History, Symbol and Whimsy: The Story Behind the Artwork of Lily of the Valley

May 11, 2016

One of the great joys for me in creating my new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, was doing the artwork. This allowed me to explore my love of history—particularly as it pertains to the gradual changes in everyday life—and the symbolism that Lily holds for me, as well as to indulge a bit of whimsy.

This book is the story of five generations of American Jewish women, and each of the five parts begins with a border vignette depicting the time in which that particular character lived. The vignettes are meant to enhance the story, set a mood, and draw the reader in, somewhat in the way that a film score does for a movie. In addition it is my hope that the drawings provide a certain delight for the eye. Books for adults are not illustrated the way children’s books are, and yet I think we never really outgrow our enjoyment of the visual.

And so the border for “Part I— Lily” shows the Statue of Liberty with the approaching ship, then a scene from the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th Century.  “Part II—Molly” depicts the era from World War I through the 20’s, including the soldier, the trolley and the lady in the cloche hat. In “Part III—Lily” fashion has changed dramatically, and there’s a car in front of the suburban home. I drew the World War II soldier from a picture of my father, of blessed memory, in his uniform. “Part IV—Maxine” is the age of flower power, as well as the beginning of the return to observant Judaism for Maxine and many others, and “Part V—Lily” depicts modern day Los Angeles.

Lily of the Valley by Xianna Michaels – Part 3

The vignettes at the bottom of each border give rise to all manner of lilies, including lilies of the valley. In the border for Part I the symbolism is clear, as the flame of hope in the torch  of the Statue of Liberty, as well as the flames of the tragic factory fire, transform into the leaves and flowers. And the early borders hint at palm trees, a nod to one of the first Lily’s dreams. By the end the Southern California foliage shows the dream come to fruition.

The front book cover came from a vision I had of the title rising from the flower of its name in full bloom, and the back cover in a way symbolically tells the whole story. It begins with flames—a pogrom, a factory fire. The flames transform into flowers, to lilies, as Lily’s dreams take hold, and then on the top the palm leaves come together, as do all the aspects of the first Lily’s dreams for her family. I loved creating that back cover!


I also enjoyed doing the decorative initials that begin each part of the book. They harken back to medieval manuscripts, when almost all stories were told as poems. But they also are meant to be evocative of the passage of time. The sewing machine in Part I was cutting edge technology at the turn of the 20th Century, and the flames foreshadow tragedy to come. The candlestick phone and radio in Part II are more of the latest technology, as is the television in Part III. Part IV brings the psychedelic Sixties, and Part V evokes the 21st Century, complete with iPhone, high heels in the workplace, and a nod to the Twin Towers. I fully enjoyed doing these initials. Besides the process of drawing, I felt like I was creating stories within the larger story.

Finally, I indulged a bit of whimsy with the endpapers. As with all hard covered books, these are the folded sheets with one half glued to the inside of the front cover and the other forming the first free page of the book. The back endpapers do the same in reverse. I love to create scenes for my endpapers. Lily of the Valley shows a melange of images from the old-time San Fernando Valley, including a horse and cart, an old adobe house and a general store. Then there is the roadway lined with bell markers identifying El Camino Real, the original trail of Spanish missions. That eventually became the 101 Freeway and today is known as Ventura Boulevard, the longest contiguous stretch of businesses in the world. And then there’s the house with the gate nestled somewhere above the Hollywoodland sign. Perhaps some of my readers might recognize it!

Illustrated Endpaper Left – Hollywoodland from Lily of the Valley by Xianna Michaels

There is a special magic for me in transferring a vision I have in my mind onto the page with pen and ink. This is especially true because, while I have been writing poems and stories all of my life, I did not begin drawing until I was in my 40’s. That’s a story in itself, but suffice it to say that discovering I could draw was a surprise that continues to be a source of delight for me. I hope I have communicated some of that delight to the readers of Lily of the Valley.