Erin E. Stead and Chris Raschka: A Caldecott Conversation
How better to get acquainted with the Caldecott Medal than through two artists who have won it?
Last year, in the first Caldecott Conversation, Erin E. Stead and Jerry Pinkney talked shop. Today, the conversation continues as Stead and Chris Raschka (the 2012 Caldecott winner for A Ball for Daisy) interview each other.
Erin E. Stead: Do you have any rituals for how you start a book, or a work day, or a week? Do you listen to music while working?
Chris Raschka: I don’t have any rituals for starting a book per se, but I certainly do for the work day, though this isn’t carved in stone. Nevertheless, my most usual work day starts like this. I walk from our apartment on 89th Street up along the Hudson River, staring into the water as I go, because you really never, ever know what might not be floating there, arriving at my studio at 103rd about twenty minutes later. I walk up the back stairs to the fourth floor.
Now for the ritual. Not to get too personal, but I do like to wear overalls, Dickie’s Railroad style from Sam’s. I put the auto kettle on. I carefully sweep my battered but beautiful cork floor with my wispy china town broom. I tend my cactuses. When the water is aboil, I pour it over the one cup filter, and have my entire cup of coffee standing at my window looking into the back courtyard and while I brood about the day. Then it’s time to work.
Oh, yes, I nearly forgot: the music. I generally start the day listening to the jazz programing on WKCR but at nine switch to my default listening experience that is WFMU, the free form station of the nation.
Do you listen to (A) NPR; (B) WCBN, or some other funky hippie noise radio station (like I like); (C) Classical music; (D) Nothing; or (E) TV; when you work? Explain. Especially if you have the TV on. I know lots of illustrators do. How?
Stead: I used to listen to a lot of NPR all day. I listen to a little less now, but it’s not NPR’s fault— it’s usually the fault of the election cycle. In the summer, Phil and I listen to the [Detroit] Tigers games on the radio while we work.
By now it’s become a very strong tradition. Phil loves WCBN. Loves it. I think he would abandon everything and become a free form DJ if they let him. I can love it. But if I am in the beginning of a book and it’s suddenly Death Metal Hour without any warning or transition from the Detroit Soul or jazz they were just playing, well, it can throw me. Phil tells me that this is why he loves it and I should roll with it. He’s right. I guess I just need practice.
During that time when my studio mate and I aren’t in the same musical mood, I wear noise cancelling headphones and put on something else. I actually really like wearing headphones while I work. I find I get less distracted. But I’ll listen to anything on them. Depends on the day.
There is a TV in the studio for two reasons, both of which have developed over time and completely by accident. Every once in awhile we run into a Time of Great Stress. During that time we can turn to TV if we can’t handle the emotional tenor of music or the loneliness of a too-quiet studio. So, we’ll throw on something formulaic and silly to talk to us throughout the day. It’s never something you actually have to watch to follow the plot points. I’ll bring this conversation full circle here and say that it’s like NPR for dummies.
Raschka: About how long a stretch can you work, and I mean draw or paint, without a break? One hour? Two hours? Twelve hours?
Stead: Is “yes” an acceptable answer to this question? I really don’t know. Some days it seems like I can’t get 20 consistent art minutes without an interruption or a massive screw up that leads to a mild depressive episode. Last year I ended up taking very poor care of myself and causing an overuse injury in my arm, so lately I’ve been trying to make sure I take breaks every hour, especially if I am carving a block.
Since the last couple of years of my life have been so aggressively different from the few before them, I am still trying to find a new routine for the studio.
Raschka: Do you stand or sit? I won’t get more personal than that.
Stead: Yes. I do both. I am not very tall but I have a pretty tall desk that I can stand at and a very nice drafting chair that I can sit on. I move around quite a bit when I am really working, which is probably why I wait until Phil is out of the studio before I start tapping my foot and scooting around while drawing.
Do you have anything you turn to if you are stuck or have a day when your hand doesn’t communicate properly with your head?
Raschka: If I’m stuck in the grand scheme of things, especially in writing, I go for a walk. Ideally, I walk on the East Side of Manhattan, which still can feel like a foreign city to me, in the best way. I don’t know every corner, so the sights aren’t yet invisible as they can become in an oft-trodden path. Also, the East Side is bigger than the West Side where I live—more avenues. And there is no danger of my bumping into someone I know, which happens rather surprisingly often on the West Side. I can get quite lost in my head on the East Side without of course ever really being lost. It’s the perfect place to walk: always engaging, always encouraging, and the stores are just too expensive to ever really entice me inside.
Stead: Your acceptance speech this year felt like an open letter to illustrators (from my perspective). Was it hard to write?
Raschka: Oh boy. It was hard to write. And I have this nagging feeling that I no longer agree with anything I wrote. Perhaps I do but I’m not about to reread it to find out. Certainly I am still very interested in how any of us works. We do all have to find the way each of us does do it. Nurture what helps us, eliminate what hinders us. About once a week I think, Ah THIS is how I work. From now on I will only work THIS way. Two days later I toss it all out.
Stead: I use your spread from A Ball for Daisy of Daisy sinking into the couch and then her friend coming over and making her feel just a little bit better as an example when speaking sometimes. I think it is a perfect example of the use of color. When beginning a project, do you ever map out a palette? Or is it more immediately responsive as the book (or dummy) progresses?
Raschka: I don’t generally map out colors in a mediated way. No, I take that back. I do meditate about the colors. In fact, I’m constantly trying different colors out, in their infinite combinations and juxtapositions, and triads, and so forth. I’ve just never thought of it that way. Watercolor, which is what I’ve been using most frequently lately, poses its own challenges. Each color not only carries with it every emotional characteristic of that color, but with watercolor, very specific physical characteristics as well, such as, opacity, fluidity, luminosity, etc. Cadmium red light can get very opaque and still be very bright. Blue grey is a favorite because it can be transparent or opaque in a satisfying way. And it’s not particularly grey. Love that Blue Grey. Daisy’s ball is Cadmium red light at first and then Blue grey, second, as a matter of fact.
I’m doing another Daisy book—it was not my idea, I swear—and approaching it in pretty much the same way, natch, but going perhaps a little further. Just layering paint on even more. We’ll see how it goes.
Stead: In one of your books, New York is English, Chattanooga is Creek, you point out Beulah, Michigan on the map of the United States.
Have you ever been there? Or did you just like the way the name sounds? (Full disclosure- Beulah, Michigan is home of the Cherry Hut, where I am a frequent visitor, along with any place in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area)
Raschka: Yes, I know Beulah and the Cherry Hut very well, though I like the idea of the Cherry Hut better than I like their food—the cherry pie is just too darn sweet for me. Maybe it’s my inherent suspicion of optimism. My father in law—no stranger to the Cherry Hut—once said of me, that no one throws a wetter blanker. Oh dear, is that really true? I disagree.
Now, what I really like is The Market Basket next door. My ideal summer lunch is the following. A slab of some good bread from L’Chaim Bakery buttered with the local butter. A thick slice of a local tomato. A slice of a local onion. Salt and pepper. Glass of some non-local red wine. That is the lunch I prepare myself at least once each time I visit my in-law’s summer house in Frankfort, which is just down the road from Beulah. The Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of the great landscapes in all of America as I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ve been visiting there for one reason or another for many, many years.
Stead: Two things. It’s true, The Cherry Hut isn’t exactly a leading member of the foodie scene, but I think I love it because it is so clean, friendly, and trapped in time. I have never seen anyone on a cellphone and I am enraptured with the uniforms and the relentless cherries.
I could challenge you to a wet blanket throwing contest (regrettably), despite how optimistic my description of that restaurant is. The optimism might be a symptom of the Sleeping Bear Dunes area, which is one of my favorite places in the world.
Not a question. I am fascinated by and envious of your year planning charts and your book sales charts.
Raschka: A couple more yearly planning charts for you:
I think 1995 was the first. Not sure.
Which is your favorite used bookstore in Ann Arbor and have you been to John K. King books in Detroit (if you haven’t, do go)?
Stead: First I’ll add a little background information in case anyone who happens to read this wants to know why this is a more difficult question than it might appear on the surface. For a while, Ann Arbor had the most bookstores per capita in the nation. Right now, I think this little city still ends up on “Most Well-read” polls, even after Michigan’s economic collapse. We’ve lost some bookstores in the past few years but there are still quite a few good ones. So! What is my answer? For children’s books, I love Kaleidoscope. Phil, who attended U of M, credits Jeff (the owner) with providing him much of his education in book illustration (and, in turn, writing).
It is a messy, cluttered, eclectic store and you have to be willing to be a treasure hunter. But, whew, some of the books you can discover there are just unparalleled. For general book buying, I like the West Side Bookshop and Motte and Bailey, although as I am typing this I realize I am ignoring a very popular used bookstore, Dawn Treader.
This is difficult. As far as John K. King Books (in Detroit) goes, of course I have been there. I find it very difficult to leave once I’m there, though. I always have this nagging feeling I missed something. Have you ever gone through the postcards?
Raschka: I have a very tender spot in my heart for postcards. I have many from my childhood still, and they never cease to conjure thoughts not necessarily related to the image on the card.
But the question is, what do you do when you have too many cards in a small nyc studio? And don’t you love the “Large Letter” cards, the ones that have illustrations of, say, Appleton, Wisconsin” inside the letters “Appleton”?
A. How did you set about making your site? Did you build it yourself? Did you hire someone? That was 5A1 and 5A2.
B. How much time per week do you spend maintaining the lovely thing
(including time blogging)?
Stead: 5a. Phil and I have a friend who we’ve known since high school that is a very talented professional photographer. Last year she saw me floundering around trying to keep a handle on everything and offered to help. Now we basically pay her to hang out with us. Good friends are important. Anyhow, she fixed up my blog for me (and Phil). It’s not very fancy- it’s an altered Wordpress template. But without her it would still look like an old DOS startup screen. I am woefully neglectful of maintaining much of a web presence or using anything social media-y.
5b. As far as blogging goes, I haven’t done much of that since last year either. Much of that is because of the injury I referred to earlier. I had to stop typing almost completely for a few months (did I miss email? No.). Phil puts up his stamp collection and polaroids every week, though. I keep thinking I’ll get back to the ol’ blog, mostly because I like books, but I am not sure I have anything important to say.
Raschka: Please list your favorite paint brush, your favorite pencil, your favorite paint and your favorite paper. All details are welcome.
Paper: Arches Hot Press Natural White 140 lb if I am printing and drawing, 300 lb sometimes.
Pencil: Nothing makes me happier than a Staedtler Mars Lumograph in the B ranges.
Paint: I have an affinity for Sennelier products. Right now I am really into their egg tempera. I like Old Holland oils, though.
Printing Inks: Either Gamblin or Charbonnel Etching Inks. It’s not proper but nothing about my printing technique really is.
Paint Brush: Still finding my favorite. I need a good trip to New York Central. There is no longer an art supply store anywhere near Ann Arbor, although a paper store here had recently tried to fill in the gaps. But buying paintbrushes online is very difficult.
Printmaking materials: I buy all my printmaking stuff from McClains in Oregon. They have never steered me wrong. Everything they carry is just great.
I would really love it if you’d do the same.
Paper: I use a variety. I used to buy full rolls of Arches HP 140—that was always fun carrying the thing home over my shoulder, made me feel very important. Now I’m more eclectic, generally choosing anything cold pressed in 90lb or 140lb: Bockingford, Fabriano, Saunders Waterford, and I really like Hahnemühle from Germany.
Pencil: I don’t use pencils much at all in my drawing anymore but I do know exactly what you mean about the Mars Staedtlers—that blue and black lacquered finish. I do use pencils when I write. After some experimentation with the computer and pens, I’ve come to find that I really prefer, to write it by hand first and in pencil. Maybe it’s the artist in me but even when writing I like the smoothness of graphite. Generally, at the end of a writing session I can judge the effort by how it looks: if it looks good, it is good—because I think I can accurately judge the intensity of my thinking by the look of the line. As for the pencil, my current favorite is the Mitsu-Bishi 9800 matured GENERAL WRITING 2B
Paint: My favorite watercolors are from Holbein, with Old Holland a close second. With paint getting so expensive, though, I’m always thrilled to find tubes of watercolor on a dusty rack in the corner of a hardware store.. I’ve recently purchased a bunch of Venezia watercolors at probably a tenth of their value. Don’t’ tell anyone. Lascaux gouache white for mixing
Paint brushes: My favorites are Raphael 8404s and 8408s by far. They are resilient, can hold the amount of water that I like, and come to the world’s best point. And they are appropriately expensive. I also like a variety of Chinese brushes. So I get by with 2 pricey Raphaels, a #6 and a #2, and a great range of high quality but much cheaper Chinese brushes.
Miscellany: My new favorite glue: Yasutomo Nori. Like they say: perfect paste for the perfect project New Soho Sketch books are great. What else is there? Café Bustelo!
What were you drawing when you were seven? To my chagrin, most of mine from that age, and I have quite a few, are spectacular scenes of carnage and elaborate warfare; bombers bombing; tank campaigns; little men crawling on their hands and knees toting large wonderful machine guns; lots of dotted lines indicating trajectories and outcomes. Any recollections?
Stead: I was drawing ballerinas, horses, and basketball players. I still love horses like I did when I was seven, I have season tickets to U of M basketball because I love it so, and I still get emotional during the final bows of any theater production, no matter the caliber, because of the sincerity with which those adults have been playing pretend for us for the past two hours.
Is there a book by another author or illustrator do you wish you had made yourself (because you love it)?
Raschka: Well, any of the Madeline books. I think Ludwig Bemelmans combined erudition, whimsy and joie de vivre, in his life and art, as well as anyone.
Stead: Who is your favorite artist (non-illustrator)?
Raschka: I can’t do one. I just can’t. How about fifteen? Is fifteen okay?
Paul Klee, Wu Guanzhong, Emil Nolde, Pierre Bonnard, JMW Turner, Peter Paul Rubens, Huang Binshong, Egon Schiele, John Marin, Raoul Dufy, Philip Guston, Saul Steinberg, Marcel Duchamp, Oskar Kokoschka, On Kawara.
I’ll add seven more.
James Kochalka, Agnes Martin, Shen Zhou, Patrick Henry Bruce, Seth, David Hockney, Arshile Gorky. That’s it!
Please tell us your favorite seven artists (non-illustrators).
Stead: This is a rotating list and I have a feeling if I look at this again in a week it will change, but here goes.
William Kentridge, Tara Donovan, Robert Motherwell, John Singer Sargent, Mark Rothko, Alexander Calder, Romare Bearden
I could go on. This was hard. Seven was a hard number.
Raschka: Lastly, can you scour your notebooks for a nifty quote, either your own or another artist’s, for us?
Stead: Well, I am never, nor will I ever be quotable. So we will refer to the professionals who have written things that have stuck with me.
…Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box that one enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life”— he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.
-George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone
We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
-Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
I’d like to thank Chris Raschka and Erin E. Stead for participating. I’d also like to thank Julie Danielson for her help in making this interview possible.
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About Travis Jonker
Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.
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