Meet the Biographer: Amy Novesky



Amy Novesky, a former editor at Chronicle Books, has written picture books about Frida Kahlo and the Hindu god Ganesh. Today, she discusses Georgia in Hawaii, her 2012 picture-book biography of artist Georgia O’Keefe, with Kidsbiographer.

Kidsbiographer: Biographies are one of the few texts in which children encounter adult protagonists. How did you approach Georgia O’Keefe as a character for young readers? 

Amy Novesky: Even a story about a real person must work as a story (with conflict and character arc and complexity), and so, yes, that means approaching the subject as a character. To just tell a story about Georgia’s travels in the Hawaiian Islands was not enough. And so, my editor encouraged me to develop the story of Georgia’s refusal to paint the pineapple. That allowed me to develop Georgia’s character: her stubbornness, yes, but also her sense of artistic integrity. I think most readers can relate to not wanting to be told what to do and how to do it.

Kidsbiographer:  How has the research you did for Georgia in Hawaii changed the way you view O’Keefe’s art? 

Amy Novesky: I think when we think of Georgia O’Keeffe, we think of the Southwest and its iconic imagery (cow skulls and calico roses, adobe hues, wide blue skies). Georgia is so tied to that part of the world. And so, for me, spending so much time with her Hawaii paintings (lush green mountains, the blue blue sea, tropical flowers) has broadened my appreciation of her and her work and will, hopefully, broaden readers’ appreciation of her and her work, as well.

Kidsbiographer:  Setting, narrative, and character are intricately linked in your picture-book biographies. In Me, Frida, you explore how Frida Kahlo found herself as an artist in San Francisco. In Georgia in Hawaii, O’Keefe grows both personally and artistically during her time in the islands. Why do you think travel has become such a strong motif in your children’s nonfiction? 

Amy Novesky: I not only try to find a lesser known story to tell, I always try to find a personal connection. With Frida, it was San Francisco, my home; with Georgia, it was Hawaii, my home away from home. I wrote a story about Jacqueline Kennedy in India, after I traveled to India, and my first book, Elephant Prince, was also inspired by India. I have a strong sense of place; I always have. A sense of place defines us. And travel, takes us out of our place, awakens, inspires, and allows us to appreciate our place even more. I love to travel, or at least to think about traveling. And I love to write about it.

Kidsbiographer: How did O’Keefe’s art influence your prose style in this book? 

Amy Novesky: I have always been a rather flowery writer, and so it was fun to be able to develop the flowery (literally!) details of the story, including describing the things Georgia painted and the gorgeous Hawaiian landscape which deeply inspires me. But I also strive to write spare and elegant prose — the picture book form demands it — which I think is a good fit for Georgia, who was a spare and elegant person.

Kidsbiographer: Can you describe the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Georgia in Hawaii? 

Amy Novesky:  I celebrated the publication of the book by traveling to Hawaii, myself, and visiting some schools on the island of Kauai and the Arts Academy in Honolulu. It was especially meaningful to read my book about Georgia in Hawaii to kids in Hawaii. My very first reading for the book was at an elementary school in Kalaheo. I removed my shoes at the library door and was greeted with a lei. The students had studied Georgia O’Keeffe and knew as much (if not more) about her as I did, and they had painted flowers inspired by the book. It was great. And it was really wonderful to read the book to kids in Koloa, which is one of the towns Georgia visited and featured in the book.

Kidsbiographer:  Would you like to discuss any upcoming projects?

Amy Novesky: I have a book about photographer Imogen Cunningham, illustrated by Lisa Congdon, due out this fall. Writing about Frida led me to Imogen (Imogen photographed Frida when she was in San Francisco) and now Imogen is in Hawaii with Georgia; her work is currently being exhibited at the Honolulu Arts Academy, where I discovered Georgia’s Hawaii paintings. I have a book about Billie Holiday due out next spring. Speaking of character, this is my most character-driven nonfiction story yet, and I think it’s my best. I have a new picture book about an artist under consideration, in addition to some stories in progress. I’m trying to diversify my work a bit, but I do love writing the picture-book biographies!

Kidsbiographer: We hope you continue!

Check out two more recent interviews with Amy Novesky:

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