Transcript from a video interview with Chris Raschka

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Chris Raschka, divided into the following sections:

Always painting and drawing

Hi, my name is Chris Raschka. I'm very glad to be here.

I didn't imagine and illustrating children's books when I was a child. I was always a drawer, painter, but I loved animals, I love biology and that's what I studied in college. But I always kept painting and kept drawing then it finally caught up with me and I turned toward art as an adult.

When I turned to art initially I did magazine work and newspaper work and also panted just paintings and sold those. And then I came to New York and I did a little book about the Russian and the English alphabets, which was my very first book call R and Y and it's a book that starts from the same point on either side and you read it into the middle and one side is in Russian and one side is in English.

I moved to New York and still wasn't sure where I would fit into the world of art but started to make picture book dummies. Then when Richard Jackson a great editor, and my editor still said he quite liked Charlie Parker Played Be-Bop that was the beginning of me taking it as maybe this is something I could really devote myself to which is now what I do.

It's — I'm still very fascinated by making pictures that go with words and what they look like when they're in a book. My mother is a librarian, my father is a historian, so books seem to make sense because they're around, but I like pictures and I like pictures with words. So to make picture books has felt right for a long time.

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The creative part

I like to work in sort of structured bits of time, I think. And I'm always, I'm always tinkering with it when it's no longer working I try to, I try to mix it up. So for instance I used to always walk out the door with my son at about 7:20 and walk to my studio and sit down and write there when I got there.

Now I'm trying other places to write but I do definitely believe in having time be a part of the processes. So I know if I leave it too open-ended my work can get kind of diffuse if I give myself my own little pressure to get things done even within a single day, even within half of a morning, it focuses me a little bit I think.

I have lots of, lots of built in time to reflect otherwise known as many cups of coffee and I do stop, I put my — what I'm working on down, put my brush down and just sit and drink a cup of coffee. One thing that I have tried to teach myself, I think I've learned over the years but I always forget is that, is to keep the creative part of me and the critical part of me separated.

To — so that when I'm working I just let it — I just try to work and I try to shut up the critical part. That part of me can have his say maybe the next day or maybe a week hence, because otherwise the critical part is always there whispering over the creative part of me saying this no good, this is awful, stop, break your paint brushes just give it up and I think that's always just natural and it may come out of insecurity or worry or too many voices in my head about how things are going, what I'm trying to do.

It's still a mystery to me how to get the, to get the right, the right atmosphere for me to work. And it's partly because the way I work is fairly immediate. I like to use materials that are — once they're on the page they cannot come off the page and they can't really be covered because — unless that's part of what I'm going for in the end.

That is — I use many different kinds of water color and those always — those are always going to be layers to some degree and the image is created by the light that is coming up from the paper through the paint instead of bouncing off the top most layer of paint, which is the case in oils or acrylics, opaque paints.

So you have to kind of have to paint from the bottom up so I never quite know if it's going to work until the very end and it can go very wrong after a lot of work, of course I like that but it also makes me nervous all the time. Yeah.

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I find myself creatively stuck almost every, every book that I've done and I — for instance this past week I was working on a book and I thought this one is really going to be breeze to finish. I've got all the preliminary work done, all my preliminary sketches, I know what I'm doing and again because I kind of got off on the wrong foot, and just started hating everything that I was doing and as soon as that happens I start to second guess myself and I think I've got the wrong paper, I think I'm using the wrong paint and it took eight days of every day finishing the day with a lot of confusion as to why this was not working out when I thought it was going to be so straight forward.

And then I finally did have I think a breakthrough so that I know what I'm doing. I never know quite what I'm doing but I'm excited to keep working and if, if it's — if I'm not enjoying it, if I'm not happy when I'm working generally the end product is pretty awful. And I — that's something that I have remind myself as well.

I'm conscious when I have, when I have found my way finally. I — there — I generally do know when it's, when I'm there. For instance with my book A Ball for Daisy that went through many iterations and toward the end of the process I did the entire book, the full final artwork and I was feeling, I was feeling pretty good about it.

But not entirely happy and I turned it in and my editor Anne Schwartz and the art director Lee Wade had to write me the painful editor — the painful letter that said it's not working. It's just, it's, it's just not there yet and I agreed with them once that arrived.

And partly I was trying to paint everything in negative space that is painting in broad brush strokes around the object in question which was my little dog. And so you would only — sometimes only half of her would be defined, seems like a silly idea now when I think about it and they were right to turn me down.

I liked that look, I had done some early sketches and it seemed to work and then — but to really get this dog moving through her neighborhood and space in this technique didn't work. The final version A Ball for Daisy has — still has aspects of that because she's still defined by kind of a loose gray brush stroke and where the brush strokes is her and where is the background isn't always clear but the dog herself did become clear in the final version. So this is the kind of thing that I get myself into.

Yes, Daisy also was sequential and wordless, the original Daisy book was just single images on — that went across the entire spread of each book so the entire — of each two pages. So in total the book probably had 17 or 18 different images, now the book has more because some of the sequential panels fit onto one two page spread. So it allowed a little more time to take place within the book, a little more detail of time, and that is a fascinating thing to work with it being wordless, how the time progresses, how you control the amount of time each spread takes up.

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The Hello, Goodbye Window

The book, the book Hello, Goodbye Window was also done with paint but also oil pastel and it was inspired a good deal by children's artwork and a kind of abstract all over kind of drawing that I like when children make, make's shapes and images and then proceed to just kind of, just color in aspects of it, following their own, their own internal sense that may or may not look like it makes sense.

And I was hoping I could get away with that in this book. So it turned out very scribbly and I find that generally when you do, when the action of the creation of the art is visible and is still — is visible in the final work so you can see the scribble — the movement of the pastels which are like crayons and you can only get what you see if the crayon is moving at a certain speed.

Whether you notice that or not consciously as an onlooker you do know that, you can't — if you've ever used a crayon you know, you know what it looks like when you're scribbling rapidly or when you're kind of dobbing with the crayon and that speed of the application of the colors and the materials somehow has an effect on the image itself.

I think it makes the image seem — it has its own, it has its own time in it in that you see how much time it took to make that image, if it's a single fast moving line then it's a quick moment. If it's many fast or slow moving lines together you can almost judge exactly how much time transpires within the panting itself.

I think you can see this within, it's thrilling to me to see oil paint — oil painted works where that time is also quite visible and you can tell — each brush stroke remains visible and the time of each brush stroke is there. Other paintings, the more academic type paintings, they might have been painted over years by one or more hands and so that kind of — that's a different sense of time certainly but I like the, I like the more, the more immediate, the more immediate grouping, I guess.

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Abstraction and emotion

Color and line, certainly I find that if I'm having trouble, if I am stuck, if I do ask myself what is the emotion of the moment of this drawing, whether it's, you know, in a book like Yo Yes or a book like The Hello Goodbye Window if I stick to trying to capture the emotion in terms of the line and the color the finished drawing is coherent and makes sense.

If I — which is sometimes surprising in that it can be a quite rough looking thing and yet it can still function better than if I am focused really on trying to get it right somehow, whatever the right might be. And the right, well probably the right means that the nose is where the nose should be, the eyes are where the eyes should be, which, which gets you away from the fact that this really is just a collection of colors and lines.

They're not — you're not creating a sculptural image, an anatomically correct image, it's an emotional bunch of stuff and if the, if the eyes are overlarge and yet it fits that emotion no one notices. This kind of abstraction continues to fascinate me, especially when you're drawing children that's, that can be why it's very hard to come up with good children I think.

With animals we are already more used to abstracting them. You know, a dog can be quite abstracted and you can get away with it. With a child when that child when that abstraction gets — we're obviously closer to children so the abstraction has to really work and you have to be quite diligent about it somehow.

As I'm speaking I'm thinking that the abstraction — we can get used to all kinds of different abstraction and for instance in the world of animation, the Powerpuff Girls, those are super abstracted images with huge eyes, I think the fingers are not delineated in any way. They're just kind of like teardrops and I think that's quite wonderful that that has worked.

And — or when you think of Mickey Mouse, he basically has a thumb and three fingers and you realize why that's that case. Getting that fourth finger is annoying, it's too many fingers and they become too thin in a sense when you're drawing. So the three fingered Mickey Mouse was a proper solution to that hand.

I won't say all children are more open to abstraction than all adults. Maybe they are. I think on the whole though, we as adults become more word oriented and more and more — we are — we want things to be explained to us with words. And when we go to a museum we immediately look at the panel describing the painting, the small description to the right of the painting.

It gives us a way of handling that painting. And sometimes when I go to museums I try to just say I will not read anything. I'm just going to look. I think that's one, one aspect of why children might be more open to an abstract or what we would call a rough or almost grotesque line. I loved Ludwig Bemelmans' drawings always as a child.

Never ever dreamed of them as anything other than just right and was shocked as an adult to read that the reviews of his work were often that he could not draw, that he couldn't — that he was an awful artist. I think he was a masterful artist, but the thing is to pull that off, that kind of roughness accurately or to have it work is not an easy thing to do but it's not something that I as a child ever, ever questioned.

It appealed to me immediately and emotionally and I liked the, I liked that loose line very much. And I always did as a child I never thought about it really as some kind of — as anything wrong or abnormal.

I like Roger Duvoisin as well, I like a lot of the folks of that day Esphyr Slobodkina, William Steig, sort of the same tradition brought, brought along further. Those are my heroes and in terms of children's books they are fantastic. I love them.

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Illustrating poetry and music

When I'm illustrating poetry I like to recite the Hippocratic Oath and change it slightly that my goal as an illustrator is to do no harm to the poem. So I try to keep — well one way I can do that is literally keeping the art away from the poem. So the poem can sit on white space, be sitting beautifully on the page and the illustration will give it a lot of room.

Occasionally I've had the poem sit on a field of a color, a blue or a red and the illustration surrounds it but I always do try to let the beauty of the words and the lines even visually sit unobstructed on a very, very pure background, whether it's white or color.

And then my illustrations are generally in terms of poetry I try to make them kind of just a little reaction to the poem or comment on not so much illustrating what's in the poem, although there's a little bit of that but maybe an aspect of the poem and maybe so that there's a little bit of rubbing between the poem and the illustration so that there's a little some fracture or something rather than simply my picturing the images of that poem.

When I've illustrated poetry for instance, Nikki Giovanni's Genie in the Jar at first I was daunted at the notion that I would imagine the images that she, Nikki Giovanni, has written and should conjure whatever images they need to in the reader or the hero. And I would be giving something for the eyeballs.

And that at first I thought how could I do that, how can I have the audacity to do that but ultimately you do have to grab the audacity and just do it and let it be. So those are thoughts that race through my mind as I'm working on it. In that case because it was a book about race to some degree and music — this was a book that was dedicated to Nina Simone who suffered racist, suffered from racist views and structures all of her life.

And I knew that back story so what I decided to do was paint everything, do everything on — rather than on white paper, on brown paper and let anything that was white be an imposition on the basic status quo which would be brown in this case. So that was what drove that book.

And that seemed to work, Nikki liked that I'm happy to say. And so that worked for me there. With music I try to find the structures within the music itself to give me a clue as to the structure of the — what I'm doing. So it might be rhythmic structure, can become visual rhythms across a page and rhythms can also mean repetitions, they can mean — time can be easily translated into space.

So if, you know, if something is long in time, it can be long across the page, that kind of thing. And then colors can be, you know you can have opinions about colors whether something in B Flat is bluish or purplish or A Major, A Major to me seems almost orange.

Musicians definitely have feelings about keys and all — or almost flavors about keys themselves. E Flat, A Flat, definitely does have a different feeling from A Sharp or A Major so what, what we feel about those keys can be analogous to what we feel about colors themselves, red, blue, orange, all those things. It can work pretty, pretty easily once I work myself into I think.

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Looking into the poem

So how to approach the text, that's the big question and that takes a lot of experimentation and thinking. In the case of in the books I've done with poetry I wanted to keep it very graphic, in other words — another way of saying that might be that the images are flat there's not a lot of deep space on the page so that it doesn't conflict too much with the poem which sits right on the surface of the page.

If that makes sense. So that the poem adds a visual element, has kind of an equality with the visual elements that I create and they just visually are balancing each other rather than the notion of a poem existing in a kind of metaphysical ethereal space and we look past the poem and we see into a world that the poem is talking about.

I look at it more from a design sort of a view, I want the page to really look of a piece and kind of close together somehow. I don't know if that makes sense. With my, with my own books for instance John Coltrane's Giant Steps, that went through many, many different approaches and finally when I decided to let the sort of characters that I had created in an earlier version sort of stand in abstract characters of John Coltrane's music that kind of started to work and that they would then overlap visually as they overlap in sound, in John Coltrane's music. So to find that hook or — find that hook to hang the illustrations on it takes me a long time of just doodling around or well thinking, or walking, or sitting, or drinking coffee staring into space.

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Visualizing be bop

Well, my book Charlie Parker Played Be Bop initially was supposed to be sort of a straight forward book about a man named Charlie Parker who lived a life, died young, was a great genius of American music. But as I contemplated this as a children's book I realized if this was to reach a young audience as I hoped it would, I decided really all I needed was to teach two things, Charlie Parker played be bop, Charlie Parker played saxophone.

My next subset of teaching was to be — well what is be bop. And to make it clear that be bop is what it is already and it's in the sound of it. So that after be-bop arrived in that book, I realized that all of the text could be pointing to that fact that be bop is already what the sound is. And be bop was initially an almost a derogatory term for the kind of new music because it sounded like that.

So what I chose to write and create were rhythmic lines that had certain rhythm that almost always came out the same way and one of those being Never Leave Your Cat Alone. It seemed to me to almost always flow out that way and it fit that way with the rhythms that were in my head from be-bop songs, one of them being A Night in Tunisia, so I let — which was not written by Charlie Parker but by his close friend and associate Dizzy Gillespie.

So I let everything try to explain what be-bop was by creating lines that made no sense other than the sounds themselves and then the images had to free quickly and freely. So it was a fast flowing line and nothing was to hang up the reader too much from turning the pages.

I wanted the pages to turn quickly so it could with the quickness of the be-bop music itself. As I worked on it I realized it jazz is very, it's very child friendly because it's full of experimentation, lots of humor, lots of repetition, and it's what we — creative people do whether they're a creative 4-year-old peoples or a 40 or 84-year-old creative people. They experiment, they repeat, they turn things on their heads, they try it backwards and forwards until something is pleasing to them.

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Hip Hop Dog is a book that is kind of a collaborative effort between me and my dear friend Vladimir Radunsky who is my closet friend in the world of children's books and he illustrated, he is the only one who has illustrated my words. Initially it was Vladimir's idea to do books together and it's pretty hard to illustrate with another illustrator.

One tends to reach for the same crayon and fight over them. So after a bit we decided well I would write and Vladimir would illustrate. Although we kind of — we still do a little bit of fighting over the crayons and in the case of Hip Hop Dog, Vladimir did all of the paintings. He has influenced me in his paintings and I hope I have a little bit but this is how we've worked for seven years.

My collaborations with other authors, the collaboration is much more separated. Basically I work with their, his or her text and I consider that — and I respond to whatever is sitting on my table and ultimately the page that I'm working on. For instance, Norton Juster, I never suggested to Norton what my change — not change, as a matter of fact Norton did change the text quite a lot.

The original text for that book was quite a bit longer. I illustrated as I thought fitting for the first text and Norton himself saw that it was too much text and it would be stronger if it was a little bit pared down, although it was hard for him understandably for him to get rid of some scenes that he liked.

But to find the right balance is tough. But I never made any suggestions per se. Norton was quite, I'll say shocked by the first images he say from the that book and was not expecting anything quite so sloppy. But he quickly came to like it very much seeing and he saw what I was kind of getting at trying to capture the voice of his own character in the book, in the voice of the artwork.

However, finally I had done all the work and we finally met, had lunch together with our editor Michael Di Capua and talking about the book and it was wonderful to meet Norton of course and towards the end of our meal, however, Norton said to me you know, there's a page here I'm not quite thrilled with and we looked at the page.

And it's when our heroine is imagining the queen coming to tea. And I had given the queen a lovely little pill box hat, which is what I expected the queen to be wearing, even, I mean she's out and about she's having tea. Norton said that his granddaughter, on whom the book is based basically wanted a crown and I argued back and forth no the queen is going to arrive not wearing a crown, that's silly.

Finally I gave in and so I made a crown. So I made six crown and Norton chose one and we put it on her digitally as a — it's the only digital moment in that book. So we stuck the crown on, well Norton was completely right of course. Every child I've ever asked about that page whether she should be wearing a tactful pillbox hat or a crown has opted for a crown.

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Design of the page

I'm always involved in the design of the book. I sometimes the design is very much my own. Sometimes designers have — I've worked with wonderful designers who have made strong suggestions which have been very good and I've followed them. But in any event I'm always involved in that design of the page itself which is fairly crucial.

In fact sometimes I've had many times where I've been unhappy with how things were looking until I started to actually draw or paint with the text on the page and being able to respond to that — the darkness and blackness of the text and the shape of it in my illustrations has always helped me. It's always helped me a great deal.

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Yes, I always do pretty elaborate miniature books, dummy books because I think to have it in the book shape is helpful to me in terms of the pacing but also in terms of the whole feel of what that might look like. And often that's when the most substantial amount of sort of the creative process happens in those dummy moments. And getting whatever was — happened to be good in that dummy into the final artwork is often difficult for me, somehow I don't know why.

Let's see. That is a funny little bag of ends of yarn. He's a new little dummy of — a new little book about Daisy called Daisy Get's Lost and this is the first dummy of Daisy. It's also wordless. This is what my dummies look like. They are small and handmade and hand painted and it gives me a way of seeing if this book is doing what I want it to be doing.

So here's Daisy and I won't go through the whole thing, but you can see kind of what it might look like and Daisy is lost and she's found. And when she's found she turns around and runs back. So as a matter of fact the book that will be coming out in the Fall looks very little like this. It's quite changed. But this was the first version and first something rather for me to look at and consider and it lets me get started. That's what a dummy looks like.

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The Purple Balloon

The Purple Balloon is a book that grew out of a conversation I had with a woman Ann Armstrong Dailey who created Children's Hospice International. And this is an organization that she created it here in Washington. An organization that is politically active but also active in all things related to making the lives of children and families of those children, children with life ending situations, mostly illnesses of some kind.

And well the reason she started this group, as I understand it, while there was a lot going on for adults in this situation and a lot of thought and a lot of work and thinking about it, when it came to children, there was much less and partly that was the case because parents are so understandably and necessarily involved and it's not just you who is, who might be dying, who — you have a strong voice as an adult.

A child does not have that strong voice and has to come through the parents. The parents of course are completely wrapped up in that child and often the other aspect of that situation as I have come to know from Ann is that the child is often leading the parents and the child often is the one who is comforting the parents.

Showing the parents that where we are going, understanding what's happening more than the parents because it's too impossible for the parents to do. So Ann said I went to book with this. Initially I said I thought she was just asking me for advice as someone who works in children's books and I gave her my best thoughts and then I spoke to Anne Schwartz and Lee Wade at Schwartz and Wade and they were intrigued and they said all right but you have to do the book.

I was thinking maybe it would be a number of illustrators, that seemed to make sense but Ann said no you make this book. So suddenly I thought well I'll see if I can do it. I have worked with different children over the years and I have a number of close friends who died as young people who were exactly in that situation so I felt like I could do it, maybe.

And my initial, my initial approach was to make it about a particular boy that I know and who has passed away and he had a muscular atrophy kind of situation and he was a great wheelchair hockey player and I thought okay maybe I'll just kind of channel his own self and, and so the book began with — the very first lines were, Death sucks but hockey rocks — and it went on from there. It went through his day.

Well, Ann was a little gassed at this but — Anne Schwartz I should say, but Ann Armstrong Daily said, "Yeah, right great." But she also said she did hope that it would be a more, more broad book that could encompass all kinds of children, not just a boy who happens to like hockey and I understood that.

But I was sort of — I was pleased enough that Ann was not dismissive of

"Reading is not optional." —

Walter Dean Myers