I’ve been an admirer of R. Gregory Christie for years, and that appreciation only grew when he provided the art for Don Tate’s debut as an author, It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. With that book about one artist written by yet another artist, Gregory was literally an illustrator’s illustrator. But he’s got lots else going on as well.
In addition to his work as an author and illustrator (including two appearances on the New York Times’ list of the 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the Year, and for which he’s won three Coretta Scott King Honor awards), Gregory operates a Decatur, Georgia, children’s bookstore named GAS-ART GIFTS. The store specializes in artwork and autographed books, and through the store Gregory also offers art classes to both children and adults.
His newest book is Mousetropolis (Holiday House), a retelling of Aesop’s fable “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse” that received a starred review from School Library Journal. Gregory was kind enough to answer a couple of questions I had about the book, and you can find that exchange below.
One of the subscribers to my Bartography Express newsletter (you can sign up here) will win a copy of Mousetropolis. But in the meantime, here’s my chat with Gregory.
Me: What drew you toward the story you tell in Mousetropolis?
Gregory: I knew that this story is loved by so many generations. It’s my hope that it can bring back memories for adults, spark wonderment in young children and become a future classic for the generations that are not even born yet.In short I want the book to bring people together with nostalgic conversations. I guess the previous statement was my ambition on a more altruistic level. In general my motivation is to bring ethnic groups together and in some ways to bring balance to historical lesson plans. This however , goes beyond ethnicity and is my attempt to capture endearment, to bring my readers in to a an imagined world that takes from my own real life aesthetics and sensible fables from the ancient world.
Me: What kind of kid do you see Mousetropolis appealing to the most?
Gregory: The one with imagination, the child who thinks it’d be cool to go on a journey, to fly or that animals can really talk but only to the special few who truly believe that.
This Sunday at 3 p.m., attendees of the Texas Book Festival here in Austin can find Don and me sharing The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch in the Read Me a Story tent.
It will be terrific seeing Don again, since we haven’t shared a stage since … well, last Saturday, when he and I participated in our home city stop of Don’s Freedom Tour at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. We were joined by author Kelly Starling Lyons, visiting from North Carolina, for this celebration of Don’s book Poet; Kelly and Don’s book, Hope’s Gift; and my first collaboration with Don, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch.
There was a fantastic cake, depicting a scene from Poet, made by Akiko White:
We enjoyed readers’ theater for all three books, put on by students from St. Elmo Elementary; a panel discussion led by Michael Hurd of (among many other things) the Texas Black History Preservation Project; and a whole lot of good feeling among members of the reading and writing communities.
As I write, I also discover more holes in what I know. My progress so far, however, gives me confidence that I’ll be able to fill those gaps, too. Students can fill those gaps as well. What I do, they can do — or learn to do. And I believe they can love it just as much.
The story that illustrator Don Tate and I tell in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch — published 150 years after the beginning of Reconstruction — has a lot in common with the one Shane and Jonah tell a half century after that essential piece of legislation. If Reconstruction’s potential for civil rights and social justice had been seen through, there would have been no need for the long, unfair, but ultimately uplifting struggle depicted in Lillian’s Right to Vote.
I also believe that understanding Reconstruction, understanding the fight for the right to vote, and understanding the resistance to each are essential for understanding America today. Jonah Winter has a lot to say on this topic, too. One of the subscribers to my Bartography Express newsletter (you can sign up here) will win a copy of Lillian’s Right to Vote. But in the meantime, here’s my chat with him.
Me: What drew you toward the story you tell in Lillian’s Right to Vote?
Jonah: I get the sense, from reading and listening to the news, that a lot of white Americans seem to be perpetually annoyed by African Americans (and “liberals”) who talk about racism, and the history of slavery and racism in this country. They seem to think that all of that bad stuff “happened in the past,” and that people should just “get over it,” “move on,” “stop complaining.”
People who advocate this point of view clearly just don’t “get” (much less want to “get”) what it must be like to be African American, to be a “black person” (meaning, a person with any visible African heritage…) every single minute of every single day, affected on a daily basis by racism (that makes them always potential victims of white police brutality, for instance), and carrying inside them an ever-present history of institutionalized (and less formal) racism in America — and not just inside them. It’s right there, on the surface, the skin, ever-present, an impediment to equal and respectful treatment.
For conservative white people, “history,” meaning American history here, is a thing to be proud of: our “Founding Fathers,” the “price they paid” for our “liberty,” our “freedom.” I remember a country song from the ’70s called “The Fightin’ Side of Me” that had the lines, “If you don’t love it, leave it/Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin’.” There’s an inherent lack of empathy in that approach, to put it mildly!
[Readers, this is Chris, interjecting for a moment just to say that, much as I love Merle Haggard, and as much as I’m aware that his song “Okie from Muskogee” from the same period was at least partially intended as satire, the catchy jingoism in “The Fightin’ Side of Me” makes me uncomfortable. I believe that Jonah has put his finger on what most unnerves me about it. But I also think that the song gives a misleading sense of Haggard’s view of the world. Consider “Irma Jackson,” a third song of his from that era:
“There’s a mighty wall between us, standing high,” Haggard could clearly see. Anyway, back to Jonah.]
All that talk about “freedom” — how do they think that sounds to the ears of an African American? Freedom?! Have any of them stopped for even one moment to consider what our “proud” “history” must mean to someone whose ancestors were slaves, whose ancestors were oppressed in the Jim Crow south?
History is no abstraction. The hypocrisy of the slave-owning Founding Fathers, the despicable evil of slavery and Jim Crow — it’s with us every single minute of every single day. And for those who are African American, this is no choice. For the rest of us, it’s an issue of empathy. Certainly, for me as a writer, it’s an issue of empathy: Wanting myself to walk a mile in Lillian’s shoes — and wanting my readers to.
What turns me on as a writer is a structure that somehow embodies the story I want to tell. And honestly, the structure for this story “just came to me.” I had read a news item about a 100-year-old African American woman in Pittsburgh (whose first name was Lillian) who walked up a very steep hill to vote on Election Day in 2008.
She had grown up in the Jim Crow south. She knew what it was to be denied the right to vote. And on November 4th, 2008, after walking up a very steep hill, she voted for Barack Obama. All of a sudden I could picture a 32-page picture book about a 100-year-old African American woman walking up a hill to vote, seeing history on a split screen with the present moment — a story about someone for whom history informs and inspires every footstep.
It seemed like the perfect metaphor — and structure — for the idea I wanted to get across. And the ever-present history that she sees every moment is not entirely shameful — towards the end, there is the history of the people who courageously fought and died for civil rights and voting rights. It was the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which also prompted this story.
While I was writing it, though, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, rendering it basically meaningless, in terms of enforcing any of the laws against voter discrimination that states like Alabama and Texas are now so conveniently side-stepping.
Am I angry? Yes, I am angry. Anger, too, was a motivation for this story.
Me: What kind of kid do you see Lillian’s Right to Vote appealing to the most?
Jonah: Appealing to? I don’t know about that.
I did in fact intend for this book to be read by all American children. I’m happy it came out in July (in anticipation of the August anniversary of the Voting Rights Act) rather than during African American History Month. I think that the topic and history of racism in America is something that all Americans share — regardless of skin color or cultural background. We’re all in this together.
Whether your ancestors were slaves or slaveowners (or both), whether your family has lots of money or no money, if you live in America, then the history of slavery, racism, and voting rights is YOUR history. Many picture books, even biographies, feature a child’s experience, because many editors (and authors, apparently) feel that this will make the book more “child-friendly.” My book features a 100-year-old woman.
What I’m asking my young readers to do is to empathize with someone whose experience is nothing like their own. Most children have grandparents; some even have great-grandparents — and hopefully this story will cause them to see those older people in a different light. Someone who’s lived that many years by default carries a whole lot of at least personal history around inside them — but public history, too.
My hope is that this book will engage children enough to make them start looking at the world differently, seeing how history is always with us, seeing older people as receptacles of history, and, in the case of white readers, empathizing with Americans who were not born with the privileges inherent in white skin, and for all readers, feeling pride in those Americans who should make us proud to be American by fighting for and actually achieving justice in the 1960s.
When I was a kid growing up in the ’60s, I cared a whole lot about politics — and about justice and injustice. I suppose this book will probably appeal most to kids who care about things like that. But I hope that the stark historical facts I present throughout the book will grab the attention of all my readers, rile them up, make them start thinking, make them start questioning, and make them see that history is a living, breathing thing that we are creating every minute of every day.
Things are shaping up nicely for Willam, Harold, and Lew Christensen, the subjects of my new book with Cathy Gendron, ‘The Nutcracker’ Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition (Millbook Press).
Barton offers a lively, colorful text and follows up with a very informative time line, illustrated with period photos, in the back matter. In her picture-book debut, Gendron turns in a virtuoso performance. Her handsome illustrations capture the distinctive posture and poise of ballet dancers, while portraying even minor characters as individuals. Suffused with light and warmth, the varied, imaginative paintings include dynamic textured effects as well as an inventively used ribbon to tie pages together. Even readers familiar with The Nutcracker will probably learn a good deal from this engaging picture book. Bravo! Brava!
Balancing evocative turns of phrase with a crisp, forthright narrative, Barton delivers an involving account of how watching The Nutcracker ballet, which originated in Russia, became an American holiday tradition. … [A] fascinating bit of artistic investigation, one with year-round appeal.
Read the whole thing for the apt praise for illustrator Cathy Gendron’s work. Congratulations and thank you to her and the team at Lerner Publishing/Millbrook Press!
[Y]ou just have to stand in awe of Barton’s storytelling. Not making up dialogue is one thing. Drawing a natural link between a life and the world in which that life lived is another entirely. Take that moment when John Roy answers his master honestly. He’s banished to hard labor on a plantation after his master’s wife gets angry. Then Barton writes, “She was not alone in rage and spite and hurt and lashing out. The leaders of the South reacted the same way to the election of a president – Abraham Lincoln – who was opposed to slavery.” See how he did that? He managed to bring the greater context of the times in line with John Roy’s personal story. Many is the clunky picture book biography that shoehorns in the era or, worse, fails to mention it at all. I much preferred Barton’s methods. There’s an elegance to them.
She’s just as insightful about Don Tate’s illustrations, pointing out key aspects of them that I hadn’t noticed and am now kicking myself for having missed. I’m so glad that she set me straight.
Thank you, Betsy, for the attention you gave our book.