Saturday, July 24, 2010

Books for Young Readers Conference-Part V

I enjoyed the next speaker's presentation. It was very well constructed. In person, he was a little more reserved and didn't answer questions as well as I'd like, but no one can deny Kadir Nelson is a talent that really stands out and I was excited to learn more about him.

"I'm in the wrong place to say this, but I hated reading as little kid. It made me cry." He understood the importance of education, however. He kept in mind his 12th grade trig teacher, Mr. Baker's class poster which said, "Wish upon a star, but do your HW too."

He has a very supportive family. "My mother gave me paper which is really all I needed." He knew from a very young age exactly what he wanted to do. He loved to draw Mickey Mouse and many of his sketches include the famous mouse. He also claims to be "a big Michael Jordan nut when I was a teenager." In fact, when he illustrated Salt in My Shoes about Michael Jordan, he showed Michael's mother (the author of the book) a picture he drew of Michael as Mickey doing a slam dunk. "She didn't like it too much."
His artwork has progressed and he loves to try new styles. He "started with watercolors and graduated to acrylics" as a teenager.

He has a personal motto that "Beauty defies negativity" and chooses work that follows this mantra. He described his work on Ellington was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, which I really love.

The author drove by a street named Ellington which was run down and not kept. She happened to know Duke Ellington from her childhood and "was good mad" and went home and wrote this poem, which is the text of the book. If you like jazz, you'll love the history behind this book.

His first job out of college was working with Steven Spielberg on the movie Amistad. He would do "treatments" where you have illustrators draw what a scene could look like including lighting, character placement and mood. He said it taught him a lot. You have to think about the foreground, the middleground and the background in any scene. Plus, you only are hired 2 weeks at a time so you have to do a good job to keep the job. He tells that "95% is not used" by the director, but he was very happy that most of his shots were used by Spielberg. He showed many examples of his treatment and then how the scene ended up looking which I thought was very amazing.

His next professional endeavor was with a new production company at the time called Dreamworks. He helped illustrate an animated full length feature film called, Spirit.

He was proud to say that the final climactic scene where the horse jumps the ravine was entirely his scene.

At this point in his career, he was using watercolor, pencil and oil paint on paper. He also was beginning to do oils on canvas. He wanted to find a subject matter that "would allow me to use this style." He did a few paintings which were showcased in Sports Illustrated about baseball players that he had painted in an art college class. From those paintings, emerged the idea for his new book, We are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

A great side story is when Billy Crystal called him up one day and asked to buy one of his baseball paintings. Since they were already purchased, he offered to paint him an original. They met for lunch and Billy saw that Kadir had painted the Yankee's fans sitting on the wrong side of the stadium. "You would have thought I'd slapped his mother!" Kadir said.

From then on, he really did his homework. In one painting in his book, he spend long hours researching what the scoreboard looked like on that day. He found a similar one in a photo but told himself it "probably doesn't do it, when there are Billy Crystal's out there."

In fact, for every painting he had a research list that he completed:

Year and Date
Forecast that day

One challenge he encountered was that the photos he used as a reference were in black and white and the paintings he was doing were full color. Also, he was able to borrow an old uniform and showed many pictures of his model, which he described was available at all hours. He used to dress up, get his camera ready on his tripod, used the timer and then and uses himself to model and pose how the body looks when pitching, catching, running, etc. "It's kind of lame, but I saved a lot of time and money!"

At first he was going to do the illustrations only but when they couldn't find the right author, he asked his editor,

"Can I write it?"



He said, "I was very happy but very scared. That little boy from Atlantic City found that he was reading a lot!"

Here is an exerpt from one reviewer: E.R. Bird
I seriously doubt that Hank Aaron writes a Foreword for every book proposal he receives. Seems to me that he'd do relatively few. Yet with this book Aaron writes at the beginning, "When I read these stories and look at the artwork, I am flooded by memories of years past and grateful for Kadir's fresh approach to the subject." Children now have a chance to pay homage to heroes with cool names like Cumberland Posey and "Cool Papa" Bell. It's a one-of-a-kind book, the like of which you have not seen, nor ever will see again. A triumph.

He offers some new facts he learned in the book:

* Owners of Negro League teams, at the beginning, "couldn't afford to pay a man to just sit in the dugout," so team managers almost always played in games.

* Baseball players in the majors had more expensive balls than those in the Negro Leagues. Take into account the handmade bats the Major Leaguers got and you can see how many records these Negro League players could have beaten if only they'd had the right equipment.

* This should have occurred to me before, but when lights were made to provide for night baseball, suddenly "All those folks who had to work during the day were now able to see a baseball game in the evening." Hence, more money for everyone.

* When barnstorming in California and Cuba, the Negro League players would often play against "everybody from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth." And they won about sixty percent of the time too.

* Those players who were drafted into the army could play baseball for the military in the Special Services rather than fighting.

* The East-West Game was, in a sense, the outdoor equivalent of Harlem's fancy nightclubs. "People who didn't know anything about baseball came to the ballpark in their Sunday best just to be seen at the East-West Game, you hear?"

Kadir Nelson gave lots of insight into how he researched the book and met many primary sources that contributed their stories. Buck ONeal was a legend to him. "It just made my day for him to say, 'Hello, Kadir!' "

His mom used to have his family complete a puzzle every christmas morning before they were allowed to open presents, and he compares that memory to how it feels to take a lot of research and piece it together into a great story.

Some details about the painting from We are the Ship: The actual paintings are very large: 16 x 15 feet. "I wanted these paintings to be an experience and size really helps." The paintings are currently on a national tour and on exhibit at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory till September. He also reluctantly shared a few of the mistakes in the book. One was an American flag that had 50 stars and should have had 48 at the time and also a pitcher who was left handed, but he painted him right handed. A big mistake which he regrets deeply. He did say that he "tried to be as accurate as possible."

He shared that he likes to change his style to fit the subject matter. One medium I thought was interesting was how he illustrated, Mama Miti. He felt that he really wanted to focus on the cultural use of bright colors and vibrant fabrics so he did a fabric collage. He went to the craft store, bought lots of fabric and then used fabric and a little bit of paint for faces and hands. He did most of the book with the first pair of scissors he bought, till he discovered that there was such a thing as fabric scissors. Once he bought those and they cut "like a sharp knife through warm bread" he exclaimed, "Where have you been all my life!"

One thing I noticed about his presentation and later when I asked him about it, is that he is very humble and hardly mentioned his Caldecott Honor winner books. His illustrations in the book, Moses about Harriet Tubman won the Caldecott Honor. He said about that, "I thought of my grandmother as Harriet Tubman."

I also asked him about the book that I thought was most familiar to kids, Henry Freedom Box, about any background information he had about working on that book. He had nothing to say about it, to my disappointment. Like I said, he didn't love answering questions too much, in my opinion.
During A and A, he answered that his baseball paintings began in the year 2000 and finished in January of 2007. Most of his pieces take between 3 days and 2 weeks to complete. He shared that the most difficult thing about his work is getting the hands and feet right. In art school, he had a great teacher who made him practice those since those features are the key to a great artist. Someone asked if he likes to be a writer or an illustrator and he answered that "you get more respect when you're a writer" plus you get "more control and full royalty."

When asked if he sent a copy of We are the Ship to Billy Crystal, he replied, "Yes, but I haven't heard back."

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