When I got an email from SCBWI Southern Breeze that a fellow Georgian had won a Caldecott Honor for his book, Freedom in Congo Square,
I knew I wanted to interview him. His list of awards is way too long to mention here, but suffice it to say he is making his mark in children's books. He was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for the GROG.
On a recent youtube video I watched, you mentioned you had been an artist since you were six. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey, and how it led to picture books?
I was a very shy child growing up and spent a fair amount of my playtime copying comic books. As I got older I worked in an art store, then for a framer, then at Star Ledger Newspaper in Newark as an intern doing spot illustrations. Eventually I curbed my shyness by doing live paintings in NY city night clubs. Which lead to meeting DJ's and eventually creating album covers. One cover, in particular, Justice System's "Summer in the City," caught the attention of editors at Lee and Low Books back in 1996 and I was asked to do a series of paintings for a book titled "The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children." It won the Coretta Scott King Award Honor in 1997, which eventually brought more projects and more awards. I'm extremely thankful for the opportunity that Lee and Low gave me.
Is there a certain process you go through once you get a manuscript that you are illustrating?
It really isn't too technical or out of the ordinary. I break down the words to fit a 32 page picture book format and then start the visual research. I need to know hairstyles, clothing, the wild life indigenous to the area, social mores of the time period, plausible scenarios and also to figure out an artistic style that I'm inspired to make the voice of the book. I keep these things in mind and in a folder in my computer. I study these images and eventually as I start to paint my illustrations, I keep them up on the wall with the hope that one work will influence the other work being created. It also serves s a kind of metaphysical visual cheerleader who lets me know that there's only 10 paintings left, then nine, then eight, etc until I take a break and then do the cover. I take a break in order to be fresh in terms of my instincts and sensibilities. I believe the cover is the most important aspect of such projects. It can make or break all the hard work you've just finished, so I want to be at my strongest.
What elements of a manuscript make it fun or exciting to illustrate?
The unpredictability of it all. I've worked with various authors and each one has their own way of relaying information. The various authors have various voices and I love illustrating their ideas.
Is Mousetropolis the only book you have both written and illustrated? How did that come about? I love the mice--they have personalities.
I saw a photograph of Coney Island Beach by the artist Weegee(Arthur Fellig). It was taken in 1940 and I couldn't believe so many people were ever there at one time. It made me think of Times Square and that perhaps one day it will be a shell of its former glory. Maybe it will not have the same lights or iconic sentiment that it has today. I brought this up to editor Grace Maccarone at Holiday House and a week or so later she suggested that I write a book on Aesop's "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse." I could do Times Square there as well as any other expansive cityscape. As the project developed I decided to make the city New York influenced rather than specific and chose more universal urban scenes. I had lots of fun creating that book and really pushed my skills, especially on the moving train scene.
I see that you have illustrated several books by Tonya Bolden and Nikki Grimes. How has that been working with the same author on different manuscripts?
It's like what I'd imagine a character actor would go through. I take each project as its own entity. I try not to just produce a product or to copy myself from book to book. Even when I did the Dyomande Daniel series based off Nikki Grimes' books, I tried to outdo myself with each book. I try to keep it interesting for me and for the viewer of the art.
You have traveled to quite a few different countries. How has that impacted your art?
In the past I've been able to keep a balance of work and play. It's amazing to "work" while right outside your door is a Turkish food market or a sunny Thai beach with crystal clear water. Living in other countries allowed me to live in the present as opposed to the past or even what I consider to be more life numbing, the future. Each day that I got up was a gift and routines were not the norm. So in a way things were simplified and allowed me to keep focused. I feel that successful art needs craftsmanship, luck, and discipline. I struggle with the latter and in my experience I've known that each artist will generally struggle with one or two of these aspects. Traveling to far away places did wonders for me as I was able to sit down and to create. But I suppose at the end of the day everyone has to discover what is going to be their best personal way of examining their life and creativity.
Your 2017 illustrating awards include a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and a Caldecott Honor Book Award. Was that a surprise? What do those honors mean for you as an artist?
Although it's never going to be as good as the first time, that 7 AM phone call is always a surprise. I wasn't expecting it, but a large part of me was hoping for it. I got a call from the Coretta Scott King committee and shortly after, was called by the Caldecott committee. It was an excellent start to my day in the morning and the adventure came for me in getting down to the convention center in spite of the Atlanta morning traffic.
They wanted me there at the center to hear it actually being announced.
The awards mean a lot to me. It's amazing to get recognition from librarians, whom I hold in great regard. Each person makes their own parties in life; for me, it's being able to create worlds from words. It's all even sweeter when someone actually gets it and cares about it enough to preserve what I'm doing.
Can you tell us something about yourself people might now know?
I have a bookstore and art school inside a mall in Decatur, GA. It's where I am right now in life and it's not something I imagine I'll retire into, but it's making a difference in the community. Anyone can come in to look right over my shoulder as I freelance as an illustrator and hopefully create the next great title for children.
R. Gregory Christie is a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration and a two-time recipient of the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year. He lives in Georgia.