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Just for Today Q&A with Author, Jan Phillips [See Alison Bonds Shapiro below]
Just for Today

In an increasingly busy world, Just for Today proposes a radical plan-for one day, the Bear family and their pets are gong to do absolutely nothing but enjoy one another's company.

Overjoyed at the prospect, Brother and Sister Bear begin by hiding all the clocks they can find, eating popcorn for breakfast, and leaving the dishes in the sink. Mr. and Mrs. Bear join in by promising a day free of nagging and scolding. The challenge-how many fun, relaxing, and silly activities can the family engage in before nightfall?

In this overscheduled world, it takes a conscious effort for a family to simply enjoy time together. But shouldn't we all try?
Ages: Family and kids ages 3-7

In this hectic, stressful, overscheduled world, Just for Today describes one family's decision to set aside one day to enjoy time together - without cell phones, play dates, classes, etc. What was your inspiration for writing Just for Today?

Jan Phillips and Alison Bonds ShapiroLike so many other parents, I find that balancing everything I need to do each day with everything I want to do is a challenging and often difficult task. School and work commitments, family time (both nuclear and extended), quiet time, friends, household maintenance, as well as living in an uncertain and sometimes scary world fragments our attention and makes it all the more important to carve out that uninterrupted fun time with our families.

Children thrive with our full attention; as parents, we long to feel close and connected with our kids, and to give them all that they need to become fully rounded adults. The demands of today's world make this tricky to do. I would say that realizing my son will only be small for such a short time, and wanting to connect with him in a soulful way as often as possible brought this book into being.

It also appealed to my sense of play to come up with ideas for activities that might capture a child's imagination and ability to be silly. As adults in an increasingly fast-paced world, we don't allow ourselves the time to get silly and engage in the "unimportant." Everything is hurry, hurry, hurry. Silliness takes but a moment, but sets the stage for us to be able to take things a little more lightly.

Do you share your ideas/stories with kids to gain their feedback while you're writing? In what ways does Just for Today draw from your experiences as a parent? I have a five-year-old son who loves to be read to. He gets very quiet and still when we share this book (a sure sign I have his attention). When we are entirely too busy with keeping up with life, I find that spending even a small amount of time together doing something we both enjoy creates a close bond. I didn't share the writing of this book with him, as he was only a year old when I started. He would have been a good critic had he been old enough. When he was around 20 months, we were reading Goodnight Moon together. He actually noticed that the red balloon was missing from several of the spreads, and asked me where it was!

Just for Today is a reminder to me when I get moving too fast to slow down. I know I have too much on my plate most of the time, and keeping the theme of the book in the back of my mind has stopped me on many occasions when I'm being impatient or too demanding with my son. It serves as an ideal; I would love for our family to be able to take a day a week for these kinds of activities. Sometimes, however, I'm satisfied with even a few moments a day to just let everything go, and be in the moment with this precious being who is growing up altogether too quickly.

What kind of feedback for the book have you received so far from parents, grandparents, or teachers?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I put a copy of the book at my son's preschool, and many mothers as well as his teacher have told me they choked up and got teary reading this book. It strikes an emotional chord for many, because it's what we all want to be doing with our kids. The artwork has gotten rave reviews as well.

I hope reading this book starts the process of parents creating even a few minutes a day to just do something silly and fun. I can imagine that people will come up with their own activities to create that loving space in their families.

How long have you been writing? How did you get started? I've been writing since high school, keeping journals and clarifying my thoughts by writing essays. I won the National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Award in my junior year of high school. I was a journalism major in college, and received a Certification in Publishing from UC Berkeley. I also write when I need to process emotional experiences. This is my first children's book.

Q & A with Alison Bonds Shapiro, Illustrator of Just for Today

The artwork throughout Just for Today has such a warm, inviting feel to it - what medium did you use to create the illustrations? And what inspired your vision of the characters and setting?

The instructions for Just for Today were to prepare what's called "full bleed" paintings, which are completely rendered paintings covering the entire surface of the page. This was a wonderful challenge for me because the emphasis was more on form than on line. I used watercolor for these illustrations, working with a limited palette and a dominance of yellow because that's a warm, happy, positive color balance and it works well with the bear colors.

I've always liked bears and I like to draw them. When we looked at the text and realized how tender the story was, I felt that the text would be best served by using characters that allowed the expression of a lot of feeling and yet brought a timeless, universal quality. Bears can do that. We wanted a family and decided that having both a boy bear and a girl bear allowed all children to identify with the family characters. The publisher asked that the family have pets and so the dog and cat were created.

The dog is based on my neighbor's dog, Tuck - a wonderful, curious border collie - and the cat is based both on the author's cat for coloring and on my cat, Sam, for general expression and body shape. Sam, who is a perfectly uncooperative model, would often come to the studio and visit me while I was working on the book.

I live in the Pacific Northwest and turned to the woods outside my door for inspiration for the setting. Bears like the woods and need lots of room to move around. The contradiction of having bears use faxes, eat popcorn, and not wash dishes led to the visual fun of putting them both inside a house and outside in the environment.

The pleasure of illustrating is getting inside the story and imagining a world in which those words might happen. I wanted a world that felt accessible to children and their parents, so I created a world that felt like home to me.

You suffered a major stroke during the creation of the artwork for Just for Today. How long were you incapacitated, and what was involved in your recovery? What role do you feel working on the book played in this process?

I was severely impacted by the brain stem stroke I had; it affected both sides of my body. The left side was more affected than the right and, fortunately, I'm right handed. The trunk is also affected with this type of stroke and I needed to develop stamina to stay in the studio, leaning over the painting table. At first I couldn't stand unassisted or walk. I couldn't swallow or speak well. I had a feeding tube, and couldn't focus my eyes. My right hand and leg shook. I had gross motor control, but I had a little fine motor control on the right side. My left hand and arm were paralyzed, as well as portions of my left leg. I could barely right my name, and a drawing I did when I was in rehab looks like the work of a three-year-old child.

I was in the hospital and rehab for almost six weeks and was only beginning to take very hesitant steps with a cane when I came home, and I still couldn't see straight. It was nine months from the time of the stroke until I worked on the first illustration, and it was two years until I was well enough so that most people didn't realize when they saw me that I'd had a stroke. I finished the book a little more than two years after the stroke. Since I had completed three of the 17 paintings before the stroke, completing the remaining 14 paintings should have taken me about nine months, but instead it took 26.

Stroke recovery is not a straight line, but a series of ups and downs; some days you're better and some days you're worse. You strive for an ongoing trend of better and better and it's something that affects you for the rest of your life.

I was and am very blessed. I used many of the skills I had developed over the years in my process of recovery and I had unwavering support from my family and friends, along with very gifted therapists helping me. It takes determination to recover from a stroke and a lot of faith. Having a spiritual practice, whatever that might be for you, is a tremendous help.

When I was in rehab, Hal and Linda Kramer, the publishers of Just for Today, came to see me and told me they were certain that I would recover and finish the book. At that point I didn't believe them, but their faith and patience, and the patience of Jan Phillips, the author (whom I often refer to as "the world's most patient author"), sustained me and gave me the determination to try and finish the book. It was a big question mark until the first post-stroke illustration was done, and then it took a lot more patience and support until the rest were completed.

Now, nearly three years after the stroke, I can work and paint at a normal pace. I conceived, drew, and painted a piece last week in about five days.

You've had an extensive business career (including investment real estate, managing major commercial buildings and shopping centers, working with several nonprofit organizations, etc.), why did you decide to leave it all behind to concentrate on developing your art? Was that a difficult decision?

For many years while I was working in business, I was happy and satisfied to grow and to learn through meeting the challenges of that world. I was grateful to be working in a job that paid well and to be able to support my children.

But all my life, whenever I had the opportunity, in the time available after working and raising a family, I created art. The art sustained me and made my heart sing, and turning toward it was a natural decision.

Eventually I came to know that my heart needed to do something else. I wanted to use my time and energy in a way that might bring joy to other people.

The decision to leave the business world wasn't difficult to make, but it was difficult to sustain - I realized that more of my sense of self was tied up in those roles than I had believed. Continuing to move away from those roles took ongoing courage, but I'm very glad I did it.

What kind of art training did you pursue? Where did you study? How did you and your family adjust to this major life change?

I had pursued art training wherever I could over the years, including college courses, community education programs, and private instruction. One day, I wrote a little story about my husband and myself and painted pictures to go with it. That was when I thought about becoming an illustrator. To learn how to illustrate, I began to study at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. While I was at the Academy, the opportunity to illustrate Just for Today came to me. I left the Academy to do the book and discovered that I still had an enormous amount to learn. Much of what I've learned about illustration since then has been self taught (through books, reading, and experimenting).

As an artist, who has had the greatest influence on your work? What inspires your artwork?

There have been many influences on my work as an artist. Art is something that constantly grows and changes as we ourselves grow and change. Color is a passion with me, therefore, artists who delight in color have strongly influenced my work. I remember standing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York when they were having simultaneous shows of Edgar Degas and Georgia O'Keefe; the experience of those paintings was so intense it brought me to tears. I also love the work of Wayne Theibaud who is a California artist; he celebrates color and finds magic in all kinds of places and images.

The visual world delights and mesmerizes me. I am constantly seeing more than I can express. The drive to share that vision of color and form is what inspires me. I have a fascination with form and shape. I am often utterly delighted by unexpected shapes, like those which heavy equipment make. And at the same time organic shapes of all kinds (flowers, trees, moss, lichen) capture my attention and make me feel alive. I'm fascinated by the combination of natural and man-made elements, and by the edge between realism and abstraction.

What else are you working on? What's your next project?

I'm currently concentrating on exploring painting techniques in watercolor, primarily the art of layering color, emphasizing line and texture. Since I went straight into finishing the art for Just for Today after I began to recover from my stroke, I had no opportunity to see how the stroke had impacted my own paintings. That's a powerful exploration. While I continue to have some physical challenges, I find I'm a better artist since the stroke, more patient and more willing to learn and experiment.

I'm also developing some drawings of pelicans with the thought of creating a story to go along with a pelican character.