Thursday, June 26, 2014

Interview: Chris Raschka on Sun Ra & More

When the folks at Candlewick Press recently offered me an interview with Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka, of course I said "Yes!" I've long admired Chris' picture books, especially the way that he's always pushing the boundaries of the form. And his 2012 Caldecott Medal winner, A Ball for Daisy, is one of my all-time favorite Caldecott winners.

 As it got closer to the day of the interview, however, I started having second thoughts. Many people, myself included, consider Chris Raschka to be a genius, and I wondered if he would be one of those brainy folks who can be (sometimes unknowingly) painfully brusque to those less gifted in the intelligence department.  I started getting cold feet, especially now that the interview had morphed into lunch; Chris would be doing a program for several dozen kids gathered at Politics & Prose Bookstore in DC, and then head across the street for a luncheon interview with me.

I shouldn't have worried. After an initial mix-up about where we were meeting, Chris, who is 55, bounded into the restaurant with a grin and a porkpie hat perched on his head. He had just been using it as a prop at the Politics & Prose event, where he led an interactive program designed to introduce elementary school students to the unique music and life of musician Sun Ra, the subject of Chris' newest book. Much to my relief, it turned out Chris is an incredibly nice person and quite easy to talk with, so I could relax and actually enjoy the interview.

 Over lunch, we talked about how Chris got into the world of children's literature, his love for jazz, how he works, and, of course, about his new picture book, The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 6-9). Born in the United States, Chris spent some of his childhood in Austria, his mother's homeland. Chris enjoyed drawing and playing the viola as a child, but he also loved nature, especially animals. Chris graduated from St. Olaf's College with a biology degree, fully intending to become a zoologist. Before attending graduate school, however, he took time off and worked as an aide for physically handicapped children in St. Croix and in Europe. It was an intense experience that made Chris begin to consider going to medical school. So he applied and was accepted at the University of Michigan Medical School; he also got married. Chris put off the start of medical school for two years ("I think I got their first and last two-year deferment") so he and his wife could do Peace Corps work.
Credit: Catherine Wink

Over the years, meanwhile, Chris had begun more seriously doing art, first inspired by a "wonderful art professor" at St. Olaf's. It became more and more clear to Chris that being an artist was what he wanted to do, but it seemed totally impractical. Still, the day he was to finally start classes at the University of Michigan, he called up the school and told them he'd decided against a medical career. "I jumped off the cliff," he laughed. His wife got a teaching job and Chris started looking for a job that would help pay the bills while he built up his career as an artist. "I opened the paper and looking for the first job that seemed reasonable," he recalled. He found one doing administrative work in a law firm for 25 hours a week. "I learned a great deal about the law," Chris said. He also learned of a journal, published by the Michigan Bar Association, that needed an illustrator. Chris got the job.

During his time living in Ann Arbor, Chris went into the original Borders Bookstore one day and happened upon a children's picture, "The Pup Grew Up!," which featured illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky. "I thought, 'This is fantastic! This is what I want to do,'" Chris said. So he began reading as many picture books and began getting work as an illustrator for books written by others. Then he got the idea for a picture book that he would both write and illustrate, a book about a jazz giant named Charlie Parker. Published in 1992, Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop received good reviews, with Publishers Weekly noting: "Regardless of whether they've heard of jazz or Charlie Parker, young readers will bop to the pulsating beat of this sassy picture book." Chris had indeed found his metier.

By this time, Chris and wife had moved to New York City. In the mornings, he worked on his children's books, and in the afternoons he created stock illustrations for a company called the Image Bank, from which he received -- and still does -- some royalties, which helped pay the bills. His biggest sellers still are used; one of them shows buildings in New York's Financial District as people, another shows Mona Lisa using a computer mouse. Meanwhile, Chris'  career as a picture book creator really picked up when he won a 1994 Caldecott Honor for Yo! Yes?. By 2000, he was able to focus solely on children's books, and in 2006, he won the first of two Caldecott Medals for his illustrations for The Hello, Goodbye Window, written by Norton Juster (best known as the author of The Phantom Tollbooth).

Over the years, Chris has written and illustrated all kinds of picture books, including Little Black Crow, Hip Hop Dog, Five for a Little One, among many others. He also has illustrated books for others, including A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, A Poke in the I:A Collection of Concrete Poems, and A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing and Shout, all edited by Paul Janeczko, and Happy to Be Nappy, written by Bell Hooks. There's been one recurrent theme in Chris' work: American jazz. In addition to Charlie Parker, he's written and illustrated picture books focused on such jazz greats as John Coltrane (John Coltrane's Giant Steps) and Thelonius Monk (Mysterious Thelonius). "Jazz is American classical music, and I think it should be taught that way," Chris says. "In fact, I've thought it should be taught in American elementary schools." Hence, his idea for creating picture books that make jazz music accessible to children.

 So it isn't really surprising that Chris would combine his love for jazz and his own boundary-pushing art to create a book about Sun Ra, a unique American musician whose style is almost impossible to describe. "I love his willingness to walk outside even the mainstream of jazz," Chris says. Creating the book, however, wasn't easy. In his previous jazz books, Chris tried to find ways to bring alive the musical style of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane through his artwork and text. And he tried that approach with Sun Ra, creating a "dummy" (a rough mock-up of a picture book in progress) that folded out, like an accordian, and had a rhyming text. Chris showed it to his longtime editor, Richard Jackson, who, in Chris' words, said "it was a nice object but that not many people had heard of Sun Ra so creating a book about him was not a good business plan." Chris persisted, however, and eventually the dummy ended up in the hands of Elizabeth "Liz"  Bicknell, an editor at Candlewick Press. "Liz told me that she'd be interested in publishing it if we could come up with a different approach," Chris remembers. "I wondered how I could do that and still be true to the way-out-ness of Sun Ra."

Chris continued working on it, and now there was a looming deadline: May 22, 2014 would mark the 100th anniversary of Sun Ra's birth. One day, Bicknell called Chris and said she'd like to meet with him in New York. He agreed, figuring they'd have a morning cup of coffee, talk about the book a bit and then he could get back to work. Bicknell had other plans: "To my horror," Chris says, "she said she didn't have to catch a train (back to Boston) until 4 p.m. and that she'd just sit in my studio while I worked on the Sun Ra book.... The only way to get rid of her was to work on the book .... and so I put together another dummy of the book over the course of the next few hours."

Chris agreed to try Bicknell's idea of writing more of a biography about Sun Ra than offering an impression of his music. So Chris decided to use the musician's own explanation of how he wasn't really someone named Herman Blount, born in Alabama, but a being named Sun Ra who came from Saturn. Once Chris had that device, the rest of the story flowed as he told of Sun Ra's masterful musical ability, his ability to get by on very little sleep, and the creation of his own group, the Arkestra. Chris also decided to try something different for the artwork. He saturated "very delicate" rice paper with paint and it became "crinkly and wrinkly" as it dried. He then glued the illustrations to Bristol board, a type of cardstock; in the process, some of the rice paper ripped, but Raschka decided those small rips worked to his advantage as they added to the impressionistic nature of the artwork.

 The result is a book that tells the story of a unique but complex musician in a way that is both accessible and entertaining for children. Here, for example, are the opening words:

 "Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.
Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.

And yet.
If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.
Let's say he did come from Saturn."

 The artwork is filled with colors and details and truly does have a musicality of its own. Alternating between larger images and long skinny horizontal images, Chris plays with his artwork as if he is playing music (and, in fact, he is an accomplished viola player). Raschka also has included a brief formal biography of Sun Ra at the back of the book, as well as a list of "Selected Recordings."

The reviews, meanwhile, have been uniformly positive for The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra. My professional colleague, Wendy Lukeheart, a Washington, D.C. librarian, wrote in School Library Journal: "Raschka pulls out all the stops in what may be his finest work yet." Kirkus Reviews called the book "unequivocally stellar." This book trailer gives you a taste of what Raschka has achieved.

 Meanwhile, Raschka has moved on to new projects. His next picture book, Give and Take will be published in August. He's also illustrating a new poetry collection, again edited by Paul Janeczko. And he's working on another wordless picture book, a la A Ball for Daisy, but this time about a cat. That book will be published in 2015.

 By this point, we had finished our lunch, and it was time to go. Chris donned his porkpie hat again and we headed back across the street, where he disappeared back into Politics & Prose. All in all, it was an inspiring, fun lunch. Thanks, Chris Raschka, for joining me! And thanks to Candlewick Press for setting it up.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Book Reviews: Two Stellar Teen Novels

Reading novels written for teens -- what we call "YA" or young adult literature -- isn't easy for me. Don't get me wrong: I think there are some amazing YA books being written, and that YA writers can easily compete with the best adult writers out there. And I'm certainly not just talking about the ultra-popular John Green, but writers like Libba Bray, Walter Dean Myers, Elizabeth Wein, Rainbow Rowell, Meg Medina, David Levithan, Andrew Smith and many, many others.

No, my problem isn't with the writing or the writers of YA lit. My problem is this: YA books can be so compelling and so emotionally fraught that I sometimes just have to work up the courage and energy to dive into them. Once I start a well-written YA book, I know that it's going to take over some of my interior life and most likely leave some traces of itself behind, and I have to be ready --no, steel myself -- for that. I can hear you thinking: 'Well, isn't that the mark of a good book? Aren't good books for any age -- not just teens -- like that as well?" To respond: yes, it's definitely the mark of a good book. It's true that middle grade novels (those books for ages 7-12) and even picture books also can be memorably heart-wrenching. I find it hard, for example, to stay dry-eyed through A Ball for Daisy, the 2012 Caldecott Medal winner written and illustrated by Chris Raschka. But YA books offer a particularly intense reading experience for me, perhaps because the teen years are such an intense time, something the books naturally reflect. Not many adults I know would willingly relive the emotional heartache and confusion of their teen years, yet putting that heartache and confusion in the spotlight and trying to figure out how to deal with them is the core of the best YA novels.

So, this is all to say that it takes me quite a while to get into the groove of reading YA fiction. Once I'm there, however, I remember why I like reading teen books so much. The two teen novels spotlighted in this blogpost are perfect examples. Both authors, John Corey Whaley and e. lockhart, are award-winning writers who explore the deepest corners of the soul in their teen novels, yet also create characters and plots that keep readers turning the pages.

John Corey Whaley
 Let's start with Noggin (Atheneum, $17.99, ages 14 up), John Corey Whaley's second book. Fans of YA lit know that it's a big deal to win the Michael Printz Award, given annually by the American Library Association to the best novel for teens. (In fact, I've heard the Printz referred to as the "Newbery Medal for teens."). Whaley's first novel, Where Things Come Back,  not only won the 2012 Printz but also the William Morris Award, given annually to the best teen debut novel. So Whaley immediately became a writer to watch, and with good reason: "Where Things Come Back" is just a marvelous book.

Because of this, I was predisposed to like Whaley's newest book, Noggin, despite the rather ghoulish (to me, at least) premise. The gist: Teenager Travis Coates, who is dying of cancer, agrees to participate in an experiment in which his head, free from the disease, will be surgically removed, carefully stored in a cryogenics lab,  and -- if all goes well -- attached to another torso sometime in the future. In other words, Travis will be able to come back to life, albeit with his head attached to someone else's torso. Travis, a wise-cracking teen to the end, decides it's worth trying, given that he's dying anyway. Five years later, Travis wakes up to find that the experiment actually has worked and that he's been literally resurrected from the dead. Here's the book's opening paragraph: "Listen -- I was alive once and then I wasn't. Simple as that. Now I'm alive again. The in-between part is still a little fuzzy, but I can tell you that, at some point or another, my head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado."

But there's a catch -- a big one -- to Travis' resurrected life; for, while Travis was in the deep freeze for those years, everyone else has moved on. Travis is still 16 and still in high school, but his friends are now in college and of legal drinking age. His girlfriend is engaged to someone else, and his best friend struggles to bridge the age gap. Everything and everyone is somewhat familiar but also somehow changed, especially Travis' parents, who are both thrilled and somewhat puzzled to have their son come back to life. Travis, meanwhile, is despondent at going back to the same high school, but fortunately makes a new friend named Hatton who makes it at least bearable. Overall, the resurrected Travis has one goal: to convince his old girlfriend Cate to ditch her fiance. (This book trailer for Noggin gives you a taste of the story.)

The idea behind Noggin is terrifying and fascinating, as Whaley makes us think about what we would do if faced with Travis' challenge to adjust to an entirely new body while trying to pick up the pieces of his old life. Travis himself is a hugely appealing character, someone who is astonished to be given back his life even as he wonders why. Through it all, Travis somehow maintains his sense of humor and even his snark. In Noggin, Whaley proves himself, once again, to be a heckuva writer as he takes a wild premise and turns it into a book that plumbs the depths of what exactly a life is worth. Overall, I'd put my money on Noggin as a top contender for the 2015 Printz Award. It's definitely one of THE teen novels of the year.

For something completely different, but just as good, try We Were Liars (Delacorte, $17.99, ages 14 up), the newest novel by e. lockhart. I'm a fan of lockhart's novels, particularly The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, which won a 2009 Printz Honor and was a finalist for the National Book Award. In her latest book, lockhart masterfully blends memory and reality to create a gut-wrenching look at love and loss. The narrator is Cadence -- Cady for short -- who is part of the glamorous Sinclair family, famed for their looks and their money. (It's a family that will be reminiscent of the Kennedys for some readers, especially because of the book's Massachusetts setting).

Cady is the only child of Penny, one of three daughters (Carrie and Bess are the others) of Tipper and Harris Sinclair, the family's matriarch and patriarch. Each summer all of the Sinclairs gather on their own island, near Martha's Vineyard, where each family has their own house. For as long as she can remember, Cady has been part of a group of four each summer, including her two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat Patil, a friend of Johnny's and the nephew, by marriage, of Carrie Sinclair. As children, the quartet -- they call themselves the "Liars" --  revel in the endless days of sun and surf, but everything changes the summer that Cady is 15. That's the summer that she and Gat fall in love, and the summer that tragedy strikes.
e. lockhart

It's difficult to say more about the story without giving away the shocking plot twist by which lockhart creates a story within a story. Suffice to say that her writing is hypnotic as she pulls readers along, along like the waves of the beach, with her into the dark heart of a family. For example, here's some of the opening chapter of We Were Liars:
 "Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
      No one is a criminal.
      No one is an addict.
       No one is a failure.
 The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive.
 It doesn't matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn't matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn't matter if there's a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table.
 It doesn't matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love.
         So much
         in love
         that equally desperate measures
         must be taken. "

As lockhart pulls us into Cady's story, the ground seems to shift under our feet. We keep reading because it's impossible -- impossible! -- not to keep reading, to follow Cady into what we are sure is some kind of tragedy. lockhart's impeccable pacing, as well as Cady's magnetic presence, compels us to keep moving through the book, to find out what exactly is happening and has happened to Cady. We Were Liars isn't an easy book to read, but it's an important book to read because it really makes readers think deeply about family ties, truth-telling, and the nature of love.

(Review based on copies of Noggin and We Were Liars received from the publishers).

Monday, June 16, 2014

Maira Kalman's Quirky Magic

Not long ago, my library - partnering with the folks at Politics & Prose, the premier independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. -- hosted a program featuring world-renowned author/artist Maira Kalman. I've long loved Kalman's work, especially her children's books. Kalman is one of those multi-talented people, someone who has done everything from creating covers for The New Yorker magazine to designing a one-of-a-kind umbrella. (Check out all of her work at her website).

 Hosting Kalman was an interesting and entertaining experience. Most of the out-of-town authors we've hosted arrive with an "escort," someone who is driving them around town, getting them meals, and generally making sure that their time in DC goes smoothly. So I was surprised to see Kalman just show up, by herself,  in our library a couple of hours before her talk. She had taken the train from New York and then grabbed a cab to our library; upon arriving, she asked if we'd like her to sign books, and also where she could get a sandwich before her program. I've since learned that this is trademark Kalman, as she is someone who likes to see the world on her own terms. In any case, it was delightful to have her sitting in our staff room, chatting about this and that, and signing our much-loved library copies of her books.

A hour or so later, Kalman was delighting a crowd of folks gathered for her talk, which was focused on the three children's non-fiction books she has written. The audience included kids, teens and adults, and everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time listening to the witty Kalman talk about her life and work. When the program was over, everyone waited patiently in a long line to have books signed by Kalman, who took her time talking with each fan. At the end, Kalman was ready to take a cab back to Union Station but I demurred; I was having too much fun talking with her. So we hopped into my van and continued the conversation until it was time for her train.

You'll get a flavor of Kalman and our event from the article I wrote for our city newsletter; I'm re-posting it below.
Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan

It’s hard  -- no, make that impossible -- to pigeonole Maira Kalman’s work. She writes and illustrates books for adults like And the Pursuit of Happiness and The Principles of Uncertainty. She creates covers for The New Yorker magazine, writes and illustrates blogs for The New York Times, and publishes acclaimed biographies for children of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. And don’t forget about the illustrations Kalman did for Food Rules, the healthy eating bible written by Michael Pollan, as well as the illustrations she created for The Elements of Style, the classic “how to write well” manual written by William Strunk and E.B. White. With Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, Kalman has co-authored the award-winning young adult novel, Why We Broke Up, and a children's picture book, 13 Words. The two also just released a new art/poetry collaboration for teens and adults, Girls Standing on Lawns.
Kalman’s work has been described as a unique type of journalism, a kind of “narrative drawing” in which she illustrates and writes about the world around her. “I do see myself as a journalist,” Kalman told the crowd of adults and kids who came to hear her recently in the Takoma Park Community Center. “I am an artist at large, going around the world and reporting on what I see. Sometimes, it’s very pointed, like the books on Lincoln or Jefferson. But sometimes, it’s whimsical, like The Principles of Uncertainty. But still, I’m always trying to make a human connection between the experience of being alive and trying to make sense of … the world.”

Surprisingly, Kalman, 64, doesn’t have a college degree or even any formal art training. But her unique vision of the world has won her millions of fans around the world, who delight in the way her books combine research, thoughtfulness, humor and quirkiness. All of those qualities were on display at the Takoma Park talk, which was focused on Kalman’s non-fiction books for kids: Fireboat; Looking at Lincoln; and Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything.
Kalman said she particularly enjoys writing for kids “because there are no limits.” Yet writing and illustrating a children’s book, especially a non-fiction book, can be quite challenging, Kalman added, because “you need to edit to 32 pages what you really want to say, and there should be a sense of humor and some sense of optimism.” In Fireboat, for example, Kalman tells the story of the John J. Harvey, a boat that was long past its heyday when some New Yorkers bought and restored it in the late 1990’s. When 9/11 happened, the Harvey was, with two other fire boats, instrumental in fighting the fires at the site of the World Trade Center buildings because the water mains there were buried under the rubble. Kalman said Fireboat is “a story of being resilient in a tremendous way.” She added that stories like Fireboat are “a way to talk to kids about tragic events…. It says, ‘This is what happened and this is how we dealt with it.’”
  In Looking at Lincoln, Kalman said she tried to give young readers “a sense of his extraordinary presence…. If you study him, there’s no way not to fall in love with Abraham Lincoln.” In fact, Kalman joked, she herself is famous for saying that she’s in love with Lincoln “to the point that I always say that I would have been a better wife than Mary (Todd Lincoln).” During her presentation, Kalman talked about illustrating items that Lincoln owned help bring him alive for young readers, noting that his now-trademark stovepipe hat “is part of the iconic persona” Lincoln created for himself. In fact, Kalman believes that objects like Lincoln’s hat or Jefferson’s jacket, which he lined with socks to make it warmer, offer a key way to connect to an otherwise remote historical figure.

Writing about Jefferson was much harder than writing about Lincoln, Kalman noted.  Jefferson “is a different guy. I don’t love him, but I admire and respect him tremendously,” Kalman said, adding that Jefferson “doesn’t come across as having a sense of humor like Lincoln.” But Kalman was clearly taken by what she called “the genius of his brain and the breadth of his interests,” which she underlines in the subtitle of her book:  Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything. That’s what makes Jefferson’s refusal to give up his slaves so difficult to swallow, and “so heartbreaking,” she added.
Trying to sum up such a significant and complex person like Jefferson can be daunting, Kalman said, adding that illustrations can be particularly helpful in conveying facts without adding more text. Asked whether the words or the images come first to her, Kalman said that they mostly come together. Kalman, who emigrated to the United States from Israel when she was a child, said that she fell in love with the English language, and “so words live for me in their own kind of visual floaty thing. “Then, I’m always seeing a lot of things that I know I want to paint. Somehow everything (words and pictures) gets smooshed together in this amazing way.”