01/30/10 By Lee Mergner
Django for Kids
Django: World’s Greatest Guitarist, a children’s book about the legendary Gypsy jazz musician, written by Bonnie Christensen is published by Macmillan
Author-illustrator of a popular children’s book on Woody Guthrie, Bonnie Christensen has taken on the story of another iconic figure in music—the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt. The 32-page book, aimed at kids aged 5-9, tells the story of Django’s childhood and how he overcame abandonment by his father and injuries sustained in a fire to become one of the most influential guitarists in jazz. The colorful illustrations in Django: World’s Greatest Guitarist show the young gypsy guitarist proving his mettle against all odds. Despite his early death, it’s an upbeat tale and likely to be the first time a child would have heard of the swing jazz guitarist, whose 100th birthday was last week.
Christensen, who coincidentally shares a birthday with Reinhardt, said that she came up with Django as a subject because she loved his music and she was drawn to the drama in his life story. “First of all, I love doing biographies, but only when they have a great story,” Christensen explained. “I noodle around on the violin and I am a big fan of Stephane Grappelli, so I thought about doing something on him, but his life wasn’t that dramatic. So I thought about Django and as I was looking through the bios, the story of the fire jumped out. Not only had he overcome this disability, but he created something fantastic that hadn’t been heard before.”
I had never thought through the methodology to a children’s book, but in looking over this volume, I realized that it’s basically like a storyboard for a short film. Christensen confirmed that a basic storyboard is the first step. Nonetheless, it begs the question: What comes first, the image or the text? “I just start working on the story and it all flows from there. I present an outline to the editor, then a storyboard, then the text with sketches and then I create the illustrations. But sometimes I end up going back and changing the text. I’m lucky that way in being both the author and illustrator.”
Frankly as someone who churns out (notice I didn’t say “writes”) a few thousand words every day, spending a year or so to write 600-800 of them seems like a pretty cushy gig. That’s about two a day. Maybe it’s time for a career change.
Christensen politely informed me that writing a children’s book is a lot harder than it looks. “It’s like figure skating. It’s supposed to look effortless. But it’s not.” Apparently the hard part is not writing the words, but taking them out. “With Django, I started with a story of about 2,000 words and brought it down to 1,000 and eventually to 600 or so.”
Hey, I could do that. I’ve taken the axe to many a story, though usually to someone else’s piece. I can see that it might be difficult to distill a life story succinctly into what amounts to a page of text. Moreover, Ms. Christensen’s prose has a truly poetic quality that will likely hold up to repeated readings, as in this passage from page five:
Wood smoke always in his eyes, his clothes.
Wisps of smoke escape their fires,
Float on music to the stars.
Ahhhhh music …
I also presumed that it would be necessary to write in a different mode when writing for kids, imagining a more limited vocabulary, with language choice not over the head of young readers. In fact, Christensen said that she doesn’t write down to the kids. “I write for the child inside myself. If there are some big or hard words in there, as my mother used to say, ‘Look it up!’ It’s important to make the kids ask questions.”
She said that the artwork for this book came fast. “It took four months to illustrate this one.” She does the illustrations as oil paintings and their rich colors give the book a vibrant air. Christensen, who has illustrated books for other writers, was completely floored by the printing of this book. “When I saw the book when it was printed, I just screamed. [The illustrations] are so close to the originals. That hasn’t always been the case in books in the past. I think that book publishers and printers have really got the technology down to duplicate the artwork.”
One very unique thing about being a children’s book author is that you can get immediate and direct feedback from your audience. Christensen does readings for kids at stores and schools and the response thus far to this book has been great. “Their eyes really get big when I get to the part about the fire.” In fact, I wondered whether the story of the fire might be too frightening for the kids, but Christensen said that the kids are generally very hopeful creatures and they’re more concerned with his recovery.
Though, one time when she was reading the story and got to the part about the fire, a young girl raised her hand and asked, “Why didn’t he stop, drop and roll?” Not an easy question to answer, but an impressive testament to the safety training that has been done with contemporary schoolchildren. More often, however, they ask questions like “Will he play again?” or “Can he play well?” After the reading, Christensen will play some music from Django and the reaction from the kids is always very positive. “They love it! It’s funny. When I told my editor that I wanted to do a jazz subject, he said, ‘You know, adults like jazz, but in general kids don’t.’ But I’ve found that the kids do respond to the music. It has a gut level appeal.”
Christensen said that the theme of recovery and redemption struck a deep chord with one family. The son, a bass player, had badly injured his hand going through a glass door. However, he refused to give up music. He now plays with the same fingers that Django used. He too found a way to play his instrument, in his case a bass, and he came to a reading to thank Christensen and play for her. For an author, feedback like that provides the sort of reward that makes sales and royalty figures seem superficial and fleeting.
However, the book has also won its share of accolades from people over 5-feet tall. It recently was presented with the prestigious Schneider Award from the American Library Association. And the book was featured by the presenters of the recent Django All-Stars tour.
For her next book, Christensen is working on a story about Andy Warhol. Warhol? Somehow the decadent scenester doesn’t seem an all that appropriate topic for young kids. Christensen explained that, “I’m focusing the story on his early years and about how he loved to draw and drew through his problems.” She’s also fascinated by Galileo and is planning a book on the philosopher/astronomer. And, an avid gardener around her home in Wilson, NC, she’s doing a book about the garden cycle. “I like to pick up on subjects that I love and find a hook.”
Knowing that jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington have already been covered in children’s books and the life story of Miles Davis might be a bit too saucy for youngsters, I thought that Sonny Rollins and the story of his hiatus, when he went up on the Williamsburg bridge to practice, might be the basis for a good children’s book. What kid doesn’t dream about climbing up onto a bridge, with or without a saxophone? I should have just kept the idea for myself, but instead I offered it to Christensen, who is clearly a pro at this racket. “I can just hear the editor’s response to that!” she responded, laughing. “I don’t think so.” Clearly I hadn’t thought through the potential legal issues associated with encouraging kids to go up on a 150-feet bridge over a polluted urban river. My career change to children’s book author will clearly have to wait. Back to the drawing board, and writing tablet.
For more information about this book by Christensen, go to the Roaring Brook Press web site.