For almost twenty years, my husband (and eventually our daughter) and I have been moving every few years. To a new house, a new county, a new town. All the while trying to figure out which, of all these places, to call home. We weren’t locals anywhere, not really. And often, just as we started to make friends, to really put down roots, we were up and moving. Again.
There is a certain kind of beauty to be found in moving so much— each place you live becomes a part of you. And so my home now is wider and more varied than I could have imagined twenty years ago. In retrospect, there has also been continuity—as every place I’ve lived (from the Willamette Valley to the San Juan Islands; from the Olympic Peninsula to the Methow Valley; from Grays Harbor and the Washington coast, to the lower Skagit Valley; and finally to the base of the Puget Sound)— has been in the Pacific Northwest.
My very first job was working on a trail crew that travelled throughout Oregon and Washington. We built and fixed trails, mended fences, and planted trees. It was then that I learned to love the staggering beauty, the wildness, and the incredible variety of the Pacific Northwest. I dug trails in the thick grey dust of Mount St Helens’ flank; I planted trees in blazing hot clear-cuts in central Oregon; and I built fences to protect riparian areas along the Oregon coast. It was some of the hardest, most physically and mentally challenging work I’ve done. But as the season passed I grew stronger. And by the end of the summer, many things that had seemed physically impossible were possible, even easy, to do.
And so I began to see how the limits we place on ourselves are not always true. That job changed the way I saw myself, and my place in the world. I was stronger than I thought. More resilient. And more importantly, I learned that I could grow and change. And that changed the way I saw the world.
Which has been a good thing, because when I draw— I make mistakes. Often they are small. But even the smallest mistakes require an adjustment. First, in my head, then on paper.
Recently, I was making an ink drawing of a lady. She had thick, dark, arching eyebrows. I thought the ink was dry— but it wasn’t. And when I went to add more detail to the drawing, my hand rubbed over her face, making an enormous streak across her forehead. My first thought was, “Oh no!” but my second thought was, “Hmm,” and my third thought was, “What can I do with this?” And so I turned that streak and those dark, arching eyebrows into dark, arching glasses.
A large part of creative work is this—retraining yourself, changing the way you think, and in turn, the way you see. This is something I do constantly when I draw. And when I work with kids (as well as adults) this is something I try to share.
My second job was in a bookstore— where I learned to love and appreciate a different kind of beauty. At Grass Roots Books, in Corvallis, OR, I discovered the poetry of William Stafford, who wrote about the very mountains, rocks, rivers and birds that I had experienced on Trail Crew the summer before. From Stafford I discovered Naomi Shihab Nye, Adrian Rich, Basho, Issa, and so many more. I fell deeply in love with poetry. And then, one day, my manager handed me a copy of George Saunders’ and Lane Smith’s The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. She told me I would love it, and she was right. That book was staggering and beautiful in an entirely different way. That book made me want to write and illustrate books for children, and their grownups.
Many years later, when I was writing The Book of Mistakes, I lived in La Conner, WA; a small fishing town on and around a small outcropping of rock. It sits beside a tidal slough, surrounded by tulip and potato fields. All around the town are mounded hills, which, if you squint your eyes and look at them from a distance, could almost be heads coming up out of the ground. La Conner also has a skate park, near the elementary school, and beside it… an enormous, gorgeous, tree.
I didn’t necessarily see the connection then, but I wonder now how The Book of Mistakes was influenced by that place. There is a girl’s head near the end of the story that shares La Conner’s silhouette. And there is a tree featured in the book that bears an uncanny resemblance to the one near the skate park. Could I have written The Book of Mistakes, or would it look anything like it does now, if I hadn’t lived in that small town? In fact, how much do I owe to Corvallis, Twisp, Port Townsend, Lopez, Aberdeen, Hoquiam, Westport, (and now, Olympia)? Each of these towns has shaped who I am and how I see the world.
So, in many ways, The Book of Mistakes was born here in the Northwest— in the mountains and in a bookstore, almost twenty years ago.
All of which makes this award, from the PNBA, feel very much like coming home.
The plaque for the 2018 PNBA Book Award for The Book of Mistakes will be presented to Corinna Luyken at Browsers Bookshop in Olympia on Saturday, March 10 at 11:00 AM. nwbooklovers will post original essays from this year’s award winners on Fridays in January and February. You can enjoy essays from past winners of the PNBA Book Award in our archive.