Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Art of Nonfiction

Recently others on I.N.K. have been talking about visual learners and visual learning. Coincidentally I've been thinking about pictures a lot lately, too. And I am NOT a visual learner. I am the kid who skipped the pictures. I am the kid who did not like comic books because there were too many pictures and not enough words. It's not that I don't like pictures. I love looking at photographs and paintings.  In a museum. Or on someone's wall. But when I want to know something, when I want to learn, I need words.

But just as writing is all about revision (that's one way to look at it), life is all about change that leads to growth. For a few months now I've been wondering why I've had this block about visual learning, and if maybe I shouldn't try to change it. Just as when I took up squash a few years ago, I am playing to my weak suit. (Bad eye-hand coordination, impatience with the work it takes me to understand visual details.) But I am really loving the challenge and it is leading to new vistas for me. (Intended.)

Many things have contributed to this new path of mine.

First of all, I seem to be writing a book about a painter. I spend hours reading Vincent Van Gogh's letters and although I'm reading more for hints as to who he was, and how important his personal relationships were, I can't help but read his many sentences about light and color and figure-drawing and composition. He was one of the greatest artists of all time, after all. And over these last months, I've been reading sentences such as

"...it was in the evening, and the sunset threw a ruddy glow on the gray evening clouds, against which the masts of the ships and the row of old houses and trees stood out; and everything was reflected in the water, and the sky threw a strange light on the black earth, on the green grass with daisies and buttercups, and on the bushes of white and purple lilacs, and on the elderberry bushes of the garden in the yard."

How can I help but learn from him? How can I help but start to see the world in a different way? How can I help but see paintings and photographs and all art in a different way?

Second: My husband has gotten back into photography after decades away from it. He is learning digital photography, and sharing his enthusiasms with me. We've always loved to look at photographs together, but now we talk not only about beauty in photographs, but how photographs can tell stories, impart information, and add dimensions to nonfiction.

Third: I recently heard  David Wiesner talk. I was enthralled by what he had to say about his process. Much of the art technicalities went over my head, but his attention to detail, the drafts, the experimentation, all of that is very similar to my process as a writer. So I was able to understand the creation of art in a way that I never have before. After hearing him talk I bought Flotsam and Sector 7 (sorry for talking about fiction here on I.N.K., but it relates!) and my husband and I sat on the couch and read them together. They are wordless, so when I write READ I am saying a lot. For the first time in my life I had the joy of reading and getting a wordless picture book. It didn't hurt that my husband was beside himself, almost jumping up and down on the couch with glee. It didn't hurt that Wiesner's a genius. But, reader, I got it.

Fourth: I am noticing, really noticing, art in nonfiction picture books perhaps for the first time. That is a bit of an exaggeration because I have written illustrated nonfiction picture books. And I sure have noticed the art in those. (Authors are sent sketches and we have to make sure everything is correct, for one thing.)  And I have had many books illustrated with photographs that I had to approve or even pick. But now when I pick up someone else's picture book I am paying much closer attention to the art and what the art adds to the information in the book. Art can be pretty. It can be evocative. It can be dramatic. But when it adds information, detail, and understanding to the book, to me that's when the book soars. And that's why I was so happy when Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet won the Sibert this year.

Not only does Melissa put information into the art, thereby expanding what we learn through the text (such as: a map of New York streets that shows the parade route; dates that would otherwise slow down the narrative; the engineering behind his puppet-making), she also conveys the feeling of Tony Sarg the man and the artist through her use of watercolor, collage, papier-mache, found objects and fabric. Melissa's a genius, too. (Full disclosure: Melissa was the illustrator of my very first book, a fiction picture book called Into the Night. No longer in print.)

Fifth: I have been blessed by the gift of another true artistic genius for my next nonfiction picture book. I wrote a book about the mathematician Paul Erdos. It took me many many many drafts to get it to the place where I could even send it out. I started it in 2004 (my first draft, March 12, 2004). I sold it to Roaring Brook in summer of 2006. For various reasons it has taken a bit of a while (breathe, Deborah, breathe) for it to get on the road to actually being published. If all goes as planned (breathe, Deborah, breathe) it will be out next year, 2013. And for me it will have been well worth the wait because LeUyen Pham is doing the most amazing and brilliant illustrations. It had been my dream as I whittled the prose in the book down to a decent picture book length and edited the language to be suitable for a 2nd or 3rd grader (the "sweet spot" for the book, I think) that the artist would be able to put math into the illustrations. Real math. The kind that Paul Erdos did. LeUyen loved math as a kid. She works really hard. And, in my humble opinion, she is a genius. I don't use this word lightly although I have used it kind of a lot in this post. But LeUyen has risen above and beyond my wildest dreams. And let me tell you, I'm a girl who can dream.

Here is a little preview of the book, The Boy Who Loved Math, and an illustration (intended) of how an artist can "grow" the nonfiction in a book. (These are sketches.)

I'm just saying.....

LeUyen was away and got home late last night. She just sent me the final art for these pictures and I just have to post them here because they are gorgeous!


Annalisa said...

amazing discovery. love your insights into words and pictures. smiles!

Susan Kuklin said...

Wow Deborah! There are so many levels to this post I’ll only respond to a few. I was the kid who loved images, comic books, and ballet - only came to those odd squiggles called words latish in childhood. So it touches and inspires me to see [intended] “a needer of words” grow while writing a book about a great artist.

You’re a very fast learner because you obviously gave your illustrator the respect and creative space that will enhance the Paul Erdos book. Beautiful spreads. Can’t wait to see it in its entirety.

Share a picture book with a loved one tonight.
What can be more romantic!

Karen Romano Young said...

What a juicy post. Thank you!

Loreen Leedy said...

Wonderful...keep looking and writing about it!

Melissa Stewart said...

Thanks for your insights, Deborah. One of the thinsg I love about this blog is how we can all help each other grow in new directions and think about the world in different ways.

marthejocelyn said...

Have YOU started drawing yet? Splashing paint around? Picking up a pair of scissors and cutting stuff out?
great post, thanks...

Deborah Heiligman said...

Marthe--I am trying to draw. I am. I am not good. But I'm trying. Maybe you can give me some pointers, lady!