On the very first Earth Day, I walked to school, which I did most days, across the fields of our farm and through our woods. But that day I noticed how quiet it was along the way. Instead of the usual buses and cars, kids were walking, or biking, or riding horses. There were few cars in the school parking lot. Some kids had even hit the road very early to get to school on time!
There was an assembly that day about pollution and pesticides, informing us about what we could do to help the planet. It was the first time many of the students had ever thought about this. And in my art class, the teacher had us paint watercolors in the ‘pleine air’… of the trees and the wildflowers along the fence rows. I loved it.
For lunch I had carried my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in a brown paper bag, as I always did. But on that day, inspired by my new-found Earth Day consciousness, I folded up the bag and put it in my back pocket, and brought it home.
The next day, I gave the bag to my mom to use again for my lunch. And so it went, all through high school; same bag (and same lunch! I’m a man of habit!) every day! When I graduated, I ‘willed’ my well-used bag to my friend Susan, who was a junior. By that point, though, the bag was more of a thing that you carried around gingerly than a functioning paper bag. It was soft and velvety; written on and taped and stapled together. More legacy than utility.
I didn’t think much more about that little bag, until years later when I was teaching at an elementary school. A colleague and I were talking about packing lunches for our ‘secret angels’ at Christmas time. I mentioned the bag to my friend and she said, “That would make a great picture book!”
I tucked the idea in the back of my mind. I loved the idea of making this into a book, but how would I do that?
Later still, while having a conversation with my editor at Scholastic, Dianne Hess, who called to discuss my next book, I thought of my friend’s comment. Dianne loved the idea, “But what would the story be?” she asked. I thought for a few days. Then, thinking about the process of that little paper bag’s long life, from pine tree in a Southern forest to my back pocket, I sent some sketches to Dianne. She loved what she saw, and we ran with it, enhancing and lengthening the story and turning it into something much richer and more poignant.
Dianne as well as my Art Director, Marijka Kostiw were on the journey with me as many more sketches developed. Images from my childhood started appearing in those sketches: the farmhouse kitchen I loved so much, my Dad’s favorite chair, Mac’s Market (the tiny grocery store in my hometown, complete with wooden floors and a screen door), a brother’s cherished VW bus, another brother teaching himself guitar on a salvaged and refurbished Gibson, the trees in our yard. I even found inspiration in Norman Rockwell’s wonderful magazine covers for visual storytelling.
Finally, with the storyline developed and sketches in order and approved, I could begin the final illustrations. (And now the music could begin …in this case I listened to all my usual favorites while I worked on the finished pen and ink artwork: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Sarah Vaughan, and Judy Collins, with some opera thrown in: Faust, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, Tosca.)
Many of the illustrations for the book came easily for me. After innumerable forays in the field and woods around the farm, I was very familiar with different types of wildlife. A degree in Forestry was helpful, as was work during college at a Union Camp Paper Company wildlife preserve, where we raised wild turkey and quail. That’s a South Carolina pine forest at the beginning of the book.
Then came Marijka’s magic, tying everything together in a thoughtful and handsome way. Dianne, Marijka, me…we’re a team! Think: 3-legged stool.
For me, the theme of the book is two-fold: one is the story of generational love and caring, with a simple brown bag as a totem of that love. Many things can get passed down from parent to child… a necklace, a painting, an heirloom of some sort. But that paper bag is something I remember as a link between my mom and me. It wasn’t some priceless object, but over time it became something of worth. It created an inside smile between the two of us.
The second theme, of course is recycling, using something over and over and over…or at least more than once. I don’t like to waste things. In my family growing up we would think twice before throwing something away. There wasn’t as much plastic to toss back then. Peanut butter came in a glass jar…so did jelly…not plastic like they do now. We’d wash out those glass jars and use them again for storing things or collecting things…they were useful. The Pepsi bottles were returned for a deposit. Newspapers were used for all kinds of things. Ice cream came in paper containers. So much more of what we consumed was biodegradable.
Those of us who can actively recycle, compost, and buy thoughtfully have found that we have very little waste to leave at the curb or throw down the trash chute.
Henry Cole is the son of a Virginia dairy farmer. After having been a beloved elementary science teacher for many years he switched gears to become a children’s book author and illustrator. He lives in Florida.
- This giveaway is for a copy of One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey + a 20-minute Skype/Zoom call with Henry Cole. Many thanks to Scholastic for donating a copy for one reader.
- For a chance to win this copy of One Little Bag: An Amazing Journey + the call with Henry, please leave a comment about this post by Friday, May 22nd at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Tueday, May 26th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. NOTE: There may be a shipping delay due to shipping-related issues caused by the novel coronavirus.
- If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – COLE. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed. Cathy Miller is the winner of this giveaway.