Meet the Biographer: Jane Sutcliffe

0076Jane Sutcliffe has penned books for early and middle-grade readers about Barack Obama, the War of 1812, Helen Keller, and Sacagawea. Recently, she published Stone Giant: Michelangelo’s David and How He Came to Be, a picture book about Michelangelo and his famous David sculpture. This week, she chatted with Kidsbiographer about her own encounter with David, the thrill of realizing a creative vision, and the joys of sharing her awe with young readers.

Kidsbiograper: Your author’s biography explains how you became intrigued by Michelangelo’s David during a trip to Florence. Can you talk a bit more about the story behind Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: I had only seen photos of the famous David and had always wanted to see it “in person,” but I was not prepared for how truly beautiful it is. Entering the Galleria dell’Accademia, where David is housed, is like entering a church: you walk quietly and reverently down a long aisle lined with other Michelangelo statues. At the end, in its own curved niche, stands the David. It is even taller up close than it seems in photographs, and I stood with everyone else in my tour group, our heads tilted back and jaws agape, drinking in all that beauty.

I could not stop looking at David’s face. It seemed to me the whole story of David and Goliath was told in the expression on that face. I could see David looking at his adversary in the distance. I could see him squinting a bit, judging the distance he’d have to throw his stone. I could see him owning that moment, taking the responsibility of the fight. I could see his resolve in the set of his jaw. In cold, hard stone, the artist had laid out the entire story.

I looked at that face for a very long time. So long, in fact, that the rest of the tour group moved on without us. And still I kept standing there, unable to pull myself away. My very understanding husband encouraged me to take all the time I needed. I never did catch up with the rest of the tour.

Kidsbiographer: What was the most exciting aspect of the research you conducted to write Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: Even with all the staring I had done when I visited the David, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to see more. So I was thrilled to find a collection of photographs of the sculpture by Aurelio Amendola. These were black and white close ups of every part of the sculpture: face, torso, feet. My favorite: a close-up shot of David’s right hand. It is so amazingly lifelike with veins and perfectly carved knuckles. I swear I can see pores in David’s marble “skin.”

Kidsbiographer: Throughout the text, the word giant reemerges in different contexts, referring to the original block of marble, Goliath the biblical character, the finished statue of David, and perhaps Michelangelo himself. Can you describe how this motif evolved during the writing process?

Jane Sutcliffe: The people of Florence really did refer to their big block of marble as a giant—“il gigante.” It was really just a happy accident that the subject of the marble was David, the famous giant-slayer. I also knew that the word conjures up the image of a kind of “fee, fi, fo, fum” ogre, so I used that to play with the reader’s expectations a bit in the opening line of the book: “There was a giant in the city of Florence.” I liked the line, and decided it also applied to Michelangelo’s masterpiece, so I ended the book with the same line. And just like that, a theme was born. I was very pleased that the illustrator, John Shelley, picked up on the theme and showed the finished David as towering over the city like a giant. It’s a very powerful illustration.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite parts of Stone Giant is the book’s conclusion. Everyone in Florence is admiring the statue and embracing it as a symbol of their republic. Michelangelo, however, is not elated by the praise he and his work are receiving: “And Michelangelo? He saw his David. He was just as the artist had seen him when he first looked at his enormous stone.” He is not interested in wealth, fame, or even critical acclaim, but merely the realization of his own artistic vision. What do you hope young readers will take away from this part of the narrative?

Jane Sutcliffe: The David is a masterpiece for many reasons. I see it as a triumph of vision. I think we all have moments when we see a path clearly and know what the outcome must be. And then all we have to do is remove whatever will not take us to our goal.

Kidsbiographer: What is the most gratifying response you’ve received from a young reader about Stone Giant?

Jane Sutcliffe: I’ve been privileged to read the book to several groups of children now. Adults always seem to hold their breath when I come to the illustration of the full-length David and wonder how kids will react. But I’m happy to say I’ve never gotten a raised eyebrow, a question, a giggle, or anything other than rapt attention from young readers. Kids recognize the beauty and power of the David and simply accept it.

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

Jane Sutcliffe: I have a picture book called Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, which is coming out next year from Charlesbridge. The book describes a typical trip to the old Globe Theatre to see a play by Mr. Shakespeare, and is told using Shakespeare’s own words (“because the long and the short of it is this: no one could tell a story like Mr. William Shakespeare.”) And I am so pleased that John Shelley will be illustrating. Together again!




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