Bonnie Christensen has written and illustrated over eight children’s books and illustrated ten more. Last year, she published Fabulous! , a picture-book biography of Andy Warhol. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about telling Warhol’s story in words and images.
Kidsbiographer: In your author biography, you mention working with Warhol stars in New York theatre. What was that experience like, and how did it contribute to your decision to write about Warhol for young readers?
Bonnie Christensen: Working with Warhol stars was entirely fun. Taylor Meade, who directed the production, wrote the play as we rehearsed. He’d say, “Oh, why don’t you impersonate Katherine Hepburn now?” and I’d do it. It reminded me of making up plays when I was child, traveling wherever the imagination led. Maybe the experience had a subconscious effect, but I didn’t consciously have it in mind when I decided to write about Warhol.
Kidsbiographer: In Fabulous, Andy Warhol emerges as a fascinating contradiction: self-contained, independent, introvert yet attracted to fame and celebrity. During your research, what piece of information about Warhol most astonished you or altered your perception of him as an artist or man?
Bonnie Christensen: The aspect of Andy’s character that amazed me most was his work ethic. When he was first in New York, working as an illustrator, he’d be given an assignment to do one illustration and he’d produce ten so that the art director would have options. He wanted to please people and make a good impression. From my reading, I got the sense that he always felt like an outsider, even when he was famous, and that pleasing people was a coping strategy.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to illustrate Fabulous?
Bonnie Christensen: My research mainly consisted of reading adult Warhol biographies as well as watching films and documentaries. I also visited a wonderful exhibition about Warhol at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont, where I learned that Andy worked in soup kitchens on Thanksgiving. The museum was also kind enough to give me access to all the research they used to prepare the exhibit.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite illustrations in Fabulous shows young Andy, portfolio in hand, mesmerized by the stained glass windows in church. The portraits of various religious icons are startling: they seem to appear and reappear at different levels with varying degrees of clarity. Can you tell me how you achieved this effect?
Bonnie Christensen: All the illustrations began as paper collage in black and white. The collages were photocopied and transferred to canvas, then painted in transparent oil. The idea was to mimic Warhol’s style of painting, but to try not to copy it. I only had a certain number of icons, so I enlarged and reduced them to fit the niches in the church, the actual church Warhol attended in Pittsburgh. The idea was to foreshadow the repeated portrait painting Warhol eventually created.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received about Fabulous from young readers – or from parents and educators, for that matter?
Bonnie Christensen: The most gratifying feedback came from a starred review in School Library Journal. I hadn’t considered this aspect when writing the book since I was focused on the story of Warhol’s life, so I was delighted to learn that “Warhol’s artistic triumphs despite his social difficulties will prove inspirational for young readers who feel as if they don’t quite fit in.” I certainly didn’t fit I “fit in” during most of my school life, a sentiment shared by a large percentage of the population, I’d guess. It’s gratifying to think the book will lift some children’s spirits, showing them the future contains unimaginable possibility.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Bonnie Christensen: I’m currently working on a picture book biography of Elvis Presley, whose life, in some respects, mirrors Warhol’s. From these two subjects, one might conclude that I’m focused on American pop icons, so I’ll point out that in between Warhol and Elvis, I published a book about Galileo, I, Galileo – not pop, not American, and certainly not at all insecure.