Friday, March 18, 2011

Three Schools: Six Questions

In the last week I’ve been the guest author at three elementary schools in the St. Louis area. The first school was across the Missouri River in Wentzville, one of the fastest growing public school districts in America. A fairly new residential area, pristine and suburban. The second school was in South St. Louis, a parochial school attached to a large Catholic Church. A very homogeneous group of kids. The third was a public school in the heart of North St. Louis in a neighborhood of bungalows, run-down apartments, and boarded up buildings. The majority of the students are African American. Each teacher/librarian had read several of my books to the children before my visit. It always makes a big difference if I show up at a school where the kids sort of know who I am.

A Digression: A Letter from Shane after I visited his school:

Dear Jan Greenberg, I always fall asleep during the period right after lunch. But our teacher Mrs. Poetter told us you were coming and to sit up straight. I expected an old lady with gray hair to hobble in. Then WOW, you showed up. You were pretty entertaining, even though most of your books are about girls. By the way, I was the kid in the back row wearing the letter jacket.

So OK, I received that letter-um- 15 years ago.

Anyway. In the first school, the amazing art teacher had done four different art projects, which lined the hallways: collages inspired by Romare Bearden: Collage of Memories, self-portraits based on Chuck Close Up Close, a lively group of Campbell’s Soups a la Andy Warhol: Prince of POP, and splatter paintings in a style similar to Jackson Pollock's Lavender Mist in Action Jackson. At each school I was thrilled to find the students prepared, attentive, and eager to ask questions. What I found interesting was the fact that the three groups of children, all from very different backgrounds, asked me the same questions. In retrospect, I might have been funnier, more articulate, more thoughtful. “If only I had said this,” I told myself later. “If only I’d said that.” So here are some revised responses to the most frequently asked questions from my school visits.

On Martha Graham: Making Appalachian Spring:

“Why did you write a book about that lady?”

Martha Graham was the first great modern American dancer. She didn’t wear toe shoes or tutus. (Power point: A Little Dancer by Degas next to an illustration of one of Martha’s dancers by Brian Floca.) Imagine crouching down and then with your stomach muscles leaping up, breathing in and out. The dancers often had sore muscles and bruised knees but once they understood Martha’s way of dancing, they were happy they’d stuck with it. I work with (collaborate with) Sandra Jordan on most of my books on the arts and we were fascinated by the way Martha worked with her dance troupe, the composer who wrote the music and the artist who created the sets.

“The illustrations are neat. Does the artist (Brian Floca) do the pictures for all of your books?

Only two of our books have illustrations, both in water colors, but they were made by two different illustrators. We loved working with both illustrators, Robert Andrew Parker on Action Jackson and Brian Floca. Often editors don’t want the author to communicate with the illustrator because conflicts can arise. But Brian, who spent a lot of time photographing the Martha Graham dancers rehearsing and also watching an old tape of the first performance of Appalachian Spring in 1944, wanted our input. That doesn’t mean he always took our suggestions. But he was interested in what we had to say. It was fun sitting together with Brian and our editor Neal Porter in his apartment in New York, looking at Brian’s drawings and seeing how they made our story sparkle. In our biographies of artists, we use reproductions of actual paintings, sculpture, or, in the case of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, photographs of their outdoor installations. ( Here is where I show a lot of images on the screen, wall or wherever there’s a big white space.)

On Writing:

“What’s your favorite thing about being a writer?

I love the writing process. But nonfiction requires a lot of research before you can sit down and write the story. When we wrote a biography of Vincent Van Gogh, we read hundreds of letters that he wrote to his brother Theo and more than twenty-five biographies. Finding the heart in the story is vital and sometimes it takes traveling to the places where the main character lived and worked to discover it. It was magical going to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and to Provence in the south of France where he painted. Driving by fields of sunflowers and walking down the streets of Arles where he made some of his greatest works, including Starry Night, and reading first hand accounts by people who knew him, gave us a deeper sense of the man, of the artist, than any art history text could do. Think of eating an artichoke, peeling off the leaves, one by one, until you get to the delicious heart inside. ( Power point has changed the way I do presentations. No more fumbling with transparencies in overhead projectors. No more slide machines that break in the middle of a talk.)

“What’s your advice on how to be a writer?”

Don’t leave the room. And be prepared to write a million lousy words before you get it right.

“How much money do you make?"

“How old are you?”

Hmmm. I think I’ll answer those two questions next time.


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