Red Dragonfly on My Shoulder
Haiku translated by Sylvia Cassedy and Kunihiro Suetake
Illustrations by Molly Bang
First published in 1992
About the Story
This book was more fun to illustrate than any I've done. I played and played the whole way through.
An editor at HarperCollins sent me the manuscript and asked me to illustrate it. Now, I expect she asked me because she knew I have some background in Japanese. I lived there for a year and a half, and I can speak and read it to some extent. So I was pretty happy to do it. But I was also a bit upset for not having done the translations myself. I could have done them. I know the language well enough and had several books of haiku I could have used. I just hadn't had the idea, and I couldn't very well say, "Thanks for the idea, but I'd like to do my own translations AND the illustrations." So I began to work on the pictures, but I had all this upset going on, so I decided, not completely consciously, "Phooey! I don't care about these pictures. I'm just going to have fun."
I live next door to Salley Mavor, who makes quite extraordinary sewn pictures that are sort of like three-dimensional doll scenarios, but made so exquisitely they look like they were concocted out of spider webs and moth wings by fairies on moonlit nights. Whole troops of fairies. I liked her idea of "built pictures" so much that I wanted to experiment with some of my own, but I didn't want to work just with cloth and thread. So I started collecting things and looking at objects around the house, thinking about how one or the other might relate to the creatures in the poems. And the more I played, the more fun it became.
In the cover picture, the glasses of milk are made from Elmer's glue. Elmer's glue dries and hardens and contracts, so I had to keep filling the glasses up. But then the glue got very close to the top. The day of the shoot, I had to pour the last layer on early enough so it could harden and not drool down as they photographed the picture, but late enough so the glue wouldn't harden into a concave indentation and even crack. That timing was largely a matter of luck. It was close enough to the rim that I couldn't have poured on another layer and would have had to wet everything, clean out the glasses entirely and start again. But you can still see the dents in the glue.
The jumping fish picture I made in Falmouth, but when I got to New York, to the photography studio where all the pictures were to be taken, the sweet potato had dried enough so the two ends were limp and wrinkled. Not a perky-looking fish. So while the photographers were taking the other pictures, I was roaming the streets of the city, looking for the perfect sweet potato to replace the one that had shriveled. I only felt lucky they were still in season, and that I finally found one that was smooth, and curved, and not too big. It took at least two full hours of searching before I discovered it. The crow is my most expensive picture. The scissors that form its beak are special shears to cut bonsai with, and cost about $65 at the time. The running horse is by far my favorite; I wish more of my pictures could be this bold and goofy. I walked along the beach for a long time looking for the right crab legs and the right size and shape of the clam shell. I was helped in this by Ben Green, who was about ten at the time and had great powers of discovery, especially of shells and body parts of dead animals. For the frog picture, I couldn't find any velvet the right color. Salley told me about a company that sells dyes for cloth, so I bought some green and painted it on. The embroidery of all the little glass beads and the edges of the leaves took a long time. The frog-rock is painted with shiny green enamel paint.
The "dewy trunk" in this picture is a big old hunk of a metal pipe, and it is very very heavy and rusted. The hex nut was the largest I could find in all the hardware stores around. I'm only disappointed in the glue. This is epoxy, as I recall, and I'd hoped it would form little round balls, but instead it lay flat, and it clouded as it dried, so the dew looks like it has glaucoma. But I still like the picture. I like this picture because it doesn't illustrate exactly what the poem says. I think of the poem as the cat's dream. I have lilies in my yard just like the ones in the picture, and black swallowtail butterflies come through, but no cat.
The praying mantis was fun to make. Just fun. Notice that its body is made from two different clothes pins. One was one I'd bought to hang up my own clothes, but the one that leads to the head belonged to Salley, and she inherited it as part of a bagful from her grandmother. It was hand made: you can still see the individual lines as the knife carved it out.
I don't have anything special to say about this poor fly, except that the eyes are from two rusty little screws. One I'd had sitting on the windowsill in a box of junk for several years, but it took me the longest time to find another one that matched (almost) The sea glass I'd picked up over the years. I like the shadow of the fly swatter, but wish it could have been darker.
The hard part of the crickets was not putting together the critters themselves from safety pins and screws and wires, or even twisting the kabob skewers and getting the paint to stay on instead of flake off, since I used gouache after I'd sanded them a bit, instead of enamel, since I couldn't get quite the right color with the enamel. The hard part was putting the gold foil onto that one high cricket. Gold foil sticks to another piece of metal like its own skin as soon as it gets anywhere near it, and then it drapes over the metal like this sticky cloth. It was very difficult to get it so it didn't look all globbed up but retained the shape of a cricket. That was what took the most time. The cloth picture was made as a sort of tribute to Salley. I think the dog looks more like it's dead than just sleeping, but I couldn't get it right.
I love the rain picture, I don't know what happened to it, either. Most of these I gave away to friends, and I know where they are. This one I can't remember what I did with. The only hard part was figuring out which kind of rice. Japanese rice was too short, and so I used Basmati rice, which has nice long grains.
The chocolate water beetles were maybe the hardest. Their bodies are made from almonds covered with chocolate, which was easy. I could make the patterns on their back while the chocolate was still warm. But the legs are made from copper wires covered with caramel or toffee. That toffee has to be warm enough so that it is viscous, but not so warm it begins to burn. I did not know how to do this. I made several sets of legs and laid them out on wax paper, so they wouldn't stick, but I neglected to understand that the toffee should be kept warm over boiling water instead of over direct heat. Or maybe just over low, low heat, I don't know. I can't remember how many times I had to make the toffee, because it kept sliding off the copper, but I do remember that it burned eventually, and the house smelled of burnt sugar for days. It smelled bad. The picture was made on silver paper, which I thought I was going to use as the water, but it looked lousy in the viewfinder, so I got a big piece of blue cloth, and one of the photographers and I held it over the picture while it was getting photographed. Then just as we had finished, one of the lights came crashing down on it and everything flew apart. I burst out laughing, and we cleaned it all up and threw everything away. I was surprised I had laughed. Usually I can do a very good tantrum, but I was happy to see myself laugh instead that time. Maybe I remember it because it's so rare.
As much as I like this book and all the pictures, it didn't sell well at all, and now it's out of print. I have about a hundred copies sitting in my basement if anyone wants to buy a copy. Just write to me at email@example.com and send a check of $20 and I'll mail you one.
copyright 2016 by Molly Bang