Today’s interview brings something new once again. This is an interview about a poetry picture book, but it also has a different and unique approach to the topic of friendship and kindness.
Shira Erlichman is an author, a visual artist, a musician and a creator. She was born in Israel, raised in Massachusetts, and now lives in Brooklyn. You can learn more about her at her website.
Her debut picture book “Be/Hold: a friendship book” is a poem that delves into abstract art, word play, a love song to a sweetheart, as well as acceptance of someone other than ourself. It’s a wonderful melange of all these things at once! It must be read to be believed.
Me: What was your artistic journey? When did you start making art?
Shira: For my first six years I lived in Israel. All my early memories are saturated with colors and sunny light. Lemon trees grew in our backyard, rose bushes in the front yard, I wore a crisp light blue uniform to school. I always noticed colors, especially bright primary colors like the ones that embellish Be/Hold.
As a little kid, I loved tracing my Little Mermaid book, seeing myself duplicate the lines of “professional” artist. I loved to make up plays with my dolls, “for hours,” as my parents tell it. When we moved to the US, I learned a new language and started to write poems. I loved to record myself on the boombox, singing and telling stories. Art, and artists, just made sense to me. They could pull something beautiful out of thin air. Who wouldn’t want to be a magician?
Ever since then I’ve been addicted to making. I make songs, poems, pictures. But even when I’m not making “professional” art, I feel like an artist. For example, I love going on walks and “drinking in” all the colors and sounds. Every time I’m out walking in the world and I suddenly notice a bright color or a strange shape, I feel artful.
Me: You are also a poet. When did you start writing poetry?
Shira: The first poem I remember writing was in third grade; it was about my grandmother, who I was very close to and died when I was three. We’d recently immigrated to the US. The poem was a spelling group assignment: build a poem out of your spelling words. My teacher had placed me in a low spelling group and underestimated my English, and concurrently my capabilities. But the poem knocked her out. My mom framed it and it’s still framed in my childhood home. Poetry became a way to express my deepest self, the self that may not be apparent upon first impression.
Me: This is your first picture book. What made you think to combine your words and your art in this way in this medium?
Shira: I went on a cross-country poetry and music tour with my girlfriend, poet Angel Nafis, and kept a visual notebook the whole time. Chad Reynolds, of Penny Candy, saw some very loose sketches of some funny-shaped characters with loving phrases alongside them posted on my Instagram and asked me if I’d consider doing a book. I was a bit resistant, since I didn’t have any idea of what my book would be.
I’ve always loved compound words, and the word “behold” in particular. I’ve held close the lovely implication that to fully behold one has to be and hold. I love how words can offer us ingenious ways of understanding the world. I started toying with the phrase by writing it “be/hold.” After speaking with Angel, she suggested a letter to a “sweetheart” on how to be/hold. We privately and lovingly dubbed my funny-shaped characters “Gooby Gobby Guys.” In my notebooks, I let myself fall into deep experimentation with the lines, dips and curves that make their bodies’ shapes. I investigated how compound words, words that exemplify friendship in their very being, might interact with my Gooby Gobby Guys.
My book took various directions, but I ultimately found that the simpler the lines and the more sparingly I planted the primary colors, the better the message could come across. While the book’s voice is exuberant, crafting the images was a real practice in restraint.
Me: I love the way the words and art tumble together in this book with such a wonderful and uplifting message. What is one of your favorite things? A favorite line or a favorite spread?
Shira: A favorite line is “and if you get overwhelmed and overflow, I’ll be your touchstone. I’ll be a whole riverbed of touches.” The spread shows a variety of differently colored rocks tumbling on an invisible river. I’ve always been obsessed with stones––it’s such a simple pleasure to hold them in their various weights and textures. I love the compound word touchstone because it acknowledges the magic of holding a special stone that brings you calm. I liked expanding on this idea by saying that not only will I “be your touchstone. I’ll be a whole riverbed of touches.” When you love someone, you want to give them all the comfort you can. You want to be a presence like a riverbed, full of touchstones, full of peaceful textures and weights.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing and/or illustrating this story?
Shira: Often, the simpler the better. To convey a big idea, start with the bare minimum. Experiment outward from there. In the middle of my drawing process, I felt the weird need to oversaturate, overcompensate, add, add, add. It surprised me that when I went simpler, buried emotional truths could rise to the surface. It reminds me of the fashion designer Coco Chanel’s famous saying, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” It was a joy to “take one thing off,” to trust that the sweeping simplicity of the black lines, and the tiny sparks of color, would best tell the story.
Me: Any advice for other picture book authors or illustrators?
Shira: I often think of abstract painter Agnes Martin. I’ll paraphrase, but she said something along the lines of ‘don’t get distracted away from your first idea.’ Of course it’s wonderful to experiment and play with extremes, but I think Martin was onto something: don’t throw your vision away. Trust what originally made your heart sing and remember that inside originality is origin; that first spark, the genesis of your book, is an alarm, a major ringing bell. Listen to it. Follow it. Don’t abandon its song.
Me: I know you also have a book of poetry coming out this fall. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Any other projects coming up?
Shira: My poetry collection Odes to Lithium is a series of unconventional odes to the medication that I take for Bipolar Disorder. A series insinuates there’s no singular experience. I’m a person having a day-by-day, changing relationship with an element that’s affecting my life for the better. The odes reveal situations where Lithium and I bond, are grounded in my daily life, and at times turn surreal. My odes seek to break shame into one thousand unrecognizable pieces, normalize the conversation, and highlight the ways resilience and struggle manifest in my life.
I spent a month at an artist residency at Serenbe in Georgia a few years ago finishing Odes to Lithium. While writing, editing, and ordering, I also let myself have daily free time making ink drawings based on images in my book. This was just a fun daily practice for me, a way to revisit my poems from a new angle. But soon it became obvious to me that the drawings were beautifully supplementing the poems. Now, many of those drawings will be included in the book, which thrills me.
As for future projects, I’m currently on the third draft of a Young Adult novel.
That’s wonderful to hear. I can’t wait to read them. Your creativity truly knows no limits! Dear readers, this is a book you don’t want to miss. Track down a copy of “Be/Hold” and give it a read.