Month: March 2013

Meet the Biographer: Lauren Stringer

when stravinsky met nijinsky_hresAuthor-illustrator Lauren Stringer has written and illustrated children’s books about nature, culture, and childhood rituals. This year, she published When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, a picture-book about the ballet The Rite of Spring. This week, she caught up with Kidsbiographer about modernism, whimsy, and the joy of sharing great art with kids.

Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you describe how many of When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky’s illustrations reference paintings by Matisse, Picasso, and other artists of the early twentieth century. Can you discuss how various illustrations in the book reflect these artists’ influence?

Lauren Stringer: When beginning the illustrations for a picture book manuscript, I always pull the many artists’ monographs from my bookshelves to find inspiration. I was an art history major as well as an art major at the University of Santa Cruz and worked in museums and galleries in New York, Boston, and Washington DC for many years, coming in very close contact with some of history’s greatest paintings and sculptures. The early 20th Century is one of my favorite periods of art making—the birth of Modernism. As I researched the story of the creation of The Rite of Spring, it was easy for me to cross-reference the art that was being made at the same time.

For example, the year Strav6Vw6dzPghRePahWbt083CY1VC81DAMnZmIWvwXdKeaUinsky met Nijinsky, 1911, was the same year that the painter, Henri Matisse painted The Red Studio, a flat, nearly monochrome painting that dismantles spatial illusion. By painting the red background in this illustration, I clue the reader into what was happening in the visual arts in the same period that the two artists met. -TBoAxQw-xHditfsi3DCaZQ2OkngFjGQVqfi63ubYP0

Kidsbiographer: I must to admit to being pleasantly surprised by When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky; before I read it, I was skeptical about a picture book about The Rite of Spring. I expected dry cultural history that would be over most children’s heads. But your manuscript is extremely lively; in fact, the book is in energetic verse with alliteration, metaphor, and other wordplay that in many ways, reflecting, in many ways, the sensibility of The Rite of Spring. How did the book’s text evolve into this playful celebration of a famous collaboration?

Lauren Stringer: Eight years ago I sat waiting for the Minnesota Orchestra to begin a concert in Symphony Hall, leafing through the program. This photo caught my eye:

The face of a young Igor Stravinsky, the greatest composer of the 20th Century stared out at me while the sad face of Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest dancer and perhaps the most innovative choreographer of the 20th Century, tugged at my heart.

I whispered to my husband, “Look how young they are! I wonder what it was like when Stravinsky met Nijinsky?” Then we both laughed. When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky! We agreed it was the perfect title for a picture book! It sets up the story to practically write itself. There was humor, rhyming, rhythm, speculation and playfulness all in those four words.

As a writer, I have always delighted in changing rhythms and occasional rhymes. I listened to The Rite of Spring often as I worked on the manuscript, hoping its changing rhythms and dissonances would somehow infuse itself in the story. Before submitting the final art and text to copyediting, I worked many long hours with my editor to find the perfect balance of poetic license and historical fact. I am glad to read that you felt a “sensibility of The Rite of Spring” in the text. That is what I had hoped for.4nMkru86-0eQ1GtMbbKU_v0YDtSa53PzRG4g6vw01H4

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of the book is the animals – the ginger cat and the dachshund – who observe the ballet’s production and caper over the spreads. What’s the story behind their role in When Stravinksy Met Nijinsky?

OT_Y49q7kYVPfgxAy8P4KuGEY9osOlSymS2Hl3Sg5rMLauren Stringer: The cat came from my research of Nijinsky – critics often called him “Le chat” or the cat – because of his cat-like movements and also because of his slightly slanted eyes.

And Stravinsky, with his beautiful large nose, deserved an animal with an equally beautiful large nose. A dachshund.

It was whimsy. It was poetic license. I do not know for fact that either of them owned a cat or a dog.

I love adding characters to my books that are not necessarily mentioned in the text. They can add humor to the story or highlight an element in the illustration that perhaps the text does not mention. The cat and dog become a sort of alter ego for the composer and the choreographer, anticipating their thoughts and actions or emphasizing their emotions.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of visual research did you do to bring Stravinsky, Nijinsky, the ballet, and their work to life?

Lauren Stringer: When it came to researching for the visuals, I had no fear of losing the playfulness of the story. I devoured every book I could find on the making of The Rite of Spring and the Ballets Russes and cruised every website and Google search necessary to bring the illustrations to life. My sister-in-law works at the Harvard School of Music and she sent me the textbook First Nights, Five Musical Premieres by Thomas Forrest Kelly. The chapter on The Rite of Spring brings to life the people, the fashions, the weather, the theatre, the arts of Paris in 1913. It also contained an excellent bibliography, further deepening my research and understanding.

I am a collector of images, so I put together a journal to contain everything I found. Each area of research had its own spread in the journal.  Then when it came time to paint a particular spread, I would surround the sheet of watercolor paper I was about to work on with the images to inform me as I painted.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take way from this book?

Lauren Stringer: First of all, I hope this story will inspire young readers to listen to the music of Stravinsky and seek out the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Nijinsky’s choreography of The Rite of Spring available on YouTube.  I recently held an event for the book at a local bookstore. I played an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and asked the audience to compare it to an excerpt from The Rite of Spring. One young boy, who had swayed to the melodies of Swan Lake, leapt from his seat with his hands over his ears during the excerpt from The Rite of Spring and ran up to me saying “This, this is why they rioted!” I hope my book can excite this kind of palpable reaction!

I am saddened by the cuts to the arts in public schools. It concerns me that as businesses and corporations seek more creativity in their work force, we diminish our education of the arts and give less time to creative pursuits in the schools, replacing art classes with preparation for standardized testing. I want my picture book to convey the power of art to readers. I hope that it gives young boys permission to dance. I hope it inspires collaboration between young artists rather than competition. And finally, I hope it delights and inspires many readings.

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

Lauren Stringer: I am currently illustrating a picture book titled Deer Dancer written by Mary Lyn Ray. It is the story of a young girl learning to dance and the setting is the green of summer. All through this long Minnesota winter my studio has been growing green paintings. Deer Dancer will be published in the spring of 2014, by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

The manuscript for When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky won a McKnight Fellowship, which is enabling me to travel for research. This spring I will visit Venice to research a book I have been working on for several years now. And as it turns out, I
will be in Paris on May 29th for the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring!

The Fabulous Four

beatles were fab_hresThe Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny)
By Kathleeen Krull and Paul Brewer
Illustrated by Stacy Innerst
(Harcourt Children’s Books, 2013, Boston, $16.99)

Part of the joy of music is sharing it with others, particularly the next generation. In The Beatles Were Fab (and They Were Funny), Kathleen Krull, Paul Brewer, and illustrator Stacy Innerst introduce young readers to The Beatles.

While the picture-book biography touches on the musicians’ talent and working-class origins, Krull and Brewer emphasize the role laughter played in their creative process and trajectory to fame. Readers see John, Paul, George, and Ringo chuckling over reporters’ questions, their own popularity, and the jelly beans fans pelted at the stage. To show the Fab Four’s humor, the authors include the musicians’ quips and indulge in some lively wordplay of their own: “Nothing rattled Ringo, even rude questions about his large nose.”

Innerst’s illustrations capture the young Beatles’ sense of fun. Although they never descend into caricature, his portraits of the four are amusing and quickly recognizable. The sources of their humor – a producer’s tacky tie, reporters’ foolish questions – often assume a prominent place in the book’s spreads. On occasion, Innerst’s paintings flirt with surrealism, presaging the band’s later work, even specific songs. A yellow blimp – or is that a submarine? – hovers above their native Liverpool. In another spread, the gaping, disembodied mouths of fans scream after them as jelly beans strike the band’s retreating car.

The Beatles Were Fab is a fun and fitting tribute to the lads from Liverpool. Parents, grandparents, and other adults will enjoy sharing this picture-book biography with kids, perhaps accompanied by a few of their favorite Beatles tracks.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Illustrator: Kathryn Hewitt

Photo KH 2Kathryn Hewitt has illustrated numerous children’s books, including Harcourt’s Lives of series, collective biographies about presidents, musicians, writers, and others. This year, Harcourt published a new edition of Lives of Extraordinary Women, which explores the lives of famous women leaders throughout history. Kidsbiographer took this opportunity to catch up with Kathryn Hewitt about historical research and her love of caricature.

Indira GandhiKidsbiographer: Can you tell me about the research you did to illustrate Lives of Extraordinary Women?

Kathryn Hewitt: Researching all the visual details in each of Kathleen Krull’s manuscripts is one of my favorite parts of the project.  I recall finding pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt’s “sporty blue convertible”; tracking down images of Catherine the Great’s “extravagant palaces with roller coasters on the lawn”; pouring over all the references for the elaborate costumes worn by the queens and rulers, as well as historical portraits of the women themselves.  I think research is always much more exhilarating than buckling down and actually painting the pictures.  All my information was found in books in various libraries in the Los Angeles area, especially the extensive reference library at UCLA.

Sometimes I find an abundance of material, as was the case with Indira Gandhi and Queen Victoria, and sometimes there is very little, as with Cleopatra.  After Cleopatra died her enemies destroyed most of her likenesses, so I ended up relying on images of her on coins and statues that have recently been excavated from the Mediterranean Sea.  In many cases where portraits are scarce, I find primary source descriptions of each person, which can be very helpful with hair and eye color as well as other physical characteristics.

Eleanor RooseveltKidsbiographer: Neither reverential nor ridiculous, your pictures of the book’s subjects trod the line between state portrait and caricature. How did you maintain this balance, and what were some of the unique challenges of doing so?

Kathryn Hewitt: When painting the caricatures, I want to impart a sense of fun for the readers—after all the text is loaded with fascinating and often amusing anecdotes—so I exaggerate their pose and emphasize their personality through their expression and demeanor, and of course—the big heads.  But since these are introductory biographies, I want the faces to be recognizable to children when they read subsequent books, so I don’t include distorted facial features.

I first fell in love with caricature when I was getting started as an artist, living in London, and I happened upon the famous caricatures in the old Vanity Fair magazine.  The portraits by Leslie Ward and Pellegrini were so appealing in a quiet understated way, but still playful, which is the general theme of our Lives of… books: these individuals may be brilliant and terribly lofty, but they are still human like the rest of us.

Kidsbiographer: This edition of Lives of Extraordinary Women has a new cover. It depicts 8 of the book’s subjects on a barge, presumably on the Nile as the pyramids of Giza are visible in the background and Cleopatra towers above her passengers at the helm. The other women, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, and Harriet Tubman regard their surroundings with excitement, curiosity, or pleasure. How did you compose this extraordinary picture?

Kathryn Hewitt: The new cover for the book took many false turns.  I started with a group gathered around Queen Elizabeth I, but found no central focus.  Then I tried scenes with Harriet Tubman, but that didn’t quite work.  Finally I reread the chapter about Cleopatra’s golden barge with the splendid purple sails; I put her at the helm, included a group of colorful, congenial passengers, and there it was—the big entrance.

Kidsbiographer: Which woman did you most enjoy painting?

Aung San Suu KyiKathryn Hewitt: I think my favorite was Aung San Suu Kyi.  At the time we were working on the book, she was still under house arrest in Burma, and I continually thought of her courage, intelligence and ability to carry on.  To know that her life has recently taken such a spectacular turn for the better is extraordinary.

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

Kathryn Hewitt: Lives of the Scientists will be coming out in 2013.  It’s filled with stories about Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Edwin Hubble, and other great over-achievers.  And we are currently working on Lives of the Explorers, which includes adventures about Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Mary Kingsley, and Matthew Henson among others.  I’ll be sitting behind my drawing table for the next six months vicariously travelling along with all of them.

Hellion or Heroine?

BadGirls_300Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, and Other Female Villains
By Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple
Illustrated by Rebecca Guay
(Charlesbridge, 2013, Boston, $18.95)

Just how villainous were history’s most notorious female villains? Were they the product of difficult circumstances, their reputations sealed by historical bias? Or were some of these women as cruel and ruthless as they seem? How has our evolving understanding of gender roles shaped our perceptions of these alleged spies, seductresses, and slaughterers?

These are just some of the questions Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple raise in Bad Girls, their young adult collective biography of history’s most controversial women. The mother-daughter writing team profile twenty-six female villains, including biblical temptresses, monarchs, pirates, serial killers, spies, Wild West hell raisers, and gangsters’ molls. Each breezily written entry summarizes the woman’s life and alleged crimes. At the end of each profile, the authors playfully debate the woman’s guilt, with Stemple prosecuting and Yolen defending. Illustrator Rebecca Guay expertly depicts this repartee in graphic novel style panels; she employs other styles of illustration to create amusing, sensual, and sometimes unsettling portraits of the book’s subjects.

Despite its considerable style, Bad Girls could, occasionally, benefit from more substance. Wikipedia and About.com appear in the bibliography; surely, enough excellent biographies of Catherine the Great and Mary I exist that writers need not rely on such basic – and questionable – internet sources. However, Bad Girls never attempts to be a definitive authority on its subjects. Instead, it invites readers to weigh the evidence, ask questions, and admit they’ll never know the whole story. In the end, the biography is as much an introduction to a type of critical thinking – one that constantly questions its own biases and perceptions – as it is to the villainesses themselves.

-Dorothy A. Dahm