Showing posts with label picture books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label picture books. Show all posts

Monday, October 07, 2013

Process Talk: Don Tate on Illustrating The Cart That Carried Martin

It's a rare picture book with two creators that manages to look as if it came from a single inspirational source. The Cart That Carried Martin from Charlesbridge is such a book. I'm so pleased to be able to interview illustrator Don Tate about his glorious art for this book. 

[Uma] Don, welcome to WWBT. Talk to me about what research was involved in illustrating Eve Bunting's text for The Cart That Carried Martin. What did you learn from this project? 

[Don] For research, I found hundreds, if not, thousands of photos online. They informed and inspired my drawings. I also visited the Martin Luther King Jr. National Site in Atlanta, where the cart is now on display. I took photos of the cart at every possible angle, and of the newly renovated Ebenezer Baptist Church. 

What impressed me the most about the day were the sheer numbers of people who turned out to celebrate King's life. I learned that about 1,300 people were at the funeral held at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and between 50,000 and 100,000 followed behind the wooden cart that carried King's casket. Reading the numbers are one thing, seeing the photographs of the size of the crowds, that’s a whole other thing. The crowds were beautifully overwhelming. 

When studying history, I sometimes feel a disconnect between myself and the people I’m studying about. Stories about slavery, Reconstruction, the 1960s civil rights years, that happened awhile ago, most of it before my lifetime. The people can seem so far away. Almost unreal. Photographs don’t lie, though, and serve as a reminder that these things really happened, the people were real. Slavery, whippings, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, beatings, fire hoses and dogs — real people, just like me, experienced these things. As I looked through the photos of King's funeral and procession, I saw myself. That's why stories like The Cart That Carried Martin are so important, so we don't forget.

 [Uma] You work in many media--why pencil and guache for this book? And the style here is quite different from some of your other work--would you like to talk about how form and content came together for you here? 

Honestly when I read a new manuscript, I don't have a particular media, look or "style" on the ready. The story leads me to a particular media or style. Sometimes I don't even know until I sit down to render the first piece of art in a book. I may create sample studies and settle on illustrating a book in oils, only to sit down and pull out my watercolors, if that's what feels right when I begin to work. Most of my books have a slightly different look. But they all seem retain a familiar clarity, a sharpness -- hard lines, bold colors, tightly rendered ("muscular," as one reviewer described my art work). That's me. But for The Cart, I needed to loosen up because of all the crowd scenes, or else I'd have driven myself crazy trying to draw every little eye and nose and ear in a crowd. Loose lines, light-flowing colors, I felt that would be best for this story. And besides, with the subject matter being a funeral, realistic paintings might have given the book too somber a feel.

[Uma] There is one spread in this book that is utterly transcendent in its power--it's the one where the men walk in front holding the reins of the mules, and "The widow walked behind, her grief hidden by her veil." The words are so simple, and the art in the scene is deceptively simple as well. But something in the way the crowds melt at the edges, the perspective, the smallness of the people and the simple power of that wooden cart at the center--well, you just take a moment and center it there in a truly unforgettable way. All right, I'm done raving. I want you to tell me how you composed that scene, and what the creation of those pages meant to you. 

[Don] Again, photographs of the day inspired the scenes. Love was the dominant theme for the day. As the cart wound its way through Atlanta streets, people looked on with admiration. They held hands. They embraced. They caressed the cart. Men walked alongside, reaching over to touch the casket.

At first I worried about picturing the coffin. To me, coffins are scary. When I see one, I get a sick feeling in my stomach, and I turn my eyes away quickly. I assumed that most kids felt this way, too, so I wasn't sure how to show the coffin. I experimented with drawing the cart at different angles, hiding the coffin on only showing hints. But ultimately, that would have been defeating the purpose of telling the story of the day. I chose to picture coffin in full view, where necessary. How could a scene with a coffin be scary when surrounded by so much love?

And finally:

[Uma] What's up next? Any projects coming up I should know about?

[Don] Oh, I have a lot on my slate. I feel blessed. The next project I'm illustrating is the story of John Roy Lynch. It's the story of a man who in ten years went from teenage field slave to Reconstruction-era Congressman. It is written by my friend, Chris Barton. Next, I will illustrate a book that I wrote. It's the story of George Horton, an enslaved poet who became the first African American to be published in the south, before the Civil War (his poetry protested slavery, a brave man, huh?). And I'm under contract to illustrate two more books, one that I wrote as well.

Thank you, Don! Congratulations on your beautiful book. I look forward to your new work and to many more conversations to come!

Monday, July 08, 2013

Octopus Alone

Divya Srinivasan's charming first picture book, Little Owl's Night, featured a wide-eyed young owl in a dark forest.

Her second, out recently from Viking, brings the same kind of gentle whimsy to an ocean setting. A contented octopus watches a whole lot of chasing going on, as she peers out of her safe and cozy cave. When the seahorses intrude, she ventures out, and we're off on a nicely paced adventure with just the right amount of mildly scary possibility mixed in. Lucky for Octopus, she has a secret weapon!

Deceptively simple and visually appealing, Octopus Alone carries subtext related to safety and comfort, and making your choices about them. The book should lend itself well to repeated readings. Just for starters, the end-papers alone deserve some dedicated perusing.

Watch the trailer here 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Image, Text and Music, in That Order

The abstract to an article by Robin Heald on Musicality in the Language of Picture Books (Children’s Literature in Education (2008) 39:227–235) begins:
The authors of picture books who write especially melodic language are doing more than simply offering up work that is pleasing to the ear. They are accessing more of the whole child.
I've always believed in the musical nature of picture book text because I guess I've always believed in the musical nature of language.  But when I was invited by Groundwood Books to write text for the already existing artwork for The Girl of the Wish Garden, I wasn't thinking much beyond the fact that the pictures did seem to call for lyrical text.

That was before my girl Lina, the incarnation of Thumbelina who began to emerge from Nasrin Khosravi's glorious art, burst into song on the page. Well, her mother sang to her, which I had no idea was about to happen, and then Lina herself began singing. Writing this book was a bit dream-like in this regard, much of it happening at a kind of subconscious level, part of it even in a real REM-sleep kind of dream.

Of course once the stanzas began to form, I quickly realized I had no idea how to sing them. Which is a problem right there, because of course when you write a picture book, people are liable to ask you to read it in schools and stores and such. How was I going to sing those stanzas when I didn't have a tune in my head for them?

Enter Cooper Appelt and Laurel Kathleen. I invited this talented duo along for the ride; they not only set the words to music but produced an audio version of the song in the book, and edited the book trailer I put together. The trailer features an excerpt of that song.

Now I can't imagine those words to any other tune but this. Khosravi's visual art felt like a gift to me, and involving yet another art form simply felt right. When you pass love on, you get it back tenfold.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth on Hands Around the Library

"Once upon a time, not a long time ago..."

You might not think that any of the events of what has come to be known as the Arab Spring could possibly translate into a children's picture book. You'd be wrong.

I invited Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth to tell me the story behind the story of their beautiful new book, Hands Around the Library. The books recounts a true incident in which people came forward spontaneously to protect the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the glorious library that exists today at the location of that other ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt.

Karen wrote: 
I married an Egyptian who is passionate about his hometown of Alexandria, Egypt and we've visited fairly often. So when Susan was traveling to Egypt, I insisted she include Alexandria - and specifically the Alexandria Library (opened in 2002 as sort of a reincarnation of the ancient Library).  Susan of course does nothing in a small way. So she didn't just take a look at the library and leave, she met the children's librarian and established a friendship. She came home completely enthralled and decided we needed to collaborate on a book NOW.  NOW took more than a year, by the time we wrote a manuscript and revised it to meet the wishes of the publisher. We had planned a book about the ancient and modern libraries in Alexandria. The revolution happened while we were writing so we planned to have the protesters holding hands to protect the library as the culminating moment of the book.  The publisher wanted that event as the centerpiece of the book - and all of the other information became back matter.  But we are very pleased with the result - and so is Kirkus, which gave it a starred review and coined a phrase we think is perfect. "Freedom and libraries: an essential combination."
Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth
Here's Susan's take: notice how her words spill into each other. There's a collagist's mind at work. You can almost hear the cutting of the paper and fabric behind the illustration.

How Hands Around the Library Came to Be…Probably.
What starts a book? Inspirations? Epiphanies? Obligations? Assignments? Living? Longing? Schooling? Friends? Relatives? Desires? Ambitions? Needs for expressions? All of the above?

Why do I always know I MUST write and illustrate?? Because that's what I DO? Because that's all I've ever done? Because that's all I could possibly do? Because I love writing and illustrating so desperately even as I suffer and struggle and complain about doing it? Because I have a 32 page brain? All of the aboves??

And what about the why of any given book, specifically THIS BOOK? I'm going to try to figure this out…

1. For all my 17 leap-birthdays I've felt a fascination and appreciation and awe for Egyptian art and culture.

2. For all 16 of those birthdays I longed to visit Egypt. During those many years I tracked as much Egyptian art as I could find all over the world, outside of Egypt. And there is so much of it! I had seen and appreciated and loved enormous amounts of the real stuff long before I managed to see the REAL STUFF, i.e., the treasures of Egypt IN Egypt.

3. Finally, in 2009, I arrived in Egypt and IT DID NOT DISAPPOINT.

4. It was then that my dear friend and soon-to-be-collaborator, Karen Leggett Abouraya, literally FORCED me to include Alexandria in that itinerary. I thought it was a little ridiculous. I had gone to see the pyramids! The Sphinx! The Archaeological Museum in Cairo. Forget the rest, I thought. Who cares about ancient libraries that aren’t even there anymore? But Karen was relentless in her electioneering, and so I went to Alexandria.

5. Like the pyramids, THE LIBRARY DID NOT DISAPPOINT.  It was dazzling, awesome, inspiring, amazing. Fabulous, unbelievable, unimaginable, spectacular.

6. And, as does happen, to me, anyway, the vision made me desperate to write about it. And to pay homage to it visually.

7. And, because she was such an integral part of my experience even though she wasn't physically there with me for the epiphany, I really wanted to do this with Karen. And as it happened, she shared my vision and was happy to be part of the venture.

8. And then came the living history of events (the revolution and the touching reality that the protesting people loved their library and spontaneously decided to do WHAT THEY THEMSELVES WERE ABLE TO DO TO PROTECT IT), from whence we were presented with our story line.

9. And then came the visual imprints with serendipitous, delicious coincidences---like the appliquéd designs from Egyptian street tents that I loved when I was there---that turned up in an original, in an especially gorgeous version, on the wall in Karen's house!

And those waving protest signs, all over the television reports of the revolution, suddenly appearing right before my eyes in New York City when a group of protesting American-Egyptian-Coptic-Christians gathered right where I was crossing the street, exactly when I was in the midst of sifting images to use for this book.

And the images from the extraordinary architecture of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina---from the 500 alphabets to the vastness of the internal space--- these certainly helped to start the whole process.

All of the above, and more, of course, led me to choose my papers and fabrics, and helped me to pick up my scissors at last.

10. And all this may really be the story of the story, at least my part of the story, of how Hands Around the Library came to be.

(Leap birthdays? Susan, that's for another time!)

If I might paraphrase the touching words of Dr. Ismail Serageldin, thank you, Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, for bringing this book forth into the journeys of children's lives.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Process Talk: Kate Hosford's fictional Uma and Infinity

In Kate Hosford's glorious new picture book, Infinity and Me, young Uma (yes, that's right, she's my very cute fictional namesake!) contemplates the stars in the sky and thinks about her place in the world in her own eight-year-old way. There is a vast concept at play here, stars and symbols. Then there are friends and family, and butter chicken, and oh yes, red shoes. How could you not be charmed?

From the starred review, it's clear the Kirkus reviewer loved it too:
Uma’s struggle with the meaning of infinity offers readers a playful, gorgeous introduction to the mathematical concept.

I'm proud to say that Kate Hosford was my student in the picture book semester at VCFA. I'm delighted to welcome her now to WWBT to talk about the wacky enchantment of this lovely book from Carolrhoda Books.

[Uma] Tell me how this book bubbled up to the surface for you.

[Kate] Although I was not the most promising math student, I’ve always been interested in philosophical concepts, and went on to major in philosophy at college. One of the fascinating things about infinity is that it is an important concept not only in math, but in other fields as well, such as science, philosophy, religion, and art.

In high school, I had a wonderful teacher who spent a year with us reading all of Plato’s dialogues, and studying the Pre-Socratic philosophers. One of the Pre-Socratics, Zeno, was fascinated with the idea of infinite divisibility, and how it creates paradoxical situations when we apply this logic to time and space. For instance, Zeno said that you can’t every really get from point A to point B, because first you have to get half the way there, and then a fourth of the way there, and then an eighth of the way there, and so on, forever. This, he said, would make any sort of movement impossible. Therefore we can never depart from point A. We all know that this can be disproven by simply walking from point A to point B, but it’s not so easy to explain why that is the case. When we start thinking about infinity, we soon find ourselves in an Alice-in-Wonderland sort of world where paradoxes are the norm, and that is a place that I find both fascinating and scary.

[Uma] When you were writing the story, you tested the concept out with children. Talk about that.

[Kate] I made a point of talking about the concept with different groups of school children (grades K-2) to see what they thought about infinity. They defined infinity by saying things like this:
“If you start counting to infinity, you will die and you will still be counting.”
“Infinity is when you ask what’s outside of a galaxy, and then outside of that, and on and on.”
“It’s a very high number but it’s not really a number. Nobody knows what number.”
After talking to children, I became even more excited about pursuing this idea. Infinity was an idea that mattered to them, they had smart and interesting things to say about it, and they were tuned in to its paradoxical nature.

I also knew that if anyone told me that a picture book about infinity was too sophisticated for young children, I would have lots of great quotations, which would provide a nice counter-argument. Yes, children will be confounded by infinity, but no more so than the rest of us. Rather than ignore a topic like this for children, isn’t it better to simply explore it? Children are already thinking about infinity and any number of other profound topics, and that needs to be reflected in the books that they read so that these questions can be discussed.

[Uma] These are all intellectual reasons. Were there also emotional reasons?

[Kate] Those were somehow not obvious to me until the book was actually printed and bound.

Like Uma, I was a child who became overwhelmed by philosophical and religious ideas. This became apparent in second grade, when my best friend told me that I would burn in hell if I didn’t become baptized. I was completely petrified by this thought for many years. However, like many children, I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about my fear, even though I had very supportive parents who undoubtedly would have made me feel better. Once I saw the finished book, I was finally able to see that the story was really connected to that eight year-old version of myself. But unlike me, Uma asks other people for help. In this book, ‘infinity’ really serves as a stand-in for the existential angst that most people feel at some point in their lives.

[Uma] Of course I'm so very flattered that you wanted me to share my name with your young character--but why? Why is she Indian-American? Why that little aside in the text?

[Kate] In college, I spent a semester studying Buddhism in India, and I consider that to be one of the seminal experiences of my life. It was a time entirely devoted to questioning and contemplation. Perhaps because of this, when I pictured my questioning protagonist, she was Indian.

I tried out many different names for the main character, several of which meant ‘limitless,’ or ‘without boundaries’ (which I thought would be a nice touch), but none of them seemed quite right. I love the name ‘Uma’ because those three little letters sound very strong, resonant, and universal. The name ‘Uma’ is sometimes used for the goddess Parvati, who is a powerful figure. This is important to me because my protagonist is in the process of discovering her own strength. I’m so grateful that you lent me your name, and it’s wonderful to have the association with you —another strong woman I admire very much.
Gabi Swiatkowska and Kate Hosford in Paris

[Uma] It's my pure delight, Kate. Can we shift gears now and talk about Gabi's art? It's so beautiful and luminous--what are your reactions to the pictures in the book?

[Kate] Gabi and I met about twelve years ago when I was also working as an illustrator, and became good friends. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her artwork. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or since. I find her work absolutely stunning, both for its visual beauty, incredible inventiveness, and its emotive qualities. I don’t know any other minds that work like Gabi’s.

I actually wrote this story with Gabi in mind as the illustrator. I knew that this concept would be perfect for her artwork. After I sent it to her, I received an amazing little dummy with sketches in the mail. In their own way, these sketches are just as beautiful to me as the finished art.

[Uma] We know how different this is from how picture book publication typically works. For me, as a writer, it's magical to think of your being able to hold that little dummy.

[Kate] The art still takes my breath away, and I think it always will. Gabi really captured the pensive, searching mood of the story, and made it dream-like, which is perfect for this elusive concept. I’m sure readers will disappear inside the illustrations, and continue to notice new details every time they read the book.

[Uma] How have children responded to the book?

[Kate] I’m excited to see our book venture out into the world and to hear what children have to say about the book, and about infinity. I’ve already done some preliminary classroom and camp visits where I explored infinite divisibility through fractals with older children, and asked younger children to write about their own images of infinity. My latest favorite definition of infinity is from a girl who imagined it as “a book that never has a last page.”

[Uma] That is wonderful! Children have the most amazing minds. For young readers, and for those (mere) adults who work with them, you have plans for online resources, I gather.

[Kate] I am going to have an infinity curriculum on my website that parents and teachers can use. I would also love it if children wrote to me on my website and told me how they define or envision infinity, or their feelings about infinity. Maybe I can compile quotations (anonymously) and put them on my website to share with others. It could function as a kind of a virtual infinity quilt. It would also be great to have feedback on the curriculum materials.

[Uma] Watch this page for more. Readers may also want to write directly to artist Gabi Swiatkowska.  Here's the  New York Times review of Infinity and Me. Congratulations, Kate and Gabi!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Process Talk: Divya Srinivasan on Little Owl's Night

I'm so pleased to be talking to author-illustrator Divya Srinivasan about her beautiful, whimsical picture book, Little Owl's Night. which debuted last year to many glowing reviews.

Little Owl wanders around the forest, encountering a variety of animals, seeing the fog roll in, seeing the moths flutter toward the moon. Listen to this line: "Silver dust fell from their wings." So simple, and absolutely the right words. Little Owl's Night captures a young child's whimsy without ever straying into the dreaded terrain of cutesy. And the bats--don't forget to look for those bats! Welcome, Divya.

[Uma] Talk about the reversal of the usual dawn-to-dusk cycle in this book--where did that come from for you?

[Divya] I first thought about the visuals and what setting would be fun for me to draw. A night forest with twinkling stars and a bright full moon seemed beautiful and mysterious. I made the main character a little owl so we could see what all and who all he sees as he flies through a world that is cozy and familiar to him, but one that a child who is asleep at night might be curious about and would like to imagine.

[Uma] And it's a vision driven by that beautiful, wide-eyed rendition of Little Owl. Divya, how much did this change from your early visions of it?

[Divya] My first version of the book was 40 pages. In the middle section, a cat tells Little Owl that yes night is beautiful, but daytime is too. This prompts Little Owl to ask his wise mother about the daytime world unknown to him. She tells him about monkeys and lions and other animals that exist in other places. There was also a friendly witch casually flying into the night. I stuck in a lot of elements I loved and hoped for the best.

[Uma] Hear that, drafters? Raise your hand if you do this too! It's a messy business, bringing a story to the page. And then you sent a fully illustrated version off, yes?

[Divya] I fully illustrated the whole thing and sent it off. Viking Children's Books ended up wanting to publish it, but my editor said it felt like two books in one. She also thought it would be better to keep it to 32 pages. She was right. I removed that middle section, replaced it with a couple of new spreads, and was able to keep much of the rest the same.

[Uma]  There are lovely lyrical elements in the text--the fog rolling in, that silver dust that captivated me. My favorite lines of all are probably these:
"Little Owl sat on his branch.
How he loved the night forest!"
How did you end up balancing poetic language with the young child's sensibility in which this book is so squarely grounded?

[Divya] Thank you! I've mainly been an illustrator and animator, working in visuals, and this was my first attempt at having writing published. I've always kept a journal and, among other things, I write down ideas for scenes and word combinations I like, hoping to use them in a project someday.

My editor really wanted the pictures to stand out without heavy text getting in the way visually. And I loved that. I'm naturally wordy I think, but I also love whittling sentences down to what is essential, finding just the right words that would be fun to hear as well as to read aloud.

[Uma] Want to talk about your next book?

[Divya] I'm working on final illustrations for my next picture book, which is about an octopus. Again, I started thinking about the visuals first, and an underwater setting seemed rich with possibilities for colors, forms, and alien-looking animals. The more I learned about the octopus, I knew that had to be the main character: shy, curious, camouflaging, shape shifting. We're still figuring out the title, but Viking Children's Books is set to release it in Summer 2013.

[Uma] Congratulations, and thanks for stopping by WWBT, Divya! Looking forward to your next. I hope to have you back here when you're closer to publication date.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Process Talk: Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen on The Princess of Borscht, Part 3

Uma: Bonnie Christensen and Leda Schubert, come talk to me! One last round on WWBT about The Princess of Borscht.

Bonnie: What a delight!  Thank you Uma, for the invitation, and Leda, for writing such a terrific story.

Leda:  Why did you want to illustrate The Princess of Borscht?

Bonnie: The story.  The first time Leda read Borscht in our writers’ group my mind immediately filled with images of bickering neighbors full of warmth and humor. As a matter of fact, I once had a landlady in New York who was a conglomeration of all three neighbors and had a dog named Cookie.  That’s for you Leda, the dog part.

Also it’s rare, in picture books, to see flawed characters.  Thought these ladies aren’t swearing and swigging vermouth, they are arguing and being competitive.  But of course in Borscht they’re behaving that way for the best of reasons—to help make the soup that will save Ruthie’s grandmother from the terrible hospital food and speed her recovery. The fact that, as an illustrator, I had the opportunity to develop the neighbors’ characters visually was great fun. It turned out that Mrs. Lerman loves to gesture with her hand but, since she was holding the borscht spoon, she ended up slinging borscht and then almost smacking Mrs. Goldberg in the face with the spoon.

The fact that Ruthie saves the day based on her own instincts also appealed to me. 

Bonnie's visual-motor experiment
And I haven’t even mentioned how much I love borscht.  I made tons of borscht while working on the illustrations. Leda and I collaborated on testing the recipe that appears on the back of the book.  I cooked borscht and ate borscht and froze borscht and even slung some around my dining room to see what flying borscht looks like for one of the illustrations.  It was quite a mess.

Leda:  What did you bring into play from your own life?

Bonnie: Set dressing.  I used objects that my grandmother or mother owned to decorate Ruthie’s grandmother’s apartment; objects that felt homey and familiar.  Though her neighbors might be a bit bohemian, I saw Ruthie’s grandmother as more traditional, and so she has traditional objects in her kitchen and living room. She even has a Maxfield Parrish print over the sofa.  I suppose that unconsciously I selected objects that might be interpreted as comforting.  After all Grandma is in the hospital.

Uma:  How did Ruthie's character take shape in your mind, Bonnie? As illustrator what drove the specifics of representing her visually?

Bonnie: That’s easy.  I just conjured a nine year-old Leda.  Leda and I discussed Grandma and decided to pattern her on Vera Williams, who we both adore. I stole Ruthie’s “attitude”, and she is certainly justified in her frustration over all the bickering, from my daughter at Ruthie’s age.

Uma: Can we try my soupy question again? The spaces between adult and child perceptions form the core of this lovely story of family relationships and the creation of tradition. Can you  talk about how you approach liminal spaces in your work? Between childhood and adulthood, between fiction and truth, and now in collaboration, between text and image?

Bonnie: I’m only conscious of mining the text for character development, secondary story opportunities and illustratable moments. Through the process of illustrating and all it involves, liminal spaces may become apparent but aren’t built in as I go along. The process of visual world building, varying perspectives, set design, costumes and casting the proper actors takes up most of my small brain.

So much is in the eye of the reader and every reader brings a different life experience to the book.

There are times I don’t even know what I’ve accomplished until a nice librarian tells me, which is a really lovely thing.  Certainly writers and illustrators add all sorts of unintentional dimensions to our work and if someone wants to give me credit for their brilliant observation, well I’m all for that!

Uma: So there you have it. Liminality (really, really wanted to say that!) and soup in The Princess of Borscht.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Process Talk: Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen on The Princess of Borscht, Part 1

Ruthie's grandmother is in the hospital and suffering on account of hospital food. Ruthie to the rescue!

It's my great delight to host my wonderful VCFA colleagues Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen as they talk--to each other and to me--about The Princess of Borscht, a delightful story of ingenuity, cooking, and family love.

What you should know. Leda and Bonnie actually got to collaborate on this book, in a manner that authors and illustrators typically do not.

What else? Oh, yes, I asked them if they could talk about the spaces between adult and child perceptions that form the core of this lovely story of family relationships and the creation of tradition. Okay I may have said "liminal" spaces because, you know, I like that word, and because I was thinking--overlap, gaps, betweenness. Between childhood and adulthood, between fiction and truth, and now in collaboration, between text and image. So okay, the question may have been more than one question. It may have gotten a bit soupy, in fact.

But look what they did with it!  Welcome, Leda and Bonnie. Part 1 of 3.

Leda: Bonnie and I are delighted to be here with you, Uma. Thank you for inviting us to join you. You asked several thoughtful questions which challenged our small brains, so we decided to ask each other questions first. Warming up, as it were.

Bonnie to Leda: What sparked the idea for THE PRINCESS OF BORSCHT?  

Leda: I wish I could answer. All I remember is that my husband, Bob, said something like this: “Somebody should write a story about borscht.”  I said, “Good idea.” That was 10 years ago. The dream-come-true part is that Bonnie and I were in a writing group back then, and when I read the draft, she wanted to illustrate it. I still have the drawing she did in 2002 of Ruthie, which she presented to me. And then we dreamed for a long time. A very long time. So long. Until Neal Porter took the manuscripts and called Bonnie. Then—even longer.

Bonnie: Were the three royal ladies people you actually encountered or did you make them up?

Leda: I made them up, but I based them slightly (I am avoiding a libel suit, hee hee) on family members on my mother’s side—her generation and above. They always seemed to be having more fun than we were, even when they argued, which they did a lot. Then I thought about the rule of three, and I wanted to give the story a bit of a fairy tale/wise woman theme. Wise women who argue, that is.

I’m afraid I’ve never met any real royalty. But I ask Bob to call me “la principessa” at all times.

Bonnie: is your childhood environment reflected in the community in the story?

Leda Schubert and friends
Leda: Yes. In fact, I lived in an apartment building in a housing project in southeast Washington, and we kids ran in and out of each other’s apartments all the time. Our parents were very communal, sharing child-rearing and food and everything else, and they also knew how to have fun. For example, we had an ongoing water pistol battle with our neighbors across the hall. In my flawed memory, we opened the apartment door only after donning raincoats. I’ve tried to write about this, but it’s hard to write a picture book with guns in it, even if they’re plastic.

By the way, I got married in 1989, and I hadn’t seen those families in a very long time. Everyone still alive showed up for the wedding, and I realized how deep those connections were. I called them all my Other Mothers. It was true. I think Mrs. Lerman (also my grandmother’s maiden name), Mrs. Goldberg (an homage to Molly Goldberg), and Mrs. Rosen come from there—all the Jewish mothers.

Uma: Ha! Oh those Other Mothers are amazing. Hear their voices in this tiny snippet:
"We're using my recipe," said the Empress.
"Mine," the First Lady said. "With onions."
So go off and read The Princess of Borscht, and Leda and Bonnie will get to my soupy questions--in the next round.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Video: Reading for El Día de los Niños/El Día de los Libros

For El Día de los Niños/El Día de los Libros (Children's Day/Book Day) 2012, I'm reading the openings of two editions of my picture book, Out of the Way! Out of the Way! First, the English edition now available in the US and Canada thanks to the wonderful Canadian publisher, Groundwood Books, and then the Hindi edition, which was published by the equally wonderful Tulika Books in India. Tulika published this book in English and 8 Indian languages, an incredible collection of story voices lent to my narrative. The book is illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy--no, not me, and thereby hangs another tale.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Naomi Rose on Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure

Author-illustrator Naomi Rose, welcome and congratulations on your new picture book from Lee & Low, Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure. (Review excerpt from Booklist: "gracefully introducing Tibetan words and customs...this upbeat story provides a rare look at Tibetan American culture.")

[Uma] Your own inquiry into Tibetan wisdom and culture is important to your life. How did that inquiry lead you to the mysteries of the flower cure?

[Naomi] About 10 years ago, my father was recovering from cancer. My mother, who knew of my interest in Tibetan culture, emailed me a true story about a Tibetan man who miraculously recovered from cancer. The story was written by a hospice worker. She had tried to use the Tibetan Flower Cure to bring comfort to the Tibetan man in his final days. Instead of simply bringing him comfort, the Tibetan Flower Cure actually cured him! But it wasn't just the flowers that evoked the cure. It was the coming together of communities in support of this man's well being. The doctor was baffled about the unexpected healing. But the Tibetan man explained that the disease couldn't live in a body filled with so much love. It was such a beautiful story of the power of kindness and community, I knew I had to write it for children.

[Uma] In the end this is a story of geographies blending and merging through the connections between the generations. Talk about both those elements and how you show this blending of places and cultures in your art.

[Naomi] When I have visited the homes of Tibetan-Americans, I've seen an intriguing mixture of American and Tibetan elements. The homes generally have a special room dedicated for the most sacred items. This room is specifically for meditation, chanting, and prayer. The rest of the house is a combination of Tibetan and American culture, such as prayer flags flying in the yard next to a lawn mower, thangkas hanging above televisions, and so on. In a way, this approach blends the sacred and mundane, which I really appreciate. So I was careful to place Tibetan items in the ordinary rooms and scenes in my art.

Another aspect of blending is the dress. Some Tibetan-Amercians, especially the elders, continue to wear chupas, the traditional Tibetan clothing. Others, especially the younger generations, wear American clothes. I portrayed this in the illustrations with Popola wearing chupas, and Amala and Tashi wearing American clothes.

[Uma] Reversals drive the structure of this book: Sickness to healing, inaction to action, I could go on. I know you worked on this book over time and in many different versions, but can you tell me how you arrived at the final structure?

[Naomi] After several years of working on the story on my own and with my critique group, it finally earned some interest at Lee & Low Books. Louise May was the editor-in-chief at the time and she and I worked on the story for almost 18 months. But when she finally showed it to the editorial committee, they passed on the book. I was devastated. I filed the story far away. Then about six months later, I read a newly-released picture book from Lee and Low, written in free verse. I loved the voice. Inspired, I rewrote Tashi and the Tibetan Flower Cure in free verse, first person, present tense. I wrote the story without thinking of a publisher. I wrote it from my heart. I knew I had a good story, much better than before. I showed it to Louise May and it required only a few minor revisions before the acquisitions committee accepted it.

[Uma] Finally, can you share a recipe for solja?

[Naomi] Solja, or Tibetan Butter Tea, is definitely an acquired taste. It is especially enjoyed when living in high altitudes and freezing temperatures. Tibetans in Tibet have very elaborate ways of preparing the tea. These ways may include using butter churns and horsehair (to strain the tea). But here is a way to make it more simply.


Makes 5 to 6 cups of tea:
plain black tea (2 tea bags or 1 tbsp. of loose leaf)
¼ tsp. of salt
2 tbsp. of butter
½ cup of milk

Boil 5 to 6 cups of water. Pour two tea bags or one tbsp. of loose leaf into the boiling water and wait 2-3 minutes. Gently remove the tea bags or strain the tea leaves. Pour the tea into a large container with a lid or a blender. Then add salt, butter and milk. Shake it for 2 or 3 minutes. Serve it immediately. Enjoy!

This delicious tea will keep you warm in the winter and help you feel healthy and strong.

[Uma] Thank you Naomi. And here's another review from one of my favorite book bloggers, the BookDragon.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Beyond Visual Literacy

There's been a lot of talk about the demise of the picture book. Parent Tracy Grant summarized the heated debate in this piece in the Washington Post. Maurice Sendak chimed in to say that the picture book is blighted by misguided notions of childhood innocence, although he admits at the same time that he hasn't read very many lately. Some of us who watched the National Book Awards streaming from New York recently were a little perturbed by celebrity writer John Lithgow's attempts to be funny. In the process of self-deprecation he managed to dismiss the entire form of the picture book by suggesting it wasn't "real."

Is it, as Karen Lotz, Candlewick publisher suggests in the NYT article that started the brouhaha, a matter of the picture book being an analog artifact in a digital age? I'm not so sure. The codex book might be analog in structure but the picture book, if we pay attention to how young children "read" it, is far from analog in application.

Adults may read it from front to back and left to right but look at this child poised to turn a page.

Left? Right? Depends? If the book topples and ends up upside down in the process, a two-year-old might continue "reading" it that way. Nothing linear about that.

Toddlers react to the whole book as an object, without privileging the words on the page. They also react to the voice and the presence of an adult reading to them. They memorize text (another skill we tend not to privilege for some odd reason) and will often catch the lazy adult reader trying to flip two pages at once. Young children will want to visit a beloved book over and over, as they define it for themselves auditorily and visually, finding comfort in prediction. And of course they will imitate the reading behaviors (or lack thereof) of the adults in their lives. In all these ways, the picture book is meant to be a multi-sensory experience.

Its future is obviously tied up with the future of the book itself. But as with hybrid cars, we haven't quite found the right combination of green, cheap, tough, and accessible, not yet. Meanwhile, the codex book with pictures continues to allow children to acquire meaning in the often ambiguous spaces between text and image, and to do so with their entire bodies, which is what young children need to do. Speculating on causation in a narrative is a very different skill from touching a screen to create it. The two are not interchangeable, nor is one better than the other. But they are different.

If we let the picture book slip away while we dither around trying to decide if the form is dead, then the thing we may be endangering is the potential of the young child's brain to take in multiple stimuli, find meaning, react with all senses at once, and thereby create the active engagement with the world that we call literacy.

Note: This post appears simultaneously on Write at Your Own Risk, the VCFA faculty blog.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Jeanne Walker Harvey on My Hands Sing the Blues

My Hands Sing the Blues by Jeanne Walker Harvey, from Marshall Cavendish (a publishing house with vision, judging by just a few recent and backlisted titles) is a childhood biography of artist Romare Bearden. Jeanne has recently taken her picture book on the road. She's been to The Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte, North Carolina, which has been hosting a Romare Bearden retrospective in honor of the centennial of the artist's birth. She was the featured speaker at Bearden Family Fun Day, when children had a chance to do Bearden inspired collages.

In an e-mail message to me Jeanne wrote, "Such fun! And, it was so exciting for me to be talking...where my book takes place -- his birthplace! I met such nice people, including those at the Harvey Gantt Center for African American Culture which is also hosting a Bearden exhibit. And I spoke at the Family Day at the SFMOMA so I've gotten to be at the two places most important to me for this book."

[Uma] Congratulations, Jeanne. As someone who saw this work in manuscript, a long time before it found its voice and current form, I'm delighted to see it in print. (Note to anyone who doubts the power of e-mail: Jeanne and I have never met in person, yet our creative lives connected indelibly over this work!) I'm so pleased to be talking to you now about My Hands Sing the Blues. So, to start, why Romare Bearden, and why a picture book? Talk about how this project came to be.

[Jeanne] I'm a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a number of years ago I gave tours to school groups of an exhibit organized by The National Gallery of Romare Bearden's amazing art. The students and I LOVED his art, especially his huge collages, and the stories they tell about himself and his African American heritage. I realized I wanted to write a book about how the people, places and experiences in his childhood, specifically Charlotte, North Carolina, influenced his art. I felt this book had to be a picture book because the story is all about the creation of visual art, and I could not be more thrilled by the incredible illustrations Elizabeth Zunon created for this book. I feel magic happens with a picture book -- something incredibly special happens when the illustrations and words are joined.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about yourself while writing this book?

[Jeanne] I learned that I need to trust my instinct about how a story should be written, even it's outside my comfort zone. I wrote this book in a loose blues format (three line stanzas with end rhymes and repeating phrases) which was totally new to me. I felt that the story I wanted to tell about Romare Bearden needed to be told in this format because of his passion for jazz and blues music. He felt that the way he created his paintings, his collages, was inspired by the give and take, the improvisation of jazz music.

[Uma] What's one thing you learned about writing?

[Jeanne] Trust the writing process/journey because you never know what will happen! I learned to trust that I'll get past the pain of those first "drafty drafts" as you call them.

[Uma] That's right. I won't use the Anne Lamott term, not because I'm squeamish but because I don't believe a draft should be quite so easily dismissed. A first draft contains the spirit that made me want to do the work in the first place, so why should disparaging it make me feel more competent? Drafty I can live with. [Stepping off soapbox...]

[Jeanne] I was enrolled in your online writing course in 2007 with Writers Workshop when I hit this (drafty) phase. I had submitted an early version of this book to the group. But then I reread it and felt remorse that I had let the piece out into public, even though it was a supportive group of writers. I asked you if I could withdraw the piece. You said, hold on. You referred me to your article which so articulately set forth the phases of the writing process:
  • read, exult
  • reread, despair
Then you shared one of your tips from your wonderful "20 writing tips that I wish I'd heard 20 years ago": "The beginning is often not what you think it is." You suggested that I begin the book with a line from the middle of my text, "Snip a square of color" which ultimately became "I snip a patch of color." That truly made the difference. My focus became more about Bearden's connections to his childhood, and less about his New York City life as an adult. I was then able to read and absorb the class comments, and move forward.

The last line of my book is what I've ultimately learned about writing and the creative process: "When I put a beat of color on an empty canvas, I never know what's coming down the track." That is, as long as I remember to stick with it and believe in the process!

[Uma] It's true, isn't it, of writing as of any other kind of art? Congratulations on a beautiful book.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Dorje's Stripes by Anshumani Ruddra

The Bengal tiger is a gravely endangered species, its population estimated at fewer than 2,500 animals and dwindling at an alarming rate. How do we bear witness to such a tragic fact about our world? Is there any hope at all?

Yet to come*, an interview with Anshumani Ruddra, author of the glorious picture book Dorje's Stripes, published by Karadi Tales in India and now available in North America from Kane Miller.

*or maybe not. I sent those questions weeks ago and the writer hasn't replied yet (as of today, October 26, 2011). So maybe what's here is it for Dorje's Stripes.

Friday, April 29, 2011

NMLA handout, part 2: Books cited

Here are the picture books (and a couple of illustrated books) that Carolee Dean and I cited during our NMLA session. Thanks to everyone who came, and especially to those who asked questions and came up later to extend the conversation. We appreciate you all and the good work you do.

Adams, Simon. World War II. Dorling Kindersley, 2007.

Clinton, Catherine, Ed. I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry. Illus. Stephen Alcorn. Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 

Coburn, Jewell. Domitila: A Cinderella Tale from the Mexican Tradition. Illus. Connie McLennan. Shen's Books, 2000.

Coerr, Eleanor. Sadako. Illus. Ed Young. Puffin, 1997.

Coerr, Eleanor. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Illus. Ronald Himler. Puffin, 2004.

Drescher, Henrik. McFig & McFly: A Tale of Jealousy, Revenge, and Death {with a Happy Ending}. Candlewick, 2008.

Gaiman, Neil. The Wolves in the Walls. Illus. Dave McKean. HarperCollins, 2003.

Howitt, Mary. The Spider and the Fly. Illus. Tony diTerlizzi. Simon and Schuster, 2002.  

Lee Tae-Jun. Waiting for Mama. Illus.  Kim Dong-Seong. North-South Books, 2007.

Macaulay, David. Black and White. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Napoli, Donna Jo. Albert. Illus. Jim LaMarche. Harcourt, 2001.

Radunsky, Vladimir. Manneken Pis: The Simple Story of a Boy Who Peed on a War. Atheneum, 2002.

Selznick, Brian. The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Scholastic, 2007.

Tan, Shaun. Lost and Found. (Omnibus edition) Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2011.

Taylor, Laini. Lips Touch: Three Times. Illus. Jim di Bartolo. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2009.

Wiesner, David. Flotsam. Clarion, 2006. 

Here's more on Carolee's blog. And here are the two links from the slide show. The article about students performing an original Cinderella story, and the Flotsam trailer.

Here's to picture books for readers of all ages!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Updates and Downloads: Birthdays

This year, the little press that could, Tulika Books, turns 15! Known for its crow logo, its thoughtful, imaginative editors, its dedicated staff, and its books in many languages, Tulika has added voice and attitude to the children's publishing scene in India. In these fifteen years, they've done their bit to move the field beyond British and American reprints to the production of original work.

Also in the birthday department, Rukhsana Khan's little picture book with a big heart, Big Red Lollipop, has been gathering accolades. About greed, temptation, and the complicated relationships between siblings, set in the context of a birthday party, it's been awarded the 2011 Charlotte Zolotow Award for best picture book text. It was among the New York Times top ten illustrated books of 2010, and most recently, it's a Golden Kite winner in the picture book category. Betsy Bird says of it:
"This book packs a wallop, in part because of the art of Sophie Blackall, and in part because Khan has given us one of the best stories about forgiveness I’ve read in a very long time."
Finally, Michelle Knudsen of Library Lion fame celebrated her birthday with a book launch! Argus is about an egg project, a teacher with a focus, and a kid who has no idea what's in store for her, all set against the wildly wonderful dynamic of an elementary school classroom.  The illustrations, with Andréa Wesson’s light touch, extend and enrich the story, so that subtlety and humor help to incubate the theme of embracing difference.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Mirror by Jeannie Baker

Thank you, Erin Hagar, for giving me my very own signed (signed!) copy of this beautiful bilingual (English-Arabic) book. No, I can't read Arabic. If I did I'm sure it would enhance my engagement with the book but it's captivating regardless.

Here courtesy of Australian indie bookstore Pages and Pages Booksellers is a quick look at this story of two boys and two families: one in Australia and one in Morocco.

Mostly wordless, Mirror simultaneously reveals and challenges. It reveals two lives in two contexts, two ways of reading a book. It challenges preconceptions that one set of people might hold about another, and about the primacy of text and technology in human societies. It reveals the power of social compacts and of trade. It even questions assumptions young readers may have about the construction of a book. Here is a book to savor and return to and talk about, and it pulls all this off with no words apart from the brief introductory text. The shapes and lines of landscapes make statements that echo each other and seem to be pointing back and forth. Read both sets of illustrations simultaneously, turning the pages with both hands if you can. You can practically feel your brain charging itself.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Two Umas and a book: Chennai Book Launch, February 11, 2011

Here it is, the promised video footage from the Landmark Citi Centre, Chennai, book launch of  Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Featuring the two Umas, many wonderful people from Tulika Books, my friend and colleague Ellen Howard from VCFA, her friend and fellow traveler, writer Winnie Schecter, many friends new and dear, and several children skipping through the event in their own way, on their own terms.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Few Last Thoughts on the Food Chain From Jules at Seven Imp

I can't think of a more suitable blog to have the very last word on Katherine Hauth's blog tour with her book of culinary delight in the animal kingdom, What's For Dinner: Quirky, Squirmy Poems From the Animal World, illustrated by David Clark and published this month by Charlesbridge.

Here it is, the concluding post from Seven Impossible Things for Breakfast (Why Stop at Six?) affectionately known to chilldren's book bloggers as Seven Imp.

Thanks to all who took part in this blog tour, and to Charlesbridge for their coordination. Congratulations once more to Katherine on this masterfully crafted book.

I'm delighted to have been part of the journey, and honored to be a member of the Autodidactics group that kept the table laid. In a manner of speaking.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Book event in Chennai: Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

One last post on Katherine's book is yet to come, a kind of post-blog tour post from Jules of Seven Imp.

Meanwhile I need to skip oceans as I sometimes do, and announce a book event at Landmark Citi Centre in Chennai (Madras) this Friday, February 11, at 6:00 pm.

There will be  theatrical performance, readings, and more. Illustrator Uma Krishnaswamy will be there as well as Tulika Publishing representatives. Stay tuned for evidence from the WWBT roving Flipcam.