I make my living as a puppeteer and stilt walker. It’s a great life. I get to create everything from large puppets for parades to intricate colored shadow puppets. I stilt with my buddies in a group called Chicks on Sticks. Part of the job also includes teaching puppetry and art in schools. The work is rewarding, but there is a lot of prep and schlep. Sometimes I teach at three different locations in one day, and then go to rehearsals or performances at night. Do I work a lot? Yup. But it’s different every day, and I appreciate that.
Much as I love all that puppet stuff, for many years, I had another dream: to illustrate and publish children’s books. Since the time when I was a child, pouring over picture books in the library like “The Lost Mitten” or “We were Tired of Living in a House,” there was an urge to tell my own stories and make my own pictures. But it took a long time to for it to happen.
After years of writing puppet scripts and working with children, in 2010 a story came to me in the middle of the night. I wrote it down and spent the next year or two working visuals. I began experimenting with different styles drawing and painting, and discovered a style that uses my skills as maker of color shadow puppets. I call it “Illuminated Illustration”, and it involves cut-away designs, layering, and backlighting.
So in 2012, I published my first book, titled Nalah and the Pink Tiger. This first book in the The Adventures of Nalah series is about a little girl who populates her house with imaginary beasts. It was inspired by hours of play with my lively and rambunctious niece.
This process – like the creation of color shadow puppets – is painstaking, detail-oriented work. So my second book Nalah Goes to Mad Mouse City, didn’t come out until December 2014. I have made accompanying puppet shows of both books that I tour. The puppet show/book package creates a great synergy. When I do my shows, kids have an emotional attachment to the books. When people read the book, they are more likely to come to a show. It’s a win-win.
Nalah Goes to Mad Mouse City is both a sequel and a stand-alone story. One day Nalah finds herself bored and lonesome because all of her imaginary friends have gone away on vacation. But wait – not all. Mad Tooth, the little mouse who lives in her sock drawer, is still busy munching away on her knee-highs. When she finds out why Nalah is sad, she offers to take her down through the sock drawer into a mouse metropolis. The result is a tale of wild dancing, cousins and mice, taffy and a sock monster.
Nalah Goes to Mad Mouse City is a continuation of the messages I attempt to communicate all my art. In my books and shows, I try to provide children with positive characters of varying racial backgrounds. Nalah is from a mixed-race family, with an African-American father (my brother-in-law) and a Thai mother (my sister-in-law). But the stories aren’t about that. It’s about an individual child who happens to be from a diverse background. Nalah’s imagination is so huge and she lives so intensely in it, that the grown-ups around her are constantly viewing her as a troublemaker. The series is about the joyful explosiveness of a child’s fantasy world.
I didn’t study to be a puppeteer or a children’s book writer. Probably nobody does. I certainly never came across either job in any of those career tests where you fill in the little grey circles with a number two pencil. I just kept following the things I loved until I stumbled into my current career. That career didn’t unfold all at once and it is constantly changing.
The only thing I can say for sure is that I have never looked back and thought, “Gee, I wish I had stayed in that unchallenging dead-end job longer,” or “Gosh, I should have settled for studying something I wasn’t interested in so I would have a predictable career.” Is there any predictability in anything, really? All I know is, I saw something in Nalah that I identified with: a need to see a world beyond what is readily apparent. Not just see it, but live in it. She’s older now than when I published the first book, but she continues to display her hallmark scrappy originality. What a gift to the world.
Anne Sawyer-Aitch (pronounced like the letter “H”) is a puppeteer and stilt-walker. When she decided to create her first book, Nalah and the Pink Tiger, she began experimenting with different styles of illustration, and finally discovered a technique that uses her skills as a maker of color shadow puppets. She calls it “Illuminated Illustration”, and it involves cut-away designs, layering, and backlighting. In her capacity as a puppeteer, Anne creates puppet pieces of all kinds: parade floats, giant stilt puppets, and intricate color shadow shows. She is a MN State Arts Board Roster Artist, teaching puppetry all over the state, and has been touring around with her first book & her Nalah and the Pink Tiger show for the last two years. Nalah Goes to Mad Mouse City is her second book. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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