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The following article is reprinted from the September 10, 2006, issue of the Marin Independent Journal. Below that is an article from the March 7-13, 2006, issue of the Mill Valley Herald.


Vegetables visit Paris in cartoonist's children's book
Beth Ashley

Sixteen years ago, when Abby Wasserman of Mill Valley was "wooing" her husband to be, Potter Wickware, he was a graduate student in genetic enginering at San Francisco State.

"They were cloning new genes into vegetables," Wasserman says. "I started courting him with cartoons of vegetables."

Those cartoons inspired her latest career: writing and illustrating children's books whose main figures are - believe it or not - a pear and a leek.

Her latest book, called "Tosca's Paris Adventure," sends the two, and their cat Tosca, on a trip to the capital of France.

The art work from "Tosca's Paris Adventure" is on view till the end of this month at Apartment A Gallery, at 10 Locust St. in Mill Valley.

Bright, highly decorative watercolors tell the story of Tosca's trip through the landmarks of Paris: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the towers of Notre Dame.

Wasserman, 65, says she has been drawing and painting since girlhood, although writing has been her career. She has been a publicist (Oakland Museum) and freelance journalist (The Smithsoniian, Washington Star) and for three years has been facilitating writing groups in Marin - two at the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley, one in Sausalito.

She comes from a writing family: playwright Dale Wasserman ("One Flew over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Man Of LaMancha") is her uncle; her late brother John was an entertainment critic and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has written three books for adults, including one on her brother and his writing.

Becoming an illustrator came later, when her son Graham Rayman was getting married, and she wanted to make a celebratory book for the couple. Cartoon vegetables (with human characteristis) were already part of her repertoire, so she created the man-and-wife leek and pear. She chose the pear because her daughter-in-law's maiden name, Hruska, meant pear in Czech. She chose a leek because her son was very tall and thin.

Better yet: In French, a pear is "poire," and leek is "poireau." The characters in the wedding-gift book are Poire and Poireau; so are the characters in "Tosca's Paris Adventure."

The latter book ($15.95 at Book Passage and the Mill Valley Book Depot) not only features scenes of France but a back-of-the book French translation of the lilting narrative. (A second cat in the story, Basha, is modeled after the pet of her younger son, Josh.)

Her book is produced (edited and given design supervision) by Jim Natal and his wife Tania Baban of Marina del Rey, owners of Conflu:X Press.

Wasserman, whose husband is a science writer, has long been active in the Mill Valley community. She is president of the board of the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts, and helped found the Milleys Creative Achievement Awards in Mill Valley.

She is already at work on a third book about Poire and Poireau.

"I know it sounds absurd," she says, "but after so many years of drawing vegetables, they've become like human beings to me."

Not, she adds, to the point of absurdity. "I still eat salad."




The following is reprinted from the March 7-13, 2006, issue of the Mill Valley Herald.


Spirit of Mill Valley

Wedding gift inspires series of children's books
Angelica Marden, Editor

Abby Wasserman didn't want to give her son and daughter-in-law some wedding present that would just sit in a china cabinet and collect dust.

So Wasserman gave them a handmade book for their gift—and in doing so, launched a career for herself as a children's book author.

Wasserman will soon release "Tosca's Paris Adventure," inspired by the book she wrote and illustrated for the newlyweds.

It features a quirky cast of cats, dogs, and vegetable and fruit characters. She describes it as "a whimsical tale about some delights and challenges families encounter while traveling abroad."

Its characters, Poire, a pear; Poireau, a leek; and Tosca, their gray cat, have just begun to explore Paris when Tosca accepts an invitation to a puppet show from a street-smart cat, Basho. Tosca innocently assumes she will be back before Poire and Poireau notice she is gone, but gets lost while sightseeing in the foreign city—and adventure ensues. Wasserman, a longtime Mill Valley resident, has a long history of supporting arts in the community and has published "The Spirit of Oakland," a multicultural history, "Praise, Vilification & Sexual Innuendo, or How to Be a Critic: The Selected Writings of John L. Wasserman," and "Portfolio," a collection of essays on 11 Native American artists.

She first began drawing fruit and vegetable characters in the early 1990s as cartoons for her husband-to-be, who was studying molecular biology.

"They're great models," she said. "They don't charge, and they sit very still."

In 1995, as a wedding present for her oldest son and his wife, she wrote and illustrated "The Marriage of Poireau and Poireau," featuring a New York couple—like Wasserman's son and daughter-in-law.

Though "The Marriage of Poire and Poireau" is yet to be published, Wasserman said the characters took on lives of their own, so she continued their story with "Tosca's Paris Adventure."

"The story is set in a city I admire, but it's not a tourist tale," said Wasserman. "It's about accepting challenges and learning from adversity. It's also about making friends."

She was finishing the book and preparing it to be published just as there was a wave of anti-France sentiment in America, which made Wasserman worry that no one would ever pick it up and read the story.

"I thought, 'OK, so no one will buy the book,'" Wasserman said. "But that didn't matter. I lived overseas nine years and traveled a lot and I know that we're all basically the same, once we find common ground."

Wasserman, who was also a Mill Valley Art Commissioner in the '80s, is a current member of the Milley Awards executive committee, which recognizes extraordinary artistic achievement among locals, and president of the O'Hanlon Center for the Arts board. She published her first drawings and writing at age 11, as a student at Alto School in Mill Valley. Soon after, she won second place in a national Junior Scholastic writing contest on "What I Think About My Home Town."

Her favorite line from her winning essay about Mill Valley was "It's a place you can stretch your toes and think 'This is home.'"

Today, Wasserman's sentiments for the city and for Marin are the same.

"Money magazine rating Mill Valley the 10th-best place to live in the States was way behind me," said Wasserman. "I knew even as a child that this was the most wonderful place in the world."

Though first inspired by art as a child, Wasserman was reintroduced to it before college when she took a landscape-painting class with Ray Strong, known for lyrical California landscapes. She took classes on Saturday field trips to the beach, valleys and hills of Marin County, which inspired her creative whims.

"I was a late bloomer," Wasserman said. "For a long time I didn't know what I wanted to express in my art, only that I wanted to be creative. Now I have so many ideas!"

Wasserman is currently drawing a third book about Poire, Poireau and Tosca, in which they're kidnapped by wild leeks on a strange island. She said she's even thinking about a fourth book, in which Poire and Poireau will have children who get into all kinds of trouble.

"I know they look like vegetables and fruits, but to me they're fully human," said Wasserman.

In the last 10 years, Wasserman has exhibited paintings and collage at O'Hanlon Center for the Arts, and has won prizes for photography in the Mill Valley Art Commission's annual Click-Off. "Tosca's Paris Adventure" is the first time she has combined text and illustration in a book.

The book includes a full French translation by Aurélie A. Vincent of San Francisco.