The Tall Tree

Sometimes when you’re feeling a bit melancholy, and the world seems too confounding for words, the best way to express yourself is through a story.  So today, rather than my usual newsy blog post, I’m going to tell a story.

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tree01 Once there was a young sapling who grew up on a grassy mountaintop. From his high perch he breathed the fresh air and gazed out at the endless blue sky full of possibility.

The big world felt intimidating, but the sapling wasn’t afraid. This is because a much bigger, stronger tree stood nearby, sheltering and protecting him. This was none other than the sapling’s father, a tall tree with outstretched branches that seemed to touch the sky.

illustration 2
The tall tree watched over the whole mountainside and all the creatures that lived there. Birds made their nests in the tall branches, rabbits scampered in the shade, honeybees and insects roamed among the flowers.

The young sapling wanted to be more like the tall tree, and stretched his branches as far as he could. But he knew he could never stretch them as high as the tall tree.
In the summer, torrential storms brought wind and rain. The sapling thought the whole mountaintop would blow away. But the tall tree clung to the ground, holding the earth together with his roots.

In the autumn, the tall tree’s leaves turned orange and fell to the ground. The little tree watched and did the same. Birds flew south, and the winds became colder.
In the winter, heavy snow fell, but the tall tree caught most of it so that it wouldn’t fall on the little tree. The sapling noticed how the tall tree’s branches would bend but not break, and he tried to do the same.

Finally spring came, the snow melted, and the tall tree sprouted fresh new leaves. The little tree knew it was time for him to sprout leaves as well. The birds returned to build their nests, and everything was as it should be.


The years passed, and the young tree watched the seasons go by. He laughed as the squirrels chased each other around the meadow, and he gasped as a butterfly narrowly escaped a frog. He thrilled as a flock of starlings swooped down and away in a flutter of wings.

During one particularly bad storm, part of the hillside washed away. This made the young tree sad, for he always liked the flowers that grew there. But the tall tree comforted him, saying, “Don’t cry little tree. Sometimes things change whether we like it or not.”


“Well, I don’t like it!” said the little tree. But he tried to be strong like the tall tree.

Many seasons passed, and the young tree grew bigger and stronger. The tall tree looked down at him and smiled. “You’re becoming a fine tree indeed,” he said. But the young tree knew he still wasn’t as big and strong as the tall tree, even though the old tree had lost a few branches from all the storms he had weathered.

tree08bThen one summer, the tall tree became sick. He had overcome countless injuries in his life, but this illness was stronger than anything he had ever encountered.

The tall tree grew weaker. His bark became brittle, and he could no longer hold up his branches. The young tree wanted to help, but there was nothing he could do, he could only look on helplessly.

Finally one summer evening, the tall tree could not hold himself up any longer. He took his final breath, and he died.


The little tree, who was no longer little, felt sad and alone as he stood on the cold mountaintop. His leaves fell like raindrops and he bowed his branches. He didn’t know what to do. The old tree had always been there to watch over him, to show him what to do next.

As the winds turned colder and the birds flew south, the tree stood alone. He no longer enjoyed watching the seasons pass. The world froze around him as snowflakes fell, and he wished the snow would bury him forever.


All winter long, storms pummeled the hillside, but the tree did not budge. He clung to the earth and slept beneath the snow and ice.

After what seemed a very long time, the days became longer, and the snow melted. The tree awoke to an empty gray world. He knew he ought to be doing something, but he couldn’t remember what it was.

Then he felt a tingling sensation in his branches, and noticed buds sprouting into fresh new leaves. But how was this possible?


He heard a chirping sound, and looked up to see the birds returning from their winter travels. He was surprised when they started to land in his own branches.

“Wait,” he called out to them, “I’m not strong enough to build on!”

tree12a“Of course you are,” the birds chirped. Meanwhile, two squirrels began to chase each other around the hillside. A rabbit peeked out from the grass, munching on a flower.

“No wait, this is all wrong,” said the tree. “Don’t you see that the old tree is gone? I can never do what he did.”

“Yes you can,” chirped the birds, “you’re doing it right now. And we need you now more than ever.”

“But it’s too hard, I can’t do this alone,” said the tree, feeling more helpless than ever.

“You’re not alone,” said a voice behind him.


He looked around, but it was not a bird or a squirrel who spoke. It was another tree, much like himself, growing nearby. And there was another tree near that one. And another. In fact, the whole mountainside was covered with trees.

“We all miss the old tree,” said one of them kindly, “but we have to carry on his work, we have to pass down what he taught us. That’s what he would want us to do.”

The young tree blinked through his tears. He looked out across the hillside, where a field of fresh flowers was blooming. Then he looked up into the vast blue sky and stretched out his branches as high as he could, as the birds landed and began to build their nests.


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Like most of my stories, that one was inspired by true events. My own father passed away last fall, and the ensuing months have been challenging. But I also count myself fortunate in many ways. My creative pursuits have provided both an escape from real life and a way to explore it more fully, to try and make sense of it all.

I have no plans for this story, and it would have likely remained hidden in my notebooks with so many of its cousins, except that I had a need to share it. And even if only five people ever read it, that’s okay. It’s the sharing that counts.

The start of a new year is often a time for making big plans, but this year I don’t have such ambitions, I’ve seen too many big plans fall by the wayside. This year I’ll be looking for small gains, small rewards, like the tiny shells on the beach that get overlooked, and yet that very fact makes them special. And if I’m the only one who sees their value, perhaps that’s all the more reason to protect and nurture them. So I’ll continue to write and draw, and tell stories in every medium that I can, and share them with anyone who wants to listen.

Thanks for reading this terribly long post. Now I’m off to look for shells.

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My Creative Process

Boy in the Woods, watercolor by John Lechner

I was invited by illustrator Amanda Erb to join an author/illustrator blog tour, where people talk about their creative process, then pass it along to a few more folks. You can read Amanda’s post here to learn about her own process. And now, I’ll tell you a bit about mine.

What am I working on currently?

That depends on what day it is, or what time. My scattered brain is currently pushing along a middle-grade novel, an interactive story, a short animated film, and a weekly webcomic. Those are my active projects — if you add the ones on the back burner, I’ve got many stories at various stages, as well as ideas for films and interactive projects that I can’t figure out what to do with right now (I really could use an agent, but that’s another story.)

Here is what’s on my drawing board right now, some early concept art for my new animated film. I can’t say more about it just yet, but details will be coming soon.

Concept art by John Lechner

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t think my work is particularly different, I write about universal themes and my work has a strong connection to nature, but many artists can say this. I think it can be counterproductive to dwell on how “different” your work is, it’s best just to keep moving forward on your own creative journey.  The most important distinguishing feature about anyone’s work is that it’s theirs, it comes from their own creative spirit. I write for myself, and my art is an attempt to express the ideas inside of me.

Here is a shadow puppet show I created last year, based on one of my unpublished fables:

Shadow Puppets by John Lechner

Why do I write and illustrate what I do?

There aren’t many ways to ways to answer this question, either you write for personal expression, or you write because it’s your job. Or both. I do have a full-time job at FableVision Studios where I draw and animate, and that is one part of my work. But I also create stories and pictures and films and songs and puppet shows because I love to do it, and I need to do it.

Ink and watercolor by John Lechner

How does my creative process work?

Nearly everything starts with an idea that I put down in my notebook — a paragraph, a sketch, a fragment. I’ll write as much as necessary to get the idea down. If it has potential, I’ll start a first draft in another notebook. If that goes well, I’ll type the next revision on the computer, then continue revising indefinitely.

Sticky Burr sketches

My art process is the same: initial idea, rough draft, then more rough drafts until it’s solid enough to do final artwork. With a picture book, the text and picture drafts happen alongside each other, each given its own focused attention while always keeping an eye on the other, until they finally come together in their finished forms.

Painting by John Lechner

For my webcomic, after working out the ideas in my notebook, I draw the lines on paper, first with pencil and then a brush with ink. This is scanned into the computer and colored in Photoshop, see below.

Sticky Burr comic process

All this is the physical process, the tangible work that can be seen. What’s more mysterious is the mental process, how an idea takes shape. I think both of these processes happen simultaneously, in parallel, sometimes even at odds with one another. How often are we frustrated that the work on paper doesn’t measure up to what we see in our head? Or how often are we surprised when a happy accident takes an idea in a new direction? The internal and external process are both important, and when they work together the results are magical. That’s why we create.

All this thinking about process has given me some new theories about how creative projects develop, but I’ll save that for another post. Many thanks to Amanda Erb for tagging me in her own process post, I hope you enjoyed reading mine!

And now…

I’d like to pass the paintbrush over to two talented artists, who will write about their own creative process next week.

Book by Lisa HorstmanLisa Horstman is an author, illustrator, designer and sculptor who makes amazing images combining puppets with digital backgrounds. Her new book coming out this fall is called Sabrina, about the misadventures of a flying squirrel. Here is her website, and I encourage you to check out her blog when her post is up.


Art by Jessica LopezJessica M. Lopez is an illustrator who creates beautiful ink and watercolor images inspired by fairy tales and nature. She also has two pet geckos, and is an all-around cool person. You can see more of her artwork at her website, and read her own process post next week at her blog.


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New work, new happenings

Artwork by John Lechner

Lately I’ve been experimenting more with monochromatic paintings, particularly involving trees. This one was done with a brush and ink, then watercolor.

This weekend I’ll be going to the New England regional conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, in Springfield, MA. And on Sunday, I’ll be participating in a local Open Studios event, showing my work. If you’re in the neighborhood, stop in and say hi!

And if you haven’t seen my web comic lately, I’ve been adding a new panel each week, developing a new longer story. Below is a recent page, showing the original sketch first. You can read the new adventure starting here.

Sticky Burr comic process

That’s all for now, hopefully I’ll have more news to share soon!

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Spring into new projects

Girl and Rabbit painting

I haven’t written on this blog for a few months, so here is a little update on what I’ve been up to lately.

I’ve been taking a break from writing to work on some theater projects. I took a workshop in shadow puppets, something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and developed a short performance based on one of my original fables. It was a great experience to take one of my stories and present it in a totally different way, and I hope to do more such projects in the future.

Here is a photo of my shadow puppet show:

Shadow Puppets by John Lechner

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I also painted an illustrated scroll for a theater piece called The Great Red Ball Rescue by the multi-talented Faye Dupras. It’s the story of a boy who goes on an amazing journey to rescue his beloved red ball. The production uses multiple styles of puppetry and also utilizes a “crankie” or panoramic scroll to tell one part of the story, where the boy Jasper goes to the beach.

The scene is not very long, but requires a scroll nearly 30 feet long and 26 inches high. I started with small storyboards, based on the puppet characters that Faye created, then drew the final illustrations on a large scroll of drawing paper, and painted it with watercolors.

Here are a few pictures of the drawings in process, and one of how it appeared in the final puppet stage. The scroll was wound around two wooden dowels, and turned with a crank.

Great Red Ball Rescue storyboard

Storyboard – click for a larger view

Great Red Ball Rescue - in progress

Great Red Ball Rescue - in progress

Great Red Ball Rescue

The show premiered at Puppet Showplace Theatre in January, and was a great success. It was fun to illustrate a story for such a unique production, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Looking forward to the coming year, I plan to do more writing, though I’m not sure which of my back-burner projects to tackle yet. I also plan to explore interactive storytelling, something I’ve experimented with over the years. I’m also working on an animated film, which I’ll write about later. And if you haven’t seen my webcomic in a while, I’ve been adding a new page each week.

That’s all the news for now!

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New Sticky Burr website, and other fun stuff

Sticky Burr and FriendsGreetings all, here’s a quick update on what I’ve been doing lately. The biggest news is that I’ve redesigned the Sticky Burr website and started up the webcomic again, which had been on hiatus for a while. There will be a new comic posted each week (usually Sunday night).

The older pages of the comic have been divided up into 3 different adventures. You can read the entire archive from start to finish, or you can jump to one section or the other. In the first adventure, Sticky Burr is captured by the locust king. In the second adventure, Nettle Burr gets lost in the fern forest and encounters some nasty beetles. In the third adventure, snow covers the forest and Sticky Burr meets an unusual visitor from far away. What will the next adventure hold? You’ll just have to read and find out!

Newman School Visit

Last month I also have a great time visiting the Newman Elementary School in Needham, MA. I drew some pictures, read one of my books, and talked about my work. I also presented a miniature puppet show about Sticky Burr and his friends. Thanks to all the students for giving me such a great welcome, especially the ones who made this beautiful sign!

Welcome sign

I will be doing one more appearance this month, I’ll be at the Gorse Mill Holiday Sale the weekend of Dec. 7 & 8, along with many other fine artists. I’ll be selling books and artwork, with lots of free stuff too. Come on down and say hi!  I’ll be there all day Saturday (though I have to leave at 4) and Sunday from noon to 5 PM.

Holiday Sale


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Comics and crankies – what I’ve been up to

The Garden Monster - process

I haven’t posted here in a while, so I’ve got a few projects to talk about.

This summer, I wrote a short comic for an anthology of monster comics for kids, curated by Bob Flynn and Dan Moynihan, published by Roho of River Bird Comics, in partnership with the Boston Comics Roundtable.  The comic features stories by eleven artists, on the theme of creatures and monsters, and is called “Gulp!”

My story is called “The Garden Monster” and is about a boy who goes out in the garden to trim some vines, but the vines turn out to be more than he bargained for. The story is six pages long, and somewhat inspired by my own gardening adventures.

I drew the comic on paper, first with pencil then ink and brush.  Then I scanned and colored the art in Photoshop. The book was printed in two colors, and I had to do the color separations myself, choosing which pieces of art to render in which colors. Below is more process art with the final product.

The Garden Monster - process

The Garden Monster - process

Below is the cover, illustrated by Bob Flynn:

Gulp! cover

You can learn more about the official comic here and see more photos here. It is currently being sold in some Boston area comic stores.

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Also this year I’ve been experimenting with various kinds of storytelling, and one of these is the scrolling story. This is often called a “crankie” because there is usually a crank to turn the scroll, and you unveil the story as you tell it to a live audience. It’s a very simple, old-fashioned way of storytelling, but it has a unique charm about it, especially in this digital age where everything is electronic.

My first scrolling stage was made out of paper in about an hour. I wanted to create something quick and spontaneous to experiment with the form, and the result can be seen below.

After that, I made a larger crankie out of a shoebox, then a larger one out of foam core. Last month, my sister Nancy and I built one out of wood, for larger audiences. I used it to perform an original story in our local Puppet Slam, an evening of short puppetry-related works. The theme of the slam was Fairy Tales, and I decided to write a new story in the style of a traditional folk tale.

The story is called The Brave Fiddler, about a young girl who sets off on a journey to seek her fortune, carrying only her violin, and who overcomes many dangers before the happy ending. Below is one of the final images, which were painted on 18″ x 24″ paper and taped together into one giant scroll.

Crankie stage

I’m going to write a separate post about this show in more detail, talking about how it was made. For now, I will say that it was an inspiring experience to create a story in this format, and to perform it for a live audience. A scrolling story is a unique combination of art, storytelling and theater, and it really makes you think about your story in a different way.

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I have one more bit of news, I am currently redesigning the Sticky Burr website, and I plan to start writing new comics for the web this fall. Watch for an announcement soon!

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The Clever Stick for all ages

The Clever Stick by John LechnerEver since my book The Clever Stick was published a few years ago, I have received wonderful feedback from children, parents, and teachers.

Just this week I received a note from a fan who said, “I love your book. It is such a great message about finding your voice that I have been giving it as High School graduation presents since I discovered it a few years ago.”

I certainly never thought of my book as a future graduation gift when I wrote it, it was simply a story I had to tell, but I’m happy that it seems to resonate with readers of all ages.  It is a tale about a stick who is frustrated because he cannot speak, and so cannot share his thoughts with the world. Only when he drags himself home one day, and notices the trail behind him, does he stumble upon the key to finding his voice.

Pages from The Clever Stick © by John Lechner

It is a story of self-discovery, among other things. One teacher told me she uses the book to show how everyone has their own unique talents. Another teacher told me she uses the book as part of a nature unit, but also for children “to connect to the many ways that people communicate.” The website Teen Librarian Toolbox called it “a great tool for helping tweens and teens develop some empathy for those who are different.”

It is wonderful to hear about The Clever Stick being read and discussed in so many ways, and to know it is finding a receptive audience. So thank you to everyone who has appreciated and shared this book, no matter how old you are. And congratulations to all graduates this year, I hope you all succeed in finding your voice!

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What’s new around the studio

John's art table

It’s hard to believe that May is already here. I’ve been working on all kinds of things, doing some very small paintings, writing some new stories, and experimenting with hand-drawn notebook covers.

This weekend I will be participating in the Needham Open Studios, showing my work and selling my books, and giving away free stuff. Come on down and say hi!

Here are a few photos from my drawing table lately, in various stages of completion.

Boy on bike, watercolor

Gnarled Tree painting

Decorated notebooks


Girl behind tree

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Happy Earth Day from Sticky Burr and Friends

Today is Earth Day, a time to celebrate and honor this great planet we live on. As you’ve probably noticed, nature is a big influence on my writing and art. My book Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest is filled with animals and insects, and features selections from Sticky Burr’s journal about his forest life.

In honor of Earth Day 2013, I created a new printable page of nature activities featuring Sticky Burr and his friends.  Feel free to download and print for your home or classroom.

Click here for a printable PDF

Celebrate Nature with Sticky Burr and Friends!

Here are some other great nature websites you might want to check out. Let me know if you have any other favorites to share.

Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens – all about planting healthy and sustainable gardens

The National Wildlife Federation –  a great educational site for all ages

Children and Nature Network – all about connecting children with nature

Tweets & Tree Frogs – great blog about encouraging kids to appreciate nature

Frogs Are Green – raising awareness about frogs and amphibians around the world

The Bug Chicks – all about the wonderful world of insects

The Right Blue – great website about ocean creatures

Nature Rocks – all about getting kids out into nature

Happy Earth Day everyone!

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My visit to MSLA in Sturbridge

John Lechner reads The Clever Stick

I had the honor of visiting the Massachusetts School Library Association (MSLA) Annual Conference in Sturbridge, MA earlier this month. I participated in a program where authors share their work with librarians in small groups, called Author Speed Dating. There were five authors participating, and each sat with a table of librarians for ten minutes, then moved to a different table.

It was fun, and I met a lot of great people. We talked about the books I’ve written and illustrated, what projects I’m working on, and the nature of books and reading today.

The other authors participating in this event were Carolyn DeCristofano, Laura Harrington, Lesléa Newman, and Melissa Stewart. They are all wonderful writers, and I encourage you to read their work. Thanks to Sharon Shaloo, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Center for the Book, for inviting me to participate. Here are a few pictures from the event.

All photos by Richard Curran.

John Lechner at the MSLA conference

John Lechner reading "Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest"

Authors appear at MSLA conference

Left to right: Carolyn DeCristofano, John Lechner, Laura Harrington, Melissa Stewart, and Lesléa Newman.

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