Jerry Pinkney & Rebecca Stead Interviews in Shelf Awareness

I know, I know, I’m probably the last person to post about the 2010 Newbery & Caldecott Medal winners, but I figured you would have heard about them already. What I don’t know if you’ve read are these two interviews in last week’s Shelf Awareness. Shelf Awareness is a publication primarily for booksellers. It comes almost every day, and as I am a busy bookseller, I usually look at 3 or 4 of them at a time, meaning I don’t always get to them in the week they’ve been sent. So, here, late, are two great, albeit brief, interviews with Jerry Pinkney and Rebecca Stead. Congratulations to both of them!

(Also to Libba Bray for winning the Printz for Going Bovine!)

Read the original Jerry Pinkney interview here.
Read the original Rebecca Stead
interview here.

Jerry Pinkney: A Story that Resonates

On Monday, after five Caldecott Honor book citations, five Coretta Scott King Awards and four Coretta Scott King Honor Awards, Jerry Pinkney was awarded the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown). From cover to endpapers to the 40 pages within, the book wordlessly depicts the story of a lion who frees a mouse that may seem small, but who, in turn, frees the mighty lion. Pinkney’s first book, The Adventures of Spider (1964), “which by the way was published by Little, Brown,” he points out, is still in print. He attended the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts) on full scholarship. He has received five New York Times Best Illustrated Awards, was a U.S. nominee for the 1997 Hans Christian Andersen Illustration Medal, and his artwork is in galleries and museums around the world. Next month, the Schomburg Center in Harlem will exhibit 40 pieces that he created in the 1970s (he’ll give a talk and sign books on February 6). In November, the Norman Rockwell Museum will exhibit Pinkney’s work on the theme of “place.”

How did growing up in Philadelphia influence you as an artist?

I was born in 1939, so those early years in the 1940s were a time where we still had the shadow of segregation as far north as Philadelphia. I grew up on a street that was all African-Americans; many had migrated from the South. It was a dead-end street–to the left was an Italian community and to the right was a Jewish community. A lot of my early life was informed by different and separate communities; you see that in my work.

My life was shaped by going to an African-American school that wasn’t integrated until I was in junior high. You see in my work the pursuit of telling the African-American experience and also the other side of it, which is how this country is such a patchwork of different cultures and nationalities. I do see the world and my community from the lens of a black person.

You included “The Lion and the Mouse” in your Aesop’s Fables (2000). Why did you want to probe more deeply into this fable?

Going into that project, there were three of us looking for well known tales but also lesser known stories. We must have looked at over 200 fables. “The Lion and the Mouse” was at the top of everyone’s list. It was always with me as far back as I can remember. It was a favorite of mine–the majestic lion is a favorite for most of us. It’s a great fable with a powerful moral. It resonates today as much as it did hundreds of years ago. It’s magical, that these two opposite characters both play a role in the same narrative. I was anxious to revisit it because that one spot illustration [in Aesop’s Fables] wasn’t enough to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it.

How did you plan the pacing of the narrative, given that the pictures tell the entire story?

I knew I would add to the front end, and I’ve been doing that with some of my other stories with the endpapers. Let’s see, how we can lead the reader into the story? How can I prepare you so you go on that journey? Why would the mouse be out on the plains at that time? She’d be searching for food. For herself? Let’s add family. Once I added the family on the front end, it made sense for the lion to have a family. I thought it was a treasure of a fable, but did I know the family would be important in the book? No, I didn’t know any of that. You listen to what you’re doing and what the story’s asking.

You recently moved to a new studio, with space to lay out an entire picture book at once. Did that help you in your process with this book?

I think about this often. I don’t know if there’s a direct line, but I’ve been there for a year and a half. In that time, I’ve done The Lion and the Mouse, The Sweethearts of Rhythm and a project on the African burial ground [in New York] that opens next month. [The work] seems more focused and pointed. It’s the ability to lay the work out, but it’s also an environment that’s really for work. There’s no telephone, no television or computer. There’s no denying there’s a difference in the projects since I’ve been in that space. And the work is more joyful.

The Serengeti landscape is so integral to your book. Have you been there?

I’ve not been to the Serengeti. It’s funny, I met a woman after church who’d bought the book, and she said she’d been to the Serengeti, and she said when she opened the book, she felt she was back there again. One of the reasons I’ve worked so well with National Geographic and the National Parks is that a lot of it is reinterpreting; what you’re doing is reconstructing because a lot of it doesn’t exist anymore. I use my imagination to evoke the spirit and the look of a place.

Why do you prefer watercolors?

I’ve always loved drawing as far back as when I was in college. There are two reasons: first of all, drawing and line has been important to me. In the early stages, for commission projects and for publishing, most of the work was printed in two to three colors, so line was important to the separation process [in which the same piece of art was run through the printer several times with each color separately]. Then I chose a transparent medium because the line is still important to what I do–it’s about the importance of the mark and the possibility of that mark.
– Jennifer M. Brown

Rebecca Stead Asks the Big Questions

Rebecca Stead has spent her whole life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan , the setting for her novel When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb/Random House). For sixth-grader Miranda, the possibilities in that neighborhood seem at first to contract–the day her best friend Sal gets punched by a stranger and stops spending time with her–and then to stretch boundlessly when she begins to make new friends, especially Marcus, and to receive mysterious notes from someone who seems to know her future. On Monday, the book won the 2010 Newbery Medal.

Congratulations! Oh my god. I’m still taking it in. It’s pretty wonderful.

Does the neighborhood feel different to you now?

No. I always walk around thinking about all the layers of history in this neighborhood because I’ve really never left it for any long period of time. I think, ‘If I could be standing here in 100 years, and I turned in a circle, what would I see?’ That’s still with me, and that’s the kind of stuff that inspired the book in the first place. I think it’s the same, just better because I’m so happy.

Was writing your debut novel, First Light, different from writing your second, When You Reach Me? It was very different, for a whole bunch of reasons. When I was writing First Light, I had so much doubt about my ability to get to the end of a book. I spent at least three years revising it. There was a lot of small work, first with a critique group, and a lot of intense work with Wendy Lamb. There was a lot of fear and doubt because that’s how it is with your first book. It felt like hubris to think I could be a “real” writer. The first book was a lot of getting past that. I owe a lot to the people I was working with in those years, especially to Wendy. So with When You Reach Me, I started out in a different place. It was such a different process because I decided to use a lot from my childhood, like the setting, and I tried to channel my sixth-grade self. That was a gift of material, and material is the hardest thing to come by. It was kind of hard and sort of daring to make that decision. I thought, ‘Am I really going to go back to my place of growing up?’ Once I decided to do that it was easier.

Writing about time travel can’t be easy.

There are a lot of challenges in trying to create this kind of puzzle. It’s full of these wild ideas and technical impossibilities, but I want it to have its own internal logic. Every time we changed the story, either Wendy or I would find a new reader. We wanted to make sure we had fresh eyes on every draft, because we weren’t sure what we’d taken away. People would tell us, “Here’s where I got tripped up,” “Here’s what I found inconsistent.” I had some way too complex ideas because I didn’t know everything that was happening when I started out. Happily, I was able to let them go and stick with the idea that the simplest solution would be the most elegant and satisfying solution.

Are you a re-reader?

I believe–and this is not an original idea from me–that really strong writing yields more every time you read it. That’s why I return to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and William Maxwell’s So Long See You Tomorrow–which I re-read over and over because I think it’s a perfect book–and Alice Munro. That’s something I strive to do, to create work that yields something else on the second reading and something else on the third. Did you read and re-read A Wrinkle in Time?

Originally when Miranda was carrying around A Wrinkle in Time, it was a reminder to me that she was a reader who was stubborn and passionate, but she wouldn’t give it up, she wouldn’t let other things in. She was a bit narrow-minded. A lot of the story, for me, is about her leaving one stage of life and entering another. I wasn’t at all sure that we were going to leave A Wrinkle in Time in there. It’s such a meaningful book, and so many people feel a connection to it. I didn’t want to throw it in as a prop. We talked about taking it out. But another part of me wanted to leave it in there because it’s such a brave and wonderful book, and it’s not afraid to talk about the small insecurities we have and carry with us throughout our lives. But it also has these wild ideas about the universe and the struggle for good. So what we decided as a group–Wendy and the people who were reading for me–was to see if we could make the connections between my story and A Wrinkle in Time a little deeper. I tried to see Madeleine L’Engle’s story from different perspectives, like Marcus’s perspective. It yielded these new ideas about the ways that stories can color characters’ perspectives about time and what’s possible. I think kids talk about huge things that we stop talking about when we’re older.

Your book does that. Kids start it over as soon as they’ve finished it.

I visited a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade group on Friday. I said, “You can ask me questions while I’m signing, but nothing really hard, because I might misspell your name or something.” One student came up and said, “I hope this isn’t a hard question: How do you understand time? Is it a loop or what is it?” We had some discussion about it, and of course I couldn’t sign books while we had it. He wandered off to his bus still thinking about it, and I thought, “We should all spend more time asking ourselves these big questions.” One reason I love writing for this age group is that the kids are so smart and focused and able to wrap their minds around these ideas.

You are clearly comfortable with the idea of time travel.

I think time puzzles are fun and people love them. I never get tired of them–ever. On some level, it’s just that humans struggle with the idea that there’ll be a time when we’re not here. Sometimes when I’m standing on a corner, I think what will be here in 100 years, because it feels impossible that the world will go on without you or that it existed before you. Even though intellectually we know that, it’s hard to accept. – Jennifer M. Brown

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