Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interview with Ted and Betsy Lewin

More on the making of their lovely picture book, Balarama: A Royal Elephant.

[U] I first became aware of Ted's work with a book that also came from a trip to India: Sacred River. When and how did you first begin to think about combining travel and children's books?
[Ted] Interestingly it was our first trip to India that inspired my first picture book. We were watching a tiger from elephant back in Kanha National Park when she began to hunt. We watched the entire hunt including her taking a chital fawn. It was a story with a beginning, middle, and end that was just handed to me while on the back of an elephant. The title of the book was Tiger Trek.

[U] In Balarama, it's clear that you have both taken great care in depicting the setting in text and art. You may have been visitors but this is far from a tourist video rendering of the place. Can you speak about the work you both did to create this careful and loving representation?
[B & T] We enter into these projects with minds like sponges, and attuned to every nuance of color and light and sound. We listen, and try to capture the cadence of people's stories. We tape record the ambient sounds, keep sketch books and extensive journals, and take thousands of photos from which we distill our story. We use our time in airports and on flights on the long trips home to organize our material into a rough manuscript.

[U] The words I loved most in this text are these: "We are bursting with pride." So simple, and yet you pull your reader right into the space of the narrative with those words. Talk about the choices you made in the writing of this picture book text.
[B & T] Since a picture book is a marriage of text and art, we usually wait until the manuscript is complete, then select the images that fit the text. Now we can see what the picture shows that the text no longer needs to tell. We allow the image to carry the story, and start editing and tightening up the text.

There are times when descriptive passages are necessary, especially when describing our feelings at any given time, or describing the way something looks to us. For example: "Balarama's mahout gently embraces the elephant's huge head, the tusks extending like ivory railings on either side." The image triggered that phrase.

[U] Any particular challenges with this book?
[B & T] In this particular case we set out to tell Drona's story, but wound up telling the story of Balarama not knowing how it would play out. This is always a challenge. You can't make a story happen. You have to let it happen.

[U] And finally, talk about Balarama the elephant as a character in the book.
[B & T] Because we'd been told that no elephant could ever measure up to Drona we weren't prepared for our first encounter with Balarama. When he stepped out of his stall he was back lit by the sun. It was as if he had a blinding aura all around him. He blew air through his trunk, and shuffled forward causing us to back away in awe. Right then we knew he was going to do a great job. The more we observed him the more evident became his patient, endearing personality. The day after his debut he seemed very content and unaffected by his new celebrity.

Thank you, Ted and Betsy Lewin and congratulations on a beautiful book.

Updates and Downloads

VCFA Day in the Lone Star State is drawing near, and there will be a New Mexico contingent attending.

Rita Williams-Garcia reminisces in The Horn Book about growing up, corporal punishment, and becoming her mother.

Rachna Gilmore will be among the speakers at the 8th Annual International Children's & Young Adult Literature Celebration. For more information and to register, please go to:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Story, Language, and Identity

Mitali Perkins has a beautiful post on story and language and growing up, on mitali's fire escape. It made me think of the mix of stories I heard when I was a child growing up in India. Today I look back affectionately on the Tamil stories my parents told: jester tales, stories of gods and demons, animal stories, stories of magic and long-ago people. They were so vibrant and alive that when I was very young I couldn't differentiate between myth and legend and the equally lively stories I eavesdropped furiously on, about relatives and neighbors and what they were up to.

Then I began to read. Literacy was magical and exciting. But it had an unexpected effect. It thrust a wedge between that realm of interwoven tales and new others. The new others that came to me in print began to be the ones that I privileged. They came in shiny paperback mostly from England. They hardly even acknowledged that India existed, and when they did they often showed it in a light that was less than flattering. So I didn't even have to live in a foreign land that didn't value my culture, to have this experience of what happens when you don't see yourself in a book. Rather as an adult I now have to look back to see that my own culture back in the 1960's had not yet learned to value itself. We had no shiny new books that showed our world. Not yet.

In a very real way, this is why I write. I think I understood the text and subtext of those books I read--perhaps understood them all too well. Marion Dane Bauer always says we write to fill the holes in our childhoods. Don't get me wrong, books and reading were incredibly important to my younger self. But they also created a hole in my life because they implied that the stories I'd loved until then were not important, not cool, not worthy. It's a hole I've spent the last decade trying to fill.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Balarama: A Royal Elephant

From Ted and Betsy Lewin, here's a lovely travelogue in picture book form that I had the privilege of seeing while it was in production.

Balarama: A Royal Elephant. Lee & Low, 2009.

In a direct present tense voice, the Lewins take us to Karapur, near Nagarhole National Forest in south India. On their first visit, they meet the venerable Drona, the Royal Elephant who leads the procession on the last day of the Dasara festival. They return, eager to see Drona serve as the lead or Ambari elephant, but find he has died in an unfortunate roadside accident. A new elephant, Balarama, will be the Ambari. The rest of the narrative is the story of Balarama’s debut, complete with humorous episodes in the training camp and a dramatic introduction to Balarama himself. Lavish paintings depict the decorated and caparisoned elephants, and capture the dust and foliage, color and vibrancy, of the Mysore setting. This is a joyful and intense introduction to a complex and beautiful tradition. Glossary and pronunciation guide included.