Chris Raschka has written and illustrated countless picture books, including biographies of jazz icons Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. This year, he published The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra, a picture-book biography of jazz innovator Sun Ra. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about the translating the spirit of jazz onto the printed page and the challenge of portraiture.
Kidsbiographer: How did you first encounter Sun Ra’s music, and what made you decide to write his picture-book biography?
Chris Raschka: I first heard Sun Ra’s music when I was a teen; his music was definitely in the air, even for rock and roll listeners like me, but I didn’t think to make a picture book of his life and music, really, until I got hold of the Evidence release of Sun Ra’s singles, which came out in the early 00‘s. It’s a collection of the many pieces that Sun Ra put out over his long career that became hit records. Each one is a number one hit for sure; only America didn’t know it at the time. Hearing them together made me understand fully what a range of interesst Sun Ra had, and what a truly remarkable person and musician he was.
Kidsbiographer:What sort of research did you perform to write and illustrate The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra?
Chris Raschka:First and foremost, my research consisted of listening to as much of Sun Ra’s music as I could, repeatedly. Also, I read John F. Szwed’s excellent biography of Sun Ra: Space is the Place. And, not to be dismissed, I spoke with my music pals about him.
Kidsbiographer: The narrative has a conversational tone as if a storyteller were regaling an audience of young children with an account of Sun Ra’s life. How did you find your narrator’s voice for this book?
Chris Raschka: Well, originally, what I made, and what Liz Bicknell, my editor at Candlewick Press, saw first, was a very impressionistic book, based on a song form, somewhat along the lines of another of my jazz bios, Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. I was hoping to capture something of Sun Ra’s feel and flavor, and teach readers about him and his music, or introduce him and his music that way. However, Liz felt that with someone like Sun Ra, whom the majority of the American public is not aware of, a more traditional biography was required. So I thought, okay, I’ll tell it strictly as I would think that Sun Ra would wish me to tell it, especially to children, that is, that he, Sun Ra, was not of this earth, but came from Saturn. This is what I did, with a little bit of sleight of hand, in that I appealed to a child’s pretty solid reasonableness, suggesting that we all know that this couldn’t really be true—kind of letting the child reader in on the gag—but then going on to describe Sun Ra’s life really as a space traveler, which explains parts of Sun Ra’s life so well, like his genius, his iconoclasm, his outsiderness. But then to be an artist will always put you on the outside. Sun Ra took the outside to outer space. He was way,way out long before the rest of us.
Kidsbiographer: The illustrations you created for The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra are reminiscent of expressionist paintings. How did Sun Ra’s life and music influence your approach to illustrating this book?
Chris Raschka: I tried to incorporate aspects of Sun Ra’s musical creation into my own art creation. For one thing, I made sure the art was ephemeral; it’s painted on tissue paper glued to bristol boar. It’s free flowing; the watercolor and inks I used bleed nearly uncontrollably through the tissue paper. And the whole thing is heavily saturated; I used lots of color and water, and, though each piece was thought through ahead of time, they were largely improvised on the spot. Then once I had a big stack of dried and very wrinkled-up sheets of tissue paper paintings, I chose the bits I liked, tore them down to the size I wanted and then pieced them together sometimes with other bits from other paintings, and glued them onto board.
Kidsbiographer:My favorite illustration shows a young Sun Ra composing music. You use simple, childlike lines and bright colors to depict his face, intent on the job at hand, the musical notes he writes, and the stars overhead that suggest his otherworldly origins. A blank music sheet, complete with staff, forms the background for the entire painting. How did you compose this remarkable picture?
Chris Raschka: Finding the right abstraction of a person, visually, is maybe the most challenging part of any biography. Generally, there are two approaches to painting a portrait of someone: either he or she sits for you, or you work from photos, or both. Sitting for me was out of the question because Sun Ra is back on Saturn. Working from photos is possible, but I feel makes for awkward results because the imagery comes from different times in the subject;s life and from a particular point of view, and through the optics of a camera which is its own abstraction, and really is not the only way we perceive people or our world in general. It’s one way, and perhaps an easier way. But for some things, it isn’t quite right. I prefer to study the pictures of a person, then put them away, and draw and paint until I find something that satisfies me, even if it is far removed from portraiture. It is essential in a picture book that the elements that compose the pictures in the front of the book are the same as the elements in the back and all the way through, so how you proceed must be coherent and create your own kind of vocabulary for telling the story. This is the great trick.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers and listeners will take away from The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra?
Chris Raschka: Sun Ra was an American musical genius, a social pioneer, and a cosmic visionary. Perhaps having heard his name through this little book, a young reader or two will be just attuned enough to catch his way way outness when those vibrations starting ringing in their ears
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Chris Rascka:I’m working on a variety of things: a mostly wordless cat book that I’ve been wrestling with for some years; a book about perception, science and art, featuring an owl; a book about a rainy day; a book by Julie Fogliano about a baby and a dog; and a book about an opera, The Magic Flute. Just out is a book that I made with my dear friend Vladimir Radunsky who happens to be visiting me right now from Rome and may walk into this room any minute. It’s called Alphabetabum. It is a collection of wonderful old studio photographic portraits that Vladimir has found in cities all over the world, to which I have attached poetic triplets, imagining the subjects’ names and attributes. The idea of the book is to pay a proper reverence to both the beauty of the old photos as well as to the memory of these people who lived so long ago and may be our own grand or great grandparents. I have presented this book a number of times to elementary students as a springboard to writing poetry about the students’ own found photos or photos of their ancestors. It’s worked quite well.