And the spaces between the stars. / I guess colors are how you see them. . . .”
(Click to enlarge)
Appearing on shelves now, as of last month, from Candlewick Press is debut author Jessica Young’s My Blue Is Happy, illustrated by Catia Chien. (Chien evidently was born in Brazil and now lives in California.) In this book, a young girl uses color to discuss emotions and, essentially, to ponder the notion that there’s not just one way to see or experience this world. Blue doesn’t have to mean sad “like a lonely song,” thanks very much, and who ever said red had to be angry and black had to be scary? (Shadows, schmadows. This young girl’s black is peaceful, as you can see above.)
Jessica’s writing is lyrical and perceptive, and young readers who feel slightly out of step with their peers will particularly welcome the protagonist’s delightfully left-of-center point of view. Or, as the School Library Journal review wrote, “This child knows her own mind and feelings and isn’t about to have someone else’s associations color her world.”
(I also love how Esmé Raji Codell describes this book as “oddly subversive … and surprisingly evocative.”)
Jessica (pictured left), who is originally from Canada and an art teacher by day, is visiting this morning to chat with me about this book, as well as colors, perceptions, Ira Glass, Picasso’s Blue Period, art therapy, and much more. If 7-Imp were a review blog, I’d be required to get all in-the-interest-of-full-disclosure on you here and tell you that Jessica is a dear friend. She is, in fact, one of my favorite friends on the planet. She lives here in middle Tennessee, and it’s actually thanks to this blog that we met. But 7-Imp isn’t a review blog, as I explain here at the site. It’s really a fan site, a place where I talk about picture books that I like and see if the creators want to come visit. And I really like Jessica’s writing in this book, and I would even if she weren’t my friend.
So, let’s get to it, and we’ve got some art from Chien to pepper the post. I thank Jessica for visiting. (I’m getting out some of my favorite coffee mugs right now.)
Jules: Hi, Jessica! It’s your debut picture book. How does it feel?
Jessica: It’s cliché, but the closest thing I can compare it to is having my first child. After waiting and worrying, consuming massive amounts of cottage cheese and kale, and stocking the freezer with meals to last for weeks, when the doctor passed him to me, I looked at him and said, “It worked!” I knew it was coming, but somehow I was still surprised. It’s an amazing feeling, holding something in my hands that started as a thought.
Jules: That makes tons of sense. If that has become cliché, it’s probably because it’s a very apt analogy.
I know that you are always thinking about writing and premises and stories. (You’re one of the hardest-working writers I know.) Tell me about the seed for this particular story. When and how’d you first decide to do this story about colors and how people see the same thing differently?
Jessica: The line between work and play is a little blurry. But thanks –- it means a lot, especially coming from you!
The story took a while to evolve. I think I started it around 2008 –- at least that’s the earliest version I can find. I’ve always been really affected by colors and interested in multiple perspectives and subjectivity. After I started teaching art, I remember looking at paintings from Picasso’s Blue Period and thinking about blues music and how things like that color people’s perceptions of blue. I wondered how a child might react to finding out other people’s views of her favorite color. I wish I could remember the moment the title came to me, because that was really the beginning of the story.
Jules: You have an art therapy background. (Your degree is in Expressive Therapies. Did I get that right?) Can you talk a bit about how any of those professional experiences (generally speaking) inform this text, if at all?
And the statue in the park.”(Click to enlarge)
Jessica: Yes, I got my Master’s in Expressive Therapies –- using different creative arts in a therapeutic way. I remember learning about diagnostic drawing tests that are sometimes used to determine aspects of a person’s thoughts, feelings, and personality. Combined with other measures, they can be springboards for engaging people about their inner worlds. I think everyone’s visual language is different, so you have to get to know people’s unique perspectives before you try to interpret what they’re saying. I didn’t intend for the book to address that, but reflecting on it now, I guess that’s pretty much what it’s about.
Jules: Speaking of being hard-working and saying things that might sound cliché, as we were discussing above, what advice would you give to someone who says to you, “I want to write picture books”? (I know authors get asked this ad nauseam, but I think a good deal of 7-Imp’s readers are really interested in learning to write picture books, if they aren’t already writing them.)
Jessica: It’s different for everyone, but here are some things that have really helped me:
Inspiration: Familiarizing yourself with what’s already out there — and in doing that, thinking about why you like what you like. There’s a great piece by Ira Glass about making stuff and the discrepancy between the things you appreciate and the things you create.
I think it’s good to know what you like and why — then, as he says, to try to narrow the margin between the things you admire and the things you make. For me, I’m not sure I’ll ever close the gap, but it might be the tension of that discrepancy that fuels the need to keep creating.
Comrades: Writing can be a solitary activity, and in my case, surrounding myself with other people who understand the urge to make stuff and who love kids’ books has been crucial. I have two fantastic critique groups – one for picture books and one for middle grade. Also, joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was the best thing I could have done. I’ve met the most amazing crit partners and friends who coax me and prod me with alternating carrots and sticks.
Volume: I usually have a bunch of ideas, but most of them aren’t so great, and many aren’t so viable. For every twenty, I might get one that works. I usually have to at least start to develop an idea before I know if it might fly or not. So, that means I have a lot of partially-executed manuscripts, but I often go back and harvest pieces of them or try them from different angles later on.
Curiosity (?) and fierce enthusiasm (!).
In April when I visited Candlewick (which turned out to be even better in real life than the enchanted tree house I’d pictured in my head), the wonderful folks there generously let me try it out on them.”
Jules: I nodded through a lot of that. Familiarizing oneself with picture books is so important. Read read read as many picture books as you can, yes? Best way to learn. Plus, it’s fun, ’cause it’s a fascinating art form.
I really love this Q&A with you over at Humanities Tennessee’s Chapter 16. I don’t want to duplicate some of their wonderful questions, though I do want to follow up on this notion of you illustrating your own book one day. You’re an art teacher by day, but you write your own texts without any desire to illustrate them. Something about this I love. I think it’s that you have so much respect for illustration and what a complex thing it is. Not that you couldn’t do it, and not that writing isn’t hard either, but you know what I mean, I hope. Do you? Am I making sense? Care to elaborate on what I’m saying? Do I just need more coffee?
Jessica (pictured right, as a child): That does make sense. (Although I’m always up for more coffee!)
When I was in school, my favorite thing was to put on some music and set up a big blank canvas and have at it –- even better with someone else working in the same room. That kind of parallel play is it for me: hearing another person work, knowing we’re both under the spell of the creative process.
At this point in my life, though, I’m playing and working with words more than images. The feeling of passing on those words to another person is really, really cool. It’s a collaboration, even though we’re not working side by side. (And Catia Chien, the illustrator for My Blue, took the text to some beautiful, magical places!) Also, I don’t feel I’d be able to illustrate a book in the way that I’d like, although I hope my visual arts background informs my writing and helps set up a manuscript for some interesting interplay between text and image. Maybe one day I’ll try it, but it would definitely have to be the right book, and I’d have to learn a whole new set of skills first.
book launch at Nashville’s Parnassus Books. Jessica’s plan is to take more signs to various locations and then made a video and/or photo quilt,
using all of the photos together.
Jules: It occurs to me now, given your response here, that I never asked you what I wanted to ask you first: What is it about picture books that you love? And what picture books are you loving right now?
Jessica: I love their format and their physical nature –- how a story and a sequence of images are contained. It’s like opening a gift every time you read one –- or a jack-in-the-box. They’re also like little art galleries. I love their versatility, and the anticipation of the page turns. They have an ability, as all art does, to fix us in the moment. Readers can get into the story quickly and engage with it. The limitations of the structure demand an economy of words and a dynamic relationship of words and pictures.
Lately, I’m rediscovering some books from my childhood -– a Helen Oxenbury-illustrated version of The Quangle Wangle’s Hat by Edward Lear; Ferdinand; a lot of Sendak, especially the Nutshell Library stories; George and Martha; Crictor; and a Lisbeth Zwerger-illustrated version of The Gift of the Magi.
I have lots of newer favorites—too many to list—but some great books I’ve read recently include: Journey by Aaron Becker; Ol’ Mama Squirrel by David Ezra Stein; if you want to see a whale by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin Stead; Bink & Gollie: Best Friends Forever by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee and illustrated by Tony Fucile; Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by (the amazing) Isabelle Arsenault; and Open This Little Book by Jesse Klausmeier and illustrated by Suzy Lee. And I can’t wait to read Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown.
Jules: What’s next for you?
Jessica: I’m excited about my next picture book, Spy Guy, which comes out from Harcourt in Spring 2015. I’m also working on some others, as well as some longer projects –- a chapter book series and a YA.
Jules: If I may be so bold, I filled out my own fill-in-the-blanks card in my head. Ready?
“My grey is invigorating, like a cool, hard rain on a hot day.”
(Poor grey. It consistently gets such a bum rap.)
Jessica: Yes! I could go for some of that grey right now.
Jules: What is your favorite word?
Jessica: “Tarragon” is nice. And “deft.” And “follow.” Gah! That’s ridiculously hard! I think I’ll spend the rest of my life looking for it. . . .
Jules: What is your least favorite word?
Well, that was easy.
Jules: What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Jessica: Making things. Other people’s enthusiasm, playfulness, curiosity, inventiveness, and skill. Hard work. Music. Zoom-ability -– narrowing a focus to a single detail or sensation, or zooming out to an aerial view. Ample time to experiment.
Jules: What turns you off?
Jessica: Feeling rushed.
7-Imp: What is your favorite curse word? (optional)
Jessica: I suppose I should say “thwart,” shouldn’t I?
Jules: What sound or noise do you love?
Jessica: Rain on the roof. My kids’ happy humming when they’re drawing. Guitar, fiddle, harmonizing voices. Really well-crafted, seamless songs -– the kind you can listen to over and over.
Jules: What sound or noise do you hate?
Jessica: Loud TV or radio commercials and barking dogs.
Jules: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Jessica: Artist or musician/singer/songwriter.
Jules: What profession would you not like to do?
Jessica: ER doctor or mortician.
Jules: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
Jessica: “Come on in. Your supper is still hot.”
MY BLUE IS HAPPY. Text copyright © 2013 by Jessica Young. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Catia Chien. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.
All other images are used with permission of Jessica Young.
The spiffy and slightly sinister gentleman introducing the Pivot Questionnaire is Alfred, © 2009 Matt Phelan.