Month: November 2012

Early Celebrity

Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights up The Stage
By Alan Schroeder
Illustrated by Cornelius van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu
(Lee & Low Books, 2012, New York, $18.95)

Though little known today, Florence Mills was one of America’s most famous entertainers during the 1910s and 20s. She sang and danced in nightclubs, vaudeville, and musical theatre, and her voice, dancing, and versatility awed critics and audiences alike. In 1927, at thirty-one, she died tragically of tuberculosis at the height of her fame. Neither film footage nor audio recordings of her survive, and so the woman who once performed for sold-out theatres has faded into obscurity.

In Baby Flo, Alan Schroeder and illustrators Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu imagine the early years of Florence Mills and her precocious entry into show business. Drawing on the few known facts about Mills’ childhood, Shroeder invents dialogue and situations for the budding performer and her family, who lived in a depressed area of D.C.  Although the text is too long for the youngest readers or listeners, Baby Flo’s language is as exuberant and captivating as its subject. In a nod to African-American oral traditions, the biography often sounds like a tale spun by a knowing raconteur: “Straight up: Florence was a remarkable child, and that’s a fact,” it begins. Van Wright and Hu’s watercolor illustrations evoke the joy her art brought to herself and others. Though readers see her mother, a laundress, balancing laundry on her head, though see sheets hung as partitions in the family’s small apartment, it is Florence’s wide smile and dancing feet that spring off the page. Like sunshine, the irrepressible little girl casts a rosy glow over the people, sidewalks, and rooms that are privy to her art. Van Wright and Hu also capture the gentle nuances of expression on the characters’ faces – the soft smiles, the looks of pride – that show the effect Flo’s gift had on those she touched.

Baby Flo may generate interest in Florence Mills; unfortunately, as readers will be unable to see her dance or hear her sing, they will not be able to experience her art. However, the picture-book biography is a warm tribute to a forgotten star and a much needed reminder that performance is, above all, about communication between performer and audience, not a celebration of celebrity.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Susanna Reich

Susanna Reich has penned both historical fiction and biographies of artists and musicians for young readers. This year, she published Minette’s Feast, a picture book about Julia Child’s cat. She recently chatted with Kidsbiogarpher about her admiration for Julia Child, her affection for all things feline, and the experiences that inspire creative people. At left, she appears with feline friend Chloe in a photo by Laurel Golio.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about the bond between Julia Child and her cat, and what made you decide to write this Minette’s Feast?

Susanna Reich: I’ve been a Julia Child fan since childhood and had wanted to write a book about her for years. When I read her memoir, My Life in France, I immediately recognized a fellow cat lover. I thought it would be fun to introduce kids to Julia through the story of her first cat, Minette.

Kidsbiographer: Minette’s Feast is as much a tribute to feline nature in all its inscrutable glory as it is a picture-book biography of Julia Child. How did your relationships with cats shape your portrait of Minette?

Susanna Reich: I adore cats. They’re feisty, independent, intelligent, entertaining –and the cuddle factor should not be

underestimated. I drew on my knowledge of cats in fleshing out Minette’s personality and imagining what it would’ve been like to be Julia Child’s cat. And I have to thank Amy Bates for bringing Minette to life with her brilliant illustrations.

Kidsbiographer: Minette’s Feast incorporates snatches of French and internal rhyme, making the book ideal for reading aloud. How did your manuscript evolve into this feast for the ear?

Susanna Reich: Julia Child had a marvelous sense of humor and tremendous joie de vivre. For her, mid-century Paris was full of romance. In writing about her, I looked for words, rhythm and phrasing that conveyed spirit and personality, as well as time and place. All of that got filtered through my own sensibilities – in this case, my love of language and word play. I listen very closely when I write. I want the words to dance.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of research did you do to write about Julia Child, cooking, and mid-century Paris?

Susanna Reich: I read Julia’s memoir, every biography of her, and many, many articles and interviews. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was a great resource, as was a wonderful volume of her letters, As Always, Julia. I watched videos, researched the history of cat food, and drew on my own experience, having studied French in school and been to Paris. As for cooking, I come from a family of foodies and my brother has worked in the gourmet food industry for 30 years. Thanks to him, I got to meet Julia when I designed the flowers for her 80th birthday party at New York City’s Rainbow Room.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying response you’ve received from young readers about Minette’s Feast?

Susanna Reich: I’ve especially enjoyed seeing photos of pre-schoolers reading Minette’s Feast. For one child, the book has become “a bedtime favorite.” Another wanted it read to her “again and again.” It’s extremely gratifying to hear that kids are enthusiastic about the book. It makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing with my life. There have been several reviews by cats, as well. One gave the book “four paws.”

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

Susanna Reich: Next up is a picture book about the young Beatles, called Fab Four Friends: The Boys Who Became the Beatles, withAdam Gustavson illustrating. The story’s set in mid-century Liverpool, which is a far cry from Paris. But it’s still got humor – and lots of rock ‘n roll energy. Like Minette’s Feast, it focuses on the formative years of creative, artistic people who went on to fame and fortune. Kids need to understand how and why people become who they are, and the enthusiasms and forces that shape them. That’s been a pretty consistent theme in all of my books.

A Life in Pictures

It Jes’ Happened:When Bill Traylor Started to Draw
By Don Tate
Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
(Lee and Low Books, 2012, New York, $17.95)

Folk artist Bill Traylor was eighty-five years old when he first picked up a pencil and started sketching, adding a new dimension to the expression late bloomer. Born into slavery in Alabama in the 1850s, Traylor spent most of his adult life as a sharecropper on the land of the people who had once owned him. In his eighties, the widowed Traylor moved to nearby Montgomery. He missed his farm and his family, and so, on discarded bits of cardboard, he began drawing animals and people though he had never done so in the past. One day, a young artist named Charles Shannon discovered Traylor sketching on the street. Admiring Traylor’s lively style, he brought him art supplies and even arranged for his work to be shown in galleries. Today, many critics consider Traylor one of America’s most important self-taught artists.

In It Jes’ Happened, Don Tate and illustrator R. Gregory Christie tell Bill Traylor’s remarkable story. The picture-book biography  celebrates both Traylor’s spontaneous foray into visual art and the simple joys that sustained him through a life of hardship. Quotes from Traylor suggest his humorous, cheerful personality, while Tate’s understated prose also poignantly conveys the pain and loneliness he endured. Christie’s illustrations, as lively as Traylor’s own work, evoke the artist’s simple folk art style and bring to life the comical chickens, stubborn mules, and Saturday night dances that delighted Traylor. Christie, too, develops Traylor’s character: in one spread, the elderly artist peers politely, but skeptically at the younger artist who has brought him art supplies. He is not sure what to make of this young man and his paints and papers.

It Jes’ Happened is an important book on a few levels. It introduces young readers to Traylor’s work, to folk art, and to the idea that people from even the most marginal backgrounds have talent and stories to share. And in the world of children’s books, in which elderly characters are wicked witches, cantankerous curmudgeons, or kind grandmas proffering cookies, It Jes’ Happened invites kids to imagine the rich past and feeling present their elders hold inside them. Inside them, inside each of us, are stories to be told, pictures to be painted.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

The Chef’s Meow

Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat
By Susanna Reich
Illustrated by Amy Bates
(Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, 2012, $16.95)

As any cat lover can attest, our cats love us regardless of our status or accomplishments. However, even our greatest achievements leave them unmoved, perhaps bemused.

In Minette’s Feast, Susanna Reich and Amy Bates celebrate the relationship between television chef Julia Child and Minette, her tortoiseshell cat. While Julia masters the art of French cookery in her Paris apartment, Minette hones her hunting skills. Julia’s succulent sauces and fondues do not interest the huntress half as much as the birds and mice she catches. Can Julia prepare a meal that will tempt her fastidious housemate?

Minette’s Feast is a delightful look at the famously warm chef as well as a tribute to the human-feline bond. Reich’s playful prose incorporates snatches of French and internal rhyme; even her lively lists of dishes and descriptions of recipes reflect Child’s zest for life. In Bates’s pencil and watercolor illustrations, Parisian cafes spring to life, and so does Minette: she crouches and pounces while her human scuttles between pots and pans. In this way, Bates conveys the parallel, but often intersecting, existence of woman and cat. An afterword offers biographical information about Child and a photo of the kitty who inspired the book.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Illustrator: Rudy Gutierrez

Illustrator Rudy Gutierrez has worked on children’s books as well as album art for such acts as Santana. Recently, he illustrated Spirit Seeker, a picture-book biography of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about immersing himself in music and creating album art and how the sixties and seventies continue to shape his work.

Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the audio and visual research you did to illustrate Spirit Seeker?

Rudy Gutierrez: Research began long ago when I first started to appreciate John Coltrane’s music. As a teenager, listening to the group Santana led me to check out their influences, which later took me to Miles Davis and then to John Coltrane. They had a period in the 70’s that was directly influenced by Mr. Coltrane and in fact included one of his songs called “Welcome.” So I knew that I had to follow the lineage to the source. When I started to do the art for the book, it became a process of watching videos, checking out interviews by many, including Coltrane, reading biographies and of course listening to his music continuously. I wanted to make sure that I was totally immersed in the music. I do believe that what you feed yourself mentally, physically and spiritually eventually emerges through whatever endeavor that you are pursuing. In my case, it is painting.

Kidsbiographer: You created both acrylic paintings and mixed media pieces that incorporate colored pencils, crayons, and acrylics for Spirit Seeker.  How did Coltrane’s life and oeuvre inform your artistic choices for this project?

RG: My art is made up of layers. I see these layers as layers of reality and layers of spirit and these manifest by way of mixing flat, tonal, abstract, realistic, refined, and raw, visual language into a gumbo that I like to call Great Universal Meaning Beyond Order! That is to say that I am simply a vessel! I was and of course am influenced by the life and work of Mr. John Coltrane and have learned from many others, like my wife DK Dyson, an incredible Vocalist and Composer and Spirit Seeker as well, who has this incredible ability to get out of the way of the “magic” that is creation, whether it be music or visual art.

Specifically speaking so much of what I did for this project was right in line with just being myself and trusting that the influence of John Coltrane on my work would be visible. In fact, I have to say that I have much gratitude and respect for the vision of Lynne Polvino, Spirit Seeker’s  editor, and her ability to see and trust that it would be a good match for my work to hopefully do justice to this story. I also feel that the incredible spiritually sensitive and honest, respectful writing of Gary Golio really allowed me to travel to places that I knew the art had to go to, and I wouldn’t be swaying away from the written word or the music for that matter because it is clear that the music also moved through Gary. Once an artist feels that he or she has enough so called technical ability and is able to inject that with emotion, it becomes about choices. For two weeks, I fasted and meditated and prayed that I would do justice to this story and I found that I was really tuned into the music and writing and making choices in terms of direction became a matter of just trusting what I was feeling and even though sketches had been done, improvising still was a large part of it, just like the music. For example, John Coltrane may do a song like “My Favorite Things,” in which he plays the melody in the beginning and later really takes us to other places with his improvisation and abstraction and then comes back to the melody to create a sort of “door” for us to walk through. This is a part of what I do visually as well. I was conscious that this book is for children who I think are sometimes underestimated in terms of what they can absorb and kept this in mind.  Along with children, I hope that all ages will walk through my visual doors presented in this book!

Kidsbiographer: In addition to picture-book illustration, you’ve created album art for Santana and other musicians. What are some differences between the creative processes for these types of projects?

RG: There really aren’t as many differences as one might think in making art for some of my other projects, and in fact there are many parallels. When I did the Santana Shaman album, it was the same situation in that I was blessed to be asked to create art by and for Carlos Santana, one of my “artistic angels,” which is what how I refer to some of my influences. So, it was again a matter of Mr. Carlos Santana having the vision to see his music moving through me and he did. The creative process for me is always about being touched by whatever content that I am visually discussing or that I am comissioned  to create illustrations for. The end result is always the wish that I will translate these emotions to touch others in some positive way, which I feel is a responsibility for anyone who is blessed with a talent. As a young person, I was very much influenced by the social and cultural movements in the United States in the 1960’s and 70’s. This was a time that emphasized how we all have value regardless of artificial labels or categories that separate us as people. I am still trying to live up to these standards that I very much believe in, visually and as a person. So whether it is a children’s book, CD cover or mural, it is all the same intent with differences that allow for changing content and audience.

Kidsbiographer: Although Spirit Seeker is more about Coltrane’s individual journey than any larger political issues, the racism he and his family encountered is a strong undercurrent throughout the biography. You emphasize this in the spread that depicts Coltrane, his mother, and his aunt working at the local country club, which was, of course, segregated. The words “Whites Only” bulge and repeat atop the pages, and the shoes young Coltrane is shining belong to a set of legs and feet composed of Jim Crowe era signs designating certain areas as specific to whites and blacks. Here, you convey what Gary Golio’s prose only suggests about the family’s daily life: that it was one painful humiliation after another, a reminder that they lived in a country that damned them to second-class citizenship. Can you tell me how this spread evolved into the powerful depiction of segregation that it is?

RG: Thank you, I am glad that you see the value and power that I hoped would come across. This spread is really important to me because it is about telling the truth whether it is to children or other ages. There is a great Bob Marley song where he demands that we “tell the children the truth” That is the intention.

Again, I am influenced by the time period in which I grew up, and I see my art as an extension of who I am. So I had the option of being subtle and whispering with the art on this page or really raising my voice louder visually. I don’t see racism and the history of it in this country as having a subtle quiet effect on anyone, so I couldn’t depict it that way and because it was referred to in Gary’s words, it gave me the liberty to go there in my own way while still being true to this story.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of Spirit Seeker is the way that Coltrane’s saxophone seems an extension of the musician himself; the lines between the man and his instrument often blur. Music itself is a swash of color that connects individuals and, frequently, swirls around Coltrane’s head. Sometimes, faces appear in these swathes of color, including churchgoers, other jazz artists, even some visages that resemble African masks. Can you list some of the individuals who appear in these musical swirls?

RG: I am glad that you enjoy this aspect of my depictions. The swirls have many different things going on which are a reflection of how I see the music. There was this great photo exhibition years ago by the incredible photographer Roy DeCavara that featured many of his Jazz photos with a title that I just loved, The Sound I Saw. This is indeed what I am getting at with the swirls. Within some of these I was showing elements of John Coltrane’s influences and inspirations, such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins  as well as Dizzy Gillespie and Johnny Hodges, to name a few. Along side of these legendary musicians of America’s classical music that we know as Jazz are his learnings, leanings and involvement with spiritual aspects of different cultures with origins in Asia, America, and Africa, which deeply influenced him and his music and indeed the lines get blurred as far as telling his story and my own because these are also very much prevalent in my work as well.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received in response to Spirit Seeker, particularly from young readers?

RG: The most gratifying feedback that I have received is that I have really captured the feel and spiritual content of the music and that there is this great interplay between the writer Gary Golio and myself that carries much respect for Mr. John Coltrane and his legacy. As of now, the book has just been released, so I don’t yet have reactions from children. As far as young readers are concerned, I hope that they see the importance of walking their path like John Coltrane did while always evolving, learning and growing. In addition it would be gratifying to know that this book would inspire children to know that even when things are difficult they can rise with the knowledge that their divinity is as valid as John Coltrane’s, mine or anyone else’s, especially if they are seekers of spirit and truth!

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

RG: Among my recent projects are another picture book, When I Get Older:The Story Behind “Wavin’ Flag,  just published by Tundra, that is written by the very positive, caring, and conscious rap artist K’Naan. He tells his story of living in war torn Somalia and being influenced by his Grandfather, who was a renowned  poet and passed on his love of words to K’Naan. After immigrating first to New   York and later to Toronto, he wrote and performed “Wavin’ Flag,” which has become an international anthem. Its powerful words of hope have crossed generations and borders and have made K’Naan an international star. It was an honor to be commissioned to do art for this story, which I feel is really important on so many levels of opening eyes to the horrors of war, but also to the beautiful teaching tool that art and music can be. I do see conscious art as a kind of medicine with healing powers, as well as a weapon against ignorance that can serve as a bridge between peoples’s spirits!

So much of what I do is influenced and inspired by music and musicians and I recently had the opportunity to do a portrait for Rolling Stone magazine of the great reggae artist Jimmy Cliff, who certainly is an inspiration of mine!

I’ve also lately been commissioned to do new covers for four books by the incredible science fiction and fantasy writer Nalo Hopkinson for Hachette Books. The covers are for Brown Girl in the Ring, The Midnight Robber, and The New Moon’s Arms. There is also a new amazing book called Sister Mine to be published in 2013. I am always grateful for the vision of editors and art directors who can see how my work can be compatible with certain writers, and in this case this is a perfect match. I love Nalo’s writing and was truly honored and excited to match my art with her words! Also, I was really pleased that I was actually commissioned by a former student of mine at Pratt Institute, Christine Foltzer!

Meet the Biographer: Beverly Gherman

Award-winning author Beverly Gherman has penned children’s biographies of artists, writers, and presidents. Earlier this year, she published First Mothers, a collective picture-book biography of the presidents’ mothers. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about women’s history and presidential parenting.

Kidsbiographer: First Mothers must have been a time-consuming project: in your author’s note, you report the research process took three years. Can you tell me a little bit about how you approached this monumental task?

Beverly Gherman: Julie (Downing) and I read as much as we could about the presidential mothers. We felt it was imperative to have
factual information about each of them, and we wanted our information to be accurate. I read whole books about some of the Mothers:  Barbara Bush, Rose Kennedy, Mrs. Lillian Carter, Sara Delano Roosevelt.  I read excerpts from other books, then shared them with Julie who drew her own samples from books and articles, showing the outfits of the day, the type of writing material they used, prams they used for their children, the type of homes they lived in, and the work they did.

Kidsbiographer: During your research, you must have uncovered numerous facts and anecdotes about the presidential mothers. Which women or topics were most difficult to cover, and how did you approach these subjects?

Beverly Gherman: It was hard to capture Mrs. Truman’s personality. She had a lot of energy and she shared that quality with her children, encouraging them to be as active as possible and giving them a lot of freedom.  Julie’s scenes were as accurate as possible. You felt as though you were racing across the prairies with her.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of First Mothers is its look at women’s lives throughout American history: it’s an introduction to social and women’s history as well as a collective biography. What lessons about women’s history do you hope kids will take away from the presidential moms’ stories?

Beverly Gherman: Abigail Adams’ story is important because played she played a prominent role in American history even though her life shows the restrictions women faced during her lifetime. She was a strong mother who emphasized her children getting an education. While John (her husband, John Adams, the second president) spent time with John Quincy (her son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president) in France, John Quincy learned to speak French like an expert. Abigail resented the fact that she had never attended school, but she spent a great deal of time reading from her father’s library. At night she wrote John by candlelight and told him about British ships nearby in Braintree, Massachusetts, and how the children were growing up and helping her on the farm. She had strong opinions about current events, which she never hesitated to share with her husband.

Kidsbiographer: Based on your research, which First Mother’s parenting style do you most admire?

Beverly Gherman: I appreciated Mrs. Kennedy encouraging her children to discuss politics at the dinner table. She also expected them to earn their allowance. She felt that being a parent was one of the most important tasks she faced, and she took it quite seriously. She expected her children to do well at school and to help out at home.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about First Mothers?

Beverly Gherman: Throughout the book, Mary Ball Washington makes comments about many of the other mothers.  We thought she would add humor and give our readers some interesting ways to look at the women.  Young readers tell us she made them laugh and made them think about the other mothers in the books.

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

Beverly Gherman: I am finding it difficult to select the next project. After getting to know forty-four individual mothers for First Mothers, it’s not as challenging to learn about a single individual, as I usually do, but I am continuing to search for the right person.