A Chance Encounter, Elizabeth Bird, Chuck Close, and Memoirs for Young Readers
What hath memoir to do with children’s lit? To find out, I consulted an expert, Elizabeth Bird, youth materials specialist at the New York Public Library. She’s known as a go-to kid-lit expert for writers, editors, and reporters. When Maurice Sendak died last week, she was interviewed on television. She ended the week as a New York Times book reviewer about new detective fiction for children and adolescents. Oh yes, and there’s that amazing day job and a family, too.
Betsy has worked in the fabulous Children’s Center at the NYPL since 2004 and has been blogging A Fuse #8 Production at the Library School Journal since 2007. Her father was a colleague of mine for six years. He never talked about himself but burst his buttons when talking about his daughters. So I knew about Betsy before I met her. I decided to ask her to be my facebook friend so that I could follow her very active blog and get educated as a granny reader. She was on the list of people I hoped to run into in the city.
A few weeks after I arrived in Brooklyn, I did run into Betsy and her baby daughter, literally, in our high-rise condo building. She was miles away from home in Manhattan, visiting a friend in the building. If I were a mathematician calculating the odds of meeting a special one of 8 million people in my very own elevator, I’d have to use up all my zeroes. It was an omen.
Yet getting down to the Children’s Center at the New York Public Library didn’t make it to my weekly to-do list until my final Friday chiropractic appointment took me to Manhattan. Fortunately, I was able to meet Betsy for a few minutes, ask her a question or two about memoir, and share this post with you. You can read it copied below without the illustrations included. I highly recommend that you go visit Betsy’s blog version, where you too can meet Betsy in the comment section. I highly recommend a chance encounter that turns into a devoted following. If there are children in your life, they will love the treasures Betsy helps you to find just for them.
The autobiography assignment. Oh, it exists. It exists and children’s librarians know to fear it. At a certain time of year a child will approach the reference desk and utter the dreaded words, “I have to read an autobiography of somebody famous”. Never mind that while biographies are plentiful, good autobiographies come out once in a blue moon and, when they are written for kids, tend to be about children’s authors anyway (See: Jack Gantos, Beverly Cleary, Jerry Spinelli, Walter Dean Myers, Jean Fritz, etc.). If a kid wants somebody famous in a field other than writing, the pickings are slim. You might find a good Ruby Bridges book or To Dance by Siena Siegel or that children’s autobiography Rosa Parks wrote. Beyond that, you’re on your own. It is therefore with great relief that we come across Chuck Close: Face Book. Sure, I’m relieved that at long last there’s an autobiography for kids by someone outside the children’s literary sphere, but what really thrills me is the sheer splendor of the thing. Chock full of gorgeous full-color reproductions of Close’s work and biographical info, the real treat is at the center of the book. It’s a game, it’s informative, it’s what we all needed but didn’t know it yet.
Culled from interview questions lobbed at the artist Chuck Close by P.S. 8’s 5th grade students, the book is is part Q&A, part explanation of artistic techniques, and part flip book. From his earliest days Chuck had the makings of an artist. Which is to say, he was a bedridden kid whose poor health enabled him to draw. His parents encouraged Chuck’s desire and though he was not a particularly good student in other areas, in art he thrived. Eventually he was able to cultivate a style entirely of his own, until “The Event” when he was paralyzed. Yet even after that trauma he was able to continue his art. The children’s questions go through Close’s life and even allow him to explain his artistic techniques. Backmatter includes a Timeline, Resources, a Glossary, a List of Illustrations and an Index. Curiously the only other children’s book about Chuck Close (Chuck Close, Up Close by Jan Greenberg) is not one of the eight books listed in the Resources section at the back of the book.
We talk all the time about role models and how to find them. Chuck Close is probably as close as you can get to a perfect role model in terms of difficulties he has faced. First and foremost there was the nephritis that rendered him bedridden at the age of 11 and gave him plenty of drawing time (he and Andy Warhol have this much in common). Then there was his prosopagnosia or “face blindness” which kept him from recognizing other people. Add onto that the fact that he got terrible grades (graduating high school without being able to add, subtract or multiply) and then later suffered a collapsed artery in his spine which paralyzed him from the waist down and you basically have a fellow who knows adversity better than most. With all that in mind, the book certainly makes it clear that his success wasn’t the result of being some kind of an artistic genius. Over and over again Chuck reiterates that “Inspiration is for amateurs. Artists just show up and get to work. Every idea occurs while you are working” and later “Ease is the enemy of the artist. Go ahead and get yourself into trouble.”
The book’s job was to organize the questions and answers in such a way as to create a kind of narrative. The kids questions tend to be things like “Do you work from live models or photographs?” and “Do others help you make your art?” Someone then took the time to find the questions that seem the most biographical and put them at the start. Then she played with them, making “How did you become such a great artist?” first as a kind of jumping off point for the book and “Do you have any advice for young artists?” last. The selection of the art and photographs must have taken some time as well (luckily Chuck was the kind of kid who liked to have interesting pictures taken with monkeys or top hats), and the end product is ultimately vibrant. I was relieved to see that Chuck’s most famous self-portrait, the one taken in 1968 of him smoking a cigarette, was included in the book. In an era where cigarettes are airbrushed out of 1940s dust jacket photos (see:Goodnight Moon) it comes as an odd relief to see the past unwhitewashed. And don’t worry, oh ye concerned parents. Chuck takes the time to inform the kids that smoking isn’t the way to go and that he did it “before people knew how bad smoking is for the body”.
You can see why Close is such a perfect artistic subject for children. He only does faces, not nudes or cow corpses cut in half or profanity laden photography. Just faces. Sometimes his subjects don’t wear shirts, but since you’re only getting their faces anyway it’s hardly do or die. School assignments of Mr. Close are therefore inevitable. With that in mind there seems to have been a conscious effort to make this book as enjoyable as possible. A Q&A book with photographs spotted throughout the text could have been easy enough as it was. Dry but easy. I’d love to know whose idea it was to make the center into a flip book of fourteen of Close’s portraits. They line-up beautifully against one another. Even if you look at a face that was painted in the early 70s and compare it to one taken in the last few years, because Close is such a master they still line-up. Kids will enjoy the simple rudimentary aspects of the biography but they’ll pore over the images in the flip section. For once you can hand them a nonfiction title that’s loads of fun.
One of the book’s strengths is that Close is the perfect subject for kids because he is in a unique position that allows him to teach them about different painting techniques. In the course of the book seventeen different processes are explained to kids. Unfortunately for us, in the interests of time or space Chuck will usually give a rough overview of a process but not explain it in any depth. For example a mention of Close’s tapestries simply says that they’re woven in Belgium and that Close takes “the photographs they are made from” and he oversees each step of the process. I’m not quite sure what that means and I’m not sure a kid would either. Fortunately a Glossary at the back does provide a little insight as to what an acid bath or a silkscreen might be. Therefore the book acts as a kind of starting point for kids interested in these techniques. For more information they’ll have to seek out other books on their own.
Though he doesn’t belabor the point, it is clear after reading this book that much of Close’s life can be attributed to the plethora of art classes he had access to as a kid. Even though he grew up in what he describes as a poor town, his school still had the time and resources to hand their students art materials. In an age when artistic programs are increasingly cut in the name of testing it’s important to see how future artists may only appear where schools foster these programs. Certainly Mr. Close’s life is evidence of this. His autobiography is bound to interest budding artists and, thanks to its eclectic formatting, even those kids without a drop of artistic interest in their blood. Though it is only 56 pages this is one title that delivers a wallop. A great way to present an artist. Let us hope that other books will follow in its footsteps even as young artists follow in Mr. Close’s.
This is high praise: “the sheer splendor of the thing” and makes me want to check it out, even though my kids are grown and grandchildren are barely a glimmer. He sure sounds like an interesting, creative guy.
Yes, the love of books, and in particular the one in front of her, is evident in all of Betsy’s reviews. I, of course, think I know where that love came from. 🙂
“Splendid” was one of Willa Cather’s highest forms of praise. I’ve always loved that word and its mother “splendor.”
Much better than “awesome,” although I guess that used to be a good word also.