Meet the Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie

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R. Gregory Christie1R. Gregory Christie has illustrated over fifty books for young readers, many of them award-winning,  including It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. A successful commerical illustrator, he is also the proprietor of Gas Art Gifts, an independent children’s bookstore in Decatur, Georgia. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about his work on his most recent publication, Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom.

Kidsbiographer: Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom’s illustrations depict settings as varied as pre-Civil War plantation life, the foundries where Reid worked, and the Washington D.C. building where his expertise saved the Statue of Freedom. What sort of research did you to do to illustrate this array of images?

RGC: The research for such a book starts with putting the historical figure’s name in a search engine. Then figuring out the ages of the characters during specific key dates. When illustrating historical books, you must concern yourself with the fashions, hairstyles, architecture, species of plants and animals indigenous to specific regions and the day-to-day protocol and interaction between the book’s characters. The process further moves in to sketches that I’ll show to the editor along with notes questioning the historical accuracy of what I’ve drawn.

For instance, if dealing with slavery and more specifically skilled trade slavery, I want to render the art in a historically realistic manner; I feel that it’s a disservice to everyone not to do that.

I wondered if Mr. Reid had overseers when doing skilled labor? Did he have used equipment or the best available? Did he have better clothing than a field slave? Did he work alone, outside or indoors, What was the average height of a man during this time period? I would need to know people’s height so that I could render that in proportion to the statue’s height. All these questions go in to the illustration sketches before I can move to a final piece. So these days I use the internet, public library, editors, and the author of the project to be as historically accurate as possible with the visuals.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite illustrations in the picture-book biography is the one that shows young Philip Reid and his mother outdoors framed by a doorway. The green horizon suggests the freedom they envision, while the grey doorway reminds viewers they are still enslaved. How did you compose this remarkable painting?

RGC: Wow! I am happy to know that you picked up on that. I really wanted to have a visual balance to the written word, but often I break away from the literal interpretation in to a more symbolic one. I think that it is ironic that Mr. Reid, an enslaved man, was pivotal in saving a statue symbolizing the country’s bravery and freedom. Also in that spread, the author’s words touched on a woman speaking to her child about excelling in life, but both were still enslaved. I imagined that this conversation was in secret, perhaps in hushed tones and I wanted the viewer of this image to almost be visually eavesdropping on these two. The viewer’s vantage point is from inside a dark place, looking through the main figures and even past the green fields in to the true subject matter, the unseen world beyond those trees. It’s the same world the mother probably had never has seen, but believed in enough to speak about it to her child.

Kidsbiographer: Some of the book’s most striking illustrations depict the foundry where Reid worked. The liquid bronze glows in the dark room. Despite Reid’s enslavement, these images are exciting and convey something of the passion he brought to his work. Can you describe how you composed these illustrations?

RGC: I had to look at old Renaissance paintings of Hades and artwork from the Industrial Revolution era in order to figure out how to paint illuminated rooms of soot and stone. I’ve mostly painted art in books showcasing objects from a sunlit light source. If it were anything else, my semi -bstract style made the nighttime sky or candlelit room plausible through color over tone and proportion.

This particular style was reminiscent of my illustrations in William Miller’s Richard Wright and the Library Card. In both cases, I was more impressionistic with the paintings as I leaned more towards realism. If speaking about the foundry, then the orange and yellow you see in Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom’s hues have to serve as a directional device but, I feel, can’t overpower the sentiment of a gritty and grime filled foundry. Not even, the permanence one would see in the withered and charred stones surrounding a team of stalwart workmen from that time period.

Kidsbiographer: You created a number of visual characters for  Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom. Which was your favorite and why?

RGC: I really loved painting of the old man that taught Phillip about clay. Again my interpretation of Mr. Lapham and Mr. Walton’s words is metaphorical and symbolic in its meaning. You are there with the two slaves as they are sharing a peaceful moment in a dark place. Although the two are confined , the only reality is the work in front of them, and the interaction that they experience.  It’s not only commenting on them and the work that they must do, but it’s also more specifically, it’s them and the work that they must do; it’s a man who’s lived the scope of his life without much to look towards other than the rest of peace and a young boy facing dual aspects of his future, the one set up for him and the uncertain possibilities beyond that path. That’s why I chose to have Philip facing the window and the older gentleman facing his task on hand.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from the book?

RGC: That there’s a lot more to our book than a quaint story and pretty pictures. The irony of this book screams for a discussion and revaluation of our typical lesson plans. Our history, as it often is, can be seen all around us. Our history as it often is, can be seen all around us. Historical visuals like the Statue of Freedom help to teach the stories of “how, why and who” along with the “when”. It’s not just all about numbers and dates, there’s humanity in our history and when we can be open enough to reevaluate these stories, maybe even relearn our history, it can help to bring some balance and humility for our future generations.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

RGC: Fortunately there’s always been illustration work since I’ve graduated art school (I’m knocking on wood). These days there are at least therebooks coming your way via my art table. However, the latest project is Gas-Art Gifts, my small bookshop at the North Dekalb Mall in Decatur, Georgia, which offers art classes, signed children’s books, community outreach, and artwork. It’s my own way to fight the implicit sentiment that our technology wins all. It’s not been easy and has not been lucrative, but I know it’s a very important direction for me, and the right thing to do.

The Jolliest Rogers


9780544104952_hresLives of the Pirates: Swashbucklers, Scoundrels (Neighbors Beware!)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback edition 2013, Boston, $8.99)

The most romanticized of outlaws, pirates have long attracted people of all ages. In Lives of the Pirates, Kathleen Krull and illustrator Kathryn Hewitt analyze their appeal – and debunk popular myths about their lives. The collective biography boasts lively profiles of nineteen infamous rogues, each accompanied by Hewitt’s humorous portrait of the swashbuckler in question. Although Lives of the Pirates has enough gory detail to satisfy the most bloodthirsty armchair adventurer, Krull also reveals surprising facts about her subjects. For example, readers will learn that plenty of pirates considered themselves patriots, that one was a diligent diarist and naturalist (William Dampier), and that Blackbeard, despite his terrifying visage, wasn’t that successful a plunderer. Along the way, they meet pirates from every corner of the globe, a few women who sailed the seas, and even a fictional character, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver, who is responsible for our contemporary understanding of pirates. With its delightful illustrations and playful prose, Lives of the Pirates should entertain middle-grade and adult readers alike.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer and Illustrator: Allen Say


9780544050501_hresDuring his career, Allen Say has written and illustrated a variety of children’s books, including Tree of Cranes, Tea with Milk, and Emma’s Rug. Last year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a twentieth-anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1994. Earlier this week, Allen Say discussed the book with Kidsbiographer.

Kidsbiographer: Grandfather’s Journey describes your grandfather’s life, which he divided between two countries, the U.S. and Japan. Did you do any research into family history to write it, or did you rely on stories you had already heard and memories you already had of him?

Allen Say: As I said in the introduction to the anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey, the whole story came to me on a short walk through a park in San Francisco. The book that came out of it was based entirely on memories of what I had heard from my mother when I was a boy. I had no photos of my grandfather as a young man, so I put my face on him and journeyed back in my family history according to my mother’s telling.

Kidsbiographer: Although you wrote Grandfather’s Journey in English, your prose style is very understated, very Japanese. How did Japanese aesthetics and literature influence your work on this book?

Allen Say: The Japanese culture in which I grew up has influenced everything I’ve done, and it will continue to do so in the future. It’s as unavoidable as aging. The story of my grandfather came to me in the plain English I’d first learned at age 16, not in the Japanese of haiku. But the funny thing is, my translation of the story into Japanese that I did for a Tokyo publisher reads better than the original version I wrote in English.

: The book contains an array of illustrations: stunning landscapes of Japan and the United States, portraits of your grandfather and the people in his life, and even images that convey the devastation of war. Which of these was the most challenging to compose and why?

Allen Say: The most difficult piece is on page 18, which shows the grandfather standing among birdcages. I was a purist in those days –- when painting with watercolors I didn’t use frisket, wax, or opaque white because I thought that was cheating. So I painted the little spaces between the birdcage wires with a tiny brush, which took two months. I’m not a purist anymore.

Kidsbiographer: A painting of a yellow origami boat appears on the book’s title page. Can you describe how you conceived this idea?

Allen Say: When the book was finished, I wanted to put a small drawing on the title page that would symbolize journeying; and as I thought about it, I saw on my worktable an origami crane I had made for my daughter. Why not a boat? A symbol of voyage! I bought a packet of origami and folded one.

Kidsbiographer: Since Grandfather’s Journey was first published in 1993, you must have received a lot of feedback about the book. What is the most gratifying response you received from a young reader?

Allen Say: The loveliest compliment I ever received was a question from a fourth-grade English girl who asked, “Mr. Say, when you are painting, are you always trying to make new colors?” It’s the most beautiful question ever asked of me; it made me feel like a super chef who’s trying cook up something that no one has ever tasted before.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Allen Say: My next book, The Inker’s Shadow, the sequel to Drawing from Memory, will be published in the fall of 2015. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a new book, and I don’t know where it’s taking me.

A Home Run for Springfield

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Bunny Cover-thumb smllA Home Run for Bunny
By Richard Andersen
Illustrated by Gerald Purnell
(Illumination Arts, 2013, Bellevue, Washington, $16.95)

In 1934, a group of high school athletes from Springfield, Massachusetts stood up against segregation. When the American Legion All-Star baseball team traveled to North Carolina to play in a regional event, the boys experienced the ugliness of racism firsthand: Ernest “Bunny” Taliafero, the team’s most talented – and only black –player, was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates. During practice, spectators taunted him. Teams from other southern states threatened to withdraw from the tournament if Bunny played. The Springfield players had a choice: they could play if Bunny did not participate in the games, or they could forfeit the championships and return to Massachusetts together. Bunny’s teammates chose unity, and when they arrived in Springfield, the community accorded them a hero’s welcome.

In A Home Run for Bunny, Richard Andersen and illustrator Gerald Purnell celebrate Bunny’s achievements and the sportsmanship he and his team showed. The text derives much of its strength from Andersen’s unnamed first-person narrator, a former teammate who reminisces about Bunny, their childhood rivalry, and their time in North Carolina. Readers and listeners will feel as though they are listening to an elderly relative muse about an old friend. Purnell’s mixed media illustrations also suggest memory, the impressions people retain of each other at certain moments. In one spread, three images depict Bunny, a three-letter athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball. In another, he leaps out of a black and white newspaper photo, in color and bearing a football. When the team travels south, the illustrations become starker and more realistic: they confer with their coach in a grey, grainy hotel room. On the train home to Massachusetts, the boys’ faces are soft and radiant in the moonlight that streams through a window.

A Home Run for Bunny is a moving story about loyalty and fairness. It is a reminder that ordinary people, even children, can choose inclusion over exclusion, unity over personal advancement.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


On Writing an Unauthorized Biography

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bookdonpicLast year, freelance writer and editor Katherine Don published Real Courage, a young adult biography of Harper Lee, the intensely private author of To Kill a Mockingbird. In this post, she discusses the joys and challenges of researching the much admired, much sought-after writer’s life.

“On Writing an Unauthorized Biography”

By Katherine Don

When Morgan Reynolds asked me to write a YA biography of Harper Lee, I did some quick research before accepting the gig and discovered that she was a literary enigma of sorts: a woman who wrote a book, won the Pulitzer Prize, and then stepped away from public life and never wrote a book again. How was I supposed to write a biography of a woman who stopped giving interviews in 1964? But then I realized the flip side. Fantastic! From a research perspective, I couldn’t think of anything easier.

This turned out to not be the case. Researching a biography with so little source material is its own kind of challenge. When there’s so little available, any curious researcher will treat the breadcrumbs that are out there like little cryptograms that might provide some previously unrecognized insight. And so I found myself scrutinizing the transcript of a speech that Harper Lee gave in 1983 as if it were a map to the Staff of Ra. Herein is the key to her soul! But, in the end, it was just a speech.

After Mockingbird was published in 1960, Harper Lee published precisely three essays (two in 1961, one in 1965), gave one speech (the previously mentioned one in 1983), and published a short letter to Oprah Winfrey in O, The Oprah Magazine in 2006. That’s it.

The impulse of writers and journalists has been to travel to Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s hometown where she lived most of her adult life (she also had an apartment in New York), and essentially stalk her. Marja Mills, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, moved into a house next door to Lee and her sister Alice in 2004. Her subsequent effort to write a book about Lee was delayed for years as Harper Lee denied having authorized Mills to write a biography. This coming July, Mills’ book will be published by Penguin Press, but it won’t be a biography of Lee; it will be a “memoir” of Mills’ experience with her.

The most fruitful effort to date to reconstruct the life of Harper Lee was the research of Charles Shields for his 2006 unauthorized biography, A Portrait of Harper Lee. Shields put on his journalist hat and uncovered new information by interviewing Lee’s grammar school, high school, and university classmates. He also combed the letters of past Lee friends and acquaintances for correspondence with Lee. Unfortunately, letters from Lee were conspicuously absent from Truman Capote’s papers.

Shields’ book had so much raw information to present that it didn’t focus as much on deciphering Lee’s personality. For my own book, I hoped to emerge with some sort of new insight, and so I perused the academic scholarship on To Kill A Mockingbird, hoping the book would reveal the woman behind it. Several academic writers have focused on Lee’s ambiguous sexuality and the portrayal of gender in Mockingbird, which is certainly interesting, but difficult to write about in the complete absence of Lee’s own insight on the topic—she has never spoken about her sexuality or the conspicuous absence of romantic ties in her life.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Lee was her love for the South and for small-town life. This is something that rarely gets discussed because Mockingbird is often seen as a critique of the South. But in truth, Lee is somewhat of a Luddite (and I mean that in a positive way) with a romantic notion for older, simpler ways of life. In order to explore that, I needed to delve into the historical context of Alabama in the 1930s, when Lee grew up and when Mockingbird takes place, and also the ’60s, when Mockingbird was published. This was a perfect research angle because historical context is so important for a YA book geared toward junior high and high school students.

And so much of my research ended up being about historical topics such as the decline of the agricultural economy during the Great Depression and the events that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Weaving the historical topics with Lee’s life allowed the history to come alive and allowed Lee to be a moving, breathing person in context.


A Tale of Two Countries

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9780544050501_hresGrandfather’s Journey: 20th Anniversary Edition
Written and Illustrated by Allen Say
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, Boston, $17.99)

Every immigrant knows the sorrow of leaving home; the lucky ones also experience the excitement of discovering a new land. The most fortunate find themselves with a foot in two worlds. However, although they have two homes, neither feels complete: a part of them is always in another land. In Grandfather’s Journey, writer and illustrator Allen Say conveys the joys and lingering wistfulness of migration as he relates how his grandfather divided his life between the U.S. and Japan. The picture-book biography has an arresting structure: each page contains a painting that, like a photograph, captures a single moment in the life of Say’s grandfather. Below each illustration lie a few lines of text that act as a caption. Say’s illustrations convey the beauty of both countries, his grandfather’s youthful excitement, his pride in his growing family, the horrors of war, and the poignancy of homesickness. With Say’s understated prose and graceful illustrations, this twentieth anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey should move adults and children of all ages.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Katherine Don

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bookdonpicA freelance writer, editor, and researcher, Katherine Don has contributed to nonfiction books and to such publications as Salon and the Huffington Post. Last year, she published her first book for young adults, Real Courage, a biography of Harper Lee. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about her own connection to To Kill a Mockingbird and the joys and challenges of bringing Lee’s world to life.

Kidsbiographer: Your dedication reads: “ For my late grandfather Ronald B. Gilbert, a true Atticus of our time, who fought for civil rights, followed his compass, and kept his eye upon the donut.” If you’re comfortable sharing this with readers, can you tell me how your grandfather inspired you and how he reminded you of Atticus Finch?

Katherine Don: Absolutely! My grandfather, who passed away a few years ago, was a huge presence in my life. He was a dentist by vocation, but a community volunteer and poet at heart. His tombstone reads: “dentist and poet.” Just as Atticus spent a lot of one-on-one time with little Scout and her brother Jem, teaching them how to be good people in this crazy world, my grandfather always seized upon those “teachable moments” that pop up in life to show me and my brother how to deal with the ugly things while fighting for the beautiful. I took his lessons very seriously and still try to apply them to my life today. The donut referred to in my dedication comes from one of my grandpa’s favorite quotes: “As you travel through life, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.” Also like Atticus, my grandpa was a highly educated, well-read man who stood unwaveringly by his strict moral principles and could sometimes comes off as a bit stern or intimidating, but was truly kind and soft at heart.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write Real Courage?

Katherine Don: This project was fascinating from a research perspective because there’s so little information out there about Nelle Harper Lee. She stopped giving interviews way back in the ‘60s, she published only a handful of essays after Mockingbird, and her family and friends have only rarely spoken publically about her. In fact, it wasn’t until Charles Shields’ 2006 unauthorized biography, A Portrait of Harper Lee, that a book like mine became possible to write. Shields did tons of on-the-ground reporting and interviews with old high school and college classmates. I would say that a good 30% of my material was derived, in one way or another, from Shields’ work. All future Lee scholars owe him a great debt. In addition to practically memorizing Shields’ biography, I read the surprisingly scant scholarly research done on Lee and Mockingbird, primary source documents about relevant events like the Scottsboro trial transcripts (which are fascinating), newspaper and magazine coverage of Lee from over the decades, and Truman Capote’s letters.

: In the biography’s opening chapter, you describe how Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee, protects a local man from bullying by the Ku Klux Klan. This remarkable chapter shows readers so much about the places and people who inspired To Kill a Mockingbird: the sleepy Southern town, the local characters, Atticus Finch’s quiet strength. How did you compose it?

Katherine Don: I love this question! I had a great time composing that passage. Since the story is so heavy with meaning, it was important for me to present it as an ongoing narrative rather than a dry historical account. I essentially re-wrote and re-imagined the account of this event from Truman Capote’s cousin, Jennings Faulk Carter, who was Capote and Lee’s childhood friend. Carter’s account of the night that A.C. Lee confronted the Klansmen is, frankly, probably an exaggeration, which is understandable since it’s an account of something he witnessed as a child. A less fantastical account of A.C. confronting the Klan was reported in the Monroe Journal  in 1934.

My personal conjecture is that Jennings’ version, which was published in a book he wrote about his childhood, was a conglomeration of several events—in his version, the Klan confrontation occurs amidst a big party, and Sonny Boleware, the young man who Boo Radley is based on, was involved. Now that I think of it, in many ways there is more truth to Jennings’ inflated version than to the newspaper version. The indulgent caprices of recovered childhood memories add some flavor and texture to an event that was really quite fantastic.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most challenging aspect of writing about Harper Lee’s life for this age group?

Katherine Don: In some cases, I wasn’t sure if the material was age-appropriate. I was particularly concerned about my discussion of the rape trial from To Kill A Mockingbird. In the book, a black man is falsely accused of raping a white woman. In re-reading Mockingbird, I was a little startled at the excessively negative portrayal of Mayella Ewell, the young woman who leveled the false accusation. Mayella had been sexually abused by her father and made her accusation under duress—although Lee is a bit vague on this count—and I was surprised at how little sympathy the book showed toward Mayella.

In my own book, I wanted to use historical information to show that white women sometimes made these accusations under duress. I also wanted to show that another situation—the widespread rape of black women by white men—was a huge, huge problem in that era that shows itself very rarely in American literature and scholarship. I was able to discuss some of these issues in my biography, but I struggled with how to present them in an age-appropriate manner.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young adults will take away from Real Courage?

Katherine Don: I’d like for them to gain some insight into the artistic process and see that goodness begets goodness. My book focuses a lot more on historical context than do the other YA biographies of Lee on the market, and as a result, I think young readers will have a unique insight into how writers’ culture and surroundings combine with their upbringings and personalities to create that one-of-a-kind lens through which an individual views the world.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Katherine Don: At the moment, I’m not working on any YA as a writer, but I’m working with several YA authors as an editor through my freelance book editing business, The Book Don. One of my authors has a YA paranormal manuscript that I’m enamored with. As for my own writing, I’m working on shorter journalism projects rather than book projects although I’d welcome the opportunity to write another YA book.

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