Playlist Friday: Colouring songbook

Do try to colour outside the lines.

“They’re Red Hot” – Hugh Laurie

Did you know that Hugh Laurie released a blues album a couple of years ago? He often played piano and guitar on House, Fry & Laurie and Jeeves & Wooster, so he’s clearly been secretly planning this for years. I don’t love his singing voice, but the album is still well worth a listen. There’s also a charming and hilarious introductory essay by him in the liner notes on why it’s ok for a white middle-aged British dude to sing old black men’s music.

Something else that Hugh Laurie wrote, incidentally – and I recommend this without any reservations, because it’s brilliant and not the least bit a vanity project – is a novel called The Gun Seller. It’s a humorous thriller that reads like a Wodehousian parody of noir fiction and it’s very, very good.

Tangerine from MEssing Around by Molly JohnsonTangerine” – Molly Johnson

I chanced upon Molly Johnson performing at the Toronto Jazz Festival nearly ten years ago, and was captivated by her singing. She seems to have gained in popularity since then – winning a Juno and even recording a promotional clip for Ontario. Rumor has it though, that junk mail addressed to her still occasionally arrives at the Cameron Public House, where she used to room in her less-renowned days.

Yellow Submarine, the BeatlesYellow Submarine” – The Beatles

Since we’re rumor-mongering – I heard that these guys have something of a cult following? They’re not my cup of tea, but neither is the colour yellow, so they are welcome to each other.

Moreover, research conducted while putting this playlist together indicates that yellow is the least musically inspiring colour and there are really no good songs out there that feature it, aside from this one and “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”.

Green Grass” – Agathe & Fine

What do you mean I include Tom Waits in every playlist? He’s so well disguised here, I didn’t think you’d notice.

But since you did, I should tell you that Female Tribute to Tom Waits is an extraordinary three-volume collection of Tom Waits covers by women, full of startlingly beautiful, poignant and whimsical interpretations of his songs. There are big-names artists like Marianne Faithfull, Norah Jones and Holly Cole, but also many singers that I discovered here for the first time. There are covers in Spanish, impromptu live recordings, and charismatic French-accented voices. No other tribute collection I’ve heard reveals the depths of beauty lurking in the original songs quite as powerfully as this one.

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Canadian Visual Artists: Lorraine Roy

Lorraine Roy is a textile artist who creates vibrantly multilayered fabric collages and teaches workshops in her rural studio on the Niagara Escarpment near Dundas, Ontario.

Young Maple 2 textile by Lorraine Roy

Young Maple 2

I love the rich textures and colours of your work, especially in combination with your simple, elegant compositions. What is the unique appeal of textile as artistic medium for you?

No other medium has such richness and depth of colour and texture. Fabric is pervasive in our lives, yet it’s impossible to take it for granted because it’s got endless potential. I love all the techniques, from hand embroidery to machine stitching. It’s all about rhythm and it’s very meditative.

Would you still be a professional artist if you had to express yourself in a different medium?

I don’t really know – I did try painting a few times but felt intimidated by the blank surface. With fabric you always have something to start with, even if it’s only a texture. Also, I find the fabrics themselves inspire me, with colour, pattern or texture. They are irresistible. I might have taken up singing, had I had the opportunity when I was younger… but for now I just enjoy singing in the shower.

Portal textile art by Lorrain Roy

Portal

Your love of nature and you life-long interest in plant sciences first led you to a degree in horticulture and now fuel the process of your artistic creation – your main subjects are native Canadian trees, their varieties, seeds, and habitats. What is it about trees that you find so inspiring?

Trees are fascinating from so many perspectives: biological, mythical, spiritual, cultural, environmental. There aren’t many subjects that cast a wider net in the psyches of people all over the world. It’s an infinitely engaging subject. Not to mention, trees are beautiful in all seasons.

Do you purposefully avoid representing other subjects in order to maintain your distinctive focus?

Actually I don’t avoid other subjects at all. Over the years I have worked with plenty of subjects and forms like fish, birds, microscopic organisms, houses and towers, just to mention a few. I have focused most strongly on trees since my Saving Paradise Exhibition in 2002, but I’m open to anything, any time.

Paper Birch by Lorraine Roy

Paper Birch

You have been making art professionally for over twenty years and I read on your blog that you gladly embrace new opportunities for presenting your work to the world via the web and social media. What change brought about by these technologies do you feel had the most impact on your professional life or your artistic process?

It hasn’t changed my process but it has clearly increased my exposure and opportunities. It has increased the ‘surprise’ quotient of my professional life, with some interesting connections and cross-pollination with people from all kinds of backgrounds. It has also kept me more consistently connected with other artists and colleagues, which is so important when I’m spending long days in the studio on my own. Also, things happen much faster – I like that!

Shoreline Study #4 - Iron Line by Janusz Wrobel

Shoreline Study #4 – Iron Line by Janusz Wrobel

Your husband, Janusz Wrobel, is a photographer whose work also reveals beautiful glimpses of nature. Some of his images seem to me evocative of your textile compositions. How does your creative work influence each other?

I suppose we must influence each other to a certain extent. We were both well established when we met so I wouldn’t say there was significant change. We do support each other in our practice, which is a great advantage. For example, he takes my photos, and I do his copy editing.

Do you think you respective artistic processes inspire each other to look at nature in new ways?

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In progress: my first architectural mosaic

Backsplash mosaic in progressA few weeks ago it occurred to me to ask my local floor tile store – where I’ve been buying grout for years – whether they have any scrap tile I could have. Up until now, I’ve only used vitreous mosaic tiles and stained glass, but it was time to look into ceramic tile as I was about to start working on a kitchen backsplash, which called for larger tiles and cheaper materials.

So I show up with my sturdy shopping cart – the store is a ten minute walk from our house – and the guys there take me to a whole separate warehouse in which huge crates full of scrap and remainders stand. “Knock yourself out,” they say – and there’s piles of stone and glass tile, imitation marble and even occasional pieces of natural slate.

Scrap tile pile

The tile haul that broke the cart’s back

By the time I had the cart about half-full, I had to force myself to stop digging though the crates and head home, but it was too late. I had been too greedy. I had not gone two blocks when the axle bent and one of the wheels started to resemble a soft-edged frisbee.

Anyway, this is how I came to be making this project with all kinds of fancy faux-marble tile for the cost of a short cab ride. The cart, it later turned out, could still be repaired.

New materials, new challenges: to someone used to working with glass, which can be easily nipped and cut by hand, cutting up 1/2″ thick stone tiles into small pieces means making new friends with power tools.

The splash effect of the wet saw, I was glad to discover, is closer to that of the steam iron than that of the garden sprinkler. I could totally use it in the dining room (not having a dedicated workshop space) without drenching the walls. This was a relief because it’s still below zero outside, and I was really eager to get started on this thing since I had finally figured out how to approach the awkward rectangle of blank wall in our kitchen.

Wet saw

Was I ever sick of the sound of the wet saw by the time I finished cutting up those piles of perfect triangles

Framed by a patchwork of cupboards, countertop, wooden butcher-block and existing tile, the 2.5′ space was exposed after we moved the fridge last year to make room for a dishwasher. Ever since then I have been puzzling over a mosaic design that would tie all these odd edges together. Since this would be my first architectural mosaic, I also had to research all the associated mounting options and techniques.

I decided not to attach the mosaic to a substrate such as Wedi, but use only a fibreglass mesh and cement that directly onto the wall – both because I didn’t want to raise the level much higher than the adjacent tile and because Wedi is kind of hard to find here in Canada.

Blank space for mosaic

This is what the blank space in the kitchen looked like. The top row of tiles has now been removed and absorbed into the mosaic design.

There was a single inexplicable row of tiles along the top, which had to be removed, but this was good news, as it meant I could incorporate some tiles that matched the rest of the walls into my design.

Also, I got to use a heat gun for the first time, which was neat. (Favourite line in the manual: “Never use the heat gun as a hair dryer. The extreme heat will burn your scalp and scorch your hair.” Surely there are Darwin Awards nominees among the ones who only skim the heat gun manual and miss this important caution?)

In the end, the wood of the butcher block inspired the color scheme in the lower half of the mosaic, lightening to an off-white at the top where it will be adjoining the white cupboards. It all seemed kind of bland until I decided to include tiny bits of red glass here and there in the darker lines – then it finally looked interesting enough to go ahead with. (Red to match my husband’s collection of KitchenAid appliances on a neighboring counter.)

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One of a Kind Spring show

One of a Kind Toronto Spring show opened today at Exhibition Place and will run for five days until Sunday March 31.

The 3D printers and a glimpse of the jewellery at the Hot Pop Factory booth at OOAK

3D printers and a glimpse of the jewellery at the Hot Pop Factory booth at OOAK

OOAK has been running for many years and is one of the largest shows of handmade objects, art and crafts in Toronto. It’s huge. You likely know all about it, so I won’t go into too much detail.

A couple of interesting new things that are worth looking out for when you visit:

3D Printing Shop
The most delightful thing I stumbled upon at the Spring OOAK was Hot Pop Factory, a 3D printing shop with a very stylish jewellery collection. They also make custom 3D portraits, scanning your head on-site and producing a miniature custom bust within a few days. There’s a 3D printer operating in their booth and it’s great to watch it in action.

I love the new directions that are opening up to artists and makers and it’s great to see 3D printing outfits in high-profile craft shows such as OOAK. May there be more art enabled by new technologies everywhere and soon!

Etsy section
For the first time this year, there is an Etsy-branded section, with a sampling of about 40 artisans from the thousands who have online shops at the largest virtual marketplace for handmade goods. Etsy is currently trying to raise its profile in Canada and their section at OOAK is part of this effort.

Etsy section at OOAK

Etsy section at OOAK

As with many things that sell well online, the crafts on Etsy tend towards the lightweight and inexpensive, and most artists in this section are first-time OOAK exhibitors. Both of which factors probably contribute to this section being set up as tightly and compactly packed as it is.

There are many Toronto Etsy Street Team members in both the Etsy and the Rising Stars sections,  including Ele Willoughby (minouette)featured recently on this blog – whose science and nature-themed prints are gorgeous in real life.

Canadian Visual Artists: Jeremy Down

Jeremy Down‘s abstract three-dimensional paintings are created outdoors in the wilderness of British Columbia’s Slocan Valley, where he lives, skis, canoes, and plays in a band.

Lady of the Lake by Jeremy Down

Lady of the Lake

When you started out as an artist twenty years ago, you were living in Toronto and painting on traditionally flat canvasses in a studio. Now you’re living in a small town in British Columbia, you stretch your canvasses over these organic 3D shapes and you work only outdoors. How did this series of shifts come about – did you make a big radical move to change everything about your life at once, or did one change flow from another, naturally carrying you to where you are now?

For years I was painting out things that were not related to me and getting closer to a style that is very personal and able to express everything I experience. For many years it seemed this was an impossible task. I wanted to get away from the canvas being a context for something to happen within, I wanted the canvas to be the subject itself, and I thought that shaped canvasses would open that door.

Jeremy Down painting up on a mountain

Painting up on a mountain

As much as I explored different possibilities, nothing really worked until I had a major shift of consciousness. My canoe flipped in Slocan Lake in mid-February, and while swimming to shore, my heart stopped and I had a near-death experience. Three days later in the studio, I watched as a flat square canvas morphed into an abstract 3-dimensional shape. I walked over to my wood tools and built the first shape – which I still have. It was definitely a gift!

There are a couple of beautiful short documentaries about your work. Jeremy’s Shapes shows you painting up in the mountains in the snow and talking about your 3D shapes and the experience of painting outdoors. Then you snowboard down the mountain with one of your canvasses strapped to your back. My main question after watching that is: how many artworks lost their lives in snowboarding accidents?

skiisl / skisel

The “skisel” with the painting Nemo Glow

Not too many actually! I used to use an easel on skis – “the skisel”. I pulled it into an amazing grove of 300 plus year-old cedar trees – an incredible ancient place – but I couldn’t get the skisel out again – too steep!

So I thought a ghostride might be in order, and the skisel took a high-speed run straight down the mountain for about 1000 ft. Amazingly it slowed to a stop undamaged! I tried my luck one more time but this run smashed the skisel into a massive tree and splintered into pieces. The painting survived. It’s called Ghostride.

Kauai North Shore Ocean

Kauai North Shore Ocean

Quite a few pieces have been scarred by the experience, but for me the challenge is acceptance of these alterations. If I am going to paint in the wilderness, I have to let nature make its mark. This process of acceptance usually gives the work a maturity that can translate to the viewer. Resistance is futile, and acceptance is peaceful.

The other film, Crossing Over, is about your near-drowning experience while setting out to paint in your canoe one stormy February day. It is an amazing story and beautifully presented in the film, but could you talk a little bit more about the influence that this experience had on your life and art? Did it make you more careful about setting out in your canoe on a stormy day? Or did it make you want to take even more risks so as to live your life to the fullest?

Risk management is a common point of conversation among the people I spend time with in the mountains. The event in the lake did inspire me to make wiser and more informed decisions about risk taking … but I love the relationship with challenging situations – so I will never stop!

As I get older, I don’t feel the same pull to the most dangerous experiences. I can reach that wonderful place of sensing my own mortality without being in dire straits. But I still climb mountains and paddle in winter – just a lot closer to shore!

You’re part of an art collective DRAWNONWARD, which is an Ontario-based group of artists who travel and exhibit together, and you’ve travelled all over Canada and to the Arctic with them. What was your most memorable, awesome or terrifying experience while travelling with this group?

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Playlist Friday: Describe your ideal woman

You: perfect, unattainable, batshit crazy.
Me:  in a band, lyrically gifted, aesthetically averse to vanilla.
Did I imagine it, or did you also feel that might make a fun playlist?

I have received complaints that the last playlist post had far too much writing in it. So you know what? No more writing after this paragraph. This is a no-justifications playlist. But – if you like it this way, leave a comment, so I’ll know.

Edited to add: I changed my mind so there will be more writing.

“Eurotrash Girl” – Cracker
This epic journey in search of the ideal woman resembles a one-man reenactment of the movie Eurotrip
“Short Skirt, Long Jacket” – Cake
Remember when Lucy Liu posed as an efficiency expert in a black leather business suit in Charlie’s Angels? That’s the girl Cake is looking for.
“Next Girl” – The Black Keys
This song’s greatness pales in comparison with the video for it. Watch it. There is a dinosaur puppet.
“Broken Heart” – Black Lab
These guys made a girl cry and now, apparently, she’s just perfect. Fucking rock stars.
“Atom Bomb” – Fluke
I’d like to date a well-equipped villain with a secret lair too, but a girl whose mind is set on world domination probably doesn’t have time for romance.
“Like a Friend” – Pulp
The “friend” strategy for getting the girl is rarely the right approach. This has been proven by expert stickfigures.

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Canadian Visual Artists: Tick Tock Tom

Tick Tock Tom is a scrap metal sculptor from Ottawa. His creations have appeared as props in movies and music videos, and for the last five years he’s been making one-of-a-kind award statuettes for the Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The Lion (Dante's Divine Comedy)

The Lion (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

I spoke to Tom over coffee on his visit to Toronto last week to drop off his latest commission: two sculptures based on the beasts from Dante’s Divine Comedy – the Lion and the Wolf.

When I ask how this series – which also includes the Leopard, completed earlier – came about, Tom laughs as he tells me about being inspired to read Dante’s classic poem because of a video game:

“I played this Xbox game called Dante’s Inferno, in which you play Dante and you hack and slash your way through hell. It’s all very epic. At the end of it I realized I was never forced to read the Divine Comedy in school, and my education from Xbox left me doubting. So I picked up the book.”

He found that Dante did not in fact hack and slash his way through hell, but journeyed through it. He even had a tour guide:

The Wolf (Dante's Divine Comedy)

The Wolf (Dante’s Divine Comedy)

“There’s some amazing imagery in the poem, apart from the animals that I used as a kind of beginning exercise. This poem used to be such a guide for people’s lives: don’t do this or you’ll end up doing this in hell. And the punishments were all very appropriate. Fortune tellers, for instance, are punished for their crimes of trying to see into the future by having their heads twisted on backwards so they can’t see ahead.

“I had the first piece – the Leopard – at the TOAE (Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition) last summer and I wasn’t sure if I was going to complete the series. But when I told the client who’d bought it the plan for the other two pieces, he commissioned me to make the other two animals.”

Idea - scrap metal sculpture with light bulb

Idea

The Lion has a door lock mechanism for its mane, hinges left over from a movie set for its paws and part of a motor in its body. Where do the various metal parts for his sculptures come from?

“I started out scavenging the trash for broken TVs and VCRs. Eventually if you tell enough people that you want their broken things, it just comes to you. At some point you have to say “Whoa, I only have so much space.”

“I’ve had a few jobs in assembly and manufacturing and some wonderful employers that let me dive into the steel bin every once in a while. But really it’s just a matter of keeping my eye open for things that I think I can use.”

Tom started making sculptures out of junk about thirteen years ago, with no prior art experience:

Time Machine

Time Machine was commissioned for a time travel short film The Escapement

“I’d always taken my toys apart a little bit too much when I was a kid but I never planned to get into anything like this.

“A friend of mine had this old computer monitor lying around and he gave it to me and said, “You look like somebody who can do something with this.” I’m not sure why, but he just chose me. To this day, I will parade him and thank him for getting me into this.

“I took that computer monitor home and took it apart, along with a VCR I had that wasn’t working, and made this humanoid head and gave it to my friend who gave me the monitor. He showed it to his boss and I got my first commission.

“Since then, I’ve just been trying to make better and better things.”

Tom’s early sculptures were put together using hot glue, but he soon began to improve his technique.

Toymaker scrap metal sculpture

Toymaker

“I think eventually my friend had to get rid of that head once all the teeth fell out.”

Employed in a succession of manufacturing and assembly jobs, Tom got to hone his metalworking and welding skills:

“I spent a year and a half in a metal fabrication plant working on a robot welder. The job itself was repetitive but every once in a while the robot would fall off its track and I’d get to go inside and reprogram it. From there I learned about the angles that one needs to weld at, the temperature, the speed.  And ultimately I was able to translate that into my own welding: my own angles, my own temperature, how long I held there. It was a year and a half of sometimes-not-so-exciting times but what I learned out of it was invaluable.”

2012 OIAF awardFor the past five years, Tick Tock Tom has been making award statuettes for the Ottawa International Animation Festival. The statues comprise a round metal plate representing an old-style animation wheel (phenakistoscope)  mounted on a handle. Tom’s involvement in their design not only improved on the original fixed-disk arrangement but also made each award statue unique:

“They allowed me to just go crazy on the design. I wanted to come up with a better holder for the plate. The phenakistoscope originally had a viewer that you looked through that would break up the image to allow it to look animated [as the wheel was spinning] so I wanted to accent that and I wanted to  give the idea that once you had this thing in motion it could function.

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Favourite books series: Neuromancer

In 1984, William Gibson’s Neuromancer became the defining novel of the emerging cyberpunk genre. It also gave the world one of science fiction’s most often quoted, referenced and spoofed opening sentences:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

Set in a dystopian, technologically advanced, darkly urban future, Neuromancer was one of the earliest works of fiction to portray an edgy world of cyber criminals, virtual realities of globally networked data and neural computer implants. It introduced the term “cyberspace” into popular use.

Yet, like all futuristic science fiction, it was not really about the future but about its own time.

In the early 1980s, personal computers were beginning their ingress into regular people’s homes, running basic book-keeping programs and low-res games. Sharing information over a globally interconnected network of computers was still a decade away for the average user, though government and financial institutions have been sending data using packet switch networks since the 60′s.

Rapid technological change was happening just far enough on the margins of everyday lives to be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. To the techie types and to many readers of science fiction, the implications of this were mind-blowing and cool. Also cool was black leather and mirror shades.

And so the novel sets the scene for the technologically advanced seedy future underworld by comparing the sky above the Sprawl megapolis to the static noise of analogue television. The current generation of kids reading Neuromancer for the first time is most likely to interpret this to mean that the sky was a bright flat expanse of blue. The next generation may be confused by the “dead channel” reference: does that mean its content hasn’t been updated for a while? The evocative impact of “television” itself will lose all semblance to a pertinent metaphor for the latest technology invading our homes, and will instead become part of the lore of a quaint society that had no control over the timing, structure and content of its own entertainment.

It is unfairly limiting to talk about this novel (or any other novel) in terms of its opening sentence alone, though that sentence may highlight its groundbreaking prescience at the same time as rooting it in its own technological era. No matter. This mosaic is about that sentence.

The Sprawl urban landscape mosaic

It grew around the sky the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Around that sky, I wanted to give just a hint of the Sprawl – the urban metropolis stretching along most of the east coast of US from Boston to Atlanta.

I struggled with this mosaic and laid it aside for a long time after filling in the sky. I didn’t really have a clear idea of what the Sprawl should look like.

Now that I finally forced myself to finish it, I am much happier with the result than I ever thought possible. The Sprawl looks like an 80′s idea of a futuristic city. It looks like a low-res graphic on the coolest gaming console you wish you owned. As visions of the future interpreted in an archaic medium of mosaic go, it looks just right.

Playlist Friday: For lovers of similes and metaphors

I can’t promise to do this every Friday, so some Fridays will be more special than others.

This Friday’s playlist was inspired by the lyrics of the Tom Waits song ”After You Die,” which are composed entirely of similes. Similes and metaphors, as you know, are the basic literary trope much abused by poets and songwriters of all ages. So it’s pretty impressive that some of them are still managing to cram songs full of really good ones.

“After You Die” – Tom Waits

What is it like after you die? Pretty surreal, according to this bonus track on Tom Waits’ latest album, Bad as Me. A few great suggestions as to what the afterlife may be like include “Like a rich guy clapping” and “Like a wild-ass painting.” At least that’s how I always heard this line – “a wild-ass painting,” as in “a painting that blows your mind.” But I just saw this written on a lyrics site as “a wild ass painting,” as in “an undomesticated donkey creating a piece of visual art.” I think this interpretation rift may turn into a breakaway religious movement one day.

Rain On the Midway - Single, Kevin Quain“Rain on the Midway” – Kevin Quain

A haunting love song from my favorite Toronto goth blues songwriter is a gripping answer to that age-old question once tackled in a Victorian sonnet – “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”:
   I love you like tornadoes in spring,
   Like old guitar strings,
   Like Nina Simone sings…
Listen to it on iTunes and see if it doesn’t send shivers up your spine.

“Turn Me On” – Nina Simone

As for how Nina Simone sings – here she is, waiting to be turned on “like a light bulb in a dark room.” Gorgeous, heartbreaking song pleading for the return of a lover who left, which ends – appropriately enough – with a request for some fresh ice-cubes in her drink.

“Wild is the Wind” – David Bowie

It was Nina Simone’s cover of “Wild is the Wind” that inspired David Bowie to record his own version of this song. It compares the intensity of his love to the wildness of wind, which is as romantic as the wildness of the painting ass we encountered earlier is not. Incidentally, did you know David Bowie’s new album The Next Day is coming out in a couple of weeks and that he recently released a new wild-ass video for it, starring Tilda Swinton?

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In progress: Illustrations for The Story of a Piece of Paper

Apropos of nothing, here are some of the illustrations I’ve been drawing for a children’s book called The Story of a Piece of Paper.

Story of a Piece of Paper, page 3

As you can see, this story has a paper rabbit in it. So I’ve gotten quite good at rabbits. Here’s another one.

The Story of a Piece of Paper, page 4

The reason I’m drawing these right now instead of, say, finishing the Sprawl mosaic, is that our kids’ birthdays are coming up in just over a month. And this is a story we made up together.

Our older daughter Katya, who is almost five, asked me a few months ago to make up a story about a piece of paper. Yes, that was her chosen theme: “Mommy, can you tell me a new story? Make one up yourself. What about? Oh, just a piece of paper.”

So I made up a story on the spot – with the girls’ help, of course – and they were quite pleased with it. So pleased, in fact, that they kept requesting that same story again and again. I personally didn’t think the story was all that great. But clearly I have a poor grasp on what literature appeals to children.

Since then, I have had to make up several different stories about a piece of paper. Variations on the theme of a piece of paper are now our family storytelling tradition. If we decide to get a family crest one day, we will have to put a piece of paper on the escutcheon. A4 rampant.

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