Quite the Treat. A Yellow Dog Blues Interview with Alice Faye Duncan and Chris Raschka
You know that moment when you walk into a big box store of some kind, make your way to the picture book section, and everything looks kind of… well… samey? Not always, but often picture books that come out en masse will have a tendency to look and feel the same. After a while you begin to yearn to show kids something different from that CGI smoothness.
If there were an antithesis to such books, it might be found in the new Alice Faye Duncan/Chris Raschka collaboration YELLOW DOG BLUES. I don’t even know how I’d begin to describe it to you either. Painted fabric blues? Rhythmic storytelling with stitches and thread? Illustrated embroidery? Words may fail me, but they don’t its publisher Eerdmans. Here’s the plot description:
“A lyrical road trip through the Mississippi Delta, exploring the landmarks that shaped one of America’s most beloved musical traditions.
One morning Bo Willie finds the doghouse empty and the gate 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 look for his missing puppy love. Their search leads them from juke joints to tamale stands to streets ringing with the music of B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Where, where did that Yellow Dog go?
Acclaimed creators Alice Faye Duncan and Chris Raschka present a boogie-woogie journey along the Mississippi Blues Trail. With swinging free verse and stunning hand-stitched art, Yellow Dog Blues is a soulful fable about what happens when the blues grabs you and holds on tight.”
You may recall Ms. Duncan from our previous interviews about her books Evicted and Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop. With YELLOW DOG BLUES she’s taking her work in an entirely different direction. Meanwhile, Chris Raschka has never been afraid of a challenge (or of working in a wide variety of mediums, for that matter). The chance to interview the two of them at once about this book was just too much to resist. Quite simply, I needed to know more:
Betsy Bird: Alice, thank you so much for joining me today. To start us off, why don’t you tell me a little bit about where this book came from? How did you come up with it?
Alice Faye Duncan: I live in Memphis (TN) which sits on the Mississippi River. My city is called the “Front Door” of the Mississippi Delta. Famous blues musicians like B.B. King traveled up from the Delta to Memphis where they honed guitar-playing and blues singing on Beale Street. Blues music is a staple product in Memphis. You hear it in late-night cafes and on the local radio. As for YELLOW DOG BLUES, I wrote it as a blues fable that I hope will introduce kiddos to American music that was born in my backyard.
BB: And Chris, part of what’s been so fun to watch in the course of your career are the choices you’ve made when it comes to the books you illustrate. You might do a book from a child’s p.o.v. in one then illustrate Mozart’s The Magic Flute in another. Your art has been consistent in its inventiveness. What drew you to Alice’s manuscript?
Chris Raschka: I was drawn to Alice Faye’s ms by Alice Faye’s own style, her way of speaking, and her presence, even as I have felt it conveyed to me through her correspondence, and which is also there to read and feel in her manuscript. It is warm, open, interested, full of life and joy.
BB: Let’s follow up on that style you’ve alluded to. The book has a rhythm to it. Not a pat, consistent rhyming pattern or anything, but a natural feel that can mimic song or poetry without actually becoming either of those things. Alice, how did you tap into the language for the book? Did it come naturally to you or did you have to work for it?
AFD: Music and poetry are steeped in mood and feeling. No matter what I write, I lean on feeling and some internal rhythm that has no set meter. When this writing process doesn’t work, I put the draft aside. Or I keep wrestling with the words until I find a lyrical pattern that fits the tone of my story.
BB: Fitting this particular story meant finding a matching style. Chris, what about this particular book inspired you to incorporate paint and fabric in the way that you’ve done?
CR: This is a book about the earliest of blues musicians who lived far from the comforts of modern cities. The music comes from rural, hard-working communities, communities with people who worked with their hands. I worked very much with my hands to make this art. Of course, I always do, but in this case I was stitching threads into rough fabric that sat in my lap. I felt, quite literally through my hands, a connection to all of the artists in America who have expressed themselves through cloth and sewing, crafting work that was first of all useful, and then out of its usefulness beautiful. I’m sure the women and men who stitched as they listened to the early blues players and singers told stories themselves when the musicians took a break. It is natural to tell and listen to stories and to music when you work with your hands. This is what I did and I hope it connects the art of this book properly to Alice Faye’s story.
BB: Much of that connection comes down to location too. The book takes place in the Mississippi Delta. Alice, can you tell us a little bit about your relationship to this particular region?
AFD: I received a grant to study the culture and history of the Mississippi Delta in 2014. Part of the grant involved an expedition along Highway 61 which is also called, “The Mississippi Blues Trail.” It was given this name because a great number of Black musicians, who are the progenitors of the Blues and, Rock and Roll, were born along Highway 61 in the Mississippi Delta.
BB: Let’s dig a little more into that. How did you select the seven sites Bo Willie visits in search of his dog?
AFD: The sites were picked because each one is important to American blues music and the social fabric, and culture formed in the Mississippi Delta.
BB: And speaking of fabric, Chris, have you ever created art for yourself or for a book in this manner before? Or, alternatively, have you worked with fabric and paint in any combination before?
CR: I have never done a book quite like this before. I’ve often used collage with different papers, which is close to fabric, but never purely with fabric as I’ve done here. However for myself I have done many fabric projects. Much knitting but also screen printing and stamping. Incidentally, the fabric for this book came from an organization that recycles material from the fashion industry. And I didn’t even have to buy it, because the organization, FabScrap, relies on volunteers, like me, who occasionally work sorting and cleaning fabric, and then are paid in fabric themselves. The fabric the book is printed on cost me only three hours of work.
BB: Now I want to interview you about FabScrap but I’ll save that for another day. In this particular case, what was your process? Did you try anything initially that didn’t work? Were there any surprises along the way?
CR: The original dummy was made on very rough burlap. The fabric I eventually used was a little tighter which helped make the images a little more clear. The only surprise was how much I enjoyed it.
BB: Alice, some authors envision the kind of art that would go with their book and for others they prefer not to think about it. Which camp do you fall into?
AFD: Most publishers select the illustrator for a writer’s book. However, with YELLOW DOG BLUES, the selection was backwards and perfectly sublime. I wrote the draft and only showed it to Chris for several reasons. He connects with music in his artwork. His book, YO! YES! is a favorite one that I share during school visits. And lastly, as Donald Trump was making his divisive ascension in 2016, I wanted to work with a white illustrator as an intentional expression of racial reconciliation. It took a few years for us to find a publisher. And that’s OK. Big dreams take time.
BB: True words. Let me dive into the art of this book just a little more. Chris, a book is essentially a flat object when read. In your art you take a flat canvass of fabric, paint on it, and then the embroidery you incorporate pops out to make the art three-dimensional. Watching where you choose to place that pop of three-dimensionality is fascinating. Were there consistent guidelines you were following throughout the art to decide where those moments happen or did you take it on a case-by-case basis?
CR: Good question. I guess I took it mostly case-by-case. Sometimes the patching material is paper, sometimes cloth. Sometimes the cloth is what would constitute the object depicted itself, as in the clothes or the map. Other times the material is more abstract. Part of the fun working this way is seeing how the inherent abstraction of form that takes place when you are stitching thread through fabric will react when trying to create an expression of emotion in a face. The thread in each stitch will be straight and it can only go a few places. Nevertheless if it works right, our eyes and mind will smooth out the corners and register a smile or a frown. Coincidentally, at the time I was working I was reading the delightful Lucia stories of E F Benson that feature a character named Georgie who is always embroidering pillows and tablecloths with rural scenes. Things often go astray. “Now I’m going to have to tear out the shepherdess’s entire face!” he cries, or something like that.
BB: Alice, what do you think of Chris’s decisions?
AFD: There are no words to describe the texture and creative grace that Chris applied to YELLOW DOG BLUES.
A blues singer might say, “He put his foot in it.”
BB: Let’s round this out with a hard question. Alice, who is YOUR favorite Blues artist?
AFD: I have several favorites. They are Howlin’ Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, John Lee Hooker, and Koko Taylor.
BB: Finally, a question for both of you: what do you have coming out next?
AFD: I have composed a series of picture books using lyrics from American spirituals. The first book is THIS TRAIN IS BOUND FOR GLORY (Penguin Random House—2023) And lastly, because children do not understand her cosmic connections and significance to the American Liberation Movement, I am set to write a Coretta Scott King biography for Calkins Creek (2023). The title is CORETTA’S JOURNEY—THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CORETTA SCOTT KING. Visit me at www.alicefayeduncan.com
CR: Right now I’m working on a kind of folk tale by the surrealist Russian author, Daniel Kharms, called FIRST OF ALL.
I am indebted to both Chris and Alice for taking the time to talk with me today about their work. YELLOW DOG BLUES will be on bookstore and library shelves everywhere September 6th. Thanks too to Sarah L. Gombis and the folks at Eerdmans for helping to put this together.
Finally, be sure to check out a whole slew of art from this book over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast including Chris’s original fabric dummy!
Filed under: Interviews
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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