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Beth Norling (1969-) - Sidelights

sister book mother review

After providing illustrations for numerous books for children and adults, in recent years Beth Norling has begun writing her own self-illustrated titles. As Norling told SATA, in the beginning of her career, "I worked for a graphic art company, and became its only employee, preparing cartoons and setting type (manually, with wax), until I received my first picture book commission. I have been freelancing illustrations and writing ever since."

In Sister Night and Sister Day, Norling's first selfillustrated book, a classic fairy tale by the German writers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is "beautifully interpreted in [Norling's] graceful text and appealing artwork," wrote Booklist's Carolyn Phelan. The story is about two sisters, Rose and Ruby. Ruby is sweet and hard-working; Rose selfishly shirks her own chores, yet is still more beloved by the girls' mother than Ruby. When Ruby stumbles down a magical well into the enchanted home of Mother Earth, she works just as diligently there as she had previously done for her own mother. As a reward, Mother Earth provides her with a golden dress. Upon seeing the beautiful dress, Rose wants one for herself, so she journeys to Mother Earth's house and attempts to complete the same chores. However, her laziness is evident, and instead of a dress of gold Mother Earth gives her one of uncomfortable thistles. "Earth-tone watercolor-pencil, watercolor, and Conte-pencil illustrations flow in lines to envelope readers in a fairy-tale ambience," commented School Library Journal contributor Gay Lynn Van Vleck.

Twins Ruby and Rose meet Mother Earth and are rewarded by how they work—one girl with a gold dress and the other with a thistle gown in Norling's self-illustrated Sister Night and Sister Day, a retelling of the Grimm tale "Mother Holle."

Norling's third self-illustrated title is The Stone Baby. As Norling described it to SATA, "In this book, I am trying to convey the pain and isolation felt, not only by children, but by parents." Norling drew on "my own experience of mothering my first child while suffering postnatal depression, my own experience of delving into the subconscious, and some insight into the emotional world I experienced as a child," she continued. "The book is purposefully oblique, depending upon symbolism and image to convey meaning. It is a picture book in the truest form, with the pictures providing the narrative, not the words."

Norling also told SATA: "The real picture begins with my love of drawing. I was born to two artist parents, and lived in a home surrounded by artworks and crafts gathered on their travels around the world. Not surprisingly, drawing was used as a form of communication in our family, and art quickly became my second language. It was not the paintings that interested me but illustration, the blend of text and image, the overlap of reality and fantasy, and the diagrammatic or symbolic functions of the genre.

"As a child, I looked intensely at pages from religious manuscripts; there was so much that was both familiar and seductive about them. Now when I draw, I feel as though I am in a hermitage. The mental solitude and inner quiet brings me close to some form of divine collective unconscious, an experience that is comparable to deep meditation. This for me is what has kept me going, for there is a side to creativity that is emotionally very painful. There have been times of intense self-destructiveness, self-doubt, self-absorption, and the constant and wearing negotiation between creative compromise and vision. There have been frustrating times as an illustrator when I have been just the hands executing someone else's ideas. Other times, when I had more creative freedom, I was disappointed with my own lack of technical skill or creative insight. Rarely does a book become what you at first imagine it might be. There are so many variables in the process . . . deadlines, edition, scanning, and printing, the way it looks in book form as opposed to just drawings. Often I know what the book should have been after it is completed. Sometimes I have been shocked at how different it can look in its 'book' form.

"I now would like to move in a different direction with my illustrations. For instance, I am interested in capturing the liveliness of my rough drawing and my more spontaneous painting in my finished work. This will bring about a period of experimentation and hopefully a new freshness. I want to look at the structure of children's books again, and find new approaches to the form of a picture book and the styles that I use. I have also begun seriously to paint and wonder where it will go. Will it mix in with my illustration or remain separate?

"Over the years I have been enormously grateful for my career as an illustrator, and now author: I have had the rare privilege of earning a living from my craft. And I have been able to work from home, such a blessing when I came to have children. This career has depended heavily on the emotional, creative, and financial support of my immediate and extended family, and without their support, I would not have been able to tread this particular path. I am grateful beyond words for their efforts and encouragement."

When asked about her working habits, Norling said, "Oh the joy to be able to refer to them as a habit. My working pattern does not resemble a habit at all . . . more like a working tangle . . . the usual nightmare of trying to combine the parenting of two small children, the partnership with one grown husband, the care of various animals (the feathered and fishy kinds), and finally finding time to write and illustrate! It's hectic and difficult, but on an ideal day I would work from seven to eight in the morning through to three to four in the afternoon, with no interruptions.

"I am finding inspiration from a much broader base than I once did. Now it is found in music, nature (including the weather), poetry, and my dreams. I also find inspiration in a wide variety of non-fiction reference books, particularly those on art, religion, history, and botany. However, I never stop looking at other illustrators' work. Sean Tan's work keeps me on my toes. Armin Greeder makes me think about design, Sendak led me to book illustration in the first place, and Ron Brooks helped me to believe it was possible.

Norling's unpublished illustration, titled Angel with a Heart.

"What I have learnt in my career so far is to be clear in your own mind about your vision of the world in all its uniqueness. Be firm and don't compromise that vision in your work, because it is the unique expressions of life that touch us . . . and be prepared to argue on behalf of your work; don't abandon it.

"At best, I hope that my work will change the way someone looks at the world—even for a moment. At least I hope to communicate a shared experience of life, in order to evoke memories and feelings rather than dictate them.

As to the purpose and aims of her work, Norling said, "What a hard thing to define! I think any art form is there as communication, be it good or bad art, well or poorly communicating. A picture book does it with words and pictures, kind of like a movie but in still frames. If I have succeeded in my purpose for my work, it would have communicated feelings that have no words, experiences that in ordinary life are not spoken of, and described the world inside my imagination. All very lofty . . . but that is probably the purpose of being creative, of being an artist."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 2001, Carolyn Phelan, review of Sister Night and Sister Day, p. 2125; June 1, 2003, Ilene Cooper, review of Little School, 1787.

Country Style, November, 2002, Ali Gripper, interview with Norling.

Herald Sun (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), August 10, 2002, Shaunagh O'Connor, review of Party Time!, p. W28.

Publishers Weekly, June 11, 2001, review of Sister Night and Sister Day, p. 87; April 28, 2003, review of Little School, p. 72.

Reading Time, Volume 47, number 2, John Cohen, "Beth Norling: Illustrator and Creator of Picture Books," pp. 24-25.

Resource Links, April, 2002, review of The Best Pet, p. 25; June, 2003, review of Watch Out, William, pp. 18-20.

School Library Journal, June, 2001, Gay Lynn Van Vleck, review of Sister Night and Sister Day, p. 140.

ONLINE

State Library of Victoria Web Site, http://www.statelibrary.vic.gov.au/ (October 16, 2003), "Children's Literature Interview Series: Beth Norling: Sister Night and Sister Day."

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