“Distill it down to the essential.” That’s good advice for many endeavors in life, but it also happens to be the philosophy that Accord-based artist and writer Barbara Bash adheres to for her nonfiction, nature-based children’s books. But that doesn’t mean she leaves out any important information when writing for children. “I just trust the process of gathering these stories, in all their complexity, and then distilling it down to what is essential,” she says. “That’s what children see.”
Bash will talk about the process of creating Shadows of Night: The Hidden World of the Little Brown Bat at the next iteration of Historic Huguenot Street’s “Tea Time” events on Saturday, January 13 from 2 to 4 p.m. The cost is $25 for adults, $20 for children ages 6 to 12 and $18 for kids under age six. Main Course Catering in New Paltz will provide refreshments, with tea from PositiviTeas. The snow date is Saturday, February 10.
Bash’s book presentations are multifaceted experiences. In addition to reading from the book and discussing the travels and research that go into it, she shows the audience images from her sketchbooks and does live illustration on the spot. That approach brings children into the creative process, she says, and “makes the whole thing come alive. It gives them a sense of how I would start sketching something, and then see how the sketches become finished pages in the book. It makes a connection for them to see there is an actual person behind the book, and ignites a situation where they can ask very fresh and interesting questions.”
Bash is the author and illustrator of six children’s books that each address a specific aspect of the natural world. (She has also illustrated four nature-based books written by others.) Her first book was about the ecosystem surrounding the saguaro cactus, her second an exploration of the African baobab tree. When Bash realized that both succulents had in common their pollination by bats – the long-nosed bat, in the case of the saguaro, and flying fox bats with the baobab – it led her into an exploration of bats that culminated in Shadows of Night: The Hidden World of the Little Brown Bat.
In the same way that she had traveled to Africa to write about the baobab tree, Bash went to the source for the little brown bat: the caves of Colorado. And as it happens, it was a period in time when National Geographic photographer Merlin Tuttle was changing people’s perceptions of bats with his photographs. For the first time, bats weren’t being held by their wings to be photographed – which resulted in understandably unhappy bats snarling at the camera – but were instead depicted by Tuttle in their natural environs, hanging peacefully with little smiles on their faces. (The photographer later established the nonprofit Bat Conservation International organization.)
Bash witnessed for herself the gentle nature of bats, and learned that they were in danger and needed to be protected. And the little brown bat she was studying – once among the most common bats in North America – is even more endangered these days, its population decimated significantly because of white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease. “Insect-eating bats are on the edge of survival, and they’re so critical; they’re in one of those niches in the ecosystem that are crucial. You get a lot of respect for them when you do a deep dive like this book took me on.”
All of her children’s books started with that passion to develop a particular line of inquiry. “I think of it as a ‘hook,’” she says. “You can feel it; it’s like, ‘Ah, you got me.’” Her book, Urban Roosts: Where Birds Nest in the City, came out of having moved to New York City after years of living in Colorado; feeling out of her element in the big city, wanting to find a way to connect with nature again. When a friend pointed out the nesting birds on top of traffic lights, it had an emotional effect on her, she says. “Instead of walking with my head down all the time, I was looking up at the sky. And it opened up New York City to me in a different kind of way. I thought, ‘If the birds, who could fly anywhere, were choosing to live here, it’s an actual symbol of freedom all around us.’”
In her efforts to learn more about nesting birds in New York City, Bash attended birdwatching meetings to find places to observe birds. Often her research leads her to speak with biologists, especially those who still retain a “sense of wonder,” she says, who can help her in that distillation process of figuring out the essential information that kids will understand.
In her presentation at the Tea Time event in New Paltz, Bash will talk about the year she spent with little brown bats, learning how they give birth, raise their young, fly, hunt with echolocation (catching 600 mosquitos an hour) and gather at bat “conventions” before going into hibernation inside the caves before reemerging in spring. “We’ll talk about why bats hang upside down and all kinds of ideas…it’s a catalyst for that natural scientific inquisitive mind, hopefully joining that with the artist connection through drawing.”
Bash also speaks to the kids about the process of drawing as a means of understanding something. “I tell them that yes, I take reference pictures, and that’s good; but I always need to draw, because that’s a different way of being with something.” Drawing is a way of working with our relationship with the world and brings us into a dialogue with it, she adds. “There’s a very interesting thing that happens in the act of drawing: When you draw something, you kind of fall in love with it. Keep drawing things and you’ll fall in love with more. You can’t not have affection for something after you’ve drawn it.”
Bash says that she likes to bring the seeds of this idea to kids to whom she presents, giving them that feeling of “You can do this, too.” “My drawings are very imperfect – bats don’t exactly pose for you – but I enjoy bringing the kids into that world of aliveness and imperfection.” (For the record, Bash’s water-media illustrations are lovely: both realistic and evocative.)
A bat drawing that she did for Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) has been made into a plush animal called “Archie the Archives Bat,” which can be purchased on the HHS website. For a chance to win an “Archie” plush toy, attendees at the Tea Time event can submit an illustration of their own idea for a Huguenot Street mascot. The winner will be announced during the event, and all who submit an illustration will receive a prize. The event will also include raffling of a Felicity Merriman American Girl doll. Raffle tickets will be available for $3 or two for $5 or five for $10.
For more information about other facets of Barbara Bash’s work – as a calligrapher and teacher who leads workshops for adults in a number of creative explorations – visit www.barbarabash.com.
Tea Time with author/illustrator Barbara Bash, Saturday, January 13, 2-4 p.m., $18-$25, Deyo Hall, 6 Broadhead Avenue, New Paltz; www.huguenotstreet.org/teatime.