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James Sturm’s Visual Story Meets Piano Score at Bookstock

  • James Sturm at his studio in White River Junction, Vt. Valley News - Nicholas Richer

  • This year’s Bookstock festival will feature a performance of Birdsong, Hartland cartoonist James Sturm’s wordless story, by Sturm and Woodstock musician Sonny Saul.

  • Woodstock rare book dealer Sonny Saul will join cartoonist James Sturm to provide piano accompaniment to Sturm's wordless book, "Birdsong."

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/28/2016 10:00:09 PM
Modified: 7/29/2016 11:49:23 AM

As in years past, Sonny Saul expected to spend all of this weekend’s Bookstock literary festival under a tent on the Woodstock green, selling rare volumes from his Pleasant Street Books.

That all changed one night last March at the ArtisTree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret, where graphic novelist James Sturm flashed images from his wordless book Birdsong onto a screen while Saul played piano music he’d written to accompany the tableaus surrounding two marauding children who learn that it’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.

“That was really a hit, I thought,” Saul recalled during a telephone conversation this week. “More people than I dreamed came for it. Fifty or 60.”

Out of the crowd at the end came a programmer for Bookstock, who invited Sturm and Saul to perform their pas-de-deux on the last Sunday in July, as a change of pace from the parade of readings and narrated slideshows.

The eighth annual festival starts today with a workshop by Vermont Poet Laureate Chard deNiord and continues into Sunday with appearances by more than 40 writers, among them award-winning poets Richard Blanco and Jorie Graham, memoirist Howard Axelrod, former Vermont attorney general and chief justice Jeffrey Amestoy taking a turn as a historian, naturalist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and novelist Howard Frank Mosher.

With Sturm and Saul on Sunday, music will stand in for the words absent from Birdsong, a meditation on nature and human nature inspired by the Japanese storytelling forms of e-toki and kamishibai.

“I am thrilled to see it take on these permutations,” said Sturm, a co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies. “It was originally created to be a performance, then it morphed into a book, and now it’s going back into a performance in a new context.

“It’s been really fun.”

The fun began a few years ago, with Vermont artist-of-all-trades Ben T. Matchstick introducing Sturm to the art of kamishibai. The form of “paper theater” evolved over centuries, with itinerant Japanese performers traveling from village to village with folding wooden boxes that contained stacks of illustrated boards serializing the adventures of a range of mythic superheroes.

“I drew a story for Ben to perform that eventually became the pictures in this book,” Sturm writes in the volume’s end notes.Birdsong has no words because it is meant to be performed.”

The next turn in Birdsong’s evolution came when Saul, who was teaching piano lessons to Sturm’s daughter, invited Saul to write music that would fit the alternately meditative and anxious tale of a boy and a girl who rile up a wizard by assaulting a turtle and a bird with sticks. The wizard turns them into monkeys — imagine disheveled siblings of Curious George — who wind up in a circus and experience a variety of indignities and revelations before finding their way back to the wild and reconciling with the bird.

“I hadn’t run into any of this kind of literature in my book life,” said Saul, who operates his store out of a barn at his house on Pleasant Street.

All of which made writing a score of sorts to propel the story and convey the moods of Birdsong an interesting challenge.

“The music started as sketches and improv, and I’ve been fine-tuning it,” said Saul, who during his teen years played piano accompaniment to silent movies in Atlantic City. “It’s wide open enough that there’s still room for improvising, but some set pieces have grown up around it…. Every time I play it, I change something that maybe no one would notice.

“I usually write for jazz groups, so for sure there are jazz influences. There are parts where I might improvise on a chord progression. There are also some Japanese-y scales. And there’s a Peter and the Wolf aspect.”

Sturm and Saul both look forward to seeing how the audience reacts to the current iteration of the show.

“When I bring the book to schools and share it with students, I’m constantly surprised by what they bring to it,” Sturm said. “When some people read it, it seems like a story about being cruel to animals. But when I brought it to Washington, D.C., in several schools students were talking about the children chasing the bird because they were hungry. That gave me insight into the communities where I was presenting. The story’s there for people to create their own narrative.”

So Saul has noticed, especially with a wide-open ending that he sees as the children morphing again, into yet another form of wild creature.

“Kids tend to get through the book itself in about 16 seconds,” Saul said. “Not everybody agrees about the events, which is part of the fun.

“I’m going with the interpretation I like the best.”

Cartoonist James Sturm and pianist Sonny Saul will present Birdsong on Sunday at noon, on the mezzanine level of the Norman Williams Public Library in Woodstock. Admission is free.

∎Salinger on Screen

At 7:30 on Saturday night, Bookstock also will go multi-media with the one event for which admission will be charged: A screening at Woodstock Town Hall Theatre of Coming Through the Rye, South Woodstock filmmaker Jim Sadwith’s dramatization of his 1969 encounter with reclusive author J.D. Salinger in Cornish.

With Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper depicting Salinger, the movie follows a prep-school student who, like Sadwith, identified strongly enough with Holden Caulfield, the alienated teen protagonist of Salinger’s signature novel, Catcher in the Rye, to write a play based on him, then to travel to Cornish and seek permission to stage it. The main character is played by Alex Wolff, who portrays Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev in Mark Wahlberg’s upcoming dramatization, Patriots Day. Cooper is scheduled to attend the screening with Sadwith for the discussion that follows.

The Hour of Reading∎

As usual, Bookstock offers a dizzying array of readings and some tough choices.

The biggest conflict might be at 1 on Saturday afternoon, when Jorie Graham reads poems at the North Universalist Chapel; Howard Axelrod recalls his two years in a small house in Vermont from his book The Point of Vanishing at the Norman Williams Library; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas recites, at St. James Episcopal Church, from her autobiography Dreaming of Lions: My Life in Wild Places; and Tim Weed traces the development of his first novel, 2014’s Will Poole’s Island, set in colonial New England.

Mercifully, no presentations are up against the keynote talk, at 11 Saturday morning. In the North Universalist Chapel, Richard Blanco, who recited his poem, One Today, at President Obama’s 2013 inauguration, will sample from his poetry and prose and tell stories about his Cuban-American heritage.

For more information about this year’s festival, visit

Elsewhere in the Valley

The Town House Forum in Strafford begins a month of weekly author appearances next Thursday night at 7, with poet, biographer, novelist and scholar Jay Parini and E.M. Forster biographer Wendy Moffat sampling from recent works.

This Sunday afternoon at 5, BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt., hosts poet Peg Boyers, who will recite her verse, and Susan Choi, who will read from her debut novel The Foreign Student, winner of the Asian American Literary Award for fiction.

David Corriveau can be reached at and at 603-727-3304.

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