Tag Archive for London Ladd

5 QUESTIONS with Susan Wood, author of “Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist”

 

Like everybody else on the planet, the millions and millions, I was captivated by Susan Wood’s brilliant picture-book biography of the composer, Esquivel! It’s bubbly and effervescent — whee-doop-di-doop! — well-researched and beautifully illustrated. A buoyant introduction to a singular artist. I was glad when Susan agreed to this interview.


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So one day you wake up and think: Esquivel! I want to write a book about him! Is that how it works?

Well, um, not quite! Over a few decades, I’ve written a lot about music, both as a journalist and an author of books for adults and children. My earlier music-related books for young readers were a blast to put together and pretty well received—the middle-grade Raggin’ Jazzin’ Rockin’: A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills) was an ALA Notable, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Soldier (HarperTeen), a YA memoir I cowrote with Vietnam vet Dean Ellis Kohler, with a foreword by Graham Nash, was a CCBC Choice. So I was definitely itching to write another music book for the youth market. 

I’d also done a deep dive into the picture book format with Under the Freedom Tree (Charlesbridge), illustrated by the wonderful London Ladd. For that book, London and I visited locations together and shared ideas, and I got to see firsthand how an illustrator works. [Ed note: for a “5 Questions interview with London Ladd, click here.] Through that rich collaborative process I became (and remain) obsessed with the visual aspect of penning a great story. I thought about music makers whose work has kind of a “visual” feel to it, a sound that could be depicted in illustration. Esquivel, with all of his zany instrumentation and textural arrangements, came quickly to mind. The music is so fun, so evocative — I thought kids would dig it, even if they hadn’t a clue who the guy was. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Esquivel beyond the music; luckily, he led an intriguing life that could be shaped into a kid-friendly story arc.

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It feels like we’re living in the golden age of picture book biographies. We are seeing deeper, wider, more diverse “mini” biographies coming out each year. Would you agree with that?

Absolutely. And I couldn’t be more thrilled, because biography/memoir is totally my thing. I’m always curious about what makes people tick, why people do what they do, how they navigate their lives — I’ve written/co-written bios/memoirs of rock ‘n’ roll trailblazers Gene “Be-Bop-A-Lula” Vincent (Race with the Devil, St. Martin’s) and Eddie “Summertime Blues” Cochran (Three Steps to Heaven, with Bobby Cochran, Hal Leonard) and rock photographer Tom Wright (Rock & Roll Turned Inside Out, foreword by Pete Townshend, Hal Leonard), and my picture book bio of artist Grant Wood (American Gothic, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, Abrams) comes out this fall. My PB biography of another painter is currently making the editorial rounds, and I’ve got a long list of other interesting folks whose stories I’d love to tell in the picture book format.

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I find writing picture book biographies far more challenging than penning bios for the adult market. You’ve got to distill a pretty full sweep of a person’s life into just a few pages. So every word’s gotta count!

I imagine you begin by reading everything. It must be easy to become overwhelmed by the material. This guy had an entire life and you have less than 32 pages.

Yes, I read as much as I can find and track down as many primary sources as possible—print and broadcast interviews, letters, documents, photos, articles, and such. At some point in my research, I’ll notice patterns, or themes, or how events build upon each other, and then I know it’s time to start writing. I can tease out those things, piece them together, move them around and shape and polish, and if I’m lucky, a compelling story will emerge. All the while, I’m keeping the visual component in mind—are there enough illustration opportunities in this tale?

Do you ever feel like you can’t do it?

28446Oh yeah. That’s when I close the file and go work on something else. Let it percolate on the back burner while I go about other business. Inevitably, as I’m walking the dog or doing dishes or driving my daughter to the ballet studio or my son to a robotics competition, I’ll usually have some kind of epiphany about how to move forward. Sometimes it takes days; sometimes it takes months. With Under the Freedom Tree, it took a few years to figure out how to tell the story of the first contraband slaves of the Civil War — as a picture book in free verse!

Because: obviously! Let’s see, I think we’re about the same age. Like you, I became aware of Esquivel’s music in the ‘90s when the lounge music thing was blowing up.

Back in the ‘90s I was working as an arts and entertainment correspondent for the big daily newspaper in southeastern Virginia, and record companies would send me their new releases for review. I remember receiving an Esquivel reissue, popping the CD in, and being completely blown away. What was this?! Way too clever, whimsical, and well crafted to be cheesy Muzak, yet super easy to listen and zone out to. Really genius.

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The acid test for any book about music is whether it sends a reader back to the records. And you achieved that. I’ve been listening to Esquivel all week.

I’m so glad! It’s such brilliant stuff, isn’t it? And now thanks to YouTube and other sites, anyone can listen. And watch! Have you seen those amazing old Ernie Kovacs videos, kitchen appliances and office furniture dancing to Esquivel? So fun.

Music has always been important to you.

esquivel_hifif_med_hrMusic’s a huge part of my life. When I was a kid, my mom was a piano teacher, organist, and choir director, and my dad sang in her choirs. Of course, I did the requisite piano lessons, but also played clarinet and bassoon in school band and orchestra. Two of my brothers play drums, and my other brother is a professional guitarist. So lots of music going on at our house growing up! Though I graduated from NYU film school, it was an internship at Island Records—helping to create press releases for their smaller boutique labels—that really got me interested in writing about music, not just listening to or playing it. My first “real” job was at a NYC PR firm that handled music clients exclusively; when I left super-expensive NYC to return home to Virginia, I became a music journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines. Eventually I turned an article I wrote about ‘50s singer Gene Vincent into a book proposal, St. Martin’s Press bought it, and my first book was published in 2000.

When I was in college and beyond, I enjoyed a long correspondence with an American poet named Kenneth Irby. He sent me great letters and was always encouraging about my lousy poems. What he said, over and over again, was “follow your enthusiasms.” And I’ve always held that as a central tenet to my writing. Trust in those things that quicken your heart. It seems to me that you are doing the same thing.

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That’s great advice. Reminds me of the words of wisdom a respected kidlit editor gave a writer friend of mine when she was struggling with what project to tackle next. “What do you love? What do you want to be known for writing?” the editor asked her, and I think about that every time I’m contemplating the next book. For me, it’s almost always music and art—visual arts, performing arts—usually in bio form. I want to be that “musicians and artists” chick.

You’ve said that Esquivel’s music creates pictures in your head. But in the book-making process, your job as the writer was to use words to create pictures in the head of the reader, and, significantly, in the illustrator’s head, too. You wrote, for example, “It sounded like a crazy rocket ride zigzagging through outer space!” I loved how you attempted to match in language the music that you heard.

Thank you! Fortunately, Esquivel and his various record companies gave me plenty of hints, with album titles like Other Worlds, Other Sounds; Infinity in Sound; and Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music. Esquivel liked to use vocals as instrumentation too, replacing familiar lyrics with (often nonsensical) sounds like “zu-zu-pow!” I had fun trying to come up with written representations of the sounds of different instruments — how would you describe what a rumbling tympani drum or blaring trumpet actually sounds like? My terrific editor at Charlesbridge, Yolanda Scott, is a singer — in an amazing coincidence, with the world’s only orchestra devoted to Esquivel’s music, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica — so she was helpful with this, particularly for some of the more obscure instruments such as the boobams. (Just looked back at some of our e-mail exchanges and cracked up. Yolanda: ISSUE #4: sound of boobams (pp. 14-15) I think we need to get rid of the “Beeda” and replace with another syllable. I agree that “eee” doesn’t sound drummy. Me: Does BUMPA-DUMPA-BOODA-BUM sound drummy enough?)

Ha, that’s hysterical. When it comes to inventing words to match sound effects, I always think of Don Martin from Mad magazine as the absolute master. Pffft-Frack! He’s a favorite of mine.

 

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Did you know the work of illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh before this book?

No, I wasn’t familiar with Duncan. When Yolanda let me know who they had in mind to illustrate, I went right to Duncan’s website and was delighted. He was the perfect choice for this project! I’m thrilled that with Esquivel! he’s racked up yet another Pura Belpré Honor award. The books he’s written and illustrated are all so beautiful. Plus, he’s a genuinely nice guy.

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Describe your feelings on the day you first saw the illustrations.

Seeing the finished art is one of the very best parts of the picture book process. You know the story, you’ve seen the sketches, but nothing compares with the final artwork in all its gorgeous glory. It’s always exciting to see an artist’s interpretation of your words; often it’s far beyond what you’d even imagined! I especially love how Duncan got the groovy late ‘50s/early ‘60s fashions and aesthetic in there while still being true to his style based on ancient Mexican art.

Just to clear something up for me: You used to write under the name Susan VanHecke. Is that over? Are you working your way through the alphabet: V-W-X?

Ha! A few years back, I was reading the memoir Joey Ramone’s brother wrote about their relationship, and I was struck by how this tall, pale, gangly kid named Jeff Hyman—just ruthlessly bullied for the way he looked and for his OCD—made a completely fresh start for himself by changing his name to Joey Ramone. I’d always been teased about my maiden name, and the married name, which I’d never been fond of and everyone always mispronounced and misspelled, was never mine in the first place. Since I was making fresh starts in several areas of my life, a name change just felt right. So I took my cue from sweet Joey Ramone (gabba gabba hey!), and the easy-to-say, easy-to-spell Susan Wood it is. There may or may not be a smidge of patriarchy-smashing buried somewhere in there too…

What’s next, Susan? Do you have plans for a new book?

skydivingbeavers_jacket_med_hrLet’s see. My picture book about a daring wildlife relocation by parachute, The Skydiving Beavers: A True Tale (Sleeping Bear), publishes April 15, and American Gothic in September. I need to confirm with the publisher, but I think my Little Red Hen retelling with a Mexican twist comes out in 2018, as does another picture book biography (nonmusic) that I can’t really talk about yet.

Any candidates for another music biography?

I’m working on a proposal with Albert Glinsky to adapt his definitive biography for adults of Russian musician, inventor, and spy Leon Theremin — yeah, that theremin — into a YA. And I have a few other ideas for music biographies, both YA and PB. So many musicians I’d love to write about! I’m also a professional copyeditor specializing in music texts, so when I’m not sweating over my own stuff, I live vicariously editing other authors’ music-related work.

Thanks for stopping by, Susan. Hopefully we get to hang out someday.

SUSAN WOOD keeps a swanky website that you can easily find, so I’m not going to provide a link. Do it yourself, people. Leave me alone. I’m not your slave. And get off the damn lawn, I just seeded.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed here: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, Susan Verde, Elizabeth Zunan and Robin Pulver. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

5 QUESTIONS with LONDON LADD, illustrator of “Frederick’s Journey: The Life of Frederick Douglas”

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Today we’ll meet London Ladd, the supremely talented illustrator behind Frederick’s Journey (2015), written by Doreen Rappaport. In the process of this interview, you’ll discover what I’ve already learned — that London is a soft-spoken, modest, quietly determined artist with a bright future ahead of him.

London I’m so glad to have you here. Now I can shine my full 15-watt bulb on your awesome talent. I hope you’re wearing sunglasses. Are you ready for this?

Thank you very much. I’m honored to talk to you and share. I’m ready!

As an illustrator who does not write his own books (we’ll get back to that later), you depend on quality manuscripts coming your way. What was your experience first reading Doreen Rappaport’s manuscript for Frederick’s Journey? She’s such an excellent writer and researcher. Are you visualizing images right away?

It was amazing because Douglass is one of my favorite historical figures so this was a dream come true for me as an illustrator. Doreen is great!!! My first time reading her script, images and scenes immediately popped into my head — and as I read it again and again, more would come up. Some would end up in the book, some didn’t.

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Okay, so you accepted the job. What’s next? Do you freak out for a week, filled with self-doubt? Or are you a guy who rolls up your sleeves and dives right in? I mean, you are staring at words typed on a bare page. How do you start? Sketching with a pencil, or what?

I wouldn’t say freak out, but take a deep breath, exhale so I can could be focused and determined to do an outstanding job. First I read the script from beginning to end without stopping. Then I read a second time while quickly writing notes and sketching in pencil rough ideas. I’ll repeat the process a few more times. Usually 1/4 of the pages roughly sketched before the next phase . . . research.

In the illustrator’s note at the back of the book, you describe going to places where Frederick Douglas lived, visiting his grave in Rochester, New York, even growing your hair long like him. It sounds like you employ similar techniques to a method actor who seeks to inhabit the character he’s portraying. Tell us about your process of –- I don’t want to say becoming Frederick Douglas -– but your effort to get inside this very strong, historic figure.

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Since I look a little like him — I have spots of gray in my hair and facial hair — I decided to grow it out. While my hair was growing I read his powerful autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and watched documentaries of him and the slave era.

So your first big move was to wait for your hair to grow?

Well, while that was happening I also traveled to various important landmarks during his life like his home in Washington DC, Fells Point in Baltimore, and his grave in Rochester. Everything about the book was a magical experience. I’ve never enjoyed working on a project as much as Frederick’s Journey. That’s why I was so immersed.

Tell us a little about the materials you used to create these paintings. And, um, for the sake of my Nation of Readers, just pretend that I’m a complete idiot and –- I know, that’s a huge leap! –- try to use small words.

LOL . . . it’s pretty simple. 

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I use acrylic paint with touches of colored pencil and pastels on primed illustration board. When sketches are approved by the publisher I put the drawings on board, then start painting with thin layers of acrylic paint while adding thicker layers while applying colored pencil and pastels for desired effects. I’ve been illustrating books for 10 years but I’m still developing my artistic look with each project. I really enjoyed the challenges painting them.

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Oh, yeah. “Pretty simple.” Sure. Do you work from models?

Always!!! Besides using myself I use family members, friends, anyone who fits the character. I might ask you if necessary!

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Do you have a favorite moment in the book? I love the contrast from Frederick’s younger days, when he is vulnerable and hungry, forced to eat from a trough, to when we see him later, hunched over a newspaper -– a reader can sense the power he’s acquiring in that moment.

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We see him later in a classic heroic pose, with our perspective looking up at him. He grows in stature as the book progresses. I’m also impressed by that huge, tight head shot that occurs late in the book. You turn the page and it’s like, wow, very stark and effective. There he is, the man. When you finished that painting, that must have been a good day.

Thank you! Yeah, it took me a week to paint that page because I would paint it for a few hours, stop, work on other image from the book then continue working on it the next day or two or three until I was happy enough with it.

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There are so many images I love but I would have to say the first three pages: Frederick being taken from his mother (the agony of his mother’s guttural scream as he’s taken), fishing in the river (the comfort of being with his grandmother peacefully fishing, soothing sound of the river and warmth of the sun setting), and separating from grandmother (the sadness in his eyes and his low volume sobbing as young Douglass realizes his grandmother is gone, possibly forever and surrounded by strangers). I see them as linked together as one range of feelings, emotions and sounds.

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Yes, enough for a life’s journey in just three pages. It’s amazing what he accomplished after that. Do you have plans for writing your own books, too? I really hope you do. You seem like a quiet guy and, of course, those are the ones who surprise people. Any areas of interest you might want to explore?

I’m usually quiet but sometimes I can have a playful personality. Believe it or not when I was younger I wasn’t quiet . . . . I blame the deadlines for that.

I know you are working really hard right now, London, holding down two jobs in addition to your work as an illustrator. It’s impressive. All I can say is keep it up, keep pushing hard, because you are on the cusp of even greater success.

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Thanks, I have a few ideas brewing. I presented one to my agent, Lori Nowicki at Painted Words, and she really liked it so we’ll see where it goes. I don’t want to share anything until a contract is signed. Also my daughter is studying illustration in college so it’s my ultimate dream to work together. She’s so creative I know it will be a lot fun.

I am so glad to hear that. I know it’s a difficult jump for many illustrators to make, a leap outside of your comfort zone. But I push you in particular, London, because we are now in a much needed corrective phase in children’s publishing. We are hearing the call for diversity, and it’s been answered in all sorts of ways. Which is well and good. However, a cautionary note: it’s not nearly enough for white people to write inclusively. It can’t stop there. The diversity movement must be about power. About control and author-ity. Children’s literature needs your story; we need to hear your voice in full. It’s not enough, in my mind, for you to illustrate a white person’s story about slavery, regardless of the integrity of the writing. We need children’s literature to embrace your living story — your sense of humor, your playfulness, your experience, your thoughts and feelings. The good news is that I believe the publishing industry has never been more receptive than it is today. So, yes, I wish you luck with that manuscript. And how nice for you to share that experience, fingers crossed, with your daughter.

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Thank you!!!  I definitely understand what you’re saying.  Also it’s vital to have more diversity with the decision-makers in publishing like art directors, associate art directors, editors, graphic designers, etc.  
 
Exactly right. And CEOs, too, while we’re at it. Somewhere I read that you loved comics as a kid. It’s amazing how often I hear that from illustrators, the singular importance and impact of those old comic books. But I don’t really see that visual influence in your work. Am I wrong about that? Or is that something you might try down the line?

True, visually my books don’t look like comics but what influenced me about comic books was the storytelling, emotional depth, and action sequences. I try to bring those elements into my books. Some of my favorite comics were graphic novels, so I would love to illustrate one down the road.

I’d like to see that, too. Hey, London, before I let you go, I see you are a Syracuse guy, born and raised. Do you always wear that orange sweatshirt? And also, favorite Syracuse basketball player of all time. I’m guessing . . . Sherman Douglas. Am I right?

No love for the Shermanator? Here's Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

No love for the Shermanator? Here’s Etan Thomas instead. Yes, London, big dude.

Lol, no I don’t wear the sweatshirt anymore because it can get really warm in the studio and I’ve built up so many layers of paint from cleaning my brushes on it. Sherman Douglas was an amazing player but actually one of my favorite all-time players at SU was Etan Thomas. He wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, but during his four years he worked hard developing his game, earned his degree, and had a productive NBA career and is currently involved with community work. What I admire about him was how he worked hard to overcome any challenge. I can relate to that. Plus when I was a student at SU I saw him on campus one day and he was a big dude.

People sure do love the Orangemen in upstate, New York. My good friend went to Syracuse and tells a story about waitressing for some of those players. Let’s just say that she will forever hate on Derrick Coleman. Anyway, what are you working on right now?

I’m working on Midnight Teacher: The Story of Lily Ann Granderson by Janet Halfmann. It’s about a woman who was born into slavery during the mid 19th century who learned to read and write. She secretly taught other slaves to read write at the risk of her life. After the Emancipation Proclamation she started a school to teach former slaves to read and write. What’s so exciting is illustrating such an amazing woman many people might not be familiar with.

I’ll look forward to it.

Thank you, James, this was a lot of fun.

 

The “5 Questions” Interview Series is a side project I’ve assigned myself, hoping to reach 52 authors & illustrators in the course of a year, always focusing on one book. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function, which works well. 

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, and Jeff Mack. Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Bruce Coville, Matt Faulkner, and more.

 

 

 

Photographing My Good Side . . . at The Warwick Children’s Book Festival

Every time I meet a photographer, I give that person a detailed list of very specific instructions. In total, this:

1. Only photograph my good side.

So, of course, all the shots after my visit to the Warwick Children’s Book Festival were of the top of my head:

Signing my new book, THE COURAGE TEST.

Signing my new book, THE COURAGE TEST.

 

Reasons to be grateful: I still have hair, right? In truth, I had an inspiring day at the Warwick Children’s Book Festival this past Saturday, 10/8/16. It was a warm, cozy event in a great town filled with good people. I go every year. It’s a two-year-old tradition. Now we’re family.

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One of the pleasures for an author at Warwick is getting to briefly chat with friends in the business, “companions of the flame” as H.D. wrote. For example: the effervescent Hazel G Mitchell was my neighbor and it was the first time we had any extended time together; I tracked down my pal Hudson Talbott, whom I respect so much. His new book, FROM WOLF TO WOOF! is flawless, intelligent, extraordinary. I got to linger in the parking lot with Eric Velasquez and London Ladd; drink coffee with Paul Acampora and Lizzy Rockwell; wish good health to the great Wendell Minor; marvel at the wit and new-voice-freshness of Jessica Olien’s fabulous Blobfish book; and on and on. It makes a guy want to buy a book, read a book, write a book.
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Plus, best of all, gander this:
 
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I love the chance to meet readers face to face. I’m always especially charmed to meet the sweet, lovely girls who love scary stories.
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The readers are what make it. For thirty years, I’ve scrambled to keep this career alive. Here’s the payoff:
 
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 THANK YOU, WORLD!