TeachingBooks.net is delighted to welcome award-winning illustrator Christian Robinson as our featured guest blogger.
Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
Illustrating Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
By Christian Robinson
When I’m asked how I came to illustrate Patricia Hruby Powell’s Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker (Chronicle Books 2014), my most direct answer is that my agent Steven Malk shared the manuscript with me, after being approached by editors at Chronicle.
The more magical response would be that Josephine Baker’s life was an inspiration to me long before I read Powell’s text. In fact, while researching one of my first picture books, Renee Watson’s Harlem’s Little Blackbird (Random House 2012) about Florence Mills—another black female entertainer of the Jazz Age—I kept coming across images of Baker and thought about how amazing it would be to work on a book about her. When I received an email from Steve asking me if I would consider illustrating Josephine, I pretty much jumped up and started dancing in front of my computer.
Josephine Baker represents possibilities. She reminds us that where we come from doesn’t have to determine where we can go. Here’s a video story that I came across during my research, which shows the magnitude of the performer’s heart:
Lucky for me, Baker was one of the most filmed and photographed women of her era. I watched film clips and gathered pictures of her, and I visited Paris, the city that made her a star. As cheesy as it might sound, I felt a connection to Baker as I walked along the Champs-Élysées (minus the leopard she would stroll with, of course).
I kept postcards and pictures of Baker pinned to the walls of my studio for inspiration. Finding ways to visually communicate the sadder and more scandalous aspects of her life in a way that was accessible to younger readers was an exciting challenge—more liberating than limiting. The work of the illustrator Paul Collins and the painter Jacob Lawrence helped guide me.
Rounds of rough sketches gave me a better sense of the layout of a book of this length. Early on, it was decided that artwork on every page would be a task—for the illustrator and the readers. The beauty of a middle grade picture book is that it allows readers to pause and use their imagination to fill in the visuals until the next illustration appears. Jennifer Tolo-Pierce, the art director on Josephine, was able to make the most of those breaks, positioning Powell’s dynamic text dancing across the pages.
The medium I chose to work with was acrylic paint, and it felt just right. It revealed textures like paint strokes, yet was bright, colorful, and fluid—mirroring Josephine Baker’s incredible spirit.
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