The Gill Family Creates Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty
From broken bottles to plastic bags, the litter of things across the urban landscape is cause for both irritation and engagement for Michael Gill, a Lakewood poet and senior editor for Cleveland Free Times. With his two children Eliot and Grace, Gill has conceived and constructed on hand-carved linoleum block an inspiring tale of text and images, Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and Moon and the Entire Landscape, available for sale at Local Girl Gallery and the Lakewood Phoenix Coffee Shop, and for borrowing at Lakewood Public Library.
Gill’s appealing and meticulously hand-crafted picture book reveals under the pressure of mass consumption a subtle emotional ecology born from his family’s commitment to acts of imagination, pragmatic good neighbor litter pick-up and planetary restoration.
“This book was conceived in the intersection of several independent concerns. On the one hand it is simply a book for my children, and a response to a common, ugly scene – a blue plastic grocery bag snagged in a tree, a blot on an otherwise graceful landscape, and for me a symbol of consumer society,” explains Gill, a graduate of Saint Ignatius High School, who moved to Lakewood in 1995.
The title - Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and Moon and the Entire Landscape – suggests Gill’s unmistakable intention to pack the book with personal meaning registered through an attentive and engaged fatherhood. While the back story hinges on Gill’s love for his children and trust in the creative process, the front end of Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and Moon and the Entire Landscape will prove to be a relevant and lasting inspiration to children and families at large.
The genesis of Clam Boy is itself testament to the creative and disciplinary matrix that a father and son can inhabit together.
“Our son Eliot was probably six when he conceived Clam Boy. He was in a super hero phase, taking in the likes of Batman, and he had been to annual family clam bakes, after which he enjoyed playing with hinged shells. His version of the character Clam Boy is more muscular and super-hero-like than this one, a little more like Spider Man, and he has powers that are not evident in this first installment of what I plan to be a series of stories in which the two characters aim to confront and, little by little, rectify some of the common results of carelessness and neglect in cities,” notes Gill.
As an attentive father and accomplished poet with three published chapbooks, including The Atheist at Prayer (1990), 388 Lines for My Imaginary Goddess (1994), and The Solution to the Crisis is Revolution: Graffiti of Ecuador (1994), Gill knows each child must find a way into the moral of the story and that he must yield and measure their place in a creative and social process aimed at raising ecological consciousness within both his family and the world.
Watchful over the family’s sibling dynamics, he credits Grace for Big Sister Kitty.
“Our daughter Grace invented Big Sister Kitty when she was four years old. Grace is a little sister, and that is a significant factor in her life right now. She is not a major fan of superheroes, but she likes to play with Eliot when he is nice to her, and she follows his example in many ways. Through it all though, no matter how well they are getting along I think she wishes she weren’t the little sister. This, combined with the fact that we have two affectionate cats, is how she invented Big Sister Kitty.”
“What my children have taken from it is the simple message that litter is ugly, and picking it up for proper disposal is a good thing to do. It has been a pleasure for me to take the characters they created and give them back with a message about the world. Eliot and Grace and I walk to McKinley Elementary most days, where he is in the 2nd grade, and she is in Kindergarten. We pick up bits of litter as we go, and I hope they understand that even these tiny acts can make Lakewood and the world a better place,” says Gill.
Four hours of hands-on work go into each copy of Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and Moon and the Entire Landscape. As Gill explains the process, “The printing plates are hand-carved linoleum block. Text and images are transferred onto the linoleum in reverse, then carved with chisel-like tools. Different colors require different printing plates that have to be meticulously matched in order to have color line up in its proper space. There are ten printing plates required for each copy of this book. Each plate is inked one at a time with a rolling pin-like tool called a brayer. A single sheet of paper is laid upon the block then, and cranked by hand through the steel roller of a large press. Once printed with all their colors on both sides, the sheets are cut into pages, hand-stitched into a cloth-reinforced signature, and then bound to a cover of matt board sheathed in cotton broad cloth.”
For Gill production values that scale from handcraft and entirely natural materials go against the grain of the ubiquitous plastic grocery bags that “simply end up in landfills at best, or waterlogged, their loop handles to become a hazard for ducks, or the end up riding the wind until they snag somewhere.”
In contemplating the disposable values of modern times, the hands-on world of medieval craft and guilds evokes from Gill a complex response.
“Also at play on an entirely different level in this book is the hand-made manner of production. It is a rejection of the impersonal, mass-produced, digital world (not that I don’t depend on it as much as anyone), an embrace of the tactile rewards of medieval technology,” says Gill.
Gill recognizes that “all this is exceedingly labor-intensive and conceptually weighty for what is in the end a children’s book.”
At once Gill manages to amplify and simplify complex levels of craft, image, planet, relationship and text in Clam Boy and Big Sister Kitty Liberate the Tree and the Sun and Moon and the Entire Landscape. With uncommon gifts, he compels trust that his labor of love will shimmer for children with authenticity, moral force and restorative powers.