I thought a lot about the impact of violence as I wrote Burn Baby Burn (Candlewick 2016). My protagonist Nora Lopez would have seen a lot that year, both inside her own family and in situations all around her.
My family listened to music in the morning as we prepared for the day, and at night as we cleaned the dinner dishes. I grew up on a steady diet of the R&B and soul music of the Jackson 5, Bobby Womack, and James Brown. Of Soul Train Saturday mornings and church service choir stands on Sundays. I sampled disco and devoured rap. But my roots were jazz and blues and the musical greatness of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, Bobby “Blue” Bland and John Lee Hooker. Music is the heart and soul of me.
It’s helpful for me to think of a novel as a living creature. (I’m a writer—everything is a metaphor!) The heart of my novel is its theme; the steady beat of life at its core. Its blood, coursing life through every page, is its language, or voice. Its skeleton is the narrative structure; the plot, its muscles, which must be strong enough to pull readers along. And the novel’s characters are the creature’s senses, through which readers experience what happens.
My work often asks, “What is a book?” First came the interactive Press Here, which was radical in its simplicity. For Mix It Up!, I painted with my bare hands—a “no-illustration” illustration. Let’s Play! (2016; all Chronicle) is the return to expressing something with drawing, composition, proportion, and feelings.
When a manuscript comes across my art table there’s always a little bit of terror attached to it. What’s the author trying to relate? How should I approach it? How would a parent, a librarian, and, most important, a child look at my paintings? If, as an artist, I can’t quell some of these questions, they’ll derail the creative process.
Blistery red rashes and hallucinations, lethal germs in food, flea bites that kill— these are all subjects that have captured my attention, and I hope will grab readers’ attention, too. Intriguing medical stories speak to my background in zoology, an interest in history, and experience teaching middle school science. As an author, I get to be a sleuth—searching for hidden details and fascinating images to illustrate my books; I never know what remarkable material I’ll uncover next.