three howling children that appear to have been raised by wolves (though there’s clearly a mystery to be solved involving their adopted but neglectful father), is one of the freshest, most likable heroines I’ve encountered. You’ll chuckle so much as the kids and their shenanigans (not to mention all of the fantastic and highly quotable words of wisdom from Agatha Swanburne, fictional headmistress and sayer of such things as “there is no alarm clock like embarrassment” and “‘If it were easy to resist, it would not be called chocolate cake”) that the sophistication of the stories will sneak up on you. Then you’ll love it all the more. I didn’t include it on the list because the series stills has a lot of developing to do, and the first book is a bit too open-ended to stand alone. Still, I have great hopes for this and aside from being fun and wacky and well written, it’s quite wise. An important little series, if you ask me.
  • Now to whittle down my list of picture books…

new site! kind of!

Check it. It’s time for a heads-up-date to announce the pending-ending of and the launch of my new portfolio site, ! I sat on the name for a while and finally decided to just go with my guts (almost always the best course of action) and I’m pretty pumped on my new tag; it’s personally encouraging and a combination of three of my favorite things, all of which Pippi inspires: girldom, absurdity and stories. Thank you, Astrid Lindgren!

Pippi was quite an amazing child. The most amazing thing about her was that she was so strong. She was so incredibly strong that there wasn’t a policeman in the whole wide world who was as strong as she was. She could lift a whole horse if she wanted to. And she did. — From Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren

Please humor me as you would a child a hamster funeral, as I eulogize an internet domain:, you were a good domain. Sure, my web host was the pits (I just didn’t know any better), but you were my first internet home and I’ll never (er…) forget you. I had you for over a decade, since my high school days, and backing up all of my old files (ten+ years of ridiculousness dating back to Livejournal) was pretty great. There are, I’m certain, hours of entertainment to be had just browsing through the many graphics and photos you held… well, for me and my best friend since high school, anyway. You allowed me to share so very, very many stupid things, many of which leave me baffled as to what their context could have possibly been. Like the inexplicable connection I made between Lilo & Stitch and The Ring…

Or this velociraptor thinking about Easter Peeps, or teenage pictures of my feet, or this sketch of me flicking you off / adjusting my glasses or these photos from my old dorm room window facing Riverside Drive (actually rather pretty), or this image of Lindsey being Hugga-ed to tears or a whole lot of other strange and wondrous things.

Ah, internet memories! But it’s on to new and better things! Like dreamhost (awesome support, fyi, if anyone’s looking for a hosting plan) and new names for me and my website: she can lift a horse . com. The site’s just splash page for now, but I hope you’ll bookmark it and check back. Of course, I’ll post updates here.

Lips Out

Just a quick howdy-doo to share a couple silhouettes with you.

First is a print I made a little while back, while taking my beginner print making course at Lillstreet Art Center.

birthday blow out prints

Maybe you recognize it; I created the silhouette for a birthday card for my mom two Mays ago and just printed a single card for her from my computer. I’ve been itching to make my own stationery though, so I thought the design would make a good starter project. Birthday Blowout cards measure 4″ x 5.5″

And second, now that they have been mailed out, I think I can share the Save the Date postcards I designed for our wedding in October! The postcards have rounded corners, and measure 5″ x 7″

To quote Ernie, the sandwich guy, “ooooh, BABY!”

In a few hours, I’ll be on my way to Michigan for my older sister Jessica’s baby shower, which is tomorrow morning in the Detroit Zoo’s butterfly house! Hopefully it can live up to the time we got early admittance to the zoo (and continental breakfast — though back then I didn’t even like orange juice OR coffee, no matter how much it was made to resemble milk. Back then continental breakfast was lost on me, truly) to watch a buncha tigers tear into a MEAT PINATA. Or the time we got to feed about twenty penguins RAW FISH by SHOVING IT DOWN THEIR GULLETS.

Clearly the Johnston sisters have had some good times with raw meat at the Detroit Zoo, and this should be no exception. Still, I’m hoping everything served tomorrow will be fully cooked.

Here’s the illustration I made for the front of the invite to baby Scarlett’s pre-life party, evidence of my softer side:

ekphrasis: CALL FOR ARTISTS!

One of the first things I did upon moving to the fine city of Chicago was to meet with a few of the very lovely, very talented, and ridiculously long-hour working people at Sideshow Theater. I got to read their latest play, Ekphrasis: From Cave Walls to Soup Cans, which is a smart, funny, warp-speed art history lesson written by E. Warren Perry Jr. and THEN I got to make a poster for it. Lucky me! But MORE importantly (at this moment, anyway), they also asked me to curate an art show to coincide with the play’s run. That means I needa find stuff to hang. And fast. So if you make art, or you know people who make art or who know people who know people who make art and would like to show it to lots of people and potentially sell it and make moola, you should tell them to READ THIS and E-MAIL ME. And if you don’t have any of that going for you, maybe you should just see this play.

Here’s the poster, the info, and my very heartfelt CALL FOR ARTISTS!

( click here for closer viewin’ )

Sideshow Theater is looking to showcase the work of LOCAL VISUAL ARTISTS, to hang in a gallery in conjunction with their latest play, “Ekphrais: From Cave Walls to Soup Cans” at the Viaduct Theater in Chicago. All artwork must be 2D, ready to hang, and shoud fit the theme of “art about art”, that is, art that plays with notions of art history, references known works, or somehow plays with the idea of genre. All interpretations, styles, genres and 2D mediums welcome! For more information about the play, visit

Sideshow Theater is a nonprofit organization, and all profit from art sold goes directly to the artist. All of it. 100%. Artwork will be on display for the play’s entire run: August 9 – September 20, 2009. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, and Sunday at 3 PM. The Viaduct Theater hosts more than these performances, though, which means your work will be on display during live musical performances and the many other events hosted there. While this ensures your work reaches a larger audience (!), it also puts it at greater risk. Please submit with this in mind as neither Sideshow nor Viaduct claim responsibility for your work, should you choose to have it included in the gallery.

Artists must be able to transport their work to (and from, if not sold) the ViaDuct theater. Art submissions must be received by August 1, and those selected must be able to deliver their art work by August 4th. To submit contact Nicole at In your e-mail include the following information:

  • Your name
  • Contact information
  • Title of piece(s)
  • Dimensions
  • Medium(s)
  • Indicate whether or not your piece is for sale, and if so include the price
  • MOST importantly: a photo of your image(s)
  • *Feel free to submit more than one work, but please no more than three.