Today, I’m happy to be talking with Paul Owen Lewis, who always offers a unique perspective in his work, about being a biker, Northwest Coast Native carving, and how to answer the heart’s questions in a story.
What inspired you to write Motomice?
I was inspired when I discovered there were 25 million active riders in the US and their average age was 52, which means there are millions of grandparents riding out there. But there wasn’t a single quality kid’s book on the market anywhere to share with their grandkids about their passion for motorcycles, and the true nature of the community who ride them (as opposed to the negative stereotype in the media). And being both a biker and an author I thought I had just the credibility to create it.
For a more detailed account, go to http://www.paulowenlewis.com/motomice/behindthestory.html
In Motomice, the different bikers and their motorcycles are described by color. What color biker are you and why?
I suppose I’m a little of all of them. Most true motorcycle enthusiasts would say they would like to collect and ride almost every style or genre (I would!). But the colors in Motomice are more or less arbitrary with the possible exception of Rat’s black bike. I chose black for him since it’s the go-to color of those who want to strike the bad-biker-boy image. And perhaps Roxy’s pink bike is meant to express associations with femininity (FYI, there are lots of female professional racers out there proudly sporting pink gear), but as for me, I’ve worn at least four of them in my 40 years of riding. So far I’ve had red, green, black, and orange motorcycles, café racers, cruisers, and sports bikes, and I wouldn’t rule out something blue and/or yellow in my future. What can I say? It’s an addiction.
As a fine artist, what attracted you to become a picture book author?
Right after art school, when I was doing my student teaching, Chris Van Allsburg’s books started appearing (Jumanji, The Polar Express, etc.) and I was struck by how solid, opaque, and strong his images appeared. Not at all like the usual dreamy, tentatively pencil-drawn images washed with faint tints of watercolor I was used to seeing in children’s book illustrations in my youth. And I remember thinking, “Wow, that’s what picture book art is like now? Awesome stuff. Maybe that’s what I’ll do with my artistic skills at some point; illustrate picture books in that in-your-face solid style that argues for its own believable reality.”
You have a very interesting artistic career that includes carving chests and totem poles in the Northwest Coast Native style. Can you describe how you began carving and a bit about your work? Are any of your carvings on public display?
In the early 90s I started noticing Northwest Coast Native art in and around Seattle. It seemed to be everywhere. And, being someone who is fascinated by the origins of things, I realized this was the unique art that originated from this unique region (as say, Egyptian art emerged from Egypt), and, being a “native” of the Northwest myself, felt like it was something I should know more about. Well, one thing led to another and soon I was taking carving lessons from some of the finest artists of the region. Then I thought to ask myself, “Has anyone done a picture book with this amazing cultural art?” So with the help and guidance of my artist friends and scholars, Storm Boy was soon born. After its publication in 1995 I became quite well-known among these circles and was offered many more opportunities to further my carving and cultural experiences. It’s truly been one of the great privileges of my life.
Your earlier books, including Storm Boy, Frog Girl, and Davy’s Dream, as well as your fine art (some examples can be seen on Paul’s website) seem to blur the distinction between earth and universe, wakefulness and dreams, allowing reality to be defined by the reader or viewer. Can you talk about your perspective a little and also why children are attracted to this perception?
Well, “blurring distinctions” is pretty much what a lot of art is about, or existing in a place in between realities. At least much of my art and interests are. I don’t think you have to look further than my own childhood for possible clues to its genesis. Both my parents succumbed relatively early in their lives to catastrophic illnesses. So, unlike so many of my middle class, suburban peers with stable home lives, I grew up with absolute uncertainty at home. And now that I’m no longer a child, I can see that I wasn’t unusual. I know now that lots of children, perhaps a majority of them, are struggling with similar questions and circumstances. So stories and art that reflect this circumstance, their reality of blurred distinctions, are bound to be of interest.
You’re well known for your inspirational school visits. Can you talk a little about your presentations? Do you have an anecdote from any presentation you’d like to share? Do you ever hear later from any of the kids that heard you speak?
When I speak at a school it is not merely to entertain (though they get that, too). I’m speaking to that kid who was me, that kid who finds him or herself in a confusing, complicated, even dangerous place and dreams of something better, but who has no way to express or see their way to it. So I tell them that writers write stories to answer the questions of their hearts. I steer them there and urge them to write the kind of story they would like to live, the kind of story that would answer the questions of their hearts.
I also tell them that writing is first storytelling, and every human being tells stories. It’s who we are. It’s what makes us human. So if you can tell a story you can write a story – and so, yes, you too can be a writer if you really want. For those who are intimidated by the writing process (words first, in sequence, on paper) I say don’t write first but tell; tell your story any way you can—whether that’s talking, acting, singing, or drawing—and capture the main points with notes, sketches, recordings, whatever, and then apply the beginning-middle-ending form of standard narrative sequence to it later. To illustrate I share slide images of myself working on my books onscreen, from first inspiration to sketching the main events to arranging them in order and then to writing the words. Once they see me do it, they feel confident that they can do it.
I’ve been a popular speaker at schools for 30 years. Now I meet teachers at schools who were once students who saw me years ago, and they can repeat back what I said to them verbatim. It’s unnerving!
What’s up next for you?
I’m about to have surgery to reattach the bicep on my right arm—my writing and art making arm—and will be more or less out of action for six months. I’ve been meaning to take a break. I guess this is it.
What is your favorite holiday and why?
New Years. I like the idea of new beginnings. That maybe this year things will turn around, work out, etc.
Has a holiday ever inspired your writing or art?
Yes! See my counting book, P. Bear’s New Year’s Party.
Thanks, Paul! It’s been enlightening and inspirational chatting with you. I wish you all the best with Motomice and all of your work!
Great Outdoors Month Review
About the Holiday
Getting outside is one of the joys of summer! As schools close, leaving more time for leisure pursuits, it’s fun to explore the great outdoors through hiking, biking, swimming, camping, and just plain playing. Some people even give up their cold-weather vehicles and take to the open road on scooters and motorcycles. Having a variety of summer experiences gives you the opportunity to meet different people and make new friends—just like the mice in today’s book!
I received a copy of Motomice from Beyond Words Publishing to check out. All opinions are my own.
By Paul Owen Lewis
When you imagine a biker do you think of someone who wears black, looks tough, and roars through town on a loud motorcycle? Well, let’s take a ride and see what a colorful crew bikers really are! Did you know that some “bikers wear orange. They look like pilots” as they roll through the suburbs. Sometimes “their motorcycles are old.”
Some “bikers wear pink” like Roxie, who zooms around the track or heads out on a winding country lane on her sleek, fast motorcycle. There are even grandmas and grandpas who are bikers. They travel all over on big, sturdy motorcycles that can carry loads of stuff for camping with friends. Have you ever spied someone in silver and blue with a fancy helmet who looks a bit like an astronaut, it’s a good bet they’re a biker too! And—look!—there’s Sparky refueling her green motorcycle at the electric vehicle charging station. She “cares about the environment.” Her motorcycle is quiet. Then all gassed up and ready to go, the group is off again. But where to? It’s a Motomice Reunion Rally, where “everyone is welcome!”
So whatever road you’re on, take a good look. “Bikers are every color, every style, and every kind of person. If fact, “they are just like you and me.”
In his heartwarming story, Paul Owen Lewis introduces kids to the welcoming community of bikers, replacing the stereotype of the tough, leather-clad biker with the reality that bikers come from all walks of life. By using different colors, comparing the appearance of bikers and their motorcycles to other professions, and adding that even grandpas and grandmas are bikers, Lewis gives readers concrete ways to relate to bikers even if they’ve only seen bikers passing by on the street. Many kids, of course, have family members and friends who ride motorcycles. Motomice is a joyful book for them to share with their biker buddies.
Lewis’s stunningly realistic depictions of a variety of motorcycles will thrill detail-oriented and vehicle-loving kids. As the mice roll through beautiful vistas—adding new friends along the way—each double-page spread mirrors the sweeping feeling of the open road. A clever image occurs when the biker dressed like an astronaut hails his friends from a rocky, lunar-esque mountain side. The image of the reunion rally, where motorcycles line both sides of the street as far as the eye can see, is full of cheer and camaraderie. On the final page, the crew welcomes a baby, happy and secure with Mom in her sidecar, to the Motomice family. Young readers will feel the warm embrace as well.
Ages 3 – 7
Beyond Words Publishing, 2018 | ISBN 978-1582706603
Discover more about Paul Owen Lewis, his books, and his art on his website.
You can find Motomice at these booksellers
Great Outdoors Month Activity
Let’s Go! Maze
These four friends want to ride their scooters together. Can you help the girls find their way along the path to the boys?
Picture Book Review