Author-illustrator Lauren Stringer has written and illustrated children’s books about nature, culture, and childhood rituals. This year, she published When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky, a picture-book about the ballet The Rite of Spring. This week, she caught up with Kidsbiographer about modernism, whimsy, and the joy of sharing great art with kids.
Kidsbiographer: In your author’s note, you describe how many of When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky’s illustrations reference paintings by Matisse, Picasso, and other artists of the early twentieth century. Can you discuss how various illustrations in the book reflect these artists’ influence?
Lauren Stringer: When beginning the illustrations for a picture book manuscript, I always pull the many artists’ monographs from my bookshelves to find inspiration. I was an art history major as well as an art major at the University of Santa Cruz and worked in museums and galleries in New York, Boston, and Washington DC for many years, coming in very close contact with some of history’s greatest paintings and sculptures. The early 20th Century is one of my favorite periods of art making—the birth of Modernism. As I researched the story of the creation of The Rite of Spring, it was easy for me to cross-reference the art that was being made at the same time.
For example, the year Stravinsky met Nijinsky, 1911, was the same year that the painter, Henri Matisse painted The Red Studio, a flat, nearly monochrome painting that dismantles spatial illusion. By painting the red background in this illustration, I clue the reader into what was happening in the visual arts in the same period that the two artists met.
Kidsbiographer: I must to admit to being pleasantly surprised by When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky; before I read it, I was skeptical about a picture book about The Rite of Spring. I expected dry cultural history that would be over most children’s heads. But your manuscript is extremely lively; in fact, the book is in energetic verse with alliteration, metaphor, and other wordplay that in many ways, reflecting, in many ways, the sensibility of The Rite of Spring. How did the book’s text evolve into this playful celebration of a famous collaboration?
Lauren Stringer: Eight years ago I sat waiting for the Minnesota Orchestra to begin a concert in Symphony Hall, leafing through the program. This photo caught my eye:
The face of a young Igor Stravinsky, the greatest composer of the 20th Century stared out at me while the sad face of Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest dancer and perhaps the most innovative choreographer of the 20th Century, tugged at my heart.
I whispered to my husband, “Look how young they are! I wonder what it was like when Stravinsky met Nijinsky?” Then we both laughed. When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky! We agreed it was the perfect title for a picture book! It sets up the story to practically write itself. There was humor, rhyming, rhythm, speculation and playfulness all in those four words.
As a writer, I have always delighted in changing rhythms and occasional rhymes. I listened to The Rite of Spring often as I worked on the manuscript, hoping its changing rhythms and dissonances would somehow infuse itself in the story. Before submitting the final art and text to copyediting, I worked many long hours with my editor to find the perfect balance of poetic license and historical fact. I am glad to read that you felt a “sensibility of The Rite of Spring” in the text. That is what I had hoped for.
Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite aspects of the book is the animals – the ginger cat and the dachshund – who observe the ballet’s production and caper over the spreads. What’s the story behind their role in When Stravinksy Met Nijinsky?
Lauren Stringer: The cat came from my research of Nijinsky – critics often called him “Le chat” or the cat – because of his cat-like movements and also because of his slightly slanted eyes.
And Stravinsky, with his beautiful large nose, deserved an animal with an equally beautiful large nose. A dachshund.
It was whimsy. It was poetic license. I do not know for fact that either of them owned a cat or a dog.
I love adding characters to my books that are not necessarily mentioned in the text. They can add humor to the story or highlight an element in the illustration that perhaps the text does not mention. The cat and dog become a sort of alter ego for the composer and the choreographer, anticipating their thoughts and actions or emphasizing their emotions.
Kidsbiographer: What sort of visual research did you do to bring Stravinsky, Nijinsky, the ballet, and their work to life?
Lauren Stringer: When it came to researching for the visuals, I had no fear of losing the playfulness of the story. I devoured every book I could find on the making of The Rite of Spring and the Ballets Russes and cruised every website and Google search necessary to bring the illustrations to life. My sister-in-law works at the Harvard School of Music and she sent me the textbook First Nights, Five Musical Premieres by Thomas Forrest Kelly. The chapter on The Rite of Spring brings to life the people, the fashions, the weather, the theatre, the arts of Paris in 1913. It also contained an excellent bibliography, further deepening my research and understanding.
I am a collector of images, so I put together a journal to contain everything I found. Each area of research had its own spread in the journal. Then when it came time to paint a particular spread, I would surround the sheet of watercolor paper I was about to work on with the images to inform me as I painted.
Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take way from this book?
Lauren Stringer: First of all, I hope this story will inspire young readers to listen to the music of Stravinsky and seek out the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of Nijinsky’s choreography of The Rite of Spring available on YouTube. I recently held an event for the book at a local bookstore. I played an excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and asked the audience to compare it to an excerpt from The Rite of Spring. One young boy, who had swayed to the melodies of Swan Lake, leapt from his seat with his hands over his ears during the excerpt from The Rite of Spring and ran up to me saying “This, this is why they rioted!” I hope my book can excite this kind of palpable reaction!
I am saddened by the cuts to the arts in public schools. It concerns me that as businesses and corporations seek more creativity in their work force, we diminish our education of the arts and give less time to creative pursuits in the schools, replacing art classes with preparation for standardized testing. I want my picture book to convey the power of art to readers. I hope that it gives young boys permission to dance. I hope it inspires collaboration between young artists rather than competition. And finally, I hope it delights and inspires many readings.
Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?
Lauren Stringer: I am currently illustrating a picture book titled Deer Dancer written by Mary Lyn Ray. It is the story of a young girl learning to dance and the setting is the green of summer. All through this long Minnesota winter my studio has been growing green paintings. Deer Dancer will be published in the spring of 2014, by Beach Lane Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
The manuscript for When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky won a McKnight Fellowship, which is enabling me to travel for research. This spring I will visit Venice to research a book I have been working on for several years now. And as it turns out, I
will be in Paris on May 29th for the 100th anniversary of the premiere of The Rite of Spring!