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What’s Red and Green and Blue and White All Over? An Interview with Lee Wind and Paul O. Zelinsky, Of Course!

My Jewish sister informs me that Hanukkah comes early this year. I looked it up and sure and shooting, she’s correct. Clocking in at an early November 28th for the first day, I hope you have your decorations at the ready and children’s books ready for checkout. Of course, there’s a new book out this year that you might want to consider displaying as well. It’s Jewish. It’s Christian. And it’s created by the singular team of Lee Wind and Paul O. Zelinsky.

It was my supreme pleasure to interview this power duo about RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE on the cusp of the holiday season:


Betsy Bird: Lee and Paul, thank you so much for joining me here today. Lee, I think I’m going to begin with you about this book. I know that a lot of RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE is inspired by a true story, but can you tell us a bit about how you discovered it? And what was it about this story that appealed to you particularly?

Lee Wind: Happy to be here, Betsy, thanks!

Lee Wind

So it turns out that this pretty miraculous thing happened in December 1993, in Billings, Montana. Most houses were decorated for Christmas (the Red and Green in the title), and on one block there was a house decorated for Chanukah (the Blue and White in the title). A little boy, Isaac, lived in that house, and one night someone threw a stone through his decorated window. This hate crime riled the town up and there were two decisions: The first, Isaac’s family had to decide whether they should put their decorations back up in the repaired window, and stand up for themselves. The second was that people who knew this had happened had to decide if they were going to be bystanders or if they were going to stand up in some way to help. Some kids in Isaac’s Kindergarten class drew menorahs in support, and one family (whose daughter Teresa was in class with Isaac) put their image of a menorah up in their window along with their Christmas decorations. The idea caught on, and in just a few weeks over 10,000 menorahs were displayed in windows all over town in solidarity: Red and Green and Blue and White (the title!) And when the whole town stood up together for the true meaning of the holidays – the true meaning of community – the haters backed down. And love won.

At the time and for a few years after, it got a lot of attention. There was a PBS documentary, it inspired the formation of the nonprofit Not In Our Town, it was covered in the local Billings, Montana newspaper and the New York Times. When I was doing the research, the editorial in the Billings Gazette that urged townsfolk to put up the accompanying image of a menorah in their windows as a symbol of “our determination to live together in harmony…” gave me goosebumps.

I loved the idea of crafting a fictional story for really young kids inspired by what happened in Billings. Not centering the hate, but rather making it about the power kids have to change the world. Right now! By standing up for themselves (Isaac) and by standing up for someone you care about (Teresa).

BB: Paul, I wonder if you could give us a rundown of how you came to work on this manuscript. How did it come to your attention? Why did you decide to work on it?

Paul O. Zelinsky: Thanks for having us here, Betsy! I’m delighted to answer these questions.

Paul O. Zelinsky

It began when publisher Arthur Levine, whom I’d known for a long time but had never worked with, wrote to ask whether I could look at a manuscript he had. I wasn’t working on a book then; I was using pretty much all my time caring for my wife during a series of health crises, but I was counting on all of that tapering off (which it did, happily). For those who don’t know, Arthur had just started his own publishing company after leaving Scholastic where he had been responsible for certain projects that some people might have heard of, such as a series of books about a boy named Harry Potter, or another series by one Phillip Pullman. I have a lot of respect for Arthur. It seemed like an exciting idea to join up with his little upstart company.

The manuscript turned out to be by Lee Wind, whom I’d also known for a long time, through his activities with SCBWI (where I’m honored to be a member of the Advisory Council).

In addition to its socially uplifting message, it was a well-told story about two young children doing something remarkable. Isaac’s short poems kept popping in like a song’s refrain, and commenting on the story like a Greek chorus. I liked how Lee kept the violent act of bigotry from being too frightening, or becoming a focus of the story at all. RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE was satisfying and interesting to read aloud, and its climax was inspiring in many ways.

But what made it interesting to read was exactly what gave me the most pause as an illustrator: during those breaks in the narrative where the poetry kicks in, what should happen with the pictures? Reading without illustrations, I felt a rhythm and a sense. But I saw nothing in my head. I could draw the poems as writing on lined paper, or I could illustrate the contents of the poems, and neither thing would be of much interest, or convey the feeling of the manuscript alone. That challenge was what led me finally to take on the project.

Recent Horn Book cover by Paul O. Zelinsky

BB: Lee, so many authorial choices go into crafting a picture book out of a real event. How did you decide what to keep and what to discard? Was there something you really wanted to include initially that eventually you simply couldn’t?

LW: There was so much that I had to let go of to tell the story in a way that would make sense to a five-year-old – that’s why I wrote a fictional story inspired by what happened.

Letting go of what really happened and just letting it be my larger framework let me play with the metaphor of colors and light. Making Isaac a poet gave him agency – just like making Teresa an artist gave her agency, too. And having them be best friends doing all this great stuff together gave us a friendship to cheer on at the center of it all.

Isaac and Teresa discover that playing with words and images can be powerful. Which is a nice parallel to my words and Paul’s art – we hope our combination will be powerful as well.

BB: Paul, back in 2018 you illustrated the ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY HANUKKAH by Emily Jenkins. It was, if I don’t miss my guess, the last picture book you did. Now you’ve returned to Hanukkah with a very different story. What is it about this particular holiday that causes it to crop up repeatedly in your work?

POZ: Funny you should ask! Before AOAKFH, as I call it, I don’t think Hanukkah or any religious holiday ever came up in a book of mine. My wife, whose Jewish upbringing was much more observant than mine, had been, let us say, suggesting for the preceding thirty-some years how much she would like me to make a book of Jewish interest. (My sole sop to her, and it was tiny, was in THE WHEELS ON THE BUS: In its panoramic final spread I didn’t include a church but I made one domed building a synagogue by putting a Jewish star over the door. I just measured—the star is 0.8 mm across. I guess you could call this an Easter Egg?) But the short answer to your question is that two Hanukkah-related books in a row was pure coincidence. This second one, my wife points out, has at least as much Christmas in it as Hanukkah, and might have special appeal for families with both religions represented.

BB: Lee, you have a YA novel and a MG nonfiction published, and this is your debut picture book. Any early insights as to how it’s different (or the same) as you expected?

LW: It’s pretty different. Maybe a lot of that is the team aspect of it.

There’s this saying I’d heard for years, that publishers try to match a new picture book author with an established illustrator, to help the book get a bit more notice. That’s certainly true in this situation, with Paul being so acclaimed (and rightly so)!

I was giddy and excited when I heard he’d said yes to illustrating the story. And then, I was nervous… Paul seems to do a new, amazing style for every book, so what would it be for mine? When at long last I got to see some early art I did an actual happy dance. I couldn’t be more thrilled with how it all came together. It’s not MY book anymore. It’s OUR book. And that’s… awesome.

BB: Paul, can you speak a little to the medium you worked in for this book? You already had a directive in terms of what colors to use, thanks to the book’s very title, but why did you choose to create the book the way that you did? Additionally, is it all traditional media or is there some digital art in there as well?

POZ: I was once asked to write an essay about my favorite medium, and while I thought I was equally interested in all of them, I realized that oil paint was what I turned to the most, by far. However, for the last few books I’ve been working on my laptop, drawing into a digital (Wacom) tablet, with successively less involvement of anything else, even paper sketches brought in as scans. RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE was painted (it’s a stretch to say “painted” but why not?) in Photoshop – all except one dreadful bottom layer of pencil scratching, which doesn’t show at all in the final pictures.

A nice byproduct of digital art, in which different elements of the illustrations can sit on their own layers, is that it becomes easy to make animations from it, which I do for fun. One animation has become the book’s official trailer. I could take my illustration of houses with holiday lights and simply turn off the layer with the lights—instant “before” state! And then the lights could pop on with a single click—or multiple clicks and they’ll pop on one by one.

BB: So in terms of the process, did the two of you collaborate?

POZ: Actually, although we knew each other going in, we didn’t collaborate. We both observed the unwritten law of American children’s book publishing, that any communication between the author and the illustrator takes place through the intermediary of the editor.

But we did a lot of collaborating of another sort. As I mentioned, I was puzzled about how to approach the illustrations, and I took my puzzlement to a group of writers and illustrators I meet with monthly. I got various supportive comments, but one friend was particularly inspired by the challenge and dashed off a little drawing to suggest how I could approach the book as a whole. That friend was Mark Alan Stamaty (a truly unique illustrator; his drawings look primitive, weird and hilarious, but at base he’s a serious visual artist; he reveres the great American abstractionists). What Mark suggested has never come naturally to me: avoid the literal, embrace the symbolic. His sketch actually became my basis for the interior illustration that was picked up by The Horn Book for the cover of their November/December issue. Mark deserves much credit.

LW: And I had some help from my own community of children’s book creators as well. An early version of the manuscript had the main poem Isaac writes repeat, like a song’s chorus. I showed it to my friend Jane Yolen, who had the brilliant idea to allow the poem to build instead. It was one of those “Ah-ha!” moments when cutting words out made things so much more powerful.

Now, the poem builds on itself as the story progresses, and with Paul’s artistic touch the words dance across the images, and it all crescendos to a pretty fantastic double finale. Oh, Paul has a story about one of those last images!

POZ: Later in the process, I showed my dummy to the wonderful Barbara McClintock, during a rare mid-pandemic (outdoor and masked) visit. With great diplomacy she managed to imply that a certain illustration—one of the climactic scenes—wasn’t all it could be. And I realized she was right. Without her input, the climax of this book wouldn’t be nearly as powerful.

LW: It’s a lovely parallel to the story’s theme: amazing things happen when a community comes together. And for both Paul and me, our community came together to help us make Red and Green and Blue and White as good as it can be.

POZ: I feel like we should quote Isaac’s final poem here:

“Christmas Tree and Menorah Light

Red and Green and Blue and White

Stronger together

Shining bright!”

BB: Finally, what are you both working on next?

LW: I’m deep into the research and writing of the second book in my MG nonfiction series the Queer History Project. It’s all about how gender is a social construct, and is seen differently throughout time and around our world. I’m learning something new and fascinating nearly every day! The Gender Binary Is a Big Lie will be out in 2023 from Lerner.

POZ: I have two dummies underway: first is a Cinderella story with a twist, by Deborah Hopkinson, and after that, a fun picture book called Still Life by Alex London; it’s about all the things that are not allowed in a still life painting. There is a princess in both books.

LW: Thank you for this opportunity, Betsy!

POZ: Yes, thanks!


Thanks right back atcha, guys! And thanks to those of you for reading. RED AND GREEN AND WHITE AND BLUE is on bookstore and library shelves now everywhere. And be sure to check out this trailer from Arthur A. Levine, also describing the book:

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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. I loved this book so much that we are making it our December 2022 pick for Family Dinner Book Club.

  2. Judy Weymouth says

    I first saw RED AN GREEN AND WHITE AND BLUE in a bookstore in Augusta, Maine last month and was immediately attracted by its beautiful cover. So great that Horn Book featured it as its December magazine cover. The incident happened in Billings, Montana in 1993. Nearly 30 years have passed since then. I can’t help but wonder if such an event would be possible in 2021.

    Thank you Betsy, Lee, and Paul for this wonderful interview. I loved learning background information about this lovely story.

  3. Judy Weymouth says

    RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE . . . not that the order of the colors makes any difference! Sorry for the mistake!

  4. No worries, Judy. Thanks for your kind words! And Jodie, talking about RED AND GREEN AND BLUE AND WHITE at your Family Dinner Book Club sounds amazing – I hope it’s a great discussion!

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