Thursday, January 16, 2014

In Paris the Children Rollerskate

       Many years ago, I had the good fortune to be a student in the beautiful city of Paris,
France. Wandering around, poking into shops and museums was as much of an education as
were my classes at the Universite de Paris. My French at that time was so good, people
 commented on my "cute" accent, and asked if I were from Quebec.

     I was interested in children's books even then. As I walked around the city, I began to notice children rollerskating most places I went. I loved to rollerskate when I was a little girl. This gave me the idea for my first children's book. I was twenty years old.

    My boyfriend came to visit. He was studying photography. I told him my idea and he liked it. We would go around Paris and he would photograph the children rollerskating for my story, which I would also translate into French, so that the book would be bi-lingual, in both French and English.

     And so we did. I remember the day we were taking pictures in front of the then Museum of Modern Art, which had a large flat space in front where children skated. A bus stopped and a group of Japanese tourists descended. Each person stopped in front of me and my boyfriend, smiled or bowed to us, then snapped our picture. I imagined these same tourists going home, showing this photograph of a "typical" French couple to their families and friends, never knowing it was actually two Californians from the USA!

     Months later when I came home, I worked on the picture book manuscript, which I
 had entitled In Paris the Children Rollerskate. My boyfriend, who soon afterwards became
 my husband, enlarged the photographs which we would send out with the story. This was in
the days of typewriters, film and darkrooms. When we thought it was ready, we submitted our manuscript to publishers.

     We got back letters, a personal note from Charlotte Zolotow, regrets from other editors that they were not taking on bilingual books, or that publishing photographs was too expensive, thanks for submitting "an excellent, well-written manuscript", and my favorite, "It is obvious you can indeed write". We were too young and green to know what a gift these sorts of rejection letters were. After sending the manuscript out about five times, I stuck it into a drawer and left it there.

     For a long time I considered the words of the gypsy who had read my palm in Montmartre. "Your luck is bad," she had told me. If I would cross her palm with silver, she would pray for me, and take some of my bad luck onto herself. Being a poor student on a small stipend, I declined. Yet I often wondered, if I had heeded the gypsy and given her some francs, would my book have been published? Because the fact was, everything else she told me about my fate came true.

     "In Paris the children rollerskate. You can see them throughout the city, wherever a large, flat space is found..."

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mother's Best Little Ol' Boy

     I've been thinking about biography, especially  as I've recently completed (another!) revision of my picture book biography on country singer, Hank Williams. Usually a biographer needs a "platform", meaning some sort of background on the subject, but I am not a music historian or an expert on southern living, or anything of the sort. My interest in Hank started as a fan.

     Many years ago, a friend lent us a bootleg copy of Hank's fifteen minute morning radio shows for Mother's Best Flour, recorded in the early 1950s. Of course I had heard of Hank Williams and listened to some of his songs before, but these radio shows blew me away. My imagination went wild listening to that soulful voice and thinking about a rural housewife hearing it, perhaps as she went about her chores in the early morning. I loved the folksy humor, and the ads for Mother's Best, "for all your bakin' needs". And that voice, singing those songs of love and loneliness! Clearly, this boy needed an understanding heart.

    I listened to all of Hank's songs, over and over, read the lyrics, and every book about him I could get my hands on, as well as articles, websites, and histories of the south and music. Everywhere I went his songs seemed to be playing in the background, on movie soundtracks, heard on the radio in recordings by modern singers, by music groups at country fairs and in clubs. I realized just how influential he still is.

     Although many picture book biographies had been written about jazz artists, I found few about country musicians, and none about Hank specifically. I thought he was someone for children to know, not only because of his icon status in American culture, but also because of the saga of his rags to riches story, and the genius of his songwriting. I flew to Nashville to visit the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, Franklin Road, and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

    The more I delved into Hank's story, the more I realized he was not just one thing or another, he was a complex human being. A lover of reading, and a school dropout. An angry man and a sensitive genius. A falling down drunk and a spiritual believer. He left few letters, diaries or interviews. At the end of the day, his voice only spoke to me from the lyrics that he wrote. "I can't help it if I'm still in love with you" "I'm so lonesome I could cry" "Why don't you love me like you used to do?" "Praise the Lord! I saw the light!"

    The challenge for a biographer is to find a subject's "truth". Yet some research is conjecture, opinion. One person calls him a loner, the loneliest fellow ever met, another claims him as a great friend. Few people are liked by all, or appreciated by all. Was Hank the mega star, leaving his fanswaiting because he was too drunk to show up at a performance? Or the folksy friend singing jingles about that gal of his and her cakes and pies, asking the boys to gather round for hymn time? Hank was only twenty nine years old when he died, perhaps too young to have yet been only one way or another.

    Is it possible to ever really know another human being, even those closest to us? Some lives cause such impact they are still discussed years later. The best a picture book biographer can hope for is to try to reach the emotional core of a person.