Step into a biography with an author-illustrator team + a giveaway

ASOR jacket

Every now and then a book comes along I want to tell everyone about. When I say everyone, I mean blog readers, my family, friends, teachers with whom I consult, and other parents. Today I’m sharing one of those books with you because this is as close as I can get to shouting out how much I love this book from the rooftop of my house.  (And writing this post is way safer than climbing up on our icy roof too!)

A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin, which goes on sale today, is a biography that tells about the life of self-trained artist Horace Pippin. The biography chronicles his childhood, his time fighting in WWI , and through his rise as an artist.  Horace Pippin’s story is one that teaches us to be brave and giving. It teaches about perseverance since he overcame a battle injury that made it painful to create art, which was something he had always been passionate about. His life story can inspire one to be better person.

The story is told by an author-illustrator team, Jen Bryant (the writer) and Melissa Sweet (the artist). They’ve collaborated before on A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams before. However, their collaboration on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin is unique since they worked together on the book, which is very rare in the picture book world.

Melissa Sweet and Jen Bryant at NCTE 2012

Melissa Sweet and Jen Bryant at NCTE 2012

Biography was a genre I often read growing up. I remember writing reports about people, but they were mainly dry pieces retelling information I had learned from a variety of sources. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have quality biographies from which I could mentor myself.  Books like A Splash of Red promise to inspire young writers by helping them learn what it means to craft a biography that tells an interesting narrative about a person’s life (i.e., determining importance about what events to include, presenting the information in a way that is interesting). I felt as though I was reading a story about a character, rather than a biography, when I read A Splash of Red.  The writing is so extraordinary that I couldn’t even determine a favorite page spread (which I normally do when requesting interior images of a book to share when I write about mentor texts) since every page of this book is well-crafted and beautifully illustrated.  Therefore, I hope you’ll take the time to read through the entire interview with Bryant and Sweet that follows below. It will give you a better sense of how A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin was created, some strong craft moves I noticed, and some tips you can share with the writers in your classroom as they research people and write biographies of their own.


Stacey: I know you’ve published a book together before. Was that more of a typical author-illustrator relationship?

Jen: Yes, it was. In 2004, I submitted the manuscript for a picture book biography of poet William Carlos Williams to Eerdmans publishing. I’d already done five biographies with them (two Y/A and three picture books) and I knew if they took it, that art director Gayle Brown would put it in the hands of just the right illustrator. They did take it—and that illustrator was Melissa Sweet, whose work I was familiar with but whom I’d never met. Aside from my sharing information with her about my sources, we did not collaborate at all on the art/illustration process. I continued to tweak the text with the editor, and Melissa worked with Gayle on the design and layout. People are often surprised that a picture book comes together like that, but generally, that is how it’s done.

Melissa: Yes, it was very typical, a very separate process. I recall quite a bit of back and forth with everyone at Eerdmans to ensure we were getting our questions answered. My dummy (a mock-up of the book including sketches and text) was notoriously loose, so there was a lot of trust this book would come together.

Stacey: Whose idea was it to collaborate on this book in a way that authors and illustrators rarely do? Tell me more about your process for creating this exquisite text.

Jen: After Melissa received a Caldecott Honor for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams (Eerdmans, 2008), we got to know one another better and found that we had a dizzying number of things in common—from our love of birds and animals, to our New Jersey childhoods, to our affinity for bicycles and libraries. I honestly don’t recall if our decision to keep working together came about in one conversation or over the course of many, but at any rate, it just became clear that our lives and interests intersected in too many ways NOT to consider keeping our “team” intact.

Once we established that, we discussed other biographical topics that might suit our next project, and Pippin was one of those topics. (I’d previously submitted a manuscript about Pippin’s life to my then-editor Joan Slattery at Knopf, with whom I’d worked on five novels but no picture books. Joan liked the idea very much, but after thinking about it, decided to pass because she felt it wasn’t kid-friendly enough.) I discussed Pippin’s life with Melissa, she did some research on her own, and we decided to go back to Joan and see if she’d consider the manuscript again, after I revised it. She agreed, and signed us up as a team to complete the book. When Joan left Knopf later that year, Allison Wortche took over as editor, steering us through the difficult final months of making everything fit together just right.

Melissa: I concur, we were kindred spirits from the start. I think I just assumed we would find another project to do together.

Stacey: From the very beginning of the book, which also corresponds to the first day of Horace’s life, you made him into a character. You built the world of the story around him in this biography that you crafted so well. Would you talk more about how your research about Horace Pippin influenced the way you developed him as a character?

Jen: Whenever possible, I try to immerse myself in the physical and emotional life of my subjects; in this case that was easy because I live a few miles north of West Chester, PA where Pippin was born and where he spent most of his adult life.

I knew that town well already, but I explored more closely the neighborhood where he lived, visited the art association where he first exhibited his work, and went to as many museums as I could to view his original paintings and burnt-wood panels (see the back matter of ASOR for more on this.) I sifted through hundreds of files in the archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Chester County Historical Society, spoke with art historians, and read exhibition catalogues and letters written by Robert Carlen, his art dealer, and N.C Wyeth, the illustrator who first helped discover him.

Perhaps the most helpful material in rendering his true “Character” was his own words. He wrote little about himself, but the few first-person documents that remain, reveal a man who was physically large, yet gentle; who loved children (though he had no biological children himself), his community and his country; who valued equality and personal freedom; and who felt supremely confident in his own artistic vision. A deeply religious man, he also longed for a world where people of all races and beliefs coexisted peacefully.

Stacey: You used the phrase “Make a picture for us, Horace!” (or a variation of it) to anchor different parts of the story. Would you call this repetition or something else? Also, what effect did you want this to have for the reader?

Jen: I’ve learned that the real challenge with a “big” life such as Pippin’s is knowing what details to focus on. As was the case when I wrote about the poet-doctor William Carlos Williams, the sum of the more ordinary “parts” of Pippin’s life make for an extraordinary tale. In other words, what seems run-of-the-mill-ordinary to the person themselves–i.e. quitting school at 14, working a number of very different jobs, hearing stories from a grandmother who’d been a slave, fighting (and surviving) the awful trench warfare of WWI, wandering the back alleys of West Chester and scavenging paints, trading your art work for a haircut, etc., becomes dramatic material when strung together in a lyrical way.

So—I do an awful lot of rough drafts (many are VERY rough!)—and as I write those, there’s usually an image or two that emerges organically from the material and lends itself to a kind of refrain. I was a poet before I was a picture book author, and that poetry training helps, I think, when I’m drafting a picture book biography. Once I have that refrain, I look for places where it seems to want to occur naturally in the text—and that helps me to shape the different scenes of the story into a coherent whole.

Stacey: The final page of the book includes so much incredible craft (e.g., satisfying ending, power of three, rhythmic feel). Talk about how you were able to weave so many elements into the concluding paragraph.

Jen: Endings are tricky. That’s true regardless of genre, length or format. This ending came (surprisingly) easy—and I think it’s because one of the areas where my creative life intersects with Horace’s is the belief that art is WORK, and work is patient, daily and very, very ordinary. I wanted to end with an image that embodied that belief—and these last few lines seem to do that well enough.

Stacey: The page-long historical note found towards the back of the book is a more boiled-down version of the story. Why did you choose to include it for your readers?

Jen: I always prepare many more “extras” for my young reader biographies than are ever used in the final publication. I wrote this historical note (which, happily, our editor decided to include) in order to provide some names, places, and other details in Pippin’s life that I couldn’t include in the story itself. For example, his art dealer Robert Carlen, the art critic Christian Brinton, the collector Albert Barnes, the title of his first oil painting “The End of War: Starting Home”—etc.

I habitually flip to the back matter of non-fiction books to look for this sort of information even before I decide to buy it/ borrow it, and I assume others do the same thing. If a reader tackles the story first and comes to this after, it provides a bridge to the rest of the back matter and (hopefully) encourages further exploration of Pippin’s life and art.

Stacey: I do that too!  And here I thought that was just me.  Speaking of the back of books, I love the list of resources that’s also in the back. One thing I particularly appreciated was the list of quotation sources. Can you talk a bit about how you found the citations for these in a way that will help teachers help their students do similar work with their students when they seek to attribute quotes they use in informational writing?

Jen: I was very lucky, really, to have comprehensive archives accessible to me in West Chester (at the Chester County Historical Society) at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (in Philadelphia), and on-line at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, DC (where students can view digital reproductions of HP’s war notebooks and drawings.) This part of the process is painstaking and often time-consuming, but also very necessary for any kind of non-fiction writing. As we did our own research, Melissa and I both kept track of Pippin quotes that we thought might work well as part of this story, and as we did so we also kept careful notes about where we found them. Many of these quotes show up in original source material (i.e. his war notebooks and art exhibition catalogues where he’s quoted in an “artist’s statement”) or interviews he gave to local reporters in the years when he was rising to prominence in the art world. Students should always keep track of their quote sources—and do their utmost to find the source of any quote that appears unattributed.

Stacey: What’s the significance of the title?

Jen: Melissa came up with A Splash of Red as our title, and I think it came from the imagery in the story (Horace used leftover house paint for his early works, so any bright colors like red really stood out.) I generally leave titles for last, and often ask for help in choosing them, so I’m always grateful when someone comes up with one as perfect as this. The metaphorical significance of “red’’ in his wartime experiences works well on another level, too.

Stacey: I get it.  I lack the title writing gene! What’s your next project?

Jen: I’m taking the Fifth on that question—but I can tell you more, I think, in about 6 months.

Stacey: I understand the need to take the fifth. No worries! Melissa, would you talk about the significance of the quotations you illustrated? How did you manage to integrate them into the pictures in the text so seamlessly?

Melissa: Originally the quotes were part of Jen’s manuscript. I particularly liked how Horace describes making art in such a simple and heartfelt way. At one point I wondered if the quotes could be hand-lettered to set them apart, and that segued into actually making them part of the illustrations. By doing that, we streamlined the manuscript and gave Horace’s words more emphasis.

Pictures ASOR_Bryant_Sweet

Illustration copyright © 2013 by Melissa Sweet
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books

Stacey: I was able to understand Horace’s emotions throughout the story on a much deeper level thanks to your illustrations (e.g., as a worker in the factory, as a soldier, as someone recuperating from an injury). Did you study many photos of him or did you let Jen’s writing guide you as you illustrated his facial expressions and hand positions?

Melissa: It was both–I looked at as many photos of him as I could find, (though I don’t draw from photos as reference, but as inspiration) and Jen’s text influenced me. It takes time and a lot of research to feel how the character might have felt in a given situation. From there, I consider facial expression, body language and placement on the page to reinforce what I want to convey. For instance, in the scene when Horace is in front of his woodstove, holding the metal poker, wondering if he can overcome the pain in his injured arm to draw again, I was so struck by his desire to express himself. He has no art supplies, no materials at all, but he has passion and determination. Then we turn the page to the moment of reckoning. He’s using the white-hot poker to create a picture on the wood panel. By closing in on that scene we can feel the magnitude of the moment. I wanted the reader to almost hear the “sizzle” as the poker hits the wood with each mark. As an aside, I learned that when he actually made this first burnt-wood panel, he used a leaf from his dining room table to do it! That’s how badly he wanted to make art.

Stacey: Tell me more the thought that went into creating the end pages for the book.

Melissa: The front endpapers had a few iterations but since color is such a striking feature of Horace’s paintings, I wanted to begin the book by showing how a painter might mix a color palette. I loved that quote, “ The colors are simple…” and I had to be patient to find just the right place for it. On the back endpapers, all along we wanted a map to show where his paintings are in located in major museums across the US. Hopefully it will be inspiring to seek out his work even if it is only online through museum websites.

pencils ASOR_Bryant_Sweet

Illustration copyright © 2013 by Melissa Sweet
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books

Stacey: I know I’ll be using it the next time I travel out of town. Thank you for making the search for Pippin’s art that much easier!  I loved reading your illustrator’s note at the back of this book. I don’t recall reading many illustrator’s notes, but SO wish all books came with these notations. Tell me more about the creation of this note.

Melissa: The first time I ever wrote one was for A River of Words. As the illustrator, it’s part of my role to answer my own questions as to who this person was, the era, the subject matter and to look for visual clues. The pictures need to be as accurate as the text–within someone’s artistic style. I think that journey is important for readers to know. Independently, the author and illustrator try and uncover every stone. And even though the words and art are created separately, we want the book to feel as though we are working as one.

Stacey: What are you working on now?

Melissa: Jen and I have another book in the works and we’ll talk about it more once the art is in… (very soon!) Beyond that, I have a nice mix of fiction and nonfiction coming up, including a poetry book with Candlewick.

Thank you for inviting us to share our process with you!

Take a peek inside of Jen and Melissa’s book:

Click on the image to enlarge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

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Giveaway Information:

  • Many thanks to Random House for sponsoring this giveaway.  Two lucky readers/commenters will win a copy of A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin.
  • To enter for a chance to win a copy please leave a comment on this post about this interview, teaching the biography genre in writing workshop, or how you might use this text with your students.
  • All comments left on or before Sunday, January 20th, 2013 at 11:59 p.m. EST will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Monday, January 21st.   I will announce the winners’ names at the bottom of this post by Tuesday, January 22nd.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Random House will ship the book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you only leave it in the e-mail field.)

Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone who left a comment about A Splash of Red. I used a random number generator and the following commenters’ comment numbers were picked: Cathy Ballou Mealy and Sue Shellenberger.

Sue said:

I’m inspired by the idea of using primary sources and collaboration for the personal narratives and biographies we will soon write in my Spec. Ed English class. My students strongly relate to pictures, and a few are great and original artists. I am going to have an artist-writer collaboration, and use this book as a mentor text.

Cathy wrote:

I’ve always loved “Interior” – the simplicity of hearth and home so perfect that a child can see it. I think it is high time there was a picture book biography on Pippin!

Stacey’s comment on the final page of the book is so intriguing (e.g., satisfying ending, power of three, rhythmic feel) – I cannot wait to read this book!

I have a spot on my shelf next to “Carmine” for “A Splash of Red” :-)