Month: October 2011

Meet the Illustrator: Julie Paschkis

Illustrator Julie Paschkis captures the magic of real lives and the extraordinary people who lived them. In 2010, she illustrated Summer Birds, a picture-book biography of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. This year, she illustrated Pablo Neruda, a picture-biography of the Chilean poet.

This week, Paschkis chatted with Kidsbiographer about travel research, the interplay between text and images, and the joy of illustrating real and unreal worlds. A slide show of her work appears at the bottom of the entry.

Kidsbiographer: I see you traveled you to Chile to research Pablo Neruda’s life. How did your experiences in the country shape your work in this picture-book biography? 

Julie Paschkis: Chile was so important to Pablo Neruda that I knew I had to see it before I could illustrate the book. Visiting Chile helped me a lot in a general sense, and visiting Neruda’s homes in particular helped me with particular illustrations. For example, here is a picture of the beach outside of his home at Isla Negra which helped me to paint the illustration of him on the beach.

Kidsbiographer: Throughout Pablo Neruda, English and Spanish words flit over the illustrations in a way uniquely suited to a visual poet’s biography. What led you to integrate words and images this way?

Julie Paschkiss: I had been doing some paintings that incorporated a similar kind of wordplay. I showed one to my editor at Holt, Reka Simonsen. She sent me Monica Brown’s manuscript, suggesting that I use that style. I thought it was a great idea because of Neruda’s love of language. I had to learn Spanish though! I started studying it then, and I am still studying it. The words chime off of each other because of their meaning and their sound, and they bounce back and forth between English and Spanish. Sometimes I used words from his poems; sometimes the words arise from the imagery and sometimes from his memoirs. For example, in this painting, the names on the train tracks are the stations on the train line leading from his childhood home. He listed them in his memoir.

This painting includes many objects that I saw in Neruda’s homes; he was a passionate and quirky collector. The words name the objects and also reference his poetry collection called Odes To Common Things.

Kidsbiographer: In Summer Birds, you painted some stunning images of insects, especially butterflies and moths, and amphibians. Can you tell me about the zoological research you did for this book? 

Julie Paschkis: When I first started working on the book, I was more interested in the illustrations that depicted the wrong ideas about science – the fantasy pictures. But, as I did more research, I got greater and greater pleasure from painting the real wonders of the earth. I used books from the library and internet searches as reference. This was my favorite illustration to paint in the book because I got to paint the real and the unreal together:

Kidsbiographer: Maria Merian was herself a very gifted entomological artist. How did her paintings influence your illustrations?

Julie Paschkis: I was inspired by her close attention to detail and her elegant line. I used her illustrations as my first source of reference whenever possible. The endpapers are where I most copied her art because they are in black and white as were most of the examples of her work that I had access to. Here is one of her drawings  and the endpaper art that I did.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from kids about Summer Birds and Pablo Neruda?

Julie Paschkis: It is most gratifying to me when kids make a connection to their own lives and interests. For example, a girl showed me her amazing drawings of a dragonfly. She had drawn all of the veins in its wings. I saw that she could connect to Maria Merian’s love of the real world and her close observation of what she saw.

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The People’s Poet

Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People
By Monica Brown
Illustrated by Julie Paschkis
(Henry Holt and Company, 2011,New York, $16.99)

Perhaps the best way to relate a poet’s life is through poetic language, if not verse. In Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People, Monica Brown and illustrator Julie Paschkis use lyrical prose and muralesque, surreal images to convey the Chilean poet’s passion and courage to young readers. The book traces Neruda’s journey from a shy, little boy in love with nature to a brave man who defied an oppressive regime for the people he loved.

In this picture-book biography, words and illustrations intertwine to evoke Neruda’s evolving artistic and social consciousness. A vivid writer, Brown describes “words that whirled and swirled” and “velvet cloth the color of the sea.” If Brown’s prose is visual, then Paschkis’ illustrations are verbal: Spanish and English words appear on leaves, petals, rocks, and ocean waves, suggesting the richness of both Neruda’s poetry and the landscapes and cultures that inspired him.

The youngest children will pour over Paschkis’ illustrations; older kids will enjoy reading the words inside the images. But Pablo Neruda, like poetry itself, is a feast of language and imagery to be read aloud and shared.

Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer: Margarita Engle

In 2010, Margarita Engle published Summer Birds, a lyrical picture-book biography of 17th century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian. This week, Engle chatted with Kidsbiographer about introducing this little-known figure to children and rekindling adults’ deep love for the natural world.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Maria Sibylla Merian, and what inspired you to write about her life for young readers?

Margarita Engle: I am a botanist married to an entomologist.  Until recently, botanists and entomologists were just about the only people familiar with Merian’s work. I wrote an early draft of Summer Birds almost thirty years ago, after admiring some of her work in a rare book collection.  When I couldn’t find a publisher, I put the manuscript in a drawer, and forgot about it.  A few years ago, I was cleaning out my desk, and came across it.  I revised it and sent it to the editor of my other books for young people.  She accepted it and chose Julie Paschkis, an amazing illustrator, whose artwork attains the perfect blend of realism and imagination.

Kidsbiographer: What sort of biographical and scientific research did you do to write Summer Birds?

Margarita Engle: Merian was not well-known in the U.S. until recently, largely because her artwork was collected by Tsar Peter the Great, and archived in St. Petersburg, where it was not accessible until after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Scholars have now produced some wonderful adult biographies that were extremely helpful.  As far as I know, Summer Birds is the first children’s book about Merian. 

Kidsbiographer: Summer Birds presents Merian as a budding young naturalist, observing butterflies and other small creatures and dreaming about the day when she can spread her own wings and travel to distant lands. How much information exists about Merian’s early years, and did you have to extrapolate from material about her adult life to write about her youth?

Margarita Engle: I did not have to guess about the events of her childhood, because there are documented accounts of her life cycle observations.  When she was thirteen, she began studying silkworms that had been carried to Germany by one of her relatives.  Of course, the way I chose to write this biography in first person did require some emotional extrapolation.  I wanted to imagine her feelings and thoughts, not just state her actions.

Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Summer Birds?

Margarita Engle: Butterflies fascinate even the youngest children, so this book has an advantage simply because the illustrations are so gorgeous, and the text is easy to understand.  I think I’ve been most touched by the reaction of adults, who are, of course, the ones reading to very young children.  I’m relieved to see that most adults — even city dwellers – have not lost their childhood love of nature.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Margarita Engle: My other biographical works are young adult novels in verse, including The Poet Slave of Cuba, about Juan Francisco Manzano, a slave who wrote poetry while he was still enslaved; The Surrender Tree, about Rosa la Bayamesa, a nurse who hid in the wilderness and used wild plants to heal soldiers from both sides during Cuba’s three wars for independence from Spain; and The Firefly Letters, about Fredrika Bremer, a Swedish suffragist who visited Cuba in 1851.  My next novel in verse is The Wild Book (Harcourt, 2012), inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her childhood.  I am currently working on a novel in verse about one of Cuba’s great abolitionist poets, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda.



Kids’ Biography: Finding the Hook

By Barb Rosenstock          

Cradle-to-grave kids’ biographies are pretty much dead. There are few compelling reasons to chronicle dates, places, and events of well-known people when children can find that information in seconds online, whether the subject is Beethoven or Bieber. Currently, writing picture-book biographies is more about transmitting knowledge than information. To do that, kids’ biographers often look for a single event, object, or feeling that gives a reader a new angle through which to view a subject’s life. The more famous the person, the harder an original thematic detail or hook can be to find. At a writer’s conference, an editor said, “Don’t send me any books on Abraham Lincoln, not about his dogs, not about his hat, not about his kids. No more Abe, not ever!”  Children now know so many details about the Founding Fathers that it’s difficult to find a new angle that adds to their knowledge rather than repeats the same tired facts.

And yet…I’ve been fascinated by Thomas Jefferson since my 8th grade trip to Washington, D.C.   On the way home, we stopped at Monticello. The house literally glowed among the trees. Intelligence and affection lived there – I guess you could say (as corny as it sounds) I felt Jefferson’s spirit. Years later, I couldn’t get the idea of writing a picture-book biography of Jefferson out of my mind, no matter how often I told myself I’d find nothing new to say.

I was overwhelmed with the sheer volume of published information about Jefferson: over 10,000 biographical books, 2 million search threads. The most acclaimed adult biography of the man is American Sphinx. Why did I want to write for kids about a man who’s famous for being contradictory, private, and, therefore, unknowable? A freedom-loving slave owner. A women-hating lover.  A shy politician. Was there a way to express to children the intelligent spirit that I’d felt so many years ago, flaws and all?

I read books about Jefferson while running through endless ideas on how to give kids a hook to understand his life. Was it his daughters? His inventions? The Declaration? Horses? A piece of clothing? Slavery? Exploration? Rivers? Dogs ? (Turns out he pretty much hated dogs.) I kept reading: articles, biographies, dissertations, and Jefferson’s letters (18,000 existing letters! No, I never got through them all…) One day I noticed that Jefferson was constantly writing about reading.  A quick search for “Thomas Jefferson’s books” revealed some good academic sources, an extensive online exhibit from Monticello, and one great new fact: Jefferson sold his personal library to the U.S . to replace the Library of Congress after the British burned it during the War of 1812.  Our Library of Congress is Jefferson’s library! Those facts started months of research that wound up including expert help from librarians at the Library of Congress and Monticello, where his spirit really does live.

Tom Jefferson was a reader, and the kids who read picture-book biographies are learning to be readers, too. I found the hook. I wrote the book.

Barb Rosenstock loves true stories best. Her 2010 biography of race driver Louise Smith titled FEARLESS was named to the Top Ten of the Amelia Bloomer Book List. The Camping Trip that Changed America, a historical fiction picture book about Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein will be released in January, 2012. More upcoming biographies include: William’s Windmill and Vasya’s Noisy Paintbox, published by Knopf and of course, Tom Jefferson, Reader, which will be published by Calkins Creek. Find out more at

Meet the Biographer: Kate Klise

In 2010, Kate Klise published Stand Straight, Ella Kate, a picture book about Ella Kate Ewing, a Missouri-born woman who appeared as a giant at traveling shows in the late 19th century. This week, Klise talked with Kidsbiographer about respecting her subject, collaborating with her sister, and reveling in old-fashioned research.

Kidsbiographer: How did you learn about Ella Kate Ewing, and how did you decide to write about her life?

Kate Klise:  I first read about Ella Ewing in a monthly magazine published by my electric cooperative. I sent it to my sister (and illustrator) Sarah, in Berkeley,California, with the note: “Wow. Do you love her or what?” Sarah read the story and sent it back to me with “LOVE her!” written above Ella’s photo. There was just something so intriguing about this woman who stood eight feet, four inches tall and was, by all accounts, the kindest, most gentle woman in her little country town in northern Missouri. I couldn’t help writing about her.  

Kidsbiographer:  You and illustrator M. Sarah Klise are sisters. What is like to collaborate with a close family member? 

Kate Klise: It’s easy. I trust Sarah’s taste completely when it comes to the look and feel of a book. Occasionally I try to make suggestions, which she sometimes takes, but mostly ignores. Her instincts are better than mine on the art side. The only time we really insist on changes is when something is confusing in the story or the art. If we as adults can’t make sense of it, then our young readers will really struggle. 

Kidsbiographer: I love the book’s voice: it matches the down-to-earth Midwestern lady you present Ella Kate as. How did you conceive that first-person narrator? 

Kate Klise: I’m glad you like it! Of course using this voice immediately changes the genre from biography to historical fiction, but I like it better this way. I tried to write a straight-up third person biography, but it just fell flat. The manuscript was dull. Boring. It was driving me crazy. I kept thinking, “Here I have the most remarkable story of this fascinating woman. Why does my account of her life sound so boring?” Part of the problem, I think, was that I didn’t want to exploit Ella like others had done during her lifetime. I was trying so hard to be sensitive to her story that it distanced me from the power of it. And then as so often happens when you’re working on a book, as soon as I stopped thinking so hard about it, the answer presented itself to me. I was driving down a country road, listening to the radio when I heard Arlo Guthrie sing: “I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans. I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.” That’s when it hit me. I needed to rewrite the text in first person. I needed to be Ella. I practically flew home and rewrote Ella’s story from her perspective. That’s when the story started to work.

Kidsbiographer:   When you were researching Stand Straight, Ella Kate, which sources proved most valuable? 

Kate Klise: Newspapers. Thank goodness for public libraries that still have old newspapers on microfiche. I did most of the research for the book at the Scotland County (Missouri) Memorial Library and the St. Louis Public Library. Microfiche is such a clunky old technology, but there is something undeniably thrilling about sitting in the corner of a library and finding little gems in old newspapers that you know will make your story sparkle.

Kidsbiographer:   How have young readers responded to Ella Kate’s story? 

Kate Klise: It’s the one book I’ve written that I can read to first graders or seventh graders, and they all—almost without exception—are fascinated by Ella. Who doesn’t wonder what it would be like to grow up and up and up? My only regret is that we couldn’t find a way to create a page in the book that opened up and up and up until it was 8’4” tall. But the endpapers that show Ella’s shoe size (24) and glove size are fun.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or future projects? 

Kate Klise: I have four books coming out in 2012, so I’m doing lots of loads of laundry lately where I forget to put the clothes in—or the detergent—or both. It’s the little things that slip through the cracks when I have so many projects on my plate. But I’m excited about them all! Grammy Lamby and the Secret Handshake (Henry Holt) will be out in May 2012. It’s a picture book based on a secret three-squeeze handshake our grandmother used to give us. (It meant “I love you,” which we found terribly embarrassing and corny—until we grew up.) The Phantom of the Post Office (Harcourt), the fourth book in the 43 Old Cemetery Road series will also be out in May 2012. My first grown-up book is coming out next spring/summer with Harper/Morrow. Called In the Bag, it’s based on a mysterious note I found in my carry-on bag several years ago at the Barcelona airport. And finally, the project I’m just finishing up—and consequently, the one I’m most excited about—is called Splinters. It’ll be out next fall from Feiwel & Friends. The title comes from an actual splinter my grandmother—the same grandmother who gave us the secret handshake—gave my father. She claimed it was a splinter from the Holy Cross. Of course my dad promptly lost the dang thing in our house. I’ve spent a lot of years wondering where that splinter was and if it could possibly be real.