When I came across The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra, I was enthralled by the book’s energy, richness, and structure. Not only is the book an intriguing read and a great insight into a fascinating character, it is a marvelous mentor text for anyone writing a biography.
There are three lessons in particular that this book taught me about writing powerful biography.
Great biographies are ones in which…
1. There is a unique angle or perspective. The book begins,
“Sun Ra always said that he came from Saturn. Now, you and I know that this is silly. No one comes from Saturn. And yet. If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much.”
And explain it does. Mr. Raschka returns to this angle when explaining some of the choices Sun Ra made and some of the views Sun Ra held. In so doing, the author honors the subject and further highlights what an individual Sun Ra was. I get the sense that Sun Ra himself would have really appreciated this take.
2. Factual backstory is interspersed with well-chosen anecdotes. The stories that Mr. Raschka tells to illustrate the kind of person and musician Sun Ra was are detailed enough to help readers feel as if we are getting to know Sun Ra better, but not so detailed as to slow down the narrative.
3. The biographer’s passion for the subject comes through. Even before Chris Raschka told me that he had listened to Sun Ra’s music for years, I knew he had an affinity for his subject. This is apparent on each page, particularly in the words Mr. Raschka uses to describe Sun Ra, words like musical genius, captain, and intergalactic boulevardier. When channeling kids to write biographies, above all else, let them choose the subject. And if this isn’t possible, help them find an entry point or an introduction to their subject that incurs at least some passion in them.
An Interview with Chris Raschka
Q: Your affinity for your subject, Sun Ra, seems to come through each page of your book. How did you come to write about him?
A: I’ve known of and listened to Sun Ra for many years, since I was a teen, but hadn’t thought of writing a biography about him until a dozen years ago when I had the collection of his singles in my hands. For the first time I began to understand the breadth of interest and work that Sun Ra had and produced. As I listened more and studied and learned about his life, I was continually struck by his great openness to all the world of music. And I sensed a sweetness in him too, that his music can sometimes obscure. It was also his outsiderness, and the devotion he engendered in others that moved me to write something. Finally, it was the saxophonist John Gilmore’s comment that Sun Ra was more out there than Thelonious Monk, and I love Mr. Monk, that clinched it for me.
Q: You have a lovely balance of factual passages that give necessary historical background and intriguing anecdotes that really make Sun Ra come alive. I am still mulling over the story of his sleep patterns! How did you pick the stories you would tell in the book?
A: Certainly I keep an eye on anecdotes that might ring a bell for a young reader. Everyday things, like his walking and reading, and exotic things, like his sleep habits, can be of interest to anyone. And any bits and pieces that highlight the very good things of his life—his perseverance, his morality, his idealism, his loyalty to his art and to his musicians— are appropriate things for a childrens’ biography. I should say that there is nothing I left out because it might be unseemly. Sun Ra was never a drug taker, as far as I’ve read. In fact, he was closer to a teetotaler. This is perhaps the result of being a band leader and seeing how too much drink or drugs could ruin a musician he depended on. Above all, Sun Ra kept his focus on his music and his own growth and knowledge.
Q: Related to the previous question, you must have come across so much information about Sun Ra in the course of your research. How did you decide what to include in the book and what to leave out?
A: I guess I’ve answered this a bit above. Scenes and tales are better than lists of places and concerts, of course. So long as I provided the general arc of his life I allowed myself to choose simply my favorite aspects of his own life, like his penchant for strolling the avenues and visiting used bookstores, two of my own favorite pass times.
I’ll mention that the book you have is really the fourth (at least) iteration of the book that I made. The very first was all in rhyme and very much impressionistic. It was about rocket ships and featured a kind of flying tea pot and was made as a long flowing accordion book. No one wanted that one. However, it did intrigue Liz Bicknell at Candlewick and after she turned it down, I asked for the dummy back and she realized she didn’t want to send it to me. So she suggested I try reworking it. This I did, but for a few years, Liz was still not satisfied. The second to last dummy was also poetic but a little less bouncy, all about the planets as band mates. Liz really felt that because so few people know anything about Sun Ra at all, the real story of his life must be told. So I got rid of the poetry and the rockets and teapots. Still, I hope I kept some of the dreamy, bouncy, way-out quality of Sun Ra himself, in the book that we did.
Q: Can you describe the writing/research process you undertook while writing this book? Also, do you have any tips for those undertaking research-based writing?
A: In this case, and in all my books on music, my primary research has come straight through my ears, that is, I listen to as much recorded music as possible. Now, in the time of YouTube, I was able to watch quite a bit of footage of Sun Ra as well. (This can be a bit problematic, however. Because of the fleeting quality of YouTube, sometimes it’s hard to retrace your research steps.) Finally, I read what at this time is the definitive book on Sun Ra, Space is the Place, by John Szwed.
Q: Writing the story of Sun Ra with the angle that he is from another planet is quite compelling and unique. How did you land on this approach?
A: Did you say “How did I land on this approach?” Sun Ra always maintained that he came from Saturn. This put a lot of people off. Maybe that was the idea. I wanted to honor Sun Ra’s own statements and tell his life as he might want his life to be told. But I also wanted child readers to know that what I was telling was real. So I appealed to a child’s sense of pragmatism by saying that we know no one comes from Saturn, but I also wanted to emphasize that Sun Ra was one of the great imaginative creators who lived in the last century. Not everyone becomes a great imaginative creator who is born on this planet so is it so odd that Sun Ra believed that he was from another world? I hope any young reader of this book will ponder this a bit, and then listen to the music.
This book would make a wonderful addition to any classroom library or home bookshelf. Candlewick has graciously offered to gift one lucky reader a copy of the book. Post a comment in the section below before 11:59pm on February 5, 2015 for a chance to win. Check this post after February 6 for the announcement of the winner.
Thank you all for your lovely comments. I was so happy to read that so many people appreciated the post, but even more happy to read that so many are already fans of Chris Raschka and/or Sun Ra. I am delighted to have found both.
I am happy to announce the winner of the book is Jeff, the very first person to comment. Jeff, please contact me at annagcockerilleliteracy[at]gmail.com to arrange for shipping. Congrats!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).