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.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Process Talk: Leda Schubert and Bonnie Christensen on The Princess of Borscht, Part 2

Uma: Here's the soup question. The spaces between adult and child perceptions form the core of this lovely story of family relationships and the creation of tradition. Can you each 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?

Leda: The liminal space idea is intriguing: the confusion from “A person could starve to death” is a little Amelia-Bedelia-ish, I suppose. But I have to say that I wasn’t really thinking that way at the time.

Leda Schubert
I think of a picture book as a puzzle, and I try to make all the pieces fit together, so I played around with catalysts for Ruthie to engage in soup-making. But when the reviews came out, I realized there was a lot going on that I had subliminally included. To quote Kirkus’ starred review: “ Schubert has concocted a sweet mixture of traditions that bind and give comfort, along with love in many forms; intergenerational family, friends and neighbors all act with selflessness, kindness and compassion.” And PW said this: “Ruthie’s attempt to recreate the borscht with the help of the highly opinionated women who live in Grandma’s building is really several stories at once: Ruthie’s discovery of her inner chef…; her initiation into the guild of elite home cooks; and an affirmation of membership in a loving—if also interfering and contentious—community.”

I was so very happy to see such perceptive words. It’s impossible to get away from yourself when you write, and the writer may therefore be the last to know what’s going on underneath. I’ve often told my students they might not understand what their books mean for them until someone else tells them. That’s certainly what I’ve found to be true. 

Photo credit: Don Landwehrle
As for text/image: Because Bonnie and I are friends, we had the opportunity to revise the text once she had sketches. I think we both understood elements of the book in new ways, and I was able to delete text that was no longer necessary. While Bonnie’s work is from her own heart and mind, I believe it resonates strongly with the truth of the story, and I feel fortunate indeed!

More to come: Bonnie on illustrating 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.  

Monday, April 02, 2012

El día de los niños/El día de los libros, Children’s Day/Book Day

Today is International Children's Book Day. It's been celebrated since 1967, on or around Hans Christian Andersen's birthday, 2 April. More on ICBD here at the IBBY web site.

It seems the perfect day to talk about another celebration, one that is now lovingly known to more and more people simply as Dia! To give it its full, glorious, lilting name, El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Children’s Day/Book Day) is a celebration of books, children, libraries, reading and all things connected. Also known as El día de los jovenes/El día de los libros (Young people’s Day/Book Day).

It was launched 16 years ago by poet, children's and YA writer, book lover and tireless book advocate Pat Mora. The year-long, family literacy initiative is now housed at ALSC, a division of ALA. The celebration emphasizes the importance of literacy for children of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

The beauty of the concept is that it can expand without borders. No limits at all. Maybe because that's the way the minds of children are, limitless. So read a book to a child. Buy a book for a child. Attend a Día celebration. Launch a Día celebration.  Find out what's going on for Día in your community.

Say it out loud. Every day is Día!