Excuse Me While I Interview These Guys. Charles R. Smith Jr. and Edel Rodriguez Discuss SONG FOR JIMI
The plethora of picture book biographies published every year can be staggering. You stare at the massive output and cannot help but contemplate what market or cultural forces designate whom to venerate at any given time. Or maybe “venerate” is the wrong word here. There’s a lot more nuance and complexity to a bio for younger children than you might initially assume, particularly in the year 2021. I wouldn’t necessarily call the new SONG FOR JIMI, a bio of Jimi Hendrix, a book that “venerates” its subject anyway. This is a story that takes a deep dive into what made Jimi into the man we remember today, choosing to go in some surprising directions. Here’s my brief write-up of it to give you some perspective:
“From Jimmy to Jimi. A young motherless boy goes on to become a rock and roll legend in this eye-popping deep dive into the Jimi Hendrix life and legacy. It’s not the first Jimi Hendrix bio I’ve ever read and it won’t be the last but this book is a truly gorgeous piece of work. What Smith has done here that’s so good is to really pair different moments of Jimi’s life with different types of music. The most obvious of these is when he’s young and sad and the text is written with the cadence of the Blues. Smith’s a poet himself so this makes perfect sense, but less obvious are the moments when he takes the rhythm from songs like ‘Crosstown Traffic’. Meanwhile Edel Rodriguez has just outdone himself with some of this art. The psychedelic 60s never looked so good.”
An ideal time to talk to the creators of this book, wouldn’t you say?
Betsy Bird: Charles and Edel, thank you both so much for joining me today! I was completely blown away by SONG FOR JIMI, both in terms of its literary and visual composition. Charles let’s start with you here. This isn’t the first picture book bio of Jimi Hendrix, but there really aren’t that many out there. What was the impetus for writing this one?
Charles R. Smith, Jr: Back in 2008 I got an award for my Muhammad Ali bio in Cleveland. I was already in a “bio mode” of thinking when the host took the award winners to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Of all the displays there, I was most excited to see Jimi’s. And when I finally saw it, it wasn’t just one item, like a jacket or guitar like so many of the others. He had his own section with a few items and throughout the display there were some crayon drawings that Jimi did as a child. That caught my eye because we often think of Jimi as this wild, tragic figure. But right there in those drawings was a reminder that at one time he was just a kid with dreams like everyone else. That got the wheels spinning and I began to work on telling how he became the artist the world would come to know.
BB: Edel, how did you first come into contact with Charles’s manuscript? Did you have any particular knowledge or understanding of the music of Jimi Hendrix prior to working on this book?
Edel Rodriguez: I received the manuscript via my agent Holly McGhee at Pippin Properties, who had received it from Neal Porter at Neal Porter Books/Holiday House. I was very excited to be part of the project because I have been a fan of Jimi Hendrix’s musical style since I came across his songs when I was a teenager.
BB: Charles, one of the first decisions an author has to make when writing a biography is figuring out how much of the subject’s life you want to tell. You could have taken just a small sample or story from Jimi’s life and expanded on that, but in this particular case you chose instead to encapsulate most of that life itself. Why did you opt for that type of telling?
CRS: Like my Muhammad Ali bio, I wanted to show how he became the icon that the world knew. What did he do that put him into such rarified air? What was his personal story that allowed him to do that? So, I started with the role that his family played in his upbringing, how the turmoil that he saw between two people he loved cause so much pain in his heart that he didn’t know how to express it. Then we see how his love for music begins to manifest itself as he uses anything he can find to express his love. And since this is a children’s book, I wanted to show how he had a dream and then executed it by practicing every chance he got, even when a teacher said he should quit. I wanted kids to understand that once Jimi was given the tools to pursue his dream, he did so with an energy and effort that shows how far dedication and passion can take you.
BB: Edel, I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you came to decide on a style for this book. Do you distinguish different kinds of art depending on where Jimi was in his life? Was there a particular style you were emulating with your illustrations?
ER: I generally work with strong colors and visuals in my work, but with this book I wanted to turn up the amp. The visual structure of the book starts quiet, light blues, off white, etc., when Jimi is a child, and slowly becomes more colorful and boisterous as it moves along. Towards the end of the book, all the colors that appear in the book engage with one another in a visual chorus. I wanted the illustrations to feel like music, Jimi’s music. If there was any style I was emulating, it was Jimi’s style.
BB: Charles, you’re a poet and that really comes through when you take the time to pair different moments of Jimi’s life with different types of music. The most obvious of these is when Jimi is young and sad, and the text is written with the cadence of the Blues. I was able to pick up on that. Less obvious are the moments when you take the rhythm from songs like “Crosstown Traffic”. What inspired this integration of the music important to Jimi’s life and the life itself?
CRS: I decided to call the book Song for Jimi because he was a musician, and I wanted the book to have a song structure. So, I just paralleled each verse with each type of music that he learned as he progressed. His childhood was filled with the blues and that’s what he grew up on, so that’s where we start. As he gets older and learns to play the guitar, he gets into rock and roll so I use more onomatopoeia to convey the sounds he creates. When he moves to Harlem and plays as a sideman uptown before going downtown to the more eclectic rock scene, the pace and phrasing begin to blend a bit more as he tries new things. And when he gets to England, I take rhythms from the songs he wrote at the time to show how he melds all those influences together. And “Crosstown Traffic” was the perfect song to pull from since it has a catchy rhythm and is distinctly Jimi.
BB: Edel, that cover is just jaw-dropping. You cannot look away from it. Was this always going to be the cover or did you and the Art Director go through a variety of different versions?
ER: I worked on the cover at the end of the project, once I had finished the entire book. There’s a spread in the book that shows Jimi’s face, close-up, surrounded by flowers. I said, “that’s the cover!”, zoomed out of the face and embellished his surroundings with more flowers. I showed it to Neal Porter, and he loved it. It’s a very powerful and beautiful image, an elegy to one of history’s greatest musicians.
BB: And finally, for the both of you, what are you working on next?
CRS: I’m working on a variety of projects including a biography on former astronaut Mae Jemison and a poetry collection on Negro League ballplayers.
ER: I’m writing and illustrating a 300-page graphic memoir about my life as a child growing up in Cuba under the Communist revolution, migration during the Mariel boat lift, and my work as a political artist in today’s America.
BB: And I, for one, am looking forward to ALL of that!
Many thanks to Charles and Edel for so patiently answering my questions. Thank you too to Sara DiSalvo for arranging all of this and to the folks at Holiday House for the book. SONG FOR JIMI hit shelves everywhere yesterday, so look for it now!
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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