Claire A. Nivola has been illustrating children’s books since the 1970’s. In 2012, she wrote and illustrated Life in the Ocean, a picture-book biography of oceanographer Sylvia Earle. This year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a paperback edition of Emma’s Poem, a picture-book biography of poet Emma Lazarus that Nivola illustrated. This week, Kidsbiographer caught up with Nivola about her research into late 19th century American life and Lazarus’s legacy of social activism.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of historical and biographical research did you do to illustrate Emma’s Poem?
Claire A. Nivola: I worked on the illustrations for Emma’s Poem in 2008. In five years, one forgets what one did, but luckily I keep a folder with bits from the process I went through for each book and I was impressed at how much research went into that book. I am talking about visual research. If you think about it, in order to draw a scene from a different period in history, you need to learn how everything looked: streets, houses inside and out, people (in this case, rich and poor and the immigrants from other countries) their clothes, the means of transportation – everything down to the smallest detail.
My approach is to create for myself a visual dictionary of all these components: Xeroxes and print-outs from books, from the internet, sometimes from verbal descriptions. I made a file each, for instance, on immigrants, on interiors of wealthy houses, on fashions. I used the library, and the web or phone contact resources from The Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, the American Jewish Historical Society, the National Park Service for the Statue of Liberty National Monument, among others. Most moving and inspiring were the photographs of the period (not of Emma’s childhood – too early – but once photography began to be used widely, in time for the immigrants that she wrote her poem about). These early, black and white photographs and those of the Statue of Liberty being erected are so eloquent that for many of my illustrations I drew heavily on actual photographs.
Kidsbiographer: My favorite illustrations are the ones that show groups of immigrants on ship, on the New York docks, and in the community center where Emma Lazarus assists them. What I like most about these images is that they depict individuals with distinct attire, features, moods, and expressions. Can you explain how you composed these remarkable group portraits?
Claire A. Nivola: Among the illustrations that draw directly on this remarkable photographic documentation are the spot painting on the dedication page, the illustration of the Statue in Paris (this one more from a painting by Victor Dargaud), the pedestal of the Statue with the crated sculpture pieces. The illustrations you particularly like are also inspired by photographs, some sticking very closely to an image (the two ship deck images) and some as composites of photographs documenting individual immigrants (the dock scene with Emma visiting, and the job training scene). Looking at the photographs of newly arriving immigrants, it seemed to me that each individual was deeply imbued with a life story so that depicting them with distinct “features, moods, and expressions” came naturally to me.
Kidsbiographer: Which of the book’s illustrations did you find most challenging to compose and why?
Claire A. Nivola: I don’t know that I found any one illustration challenging, though certainly those for which a photograph presented me with a basic composition where easiest. Perhaps the auction scene was the trickiest because I had to make up the scene mainly from verbal descriptions with a few etchings showing related events. I even, in some cases and for my own entertainment, painted copies of actual paintings in the exhibition frames, making sure that they didn’t come chronologically after the exhibition event! In every book I have done, I have one painting I am least happy with. In this one, it is the scene of Emma composing her famous poem. I feel that I never resolved well the view out her windows, and filling them in with black night seems stark and unfinished to me.
Kidsbiographer: How did you develop Emma Lazarus as a visual character?
Claire A. Nivola: I had photos of Emma Lazarus and members of her family to work from for Emma. They were portraits, not casual family scenes, but I was able to get a sense – who knows how accurate – of her face and personality from the very few images I had to work with.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope kids – and adults – will take away from Emma’s Poem?
Claire A. Nivola: Emma’s Poem is an invitation to big-heartedness towards those who come to our country. In that sense, it is about immigration – inclusiveness, generosity, respect for others, tolerance. But as the gap widens alarmingly in this country between rich and poor, my hope is that it may also serve – through the example of Emma’s life – to awaken in readers a desire for justice, fairness, and inclusiveness in the economic and social sense too and within our own borders.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Claire A. Nivola: Since I illustrated Emma’s Poem, two books that I both wrote and illustrated have been published, Orani (autobiographical) and Life in the Ocean (non-fiction). Another one, named Star Child (fable-like), is due out this coming spring. I am working on a proposal now for another book, but it’s too soon to tell whether or not it will fly!