Solo art exhibit this month

I’m having an exhibit of my artwork this month at our local library. The Friends of the Needham Public Library Gallery features a new exhibit each month, and I was invited to show my work during February.

This is my largest solo exhibit in recent memory, with thirty works of art, plus some of my handmade puppets. There are a few illustrations from my published books, but the majority of works are unpublished drawings, paintings, and cut paper art (like those in the foreground above.)

It was a challenge looking back through my work to decide which images to show. I wanted to show a wide sampling of what I’ve been up to, and also works that best represent me as an artist. Most of my work is illustrative, evoking a story of some kind. I’m also drawn to nature, especially trees, and all of the works in this exhibit involve trees in some way.

The Needham Free Public Library is located at 1139 Highland Avenue, Needham, MA 02494. It is open Mon-Thurs 9AM-9PM, Fri 9AM-5:30PM, and Sun 1-7PM. The library website also features a slideshow of my work during the month of February. If you’re in the area, stop by to take a look!

Looking forward and looking back

The end of the year is always a good time to look back and reflect on recent projects. I don’t post on this blog nearly as often as I used to, because it’s faster and easier to share on social media. The drawback to social media is that it’s always focused on the moment, and once that moment has passed, we move on. Ideas get lost, and it’s hard to take the long view, to put things in context, to see the larger picture. This blog has become a catalog of highlights, to help me look back and see where I’ve come, and where I might be going.

So, here are some of the things I’ve been working on over the last half of this year.

I did more experiments in cut paper art. Here is my latest, cut from black paper with an x-acto knife, placed over a watercolor background. It measures 12 x 18 inches. I’m still developing my style and technique with this medium, but so far I love it.

Paper Art ©2018 by John Lechner

Paper Art ©2018 by John Lechner

I also did a series of nature drawings for #inktober. My personal challenge was to draw from life, using only ink and a brush (no pencil allowed.) This was very different for me, because I always do lots of sketching and erasing before I put ink to paper. I wanted to develop a more confident ink line, and explore ink as its own medium.

Art ©2018 by John Lechner

Art ©2018 by John Lechner

As usual this year, I took a lot of nature photos during my wanderings outdoors. I often try to capture the world from the vantage point of another animal or insect. Since I have a waterproof camera, I can venture outside on wet and snowy days without fear. You can see more nature photos at my Instagram page.

Photo ©2018 by John Lechner

Photo ©2018 by John Lechner

Photo ©2018 by John Lechner

This year I also built a suitcase puppet theater. This particular suitcase belonged to my great-grandmother, and I rigged up a vertical crankie inside the lid. It all comes apart and fits inside the suitcase, so I can carry it around. The photo below is still a work in progress. I often bring puppets to my school visits, and hopefully this will soon be added to my repertoire of storytelling.

Puppet Theater ©2018 by John Lechner

I’ve also been doing a lot of writing this year, revising old stories and starting new ones. Query letters have been sent out, some have even had replies, and hopefully this will all lead to good things in the coming year. It’s just a myth that once you’ve been published, all your subsequent books will be published as well. Even if you have the best idea in the world. In fact, I’m realizing that a great idea, or even a great manuscript, isn’t the most important factor in getting published. There are dozens of other forces at work, most of them beyond your control. This can lead to discouragement, but also a magical optimism, because you never know when circumstances will line up in your favor, and your great idea will make it through and find an audience.

Looking forward to the new year, I will be having a solo art exhibit at the Needham Public Library during the month of February, featuring all of my recent papercuttings and some book illustrations as well. There won’t be an opening reception (they have no room) but you can see the exhibit anytime during the month.

I’ve been posting less and less on this blog, but you can follow my creative journey on Twitter and Instagram. Hope everyone has a healthy and creative 2019!

 

Insect drawings from this year

Artwork © by John Lechner

The year has flown by, and I haven’t posted on this website much. So I wanted to share some of my ink drawings from October (#inktober), when I did a new drawing every day of a different insect. I used the list of daily prompts by artist Jake Parker, which included words like swift, poison, crooked, graceful, all words that can be applied to insects in some way (though often it was a stretch.) 

Some of the drawings were faithful reproductions, some were turned into cartoons or stories. I tried to highlight the main characteristics of each insect, and I learned a lot in the process. Below are just a few of the drawings, which I also posted to my Twitter account

In other news for 2017, I didn’t publish any new books this year, but I’ve been doing a lot of writing. Hopefully I’ll have more news to share soon. I’ve also been posting a lot of nature photos over on my Instagram page, which you can see here

That’s all for now, hope you all have a wonderful and creative new year!

Artwork © by John Lechner

The cinnabar moth caterpillar eats ragwort, absorbing its toxins which make it poisonous to predators. 

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Artwork © by John Lechner

My #inktober drawing for the word underwater, featuring the predaceous diving beetle.

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Artwork © by John Lechner

The rhinoceros beetles fight using their horns like swords.

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Artwork © by John Lechner

My #inktober drawing for the word shy, featuring a couple of roly poly bugs.

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Artwork © by John Lechner

A screech owl is looking for a snack, moths beware! 

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Artwork © by John Lechner

Not only is the Atlas Moth gigantic, its wing designs look like snakes to fool predators (or unsuspecting crickets!) 

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Artwork © by John Lechner

The Australian tiger beetle can run faster than any other insect, including the speedy American cockroach.

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Artwork © by John Lechner

A praying mantis can be fierce and mysterious as it prowls around the garden. 

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Artwork © by John Lechner

For day 18 of #inktober here are a couple dung beetles having a blast.

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Artwork © by John Lechner

Insects who live deep inside caves are nearly blind, like this tiny Troglocladius hajdi

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Artwork © by John Lechner

Wasps and hornets get furious when a bear attacks their nest, but the bear doesn’t seem to mind!

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Illustrating Keats

Meg Merrilies illustrated by John Lechner

This spring I was inspired to do more ink drawing, so I decided to illustrate a poem by John Keats called Meg Merrilies. I also decided to turn it into a little book that I could print and take to festivals and events.

I began by researching the poem, its origins, and its setting. It was written by Keats in a letter home to his younger sister while he was hiking across the Scottish countryside. The imagery and textures reminded me of classic book engravings of the 19th Century, which I wanted to emulate. I experimented to find the right art style, settling on ink and brush with a watercolor wash.

Although not a long poem, I treated it as I would any other book project. I created a sketch dummy, followed by many revisions. To fill out the book and give it context, I also wrote an introduction, and added a glossary at the end (that was my sister Marie’s idea.) Finally came the finished artwork.

Meg Merrilies art by John Lechner

One of the most interesting parts of the project was designing the character of Meg herself. Keats based her on a character from a book by Sir Walter Scott called Guy Mannering, a book that Keats himself had never read, but which his friend Charles Brown described to him as they walked through the picturesque countryside where the book was set. As a result, the character in Keats’ poem is as much from his own imagination as it is from Sir Walter Scott.

The original Meg Merrilies, inspired by a real person, is the tough matriarch of a family of thieves and smugglers, whereas Keats’ creation is more of a gentle nature-lover, weaving branches and communing with rocks and trees. Since I was illustrating Keats and not Scott, I depicted my character as described in the poem, adding my own artistic vision. It’s interesting to think how a story or character can evolve when passed along from one artist to another, over many years.

Meg Merrilies art by John Lechner

The 12-page printed booklet came out nicely, and I still have some copies. If you are interested in purchasing one for $5, send me an email at john@johnlechner.com.

You can also see the entire illustrated poem online here.

Meg Merrilies book photo

This wasn’t the first project I’ve done involving Keats. Last year I created a moving panorama, or “crankie” inspired by his poem Endymion. I’ve also been inspired by his nature poems for my own nature blog The Untended Garden. I hope to continue exploring his work in future projects.

Also this summer I participated in a fun book reading at Legacy Place in Dedham, along with some other fine authors — Julia Denos, Peter H. Reynolds, Paul Reynolds, and Josh Funk. We each read from our work to an enthusiastic group of children, and it was a fun event.

Little Library Book Reading

Also this summer, my book Sticky Burr: Adventures in Burrwood Forest, was reviewed on a teacher’s blog called The Indigo Teacher, with feedback from a young reader. You can read the review here.

I’ve also continued working on some old manuscripts that have undergone many revisions over the years. Hopefully they will someday see the light of day. Ernest Hemingway reportedly changed the ending to A Farewell to Arms forty-seven times before he was satisfied. I haven’t quite reached that number, but I’m optimistic.

Meg Merrilies art by John Lechner

Cut paper artwork, and other projects

John Lechner cut paper art

Every year, my workplace FableVision has an art show for us to exhibit some of our outside work. Last year, I was inspired to make a cut paper sculpture to fit into a deep shelf in the wall that seemed begging for some three dimensional art. This year I was equally inspired, especially since the theme was SPACE, and I decided to create a starry nighttime scene with cut paper. My idea was to have the stars cut out, so that light would shine through from the back.

After a few sketches, I drew the final design on stiff black paper, being careful to make each object sturdy enough to stand on its own, or have some attachment to other parts of the drawing. Then I cut out the images with an x-acto knife. The whole design was about 14 inches tall and 28 inches wide.

John Lechner cut paper art

John Lechner cut paper art

Behind the layer of black cardboard, there is a layer of watercolor paper, where I painted a light blue wash, then cut out stars so the light would shine through. The whole thing was assembled into the shelf, with small lantern lights behind.

John Lechner cut paper art

John Lechner cut paper art

John Lechner cut paper art

John Lechner cut paper art

I set it up two days before the show, then noticed that the smaller shelf nearby looked awfully empty. So I went home and made another cut-out design, using a shadow-box frame that I had. This one was only 8 x 10 inches, so it was easier to cut out.

John Lechner cut paper art

It was a fun project, and I hope to do more cut paper images and puppets.

So, what else have I been doing in the last few months? Working on several book manuscripts, and getting ready for the Maine Comics Arts Festival on June 5th, where I’ll be presenting some brand new mini books I’ve been working on.  Below is a sneak peek.

John Lechner ink drawing

I will post more later. That’s all for now!

 

On the impermanence of snowflakes and art

Beetle Snowflake

The start of a new year brings new ideas, new hopes, new blog posts. One advantage of not being famous is that there’s less pressure to produce scintillating content on a regular basis, but I like to write something here every so often, if only to mark where I’ve been, and to aid my future unofficial biographer.

One thing that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the whole idea of content, meaning the stuff people create for other people to enjoy — stories, books, comics, movies, television programs, podcasts, webisodes, games, apps, articles, essays, drawings, blog posts, and everything else. The word content has always seemed very impersonal to me, reducing all such works to their most utilitarian function, something to be put into buckets for distribution. A YouTube video created in an afternoon is content. A hand-drawn illuminated manuscript created over twenty years is also content. Which one will be “liked” by more people? Which will make more money for its creator? Which will make a lasting contribution to society? And does any of that really matter?

Another thing on my mind in recent months is loss. Not just the loss of people, which is sad in itself, but also the loss of places, ideas, knowledge, hopes and dreams. The world has always been a constant sea of change, but it seems each year there’s more and more stuff in the world, and it’s getting harder to hang onto what’s important, what’s truly meaningful. It’s easy to let important things — and people — slip by our notice until it’s too late, and they slip away forever. Like Alice, we must run just to stay in place, and it’s hard to look around while you’re running.

This winter I tried my hand at cutting paper snowflakes, partly as a way to keep busy when my mind was too distracted to work on “real” projects. Snowflakes are the ultimate in impermanence, they vanish in an instant. And there are far too many in the world for us to notice them all, the vast majority are trampled upon or shoveled aside. Maybe that’s why I like them, I feel like I want to preserve them, to make their short lives count for something.

In any case, here are some of my own paper snowflakes, inspired by nature. All are drawn and cut out by hand, with scissors or x-acto knife.

Turtle Snowflake

Bird Snowflake

Butterfly Snowflake

Bunny Snowflake

Crab Snowflake

Lizard Snowflake

As far as other projects go, I’ve been updating the Sticky Burr webcomic all winter, and the latest episode is now winding down. If you haven’t been reading it, you might want to start at the beginning of the latest adventure, which involves an invasion of beetles and a mysterious hermit, who may or may not be able to save the day.

I also recently started an Instagram account, if you like photos of dragonflies and winter trees. You can find me here at @untendedgarden.

I’m working on some writing projects too, which may find their way to being published someday, if I ever have time to find a publisher. Then they will fly off into the world, a few more snowflakes in a whirling sea of content. Or maybe I won’t want to push them out just yet, perhaps they’ll still be too fragile, and likely to drown?

These are some of the thoughts that cross my mind when I’m trying to work, making it quite difficult to focus on the project at hand. Hopefully I’ll find some focus this year, and have more tangible things to share in the coming months. Thanks for reading, now I’m off to shovel snow!

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Poetry and art: bringing Keats to the stage

Endymion crankie scroll

I’ve long had an interest in puppetry, and lately I’ve been experimenting with a related form of theatrical storytelling – the moving panorama, or “crankie.” In this kind of performance, the storyteller turns a crank to reveal a scrolling image, accompanied by a story or song. It’s an old form of theater, and it’s making a quiet comeback in today’s high-tech world.

The appeal of the crankie is hard to pin down, it is deceptively simple on the surface. And yet when the scrolling images are revealed in front of an audience, there is a kind of breathless anticipation of what’s coming next. The forward motion of the images and the forward motion of the story or music create something very magical and unique.

There is a great small theater in the Boston area called Puppet Showplace Theater, and they often host evening cabaret shows for adults called puppet slams. Each puppet slam is a variety of short acts, sometimes experimental, often funny, always unpredictable. It’s a great place to push the boundaries of the art form, as artists have employed video, object theater, and animation at these events. For the past two years I have created and performed crankie stories at the fall “fairy tale” puppet slam. This year I wanted to try another. And rather than use an original story as in the past, I decided to adapt and illustrate a classic poem by Keats, the opening stanza to his epic Endymion.

Why this particular poem? I wanted something lyrical, short, in the public domain, with allusions to myth or fairy tale, from an author with whom I felt a connection. The opening stanza of Endymion, an epic poem inspired by a Greek legend, fit all the requirements. It was open-ended enough for me to experiment with, and short enough to complete in the three weeks before the event.

Storyboards

A scrolling panorama falls somewhere between a comic and an animated film — the images are still, but they move (sort of) as they scroll past the frame. The goal is to make the images flow easily from one scene to the next, and use the reveal of the scroll to increase the drama, much as you would use the page-turn in a picture book. The way images move across the opening is part of the magic. I started the project with small storyboards, to see if the basic concept would work.  Then I did two more sets of storyboards, refining each one.

Then I began sketching on a large scroll of paper, eighteen inches high and thirty feet long.  (I used almost the entire length.)  At each stage, I revised and revised, especially the final big scroll. After finishing the pencil drawing, I painted over the lines with waterproof ink and a brush.

Ink drawing

Then I painted over that with watercolors. Since watercolor paper is too heavy and stiff to roll up into a scroll, I used drawing paper (100 lb), and the painting was not always easy. Colors often dulled, and the paper often buckled, though rolling up the paper helped straighten things out. I had to simplify my art style, both for the physical medium and also to make the images clear for the audience.

Painting in progress

Crankie practiceAs I rehearsed the poem with the images, I decided that music would help tie everything together.  I recorded myself playing the ukulele, and tried out different ideas until I had something that matched the piece, and recorded it. Finally it was all finished, I fit the big scroll into the crankie stage (built by my sister Nancy) and was ready to go.

It was a challenging project in many ways — interpreting a classic text, using one continuous image, making the images bold and clear for an audience, getting it done in time. But it was all very rewarding. I performed the final work at Puppet Showplace Theater for their puppet slam in October, reciting the poem while turning the images, as the music played in the background.

Back of crankie scroll

Performing it for a live audience is perhaps the most magical part of the whole experience.  As an author, I’ve done many book readings where I’ve held up my book to show the pictures, but books aren’t really designed for this kind of experience. Even when a book is projected onto a screen, it’s not the same as holding it in your lap, and seeing the pictures close up. But a scrolling crankie is designed for a live audience, and the medium has great potential for dramatic effect.

Here are some photos of the final images. You can learn more about crankies over at The Crankie Factory website.

Crankie title page

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

Sample illustration

 

Summer photos and inspiration from nature

Butterfly

I haven’t updated this website in many months, so I thought it was time to post something. I know there’s no minimum requirement on blog posting, but I find that posting a few times a year helps me keep track of what I’ve been up to, what I’ve been focusing on, and where I’m heading.

Lately I’ve been taking a lot of nature photos, below are a few favorites from this summer. (See more in my Flickr album.) I’ve been especially interested in pictures of small subjects, quiet moments, the things you might not notice if you walked past. Particularly the smallest creatures who hop or crawl or fly, and basically keep our ecosystem running.

Do they all realize they are each helping the earth in their own small way? Every cricket, every spider, every toad, as they go about their business, is also part of a giant interconnected web of living organisms, all delicately balanced, and if any one of them decided to stop doing their job, the entire system could come crashing down.

That’s a lot of responsibility for one small being. Does the ant realize this, or the cricket? I don’t think so, they only realize that they desperately need to survive, that their species needs to survive. Humans are part of this web too, and even as we go about our business, dealing with our own singular lives, we are still part of a larger world.

And sometimes when I feel like a task is too big, that my novel will never be finished, that my lofty ambitions will never be achieved, I think of the smallest insect as it climbs a daisy stalk or scampers across a field, every step a brave assault on the unknown, each moment fraught with peril and also with possibility. If this tiny, vulnerable creature can face the world with conviction each day, so can I.

And now, I’m off to write. Enjoy these last images of summer!

Daisy

Grasshopper

Toad

Rabbit in the field

Mushroom

Spider flower

Dragonfly

Grassy sun

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.
tree04a
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.
tree05
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.

tree06a

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.”

tree07c

“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.

tree09c

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.

tree10

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?

tree11b

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.

tree13a

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.

tree14b

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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.

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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