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5 Questions With... Chris Raschka (A BALL FOR DAISY)

by Chris Raschka
April 5, 2013
Chris Raschka has written and/or illustrated over 30 books for children, including A BALL FOR DAISY, the Caldecott Medal-winning book. His other books include EVERYONE CAN LEARN TO RIDE A BICYCLE; GOOD SPORTS, an ALA-ALSC Notable Children's Book; the Caldecott Medal winning title THE HELLO, GOODBYE WINDOW; the Caldecott Honor Book YO! YES?; and MYSTERIOUS THELONIUS.

Your latest effort, EVERYONE CAN LEARN TO RIDE A BICYCLE, looks at a seminal moment of childhood in a sweet, poignant way. What drew you to explore this rite of passage?

I have been a dedicated bicyclist in New York City for some time now, showing up, to the chagrin of many an editor, with my art work under my arm, or strapped to the front basket. So Anne Schwartz, the editor of A BALL FOR DAISY, got thinking I should write something about bicycles.

This resulted in two things: the first is my new book, EVERYONE CAN LEARN TO RIDE A BICYCLE, and the second is that now Anne herself rides to work on her little blue bicycle all the way from Brooklyn. If you look closely you can find a picture of her in the book.

Your wordless picture book, A BALL FOR DAISY, looks at another kind of seminal moment (albeit a decidedly less joyous one). It was a project you started years before pulling it out of the archives and, ultimately, turning it into a Caldecott winner. What made this such a difficult story to tell?

The difficulty of this book, I think, was conveying clearly the terrible loss of something, a ball, a loss which sort of feels like the end of the world to you, and then providing a satisfying resolution of that feeling, that though you did feel terrible, and it was terrible, it won't be terrible forever. The solution I guess is in finding the proper details, the proper moments, the right amount of abstraction, and so forth, and then putting it all in the right order. Easy.

No, it's not easy, and required a great deal of trial and error, sometimes wondering if you could ever get it right.

This past weekend I received a wonderful letter in the mail from a father in the Netherlands whose small son was given A BALL FOR DAISY by his uncle, who had been vacationing in Florida and picked it up. The father tells me that the son has felt so drawn to Daisy that he clutches the book with him wherever he goes.

And this is the very nicest kind of news to receive; there is nothing better.

Next fall sees the publication of DAISY GETS LOST. What were some of the challenges in creating the sequel to such a critically acclaimed work?

I guess the challenge is to recapture the successful bits of the first Daisy without making them feel overused. DAISY, as a character, does seem to me to be potentially very potent, in that you, that is, I, could consider many aspects of childhood through her. The fact that DAISY doesn't talk somehow renders her closer to her subject, a child's feelings. The reader can, I hope, be both Daisy, and Daisy's comforter, as it feels right and necessary.

Also, DAISY is as powerless over her environment and situation as is a four or five year old. The telling of the tale without words—though there are just a couple in the new Daisy—also can bring a directness to the story, that I was unaware of before.

You’ve said that it’s not unheard of for you to completely finish the illustrations for a book before deciding you don’t like them and starting again from scratch. What leads you to deciding to scrap so far along the process?

Good question. Sometimes it's just nerves. Often I can't put my finger on it. Probably, it is when I sense that the book is not coherent unto itself; that I have set up certain rules of telling or painting, whether my active mind knows it or not, which I have violated along the way.

For instance, it may be as simple as this: I will never drag the brush this way, or I will never cover up a line once it is laid down. Something like that. It is not necessary for the reader to notice this kind of thing, but it is necessary for me to be aware of it somewhere.

This is the key to successful abstraction of image or story, I think. If you consistently draw an eye with a perfectly placed smudge, then that smudge can look like a perfect eye and nothing else. But if you try to correct that smudge, the whole effect of the face can be ruined. This is why a drawing can feel exactly right, but the addition of color can lessen its rightness.

Back to EVERYONE CAN LEARN TO RIDE A BICYCLE. In its review, BOOKLIST described it as “deceptively simple”—which is a term that seems to come up a lot in conjunction with your minimalist style. Yet, your books never skimp on emotional impact. How do you manage to say so much with so little?

The answer to this lies a little in the discussion above. Often when I've tried to get things right in the sense that it must look right, it's wrong. If instead I try to get things to feel right, it turns out right. Put another way, the emotion might come from a subtle tilt of a rough line. The roughness of the line proclaims this: I AM A ROUGH LINE (deal with it). STOP WORRYING ABOUT HOW ROUGH AND MINIMAL I LOOK AND NOTICE HOW I'M TILTED. And that's where the emotion comes from.

It is an interesting question that I don't have the answer to yet, but that I spend a good deal of time worrying about. One answer may be in this—that the emotion lies in the material of the art itself. We are all used to photographic images. They are everywhere around us. Imagine the most poignant emotional photographic, therefore REAL, picture you can remember from the last years, on your computer, in a magazine, or a billboard. Was it a photograph where everything, color, line, perspective, was more or less normal, that is, based on our own lens settings? Probably not. There is something in fact distancing about simple photography, and it is this that makes great photographers great in that they transcend the inherent distance.

The presence of the material of the doing, be it camera or brush or pencil, brings the artist and the viewer immediately closer. I have been sitting in with my son, who has been preparing his portfolio for college, on many sketch nights with models. There is nothing more intimate than drawing someone who is sitting still in front of you. The touch of your brush on the paper has to capture the curve of his or her face and body. For this reason artists have been practicing this forever. This is touch that you must bring to your work on the book page.

Come see Chris Raschka at IRA 2013! He’ll be participating in “Celebrating 75 Years of the Caldecott Medal” on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The panel includes authors David Ezra Stein and Marla Frazee. It will be moderated by John Schumacher.

© 2013 International Reading Association. Author photo: Catherine Wink. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.


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