Isn’t summer funny? I feel like I’m simultaneously racing at high speeds and getting nothing done. With apologies to the wonderful Jeanne Walker Harvey, I’m late in posting this interview. But I think you’ll all agree Jeanne is worth waiting for.
Make sure you check out her books, beautiful examples of creative approaches to nonfiction.
In your beautiful book, MY HAND SING THE BLUES: ROMARE BEARDEN’S CHILDHOOD JOURNEY, you didn’t opt for a straight-out biography. How would you describe the way you told Bearden’s story, and why did you make that choice?
Thanks for saying the book is beautiful. It’s so magical to see one’s words joined with illustrations in a picture book. I feel that the talented Elizabeth Zunon‘s illustrations, a stunning combination of collage and paintings, truly sing. And I was very fortunate that Margery Cuyler, publisher of Marshall Cavendish Children’s, edited it with true grace and expertise.
I chose to write this book in a loose blues format (three line stanzas with repeating rhyming phrases) because of the influence that blues and jazz music played in Romare Bearden’s life. And as soon as I made that choice, I thought, “WHAT have I done?! I don’t know how to write blues!” I was rather angry at my muse for leading me down a path way outside my comfort zone. I tried to pull an early draft out of an online critique group led by the amazing Uma Krishnaswami. But she wouldn’t let me go hide in my shell. I think I was saved by focusing on Romare Bearden’s words — I wanted to weave in as many of his own thoughts as I could. He not only wrote a good deal about his childhood and artistic experience, but he participated in many interviews in which he was very articulate and passionate.
I was inspired to write this story when I gave tours, as a school group docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, of a Romare Bearden exhibit organized by the National Gallery. Children loved the stories that his incredible collages evoke, and a large part of his life story revolves around music.
What can you tell us about Astro and the process of writing and publishing Astro the Steller Sea Lion?
As I tell students when I visit schools, Astro is a case of “fact wilder than fiction.” I read an article in our local newspaper about Astro, a stranded Steller sea lion pup rescued by the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Astro bonded to his caregivers at the Center, and every time he was released he returned to places with people. His last visit was to a school’s walk-a-thon at a field next to the San Francisco Bay. He even scooted around the field with the children!
Up to that point, I hadn’t written any nonfiction manuscripts, except magazine articles, but I instantly envisioned Astro’s story as a picture book. And then serendipity took over — I remembered that my local Postmistress was a volunteer at the Center. When I asked her if she knew anything about Astro, she said she was one of the lead volunteers working with Astro. She was a perfect source of information. And then I read in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators newsletter about a publisher, Sylvan Dell, which focuses on engaging stories for nature-related picture books. I sent the manuscript to them, and only to them, and they accepted it! Totally wild in my multi-decade efforts at getting published.
Were you interested in nonfiction as a young reader? What were some of your favorite books?
I was quite the bookworm as a girl. I loved curling up with my collie and reading, reading, reading. Every week my mom would take me to the local library and I would return home with a huge stack of books. I’ll confess that I didn’t read nonfiction. I read novels with stories that I couldn’t stop reading, such as THE SECRET GARDEN, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, A WRINKLE IN TIME, FROM THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL F. FRANKWEILER, LITTLE WOMEN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, the Dr. Doolittle Books. The picture books I loved were HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON and all of the Beatrix Potter and Dr. Seuss books.
I think that the story aspect of narrative nonfiction is what draws me to write picture book biographies. I seek to find a way into a person’s life and their experiences that will hopefully intrigue, and maybe even inspire, children. I recently reread an E. B White quote that resonated with me, “All I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” Now, if I could only write like him …
What are you working on now?
I’m in various stages of researching and writing several more picture book biographies, all about creative innovative people.
Like all writers, I work away on my writing by myself, and it’s quite thrilling to get public recognition. I’m incredibly honored that MY HANDS SING THE BLUES is listed on the 100 Best Children’s Books for 2011 by The New York Public Library, and just recently was chosen for the 2012 International Reading Association (IRA) Children’s Book Award in the Primary Nonfiction category. That’s even better than chocolate (which is saying a lot for me).
Thank you so much for taking the time and congratulations on all your success.
To celebrate the IRA Children’s Book Award, Jeanne will be giving away a signed copy of MY HANDS SING THE BLUES. Leave a comment to enter. Winner will be selected July 23.
You can learn more about Jeanne Walker Harvey by visiting her website.