Q&A with author Jonah Winter | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Q&A with author Jonah Winter

'My childhood, idyllic? Uhm, in a word: no.'

click to enlarge Jonah Winter
Jonah Winter

Jonah Winter grew up in a Texas home filled with art. His parents were artists and it wasn't unusual to have their peers, such as Claes Oldenburg or Andy Warhol, visit the family home. With experiences like that, it's no wonder that Winter grew up to become an award-winning children's writer. One of the pioneers of picture-book biographies for kids, he's written about Pablo Picasso, Barack Obama, Frida Kahlo, and Roberto Clemente. He's also a musician and writes poetry.

Winter, who lives in “a small town in Pennsylvania,” – he'd rather not say exactly where, but it's near Pittsburgh – will be a guest of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures Words & Pictures series on Feb. 10. He recently answered questions for Pittsburgh City Paper via email.

Kids sometimes rebel against their parents' interests, but you seem to have embraced their love of the arts. What was your childhood like? Was it as idyllic as it appears to be?

I hardly know how to respond! My childhood, idyllic? Uhm, in a word: no. I grew up in Dallas, Texas — or, “The City of Hate,” as it was known then — roughly a year before Kennedy was assassinated (and I was at the parade where he was assassinated, on my father’s shoulders). I went to a school in an extremely right-wing neighborhood where I was the only kid who was the son of liberal artist parents. In first grade, the teacher threatened to make me stand in the corner because I was wearing a “peace” button. Another time, she threatened to bring some scissors to class to cut my hair — which was apparently long by the standards of the crew cuts that all the other boys wore. Grade school, middle school, and high school was just one long painful slog through a morass of bullying and conformity and hateful, racist nonsense by kids who were supposedly “Christians.”

My parents were atheists, and I was (and still am) an atheist. My senior year in high school I got harassed on a daily basis and beaten up by a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for challenging the prayer which was broadcast every day over the loudspeakers. My “love of the arts” got me shunned and tormented by my peers, all of whom used that as an excuse to call me pejorative words for a homosexual. But why on earth would I have wanted to rebel against the artistic appreciation that my parents gave me through being artists? It was a great gift — which I still feel so grateful for. Believe me, there were plenty of other things I rebelled against. But talking about them wouldn’t do much to promote my brand as a children’s book author.

The range of your subjects – from Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Dizzy Gillespie – is not exactly standard fare for children's books. You seem to enjoy taking extraordinary people and telling their stories to kids. What's your process for choosing people to portray?

I’m afraid that these days RBG and Dizzy Gillespie are standard fare for children’s books. But it wasn’t when I was first starting out as a children’s book writer — in 1991 — with my picture book bio, Diego, (about Diego Rivera). Back then, “picture book biography” did not exist as a genre. Now it has its own section in book stores – and is by far the most popular type of children book, other than YA novels, being written today. It’s a crowded field. But when I decide to write a biography celebrating some important person, which I’m doing less and less these days, I choose someone whose life I admire and who had an impact on the world. For instance, I have a book on Thurgood Marshall coming out this year. I also just came out with a book called Elvis is King! (with an exclamation point in the title! Yes!) This book came out of my lifelong love of Elvis, combined with my more recent love of the outsider artist, Howard Finster, whose depictions of Elvis approach that of sacred icon.

I originally conceived of my story as a saint’s story — the “stations of the cross” of Elvis. But my editor put the kibosh on that approach, and now it’s a more straight-ahead, earnest (and not explicitly Christian) story of Elvis’ rise from extreme poverty and shyness to, well, Elvis! That being said, I’m now veering towards non-biographical topics and even fictional fables – and the biographies I’m now doing do not celebrate the people they’re about. Children’s book bios don’t have to be hagiography (something I’ve been accused of creating time and time again). But I think most people in power in the children’s book world would like picture book bios to continue being mainly hagiography.

You've collaborated with your mom, the artist Jeannette Winter, on a few projects, including the The Secret Project, about the Manhattan Project. What's the best part of collaborating with your mother?

The best part of collaborating with my mother is that she is one of America’s most outstanding illustrators, and it’s an honor and a pleasure to have my books illustrated by such an amazing artist. When she agrees to illustrate a book of mine, I know it will be a special one. I know that she’ll surprise me through her interpretations of my text – and I will treasure that book forever. Some illustrators don’t have such a special sense of what can make a book sacred and perfect – but my mother does. 

From the time she was a child, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator – and it shows. She’s always known what she wants her pictures and books to look like. It’s a definite and unyielding understanding of what makes a picture work, what makes a book work. With The Secret Project, I knew before I even wrote the story that she would be the perfect illustrator. She’s capable of much warmth in her depictions of people, but she’s also capable of a certain eerie detachment, and that’s what was needed for this story. I honestly can’t think of any other illustrator who could have illustrated this story adequately.

You've said in interviews (at least one I found) that “you let the subject lead you to the voice.” Of all the people you've written about, which voice was the most difficult to grasp? Which one was the most fun?

I come at writing children’s books from a background as a poet for adults – who has mainly, or at least most joyously, written “persona” poems in a range of different voices, from cowboys, to infomercial salesmen, to valley girls, to illiterate, misinformed 10-year-old boys. For me, there is nothing difficult about writing in a voice. It’s what makes most of my writing possible and fun. It’s hard to say which voice has been most fun. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that writing in the voice of Gertrude Stein (for my picture book bio on her, Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude) was just outrageous fun. Once I hit on that approach, which was pretty early in the writing process, the thing just practically wrote itself. And that sort of writing is probably what creates the best experience for both author and reader.

You were born in Texas and split time between Santa Fe and somewhere near Pittsburgh. Can you talk a little about your connection to Pittsburgh?

I know longer spend any time in Santa Fe, alas. And I cannot confirm any rumors about where I currently live. My official author bio says I live “in a small town in Pennsylvania.” And I’d like to keep it at that. I have felt, culturally and spiritually, fairly disconnected from Pittsburgh for quite a long time. However, after what happened last fall, the massacre at the synagogue, I felt a deep connection and compassion for this city that I had never felt before. I felt protective of it, sad for it, and proud of it – proud of the way people came together to mourn and to stand in solidarity against the vile anti-Semitism that apparently is alive and well and seeping into Pittsburgh like toxic sludge. Western Pennsylvania may be a right-wing backwater, but Pittsburgh is a proudly liberal city, and I’m proud to have a connection to it.

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