The BiblioFiles Presents: Norton Juster

Norton Juster photo courtesy of Random House

Author photo courtesy of Random House

Just posted! It’s our first BiblioFiles webcast in front of a live audience, and our guest is Norton Juster, author of the legendary book, The Phantom Tollbooth.

Milo is a boy who doesn’t know what to do with himself, isn’t interested in much, and doesn’t see the point in anything. But when a mysterious package containing a toy tollbooth arrives in his room, everything changes.

Past the tollbooth are the Lands Beyond, which house places like Dictionopolis, the Valley of Sound, the Doldrums, Digitopolis, and the Mountains of Ignorance. Milo is soon joined by a pair of unusual travel companions, Tock and Humbug, as he attempts to bring Princesses Rhyme and Reason back to settle the warring kingdoms of Words and Numbers.

First published in 1961, The Phantom Tollbooth is wacky, smart, odd, fun, strange, and completely captivating. It is often compared to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in terms of its intelligence, word play, and impact on children’s literature. Now, in over 50 years of publication, The Phantom Tollbooth, with its iconic illustrations by Jules Feiffer, has been analyzed in scholarly papers, quoted in dissertations, included in graduate classes, documented on film, read aloud in elementary school classrooms, passed along through generations of families, and newly discovered by young readers. It is, and will always be, a seminal book in the history of children’s literature.

In addition to The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster has written The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics, Alberic The Wise and Other Journeys, As: A Surfeit of Similies, The Hello, Goodbye Window, Sourpuss and Sweetie Pie, The Odious Ogre, and Neville. In 2011, The Annotated Phantom Tollbooth, with introduction and notes by scholar Leonard Marcus, was released.

Follow this link to the BiblioFiles interview

Jazz Communication

jazz communicationLiteracy is, among other things, about communication. Writers write, readers read, and ideas and experiences are shared. Then I started thinking about communication in all its glorious forms. What about jazz music? Specifically, improvisational, free form, impromptu jams in which the musicians carry on entire musical conversations with their instrument voices. How exactly does that work? What cues are the musicians using? How do they know when to start? When to stop?

My search for answers led me to the very talented Dr. Karen Zumbrunn, jazz pianist extraordinaire, who was thrilled to bring some jazz communication to our library.

karen zumbrunnAt the program, Karen was joined by Brian Glassman on double bass and Tom Sayek on drums. All I can say is…wow. I can’t believe what they packed into that 60 minute performance.

jazz trioKaren explained accents, beats, syncopation, melody, tone, changes, coda, chords, tags, and pitch. Interspersed with her instruction were jazz pieces that not only demonstrated the concepts she was explaining, it also got the kids singing, clapping, and dancing along!

dancingAt the end of the program, the kids were invited to come up and meet the musicians and the instruments.

meet the pianoThe drum set was an absolute mob scene.

meet the drumsBut, as a former bass player, I made a beeline for the double bass. It was made in Concord, New Hampshire by Abraham Prescott circa 1820. Love. Loooove.

meet the double bassLater, I caught up with Karen to ask her a little more about jazz communication.

Please tell us a little about yourself!

My parents related they could not keep me away from the piano when I was growing up. I began lessons age 5 (a wonderful neighborhood teacher who was a big influence and friend). By my teen years I wanted to play jazz and began playing professionally at age 16. With the money I saved I went to Paris for a year and, in addition to studies at the Sorbonne and  L’Ecole Normale de Musique, I performed at the Blue Note, a famous jazz club there. This led to many things including my first recording in Rome with the “International Stars of Jazz.”

Upon my return from Paris I entered the MA program at Ohio State University and my master’s thesis, “12 Blues of Charlie Parker” was the first one at OSU on jazz. My other love is teaching so I got a second Masters in Education. I completed my Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, incorporating jazz into part of my dissertation.

My life has been filled with my love of jazz and of teaching. I was an Associate Professor of music at Bergen Community College and also taught at Rutgers, Middlesex Community College, and Mercer Community College.

How did you decide to present jazz communication to kids?

Libraries are all about communication – through the written word and illustration. I was aware of some of the many fine programs Dr. Dana had offered in the past – from the Japanese storytelling to other activities. In discussion with Dr. Dana, we explored the idea of presenting jazz as another form of communication. We wanted to present pieces that were in a fairly bright  tempo. Dancing, clapping, moving around was encouraged. There is no jazz experience without with players and an audience in communication. Jazz is fun!

There was a bit of singing (and dancing!) during the program. Why did you decide to add a singing component?

I have performed in many library and school situations. I like to have the audience sing a folk song that is not too complicated – then they can follow the improvisations and creations the jazz musicians present. Our goal is always to make jazz less of a mystery so even children will not be afraid of the word “jazz” and will open their ears.

Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?

There are so many fine jazz musicians, past and present, on every instrument – too many to mention. From the piano sounds of a Les McCann, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, McCoy Tyner, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan to the smooth cornet of a Bobby Hackett or   swinging sax of a Cannonball Adderley, the list of talented artists would take several pages. There are fewer places to hear and perform jazz now than some years ago – so the library did a major service to the community by offering this free program.

Writing, Re-imagined

writing reimaginedLook closely and you’ll see that these are not handwritten pages of notes. They’re hand-stitched pages of fabric. The intricacy of the stitching, the re-imagining of lined paper as cloth, and the time it takes to produce a single page make viewing these pieces truly amazing. Also amazing is the touching and mindfully deliberate recording of life – both the extraordinary and the ordinary – through slow and careful stitchery.

page 1These pages are the works of Diana Weymar, currently the Artist-in-Residence at the Arts Council of Princeton. Diana’s also the curator of Every Fiber of My Being, a group show that explores the use of textiles as a second skin. As part of her residency, Diana has initiated Interwoven Stories, a community stitching project that invites individuals to record their own thoughts, feelings, experiences, and beliefs on fabric pages. Later, the pages will be displayed on five installations around town.

Diana WeymarPlease tell us a little about yourself!

I am 46 years-old, have four children ages 12-22, and live in the U.S. and Canada. I graduated from Princeton in 1991 after writing a creative thesis with Joyce Carol Oates. I have worked in publishing and film in NYC and the past five years have been focused on my art practice – the basis of which is using familiar materials in unfamiliar ways – and on community-based art projects.

When did you first re-imagine lined notebook paper as fabric?

When both of my maternal grandparents passed away, boxes of their belongings were sent to me. For some reason, I found their crisp white sheets – they belonged to the generation that saturated their sheets with starch – heartbreaking. At the same time, I was reviewing notes from my writing course at Princeton with John McPhee and found that his rules for writing also applied to my art practice. The continuity between the craft of writing and crafting sculptural pieces was surprising and enriching.

My notes and writing pieces from class with John were, in a way, very much like traditional samplers. Instructive. Practice-based learning. I wanted to spend more time with my notes from class and thought of rewriting them in thread. The term “thread consciousness” is often thrown around when discussing contemporary embroidery but it’s a very basic idea: the process of creation is a process of awareness and the longer you spend on a piece – written or stitched – the more aware you become. Communication is so quick now. Quickly created and quickly consumed.

page 2Can you describe the process behind creating a single sheet?

I cut 8 ½ x 11 pages out of bed sheets and then create the blue and pink lines by machine. For Interwoven Stories I created 200 fabric pages. They each take about 25 minutes from start to finish. I started to develop pain in my right hip from shifting my weight to the left to press on the pedal with my right foot. Sometimes I can still feel the vibrations of the machine coursing through my right side. Without music and podcasts to distract myself, I don’t think I would have been able to finish machine sewing the pages. Spending a concentrated amount of time with the sewing machine gave me a deep appreciation for labor-based practices. The final touch was to punch holes in the fabric sheets.

blank fabric pageIs it difficult to achieve flow when hand-stitching? I imagine it’s quite a bit slower than writing, painting, or sculpting…

It’s “slow flow” but has exactly the same language and process as painting, drawing, and sculpting. I love the mechanics of stitching, the metaphorical aspects of hand, thread, and fabric. This particular practice has the distinct advantage of being very portable. If I can sit and there is light, I can stitch. With four children and a bi-coastal lifestyle, I’ve worked on planes, while watching squash matches, and at lectures. It’s very hard to put down a piece once I’ve started it.

How do you utilize the different types of stitches in your work?

I’m asked this question frequently because the basic misconception about stitching is that it is exclusively a craft-based language and that to speak it, you must know a series of “trade stitches.” I use thread the same way I use ink or paint. Every stitch is either a line or a dot. There are some fabulous and inventive names for stitches and, at this point, I enjoy the names of technical stitches more than I enjoy them in my practice. The French Knot is essential to many of my pieces but, for now, I am focused on layering, color, and pattern while using a simple stitch.

close upIn your mind, what is the relationship between the written word and the stitched word? Are they the same? Vastly different?

When I think of the “written word” I think of the handwritten word. For me, the stitched word and the handwritten word are intimately related. The typed word is vastly different. It’s about looking and watching but not about creating a shape. Both the written and stitched word reveal so much about the author. All typed words look the same; all stitched and written words are different.

I realized recently that I have close friends whose handwriting I have never seen. My 12 year-old has not learned to write in cursive. I find all of this a little strange and disorienting. Would you rather hold a handwritten letter in your hand or read a letter on a screen? And if it’s been stitched, isn’t that almost like holding hands with someone? The next best thing? I find stitching to be very intimate. And caring. I have a friend who knit a blanket for me for Valentines Day. This still amazes me.

Though I am not making work for specific people, I am stitching as a way of sharing. What impresses me is that most people want to touch stitched words and images, to read them with their fingers. We touch screens but only to move content around. Not to read with our fingers.

page 3Please tell us about your community art project involving fabric paper.

Interwoven Stories is a version of a project that I did in Nicosia, Cyprus, Spring 2015, with Build Peace. I watched the lectures from the 2014 conference at the MIT Media Lab on video and I wanted to create a project using an “ancient technology” in a contemporary setting. Build Peace focuses on the use of cutting-edge technologies in peace building and the exploration of art as connection.

Interwoven Stories is also a community-based project in which 200 fabric pages have been handed out in Princeton to be stitched by residents of the community. I was recently at a dinner party in Princeton with someone who explained to me that UNESCO uses “cultural mapping” to promote intercultural dialogue and this resonated very strongly with me. Princeton is a very diverse community and I’m very much looking forward to collecting and curating the pages. I cannot wait to “read” them.

maria evans page

Interwoven Stories submission by Maria Evans


Images courtesy of the artist and the Arts Council of Princeton.