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2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour: Through the Window – Talking with Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré

ThroughWindowHere’s a clever little idea that awards of every kind should try. After announcing the recipients of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards at the ALA Youth Media Awards a week or two ago, the Association of Jewish Libraries and the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee have planned a blog tour for each of their winners.  Showcasing their 2019 gold and silver medalists, from February 10-14 you’ll be able to find interviews with the winning authors and illustrators in a variety of Jewish and children’s literature blogs. You can find the full blog tour schedule on the AJL blog.

And, if you were to visit that schedule, you might see that today, alongside Out of the Box at the Horn Book, I have the very great honor of interview both Barbara Rosenstock AND Mary GrandPré, the creators of the magnificent Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category.

One of my favorite picture biographies of last year, this book captures with seeming effortlessness the life and times of one of the world’s greatest painters. His art seems tailor-made for children, and the story itself stands as a marvelous example of how to make a picture book biography at all. I got to ask Barb and Mary some questions and, in the process, get a little schooled on my own assumptions.


 

Betsy Bird: This is not your first collaboration together, making a picture book biography of an artist (that would be the Caldecott Honor title The Noisy Paintbox). Nor is it your second (Vincent Can’t Sleep). I do believe that this is actually your third, so my first question to you is a two-parter. First off, how did your collaborations begin in the first place? And also, insofar as I can tell, there’s no official name for this series. What would you name it, if you had the chance?

BarbRosenstockBarbara Rosenstock: Our collaboration began when I was lucky enough to sell The Noisy Paint Box to Knopf and they asked Mary to illustrate…I was just the one screaming, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” on the phone. And I’d probably name the series, “Artists Whose Work Barb and Mary Like,” If there’s a deeper meaning to who we are choosing, I don’t know about it. Is there, Mary?

BB: How do you go about choosing your subjects? Is it something you discuss together?

BR: Do we discuss the story ahead of time? Not really. Do I make sure Mary likes and admires the artists that I’m considering writing about? Yes. And Mary herself was the inspiration for at least one of the books. I was asked to research Van Gogh but it wasn’t until Mary came downstairs for breakfast at ALA one day and mentioned that she had trouble sleeping when she was creating that I thought “Vincent couldn’t sleep either” and realized that Van Gogh’s insomnia might make a decent text structure.

BB: What drew you to Marc Chagall’s story? Was there something about his life and art that adapted more or less easily to a picture book encapsulation, in comparison to your previous subjects?

BR: I love Chagall’s blue. I have loved that color and his stained glass ever since I saw the America Windows at the Art Institute of Chicago right after they were installed there in the 1970s. I found out Mary loved his work also and started researching. In Chagall’s case, he moved so often and seemed to have like 90 different lives, so it was a bit more difficult to see how to make a short form book that served his art well. One day I was frustrated with the scope of the story and staring out my own window. I started thinking…every time Chagall looked out a window he was in another country—how am I gonna fit THAT into a picture book? And then…well the windows BECAME the story. It was easy in a way because there was SO MUCH material. It was difficult for the same reason.

BB: Mary, in the case of Marc Chagall, did you find this book to be more or less challenging than other picture book biographies of artists you have done?

Mary GrandPré: I think this book was less challenging for me, simply because I feel my work has some of the same qualities as Chagall’s… dreamy figures, animal and nature shapes, floating through space, bright colors… and like his work, my work also has a storytelling aspect to it. It felt like a good fit for me . I’ve always been inspired by Chagall’s work, and he actually reminds me of my father… a bit of a romantic, kind-hearted and strongly connected to his homeland.

I felt a strong connection to Barb’s story of Marc Chagall , and I thoroughly enjoyed making the paintings for it.

BB: Barb, when summarizing a person’s life, what determines whether you take a single moment and stretch it out into a book vs. summarizing their life as a whole?

BR: Sorry Betsy, but in general I do not think of biography as “summarizing” at all. I worry that that’s a narrow, overly traditional conception of the genre. And one I hope is changing. There’s so many “people stories” out there that don’t “summarize” at all. Does Otis & Will Discover the Deep summarize their lives? Nope. Is it even a biography? I’m not sure. But the library would categorize it that way even though It’s really a nonfiction adventure story about two guys. So honestly, since I’m not in charge of library categories, I just try to tell stories and mine happen to be about people. Sometimes it’s a one event story (like The Streak or Otis & Will) and other times it’s more wide ranging (like Through the Window.) The single moment vs. whole life “decision”…which I hesitate to call a decision at all…is made while writing, typically when I know the end of the book. Once I know where I’m going, what I’m trying to communicate; THEN I decide how much of the “life story” needs to be told to get there. My new goal is “the less the better.” I guess I’m a biographer that in some ways is trying hard NOT to write biography as it was presented to me as a young student.

BB: What is it about picture book biographies that appeals to you? You’ve been doing it for a number of years now and you show no signs of stopping. What’s the allure?

BR: My grandfather told stories about people he met, famous people and not famous people: the governor, the grocer, the kid down the street…he simply found people fascinating. Something about that way of approaching a subject is just in my DNA. I always think in terms of “who did that?” vs. “what is that?” People’s true stories are to my mind the most fascinating, the most inspiring and the most potentially connecting stories on the planet. But that “Biography” box? It’s just too tight. There are too many prior conceptions of what it must be, how it will be used and who can read it. And that’s especially true for children in classrooms. These are simply real people’s stories…read them casually, like you’d talk to someone interesting at the bus stop or read them seriously, like a heart to heart with a good friend. But they shouldn’t only come out to do school projects. I know kids (who are people after all) like to read about real people. With wonderful writers like Jen Bryant, Chris Barton, Duncan Tonatiuh, Patricia MacLachlan, and illustrators like Mary, Katherine Roy, Hadley Hooper, and Elizabeth Baddeley creating…they’re wonderful pieces of art.

BB: Mary, what I love about your work on these picture books is that you tread this delicate line between illustrating in the style of the artist featured and in your own style. The end result is both an homage and stylistic reference point. What’s your method? Do you adhere to a certain color palette? Are there specific paintings that inspire you? Elements they would return to again and again?

mary-grandpreMGP: Thank you. Yes, it’s definitely a balance between honoring the artist and letting my own artistic expression come through. First and foremost it’s about telling the story, in pictures… about listening to the what the author is saying and then bringing that story to life.  Style is secondary. Story is first. It’s important to not let the technique or style get in the way of what’s at the heart of the story.

Understanding Marc Chagall’s vision and his source of inspiration was important. I researched his work at length, and filled my head with his visual world as much as possible, then brought that feeling and emotion to Barb’s story. My own style comes through naturally, I think, just because that’s what happens when you draw your whole life.

BB: Barb, have you ever rejected a biographical subject, not because their life wasn’t interesting, but because you just didn’t have the right hook to fit them within the pages of a picture book?

BR: Well, it’s not like I have some “famous folks to write about” list that I check off. I more often find the story focus, the subject, the “hook” as you call it and work BACK to a person’s life. In other words, “hear about synesthesia, find out about Kandinsky having it, write about Kandinsky’s life” vs. “what can I write about Kandinsky?” Although once these particular books became a series of artists, that obviously changed a bit. But it general, no, if I don’t complete a story it’s because I’m bored by it; not because I can’t find a way to write it. That’s not to say that sometimes it will (or won’t? I’m bad at grammar) take years to find it…but so far, if I’m interested, I’ve found it eventually…I might have to start worrying about that. Nah…Maybe…Nah. If the books are supposed to come into the world, they will find a way. Fingers crossed.

BB: Is there another picture book biography in the works? Can you say who it might be?

BR: Yes the next in the series is about Claude Monet’s art process. The book is titled Mornings with Monet and I think it’ll be out sometime in 2021. The whole book takes place within 5 hours of the life of Claude Monet. It’s an unusual structure, I hope readers like it.

BB: Mary, is there an artist you’d ever long to do a biography of, if only to take a crack at their style?

MGP: I would love to do a bio on Louise Nevelson .. I admire her sculptural pieces.. very strong , yet simple, and beautifully crafted multi-layered pieces. Also her collage work is bold and colorful. I have been exploring abstract painting in my own work, and I have come to appreciate it on a whole new level. Nevelson’s work is my new inspiration… and I would love to see a powerful, contemporary woman artist like herself get the recognition she deserves.

One of my favorite quotes is from Louise Nevelson… “True strength is delicate.”


 

Many thanks to Barb and Mary for taking the time out to talk to me. If you’re interested in the rest of the blog tour, be sure to check out the following sites:

2019 SYDNEY TAYLOR BOOK AWARD BLOG TOUR

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2019

Emily Jenkins and Paul Zelinsky, author and illustrator of All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Younger Readers Category
At Out of the Box at the Horn Book

Barb Rosenstock and Mary GrandPré, author and illustrator of Through the Window: Views of Marc Chagall’s Life
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At A Fuse #8 Production at School Library Journal

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, 2019

Jonathan Auxier, author of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers Category
At The Prosen People at The Jewish Book Council

Jane Breskin Zalben and Mehrdokht Amini, author and illustrator of A Moon for Moe and Mo
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers Category
At 100 Scope Notes at School Library Journal

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 12, 2019

Rachel Lynn Solomon, author of You’ll Miss Me When I’m Gone
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Teen Readers Category
At Good Reads with Ronna

Elissa Brent Weissman, author of The Length of a String
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At Mr. Schu Reads

Susan Kusel & Rebecca Levitan, leadership of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee
At The Children’s Book Podcast

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2019

Vesper Stamper, author of What the Night Sings
Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Teen Readers Category
At Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Erica Perl, author of All Three Stooges
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers Category
At From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 2019

Blog Tour Wrap-Up at The Whole Megillah

Reflections on the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Awards at ALA at Susan Kusel’s Blog

10th Anniversary of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour at The Book of Life

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Great questions! Thanks for this terrific interview!

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