I shouldn't have worried. After an initial mix-up about where we were meeting, Chris, who is 55, bounded into the restaurant with a grin and a porkpie hat perched on his head. He had just been using it as a prop at the Politics & Prose event, where he led an interactive program designed to introduce elementary school students to the unique music and life of musician Sun Ra, the subject of Chris' newest book. Much to my relief, it turned out Chris is an incredibly nice person and quite easy to talk with, so I could relax and actually enjoy the interview.
|Credit: Catherine Wink|
Over the years, meanwhile, Chris had begun more seriously doing art, first inspired by a "wonderful art professor" at St. Olaf's. It became more and more clear to Chris that being an artist was what he wanted to do, but it seemed totally impractical. Still, the day he was to finally start classes at the University of Michigan, he called up the school and told them he'd decided against a medical career. "I jumped off the cliff," he laughed. His wife got a teaching job and Chris started looking for a job that would help pay the bills while he built up his career as an artist. "I opened the paper and looking for the first job that seemed reasonable," he recalled. He found one doing administrative work in a law firm for 25 hours a week. "I learned a great deal about the law," Chris said. He also learned of a journal, published by the Michigan Bar Association, that needed an illustrator. Chris got the job.
During his time living in Ann Arbor, Chris went into the original Borders Bookstore one day and happened upon a children's picture, "The Pup Grew Up!," which featured illustrations by Vladimir Radunsky. "I thought, 'This is fantastic! This is what I want to do,'" Chris said. So he began reading as many picture books and began getting work as an illustrator for books written by others. Then he got the idea for a picture book that he would both write and illustrate, a book about a jazz giant named Charlie Parker. Published in 1992, Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop received good reviews, with Publishers Weekly noting: "Regardless of whether they've heard of jazz or Charlie Parker, young readers will bop to the pulsating beat of this sassy picture book." Chris had indeed found his metier.
Over the years, Chris has written and illustrated all kinds of picture books, including Little Black Crow, Hip Hop Dog, Five for a Little One, among many others. He also has illustrated books for others, including A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, A Poke in the I:A Collection of Concrete Poems, and A Foot in the Mouth: Poems to Speak, Sing and Shout, all edited by Paul Janeczko, and Happy to Be Nappy, written by Bell Hooks. There's been one recurrent theme in Chris' work: American jazz. In addition to Charlie Parker, he's written and illustrated picture books focused on such jazz greats as John Coltrane (John Coltrane's Giant Steps) and Thelonius Monk (Mysterious Thelonius). "Jazz is American classical music, and I think it should be taught that way," Chris says. "In fact, I've thought it should be taught in American elementary schools." Hence, his idea for creating picture books that make jazz music accessible to children.
Chris continued working on it, and now there was a looming deadline: May 22, 2014 would mark the 100th anniversary of Sun Ra's birth. One day, Bicknell called Chris and said she'd like to meet with him in New York. He agreed, figuring they'd have a morning cup of coffee, talk about the book a bit and then he could get back to work. Bicknell had other plans: "To my horror," Chris says, "she said she didn't have to catch a train (back to Boston) until 4 p.m. and that she'd just sit in my studio while I worked on the Sun Ra book.... The only way to get rid of her was to work on the book .... and so I put together another dummy of the book over the course of the next few hours."
The result is a book that tells the story of a unique but complex musician in a way that is both accessible and entertaining for children. Here, for example, are the opening words:
"Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn.
Now, you know and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn.
If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.
Let's say he did come from Saturn."
The reviews, meanwhile, have been uniformly positive for The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra. My professional colleague, Wendy Lukeheart, a Washington, D.C. librarian, wrote in School Library Journal: "Raschka pulls out all the stops in what may be his finest work yet." Kirkus Reviews called the book "unequivocally stellar." This book trailer gives you a taste of what Raschka has achieved.
Meanwhile, Raschka has moved on to new projects. His next picture book, Give and Take will be published in August. He's also illustrating a new poetry collection, again edited by Paul Janeczko. And he's working on another wordless picture book, a la A Ball for Daisy, but this time about a cat. That book will be published in 2015.
By this point, we had finished our lunch, and it was time to go. Chris donned his porkpie hat again and we headed back across the street, where he disappeared back into Politics & Prose. All in all, it was an inspiring, fun lunch. Thanks, Chris Raschka, for joining me! And thanks to Candlewick Press for setting it up.