It took me way too long, but I finally got a chance to talk to Chris Raschka about his career as an illustrator! Today we’re focusing on her latest picture book Yellow Dog Blues, written by Alice Faye Duncan, which might be her most unique picture book yet. Come take a closer look with me!
About the book:
A lyrical road trip through the Mississippi Delta, exploring the milestones that shaped one of America’s most beloved musical traditions.
One morning, Bo Willie finds the doghouse empty and the door wide open! Farmer Fred says Yellow Dog hit Highway 61 and started running. Aunt Jessie picks up Bo Willie in her pink Cadillac and together they search for her missing puppy. Their search takes them from juke joints to tamale stands and streets resounding with the music of BB King and Muddy Waters. Where, where did that Yellow Dog go?
Let’s talk about Chris Raschka!
CR: Alice Faye wrote to me directly and was like, “Hi, I’m black, you’re white, let’s do a book on THE BLUES.” That made a lot of sense to me.
Some time later I put together a mannequin, which I hoped would capture a bit of the spirit of Alice Faye’s folk text. It immediately occurred to me that the canvas was my own vehicle for delivering the images.
LTPB: What differences have you found between creating an illustrated book on your own (text and illustrations) versus illustrating someone else’s text?
CR: If I have a finished and complete text in my hands, whether it was written by me or someone else doesn’t matter much to me. I’m going to treat it exactly the same way, that is, I’m going to match whatever images make sense to me to those words, that text.
LTPB: What was the most difficult thing for you in creating this book? What did you find most rewarding?
CR: As in most of my books, the biggest difficulty is finding the balance between abstraction and representation. The material I used here actually makes this question easier, as fabric, paint, and thread have their own limitations and require their own solutions: raw canvas can only absorb so much paint, stitched thread goes in a straight line, the fabric and thread colors can be mixed just by overlapping or intertwining them. The use of these new materials also turned out to be the most rewarding part of this project. I enjoy manual work, I am a weaver, I like to have soft art on my lap. Using a hoop and learning various embroidery stitches is like candy to me.
LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations for this book, and why did you choose such a unique medium?
CR: I used heavy canvas, fabric paint, fabric scraps, and DMC embroidery thread. The reason I chose the fabric is because Alice Faye’s text is about the folk traditions of musicians playing in the countryside. Singing the blues is a social tradition, just as sewing, quilting, and all kinds of crafts can be social traditions: things to do while sitting on porches or in living rooms with your family and neighbors. I don’t have a porch or a living room, but I have a lot of fabric stores and thread stores on 38th Street here in Manhattan, and I have a sofa, and if no neighbors pass by, which they sometimes do even here, I have a television
LTPB: What are you working on now?
CR: I’m working on a book about stars, a book about a wonderful jazz composer, and a book about talking cats committed to saving the world from tyranny.
LTPB: If you had the chance to write your own illustrated autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it for and why?
CR: I guess if I could write my own picture book autobiography, I could probably also illustrate it myself, so that’s what I’d prefer. That said, the only person I’ve written words for is Vladimir Radunsky. He, Vladimir, is the one I would choose to illustrate anything he wrote.
Special thanks to Chris and Eerdmans for using these images!