As I’ve written before, my dad has read Mr. Dog’s Christmas to me every Christmas Eve since I was two years old. I don’t remember those very early readings, of course. In fact, I don’t have recollections of Christmas until my sixth—a Christmas that’s immortalized in my family for an incident that ended with me being sent to my room. It’s also the Christmas that marked my transition from believer to playing-along-er.
One of many magical Christmases past.
By my sixth year I was beginning to explore the frontier of skepticism. And of course, Santa Claus is an easy target for the budding skeptic. At the same time, I still very much wanted to believe. It’s a tentative dance many kids do around that age: to believe or not to believe. I think at some level, even when we’re young, we know it’s a choice.
My parents heartily encouraged believing. They went all out to make Christmas a truly magical experience. Among the many weird and wonderful rituals they established was the burning of the wish list. My list was not written out in advance, nor mailed to the North Pole via the good old postal service. Instead, on Christmas Eve, I’d settle down with pen and paper and carefully transcribe the list of goodies I was hoping Santa would bring for me at Christmas—the list I’d been I’d been yammering on about for weeks. Then, with great ceremony, I placed my paper in the fire. My parents explained that it would magically transform into some kind of smoke signal that Santa would pick up as he was flying over our home in his sleigh, so he’d know just what to leave under our tree.
Well, just a day or two before this particular Christmas, while shopping with my mom, I spied a little box of pink soaps in the shape of roses. And I fell in love with them, in the way only a six-year-old girl can do. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. On Christmas Eve, as I sat by the fire finishing up my wish list, I had the brilliant idea to ask Santa for the soaps.
Almost immediately, another thought occurred to me: You know, Betsy, this whole Santa thing might not be real. I pondered that for a bit, wobbling back and forth between belief and skepticism. In the end, my lust for those soaps and my faith in Old Saint Nick prevailed—onto the list they went! Vaguely troubled by uncomfortable thoughts (What if the soaps don’t come? Will that mean Santa’s not real?), I decided it was best not to tell my parents about the last minute addition. I popped my list into the fire before anyone was the wiser and toddled off to bed.
That Christmas morning was even more gloriously exciting than usual, thanks to my giddy anticipation of the soaps. I don’t actually remember a lot about that Christmas morning. I’m told there were a lot of presents under the tree, but I don’t even remember opening any of them. What I remember is the question running silently through my head all morning: Did he bring the soaps??? Finally, when it seemed that every last present had been opened, I wasn’t satisfied. I searched under the tree, behind the tree, around every square inch of that tree for one more tiny box. It wasn’t there. I turned to my parents and said: “Is this all there is?”
It strikes me as I write this now how freighted those words are—Is this all there is? This that we can see and touch and verify and explain rationally? Or is there something more profound, more magical, going on behind the scenes, something even grander than the reality we experience on a day-to-day basis? Many of us want to believe there is.
Of course, I wasn’t that philosophical at the time. And, as you can imagine, that’s certainly not how my parents interpreted my question. They had no idea what I was talking about. I had just received a cornucopia of amazing gifts. My reaction must have been quite beyond belief. I was encouraged, shall we say, to go to my room and ponder my many blessings.
Despite the traumatic ending to my sixth Christmas, the holiday continued to be a truly magical time for me. And it’s still my favorite time of year, not least because it’s a reminder of what I love best about my family—our shared, playful reverence for the rituals.
My first memories of Mr. Dog were made the following year, when I was seven. We had just moved to Ukiah, where we lived in a house high on a hill—it was remote and Deep Woodsy in a way—and it’s the first time that I remember my dad reading the story to us. It was a wonderful Christmas, as they’ve all been, every single one of them. Even though I didn’t believe in Santa anymore, in my heart I was able to suspend that disappointment by participating fully in the magic that I then understood my parents created, and in finding ways to create it for them and my brother.
I think this must be one reason Mr. Dog’s Christmas is so special to me—not just because of the beloved reading ritual, but because of the way Paine so deftly handles the question of Santa's realness. He shows us that the shock of discovering the truth is quickly forgotten when you realize that someone you love has gone to incredible lengths to create a too-good-to-be-true experience for you. Someone you love loves you enough to create magic for you.
Having now been through many Christmas stress miracles myself, putting on the show for my own child, my appreciation has deepened. This thing that we do for one another and why we do it, the love and the creativity that go into it, is what makes Christmas so enduringly enchanting for me.
Tiny soaps that look like roses, a jolly fat man in a red suit who delivers presents from a flying sleigh, people who love you enough to break the bank and stay up all night to deliver a not-to-be-believed show for you…. Life is full of magic. Maybe it’s all there is.
Sometimes I question whether the work I’ve chosen is worthwhile, important, valuable. Mr. Dog's Christmas at the Hollow Tree Inn being part of the work I do, and this time of year being “Mr. Dog High Season,” and things being the way they've been lately, the worthiness question has been on my mind this week.
I started this project to share a story that is very simple but profoundly meaningful to me. In that sense, Mr. Dog feels like my artwork, even though I’m neither the author nor the illustrator. Despite those lofty creative feelings, there have been many days since I started the project, over three years ago, that I’ve questioned the value of my efforts. There are things happening out there in the world that demand our attention—injustices and inequalities abound, many of them so painful I can barely look or listen to the news. I argue with myself that what I’ve chosen to do with my time is frivolous, when these urgent humanitarian and environmental crises cry out, “All hands on deck!”
What possible import could a 100+ year old children’s story about a dog who plays Santa Claus have, in the face of this greater work that needs to be done? This week, I’ve faced that question yet again and I’ve found myself arriving at an answer that renews my sense of purpose. Here’s what I’ve been thinking…
We grow up listening to stories. At some point, we begin sharing them ourselves—stories we enjoy and sometimes even stories we’ve created ourselves. The stories that endure for us say something about our fundamental values, about what we hold most dear. For that reason alone, they are not frivolous at all. In fact, they can be a form of shared language, speaking for us across divides and helping us find common ground.
“Mr. Dog” pulls at my heart because it speaks of friendship, playfulness, creativity, ingenuity, devotion, kindness, generosity, and gratitude. These are qualities I try to cultivate in all my interactions, with both friends and strangers, in good times and in bad. My family’s 75+ year tradition with Mr. Dog has been a touchstone, something we unite around to remind us of how simple our true needs are, how much we have to share, and how much we love and appreciate one another despite the difficulties and differences that crop up between us throughout the year. So yes, it’s entertainment—just a silly children’s story—and yet, it’s so much more.
I feel so grateful each time I hear from another one of you who loves the story. If I know nothing more about you, I suspect that our shared appreciation for Paine’s story says a great deal about what we have in common, about what inspires and unites us. That feels very important indeed.
It dawned on me recently: this month marks my 1st year anniversary as a publisher. It still feels strange to call myself that, though it’s undeniable that I have 1) produced a book, 2) sold that book, and now have even 3) reprinted that book with the intention of selling more of them. I’m pretty sure that’s what a publisher does. I may still be settling into my new title, but I'm truly happy and grateful to be here—headed into another Christmas season as Mr. Dog's publisher.
In January 2014, shortly after I began working on Mr. Dog, I joined a mastermind group with five other entrepreneurial women. At our first meeting, we made sticky note nametags, stating one big goal for the year.
When I embarked on this adventure with my family, I wanted above all else to produce a book that honored our generations-long love affair with Paine’s Christmas story. When I finally held our book in my hands, it was wildly gratifying to see something that had once been all in my head and my heart materialize in the form of a beautiful object. Honestly, that satisfaction could have been enough.
Eleven months later, in November 2014, I was overjoyed to stand in front of my group, don my nametag from our very first meeting, and show off that book. I published a book!
But of course, there was always something more that inspired me. It was the conviction that Paine’s story deserves a much wider audience. I’ve always believed that it’s a timeless tale and that there are probably a lot more folks out there who would not only enjoy it, but perhaps even embrace it as we have.
So when we sold through our first print run last year, I was overjoyed. And when I read the kind messages from so many of you, telling us how much you loved it, how your kids were asking you to read it over and over again, I felt home. It was as if my family had suddenly expanded. That, too, could have been a satisfying place to end the story. It would have been lovely to simply rest on those laurels—happy to have introduced Mr. Dog to 2000 more readers and to know that you were out there, enjoying the story with us.
But I believe there's power in our collective enthusiasm—for Paine’s classic tale, Adam’s glorious illustrations, the love of reading good stories to one another, the joy of family traditions and heirlooms passed from one generation to the next—power that can guide our book into the homes of many more like us and keep this wonderful story alive for decades to come. So here I am, at the threshold of another December, books back in stock, eager to see who joins our Hollow Tree tribe this year.
As we head into my favorite time of the year, I wanted to take a moment to thank you—for being part of our extended Mr. Dog Family, for cheering me on and, especially, for sharing your love of Mr. Dog's Christmas with your own family and friends.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all!
Today I’m delighted to share an interview between our publisher, Betsy, and our book’s designer, Cynthia Wigginton. As you’ll learn, Cynthia’s creative talents aren’t limited to graphic design. She’s also an incredibly accomplished musician with some amazing stories from her rock and roll* life. Enjoy!
Your faithful friend,
* Betsy had to tell me what “rock and roll” meant, but she assured me that you’ll understand.
Designer and musician, Cynthia Wigginton, photo © Bart Nagel
Betsy: What were your favorite books as a little girl? Are there any in particular that have inspired your interest in book design?
Cynthia: I've always been an avid reader, so this is a tough question! I admire the work of so many authors, illustrators, and book designers. In terms of illustrated picture books that I was fascinated with as a child, three come to mind. The first would be Richard Scarry's Busy, Busy World. I would spend hours poring over the elaborate spreads while looking for his cast of familiar characters as they appeared around the globe.
The second would be Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans. His illustration in its loose hand is so evocative, emotional, and distinctive. Recently, I was surprised to learn that Bemelmans was not French, but an Austria-Hungary born American writer and illustrator. Also, the heroine, Madeline, is meant to be American rather than French. What an odd thing! I'll have to go back and read the original book again from that perspective.
The third would be a book that I no doubt filched from my older brother, How to Care For Your Monster by Norman Bridwell. In this case, it was mostly the writing that caught my attention and the idea that monsters might need caring for. It's a liberating idea for a child who gets scared in the dark. The illustrations are great, too, in a Scooby-Doo sort of way.
How did you get started as a book designer? What do you most enjoy about the process?
The work that I've created as a graphic designer has been more diverse than with most graphic designers, I think. I don't consider myself exclusively a book designer even though Adam and I've recently completed our tenth children's book together (Are We There Yet? | Chronicle Books | Spring 2016).
After graduating from UC Davis, I landed in London to work for a fashion photographer. At that point in time, I thought that I wanted to be a professional photographer. But quickly, I realized that I was more interested in fusing imagery with written word in the form of design. After returning to the States and a short stint in advertising, I landed a job working at a music merchandising company where I spent seven years designing all forms of music collateral.
My silkscreened poster from that period for the band Oasis appears in the book, The Art of Modern Rock (Chronicle Books | Spring 2005). You might also be familiar with my Bob Marley image from the same period. As I was on payroll, I didn't retain the copyright to the design and it was licensed off. You can probably buy it on a coffee mug in a shop near you. I see it everywhere now.
Cynthia Wigginton's poster for Oasis
Cynthia Wigginton's iconic Bob Marley image
From my rock merchandising job, I moved on to magazine design. It was at Red Herring magazine as an Associate Art Director where I started fine-tuning my typographic skills. From there, it was an easy jump to book design. Adam and I worked on our first book together, My Friend Chicken, which Adam also wrote (Chronicle Books | Spring 1999).
What I like most about design is seeing all of the elements come together in such a crystalline way. The end result becomes its own entity and acquires its own personality. Perhaps I'm a bit of an animist.
What was your design inspiration for Mr. Dog? Tell us about how you and Adam collaborated to bring the book to life so beautifully.
Interior spreads from Mr. Dog's Christmas featuring a number of Cynthia's wonderful design details, from the faux bois patterning to the use of Victorian era frames, letter forms, decorative flourishes, and even the aged look of the paper. The design strikes the perfect balance between Victorian style and a more contemporary sensibility.
Adam is a very flexible illustrator who can work with many mediums in a variety of styles. With so many options available, it can be a studied task to decide what might be the best approach for any given project. In the case of Mr. Dog, I found myself particularly drawn (pun intended!) to Adam’s sketched renditions of the characters and encouraged him to render the final illustrations with the same crowquill and ink technique. It's such a natural fit for a story that was originally published during the Victorian era.
In general, ours is a fairly organic process. My studio is across the hall from Adam's. We often call back and forth and ask each other for opinions, thoughts, and ideas. The illustration is, of course, all Adam's. I do my best to make sure that things come together in a way that makes sense for the project at hand with supporting typography, layout, and graphics; for example, adding the faux bois texture to some of the pages in Mr. Dog was an idea of mine. It makes sense as, after all, much of the story takes place at the Hollow Tree Inn. And you, Betsy, deserve full credit for the cloth cover concept for Mr. Dog, along with shepherding the book to final production. You did such a great job.
What are some of your other favorite book projects with Adam? With other illustrators?
I have a soft spot for all ten of the picture books that Adam and I have worked on together. The creation of them generally takes at least a year and sometimes much longer. Their 'stuff' ends up being spread around our house and studios and hung on our walls. They truly become members of the family. And then they leave home and head out into the world. But if choosing favorites is a must, they would be (after Mr. Dog, of course!) The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme (Sterling | 2009) and Mom and Dad Are Palindromes (Chronicle Books | 2006).
Cover for The Monsterologist: a Memoir in Rhyme by Bobbi Katz with illustrations by Adam McCauley and design by Cynthia Wigginton
Award-winning monster stamps endpapers for The Monsterologist: A Memoir in Rhyme by Bobbi Katz / illustrations by Adam McCauley and design by Cynthia Wigginton
The former includes such beautiful writing by Bobbi Katz. The project also presented lots of artistic challenges for both Adam and me. The end paper design won a Gold Medal from the Society of Illustrators and the cover of the book was included in AIGA's 'Top 100' show. The latter, Mom and Dad Are Palindromes by author Mark Shulman, also involved unique artistic and typographic challenges. I love the way that it came together with Mark's farcical wordplay.
Mom and Dad are Palindromes by Mark Shulman with illustrations by Adam McCauley and design by Cynthia Wigginton
Although I'm open to working with other illustrators on book projects, I tend to prefer working with my in-house partner, Adam. I do enjoy working with a variety of illustrators though; for example, on album art with the very talented Christian Northeast out of Toronto, Canada. I've designed two album covers around his amazing work and hope that his schedule allows for further collaboration next year.
In addition to your amazing design talents, you’re a very accomplished musician. You’ve worked with some really cool folks over the years, and now you front your own band as singer/songwriter. Tell us more about all of it!
So yes, I create music in my parallel life. Adam does as well and we play in a band together, Bermuda Triangle Service. That's not to say that music and visual art don't intersect. I've designed the album packaging for all of the Bermuda Triangle Service records. We put out a new record last year entitled Yoo Hoo which is currently doing well on iTunes and Apple Music. Adam and I have also played independently in many bands. In fact, we met at a show where Adam was drumming as part of a band called Little My, which was named after the Tove Jansson character. I was playing violin with Richard Buckner as a member of The Doubters. I started studying classical violin at age seven and have been playing, writing, and making music ever since.
Album packaging for "Yoo Hoo," the latest album from Cynthia's band, Bermuda Triangle Service Illustrator: Christian Northeast Designer: Cynthia Wigginton
To tell all of my rock and roll stories would require many more interviews, but certainly a memorable night was opening for The Pogues at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in 1987. It was with my first band, The Bedlam Rovers, and I was primarily the fiddler. This was perhaps our third show ever, and The Pogues were performing with Joe Strummer of The Clash. It was a rather terrifying night in many ways as we were playing this historic venue, very early in our band's existence, with our heroes. There were also loads of skinheads in the audience and my dad was positioned amongst them for this sold out show. Courtney Love was purported to be in the balcony. Later in the evening, our drummer was ejected from a side door. I'm not sure what happened there as Andrew is the most peaceable of guys. My dad ended up in jail and he is an upstanding citizen. After we left the stage, Joe Strummer told us, 'Nice set, kids.'
Cynthia Wigginton works out of San Francisco, California. She is currently studying web coding at the California College of the Arts under Chris Koehler. Bermuda Triangle Service's latest record, 'Yoo Hoo', can be purchased on iTunes or via CDBaby. Adam and Cynthia's upcoming picture book with author Nina Laden, 'Are We There Yet?', can be pre-ordered via Amazon. And, of course, you can purchase Mr. Dog's Christmas right here! Say hello to Cynthia directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
My oh my, but it's been a long time since I've blogged! To make up for my long absence, I have a wonderful little video interview with our illustrator, Adam McCauley, to share with you. Adam talks about developing the Hollow Tree characters—including yours truly, of course!—and about working with Betsy's family on this independent publishing project.
P.S. Did you know we're offering FREE SHIPPING* on all orders? It's a great way to stock up now on the Christmas gift that will be enjoyed for generations to come!
*Free shipping ends 11/30/15 at midnight PST.