Meet the Biographer: Jane Sutcliffe

0076Jane Sutcliffe has penned books for early and middle-grade readers about Barack Obama, the War of 1812, Helen Keller, and Sacagawea. Recently, she published Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, a picture book about Michelangelo and his famous David sculpture. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about her own encounter with David, the thrill of realizing a creative vision, and the joys of sharing her awe with young readers.

Kidsbiograper: Your author’s biography explains how you became intrigued by Michelangelo’s David during a trip to Florence. Can you talk a bit more about the story behind Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: I had only seen photos of the famous David and had always wanted to see it “in person,” but I was not prepared for how truly beautiful it is. Entering the Galleria dell’Accademia, where David is housed, is like entering a church: you walk quietly and reverently down a long aisle lined with other Michelangelo statues. At the end, in its own curved niche, stands the David. It is even taller up close than it seems in photographs, and I stood with everyone else in my tour group, our heads tilted back and jaws agape, drinking in all that beauty.

I could not stop looking at David’s face. It seemed to me the whole story of David and Goliath was told in the expression on that face. I could see David looking at his adversary in the distance. I could see him squinting a bit, judging the distance he’d have to throw his stone. I could see him owning that moment, taking the responsibility of the fight. I could see his resolve in the set of his jaw. In cold, hard stone, the artist had laid out the entire story.

I looked at that face for a very long time. So long, in fact, that the rest of the tour group moved on without us. And still I kept standing there, unable to pull myself away. My very understanding husband encouraged me to take all the time I needed. I never did catch up with the rest of the tour.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most exciting aspect of the research you conducted to write Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: Even with all the staring I had done when I visited the David, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to see more. So I was thrilled to find a collection of photographs of the sculpture by Aurelio Amendola. These were black and white close ups of every part of the sculpture: face, torso, feet. My favorite: a close-up shot of David’s right hand. It is so amazingly lifelike with veins and perfectly carved knuckles. I swear I can see pores in David’s marble “skin.”

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the text, the word giant reemerges in different contexts, referring to the original block of marble, Goliath the biblical character, the finished statue of David, and perhaps Michelangelo himself. Can you describe how this motif evolved during the writing process?

Jane Sutcliffe: The people of Florence really did refer to their big block of marble as a giant—“il gigante.” It was really just a happy accident that the subject of the marble was David, the famous giant-slayer. I also knew that the word conjures up the image of a kind of “fee, fi, fo, fum” ogre, so I used that to play with the reader’s expectations a bit in the opening line of the book: “There was a giant in the city of Florence.” I liked the line, and decided it also applied to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, so I ended the book with the same line. And just like that, a theme was born. I was very pleased that the illustrator, John Shelley, picked up on the theme and showed the finished David as towering over the city like a giant. It’s a very powerful illustration.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite parts of Stone Giant is the book’s conclusion. Everyone in Florence is admiring the statue and embracing it as a symbol of their republic. Michelangelo, however, is not elated by the praise he and his work are receiving: “And Michelangelo? He saw his David. He was just as the artist had seen him when he first looked at his enormous stone.” He is not interested in wealth, fame, or even critical acclaim, but merely the realization of his own artistic vision. What do you hope young readers will take away from this part of the narrative?

Jane Sutcliffe: The David is a masterpiece for many reasons. I see it as a triumph of vision. I think we all have moments when we see a path clearly and know what the outcome must be. And then all we have to do is remove whatever will not take us to our goal.

Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response you’ve received from a young reader about Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: I’ve been privileged to read the book to several groups of children now. Adults always seem to hold their breath when I come to the illustration of the full-length David and wonder how kids will react. But I’m happy to say I’ve never gotten a raised eyebrow, a question, a giggle, or anything other than rapt attention from young readers. Kids recognize the beauty and power of the David and simply accept it.

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

Jane Sutcliffe: I have a picture book called Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, which is coming out next year from Charlesbridge. The book describes a typical trip to the old Globe Theatre to see a play by Mr. Shakespeare, and is told using Shakespeare’s own words (“because the long and the short of it is this: no one could tell a story like Mr. William Shakespeare.”) And I am so pleased that John Shelley will be illustrating. Together again!




A Galaxy of Interests

RRAB_Jemison_coverMae Jemison
By Jodie Shepherd
(Children’s Press: Scholastic, 2015, New York, $20.70)

The first African-American woman in space, Mae Jemison entered the U.S. space program in the early 1980s, a time when few women or African Americans became astronauts. She was also a medical doctor and Peace Corps alumna, a Renaissance woman with an insatiable curiosity about the world and a deep desire to improve it. In Mae Jemison, Jodie Shepherd tells her story for beginning readers. Colorful photos complement the simple, engaging text; fun facts about Jemison’s life and the history of space exploration supplement it. A poem about Jemison’s thirst for knowledge appears at the end of the book. Mae Jemison shows that nonfiction books for early readers can be exciting and that children can absorb new information even as they master basic reading skills. In fact, the very youngest students should learn about pioneers like Mae Jemison: her sense of adventure echoes the excitement children feel when they finally learn to read, and her refusal to limit herself should inspire kids and adults alike.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Hoofed Hero

midnight-medMidnight: A True Story of Loyalty in World War I
By Mark Greenwood
Illustrated by Frané Lessac
(Candlewick Press, 2014, Boston, $16.99)

Beneath every cavalry officer is a loyal horse. The bond between Lieutenant Guy Haydon and his mare, Midnight, was particularly strong: she was born on his family ranch in Australia, and he trained her himself. When World War I began, they traveled to the Middle East, where his regiment participated in the Charge at Beersheba on October 31, 1917.

Midnight is the story of Haydon and his horse; it is also a moving biography of Midnight herself. In simple, lyrical prose, Mark Greenwood recounts the pair’s journey. Frané Lessac’s illustrations complement Greenwood’s narrative, capturing Midnight’s striking beauty, the expansive Australian high country, and the vast desert where the battle took place. The result is a gorgeous, heartbreaking tribute to the devotion that can exist between animals and humans.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Portraits of the Artists

9780544252233_hresLives of the Artists: Masterpieces, Messes (And What the Neighbors Thought)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995, Paperback 2014, Boston, $8.99)

Since at least the early nineteenth century, mainstream society has equated creativity with eccentricity. In Lives of the Artists, Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt celebrate the eccentricity, egoism, and even strangeness of nineteen artists from Da Vinci to Warhol. Krull’s brief, breezy profiles discuss each artist’s life and work – with an emphasis on the more outrageous and unusual aspects of the former. A humorous portrait accompanies each biography: Hewitt depicts her subjects as large-headed caricatures of themselves and surrounds them with details evocative of their interests and oeuvre. Her portrait of Georgia O’Keefe, for example, shows the painter dressed in signature black. She wears a hat festooned with tiny skulls, one of O’Keefe’s favorite subjects. The artist’s cloak opens to reveal a gorgeous floral pattern that evokes her famous flower paintings. Finally, a rattlesnake and a chow dog stand on either side of O’Keefe as she hunted the former and loved the latter.

In addition to household names such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso, the collective biography also introduces young readers to lesser-known artists, including Sofonisba Anguissoloa, an Italian woman who earned a living as a painter in Renaissance Europe, Kathe Kollwitz, a German artists and crusader for social justice, and Japanese-American sculptor Isamu  Noguchi, who designed work for both museums and public spaces. Lives of the Artists is a fun and engaging romp through art history; perhaps its only downfall is that it perpetuates an idea of the artist as fascinating oddball without sufficiently exploring what is far more interesting – the work itself.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


A City’s Hero

StoneGiantStone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be
By Jane Sutcliffe
Illustrated by John Shelley
(Charlesbridge, 2014, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

Although Michelangelo’s David is nearly synonymous with Florence, Michelangelo was not the first artist to attempt a sculpture of the biblical hero in the Tuscan city. For almost forty years, a large block of marble occupied a cathedral yard as a succession of sculptors attempted to elicit David from it. All gave up quickly. Then, someone invited Michelangelo, a young Florentine artist, to tackle the project. Over three years, he worked feverishly. The result was the athletic, formidable David who still awes Florence’s visitors.

In Stone Giant, Jane Sutcliffe and illustrator John Shelley communicate both the arduous nature of Michelangelo’s task and the wonder of his vision. Along the way, young readers and listeners learn something about sculpture, Renaissance art, and the creative process. Shelley’s illustrations invite a few trips through the book. His scenes of early 16th century Florence are warm and human; in one spread, a crowd of Florentines, their faces curious, eager, or skeptical, their attire and features distinct, gather around the work-in-progress; in another, a cat naps in a shop window. Others depict the sculptor intent on his work or stooped with exhaustion from his labors. On some pages, Shelley flirts with neoclassical themes and motifs – an approach touch considering the influence Greek and Roman artists had on the Italian Renaissance. For example, on a page that describes Michelangelo grappling with bad weather, Shelley arranges small images of the sculptor at work inside a wheel. The page’s corners show personifications of the weather – a cherub sprinkles snowflakes while a Zeus-like figure presides over a raincloud. Thus, Shelley provides some context for the sculptor’s work without words.

Stone Giant concludes with the public presentation of Michelangelo’s David. Citizens of Florence marvel at the sculpture. But, instead of celebrating Michelangelo’s new acclaim, Sutcliffe tells readers the artist “saw his David.” The artist’s reward is not wealth or even praise, but the simple satisfaction of a dream realized.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Patriotic Cookies

9780544130012_hresGingerbread for Liberty!: How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution
By Mara Rockliff
Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, Boston, $17.99)

Not all of America’s Founding Fathers were landowners, politicians, or generals. One little known figure in the American Revolution was a jovial baker. Christopher Ludwick, a German-American resident of Philadelphia, baked bread for the Continental Army. A fierce patriot, he refused to accept payment for his services. When George Washington put Ludwick in charge of Hessian prisoners of war, the baker’s kindliness –and his delicious food – persuaded many of them to fight for the Continental Army. In his civilian life, he was one of Philadelphia’s most charitable businessmen, donating free bread and gingerbread to the poor, especially destitute children.

In Gingerbread for Liberty!, Mary Rockliff and illustrator Vincent X. Kirsch introduce children – and many adults – to Ludwick. Rockliff’s simple narrative conveys the baker’s heartiness and warmth. Kirsch’s illustrations make the picture-book biography particularly appetizing: all scenes and characters – ships, soldiers, animals, and the bakeshop itself – appear as elaborately decorated gingerbread cookies. A reminder that generosity and kindness have their own power, this captivating book is a fitting tribute to an almost forgotten American patriot.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Nursery Beats

9780152053079_hresThis Jazz Man
By Karen Ehrhardt
Illustrated by P.G. Roth
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006, Paperback edition 2015, Boston, $6.99)

Although many people believe jazz is an acquired taste, Karen Ehrhardt and illustrator P.G. Roth have made the genre entrancing to the youngest readers and listeners. In This Jazz Man, they introduce children to some of jazz’s most famous and innovative figures. The text, set to the tune of “This Old Man,” celebrates Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and other legendary jazz musicians. Jazz beats float over Roth’s mixed media portraits of the artists. Children will enjoy searching for the music-loving mouse who appears in each spread, one of the book’s more whimsical touches. Brief profiles of each musician follow the verse narrative. This Jazz Man should have readers and listeners of all ages snapping their fingers and tapping their toes.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

One Thrilling Ride

 9780547959221_hresMr. Ferris and His Wheel
By Kathleen Gibbs Davis
Illustrated by Gilbert Ford
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, Boston, $17.99)

A staple at carnivals and amusement parks, the Ferris Wheel debuted at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. An American engineer named George Ferris designed the ride, which he hoped would rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been the principal attraction at the previous World’s Fair. However, fair authorities scoffed at his idea; they found the concept of a huge rotating wheel improbable. Nonetheless, with no funding from fair officials and amidst much heckling from the public, Ferris built his wheel. When the fair opened in June 1893, the Ferris Wheel dazzled everyone with its velvet seats, electric lights, and views of three states.

 In Mr. Ferris and His Wheel, Kathleen Gibbs Davis and illustrator Gilbert Ford reveal the ride’s history and celebrate this marvel of engineering. Davis captures the suspense of the building process even as she stealthily educates readers about various principles of engineering. Asides in small font, rather like textboxes, offer additional information without disrupting the narrative. Ford’s illustrations, particularly his depictions of the Ferris Wheel at night, are dreamscapes: illuminated by then novel electric lights, the fairgrounds might be a fairy metropolis.

 Mr. Ferris and His Wheel is an interesting look at the story behind a familiar ride. It should also encourage young readers and listeners to be curious about how things are designed and built.

-Dorothy A. Dahm


Meet the Biographer: Chris Raschka

9780763658069Chris Raschka has written and illustrated countless picture books, including biographies of jazz icons Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. This year, he published The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra, a picture-book biography of jazz innovator Sun Ra. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about the translating the spirit of jazz onto the printed page and the challenge of portraiture.

Kidsbiographer: How did you first encounter Sun Ra’s music, and what made you decide to write his picture-book biography?

Chris Raschka: I first heard Sun Ra’s music when I was a teen; his music was definitely in the air, even for rock and roll listeners like me, but I didn’t think to make a picture book of his life and music, really, until I got hold of the Evidence release of Sun Ra’s singles, which came out in the early 00‘s. It’s a collection of the many pieces that Sun Ra put out over his long career that became hit records. Each one is a number one hit for sure; only America didn’t know it at the time. Hearing them together made me understand fully what a range of interesst Sun Ra had, and what a truly remarkable person and musician he was.

Kidsbiographer:What sort of research did you perform to write and illustrate The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra?

Chris Raschka:First and foremost, my research consisted of listening to as much of Sun Ra’s music as I could, repeatedly. Also, I read John F. Szwed’s excellent biography of Sun Ra: Space is the Place. And, not to be dismissed, I spoke with my music pals about him.

Kidsbiographer: The narrative has a conversational tone as if a storyteller were regaling an audience of young children with an account of Sun Ra’s life. How did you find your narrator’s voice for this book?

Chris Raschka: Well, originally, what I made, and what Liz Bicknell, my editor at Candlewick Press, saw first, was a very impressionistic book, based on a song form, somewhat along the lines of another of my jazz bios, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. I was hoping to capture something of Sun Ra’s feel and flavor, and teach readers about him and his music, or introduce him and his music that way. However, Liz felt that with someone like Sun Ra, whom the majority of the American public is not aware of, a more traditional biography was required. So I thought, okay, I’ll tell it strictly as I would think that Sun Ra would wish me to tell it, especially to children, that is, that he, Sun Ra, was not of this earth, but came from Saturn. This is what I did, with a little bit of sleight of hand, in that I appealed to a child’s pretty solid reasonableness, suggesting that we all know that this couldn’t really be true—kind of letting the child reader in on the gag—but then going on to describe Sun Ra’s life really as a space traveler, which explains parts of Sun Ra’s life so well, like his genius, his iconoclasm, his outsiderness. But then to be an artist will always put you on the outside. Sun Ra took the outside to outer space. He was way,way out long before the rest of us.

Kidsbiographer: The illustrations you created for The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra are reminiscent of expressionist paintings. How did Sun Ra’s life and music influence your approach to illustrating this book?

Chris Raschka: I tried to incorporate aspects of Sun Ra’s musical creation into my own art creation. For one thing, I made sure the art was ephemeral; it’s painted on tissue paper glued to bristol boar. It’s free flowing; the watercolor and inks I used bleed nearly uncontrollably through the tissue paper. And the whole thing is heavily saturated; I used lots of color and water, and, though each piece was thought through ahead of time, they were largely improvised on the spot. Then once I had a big stack of dried and very wrinkled-up sheets of tissue paper paintings, I chose the bits I liked, tore them down to the size I wanted and then pieced them together sometimes with other bits from other paintings, and glued them onto board.

Kidsbiographer:My favorite illustration shows a young Sun Ra composing music. You use simple, childlike lines and bright colors to depict his face, intent on the job at hand, the musical notes he writes, and the stars overhead that suggest his otherworldly origins. A blank music sheet, complete with staff, forms the background for the entire painting. How did you compose this remarkable picture?

Chris Raschka: Finding the right abstraction of a person, visually, is maybe the most challenging part of any biography. Generally, there are two approaches to painting a portrait of someone: either he or she sits for you, or you work from photos, or both. Sitting for me was out of the question because Sun Ra is back on Saturn. Working from photos is possible, but I feel makes for awkward results because the imagery comes from different times in the subject;s life and from a particular point of view, and through the optics of a camera which is its own abstraction, and really is not the only way we perceive people or our world in general. It’s one way, and perhaps an easier way. But for some things, it isn’t quite right. I prefer to study the pictures of a person, then put them away, and draw and paint until I find something that satisfies me, even if it is far removed from portraiture. It is essential in a picture book that the elements that compose the pictures in the front of the book are the same as the elements in the back and all the way through, so how you proceed must be coherent and create your own kind of vocabulary for telling the story. This is the great trick.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers and listeners will take away from The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra?

Chris Raschka: Sun Ra was an American musical genius, a social pioneer, and a cosmic visionary. Perhaps having heard his name through this little book, a young reader or two will be just attuned enough to catch his way way outness when those vibrations starting ringing in their ears

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

Chris Rascka:I’m working on a variety of things: a mostly wordless cat book that I’ve been wrestling with for some years; a book about perception, science and art, featuring an owl; a book about a rainy day; a book by Julie Fogliano about a baby and a dog; and a book about an opera, The Magic Flute. Just out is a book that I made with my dear friend Vladimir Radunsky who happens to be visiting me right now from Rome and may walk into this room any minute. It’s called Alphabetabum. It is a collection of wonderful old studio photographic portraits that Vladimir has found in cities all over the world, to which I have attached poetic triplets, imagining the subjects’ names and attributes. The idea of the book is to pay a proper reverence to both the beauty of the old photos as well as to the memory of these people who lived so long ago and may be our own grand or great grandparents. I have presented this book a number of times to elementary students as a springboard to writing poetry about the students’ own found photos or photos of their ancestors. It’s worked quite well.