Meet the Biographer: Amy Novesky

Last year, San Francisco-based Amy Novesky published Me, Frida, a picture-book biography of artist Frida Kahlo. The book focuses on a transformative trip to San Francisco that Frida took with her husband and fellow-artist Diego Rivera. Me, Frida has won awards for its illustration, and Novesky will receive the FOCAL award from the LA Public Library in January.

Last week, Amy Novesky talked with Kidsbiographer about her fascination with Kahlo’s life, her approach to picture-book biography, and the influence of art on her prose.

Kidsbiographer: What led you to write about Frida and Diego’s trip to San Francisco for young readers?

Amy Novesky: I wanted to write a book about Frida Kahlo, as I’ve always been drawn to her, fascinated by her art and her life. As with all of my books, I’m not so much interested in writing about an entire life. Others do that, and do that so well. (For example, Jonah Winter’s and Ana Juan’s book Frida is inimitable.) Instead I like to find a moment, often just a footnote, in a life. When I learned that Frida had lived in San Francisco – my city, a city that I love – and that she had painted one of her most beloved paintings here, I knew that that was the story I wanted to tell.

Kidsbiographer: Although Me, Frida is a picture-book biography of Frida Kahlo, it’s also a universal story about refusing to be overshadowed and establishing one’s own identity. How have children responded to this theme?

Amy Novesky: I think that there is nothing more important then knowing who you are, what makes you sing and shout your name from the rooftops, or in Frida’s case, the Marin headlands. I think that that idea, given that it’s a bit sophisticated, resonates more deeply with older kids and with adults. Young readers love the pink bird, looking for it on the pages of the book. But it’s all the same. This idea of flying, soaring, being free. The pink bird is a metaphor for that.

Kidsbiographer: Even without illustrations, Me, Frida is a very visual, sensual book: there’s the metaphor about Diego as an elephant and Frida as a small bird, and you describe the sounds, scents, textures, tastes, and colors Frida encounters. How did Kahlo’s – or Diego Rivera’s – art influence your prose?

Amy Novesky: I’ve always been a very visual and sensual writer, and I think that’s part of the reason I write about visual artists and rich cultures. Frida was a work of art herself. She was beautiful. She wore gorgeous hand-made clothes, silver, and semi-precious stones. She wore flowers in her hair. People stopped in the street to stare at her. She was larger than life, which makes my work as a writer very easy. She painted colorful portraits; I write them.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most difficult part of writing about Frida Kahlo’s life for children?

Amy Novesky: Frida had a very difficult life. As a child she had polio, which affected her legs – one was shorter and weaker than the other, affecting her ability to walk. (One of the reasons she always wore long, voluminous skirts was to hide her legs.) And as a young student she was in a horrific streetcar accident , which further injured her. She was in tremendous pain for most of her short life; she died at 47. It’s hard to write about Frida and the art she created without discussing her life. And kids are fascinated by it. I try to tiptoe around it: she was sick as a child; she was in an accident. Why was she sick? What did she have? What kind of accident? What happened to her? How did she die? So that can be a bit challenging.  The amazing thing about Frida is that when she was in the streetcar accident, there was a painter onboard carrying a package of gold leaf. After the accident, Frida, broken and bloodied, was covered in gold. I find that image so extraordinary. There’s a little bit of beauty in just about everything.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about Me, Frida?

Amy Novesky: It’s been incredibly gratifying to hear all of the lovely praise for the book and for the book to be honored with awards, including being named a Pura Belpre Honor book and chosen Best Picture Book at the International Latino Book Awards. I feel incredibly lucky that David Diaz, a Caldecott Award-winner, illustrated the book. In January, I will be honored with the 2011 FOCAL award from the Los Angeles Public Library. While most awards the book has received have focused on the art, and deservedly so, this award recognizes the writing and me as the author, which is especially gratifying.

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

Amy Novesky: My next book, due in February, is Georgia in Hawaii, about Georgia O’Keeffe’ travels in theHawaiian Islands. As in Me, Frida, I wanted to write about a lesser-known moment inGeorgia’s life. When I discovered that this famous painter of flowers and landscapes had painted in Hawaii, one of the most beautiful places on earth, and a place I have a personal connection to, I knew that that was the book I would write. Yuyi Morales illustrated the book, and it is gorgeous. I can’t wait to share it.

I also have a book about Billie Holiday and her beloved dogs called Mister and Lady Day, illustrated by Vanessa Newton, due out next fall. She was an extraordinary singer, and I can’t believe that there are no picture books about her or that no one has written this book. But, like Frida, Billie Holiday is not an easy person to write about for kids. She was an alcoholic and drug addict. She went to prison, and she died young.  That she loved dogs was my way into the story. And, when I learned that her favorite dog was named Mister, well, the story had a title. I think it is my best story yet.

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