This must be the first time that I am reviewing a huge tome of a book for Nonfiction Monday, as my usual choices are geared towards picture book biographies.
As our current bimonthly theme is Dusty Bookshelves and Library Loot, and I borrowed Leonard’s book from our library here in Singapore, I thought that it would be a good book to share with fellow kidlit bloggers and kidlit lovers as most of us also conduct interviews with authors/illustrators in our websites. I also wanted to know more about Leonard’s works ever since we invited him to be the Keynote Speaker for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content here in Singapore. Nonfiction Monday is hosted this week by Shelf-Employed.
The Interviewer’s Voice. As an academic who conducts research studies on eminent, creative individuals and artists who have charted new territories and redefined their domains and areas of disciplines, I found this book infinitely fascinating. In addition to learning more about the lives of 21 beloved, highly-respected, and multi-award-winning authors/illustrators, it was also interesting to get a glimpse of Leonard’s own distinctive voice as the interviewer. While this is not my usual picture book biography, this book is a distillation of the life story narratives of picture book artists and their personal journeys. There are also glossy and colorful spreads in the middle of the book which show a few of the original illustrations of the book artists and their creative process.
In his introduction, Leonard shared what he hoped to accomplish with this book:
In each of these interviews, I am on a kind of mad quest for the vital thread that links an artist’s life story to the stories and images for which he or she is known. How does a young person grow up to become an artist? What childhood experiences prepared these particular twenty-one men and women – or left them unprepared – for what was to come in their creative lives? What was it that inspired them, and where did they find the courage they required, and who gave them the help and guidance that sent them on their way? And why of all art forms did they choose the picture book to be their life’s work and passion? – p. 6
The reader feels like a voyeur of sorts, a fly on the wall, as children’s book expert, critic, and historian, Leonard shares candid and thought-provoking conversations with the likes of Mitsumasa Anno, Helen Oxenbury, Eric Carle, Jerry Pinkney, the late Maurice Sendak, Peter Sis, Mo Willems, Chris Raschka, William Steig among others.
Leonard would usually begin his interview by asking the authors to describe what they were like as children. He also shows an intimate familiarity with the authors’ body of works – as he carefully weaves together how their storytelling and masterful artwork have evolved through the years. I was also amused to note how Leonard’s sedate, quiet, and extremely intelligent voice came through.
He has a very gentle, non-confrontational, [even to the point of non-questioning] way about him that gives space for the author/illustrator to sift through their responses, to re-imagine, and to leisurely respond with their own authentic voices. Leonard provides invitational prompts, sharing his own observations and insights, offering little gaps here and there for the authors to casually fill in with their witty rejoinders.
Up Close and Personal. While I am familiar with most of the authors that Leonard interviewed, there were a few whose works I didn’t know very well such as Ashley Bryan, Yumi Heo, Tana Hoban and Lisbeth Zwerger. All the more reason for me to visit the library and borrow their books. I was also excited to discover my favorite authors’ heroes as they were starting on their journeys as book artists. In the interview conducted with Peter Sis, he mentioned that one of the people who influenced him greatly in his work was Saul Steinberg and he spoke greatly about The Passport. Naturally, I had to search for this book and I was delighted to find it at the NIE library.
Among the interviews that Leonard conducted, I was especially in awe of the one he had with Maurice Sendak. It was clear that they shared a bond and that they were comfortable with each other.
There was none of the tiptoeing-around-the-edges-vibe that the other conversations had. I enjoyed Sendak’s candor (I liked how he referred to his picture books as archaeological excavations of his soul – a “Sendakian dig”), his contemptuous irreverence, and his expansive mind that touched on William Blake and Van Gogh and Theatre – the theatricality, panache, and blinding brilliance to the point of agony are ever present.
I also sensed from the get-go that William Steig would be a tough interviewee as could be seen in his opening line as he spoke to Leonard:
William Steig: Interviewers always ask me the same questions, like “How’d you get into this racket?” Stuff like that.
Leonard S. Marcus: I promise not to ask you that. – p. 229
A pretty good reminder to most of us who do kidlit interviews in our websites to be more imaginative in the way we phrase our questions and for us to do our research thoroughly so we could ask questions that may not have been raised previously. I also remembered laughing out loud when I saw the part where Leonard asked William about the significance of Sylvester finding a pebble in a garbage can in the award-winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble:
Q: My idea was just that the pebble is such an ordinary thing that most people wouldn’t have thought it worth keeping.
A: Are you trying to say something about my psychology?
Q: Not in so many words. [Laughter]
I would recommend this book to librarians, educators, kidlit lovers and enthusiasts who are keen to know more about their beloved authors and illustrators. More than anything, Leonard’s book has made their voices come alive as these internationally-renowned authors [who are always thought of as larger-than-life] are transformed into human beings with their own foibles and struggles just like the rest of us.
Show Me A Story! Why Picture Books Matter: Conversations with 21 of the World’s Most Celebrated Illustrators. Compiled and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus with a foreword by David Wiesner. Candlewick Press, 2012. Book borrowed from the community library.