by Jean Ponzi

Onward Is Best
A Christmas Journey

It’s Christmas Eve at the North Pole and all the toys are excited to meet the special child that Santa has picked just for them. But one wooden doll with wild red hair wants to stay with Santa forever! She runs out the workshop door . . . and so begins Dolly’s adventure and path to self-discovery.

So also begins a new book that will surely become a Christmas classic, written and amazingly illustrated by St. Louis artist Sarah Jean Linquist, who was also my dearest friend.

Onward Is Best: A Christmas Journey wraps Sarah’s pure joy in celebrating Christmas in her prodigious gifts as an artist. And the real-life saga of creating this book affirms the values of loyalty, perseverance and courage woven throughout Sarah’s tale.

Her heroine is Dolly, a small wooden doll with colorful apron pockets and wild red yarn hair, who meets odd and noble creatures on her journey through Paper Land, Popcorn Land, Metal Land, Teddy Bear Land, Wood Land and Desolation Land – and with Santa at The North Pole.

Her illustrations are fantastically detailed, handmade miniature landscapes. They are a visual tour de force, masterpiece blending of skills as a painter, muralist and theatrical scenic artist. To make her Lands, Sarah plundered her own giant collection of “arty stuff.” She cruised garage sales and auction web sites. She invited family and friends to donate tiny bears, stuffed crows and wooden toys, and to help her fabricate a whole garden of cloth flowers.

One day I came to Sarah’s studio, to “help” with Teddy Bear Land. Her materials were dazzling: a rainbow of ribbon, rick-rack, nubbly yarn, balls, fringes – in all sizes, sheen and textures. Her worktable was a tactile heaven. I putzed along, patching together three or four cockeyed flowers, while she whipped up a couple of trees, embellished her plush topography, and planted a ring of whimsical blooms all around mine. I looked with new appreciation into the scenes she created, evolving more marvelously at each visit. Every detail was set in place, conceived and fabricated, by this one soul’s mind and hands.

Onward Is Best recalls a childhood dream – and helped Sarah to deal with life-altering reality.

“Growing up in Chicago,” Sarah wrote about the project, “I was treated to an annual December trip downtown to see the Christmas windows at Marshall Fields. I have a vivid memory of plastering my face to the cold glass and blocking out all of the world with my hands until I was IN the enchanted, sparkly world.”

In 2006 Sarah was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Chemo treatments left her hands numb with peripheral neuropathy. With her eyes closed, she couldn’t feel the difference between sandpaper, glass or silk. To regain her fine motor skills, she began cutting up interesting kinds of paper and assembling the pieces into the trees, river and rolling hills that soon became Paper Land. Her work on the story and sets was a powerfully positive focus of her journey through the next four years.

When Sarah died in 2010 at the age of 59, her husband (and artist-partner) Robert Fishbone, her three sisters, and a circle of extended family and friends joined forces to complete her project. Missing her so keenly, this process has been healing for all.

And by the way, if you’ve ever tried collaborating with any other human being, let alone your relatives and closest friends, you’ll appreciate this accomplishment – and the serendipity (or has it been Sarah-dipity?) that has guided everyone’s efforts onward. More of this inspiring story – plus illustrations, Sarah’s sketches, and chapters of the book – await your exploration at www.OnwardIsBest.com.

Loving labors, from many hands, have brought into being a beautiful book. Larger-than-life, richly colorful and detailed, its gilt-edged pages invite you to enter together, hand in hand with someone you love, on a reading adventure as Christmas approaches.

And this was Sarah’s ultimate dream: to have her story, her spunky Dolly and fantastic Lands come alive in the voices of moms and dads, of grandparents, aunties and uncles and friends, and flourish in the imaginative hearts of beloved little reading companions, in one of the best traditions of Christmas.

Jean Ponzi hosts the environmental talk show Earthworms on FM-88 KDHX. Listen live Mondays, 7-8 p.m., or to archived editions at www.kdhx.org. Image ©2011 ON THE WALL PRODUCTIONS, Inc. Used with permission.