There’s a story behind the Q&A for the March edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
Last November I was speaking on a panel of nonfiction authors at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English. There was a question about subjects we’d wanted to write about, but which another author had gotten to first.
I mentioned two musicians that I had written multiple drafts about: trombonist Melba Liston (subject of Katheryn Russell-Brown and Frank Morrison’s Little Melba and Her Big Trombone) and bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, whose picture book biography â€” as I told the crowd â€” was on its way from author Barb Rosenstock.
I didn’t know Barb Rosenstock. All I knew was that she had beaten me to the punch.
Well, right after the panel ended, a grinning stranger approached me up at the dais. “I’m Barb Rosenstock,” she said.
Here we are a few months later, and I’m so glad that there’s now a splendid version for young readers of this tale I had hoped to tell, Blue Grass Boy: The Story of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Music (Calkins Creek). And I’m also glad to be able to share that book with you through a giveaway â€” and with a quick Q&A with my friends Barb Rosenstock and illustrator Edwin Fotheringham.
In its review of Blue Grass Boy, School Library Journal says, “The author adeptly and squarely aims this book at the intended audience by highlighting details young readers can connect with, such as Monroe being the youngest of eight children and growing up with a left eye that turned inward (esotropia). In both the narrative and the back matter, readers witness Monroe’s trials with his eyesight and his resulting development of a fine-tuned sense of hearing which helps him make a big impression on the music world. The digital illustrations are vibrant with a retro feel. Natural elements ranging from trees to blue skies and animals are the most dominant images and complement the imagery of Monroe’s music.”
To a single winner, I’m giving away two author-signed copies of Blue Grass Boy â€” one to keep and one to share. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want the winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on March 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
Chris: Blue Grass Boy is one of relatively few literary-quality nonfiction books for young readers about country music or about musicians who have frequented the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, despite the massive, longstanding popularity and cultural influence of that genre. Did that lack of other books have anything to do with what drew each of you to the story of Bill Monroe and bluegrass music?
Barb: Yes and no. Initially, like almost all my books, the idea for Blue Grass Boy came about by accident. In this case while driving my older son back to college in Indiana, I wound up a bit turned around in the town of Bean Blossom, home to the longest-running bluegrass festival in the world.
I filled up my car in town, and kept seeing references to someone named “Bill Monroe.” I stopped near the festival site and found myself fascinated by some Monroe memorabilia in the small museum there. My younger son and my father are both traditional-country fans, but I was not at all familiar with bluegrass history. I could not believe Monroe was credited with inventing an entire genre of music â€” and really that no other human had ever done that before (or since!).
On the long way back to the interstate, I [listened to] Blue Grass Junction … as I drove through rural Indiana with the windows down. Something about this music and the landscape stuck in my head. At home when I started researching Monroe, I realized that there were few (any?) children’s books about bluegrass, country, or the Opry â€” this whole important, influential set of American music history. Since it didn’t already exist, that motivated me even more to tell Monroe’s history to children. I learned so much and hope kids will, too.
Edwin: Being the illustrator and not the author, when Barb’s manuscript about Bill Monroe was offered to me, I figured there was probably a void in this category, to be honest. ;)
Seriously though… I had an extraordinary prior experience that made me view Bill Monroe with real interest as a character for young readers. I was traveling on a solo overnight bike tour from my home in Seattle to Lopez Island in the San Juan archipelago, and decided to camp halfway at a place called Fort Worden outside Port Townsend.
Making my way to my campsite I noticed, unexpectedly, the sound of fiddle music â€” live fiddle music, not recorded. After setting up camp I walked to the common area and saw multitudes of folks outside their tents and vans playing fiddle music. I was astounded that the ages of these people lay in two distinct generations: younger (teens, twenties, early thirties) and older (late fifties, sixties). My generation (I’m now 52), having had punk rock take our musical interests elsewhere, was not very well represented!
The event, I found out, is called Fiddle Tunes. Attendees participate in workshops, impromptu late night jams, breakfast breakouts, concerts, and square dances, all while camping out together. Fiddlers (as well as bassists, guitarists, banjo and mandolin players) from all over the world converge and strut their stuff… be it Celtic, Old Time, Quebecois, Cajun or Bill Monroe’s American bluegrass. I could see that there was a connection between seemingly disparate generations that was linked by this music. I was impressed, and felt lucky to observe the scene completely by chance (bike touring is like that, by the way).
In Barb’s writing I felt the excitement that I witnessed at Fiddle Tunes. I was attracted to the notion that Bill Monroe was able to create a brand-new genre, an American genre, by keeping his ears open and putting together elements from physical and artistic sources borne by his interactions, history, and experiences. It is a great thing to impart on young readers: that new things come from what you already know and what you are about to find out.
Chris: Once you got involved in the actual creation of this book, what role did music â€” Monroe’s, or others’, or other sounds, or silence â€” play in your process?
Edwin: I listened to Monroe’s music to get a feel for the elements that make bluegrass distinct from other string genres â€” namely the banjo and his mandolin playing. After that I went back to my 20-year-old self and put on the Stooges. There’s nothing like music to pull back a few years and feel great, whatever the genre may be. I’m sure those kids playing bluegrass (and everything else) at Fiddle Tunes will feel the same way, just like their much older peers have figured out!
Barb: My writing process is not smooth â€” it’s a lot of stops and starts, with research before and between, so I keep my office pretty quiet (except for two old dogs snoring.) I look at a lot of pictures throughout a day, but I don’t typically write with any music or other sounds playing.
Blue Grass Boy was different. When I was writing and especially when the story got “stuck,” I listened to two things: nature recordings of Kentucky hill sounds, and Monroe’s own music. His lyrics are really autobiographical too, so I tried to focus on what was important by listening to him. There’s a great two-part video interview of Monroe on his farm in 1986. In a short section near the end, Monroe plays out in the open on his porch, you can hear the sounds around him.
One piece of music that helped a lot for emotional content is a recording of Monroe’s song “My Last Days on Earth.” It starts with water rushing, bird sounds, and then single notes on his mandolin. That song expresses everything I was trying to write about him. No one else’s music could really do that. Basically, Bill Monroe played his life better than anyone could ever write it down.