Category Archives: Book Reviews

Guest Post and Book Giveaway: A Tuba Christmas by Helen Wilbur – Illustrated by Mary Uhles

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A wonderful gift idea for your musically-inclined youngster! And a glimpse into the illustrator’s process.

This article by Kathy Temean previously appeared on Writing and Illustrating.

Writing and Illustrating

Author Helen Wilbur has new picture book titled, A TUBA CHRISTMAS, illustrated by Mary Uhles. It’s now available in bookstores. Raakhee has agreed to share a book with one lucky winner. All you have to do to get in the running is to leave a comment. Reblog, tweet, or talk about it on Facebook with a link and you will get additional chances to win. Just let me know the other things you do to share the good news, so I can put in the right amount of tickets in my basket for you.

Sharing on Facebook, Twitter, reblogging really helps spread the word for a new book. Thanks for helping Helen and Mary!

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

With a family that loves music as much as hers does, it was only a matter of time before it was Ava’s turn to pick out an instrument. Her mother plays the piano, her…

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Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

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Review of Devotions by Mary Oliver

I’ve often heard people mention Mary Oliver as one of their favorite poets. I’ve always felt I had a distant connection to her since she was on staff at Bennington College when my oldest daughter was a student there.

I’ve occasionally read some of her poems, and I decided I needed one of her books. I chose Devotions because it is a collection that spans her lifetime, with selections from her first book (published in 1963 when she was 28 years old) through her most recent (2015).

The book is arranged in reverse chronological order, starting with the newer poems and ending with the oldest. The more recent work is polished and smooth, a delight to read out loud or silently. As I made my way toward the end, the poems seemed rawer, though no less delightful or skillful. Many poems made me stop to savor the images and emotions; some of the older poems required a second or third reading for me to understand.

 

Oliver was born on September 10, 1935. She grew up in Ohio and started writing poetry when she was 14 years old. Her collection American Primitive won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984. Her New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. She and her partner of more than 40 years, photographer Molly Malone Cook, lived much of their life together (before Cook’s passing) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Oliver now lives in Florida.

A daily walker, Oliver most frequently writes about nature, but also about God and about the human experience.

Devotions

Five poems in this book especially spoke to me.

“Six Recognitions of the Lord” describes six diverse times of meditation. Nature appears repeatedly, as God’s creation is an avenue that draws Oliver’s heart to God. But she also acknowledges the Spirit of God within her, and the darkness of distance from God.

Six Recognitions of the Lord (excerpt)
by Mary Oliver

2.
Lord God, mercy is in your hands, pour
me a little. And tenderness too. My
need is great. Beauty walks so freely
and with such gentleness. Impatience puts
a halter on my face and I run away over
the green fields wanting your voice, your
tenderness, but having to do with only
the sweet grasses of the fields against
my body. When I first found you I was
filled with light, now the darkness grows
and it is filled with crooked things, bitter
and weak, each one bearing my name.

Oliver is a master of word choice. In the poem “Some Herons,” she uses the characterizations of preacher and poet to differentiate between two birds when she could have used simply blue and white. Hunched in the white gown of his wings so accurately paints the heron’s position. The description of the water as if it were fabric makes me nod with recognition. Splashed upward, in a small, quick flower, by the life beneath it is so much more vivid than, say, “the surface was disturbed by the fish below.” His skirts up around his knees makes me smile as I picture the blue heron’s awkward landing. And I can see the white heron’s annoyed expression.

In her poem “A Meeting,” she never uses the words deer, doe, or fawn, yet, from the description of the vigorous licking the mother gives her offspring, the reader knows what species just gave birth in the forest swamp, though Oliver calls the creatures woman and child.

In “Music Lessons,” Oliver describes a time that the teacher took the piano bench and played while the student listened; how the teacher became the music and how the student became aware of music’s transformative power.

I love this rejection of the bustle of twenty-first-century existence:

robert-nyman-442988-unsplash

The Old Poets of China
by Mary Oliver

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

Hmm. This reminds me of the bird in “Some Herons” which was referred to as an old Chinese poet.

Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver is filled with beauty, with fresh air, with lyrical appreciation, with uplifting meditations, and also with pain, doubt, and questions. Oliver is one of the greatest American poets, and I am happy to have this volume in my collection.

Review of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

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Review of The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

I love books about ballerinas, and I love books with art tie-ins, so this was a perfect novel for me. Set in Paris from 1878-1895, The Painted Girls follows three sisters, Antoinette, Marie, and Charlotte, whose father has passed away and whose mother is habitually drunk. All three girls must help support the family, or they’ll be evicted from their apartment. Antoinette, who was a ballet student, flunked out but managed to land a walk-on acting job at the Opéra. Marie and Charlotte enter the ballet school at the Opéra, which will earn them a small stipend. Together with what their mother makes doing laundry, they barely squeak by.

 

387px-Edgar_Germain_Hilaire_Degas_069Classes at the ballet school are often observed by mothers and by abonnés (the French word for season-ticket holders, but seems also to mean patrons or protectors, men who give the students gifts and money, often with expectations attached). Another observer is Monsieur Degas, who sketches the students in class. Degas asks Marie to pose for him in his studio, to which she happily agrees because it means extra money.

Meanwhile, Antoinette entangles herself with  Émile, a boy who seduces her. Even though she occasionally experiences his violence, she doesn’t believe he is capable of murder, which he is eventually accused of. But Marie hates him on first sight, which Antoinette attributes to jealousy of the time she spends with him instead of with her sisters.

Meanwhile, Marie dreams of passing the exam to be part of the ballet troupe. Dancing fills her with joy. Here Buchanan’s words satisfy my longing to enter the world of the dancer: “I ache to hear the step, the piano cleaving the air and coaxing the place behind my heart, filling me from inside out. I want to dance again, to feel the music lifting my limbs, arching my back, streaming from my fingertips, my toes. Grace is with me today, also steadiness and lightness and speed.”

As Marie progresses in her dancing, she realizes she needs extra help to catch up with the other dancers her age who have more experience. She gets a job kneading bread early every morning in a bakery so she can pay for additional lessons, which makes her days so long she can’t get sufficient sleep. An abonné comments on the dark circles under her eyes, and when he finds out they’re there because she’s working so hard, he tells her to quit the bakery job and model for him once a week, and he’ll pay her more than she’s making at the bakery. It doesn’t take long for Marie to realize Monsieur Lefebvre is not a real artist.

Degas, however, has made a wax sculpture of Marie, which is to be part of an exhibition. When Marie goes to see it, it’s not on display.

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When Émile is convicted of murder, he writes a letter to the editor of Le Figaro, the newspaper, explaining what a deprived childhood he had, forcing himself into a life of crime. The letter aroused such sympathy that his sentence was reduced from the guillotine to a life of forced hard labor in New Caledonia. Émile pleads with Antoinette to follow him there, but that will cost her way more than what she could put aside from her wages at the laundry where she now works. She signs on at the brothel where a friend works, and stockpiles all her earnings until her regular client tells her he’s getting married and will be on his honeymoon for the next six months. Distressed with losing her main source of income, she picks his pocket as he sleeps, netting 700 francs.

Why did she think she wouldn’t be caught?

In the meantime, a man by the name of Cesare Lombroso says that the criminal element shares certain facial features; if you study a person’s physiognomy, you can tell if he or she is genetically predisposed to commit violent crimes. His views take France by storm.

457px-Edgar_Degas_-_Dancers_at_the_Barre_-_Google_Art_Project

The next year, Degas’ sculpture of Marie, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, is again scheduled to be exhibited. (Degas had pulled it the previous year because he wasn’t satisfied with it.) This time Marie finds it near a pastel sketch made at the trial of Émile and his accomplice, called Criminal Physiognomies. Critics connected her sculpture with the boys’ sketch, commenting on how ballet girls were among the lowest level of society, guilty of every vice.

Émile is accused of a second murder, on the word of his accomplice. Antoinette, who is being held in a convent, urges Marie to give her calendar to Émile’s lawyer, one that will prove he couldn’t have been the killer, and also providing an alibi for the accomplice. Marie, instead, burns the calendar, damning the accomplice (who may have been innocent, but bragging of the crime) to the guillotine.

Eventually, kind-hearted Marie is filled with remorse at the thought of condemning an innocent boy and loses her love for dancing.

By this time, I was a pretty depressed reader. Was Paris in the late 1880s really a place where poor young girls were victimized? Where people were assumed guilty on the basis of appearance? Boy, things never change, do they? I don’t want it to be true.

663px-Degas_3x

 

I first saw a picture of a bronze of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen when I was a freshman in high school in 1966, in a teen girls’ magazine called Ingenue of which I devoured every issue. It has been one of my favorite pieces of art forever. To have the girl’s appearance described as “apish” broke my heart. To me, she was always beautiful.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie BuchananBuchanan conducted extensive historical research for the book. Antoinette, Marie, Charlotte, and Émile were real people, as was Edgar Degas. Many events in the book are documented, and some are partially based on fact.

The end of the book reveals the much more satisfactory true subsequent events in the lives of the sisters. Charlotte ended up being a dancer of note and a teacher of dance at the Opéra, a career that spanned 53 years.

Even though parts of the book are incredibly sad, The Painted Girls is a compelling story.

Creative Juice #104

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Creative Juice #104

Inspiring works of art:

 

Review of Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies by Julia Adair King and Robert Correll

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Review of Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies by Julia Adair King and Robert Correll

It has taken me more than two-and-a-half years to finish this book.

When I bought my camera, I felt I needed a guide that would be easier to understand than the manual that came with it, which seemed to assume I knew all about cameras. But I’ve always had a point-and-shoot camera, even back in the days of film. Even my 35 mm camera had only a built-in lens. My first two digital cameras were simple automatics. I don’t understand apertures and shutter speeds.

I should have gotten the book for idiots since I apparently don’t have enough intelligence to qualify to be a dummy.

Camera

The first few months I labored through the pages, I constantly referred back to what I’d previously read, or consulted the index to see if I could find a clearer explanation further on in the book. The first chapters often introduced a feature and then said, “…but more about this in Chapter 7.” I reread pages over and over again, trying to figure out what the significance of one setting over another was.

Canon Eos

When I bought my camera, I chose the Rebel T5 over the just-released T6, because the newer model had wi-fi capability, and I couldn’t conceive why I’d ever need it. (I didn’t even have an Instagram account back then.) I wanted as few bells and whistles as possible, and the T5 was touted as a “beginner” dSLR camera.

I learned early on to turn down the corners of certain pages so I could find them quickly for reference. Pages 11, 12, 27, and 37 have photographs of the camera from different angles with all the buttons and doohickeys labeled. Page 37 explains the “creative zone” modes.

It took me from beginning to end to approach being comfortable with some of the terms that I looked up dozens of times. In photography, some terms have such cryptic names that you have to wonder if manufacturers even want people to be successful with their products. (For example, why is shutter-priority autoexposure abbreviated Tv? Who could remember that?)

The good news is, the default settings on the Canon EOS Rebel T5 are sufficient to take reasonably good pictures under most situations. I used my old point-and-shoot procedure until I learned better. I’m pleased with my camera, and I’m glad that I am learning how to use more of the options. The book, though frustrating for a long time, is getting easier for me to decipher.

camera-lensI still have much to learn. I’d say I understand about a third of the book at this point. But at least I have a general idea where to look to find out more. I have a feeling I’ll be rereading Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies for years to come.

Review of Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

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Review of Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

This may be the best biography I’ve ever read, well-researched and beautifully written. While under its spell, I felt immersed in creative energy. I experienced being in the zone—felt my synapses firing, my imagination blazing; what I would have thought incomprehensible was suddenly possible. That sensation never left me while reading this book; I was never bored, even though the epic is nearly 600 pages long.

Jones conducted extensive interviews with Henson’s family and colleagues to research Jim Henson: The Biography. He also consulted Henson’s personal journal, and reviewed pertinent documents and footage.

There’s no way to write a short review of this book. Instead, I’ll highlight some of the moments of Henson’s life. I don’t usually post articles this long, and though it looks like a lot of material, I am sharing a small fraction of this fabulous book. It’s well worth your time to acquire a copy and read it yourself. I laughed out loud in its pages; I also wept.

Best of all, as I read, I got to know the real Jim Henson, and he was just as funny, kind, imaginative, intelligent, and crazy as the little glimpses of him that I caught occasionally on television through the years.

My earliest memory of him was a guest appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was a little girl. My mother was familiar with him, having seen him on Jack Parr’s Tonight Show.

When my husband and I became parents, Sesame Street became part of our daily routine (how I miss it!) and later, we enjoyed The Muppet Show and multiple Muppet movies. I didn’t realize Henson’s body of work went much further than that.

Jim Henson was born in 1936. His father, Paul, was a non-practicing Methodist; his mother, Betty, was a Christian Scientist, and raised her sons in her faith.

Jim was always an imaginative child. A photograph captured the little tyke sitting cross-legged on the lawn clothed in a bedsheet, with a homemade turban wrapped around his head, pretending to snake-charm a garden hose. With the help of a clothespin, he invented a gun that shot rubber bands. The climate in Jim’s childhood home was warm, loving, and funny; a favorite family pastime was telling stories and jokes and singing songs around the pump organ. His mother’s mother, known as “Dear,” encouraged his artistic side and was always a willing audience for his little performances.

In 1950, at Jim’s insistent urging, the family bought a television. Instantly, Jim’s ambition was to work in TV. He loved Texaco Star Theater with Milton Berle and Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar—and comedy writers Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, and Ernie Kovacs.

Some early children’s shows featured puppets, like Howdy Doody and Kukla, Fran and Ollie. Jim also saw Bil and Cora Baird’s marionettes on variety shows.

In high school, Jim joined the drama club, because he was interested in designing and building sets and silk-screening posters for productions. Late in his senior year, Jim went to an audition for a student marionettier at local TV station WTOP. Although he was a member of the puppetry club, he was more interested in designing puppets than performing them, but he was willing to try if it would get him a job on TV. He and friend Russell Wall built two puppets and came up with a routine. They got the job, which soon led to another opportunity for Jim at NBC.

Jim attended the University of Maryland, where all the courses he wanted to take—set and scenery design and construction, art, advertising, costume design, interior design, and puppetry—were housed in the home economics department. It was there he met Jane Nebel.

The puppetry class was a brand-new offering, assigned to an inexperienced young instructor. As someone who had performed with puppets on TV for several months, Jim had more credentials than his teacher. He essentially took over teaching the class.

Meanwhile, Jim and Jane landed a job performing puppets on an afternoon TV program. They used the hybrid marionette/puppets Jim designed to lip-synch to songs and novelty recordings, usually involving shaggy wigs, fake explosions, and one monster eating another at the climax of the performance.

Here’s one of their routines, recapped on The Steve Allen Show:

Jim and Jane got another job performing for five minutes at the end of Richard Harkness’ 11:00 PM news broadcast (they performed live every night, just as they performed live every afternoon). Jim called the segment Sam and Friends, and he made all the puppets for it, including Kermit, who was not yet a frog. Jim thought of his creations at that time as abstract creatures.

As he practiced and performed, Jim watched his puppets on a monitor, so he could utilize the space of the TV screen (and box) to maximum advantage. This technique required him to master reverse orientation to make adjustments to the puppets’ positions, since the TV screen did not mirror them. (In other words, he had to move left to make the puppet move to the right on the screen.) Jim and Jane functioned beautifully as a team, intuitively playing off one another. At this point they were business partners only, both engaged to marry other people.

Jim’s puppets’ faces were made of foam rubber covered with fabric or fleece, which gave them remarkable flexibility. Jim paid special attention to the placement of the puppets’ eyes; he wanted them to have focus rather than appearing vacant. He moved puppets’ hands with rods, and later gave some puppets “live” hands, which necessitated more than one performer per puppet. Jim practiced in front of a mirror for hours to perfect nuances of body language and mouth articulation.

Jim constantly was offered new gigs, and he built new puppets and sets on his own dime, happy just to be working, even though he never wanted to be a puppeteer—he wanted to work in television: set design, directing, producing, or creating advertising art.

Wilkins Coffee Company hired Jim and Jane to create 15 ten-second commercials with their Muppets. Wilkins’ slogan was “Use Wilkins Coffee—it’s a wonderful way to start the day.” Jim changed it to “Use Wilkins Coffee…or else!” He came up with two characters: Wilkins, who will drink the coffee, and Wontkins, who won’t. Wilkins tries all sorts of violence to make him try it—clubbing, shooting, stomping, or decapitating Wontkins. The ads were incredibly successful, increasing sales by 25%, and winning Jim and Jane local awards for excellence in advertising. They filmed nearly 180 commercials for Wilkins over the next several years.

Jim still wanted to be a painter or a set designer, and Jane still wanted a career in commercial art or fashion. Jim decided to quit Sam and Friends to paint. WRC said he could outsource his puppetry and they’d still pay him, rather than scrap Sam and Friends; so he hired University of Maryland student Bobby Payne to take his place and went to Europe for six weeks to study painting.

Jim discovered that puppet shows were a popular artform in Europe. He marveled at the enthusiastic audience response to Punch and Judy street shows. He interviewed European puppeteers and puppet makers, the first he’d ever met in person. He came home determined to be an even better puppeteer, with renewed creativity and sporting a Van Dyke beard.

As Jane and Jim’s work relationship deepened, they decided they ought to get married. They broke off their engagements and married each other in 1959. Jim graduated in 1960 with a degree in home economics, and their first child, Lisa Marie, was also born that year.

Now committed to the art of puppetry, Jim and Jane attend the Puppeteers of America convention in Detroit. They became friends with puppeteer Burt Tillstrom and his puppet builder, Doh Sahlin, and talent agent Berrnie Brillstein, who helped the Muppets get more variety show bookings.

At a second Puppeteers of America conference, he met a teenaged Frank Oz, who was following in his father’s footsteps, though he didn’t really want to be a puppeteer. He introduced Jim to his collaborator, Jerry Juhl.

The USDA was hosting a U.S. Food Fair in Hamburg, Germany and invited Jim and the Muppets to provide entertainment. He used it as an opportunity to try out some of his innovations, including a live hand puppet who would be the prototype for the Swedish Chef.

In 1962 the Puppeteers of America elected 25-year-old Jim Henson president. He’d only been a member for two years, but he’d become a powerful influencer for the art.

Jim wanted to produce a television special or a weekly show, but TV executives he approached said, “puppets are for kids.” Jim strongly disagreed; he felt he was creating family-friendly adult entertainment.

Purina of Canada requested that Jim make them some dog food commercials. Jim created two dog characters, Rowlf and Baskerville, and made seven commercials. Purina offered Jim $100,000 for the rights to the Rowlf character. Jim declined and instructed Bernie Brillstein, his agent, “Never sell anything I own.”

In 1963 Jim and Jane and their now two daughters (Cheryl was born in 1961) moved to New York City. After his high school graduation, Frank Oz joined him there.

Country music singer (and sausage maker) Jimmy Dean hired Jim to perform on his new variety show. Rowlf became a regular character and sang duets with Jimmy. Sketches were written by Jimmy’s comedy team, and Jim, Frank, and Jimmy rehearsed them until they were flawless. Frank Oz worked Rowlf’s right hand, and Jim operated his mouth. Rowlf received more fan mail than Jimmy Dean—2,000 letters a week.

In November, 1963, third child Brian was born. Having effectively outgrown their New York apartment, the Hensons moved to Greenwich, Connecticut in April. One year later, their fourth child, John Paul, was born.

Jim now wanted to go into movies, without puppets. In May, 1965, Jim’s short experimental film called Timepiece premiered at the Museum of Modern Art. It was an eight-minute abstract/surrealist stream of conscious film about a man’s struggle with time, made of a patchwork of shots each only a few second long. It was distributed to art theaters along with the movie A Man and A Woman.

After working hard on different projects, expanding into film, animation, documentaries, and experimental television, Jim resisted joining the Children’s Television Workshop. He didn’t want to be considered a children’s puppeteer again. But he let himself be persuaded to make the short “commercials” featuring letters or numbers or body parts.

At the 1969 Puppeteers of America convention in Salt Lake City, Jim met puppeteer Carroll Spinney. Spinney performed an experimental production of live puppetry interacting with an animated background, which failed miserably when a light malfunctioned and completely washed out the background. Henson, however, saw enough to convince him that Spinney was very talented and invited him to join the Muppets.

Getting more involved with Children’s Television Network, Jim and crew created a bunch of new puppets for Sesame Street—Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird. Jim valued the views of his children and often sought their opinions of his work, gauging their reactions to performances and asking questions. If the kids liked a piece, it was included.

In 1970, the fifth and final Henson child was born, daughter Heather.

Though Jim and Joan Ganz Cooney resisted commercializing Sesame Street, a record album won a Grammy, and the song Rubber Ducky rose to #16 in September, 1970. In 1971, Muppet merchandise hit the shelves. Jim’s royalties allowed him funding for research and development of electronic enhancements for his creations.

By the early 1970s, Jim and Jane were having differences. Jim was high-energy, Jane was more leisurely. Jim kept his emotions private, Jane expressed her feelings. Communication stalled between them. Jim was so focused on his career that Jane felt abandoned. Jane was fiercely loyal to Jim, but was frustrated with his emotional distance.

In 1973, Jim and Frank Oz went around New York pitching a proposal for a weekly Muppet TV show of family-oriented entertainment. After being turned down everywhere they tried, they finally got approval from Michael Eisner at ABC for a pilot. For the new Muppet Show, Jim designed some new characters: Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, and Scooter. He purposely didn’t want to use many of his Sesame Street characters (except Kermit), preferring to keep the two projects separate for ethical reasons. (Bert and Ernie made a guest appearance in episode 2.) Miss Piggy, who was originally intended as a chorus girl, a minor character, became an audience favorite who set her romantic desires on Kermit.

Brian Jay Jones describes life on The Muppet Show set:

While the bulk of the responsibility for keeping things running smoothly fell largely to Jim, he never made it look like work. “Everything was play for him,” said [Jerry] Juhl. “Work was play. That was the thing that we all plainly understood.” Agreed Oz, “Jim wasn’t a workaholic. Our job was playing.” For Jim that meant encouraging the team—from the Muppet performers to the lighting crew—to ad-lib or interject ideas, and maintaining an overall atmosphere of collegiality in which everyone’s performance and opinion was valued. “We know each other so well that we can kind of bounce off each other when we’re working together,” explained Jim. “This working relationship…has a kind of marvelous chemistry to it, and I think it’s terribly important that when we’re working in the studio, we work with this kind of affection and high spirits.”

And spirits were high indeed. The Muppet performers would constantly joke and banter without ever breaking character, their puppets jabbering at each other with eyebrows waggling and arms waving. “Even when they’re not shooting, they keep talking [in character],” said impressionist Rich Little, a second season guest. “It’s incredible…After a few minutes at the studio…the Muppets become real.”

Jim Henson and his crew put together a musical Christmas special based on Russell and Lilian Hoban’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, with music by Paul Williams. Don Sahlin and Faz Fazakas built romote-controlled puppets using NASA technology, like a mechanical Emmet Otter who could row a boat in the water.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas aired on Canadian television in December, 1977; it premiered on U.S. cable TV the following year on HBO.

Meanwhile, The Muppet Show grew in popularity. By season three, it was available on television in 106 countries, to 235 million viewers. Someone called Jim “the new Walt Disney.”

The Muppet Show was filmed in England, and Jim set up house in London. After more than a year living there, Jane missed New York and decided to move back. Jim had been seeing other women surreptitiously, and that increased after Jane left.

In 1978, shooting started on the first Muppet Movie with James Frawley directing. The crew had to invent ways for the Muppets to be filmed outdoors, sometimes digging trenches and tunnels for the performers to hide in and devising rolling chairs or dollies for the puppeteers to scoot on below camera level.

In 1981, Jim said, “I want to do a[n international] children’s television show that will stop war.” He assembled his creative team of Jim Juhl, Michael Frith, and Jocelyn Stevenson in his house, where they brainstormed and fleshed out what would become the Fraggle Rock series by living together and meeting every day. Jones wrote, Jim “had given them the luxury of time—the one thing he never seemed to have—to thoroughly think the project through.”

Michael Frith said, “We talked about doing a show…demonstrating how, through misconception, we can create problems that not only shouldn’t be there but can be self-destructive—and how, through harmony, we can achieve strength.” (Ha—we could use a show like that for adults.)

The team put together an enormous three-ring binder labeled Things We Know About the Fraggles that detailed the world they were creating.

Bernie Brillstein found a home for Fraggle Rock at HBO, which at that time had only nine million subscribers. (Jim didn’t even have cable in those days.) Working toward expanding its subscriber base, HBO promised creative freedom and a high profile, since Fraggle Rock would be its first original weekly series. They wanted it ready to go by early 1983 and asked for 24 episodes per season. It ran for five years and was broadcast in more than 90 countries, fulfilling Jim’s dream for an international children’s show. Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show were the first Western television series to air on Soviet television.

Did you know that Henson Associates created Yoda for Star Wars? George Lucas collaborated with Henson on making the movie The Dark Crystal, and Henson came up with ideas for Yoda; Frank Oz performed him.

When Jim auditioned performers for The Dark Crystal, a casting call went out for mimes, acrobats, and dancers, because that’s the skill set Jim felt would be required for the puppeteers for The Dark Crystal. They spent eight months on physical training with mime Jean-Pierre Amiel to determine how the creatures would move and to get them into top physical condition to perform their roles.

For Jim, part of the fun of creating a fantasy world wasn’t just building the creatures, but creating everything else in the world as well, from plants and trees to swords and spoons. If a chair was needed in the background, for instance, the crew couldn’t just grab a chair from the prop department; they had to build a chair that looked as if it belonged in Jim’s fantasy world and had been made from materials round there.

Getting back to the preparations for Fraggle Rock, in early November 1981:

Jim called in all the major Muppet puppeteers and asked them to perform with each Fraggle—and with each other—to see if they could come up with characters. Such free-wheeling play had helped define and hone the characters on The Muppet Show and Jim wanted to see how his performers adlibbed and bounced off one another. Partly, it had to do with finding the right chemistry between the five major characters, consisting of four distinct character types—the athlete, the artist, the worrywart, and the indecisive one—revolving around a steady central character.

Jim directed seven episodes of Fraggle during its first season and occasionally performed several recurring characters—but once the show was up and running, he was content to turn the show almost entirely over to the Fraggle team. . . By letting go, Jim was growing and nurturing the talent within his company—and he was impressed with the work that was being done.

After Dark Crystal was completed, Jim left London and returned to New York, but not to the house he had shared with Jane; he took an apartment in Manhattan. Jim and Jane legally separated. The separation also cut her out of the company she had helped to build.

Jim’s next big movie project was The Labyrinth. His sons, Brian and John, wanted David Bowie to play the character of Jareth. Jim wanted Sting, but agreed to meet Bowie, and liked him so much that he gave Bowie the job and asked him to compose and sing music for the film as well as acting.

The making of the “Shaft of Hands” in The Labyrinth:

Writer Maurice Sendak accused Jim of plagarizing some of his material. He felt Jim’s plot for Labyrinth was very much like Sendak’s Outside Over There. Jim also called some of his creatures “wild things,” which Sendak took as a reference to his Where the Wild Things Are.

Jim and Sendak had been friends for ten years, and Jim had not consciously stolen any ideas from him. Jim renamed his wild things “Fireys” and acknowledged Sendak in the credits.

Next Jim developed a new television series called The Storyteller, which drew on old folk tales. He hired Steve Barron, who directed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean music video, to be the director. The Storyteller premiered January 31, 1987 on NBC and won an Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program.

Another of Henson’s movie projects was an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. An inordinate amount of drama swirled around the project behind the scenes.

Wiccans across the country—already smarting over Dahl’s book for what they considered its negative portrayal of witches—admonished Jim in a letter-writing campaign when they learned he was adapting the book for the big screen. Jim tried to appease they concerns, but only got caught up arguing semantics over the terms black magic or evil witch with the head of the Witches’ League for Public Awareness, based in Salem, Massachusetts.

Adding to the problems with the Wiccans, Dahl wanted to be kept in the loop about the script. When screenwriter Allan Scott rewrote the ending of the story, Dahl was furious. When he viewed the finished film, he was appalled at the “vulgarity, the bad taste and the actual terror display in certain parts” of The Witches. He asked for his name to be removed from the credits and refused to endorse the movie.

Jim responded with a letter that said in part, “It’s such a delightful book that you’ve given us to work with. I hope you will forgive us for falling short of your expectations.”

In 1989, Jim offered to sell his company to Disney so he could focus on his creative ideas and have someone else deal with running the business. Michael Eisner, his former ally at ABC who advocated for The Muppet Show, was now head of Disney. He called the collaboration with Henson a match “made in family-entertainment heaven.” The Sesame Street Muppets were not part of the deal.

While waiting for the contract to be finalized, Jim worked on several Disney projects. Some of his old friends commented that they’d never seen him happier in his life.

Later, drawn-out haggling over the details of the contract proved so stressful that Jim contemplated backing out.

On May 4, 1990, Jim and puppeteer Kevin Clash taped an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. Jim had a sore throat and felt a little run down. He wasn’t as fast with his clever retorts and stumbled over words as he voiced Kermit.

Saturday, May 12, Jim and his daughter Cheryl flew to Norfolk, Virginia. He was still sick with the sore throat, and it seemed like he had a cold or mild flu. He drove their rental car 70 miles south to Ahoskie, North Caroline, where they checked into a motel near his father and step-mother’s house. They played croquet, sipped ice tea, enjoyed dinner, sat on the screened-in porch, watched the sunset, told stories and laughed. Jim mentioned he didn’t feel well.

Sunday morning he woke up in the motel room feeling worse, and he went back to sleep. At noon, his cousin, Stan Jenkins, came to drive Jim and Cheryl back to his parents’ house for lunch. Jim mentioned he still didn’t feel well, and Stan, a physician, told him to see a doctor as soon as he got back to New York. Jim had no appetite, but he had a raspy cough. He decided to catch an earlier flight home.

Back in New York, Jim woke up Monday morning feeling worse. He’d lost his voice and had trouble breathing. He called his assistant and asked her to cancel a breakfast meeting and a recording session. This was the first time Jim had ever called in sick.

Alerted by Cheryl, Jane came over in the afternoon with chicken soup and stayed at his bedside while he lay in bed coughing, his heart beating rapidly, breathing with great difficulty, sipping tea. By 2:00 am, Jim’s breathing was even more labored, and it hurt his abdomen to cough. When he coughed up blood, Jane wanted to call a doctor, but Jim refused, pleading, “Just rub my back.”

A couple of hours later, Jim finally agreed to go to the hospital. He was admitted at 4:58 am on Tuesday, May 15. Examination showed an irregular heartbeat and failing kidneys. By 6:30 he was diagnosed with pneumonia and kidney failure and moved to ICU, where he slipped into a coma. He never regained consciousness. Despite heroic measures during the following hours, at 1:21 am on Wednesday, May 16, 1990, Jim Henson died at age 53. Official cause of death was septic shock due to group A streptococcus. That sore throat eight days earlier was caused by a rare strain of strep, which slowly spread throughout Jim’s lungs and organs, infecting everything in its path.

All of Jim’s children were present in the hospital at the time of his passing, as were all his long-time associates and Jane. Everyone was stunned that someone as healthy and vibrant as Jim could be gone so suddenly.

Frank Oz speaking at Jim’s memorial service:

The Disney deal did not close in 1990. Jim’s death triggered staggering estate taxes which put both sides in such a complicated position that no one could figure out a scenario that worked to anyone’s benefit. The tone of the negotiations deteriorated. There was no joy on either side.

The Jim Henson Company continued to produce noteworthy Muppet films and specials, many with the assistance of The Walt Disney Company, but logistics were becoming more difficult for independent movie companies, and in 2000 Henson’s company, including its Sesame Street assets, was sold to EM.TV, a German media group. By 2003, EM.TV’s stock tanked, and the Hensons bought the company back again, except for the Sesame Street Muppets, which EM.TV had sold to Children’s Television Workshop, which Jim would have wanted.

Jim HensonFinally, in February 2004, the Muppets were sold to Disney. The Jim Henson Company held on to the Creature Shop (the workshop where their puppets were designed and built and fitted with technology), the Fraggles, Labyrinth, and The Dark Crystal.

Jim Henson left behind an incredible legacy, an amazing body of work. But he also generously gave of himself to his family and his colleagues. His positive example continues to be a frame of reference that people who knew him well emulate in their own lives.

There are so many moments of beauty in this book, so many anecdotes, so many belly laughs, and a few tears. Brian Jay Jones devoted five years to researching and writing his biography of Jim Henson, which he calls his “dream project.” He also includes many photographs and meticulous notes.

Review of Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell

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Review of Write Your Novel from the Middle by James Scott Bell

Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell is not a comprehensive guide for fiction writers; neither is it a book for beginners. For someone who has at least written a complete first draft, it would be helpful in focusing your rewrite. In your subsequent stories, Bell’s technique will save you much grief, because you’ll know what to do in the dreaded middle of the tale.

Book open to middle

Bell says there is a pivotal moment of truth at the midpoint of the story that pulls together the entire novel. Here the main character does one of two things:

  • In a character-driven story, the MC looks at himself and makes a decision about the person he’s becoming. Does he like himself? Does he have to change the way he operates? How is the struggle he’s involved in affecting him?
  • In plot-driven fiction, the MC evaluates her objective and realizes that going forward is going to cost her dearly; she will surely die, if not physically, then emotionally or professionally. And she makes the decision to go forward. (If not, end of story!)

I was relieved to discover my work-in-perpetual-progress does have this defining moment close to the midpoint, without me knowing Bell’s theory or planning for it. (Phew!) Bell’s research shows that it’s virtually universal in successful books and movies.

Interestingly, Bell discusses this most important information in Chapter 5 of 9. A coincidence?

After Chapter 9, he also includes five helpful writing tips.

Write Your Novel From the Middle is a quick read. I have it on my Kindle, but if you prefer hard copy, it won’t take up much space on your writing books shelf, where it would be a valuable addition. I rate it four stars out of five: what it does, it does well, but it won’t solve all your writing problems, nor does Bell claim it will.