Monday, February 10, 2014

Kandinsky's Art Inspires Barb Rosenstock's 'Noisy Paint Box'

Picture book biographies are one of my favorite genres. Not only because they tend to feature remarkable people who change the world in one way or another, but because they distill the messiness of life into easily understandable bits. Betty wanted to fly, but people said a girl couldn't, so Betty proved them wrong. Josephine wanted to dance, but America treated her poorly, so she found a place where she was loved and accepted.

With The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky's Abstract Art (Knopf, releasing tomorrow), Chicago-area author Barb Rosenstock tells the story of a young boy who opened his paint box and saw colors differently. Young Vasily Kandinsky could hear colors singing and see vibrant sounds dancing, and he didn't want to paint the way everyone else was painting at the time. So he listened to his own voice and, over time, became a brilliant force for a whole new form of painting: abstract art.

Beautifully illustrated by Mary GrandPre, best known as the artist for the Harry Potter books, The Noisy Paint Box has already garnered starred reviews from top journals, including this from Kirkus: “A rich, accomplished piece about a pioneer in the art world.” Barb's other wonderfully detailed books have earned her praise as well: Thomas Jefferson Builds a Library, recently named an Orbis recommended book; The Camping Trip that Changed America, illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein; and Fearless: The Story of Racing Legend Louise Smith.

Question: Your picture books cover pioneering stock car racer Louise Smith, a ground-breaking camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt and conservationist John Muir, and Thomas Jefferson's library. Now, with The Noisy Paint Box, you dive into the life of abstract artist Vasily Kandinsky. Where do your ideas come from? How do you go from "a-ha" moment when something catches your eye to finished manuscript?

Barb Rosenstock: I wish I had a better answer than "my ideas are random" but "my ideas are random." I wish they weren't. Something I'll read or see about a person or event will catch my imagination, and then it's research time. I'm looking for its importance to kids or to curriculum and also for a focus to build a book around. How it goes to finished manuscript, well, like everyone else, it's just create, revise, repeat.

Q: What inspired The Noisy Paint Box? How and why did you choose Kandinsky? 

BR: I saw an article titled The Man Who Heard His Paintbox Hiss while I was reading about folk artists and just had to find out what THAT was about. Turned out it was about Kandinsky. I told you my ideas are random. If I run into it, find it interesting and it doesn't already exist, I'll take a stab at it.

Q: You seem to prefer picture book biography and narrative non-fiction to other genres. Why? How did you land on this form for your writing? 

BR: I was a big history buff, even when I was in elementary school. I may have been the only fourth-grader who secretly hung out in antique stores. My reading preferences followed that interest, almost always historical fiction like the Betsy Tacy stories or Little House on the Prairie, but I never dreamed of being a writer. However, when my sons were young they liked "true stories" – emphasis on stories – and it was hard to find interesting, well-written, non-fiction or biography that didn't sound like a textbook. I started noodling around writing a bit, and here I am.

Q: The Noisy Paint Box has already earned starred reviews from top journals, and your other books have earned awards from the Amelia Bloomer Project, Junior Library Guild, and Bank Street, to name just a few. With books that are so thoroughly researched and well-written, how long does it take to fully explore your subjects? And what is your process like for writing and refining the story and specific language? 

BR: Thanks for the compliment! I actually found out we got a fourth star from School Library Journal today! Depending on the book, I would say six months to a year of research/writing. Ten days is my shortest book, two years is my longest. I don't write in a set order. For example, I almost never do all the research and then write a picture book. Instead I tend to do some research, write a draft for tone, style, or focus and then do further research to flesh out details in subsequent drafts.

All in all a bit circular. Then I'll do anywhere from five to 10 drafts to get the language perfect, especially the verbs. I'll never get the punctuation and stuff right, 'cuz I'm terrible at that, I just finally give up when I feel it's readable enough for my agent or editors. Later, I constantly judge the information on whether it serves the story, and judge the story on whether it serves the information. I'd still be rewriting books that are already published, so it's good that they take them away from me.

Q: Your illustrator for The Noisy Paint Box is Mary GrandPrĂ©, the artist who illustrated the Harry Potter series. In the children's book world, this puts you in some pretty heady company! How did you feel when you learned you would be working with Mary?

BR: I've been so blessed to be paired with phenomenal illustrators across the board. Allison Wortche, the Knopf editor of The Noisy Paint Box, understood this book's message. Her team chose the perfect artist to bring Paint Box to life. And Mary's genius added so much to the story. I have to confess, I didn't know Mary was the artist behind Harry Potter until the day we were paired up and then, yeah, I just walked around beaming for like three months. Okay, I'm still beaming.

Q: I loved the idea behind The Noisy Paint Box, that we don't have to be defined by what others dictate. What do you hope young readers take away from this book? And from all your stories? 

BR: That being yourself is good enough. That each of us is born with talents or instincts toward certain things and that we should always respect our guts and not hide our strengths to fit in. Also, that talent or wanting to change something is not magical, it takes work too. It's gratifying for me to learn about people in history who believed in themselves and their work. I hope in a small way my books contribute to supporting self-acceptance in children who typically too easily give up their uniqueness to satisfy others.

Q: What will we see next from you?

BR: March 1st of 2014 is the release of a new picture book titled The Streak: How Joe DiMaggio Became America's Hero. We did it in conjunction with some researchers from the Baseball Hall of Fame and Louisville Slugger. I'm a non-athlete in an athletic family, so this one is for my (now almost grown) boys who got me started on this crazy writing adventure. I couldn't believe there were no DiMaggio picture books. So I wrote one!