Friday, November 8, 2013

How I Met Award Winning Author, Gerald Hausman

By Ramon Shiloh

As a society, our love for books has always been regarded as a condition of hope, wonder and an escape from everyday life. It’s a positive reinforcement of educating one’s self, but it really lets us silently fade into a vast perspective as we flip each page, entwined in the author’s universe.

My fascination with books started with Syd Hoff’s “Danny and the Dinosaur.” At age six, reading was always a wonderful lesson, but his illustrations were a particularly harmonious distraction. As Danny rode along with a dinosaur for the day, I enjoyed the fact that two friends could independently walk the streets, traveling through neighborhoods, eating ice cream along the way, catching a sporting event, goofing around at the playground. That blew my mind. Danny seemed like a kid who got things done, and I envied that. Now that I think about it, I was a bit jealous of Danny.

Many say that Dr. Seuss was the best. For me, he was more of an acid trip with words that went on and on and on. I loved Seuss’s books, don’t get me wrong, but my childhood was geared to a simpler time. The 1970s, in my community, was an innocent time for me, and “Danny and the Dinosaur” spoke to me about neighborhood relationships and the value of friendship. That tale rendered me speechless. It had managed to pull me in like no other children’s book had ever done.

I lived in a creative household and was whisked away from farm country to various cities as my mother looked for work, so it was easy to connect with Hoff’s tale of traveling from one place to the next. By age 10, my “Danny and the Dinosaur” book was tattered beyond belief from being carted around through my many travels. But I began to become disenchanted with the story as I lost my sense of community. Soon, I abandoned the idea of following Danny’s life as my guide, and the once treasured story found a place amongst the long-forgotten tales hidden in our garage. See, my mother was a book hoarder. From outdated encyclopedias and back issues of National Geographic to cookbooks, Native American perspectives and worldview lifestyles, our garage was a sea of literary chaos.

Finally, at 13, we found a little home that we stayed in for a while. It felt nice, not trekking to another town every three years.  It was then that I discovered, on one lazy afternoon, Gerald Hausman’s tale, “The Boy with the Sun Tree Bow,” in the mix of Mom’s old books. As I recall, it was a flimsy little paperback, but it grabbed my attention for some reason. I think it made sense because of the title. The book was about a boy. I was a boy. It made sense, right?

As I opened the book, the story began like a poem:

“In the beginning,
the sea was a true blue eye.
With the sun in the center by day,
and the moon in the corner by night.
Bright fishes swam in and out of the sun.
Dark turtles crossed over the moon and all was well in the world.”

But everything changed when Hausman introduced boy. With a quick-witted approach, his words stung my imagination. Boy was a mischievous adventurer with only one goal in mind: “To shoot out the sun and the moon with a single arrow.” What?!

This type of reading material was foreign to me. It was as if I had discovered violence in a beautiful way. But this was scarier; a boy taking out the sun and the moon with a single arrow?! I couldn’t wrap my head around this idea, even though I had done my share of hurtful things, as most little boys do. I’ve squished creepy crawlers, trapped rats, dashed salt on slugs and snails. I spent many youthful years zapping trails of ants with my trusty magnifying glass. I carried sticks just to slash roses off their stems when walking from school. Ah, those were the days.

But in this tale, I felt my rebellious side was being called out. Hausman weaves a scary reality: Boy walks through life chopping down Elm, Pine, Cherry, Maple, Beech, Hickory, Oak and Ash to carve his perfect bow and arrow with the intention of shooting out the sun and the moon in one flick. In doing so, boy annihilates swaths of grand forests in search of two perfect trees – the sun tree and the moon tree.

Obviously, I found boy to be the worst kid EVER! I was angry, and I must have looked bummed out in front of my mother that afternoon. She asked me some questions, and I recall saying that this book made me feel bad. She took the book out of my hand and asked why I wanted to read this story. Like all children in the face of a simple question, I responded, “I dunno.”

She told me that she had found this book at a garage sale one afternoon and realized it had a lesson in it. She felt compelled to share its message with her students, who were troubled in different ways. Mom was an educator and activist in California. Her goal in life was teaching truth in history, and she made sizable impacts in the Native American community. She had a cool way of making complex issues seem simple to everyone around her.

“The Boy with the Sun Tree Bow” ends on a very tragic note. Boy finally reaches his goal, only to discover too late the true consequence of his actions. His fate was sealed along with every natural habitat by his own doing. What a sad reality. This scarred me. It woke me up, and I found myself questioning my intentions for the first time. I was that boy for a moment and never again.

Finding My Own Dinosaur

There was a dark period in my life. My mother died at 58. I was 21 and my little brother only 18. My older brother was married with my nephew in tow. The three of us took part in separating our mother’s things. Our older brother had a house, big enough to hold many of her belongings. But with my younger brother striking out on his own, blindly moving to Seattle, combined with my couch-surfing lifestyle, a storage facility was necessary.

At 23, I had many educators who tried their very best to help me emotionally. Many who knew my mother offered money, jobs and their homes. My father was a distant memory. I dropped out of college and followed in my mother’s footsteps to become a storyteller and artist. It didn’t really pay the bills, but it made me happy and that was most important. I lived a nomadic lifestyle with no rules. It felt weird seeing old friends become successes seemingly overnight. When running into them, the incessant questions about my personal life were awkward: “So, what do you do Ramon?” “I’m a storyteller.” “So you’re a bullshitter? Hahaha!!” “Um, yeah.”
On occasion, I would find myself going back to Mom’s storage unit. Rifling through these old memories gave me the strength to sort out many questions and answers. And like magic, the one memory that had me teary-eyed, fell with a number of other books, laid out by my feet. I shook my head as I stared down at Gerald Hausman’s tale, “The Boy with the Sun Tree Bow.”

During 20 years of journeys, I’ve carried Hausman’s story. With every encounter, I was always told his story is so relevant to today. The scary part about this tale is it’s true.

In 2005, I was called in to be a storytelling consultant for an animation project in the University of Washington Computer Science and Engineering Department. In its infancy stage, the students were developing an animated short based on a passage through a Native American perspective. The process wasn’t as simple as checking out Native books and drawing out the story. For one, the rule of engagement with any tribal nation is to ask permission for the use of their story. For as long as I can remember, I was always told never to describe a story without the blessing of the nation involved. Plus you might not be able to share that story in a particular season or timeframe, which may cause harm to the fabric of their belief system.

Still, I decided to share Gerald Hausman’s tale with the students. I don’t know why I did it, and there was a part of me that was angry that I let go of this precious story. But everyone was so floored by the colorful elements that they wanted to start animating it right then. I was concerned about licensing and copyright issues since they planned to share it commercially after producing it for their film final. With the project on hold until we could secure permission, I volunteered to make contact with my childhood idol – if he was even still alive.

After letting my nerves get the best of me for days, I finally sat down and typed out an email, which I sent through his website. Within hours, he responded. I was floored when I read his simple note, “I think I knew your mother. Call me.”

The connection with Gerald was instantaneous. We talked for hours about the world of storytelling, about “The Boy with the Sun Tree Bow,” about my childhood and about my mother. Afterward, I put my whole heart into the animation project, guiding the students through their work. What a surreal moment in my life and very rewarding. For Gerald and I, this experience cemented our friendship forever.

From then on, we both talked about working on a project. There was a particular story Gerald had in mind. It began with a simple word, “Listener.” It was going to be a graphic novel, but then we decided to create an all-ages book. This grabbed the attention of World Wisdom/Wisdom Tales Press, eventually becoming a 4 and up read re-titled as “The Otter, The Spotted Frog and The Great Flood.

Despite working so closely together during the past eight years, in November 2013, I’ll be meeting Gerald for the first time in person as we embark on our East Coast Book Tour in Florida. He and I will get to spend a whole month playing, talking, learning and teaching kids to enjoy reading.

I would never say this to Gerald Hausman’s face, but I think I found my Dinosaur.

Ramon Shiloh  

Additional appearances with Ramon Shiloh and Gerald Hausman include:
November 13, Storytelling at the Pine Island Public Library, Bokeelia, FL 
November 10, Young at Art Children’s Museum, Fort Lauderdale, FL
November 16, Calusa Trail Museum, Pineland, FL
November 21-24, Miami Book Fair International, Storytelling Tent

Additional information about Gerald Hausman:
Gerald Hausman’s bestseller “How Chipmunk Got Tiny Feet” has already reached over 1 million copies in foreign and American editions. Gerald’s native stories have been used on the History Channel, NPR, Pacifica Broadcasting and Christian Science Monitor Radio. His picture book “Three Little Birds” (cowritten with Cedella Marley and illustrated by Mariah Fox) has been adapted into a musical for children, which has already put on performances in several cities, including New York City.

The University of Washington Graduate Film School made an animated short film of his book “The Boy with the Sun Tree Bow.” During this time, Gerald became close friends with artist Ramon Shiloh, who was the Native arts consultant for the film project. For the next six years, they worked together on “The Otter, the Spotted Frog & the Great Flood,” an ecological prophecy and picture book from the Creek people. The project was published by Wisdom Tales in October 2013.

Praise for Gerald’s anthologies includes The New York Times Book Review for “Tunkashila: From the Birth of Turtle Island to the Blood of Wounded Knee,” which stated, “An eloquent tribute to the first great storytellers of America.” The same review goes on to extol Hausman’s style, noting that it is “richly lyrical; his language creates a swirling, lustrous world in which his characters come triumphantly to life.”

Gerald has received awards and honors from the American Folklore Society, the American Bookseller, Children’s Protective Services, Bank Street College of Education, the National Council of Social Studies, the International Reading Association, Parent’s Choice, The Ministry of Education of Jamaica, The New York Public Library, CCBC Choices/Best of the Year and the Junior Library Guild.